State Thirty Eight: North Dakota

Oft-cited as the least visited State in the Union (it isn’t quite, but it is a way down the list), North Dakota isn’t the most common spot for European tourists like ourselves. Is that fair? Absolutely not – this place is a not-so-hidden gem with bags of character and stuff to see. It’s not hyperbole to say North Dakota stole our hearts.

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The Fargo Theatre and its cool neon

There is really one major highway that streaks right across North Dakota – I94 – and that’s how we planned our trip. We came in from the West and our first stop was just over the Minnesota border…you can’t come to North Dakota and not go to Fargo. The guide books, which have tens of pages dedicated to cities like New York and Chicago, mostly have a few paragraphs for North Dakota, and a sentence or two for Fargo. But while there might not be an Empire State Building or a Cloud Gate in this small midwestern city, there is more than enough to justify a one night stop.

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Sunset over Fargo from the HoDo

We’d booked in for the night at the Hotel Donaldson (or HoDo as it calls itself) and boy were we happy we did. Of all the places we’ve stayed in America we felt this was the best hotel of them all. It wasn’t cheap – $220 a night in Fargo is quite steep – but it was a real pleasure. From the helpful front desk, to the free wine and beer on arrival and free truffles in the evening, this place never put a foot wrong. Throw in the uber cool bar downstairs and you have a genuine five star experience. We absolutely loved it.

Once we’d luxuriated in our HoDo surroundings, including popping up to the roof terrace to watch the sun set over the prairies, we headed out for dinner. Happily enough, the place that took our fancy was right across the street from the hotel. Vinyl Taco looks pretty gaudy from the outside and that theme continues inside…but you also get an awesome choice of tacos; barbecue chicken, lime chicken, crispy fish, steak, shrimp…they have it all. And best of all were the chicharonnes we had to start – fried chicken skins with spicy sauce…so so good. The beer list wasn’t extensive compared to other places, but that didn’t matter, because next door makes up for that.

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Awesome tacos!

JL Beers, also right across the street from the HoDo, is a beer bar that would put more or less every London pub to shame in terms of the range of booze on offer. There must be 30 or 40 taps, all pumping out high quality beer. Josh was in heaven. They also do pretty nice looking burgers but we were stuffed full of tacos so didn’t partake. The icing on the cake was the free postcard – if you write up a postcard they’ll send it anywhere in the world for free, and it actually worked! Full of beer, we walked up Broadway to see the famous Fargo Theatre neon before retiring to our extremely comfy bed in the HoDo.

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JL Beers and Vinyl Taco – happily they’re neighbours!

We were already rather taken with North Dakota and we’d only seen one city for one night. Surely it could only be down hill from here – North Dakota is just flat and feature-less right? Wrong. Admittedly this state doesn’t have the natural wonders of a Utah or a Montana, but there is something incredibly beautiful about driving through the sheer emptiness on a bright and cloudless morning. Also, the speed limit here is 80mph so you get places quicker!

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Hannah and the World’s Largest Buffalo

This is a part of America famous for its “World’s Largest…” and we weren’t about to miss out on a couple of belters along I94. The first stop was just outside of Jamestown for the 60 tonne World’s Largest Buffalo and National Buffalo Museum. Next up is Salem Sue, the World’s Largest Holstein Cow. Sue is pretty big, but the real reason to make the short drive off the highway and up a dirt track is for the view. Sue sits atop a small hill which gives you a stunning view for miles in either direction.

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The North Dakota plains over Sue’s back

In between the buffalo and the cow is Bismarck, North Dakota’s sleepy state capital. There’s not much to say because we just popped to see the Capitol building…which in itself is actually one of the more boring examples. Suffice it to say we were glad we picked Fargo as our stop for the night!

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North Dakota’s slightly uninspiring State Capitol building

On our day of brilliant Roadside Americana we still had the best yet to come. About an hour west of Bismarck along the I94 is the tiny town of Gladstone. There’s no real reason to get off the highway here right? Wrong again. As you round the corner towards Gladstone you can’t miss the 110ft tall and 150ft wide Geese in Flight sculpture (which claims to be the world’s largest scrap metal sculpture). It really is spectacular and well worth a photo stop. It also marks the start of of a 32-mile stretch of road known as the Enchanted Highway.

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Geese in Flight…and Josh

In 1990, with his home town of Regent (a long way from everywhere) slowly dying, Gary Greff decided to begin work on a collection of scrap metal sculptures. The resulting eight roadside sculptures make the 60-mile detour off the highway seem like a short drive. From giant pheasants and grasshoppers to Teddy Roosevelt on horseback, it really is awesome fun driving along this otherwise empty stretch of road trying to spot the next massive sculpture to pop onto the horizon. Bravo Mr Greff.

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Gary Greff’s giant pheasants

By now it was time for some lunch and in the tiny town of Dickinson we found a great lunch spot – Stix n Twigs – nothing fancy (you won’t get a lot of fancy in this part of the world), just cheap and tasty sandwiches. Our journey continued west, back on to the trusty I94, and incredibly North Dakota was about to out-do itself again.

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The gateway to Teddy Roosevelt National Park

We’d been looking forward to Teddy Roosevelt National Park since watching Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”. Teddy fell in love with the Badlands of North Dakota in the late 19th century and the area was designated a National Park in his name by President Truman in 1947. Our first glimpse of the park was from the Painted Canyon visitor center just off the highway. If you look closely you can see buffalo roaming from high above the prairie lands.

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Badlands Overlook in TR National Park

Our stop for the night was in Medora which is also where the main entrance to the park is. We decided to drive the full loop of the southern section of the park, stopping at the many overlooks and pullouts for some brilliant photos. We saw plenty of elk, buffalo, wild turkeys and best of all the hundreds and hundreds of prairie dogs. You’ll probably hear their little squeaks before you see them, but they do come very close to the road and they’re very obliging for photos. Having visited the more crowded Yosemite, Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Parks in previous years it was such a treat to be able to stop on the main road and take as many pictures as we wanted. At times it felt like we were the only people in the entire park.

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The prairie dogs are VERY cute

Once we’d made the full southern loop (we wished we’d had time to do the north loop as well) we headed back to our hotel. Medora is a tiny town, probably less than ten streets in all, which exists purely thanks to the National Park on its doorstep. We were there out of season so a lot of the tourist shops were closed but fortunately not our hotel – the Rough Riders. Don’t be put off by the name, there’s nothing rough about this hotel! For less than a hundred dollars we got a very comfortable room and a free breakfast. And the library in the lobby is full of interesting looking books.

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One of the many tourist shops in Medora

Dinner and drinks spots in Medora out of season are limited, but we found two great bars – Boots Bar & Grill and the Little Missouri bar. Both offered a good range of beers and basic but tasty food. This was another slice of brilliant Small Town America.

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Where the buffalo roam…

We left North Dakota with heavy hearts, blown away by the varied brilliance on offer. Incredible natural beauty, friendly and welcoming people, characterful small towns, fun small cities, good food and great booze. Anyone who considers this a “fly over” state is crazy. We’d go back in a heartbeat.

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Teddy Roosevelt’s Maltese Cross cabin in Medora

Rate the State:

Good for: avoiding crowds, expansive views, prairie dogs.
Bad for: don’t come here looking for a big metropolis…there isn’t one within about 200 miles of the borders.

Overall: 10/10

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