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North Dakota Travel Guide

In this travel guide to North Dakota, travelers will find the best things to do in North Dakota, where to stay, how to get around, what to do, the history and the best travel tips for visiting North Dakota based on North Dakota tourist attractions. The night sky, undisturbed by city lights, is a tourist attraction in itself when visiting North Dakota.

North Dakota is best known for its spectacular scenery — landscapes of meadows, prairies, valleys and plains cover the state.  In addition to the history of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, tourists can follow the actual trails of the nation’s first explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Meander through western meadows in search of the state flower, the Wild Praire Rose, among other state symbols.

Almost 750,000 visitors plan trips to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park annually. From the sprawling lands known as the Great Plains to the elusive Badlands that reside along the border between North Dakota and Montana, the trails of North Dakota are ideal for avid hikers and climbers. Found in the Badlands, the highest point in North Dakota is White Butte and reaches 3,506 feet. 

The lowest point in North Dakota is located in the Red River Valley, which is the remnants of a massive prehistoric Lake Agassiz. The Red River Valley has been formed by parts of the Missouri River and stretches from Canada to North Dakota and Minnesota. One of the most fertile places on the planet, the Red River Valley is rich with organic matter and fossils of sea life from Lake Agassiz.  

If the great outdoors is what you seek, North Dakota trails are the best place to find it. At least President Theodore Roosevelt thought so.

Best Things to Do in North Dakota

1. Explore the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail 

Modern-day explorers walk the same steps as Lewis and Clark in the early 1800s. With close to 5,000 miles total, you can explore the Lewis and  Clark National Historic Trail crosses the nation from Pittsburg, Pennsylvania to Astoria, Oregon. This National Historic Trail site covers 16 states and 60 tribal nations.  Lewis and Clark are the first of many stops on this historic site trail.

Lewis and Clark are not just a monumental part of U.S. history, but an essential element for North Dakota tourism. Tourist attractions that include a visit to North Dakota should make time to experience the authentic, reconstructed Hidatsa earth lodges and museums in addition to 15 miles of hiking trails.

The Mandan and Hidatsa people allowed Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to set up the Corps of Discovery camp in Knife River Indian Villages. Here, the explorers of the Lewis and Clark Expedition survived the winter of 1804-1805 for approximately 22 weeks. 

More importantly, without the support of the tribes living along the Missouri River, the expedition would not have been successful. The history of the trail from the early exploratory expeditions is fascinating. Along the way, travelers learn about historic landmarks and our nation’s first explorers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.

While the history of Northern Plains Indians is preserved at this particular national historic site, there are many visitor centers and museums throughout the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail with educational exhibits.  When you are at this historic site, be sure to visit the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn, North Dakota.

2. Learn About Native American History and Culture 

Travelers experience a rich culture and authentic Native American villages like the Knife River Indian Villages at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site located just west of the Missouri River and north of Stanton, North Dakota. The Knife River Indian Villages span more than 1,750 acres along Knife River. The Knife River Indian Visitor Center showcases a site where 50 earth lodges exist on 10 acres. 

Nearby, the Awatixa Village is the actual site of the Corps of Discovery. In fact, it was at this location that Lewis and Clark were introduced to Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau, who became integral parts of the expedition.

Today, visitors can explore this national historic site shows an authentic village where more than 30 lodges still stand. Over 15 acres of the most recent Hidatsa Village (c. 1600 CE) destinations north of the Knife River. 

Admission to the site, history museum and visitor center are free for all ages. However, the site itself is seasonal due to extreme winter weather conditions. In North Dakota, the winter season is long and freezing (-35 degrees Fahrenheit), but summer temperatures can reach 100 degrees. It is essential to plan for the season and make arrangements ahead of time because tourism takes over during the spring and summer months especially. 

3. Discover the Badlands 

An excellent depiction of North Dakota’s geological landscape, the Badlands have drastically changed over 65 million years. Once a warm, swamp ecosystem, North Dakota transformed after volcanic eruptions caused ash to fill the swamplands. Sedimentary rocks made from sandstone, limestone and shale evolved from layers of ash, sand and mud. 

The Lakota Tribe named this territory “mako sica” (which means badland) because the terrain is difficult to travel. The Badlands is a valley of stones shaped into buttes, domes and pyramids by wind and water weathering and erosion. Multicolored hoodoos created millions of years ago stretch across miles of North Dakota’s terrain and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Modern-day travelers can experience first-hand the proof that North Dakota was once underwater in the distinct levels of sediment filled with fossils. In fact, the state fossil of North Dakota is Teredo petrified wood which often rests on top of hoodoos of vibrant colors and eccentric shapes. 

4. Visit the North Dakota Heritage Center

In Bismarck, North Dakota Heritage Center is a collection of four museums full of rich cultural history. Not to mention, visitors can explore what the city was like millions of years ago. Physical artifacts include the massive, prehistoric dinosaur skeletons on exhibit like the tyrannosaurus rex and a wooly mammoth.  Good food, good people and fun times are to be had in the state’s capital city of Bismarck.

A true treasure for North Dakota tourism, the North Dakota Heritage Center is a remarkable and unforgettable experience for any visitor. Also found in the North Dakota Heritage Center, the Northern Lights Atrium is amazing for an unforgettable night sky.

5. Go Fishing on Lake Sakakawea 

Lake Sakakawea is a man-made reservoir built by the Garrison Dam. As a tourist, lake life is a great way to experience activities like boating, sailing, bird-watching and camping. When visiting North Dakota, be sure to keep an eye out for ladybugs, the state insect of North Dakota. 

Guests enjoy seasonal camping and year-round fishing opportunities at one of the eight North Dakota State Parks. Lake Sakakawea State Park has miles of lakeshore and stunning scenery. 

In addition to camping and fishing, Lake Sakakawea offers visitors hiking trails, beaches for relaxing and swimming and winds for sailing and windsurfing. A full-service marina and a boat ramp help travelers take advantage of this 368,000-acre lake. Avid anglers can catch the state fish (northern pike), walleye and chinook salmon.

Another must-see when visiting North Dakota is the North Country National Scenic Trail. The trail covers 4,600 miles across 8 states from North Dakota to Vermont

6. Experience North Dakota’s National Wildlife Refuges

In addition to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park, most of North Dakota’s wide open landscape is well-conserved. There are a number of wildlife refuges that protect the native flora and fauna (plants and animals) of North Dakota.

Bird watchers love North Dakota because of the beautiful state bird, the Western meadowlark. However, animal lovers of all ages can enjoy the wonders of wildlife at these refuges while visiting North Dakota. 

  1. Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge 
  2. Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge 
  3. Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge 
  4. Hiddenwood National Wildlife Refuge 
  5. Lake Ilo National Wildlife Refuge 
  6. Long Lake National Wildlife Refuge 
  7. Slade National Wildlife Refuge 
  8. Audobon National Wildlife Refuge 
  9. Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge
  10. Florence Lake National Wildlife Refuge 
  11. J Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge 
  12. Lake Alice National Wildlife Refuge 
  13. Lake Zahl National Wildlife Refuge 
  14. Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge 
  15. Tewaukon National Wildlife Refuge 
  16. Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge

One of 16 National Wildlife Refuges in North Dakota, Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge is a magnificent example of both wetlands and grasslands specific to the Red River Valley. Found 15 minutes from Grand Forks, North Dakota, the refuge has streams and water pools that connect with Turtle River (a tributary of Red River) — a perfect place for shorebirds, ducks, geese and swans to reside and rest during migrations.  

7. Adventure Along the Maah Daah Hey Trail 

The Maah Daah Hey Trail is 98 miles long and connects the Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s north and south sections. Cyclists, hikers, runners and leisure walkers enjoy the trail for exercise and to experience local wildlife. Birds of prey, bighorn sheep, coyotes, deer and bison wander along this trail. The Maah Daah Hey Trail is one of many hiking trails and destinations in North Dakota.

While visiting North Dakota, explorers of all ages can sign up for an authentic Wildlife Photography Experience chasing horses and more across badlands. The Maah Daah Hey Trail features stunning scenery such as prairies, rivers, plateaus, peaks and valleys. 

The adventures in North Dakota are nature-based for the most enthusiastic outdoorsmen. For more tips about the Maah Daah Hey Trail, visit USDA Dakota Prairie Grassland

Where to stay in North Dakota

When you visit North Dakota, where you stay depends on your preferences. If you enjoy a more rugged retreat, there are modernized campgrounds for the ultimate nature experience. Not into roughing it, no problem! North Dakota offers beautiful lake resorts and spas with mountain lodges that provide the comforts of home in the great outdoors. 

Consider staying at any of these highly recommended places while visiting North Dakota:

If you are interested in glamping, North Dakota has 8 state parks and one of the most popular national parks — Theodore Roosevelt National Park. 

How to Get Around in North Dakota

According to this travel guide to North Dakota, an important thing to note before visiting North Dakota is the lack of rental car options available. North Dakota tourism offers public transit, however, it is wise to rent a car outside the state so you can explore all the sites outside the city life.

If you do drive across North Dakota, be prepared for the sparse gas stations. There are options for North Dakota buses and shuttles as well. 

Travel Tips North Dakota

For first-timers, visiting this region can be a challenge for a few reasons. Activities are often limited to seasonal options because most are outdoor adventures. With unpredictable weather and extreme heat and cold temperatures, packing can be difficult to navigate for visitors to North Dakota. 

If you are unsure about what to pack for each season, check out What to Pack for Your North Dakota for seasonal packing lists. North Dakota’s most popular restaurants include dishes heavily influenced by Scandinavian, Russian and German recipes. 

  • Knoephla is a creamy dumpling, potato soup. 
  • Walleye fish are commonly fried or grilled. 
  • Fleischkuekle is a Russian-German pastry typically filled with meat. 
  • Hotdish is a popular potpie-like meal. 
  • Lefse is a Scandinavian snack that pairs well with both sweet or savory toppings. 
  • Hot Beef Sandwiches are smothered in gravy. 
  • Goulash is another Scandinavian dish. 
  • Cheese Buttons are made of delicious dough filled with cheese before being fried. 
  • Kuchen is German for cake and is made with a variety of fruits.

As far as restaurants in North Dakota, popular diner chains like Kroll’s dominate the food scene. In addition to the diners, cafes and sandwich shops are enjoyed by visitors of all ages. In Langdon, check out the Bread Pan Bakery. 

When visiting Grand Forks, look for Darcy’s Café for nourishment. Take a seat at Charlie’s Main Street Café in Minot North Dakota for a phenomenal sandwich. In Bismarck, after exploring the National Heritage Center, visitors can replenish themselves at the James River Café. Also, in Bismarck, visit Peacock Alley — a historic restaurant. 

Travel Insurance 

First and foremost, it is always a safe idea for visitors to purchase travel insurance before their adventure for the following reasons. Travel insurances like VisitorsCoverage and SafetyWing are great resources for visitors to have, just in case.

Second, it is always smart for visitors to be prepared for any scenario possible when they are far from home. Third, adventurers must be aware of the potential threats to their safety while on vacation. Especially, in the wild west. 

Pack for the Season 

The best time to visit North Dakota is between mid-May to early October. Spring, summer and early fall are busy tourist times, but beautiful. North Dakota winters are often harsh and dangerous temperatures affect many outdoor activities.

North Dakota activities are endless, but the popular choices include horseback riding, hiking, fishing, hunting, hiking, camping and bird-watching. For snow lovers, snow remains on the ground in North Dakota every month of the year except for July and August. 

When you plan to visit North Dakota or anywhere along the Missouri River, be prepared for unpredictable and extreme weather like snow storms and tornadoes. It is essential to pack for the season. Adventurers know the best outdoor brands for sportswear are Columbia, Patagonia and REI

Make Reservations in Advance 

Like most places near national parks, room and board are reserved well in advance and booked up quickly. So, it is crucial to make your travel plans and reserve accommodations early. Don’t wait until the last minute for reservations because these closeby parks and recreation sites draw millions of visitors each year.

Save Money by Camping in State Parks 

In comparison to hotels and lodges, state parks provide less expensive accommodations to choose from while visiting North Dakota. While Lake Sakakawea State Park is a popular choice, there are 8 parks to choose from in addition to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Watch Out for Wildlife 

Safety first! While visiting North Dakota, visitors must be aware of their surroundings. It’s important to maintain a safe distance from wild animals — especially moose, bears and bison.

Hikers and campers are advised to pay attention and know what to do during an animal encounter. The Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the Maah Daah Hey Trail and Lake Sakakawea are among the best places to experience wildlife when you visit North Dakota.

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