Covering 70,705 square miles in the Upper Midwest region of the United States, North Dakota is named after the Dakota Sioux tribes. It’s most famous for its wide open landscapes, diverse wildlife, Native American culture, historic towns, and bison.
Tourism in North Dakota is booming with more than 21 million people visiting the state in 2021. Drawn to the picturesque scenery, many are also interested in learning more about the local history and culture by visiting sites, monuments, and museums. Of the many must-see attractions, by far the most popular is Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the Badlands.
With a smaller population of just shy of 780,000 residents in 2020, North Dakota is both the 4th least populated and most sparsely populated state in the US. Most people gather in big cities like Bismarck, the capital, or Fargo, the largest city, which means that the vast majority of the land has been left undeveloped.
Whether you’re looking to visit the bigger cities or escape into rural parts of the Upper Midwest, North Dakota is guaranteed to inspire you with its beauty.
Livin’ La Vida North Dakota
History of “The Peace Garden State”
Originally settled by Native Americans thousands of years ago, various tribes have been living throughout the area ever since. Each with its own traditions and culture, major tribes like the Arikara, Chippewa, and Sioux relied on the land to hunt, gather, and make medicine or other goods. For a long time, these early inhabitants lived uncontacted.
La Vérendrye, a French Canadian, was the first European to arrive in the area in 1738. This first contact eventually led to the establishment of trade networks between Native Americans and Europeans. More than a century later in 1861, North Dakota together with South Dakota was incorporated into the Dakota Territory. It wasn’t until November 1889 that the two became separate states with North Dakota being the 39th US state.
In order to expand, state officials wanted to appeal to new immigrants. By 1910, many American immigrants of German and Scandinavian descent, as well as Yankees began living in the towns and rural areas. Further expansion of the state was possible through the railroads. As towns and cities began to grow, people relied on retail stores for profits.
Particularly important in rural areas, general stores helped ensure the success of farmers and ranchers. Whereas department stores were vital to communities living in big cities. Since then, the state has continued to rely on retail, as well as farming, agriculture, oil, and tourism. In more recent years, the oil boom has pushed North Dakota to grow further.
Capital City of Bismarck
The second most populous city in the state with an estimated 73,622 residents as of 2020, Bismarck is the capital of North Dakota. A fast-growing city, it was originally founded in 1872 by European-Americans. Since 1889, it has been the capital since the state emerged from the Dakota Territory and was accepted to the Union.
A major hub for retail, healthcare, and tourism, this small city is a fun place to visit. Brought to life by the local arts and culture, there are plenty of open parks and other attractions to explore too. Among the many neighborhoods, some of the most popular to visit are the downtown area, the northern section, and the Cathedral District.
Historical tourism is also very common because of the city’s numerous sites that date back to the state’s pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial past. Being located on the banks of the Missouri River, tourists are particularly drawn to riverboat tours. With something for the whole family and travelers of all ages, this capital is a must-see destination.
A few of the busiest attractions are the North Dakota Heritage Center, State Capitol, Dakota Zoo, Sertoma Park, Keelboat Park, and the Lewis and Clark Riverboat Cruises. Just outside of town are the Cap Hancock State Historic Site, and the Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park.
Fargo, the Largest City in North Dakota
Home to 125,990 people as of 2020, the largest city in North Dakota is Fargo. A major destination, the city is more commonly known as the Fargo, ND – Moorhead, Minnesota Metropolitan Statistical Area. Together these twin cities are major hubs for the economy, transportation, culture, history, and art.
Situated in the heart of the frontier, Fargo is surrounded by stunning landscapes of the North floodplain. In town, the city is well-known for its brick architecture that has been modernized by local expansion. The local vibrant community is very welcoming to visitors and the young residents attending the university give Fargo a fresh boost.
Although not filmed on-site, the city is perhaps most famous for being the setting for Fargo (1996), which was a movie by the Coen Brothers. Not quite as dreary as the film, a few of the top attractions are the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors’ Center, Fargo Air Museum, Fargo Theatre, West Acres Shopping Center, Bonanzaville, the Red River Zoo, and the Plains Art Museum.
Grand Forks, the Third Largest City in North Dakota
The third largest city in the state with 59,166 residents as of 2020 is Grand Forks. Another twin city, it’s paired with East Grand Forks in Minnesota and together they are often called either Greater Grand Forks or simply, the Grand Cities.
Historically and to this day, the city is infamous for its severe flooding. Being situated in the Red River Valley along the Red River of the North, Grand Forks has had many major floods throughout the years.
Despite the wet weather, visitors are still drawn to this city. Visitors from all over, even Canada (which is a mere 80 miles to the north) will head to Grand Forks to shop, dine, and explore. Throughout the year, everyday attractions and special events ensure that the city is always entertaining. Downtown Grand Forks tends to be the busiest place for tourism.
Minot, “The Magic City”
Originally a railroad camp in the 1880s, Minot is known as “The Magic City” because it sprung up so quickly, “as if it was by magic”. Rapidly increasing in population, the town is now home to 48,377 people as of 2020. Most famous for the Minot Air Force Base and state university, this small city is closely tied to Scandinavian culture and history.
Celebrated each year in Minot is Norst Hstfest, the “Norweigian fall festival”. A much more permanent installation is the Scandinavian Heritage Park, which includes an amazing replica of Scandinavian architecture. Beyond Scandinavia, there are also plenty of art-related attractions and kid-friendly activities.
A few other popular attractions in Minot are the Roosevelt Park Zoo, Taube Museum of Art, Splash Down Dakota Water Park, the Bison Plant Trail, Apple Grove Golf Course, Dakota Territory Air Museum, and Lucy’s Amusement Park. When exploring the city, visitors should pay particular attention to the street art murals.
Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Located in the Badlands of Western North Dakota, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects 70,446 acres of land that has been divided into three units called North, South, and Elkhorn Ranch. Named after the former president who fell in love with the area, the park is most popular for its scenic drives, hiking, camping, historic sites, and diverse wildlife.
Living within the wildernesses are many iconic animals, like bison, feral horses, elk, deer, pronghorn, and bald eagles. For more information and activity recommendations, the Painted Canyon Visitor Center has plenty of knowledge and advice.
National Dakota Heritage Center
An all-encompassing educational activity is the National Dakota Heritage Center. Featuring 4 galleries, exhibits date from geological formations that are hundreds of millions of years old to today.
The center particularly focuses on showcasing the state’s landscapes, people, and development. Using the latest high tech, visitors can interact and get a hands-on experience of North Dakota’s fascinating history and heritage.
National Buffalo Museum
To learn more about bison, the National Buffalo Museum focuses on educating visitors about the culture and natural history of the animals within North Dakota’s prairies. Constantly adding or rotating exhibits, the museum traces the history, significance, and ecological impact of the country’s national mammal.
Looking towards the future, conservation is very important to the museum as well. Visitors can also see live bison, which live in two herds within the museum grounds.
Scandinavian Heritage Park
A fully outdoor museum, the Scandinavian Heritage Park has exhibits dedicated to each Nordic country. This includes a Norwegian log house, Swedish Dala horse, Gol Stave Church Museum, Danish windmill, and Finnish sauna. A gentle walking path takes visitors around each installation and to additional plazas, statues, and the gift shop. As a dog-friendly park, four-legged visitors are permitted on a leash.
In the Missouri River basin, Lake Sakakawea was turned into a reservoir by the Garrison Dam in 1953. The lake bears the name of Sakakawea, the Native American woman who was an essential part of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. A mere 50 miles away from Bismarck, the lake is renowned for its state park and fishing.
Camping, swimming, hiking, and boating are all permitted in the area. The fishing is also excellent with common species including northern pike, chinook salmon, and walleye. Fishermen and boaters can use the full-service marina, as well as have access to a convenience store, fish cleaning stations, and boat ramps.
Maah Daah Hey Trail
Winding through valleys, peaks, plateaus, and prairies, the Maah Daah Hey Trail stretches as a single track for 144 miles in Western North Dakota. Permitting hiking, horseback riding, cycling, and camping, visitors will fall in love with the gorgeous scenery of the Badlands. Mountain bikers are particularly fond of the trail and it consistently ranks as one of the best trails for rugged cycling adventures.
Along the trail, there are 9 campgrounds, where visitors can set up tents. Each campground is fenced and they are about 20 miles apart. Facilities at the campsites include picnic tables, fire rings, toilets, portable water, camping spurs, and hitching rails. Camping is closed from November to April for the colder winter months.
Whether you want to catch a glimpse of the past or immerse yourself in breathtaking scenery, North Dakota is guaranteed to be an extraordinary adventure. Filled with so much history, culture, and art, visitors will be pleasantly surprised by just how many attractions there are. With plenty to explore, this Upper Midwest state is great for road trips and extended holidays.