How to Plan the Best North Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

North Dakota Tourism’s tagline is “Be Legendary.” This seems like a tall order for a state that is often overlooked as a tourist destination. But once you experience the natural beauty and rich history of the Peace Garden State on a North Dakota road trip, it starts to make more sense.

With wide-open spaces, scenic vistas, and quirky roadside attractions, North Dakota offers what I like most about a U.S. road trip. Plus, I loved cruising across the state, stretching the limits of the 75 MPH speed limit, with no traffic in front or beside me on the Interstate. North Dakota is a place where you can go to get away from it all, and you don’t even need to head down a country lane into the backwoods to escape the crowds. It just isn’t crowded. Anywhere.

North Dakota also has a rich history that includes many important figures like Lewis & Clark, Sitting Bull, Sakakawea, and Theodore Roosevelt. This background lends itself to many important stops along a North Dakota road trip.

Bison on road in Theodore Roosevelt National Park - North Dakota road trip
Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Many people will plan a trip to North Dakota just for a week of fishing or other outdoor adventures. However, we decided to cross the state on a North Dakota road trip as part of our much larger midwest road trip. My goal was to see as much as we could along Interstate 94 as we drove from Fargo in the east all the way over to Medora in the west.

You can spend as much time as you like exploring the scenic byways and towns, but this North Dakota road trip itinerary is intended for a 5-day road trip. I’ll cover what to see each day, where to stay along the way and the best roadside attractions that are worth a pitstop on your ND road trip.

North Dakota Fun Facts

sunflowers in field in North Dakota
Image courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

But first, a few fun facts. Did you know?

  • North Dakota is the second least-visited state in the United States, with just over 22 million visitors per year
  • North Dakota produces more sunflowers than any other state in the U.S.
  • North Dakota is the 19th largest state, but with a population of less than 780,000 as of 2020, making it the 4th least populous and 4th most sparsely populated state
  • Living in what would become North Dakota put Theodore Roosevelt on the path to the Presidency and inspired his conservation efforts (hence Theodore Roosevelt National Park is found there)
  • Theodore Roosevelt National Park was named #5 on the New York Times’ list of must-see places in 2016
  • The world’s largest buffalo (statue) is found in Jamestown, ND (26 feet of roadside attraction joy) and you can also find Salem Sue, the world’s largest Holstein cow statue in New Salem, ND
  • You can also find rare white buffalo in Jamestown in the wild herds that roam in Frontier Village
  • Lewis & Clark met Sakakawea in North Dakota (learn more at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center)
  • Fort Union, ND was home to Hugh Glass, the fur trader played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie The Revenant
  • The town of Rugby, North Dakota, is known as the “Geographic Center of North America”
  • The International Peace Garden, located on the North Dakota/Canada border, is the world’s largest unfortified border crossing
  • North Dakota has the highest number of churches per capita of any state in the U.S.

Native American Culture in North Dakota

North Dakota occupies space on the ancestral lands of First Nations cultures including the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara; the Yanktonai, Sisseton, Wahpeton, Hunkpapa and other Dakota/Lakota/Nakota (commonly known as the Sioux) tribes; and the Chippewa and Metis. For more information about Native American culture in North Dakota and important sites you can visit if you have more time in North Dakota, I’d recommend checking out the North Dakota tourism website.

North Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

North Dakota Badlands

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you click a link and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission. All opinions are my own.

Day 1: Fargo

Start off your North Dakota road trip in Fargo, the most populated city in the state. We drove in from Minneapolis, but you can also fly into Fargo Hector International Airport (FAR), which has direct flights from 11 airports including Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Nashville, Orlando-Sanford, Phoenix-Mesa, Phoenix-Sky Harbor, and St. Pete-Clearwater (some are seasonal).

You will probably want to spend a little time in Fargo before hitting the road.  Fargo has a vibrant downtown with restaurants, breweries, theaters, and arts venus. Fans of the movie Fargo should stop at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center to see the infamous wood chipper from the movie. There are a lot of other movie tie-ins around town including the Woodchip Marge statue at the Fargo Theatre, try the Woodchipper IPA at Rhombus Guys Pizza, sample the Woodchipper Rhubarb Wine at Maple River Valley Winery, or pick up some chocolate-covered potato “chippers” at Carol Widman’s.

Fargo theater sign
Image courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

If you are visiting with kids, you may want to visit the Red River Zoo, home to 300 animals from 75 species, or the Children’s Museum at Yunker Farm. To start to get a sense of the old west, stop at Bonanzaville, USA in West Fargo to see 40 historic buildings including Fargo’s First House, Dobrinz Schoolhouse, the Embden Train depot, the Houston House, the Dahl car museum, the pioneer telephone museum, the Les Melroe tractor museum, and the airplane museum.

Fargo has other popular museums including the Fargo Air Museum, with a selection of historic flyable airplanes, and the Plains Art Museum, with regional contemporary artwork, American Modernism, and traditional and contemporary Native American exhibits. 

While you are in town, be sure to get donuts at Sandy’s Donuts, ice cream at Silver Lining Creamery, and pretzels at Dot’s Homestyle Pretzels.

Where to stay: Jasper Hotel in Fargo

Day 2: Fargo to Bismarck

Start off your second day with breakfast at Kroll’s Diner, a retro diner and family business with four locations in Fargo. After fueling up, hop onto Interstate 94 West and drive two hours west Jamestown, where you can find the National Buffalo Museum, Frontier Village, and Dakota Thunder, the World’s Largest Buffalo.

The National Bison Museum in Jamestown has two bison herds, which are usually visible from Interstate 94. However, it is worth getting off the highway for a pitstop on your way to Bismarck. A visit starts with an introductory film and then has a series of interactive and rotating exhibits. The exhibits at the Bison Museum are intended to teach about the natural history, cultural significance, and physiology of the Bison. It is a perfect spot to learn more about the bison you will see at the museum and then later in your North Dakota road trip.

After the museum, you can stroll through the Frontier Village, which is made up of original buildings from frontier villages across North Dakota, including a Northern Pacific Railroad Depot (1880), Frontier School, Church, and Bank. There are even stagecoach rides that run from Thursday through Monday.

Of course, you can’t leave Jamestown without photos with Dakota Thunder, the World’s Largest Buffalo! You may want to bring along a little tripod in case there isn’t someone else around to take your photo.

Girl standing under the World's Largest buffalo statue

From Jamestown, continue west on Interstate 94 to Bismarck and north on Route 83 to the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center, just over two hours. This visitor center tells the story of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, focusing on the winter of 1804–1805, which Lewis & Clark spent at Fort Mandan.

This area was once the crossroads of commerce on the Northern Plains, where Mandan and Hidatsa peoples traded with trappers and such as Lewis and Clark. Just a short drive away from the Interpretive Center is a full-size replica of Fort Mandan, where you can get a first-hand experience of what the Lewis & Clark Expedition’s Corps of Discovery’s life was like through interpreter-led tours of the Fort, during the season, and special events throughout the year.

tour group at Fort Mandan ND
Image courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

From Fort Mandan, head back south to the Bismarck, the North Dakota state capital. If you are visiting during the summer, you may want to consider booking a sunset or dinner cruise on the Lewis & Clark Riverboat on the Missouri River. These 90-minute cruises are a great way to wind down after a busy day and a fun way to experience a classic steamship.

You may also want to check out some of Bismarck’s local breweries, such as the Stonehome Brewing Company or the Laughing Sun Brewing Co. For upscale dining, book a reservation at Butterhorn, from Top Chef contestant Stephanie Miller.

Find a Hotel in Bismarck

Day 3: Bismarck – Medora

After staying the night, take some time to explore the state capitol of Bismarck, starting with a tour of the State Capitol building, with an observation deck on the 18th floor that offers a view of Bismarck and the surrounding area. 

North Dakota Heritage Center dinosaur exhibit
North Dakota Heritage Center. Image courtesy of North Dakota Tourism

Another important site to see before leaving Bismarck is the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. The museum traces the state’s history from its geologic formation 600 million years ago to today. You will learn about everything from dinosaurs to indigenous peoples to the development of agriculture in the region. There are even exhibits on the state’s atomic bomb shelters and Air Force missile launch center. 

While there is more to see in Bismarck, you probably want to hit the road for the two hour drive to Medora, because there are some fun roadside attractions to stop and see along the way. The first will be Salem Sue in North Salem, which is 30 minutes west of Bismarck. Salem Sue is a giant fiberglass Holstein cow sculpture, which is located right off of the Interstate.

According to local history, one of New Salem’s early settlers was plowing the prairie in 1883 when two Sioux stopped to watch. They convinced the farmers that the ground was better for grazing then planting, and New Salem’s dairy industry was started. Today, Salem Sue holds the title of the “World’s Largest Cow.”

Mom and daughter in front of Salem Sue

From New Salem, it is about an hour to Gladstone and the beginning of the Enchanted Highway, which is a smaller road with a series of giant metal sculptures. The Enchanted Highway begins at Exit 72 on I-94 near Gladstone and ends 30 miles down the road in the small town of Regent.

Beginning with “Geese in Flight” at Exit 72, large metal sculptures are placed along the county highway, each with parking area and kiosk. Sculptures include “World’s Largest Tin Family,” “Teddy Rides Again,” “Pheasants on the Prairie,” “Grasshoppers in the Field,” “Deer Crossing” and “Fisherman’s Dream.”

Deer Jumping on the Enchanted Highway

After making this detour and getting back to the Interstate, continue another 45 minutes west to the charming town of Medora and entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Where to stay in Medora:  Rough Riders Hotel or the Amble Inn

Day 4-5: Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Plan to spend the next two days exploring Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The Park is broken into three units, the North Unit, the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, and the most-popular South Unit. These units are divided by the Little Missouri River and it is 68 miles between the North Unit park entrance and the South Unit of the park. Therefore if you want to cover both units, you need a minimum of two days in the park.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park entrance sign

There are many great reasons to visit Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and the top one is that it is so uncrowded compared to other National Parks. I’d suggest starting in the South Unit and drive the 48-mile scenic loop drive. You are bound to see prairie dog towns, feral herds of wild horses, bison herds, and possibly some elk.

If you stop off at the visitor center, you can ask the park rangers for where to find wildlife that day and also get the scoop on some of the best hikes. Just keep in mind that some back-country hikes involve crossing the river, which may be knee-deep, so bring appropriate shoes (or a change of shoes).

We particularly enjoyed the Ridgeline Nature Trail, which is only .6 miles but some of it is a steep climb. You will then walk along the ridge line of the hills for beautiful views (not for those scared of heights.)

2 prairie dogs

The Buck Hill Trail is also worth the one-mile drive off the Scenic Loop. Again, it starts with a short climb but then you are on relatively flat ground. On one side you will look across the grasslands, and if you are lucky, spy elk or bison. On the other side, there are beautiful views of the colorful North Dakota Badlands.

After a day exploring the park, you will want to book tickets in advance to attend the famous Medora Musical. For the full-experience, sign up for the Pitchfork Steakfry dinner that precedes the show. This whole experience is a slice of Americana that you just don’t find elsewhere. Even the biggest skeptics will get into the toe-tapping fun.

singers at the Medora Musical

If you have the time, spend your last day in North Dakota exploring more of the park and enjoying the small town of Medora. Otherwise, continue your road trip to either Billings, Montana or Rapid City, South Dakota for your flight home.

Personally, I would recommend driving south on Highway 85 through the Dakota Prairie Grasslands, about 3.5 to 4-hours to either Spearfish or Deadwood, South Dakota, in the Black Hills. If you have time for a 7-10 day road trip, spend a few days exploring the many things to do in the Black Hills, including visiting Badlands National Park, and complete your trip with a South Dakota road trip.

Alternatively, if you have two weeks, you could continue on to Montana and include a visit to either Yellowstone National Park or Glacier National Park.

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How to plan a North Dakota road trip from Fargo to Theodore Roosevelt National Park with stops in Jamestown, Bismarck, and fun roadside attractions.

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Publish Date: March 28, 2023

16 thoughts on “How to Plan the Best North Dakota Road Trip Itinerary”

  1. Looks like it would be a great roadtrip! I have a similar goal to you but mine countries instead of states! Living in Canada, it’s actually cheaper – and in most cases faster to travel to another country instead of within Canada.

  2. Thank you so much for your blog and the ND travel suggestions. Hubby and I are also on the 50 before we die quest. I am 57 and hubby is 63. We live in Florida and travel a lot for work and pleasure. 2020 has been particularly difficult with COVID-19 and the inability to travel certain places. We finally decided to plan a trip in October to Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota. Your plan, even though we are going the opposite direction has been so informative. Thanks for sharing your adventures. After this trip, we will have seven states left! Hubby is from Tennessee and I can give you some great tips for that area of the country. I would just say – don’t skip Graceland and it’s Muse, even if you are not an Elvis Presley fan. While in Memphis, go to the Peabody hotel and witness the ducks – go early, find a place to sit, have a mimosa or coffee and enjoy. Only do Beale street during the day. You will get the vibe without the sketchy people. Go to Nashville and spend the $$ to go to the Grand Ole Opry – it’s a truly Tennessee experience that I enjoyed so much more than I thought I would. The country Music Hall of Fame is there as well and of course no trip is complete without a little honky tonkin’ although your daughter might not be able to accompany you. Finally, finish the state in the Smoky Mountains. Rent a cabin in Gatlinburg and use it as your home base for the area. Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge are kind of touristy but once you get into Smoky Mountains National Park, you leave that behind. Make sure to go to Cades Cove and make the stops – the log cabins of the original settlers is amazing. I couldn’t get over families with 12 kids living and sleeping in these two room log structures. Anyway – that’s my two-cents. Happy travels! Kelly

    1. Hi Kelly, thanks for all the suggestions!! We visited Memphis and Nashville a few years ago on a mother daughter trip and skipped Graceland that time but maybe I’ll get there some day. We did stay at the Peabody and my daughter even got to be the honorary duck master for the day and lead the ducks up the elevator to the roof “penthouse”. We also really enjoyed the Grand Ole Opry way more than expected. Sometime in the future we still need to get to Gatlinburg and the Great Smoky Mountain national park. Someday!

  3. My husband and I have to visit 6 more states of the 50 till 2019 which is our 50th wedding anniversary. Planning on North Dakota, Iowa, minnesota and nebraska for one trip. thanks for your tips regarding north dakota. will definitely visit TR national Park.

  4. I have 12 remaining. It’s a beautiful country. Thanks for your inspiration and info regarding ND!

  5. Sarah Parker-Fullmer

    I have the same goal. I just added 7 which puts me at 34. I’m 38 so I have a few years to get my last 16.

  6. The.Restless.Worker

    Looks like it would be a great roadtrip! I have a similar goal to you but mine countries instead of states! Living in Canada, it’s actually cheaper – and in most cases faster to travel to another country instead of within Canada.

  7. traipsingterra

    Medora also has an amazing Ice Cream Parlor with some of the best ice cream I have found anywhere!

  8. I’d love to visit North Dakota! These activities are right down our alley, plus we could visit friends who moved there not too long ago.

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