I really didn’t know what to expect when I booked my plane ticket to Bismarck, North Dakota. Although I was traveling to Montana for a travel blogging conference, I had the opportunity to tack on a few days at the beginning of my trip to visit North Dakota. While I didn’t have an idea where people typically went sightseeing there, I was excited to embark on a North Dakota road trip to uncover what there was to see and do.
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I had one of those super early morning airport trips. You know, the kind where you wake up at 3:00am, but never really fall asleep the night before. At the Toronto airport, we go through US customs and border control before boarding the flight. When I told the US officer that I was going to Bismarck, she gave me a funny look. “WHY are you going THERE?” She seemed almost offended by my choice of destination. I quickly stammered, “Well, there’s the national park, and some nature, and some small towns…”. The officer shook her head a little bit as she handed my passport back, sending me on my way.
When I arrived, I discovered that North Dakota is often the last state that many people visit when ticking off their US states bucket list. There’s even a “Best for Last Club” to honor those visiting North Dakota last, since it seems to happen so often. I’m not sure why people leave ND until the very end. In my case, North Dakota is somewhere in the middle on my list of visited states. I am not sure that tourists realize how many incredible hidden gems await. Well, I’m going to provide you with all of the details for an amazing North Dakota road trip itinerary. I’m glad that I didn’t prolong my trip to North Dakota, and I am sure that I will be back in the future to explore even more of this great state.
Bismarck, North Dakota
Bismarck is the second largest city in North Dakota (after Fargo) and the capital city of the state. It’s the seventh fastest-growing city in the USA. Bismarck is full of surprises, including a world class museum, historic sites and state parks, and eclectic public art. When you’re thinking about what to do in North Dakota, start your journey in Bismarck.
Pick up a Rental Car
For this North Dakota road trip, it’s vital to have access to a car. You might live within driving distance of North Dakota, which works out quite wonderfully. However, if you need to rent a car, I recommend checking out the car rental prices at Hertz. It’s conveniently located at the Bismarck Airport, making for a seamless transition between flying and driving. I do always suggest comparing prices for the best rate as there are a few rental car companies in Bismarck. You can easily compare rental car prices with this convenient online tool.
Next, make sure that you take a look at our detailed road trip packing list so you know exactly what you need to bring. It’s always good to be prepared when taking a road trip adventure!
Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park
Established in 1907, the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is the oldest state park in North Dakota. You’ll learn all about the historical, cultural, and natural significance of the area. Travel back in time through tours of reconstructed sites, complete with lively and knowledgeable tour guides who get right into character. It’s possible to visit the military fort, the reconstructed home of General Custer and his wife, the On-A-Slant Indian Village with its reconstructed Earthlodges, and the trail system for breathtaking scenery overlooking nearby hills and the river.
Check out the Street Art and Public Art
I was surprised to find that Bismarck had quite a bit of public art and murals around the city. First, there are a series of commissioned eagle sculptures on the Missouri Valley Legacy Trail. These were created by student artists at United Tribes Technical College (UTTC), and there are six eagles in total. The one pictured below is called “Reflections”. The sculpture is meant to remind us that all beings have a spirit and need to be treated with respect.
For fans of street art and murals, Bismarck has its very own art alley called Alley 5.5. Local street artists painted the alley between 5th and 6th streets with a series of beautiful murals (between East Broadway Ave and East Main St). The street art depicts various animals, outdoor scenes in North Dakota, and other colorful designs.
Just a few blocks away on Fourth Street (next to Glance Salon), you’ll find another massive mural splashed across an expansive wall. This one is completely painted by one artist, Melissa Gordon. It features a mythological theme, showcasing goddesses of beauty and love from various cultures. In total, it measures 150 feet in length and it’s 15 feet high.
Double Ditch State Historic Site
Next stop on our North Dakota road trip: the Double Ditch State Historic Site. While only small, rolling hills remain nowadays, you’ll have to use your imagination a little for this one. It used to be the site of a Mandan Native American earth lodge village from around 1450 AD to 1785 AD. All that exists today are remains of earth lodges, midden mounds, and fortification ditches. At one point in time, up to 2000 people lived there. Sadly, the site was abandoned after a small pox epidemic ravaged the village. You can visit Double Ditch and admire this peaceful and calm place. Walk around the grassy mounds and read the historical signage to learn more about its history.
North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum
Now, let’s move from the outdoor historic sites to a fascinating museum. The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck has all sorts of exhibits and artifacts highlighting the history of the region. Admission to the museum is always free, too! It’s the perfect rainy day activity, but you don’t need to wait for the weather to act up to check out this interesting attraction.
You’ll discover dinosaur exhibits and information about early civilizations (including a cyclorama of Double Ditch!), as well as galleries featuring innovation, the agricultural heritage of North Dakota, and more. You can truly spend hours and hours here, absorbing so many intriguing details and stories. Head straight to the museum on your North Dakota road trip, especially if you have kids.
Where to Eat in Bismarck: Humpback Sally’s
Humpback Sally’s in downtown Bismarck describes itself as a “small plates tavern”. It’s one of the most innovative restaurants in Bismarck in terms of its menu and overall vibes. The whole idea is to order numerous small dishes and share them with your dining companions. The restaurant has a kitschy design, and the menus are made out of old license plates. I was pleased to discover that there were several vegan dishes on the menu. Our server was very knowledgeable as to which items were naturally plant-based. I ate the edamame (dressed with sambal, miso and ginger), the roasted red pepper hummus, and the vegetarian yellow curry. Other vegan items on the menu are the veg out salad, truffle fries, balsamic beets (minus the goat cheese), and bruschetta (minus the cheese).
Where to Eat Breakfast: Terra Nomad
Terra Nomad is a cozy cafe in downtown Bismarck. We visited fairly early in the morning when they were serving light breakfast items, baked goods from the bakery case, and coffee. The staff are very knowledgeable about vegan options, and their regular menu has lots of vegan meals. For breakfast, I ordered a cup of coffee and an acai smoothie bowl. It was topped with coconut chips and crunchy granola. The coffee was rich and flavorful. The smoothie bowl was a delicious and nutritious way to start day two of my North Dakota road trip.
Where to Stay in Bismarck: Radisson Hotel Bismarck
On this North Dakota road trip itinerary, I recommend spending an entire day and night in Bismarck. For accommodations, the clear choice is the Radisson Hotel Bismarck. It’s a favorite among visitors and one of Bismarck’s top rated hotels. It has everything you’ll need for a comfortable night’s stay: a spacious suite, roomy living space, a large desk, a flatscreen TV, and free Wi-Fi. There’s also a complimentary airport shuttle, free parking, and it has a convenient downtown location. Should the mood strike you, there’s also a swimming pool and a fitness center. Book your stay at the Radisson Hotel Bismarck and be sure to check out more reviews from fellow travelers.
Williston, North Dakota
On day two of this North Dakota road trip, we head northwest to the town of Williston. If you’re a fan of historical sites and small town charm, Williston will be exactly what you’re seeking in an ideal North Dakota itinerary. Interact with some friendly locals on its picturesque main street. Then, Fort Buford and Fort Union offer interactive history lessons that are very interesting and insightful. There’s truly something for everyone in Williston.
Wander the Cute Small Town of Williston
The downtown main street of Williston has two movie theaters, restaurants, and boutiques. It’s worth going for a stroll and popping your heads into the independently owned shops. There’s one called Little Muddy Gifts that features handmade and locally produced wares. If you’d like to pick up a souvenir to commemorate this North Dakota road trip, Little Muddy Gifts is the place to do just that. Some of my favorite items included all of the bath products, the cat themed mugs, the scarves, and the North Dakota t-shirts.
Books on Broadway is another fabulous shop in Williston, ND. Who doesn’t love a cute local bookshop? They have a great selection of books for all ages, as well as a little coffee shop in the back of the store. Browse their selection of books for a new read, and then grab a yummy coffee on your way out. Or stay for a while at one of their diner booths at the cafe!
Attend a Cooking Class at Cooks On Main
Cooks on Main is another amazing shop in downtown Williston, selling just about everything you could think of that relates to kitchen wares and cooking. There are some really innovative gadgets to make life easier in the kitchen, as well as top of the line products to cook the best meals. You’ll also find a huge selection of oil, vinegar, and flavored coffee beans.
I had the opportunity to attend a special cooking class that focused on knife skills. We learned all sorts of ways to slice and dice fruits and vegetables from a trained chef. Cooks on Main has all kinds of cooking classes to help you learn some new tricks in the kitchen. Definitely check one out if you have the chance!
Fort Buford State Historic Site
I feel like I learned so much at Fort Buford, especially as a Canadian with only a small amount of knowledge about American history. It’s what remains of a military post that became a huge supply depot for military operations. Built in 1866, this fort protected those traveling by land or river to settle in the west. Fort Buford is also the place where Sioux Chief, Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881. Fort Buford is one of the best things to do in North Dakota for history lovers.
We took a short tour around the exterior property and inside some of the buildings. There are many exhibits and artifacts to delve into the history. Some of the original structures include a large officers’ quarters (turned into a museum), a stone powder magazine, and a cemetery. It’s worth a stop on your North Dakota road trip, especially if you’re into historical sites.
If you’re looking for what to do in North Dakota, it’s a state that’s rich in history and historical sites. When traveling to Williston, it’s worth the short drive out to the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site. For nearly 40 years (from 1828 to 1867), Fort Union was the most important trading post on the Upper Missouri River. Members of the Assiniboine and Northern Plains tribes exchanged furs for other goods with white people of European descent. This site was a place of peaceful social and economic exchange, and over $100,000 worth of goods were traded each year.
Near the entrance to the parking lot of Fort Union, you’ll notice a unique attraction: a sign marking the border of North Dakota and Montana! There aren’t too many opportunities where you can physically straddle both states. I recommend taking a photo to commemorate this moment on your North Dakota road trip. It will definitely serve as a funny memory from sightseeing in North Dakota.
Where to Eat: Williston Brewing Company
The Williston Brewing Company is a great place to gather your pals and go for a meal. There are always great local beers on tap. I even tried one with blueberries brewed right into the beer (the Grain Belt Bru by August Schell Brewing Company). As for vegan meal options, I ordered a veggie pizza with my favorite toppings, minus the cheese.
Best Coffee in Williston: Fresh Palate
Searching for the best coffee in Williston? While I didn’t get to sample the coffee at Books on Broadway (though I’m sure it’s delicious), be sure to stop into the little cafe at the back of natural food store, Fresh Palate. They’ve got all kinds of interesting coffee creations, like a vegan butterbeer latte (of Harry Potter fame). They also serve a few flavors of air popped popcorn at the cafe (all vegan, including a cheesy nutritional yeast one!). There’s also tons of natural food products, including many unique vegan items.
Where to Stay in Williston: Landmark Suites
My top choice for where to stay in Williston is the Landmark Suites Williston. It looks like a pretty standard hotel from the exterior, but I was wowed by my spacious suite when I arrived. The hotel room is massive with a living room, sleeping area with a flatscreen TV, a huge bathroom, and a whole kitchen. It’s like having your own little apartment in Williston. The kitchen has a fridge and freezer, a stove top, a microwave, a sink, plates, glasses, cutlery…you name it! I’d consider staying at the Landmark Suites if you need a long term accommodation. It’s like having the best of both worlds: the comforts of home with a modern hotel room. Be sure to book your stay at the Landmark Suites and check out more reviews from fellow travelers.
Watford City, North Dakota
If you’re searching for outdoor adventures and natural places to see in North Dakota, you’ve come to the right place. Watford City’s population is soaring due to the rise in oil and gas industry jobs. Over the last three years, the population has increased by over 46%. This means that there’s a flourishing downtown core, investment in schools and community centers (there’s even one with a massive water slide and lazy river!), and a growth in hip little spots around town. I loved Watford City most for its easy access to the great outdoors, not too far from the city itself. It’s the perfect stop on a North Dakota road trip.
Boat Ride on Lake Sakakawea
On your North Dakota road trip, it’s worth venturing outside of Watford City to visit Tobacco Gardens Resort & Marina on scenic Lake Sakakawea. Tobacco Gardens describes themselves as “a little bit of heaven in the middle of nowhere”. It’s possible to go camping there, park your RV, or stay at one of their cozy cabins overlooking the lake.
I recommend you get out on the water whether you’re visiting by boat or taking part in water sports like kayaking, canoeing, sailing, wind surfing, stand up paddle boarding, or jet skiing. The scenery of Lake Sakakawea will blow your mind. This is not how I pictured North Dakota at all. There are rolling green hills, red rocky cliffs and layered rock formations. What a surprise! If you’re deciding on what to see in North Dakota, make a visit to Lake Sakakawea a priority.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park: North Unit
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is divided into two sections, the North Unit and the South Unit. The land of the North Unit is within a short driving distance from Watford City, and it’s a must visit place on your North Dakota road trip. Theodore Roosevelt is known as the “conservation president” and many of his own concerns led to important preservation changes for the environment. This national park was named to honor Roosevelt and his conservation legacy.
At the park’s North Unit, there’s a 14 mile scenic drive (28 miles when you drive the whole thing and back). You’ll be able to admire the scenery of the badlands for the first half of the drive. Eventually, you’ll reach the most iconic view of the North Unit, the River Bend Outlook. There are also some nature trails for hiking enthusiasts. A trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park tops any list of things to do in North Dakota, and you shouldn’t miss the less visited North Unit.
As for wildlife, the best wildlife viewing opportunities are right from your car. You’ll be able to spot bison (over 200 buffalo live here), mule deer, and maybe even a bighorn sheep on the side of the cliffs if you’re lucky. Unfortunately, it was raining quite hard when we visited. We spotted a few bison and drove as far as the River Bend Outlook for a peek at the scenery. There was a pretty big downpour, but the view was still very pretty. If you did keep driving the length of the entire North Unit, you’d eventually come across the Oxbow Overlook at the end of the journey.
Explore the Maah Daah Hey Trail
The Maah Daah Hey Trail is “North Dakota’s best kept secret”, and it’s really something that I’m dying to experience on a return trip. It’s a 144-mile trail that winds through both the North Unit and South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, as well as the Little Missouri National Grasslands. The name of the trail means, “land that will be around for a long time”, and the name originated with the Mandan Tribes. The Maah Daah Hey Trail is a great spot to stop and stretch your legs during a North Dakota road trip.
You’ll find a variety of terrain on the trail: rolling prairie, grassy flats, river bottoms, and steep clay badland buttes. It’s maintained entirely by the tireless efforts of volunteers. The Maah Daah Hey Trail is used mostly by cyclists, although it’s great for hikers, too. If you’re looking for what to do in North Dakota, you can certainly go on many hiking and biking adventures. I’d love to hike portions of this trail, or maybe even the entire thing someday!
Go Hiking at the Little Missouri National Grasslands
There are many scenic trails at the Little Missouri National Grasslands in McKenzie County. It’s the largest grassland in the country, stretching from the shores of Lake Sakakawea and beyond. There are opportunities to view wildlife like bighorn sheep, elk, antelope, deer, eagles, falcons, and prairie dogs. I don’t think that sightseeing in North Dakota would be complete without spotting at least a couple of their native animals. There are six non-motorized designated trails are perfect for hikers and bikers. We enjoyed a quick hike at dusk on the Birnt Hills Trail.
Where to Eat in Watford City: Stonehome Brewing Company
The best restaurant in Watford City has got to be the Stonehome Brewing Company. They’ve got refreshing brews and an extensive menu with something for every taste. I decided to sample a few of their beers in a flight. For food, I ordered a veggie pizza with my own favorite toppings. Then, I found out that they actually have vegan cheese for pizza at Stonehome Brewing Company, even though it’s not labeled on their menu. I was thrilled to discover this! If you follow a plant-based diet, head directly to Stonehome Brewing for some of the best pizza in town.
Best Coffee in Watford City: Door 204
I’m always looking for the best coffee in town, and you’ll find a delicious dose of caffeine at Door 204 in downtown Watford City. It’s a really interesting space: part post office, part Fed-Ex shipping center, and part coffee shop. Rows of post office boxes line the walls, and other spaces are occupied by bright and beautiful artwork. There are a large assortment of espresso beverages and more. The Americano that I ordered was exactly what I needed first thing in the morning.
Where to Stay in Watford City: Roosevelt Inn and Suites
Now, here’s an iconic hotel stay for you. What other hotel has a giant bust of Teddy Roosevelt outside of it? The Roosevelt Inn and Suites was a delightful place to stay when I traveled to Watford City, North Dakota. I feel like there’s a roadside attraction right outside the hotel. How fitting, for a North Dakota road trip!
The large rooms have a flatscreen TV, a microwave, a fridge, and free Wi-Fi. There’s also complimentary parking, a 24 hour fitness center, a swimming pool, and a hot tub. The hotel is positioned in a great location, near all attractions in Watford City. Be sure to book your stay at the Roosevelt Inn and Suites and check out more reviews from fellow travelers who have stayed there.
Medora, North Dakota
Have you heard of Medora, North Dakota? It’s the most popular summer vacation spot in the state and North Dakota’s top tourist attraction. Perhaps the idea of visiting historic Medora will lure you into taking a North Dakota road trip. It’s a great idea to incorporate a trip to Medora for a day or two, fully exploring this old western town. With the Badlands looming over the town, quick access to Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit, and unique cultural attractions, a trip to Medora will leave lasting memories of an awesome vacation.
Explore the Old West in Medora
Although the town of Medora only spans a few blocks, take the time to wander around and explore this historic western town. There are many shops and restaurants to discover with the majestic badlands looming in the distance.
Visit the Painted Canyon (Theodore Roosevelt National Park)
Just 7 miles from Medora, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center is part of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit. It’s a stop off the highway where you can soak up a sweeping view of the badlands. The visitor center has lots of information and souvenirs. Many people only make a quick pit stop to the Painted Canyon on their North Dakota road trip. While the Painted Canyon is stunning, there’s so much more to the park than this scenery. Make sure you add the South Unit and the North Unit to your North Dakota road trip travel itinerary.
Aside from the incredible view, there are also hiking trails and a picnic area. As bison do frequent this area of the park, make sure to keep your distance from them. Please note that the Painted Canyon does not have an entrance to the South Unit, although it’s a great place to stop before or after your visit to the park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park: South Unit
Out of every stop on this 5 day North Dakota road trip, the South Unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park was my favorite of all. It’s the best combination of observing spectacular scenic vistas, going for short hikes, and admiring an array of wildlife.
First, at the South Unit Visitor Center, you can browse a small museum and visit Theodore Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross Cabin. It was his small lodge and temporary home while he stayed in North Dakota. The cabin traveled around during his presidency: to the World’s Fair in St. Louis, to the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, to Fargo, Bismarck, and finally to the national park.
Next, begin your drive through 36 miles of roads within the national park. There are numerous scenic outlooks and trail heads along the way. Not only are the surrounding views amazing, but there are so many opportunities to see wildlife of the park. There were huge bison road blocks on our way where dozens upon dozens of bison walked onto the street. A line of cars slowly crept behind them.
It was so incredible to view these beautiful creatures up close from the comfort of our vehicles. Please do not get out of your car near the bison. Keep your distance, and take photographs from a distance. It’s not safe to approach the bison, and it’s best to let them be. We also managed to see wild horses, prairie dogs, turkeys, and deer on our trip through the South Unit.
While there are several hiking trails, I can recommend two short paths for you. The Wind Canyon Trail offers breathtaking panoramic views as you gradually walk this loop path (0.4 miles in total).
There’s also the very short Buck Hill trail (0.1 miles in total). Walk up to the top of the hill and you’ll be rewarded with fabulous views of the badlands.
Chateau de Mores State Historic Site
I had no idea who the Marquis de Mores was before I visited Medora, but he’s very intertwined with the history of the town. For instance, the town of Medora is named for his wife. He came to Little Missouri County in 1883, around the same time that Theodore Roosevelt arrived. The Chateau de Mores State Historic Site has an interpretive center to learn more about the Marquis and the history of the area. You can take tours of the actual Chateau de Mores, the lavish 26-room summer residence of the Marquis’ family.
The Medora Musical
The Medora Musical is an outdoor live performance, and one of the longest running North Dakota attractions and traditions. The show is an ode to President Roosevelt’s time in the Badlands, and it’s a celebration of the spirit of the old west. There’s lots of singing, dancing, live music, and more! If you’re seeking iconic things to do in North Dakota, you’ll have to check out the Medora Musical. Sadly, when we visited, the performance was rained out. It is performed on an outdoor stage, so weather can be an issue from time to time. I’ll have to check out the musical on my next North Dakota road trip as it looks like a lot of fun.
Where to Eat in Medora: Cowboy Cafe
The Cowboy Cafe is a restaurant in Medora where we stopped for lunch. The walls are decorated with framed photographs of cowboys from the area. There’s a veggie bean burger on the menu that is vegan, so I highly recommend ordering that with a side of fries.
Best Coffee in Medora: Hidden Springs Java
I had not one, but two delicious coffees from Hidden Springs Java during my time in Medora. The coffee shop is inside a wooden building marked “Mercantile”. There’s a cafe in the front, and a small gift shop in a room behind it. You’ll find all kinds of yummy desserts and treats here, too. I found quite a few vegan treats here, including some packaged cookies and snacks. It ranks up there with my overall favorite coffee shops in North Dakota. Grab a coffee on your way out of town as you continue your North Dakota road trip.
Where to Stay in Medora: Badlands Motel
The Badlands Motel is a cute little spot that’s within walking distance of everything in Medora. The rooms are newly renovated and refurbished, and you’re sure to enjoy a comfortable night’s stay here. Each room has a flatscreen TV, complimentary Wi-Fi, an expansive desk, and a spacious bathroom. There’s free parking and an outdoor swimming pool. Right next door, there’s a little mini golf course (at an additional cost). It’s the perfect place to stay for the whole family.
Beach, North Dakota
Alright, let’s clear something up right away: there isn’t a sandy beach in the town of Beach, North Dakota. Beach is named after Captain Warren C. Beach of the US Army. It’s a tiny town on the western edge of the state, right on the border of North Dakota and Montana. There’s a small main street and it’s worth a quick stop before continuing on your way.
Prairie Fire Pottery
Prairie Fire Pottery is the perfect North Dakota road trip pit stop as it’s fairly close to the interstate highway. Professional potter, Tama Smith, creates visually stunning works of handmade pottery. Her pottery evokes imagery of the badlands, the prairie skies, and the vibrant sunsets of the west. You can go on a tour of the Prairie Fire Pottery studio and go shopping at the showroom. For lovers of pottery and art, you must include a stop at Prairie Fire Pottery as part of your North Dakota travel plans.
Best Coffee in Beach, ND: Park Cafe
Need a caffeine boost before you head out on the rest of your North Dakota road trip? Park Cafe has lots of delicious espresso beverages and coffee to savor. They also serve a soup of the day, and a selection of fresh bread.
North Dakota Road Trip Map
Here’s a map with all the North Dakota attractions that I’ve mentioned. There are so many things to do in North Dakota that it helps to see everything visualized on a map. Feel free to use this map to plot out what to do in North Dakota.
My suggestions for a 5 day itinerary for North Dakota: spend a day in each place with some extra time in Medora for the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You’ll only need an hour or so in Beach, ND. After my North Dakota road trip, I continued on my way to Billings, Montana for a travel conference. You’ll find many more opportunities for outdoor adventures in Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, or wherever your travels take you.
A special thank you to North Dakota Tourism for sponsoring my trip (and to our tour guide, Mike, for being super knowledgeable and fun!).