There is something hauntingly beautiful about the landscape of North Dakota. One of the least-populated states in America — less than a million people call the state home — North Dakota is all about the environment. With its national and state parks and its gorgeous lakes, rivers, and wide-open spaces, the state is a paradise for nature lovers and offers a long list of outdoor activities for families, from camping and hiking to kayaking, fishing, and more.
North Dakota has a rich cultural heritage as well. The state has Native American and Scandinavian roots and is home to modern-day transplants who’ve brought wonderful art, cafés, and boutiques to the area.
Not convinced? Here are six reasons to spend your next family vacation in North Dakota.
1. It’s Home To Fantastic National And State Parks
If there’s one thing North Dakota offers families, it’s miles and miles of raw, beautiful nature. Camping, hiking, fishing, biking, kayaking — you name it, North Dakota’s got it.
Most people headed to the Dakotas have the Badlands on their bucket list. And while South Dakota is known for Badlands National Park, there are plenty of badlands to take in in North Dakota. These stunning landforms undulate across the western part of the state. In fact, Theodore Roosevelt, who visited this part of North Dakota as a young man, said that the Badlands didn’t seem to belong to this Earth. It’s true — the lunar landscape is otherworldly.
The North Dakota Badlands are part of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is open year-round and features beautiful scenic drives through the prairies, where you’ll see bison, deer, and more. There are also hiking trails ranging in difficulty, from simple walking paths to challenging wilderness treks. Ranger-led programs are offered throughout the summer months.
North Dakota is also home to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, which was established in 1907 and is the oldest state park in North Dakota (there are 13). The park runs along the Missouri River, where visitors can hike or horseback ride on the extensive trail system. The park even offers overnight camping; cabins go for $60 per night, and Cheyenne-style tepees are available for $35 per night.
2. Fargo Is A Funky, Vibrant City Well Worth Visiting
Fargo, North Dakota, has undergone an exciting revitalization over the past few years that has transformed it into a funky, vibrant city full of art, music, food, and culture. Add to that its rich Scandinavian heritage and its frontier past, and you’ll see why it’s a great place for families to experience America’s past and present.
Fargo is the largest city in North Dakota. The 1996 Coen Brothers blockbuster Fargo put the city on the pop-culture map, and now the destination is recognized for its charm and family-friendly activities.
Cruise down Broadway to take in the fun boutiques, shops, and cafés of the downtown area. Take a family selfie in front of the Fargo Theatre, an Art Deco landmark from the 1920s that is now on the National Register of Historic Places. The marquee alone is a gorgeous piece of American history.
Fargo is also home to the Plains Art Museum, a free museum with exhibits that feature everything from Native American art to modern photography and more.
If your kids are of age, you should be sure to check out Fargo’s brewery scene. North Dakota’s first cider bar, Wild Terra, is located downtown. Fargo Brewing Company and Drekker Brewing Company are two other big names in the city. Fargo Brewing is where you’ll find your pale ales, while Drekker is known for its IPAs.
3. It’s A Dreamy Place To Hit The Open Road
That’s mostly because there’s just so much of it. North Dakota’s long highways slope through some of the most scenic landscapes in the entire country.
One of the most famous drives in North Dakota is the Enchanted Highway, which begins at Exit 72 on Interstate 94 near Gladstone, North Dakota, and ends 32 miles later in the town of Regent, North Dakota. What makes the highway so enchanting? The hauntingly beautiful metal sculptures that pop up along the drive, starting with the Geese in Flight sculpture near Gladstone. Once you see the geese, you’ll know that you’ve started down the Enchanted Highway. Along the way, you’ll see the Deer Crossing sculpture, the giant Grasshoppers sculpture, the massive Pheasants on the Prairie sculpture, and more. Finally, you’ll reach the Enchanted Castle hotel in Regent, a kitschy local gem complete with a drawbridge and old-time tavern-style steakhouse.
4. It Offers A Variety Of Museums
If your family loves to visit museums, North Dakota offers a wide variety. We’ve already told you about the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, but there are many more.
First, there’s the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The museum consists of two galleries that host rotating exhibits and a permanent collection. The museum’s permanent collection is anchored in contemporary Western art, but it also includes Native American art, ancient Egyptian art, Latin American art, and much more. A third gallery, Barton’s Place, is a recreation of late artist Barton Benes’s New York City apartment and is filled with gorgeous African art. The museum hosts several concerts and events throughout the year.
The Pembina Region of northeastern North Dakota was home to several Native American tribes, including the Ojibwa, Dakota, Assiniboine, and Cree, all of which used the land for hunting and gathering. Later, the area served as a fur-trade route between Canada and the United States. The Pembina State Museum’s exhibits span millennia, from the Cretaceous Period to the present day. The museum also features a temporary exhibit gallery and a seven-story viewing tower. The exhibits are free, but adults must pay $2 to access the tower.
5. Its Lakes And Rivers Are Stunning
North Dakota’s many lakes and rivers provide a number of enjoyable activities for families. Devils Lake, North Dakota’s largest natural lake and a favorite among anglers, is a great place for families to fish for perch, walleye, and northern pike. The lake also offers ice fishing and snowmobiling in the winter.
Then there’s Lake Sakakawea, which, at 180 miles long, boasts more shoreline than California’s Pacific Coast. Lake Sakakawea is an absolute paradise for fishing, boating, camping, and swimming. It’s the third-largest man-made reservoir in the nation, and there is a state park surrounding it. The park is home to part of the North Country National Scenic Trail, which stretches 4,600 miles across seven states. It starts in the state park and ends near the Vermont-New York border.
The rivers that branch out across the state provide beautiful backdrops for outdoor exploration — from the plains to the Badlands to the majestic river bluffs — as well as kayaking and canoeing opportunities. The Sheyenne River flows through the rolling hills, forests, and prairies of eastern North Dakota. Canoe rentals are available at Fort Ransom State Park.
The Little Missouri River is North Dakota’s only designated State Scenic River. Here you and the family can take in the Badlands from a completely different perspective. The river passes through Sully Creek State Park, the Little Missouri National Grassland, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
6. It’s Rich In History
North Dakota has played an important role in American history and the westward expansion of the nation. Not only was it home to many native groups and Scandinavian settlers, but it was also a stopping point for Lewis and Clark on their epic journey west.
Stop in historic Medora, North Dakota, for a taste of the Old West. Set on the western edge of the Badlands, at the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora is home to a variety of North Dakota wildlife, including bison, deer, wild horses, and eagles. It’s no wonder the area attracted so many settlers over the centuries.
During their time in North Dakota, families can follow in the hallowed footsteps of Lewis and Clark. The 11-state Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail begins at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers and runs all the way to the Rocky Mountains. In the North Dakota region, the trail passes several sites, including Fort Yates, the Indian Hills State Recreation Area, the Killdeer Mountain Four Bears Scenic Byway, and more. It even passes the Lewis and Clark State Park on Lake Sakakawea.
The first Scandinavian settlers came to North Dakota from Norway in the late 19th century and settled in the Red River Valley. By 1905, about half of the settlers in North Dakota were Scandinavian. If your family has Scandinavian roots, you will want to visit the Scandinavian Heritage Park in Minot, North Dakota. The heritage park takes travelers back in time, showcasing replicas from five Scandinavian countries — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden — as well as statues of important Scandinavians like Hans Christian Andersen and Leif Erikson. Visitors can also check out the Finnish sauna and the Sondre Norheim Eternal Flame.