State Secret North Dakota, our least visited state, is also among the most underappreciated.
(MONEY Magazine) – One of our most habitual, reflexive cultural tendencies is to rank things--from best to worst, from most popular to least popular and so on. This is fine if you're near the top of the list, but not so great if you're near the bottom. And when it comes to tourism, North Dakota is rock bottom. It holds the dubious distinction of being the least visited state in America.
In some ways, this isn't so surprising. After all, the northern Great Plains region, with its generally flat landscape, lack of urban centers and endless succession of decaying grain elevators, has never been mistaken for a hotbed of excitement in the public imagination. And while South Dakota has Mount Rushmore, and Wyoming has Yellowstone, North Dakota lacks a singularly defining tourist draw. Toss in the harsh winters, and the Sioux State's tourism ranking begins to make sense.
But is North Dakota really so bad, or just underrated? This is precisely the sort of travel question I find intriguing, so my girlfriend and I recently set out to determine whether it's possible to have fun in North Dakota. The answer is a resounding yes. Here's what we found:
DAY ONE. After flying to Bismarck, the capital, we begin by immersing ourselves in the state's history at the very impressive North Dakota Heritage Center (701-328-2666). Loaded with artifacts, models and interpretive exhibits, the facility traces the region's past all the way back to the days of the mastodons and tells the compelling stories of the Native Americans, early European pioneers and homesteaders who settled here. Later, we drive through gorgeous ranchlands down to the state line, where we encounter a different sort of artifact: a stone marker designating the border between North and South Dakota. Erected by the federal government in 1892, it's one of 720 such markers lining the border at half-mile intervals--an appealingly inconspicuous landscape detail out in the middle of nowhere.
DAY TWO. North Dakota seems to have an unusually large contingent of gigantic animal statues, and today, in New Salem, we come face to hoof with one of them: Salem Sue, who, at 38 feet high and 50 feet long, is billed as "the world's largest Holstein cow." Huge animals of a different sort await us later in Dickinson, at the Dakota Dinosaur Museum (701-225-3466; www.dakotadino.com), where a T. rex skull guards the lobby and the main gallery is filled with great skeletons and models of deinonychuses, coelophysises and other unpronounceables. Interestingly, many of the prehistoric species in the collection never lived or roamed in North Dakota. Tourism, it seems, was a problem here even in the Cretaceous era.
DAY THREE. After driving west to Medora, the gateway town for Theodore Roosevelt National Park (701-623-4466; www .nps.gov/thro), we spend the day driving the park's extremely scenic 36-mile auto loop, hiking a few rugged trails and admiring the badlands topography and some adorable prairie dogs. As for Medora, it's a tourist-trap nightmare, but we can't resist one of its hokiest attractions: the Pitchfork Fondue, an outdoor mass feed where huge rib-eye steaks are impaled on pitchforks and plunged into vats of hot oil. Did cowboys really cook this way, as the proprietors claim? Maybe, but in any case it's a great gimmick and a swell $18 dinner.
DAY FOUR. A day of long drives and small towns, beginning with a trip through breathtaking badlands countryside to Amidon, whose population of 24 makes it America's smallest county seat. From there we head north to Grassy Butte (pop. "about 15," we're told), where the original post office--a sod-roofed log cabin in use as recently as 1964--now houses a charming local history museum. Then it's off to Epping (pop. 64), where several abandoned buildings have been transformed into the extraordinary Buffalo Trails Museum (701-859-4361), which documents early-1900s small-town life on the prairie. The exhibits, which range from an actual homesteader's cabin to painstakingly rendered dioramas of a dentist's office and a schoolhouse, are clearly labors of love. The day ends at the Spring Brook Bar in Spring Brook (pop. 29), where hostess Edna Geller serves up frosty brews and even offers to sell us the joint before cooking us a dynamite chicken dinner, complete with her own homemade bread. (And the tab for two, with drinks, came to only $25.)
DAY FIVE. Lewis and Clark's historic Corps of Discovery team spent more time in what is now North Dakota than in any other state. One of the best L&C attractions, which we visit today near Washburn, is the Fort Mandan Historic Site (701-462-8535), an impressive replica of the log encampment the men built and lived in during the winter of 1804-05. It was here that the French trapper Toussaint Charbonneau and his Native American wife Sacagawea joined the expedition. All this, and much more, is explained at the nearby Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which provides a fine overview of the heroic mission.
DAY SIX. Given the isolation of life in the rural Great Plains, electricity is particularly important here, and today we tour two places that keep the juice flowing. We begin near Underwood, at the Coal Creek Station power plant (701-442-3211), which burns lignite from a nearby mine (a conveyor belt from the mine to the plant actually passes over the local highway). Then we head to Riverdale, site of the Garrison Dam hydroelectric plant (701-654-7441), the third largest earthen dam in the U.S. Both facilities are fascinating, but the day's biggest engineering marvel comes later in Dunseith: W'eel, the world's largest turtle, which is two stories high and sculpted from over 2,000 car wheel rims.
DAY SEVEN. Although we've had beautiful weather all week, North Dakota has been in a wet cycle for years, which has caused major problems around Devil's Lake. One of the few American lakes with no natural drainage, it has doubled in depth and tripled in size since 1993, forcing hundreds of families to move and gradually inundating thousands of acres of farmland in a sort of passive flood. Like most disasters, this one is oddly fascinating, but as we drive around the area's remaining roads and see trees and telephone poles barely poking above the lake's surface, it feels particularly unfair for this to have happened in a state that already had enough image problems to contend with.
DAY EIGHT. North Dakota has more wildlife refuges than any other state, and the last day of our trip begins at one of them: the Sullys Hill National Game Preserve (701-662-8611), just south of Devil's Lake, where we see deer, elk, wild turkey and bison. Now, with only a few hours left before we have to fly home from Grand Forks, can we squeeze in a trip to the Roger Maris Museum in Fargo, or maybe a quick stop at a museum honoring aviation pioneer Carl Ben Eielson? Unfortunately, there isn't enough time, so we head for the airport, pleased to have found that North Dakota has more attractions than we could squeeze into our week.
Award-winning travel writer Paul Lukas has made two other trips to North Dakota in recent months, making it his most visited state of the year.