It took years for me to finally cross the border into North Dakota and apparently I'm not alone. The Fargo-Moorhead Visitor's Center has developed a club comprised of people who have seen the entire United States and left North Dakota as the last to conquer. They call it the Best For Last Club and in my podcast, I talk with Danni Riley how they came up with the idea and why people tend to save North Dakota for last.
After my interview, I set off across my 50th and final state to find out if I truly had saved the "best for last." The flat lifeless state is not what I found. Instead, I found some amazing art, beautiful rolling hills, and discovered what is a top 5 favorite national park. Here is my guide to what there is to see when you save the best for last.
Fargo-Moorhead Visitor's Center
This should be your first stop when you finally cross the border into the Roughrider State. If it truly is your 50th state, just head inside and chat with the staff and they'll get you signed in and will get you a certificate and a really nice quality T-shirt as a club member. You can also get your photo taken by the woodchipper from the movie Fargo and have a staff member help you dispose of the evidence (as Danni did with me above). There is also a stunt double woodchipper outside and a Walk of Fame.
Before I came to North Dakota, I thought the woodchipper and legendary flatness is all the state had to offer. But I was wrong.
Location: Fargo Theater
Fargo has a charming, old school downtown that holds a lot of surprises. First, you'll see the class Fargo Theater that hosted movies as far back as the silent films of the 1920's. Fully restored in 1999, it now hosts the Fargo Film Festival.
Fargo Main Avenue Clock
Location: Main Avenue Clock
Fargo Broadway Art
Downtown Fargo is loaded with art (as the whole state is). Here you'll find what are normally ugly utility boxes dressed up with some artistic flair and personality. It makes a walk down Broadway quite pleasurable. You can also read about the history of Fargo on decorative posts at each intersection.
Fargo Bike Racks
Even the bike racks have an artistic flair.
Roger Maris Museum
Baseball fans will know Roger Maris by the number 61 and for the (*) asterisk that followed it. A New York Yankee at the time, Roger broke a record no one thought would ever be broken. It was Babe Ruth's single season home run record. The pressure of the New York press on this kid from Minnesota (that moved to Fargo during his high school years) was heavy and it took it's toll on Maris who never equalled the season he had when he broke Ruth's record. At the West Acres Shopping Center in Fargo, the town shows their appreciation by celebrating the life of Roger Maris with tons of memorabilia, a film about his life, and a cool feature that surprised me - actual seats from the now demolished Yankee Stadium (aka The House That Ruth Built).
World's Largest Buffalo - Jamestown
Okay, to some Dakota Thunder may seem a little kitschy, but what makes a drive across the United States more fun than finding the "world's largest" this or that after long stretches of open road. And this huge bison has actually attracted a pretty cool collection around him. First, you'll drive up Louis L'amour Road to the Frontier Village, a collection of buildings meant to recreate the 19th century.
National Buffalo Museum - Jamestown
But the real quality reason to stretch the legs is the National Buffalo Museum, which celebrates the history of the American bison. Watch the 17 minute film that takes the bison from a dominate food source for Native Americans, to hunted and killed en masse to help starve out those same natives. From the edge of extinction, you'll also see how the bison were brought back through the care of conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt and others. And, look through the looking glass to see one of the only known albino bison.
Scandinavian Heritage Park - Minot
Location: Scandinavian Heritage Park
A couple hours northwest of Jamestown is the town of Minot. Here you will find another surprising attraction. This is the Scandinavian Heritage Park, a free city park developed to celebrate the influx of Scandinavian people who give the states of North Dakota and Minnesota their character. No charge to wander and you'll find statues of Danish children's author Hans Christian Andersen, Icelandic voyager Leif Erikson, and others. You'll also find a waterfall, the Gol Stave Church (pictured above), a windmill, and a Dala horse.
Love Downtown Minot Alley
A blue color town, there are a couple of spots where the town of Minot shows it's personality. The train depot was under construction when I visited. But around a corner, I found this detailed street art that professes it's love for Minot.
Back Country North Dakota
Enough with the idea that North Dakota is flat. It is not the Rocky Mountains, but it isn't Ohio or Indiana either. Yes, there is a shortage of trees, but that is part of the concept of the grasslands and prairies of this state. These grasslands are very important to the wildlife of this area and it has it's own beauty. I drove between Minot and Bismarck as the sun was rising in the East and the mirad of lakes, grasses, and rolling hills were beautiful.
Audubon National Wildlife Refuge - Coleharbor
Location: Audubon National Wildlife Refuge
Stop in to learn the history of these grasslands that are so vital to the central part of the North American continent. 75% of the grasslands in this area have been taken over by farms, roads, and industry. I left the visitor's center realizing how important it is that we have a government that supports the conservation of these critical lands. Here you can also find out about how the Audubon Lake was created and the power of nearby Garrison Dam.
Wally the Walleye - Garrison
Location: Wally in Garrison, ND
I've never driven Route 66, but I'm thinking these days you probably have to drive a little off the main roads to see some of the old attractions from the now defunct Route 66. Same thing happens here in North Dakota. If you want to soak in all the oddities, you need to take some side roads. To reach the mascot of Garrison, ND, I had to jump off of the main drag between Minot and Bismarck. Was it worth it? Well hey, how often do you see a 26' fish? Definitely never on your hook! And Garrison is on the way to Garrison Dam, so take a little side trip.
Garrison Dam - Garrison
Location: Garrison Dam
How do you create a massive lake out of the Missouri River? The Garrison Dam. I took this photo looking out towards the river, rather than at the dam. I just found it more beautiful. Yes the lakes are impressive, but like a sunset, sometimes the most intriguing things are happening behind that sunset.
Fort Clark State Park
Location: Fort Clark State Park
Named after Second Lieutenant William Clark of the famed explorer's Lewis and Clark, Fort Clark was actually home to the Mandan Indians and later the Arikara's. If you look out through the stone building the 1930's WPA workers built, you'll see the elevated land mass where the Indian village rose above the prairie. A strategically important position, it went from being a Native American stronghold to the center for the fur trade in the 1830's when it was renamed Fort Clark by the American Fur Company. Small pox outbreaks and the western plague cholera would finally do this settlement in around 1861.
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center - Washburn
Location: Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center
For a $10 charge, you can go in and get your fill of the history of Lewis and Clark. An excellent place to start your journey in this area, it will give you a full background on the duo and the importance of Fort Mandan as the winter home for their party before they made their way to the Pacific Ocean. This is where they met the Native American guide Sacajawea and her husband. Your $10 payment will also get you into Fort Mandan.
Double Ditch Indian Village
Location: Double Ditch Indian Village
After leaving the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, ride down State Road 1804 to Double Ditch State Recreation Area. This spot was once the 300 year old home of the Mandan tribe, but around 1785 a small-pox epidemic wiped out many in this village. It was abandoned at that time. Today you can see markers that tell the history and a small stone building. My favorite thing about this spot is it's proximity to the Missouri River. It provides some sweeping views from it's elevated position.
Fort Abraham Lincoln and On-A-Slant Indian Village
Location: Fort Abraham Lincoln
Originally a Mandan Indian Village, this was also the military home of the 7th Cavalry, as lead by George Armstrong Custer. Yes, that Custer. Nothing in this park is original. Instead they have rebuilt the Native American village and rebuilt the officer's home and barracks of the U.S. Army. Inside the barracks you can see how the soldiers lived and read about the lives and fate of many members of the 7th Cavalry in their defeat at Little Big Horn. You'll also get the history, up to a point. Like the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, there is a charge. To access the park, you'll pay $7. If you want to tour the Custer house, that is an additional $8.
Bismarck Alley Art - 5th Avenue
Location: Bismarck Alley Art
One thing I was learning about North Dakota is, it is a very artistic state. Don't let an alley go to waste. This is just one of the works you'll find down this 5th Avenue alley.
North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum - Bismarck
Location: North Dakota Heritage Center
Bismarck is an interesting town. It has it's own city center, but you go through neighborhoods before you reach the area where the State Capitol resides. When you get there, the Capitol building is very different from many you may have seen. Built during the Great Depression after a fire devoured the original building, it has a bit of a sterile office building look to it. But the grounds surrounding it are full of history and statues. This bison is an example of some of the fine artworks you'll find.
Sacajawea Statue - Bismarck Capitol
A wonderful tribute to the woman who helped guide Lewis and Clark on their journey to and from the Pacific.
Salem Sue - The World's Largest Holstein Cow - New Salem
Location: Salem Sue Statue
This is one of the landmarks I was told to "look forward to." Apparently no one leaves I-94 in this state. And Salem Sue is easy to spot. She stands proud on one of the only peaks in the area. You can take the exit and drive up a dirt road to reach her. There is a parking area at the top. No butter is offered though, sorry. Only the Lions Club asking for a donation to continue keeping her paint job touched up. You'll find this off Exit 127.
The Enchanted Highway - Gladstone to Regent
Location: Enchanted Highway
On I-94 at Exit 72, you'll see Geese In Flight, a scrap metal artistic rendering that denotes the beginning of "The Enchanted Highway." Have time for an hour detour, take the exit and head toward Gladstone. I went just past this little farming village and found Deer Crossing, another of the scrap metal designs. If you take the 32 mile drive to Regent, North Dakota, you'll see a variety of sculptures. I didn't go any further because I was hungry and knew I'd have a full day at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I moved on to Dickinson to grab some breakfast.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
I knew nothing about this National Park. It doesn't get a lot of press. In fact, when people say Badlands, you immediately think South Dakota's Badland's National Park. Having been there, I feel like I can make an accurate comparison. Imagine the Badlands 3 to 4 times larger and with a much cooler color contrast with the rocks. Add in the large amount of wild animals including bison, prairie dogs, and even wild horses and you'll understand why Teddy Roosevelt so adored North Dakota.
The entrance fee is $30, but if you are a smart traveler, you'll have the America The Beautiful Pass and you'll enter without paying the fee. You'll get to watch a film at the visitor's center and then you can tour the original cabin that Teddy Roosevelt used in his first trip to North Dakota.
Roosevelt's life had turned upside down before he came to North Dakota. Already entrenching in New York politics, he was away when his wife gave birth to his first child Alice. He raced home and found his wife on her death bed. To make things worse, his mother was in the same house dying of typhoid fever. Both died within 24 hours totally devastating Roosevelt who abandoned his newborn child to clear his mind in North Dakota. He went from being a bison hunter to becoming a champion of conservation. This land truly touched him and he never lost his love for it.
After seeing it myself and immersing myself in the South Unit and then driving up to the North Unit (a 1 1/2 hour drive away), I continued to be awed by every corner I rounded. My only sadness was in seeing some of the fire damage that occurred in the North Unit. A terrible reminder that these precious lands can be easily swept away.
This picture just can't do the North Unit justice. You won't be disappointed in the incredible views you'll see here. Truly a gem of the National Park system and a hidden one at that.
To finish out my North Dakota experience, I drove further north to the Canadian border and into Saskatchewan. The drive was filled with farms, rolling hills, and oil wells. A modern boom town Williston and it's surrounding communities are brimming with workers pulling oil from the Earth. Nowhere did I see the totally flat landscape I had always imagined.
Having seen all of the major center's of North Dakota (with the exception of Grand Forks), I can truly say I have a much more positive feeling about North Dakota. To be honest, I don't think you should save it until last. Is it the best? Well, probably a stretch (most people I've heard say that are being sarcastic), but is isn't worthy of #50. I enjoyed my time there and it has some great history and one of the best National Parks in the country. I can truly say, I'm glad I got to my 50th state!