Road trip through western North Dakota to experience the best of the outdoors – go fishing on the Lake Sakakawea, hike among the badlands, and watch the bison roam the prairies. This trip was sponsored by the North Dakota Tourism Board.
If you think North Dakota is only grasslands and wheat fields, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Western North Dakota is home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a man-made lake with more coastline than California, and hundreds of thousands of acres of sunflower fields. If North Dakota hasn’t been on your radar, it’s time to put it there.
Here are five things to do on a road trip through western North Dakota.
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Planning your trip
How to get to western North Dakota
If you’re flying into North Dakota, the new Williston Basin International Airport (XWA) is the best airport to explore the western part of the state. It’s located about 1 hour north of Theodore Roosevelt National Park (North Unit).
If you’re road tripping across the Midwest and touring the National Parks, here are some of the closest points of interest:
- Badlands National Park, South Dakota: located 4.5 hours south
- Mount Rushmore, South Dakota: located 4.5 hours south
- Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming: located 6.5 hours south west
Renting a car
If you’re flying in instead of road tripping through, then plan on picking up a rental car at the Williston Basin International Airport. We usually check RentalCars.com to compare prices of the world’s biggest car rental services, including Hertz, Avis, and Budget.
Where to Stay
While this area doesn’t feature large resorts, there are a number of larger hotel chains, plus smaller boutique options. Plus, there’s some pretty awesome camping options! We list a few of the places we stayed when talking about the specific areas below, but our go-tos are usually booking.com (we love that a lot of places listed have flexible cancellation policies), and Airbnb for when we want more space and our own kitchen. If you’re new to If you’re new to Airbnb, use our referral link here for up to $35 off your first stay or Airbnb Experience.
When to visit
Summer brings long days and warm weather, with high temperatures averaging in the 80s, and sometimes into the 90s. Winters are freezing with blizzards and average lows in the single digits, but can be a great time to visit if you’re into ice fishing! Late spring and early autumn can be a great time to visit with mild temperatures, perfect for hiking and camping.
5 Things To Do in Western North Dakota
1 LAKE SAKAKAWEA
Lake Sakakawea is the third largest man-made lake in the United States, created by several dams along the Missouri River in western North Dakota. This reservoir has more coastline than the entire state of California, and it’s incredibly diverse. There are rocky and sandy beaches, sheer cliffs, rolling green hills, and grassy prairies. The lake is popular for camping, hiking, boating, kayaking and swimming in the summer and fishing all year round.
The lake is named after the Shoshone guide (sometimes called Sacagawea) for the Lewis & Clark expedition that journeyed along the Missouri River in the early 1800s.
Lewis and Clark State Park
After the Louisiana Purchase in 1804, Lewis and Clark lead the Corps of Expedition across the newly acquired land in the west. They started at Camp Dubois is Illinois, trying to find the most direct and practical all-water route out to the Pacific. They ultimately made it to the coast, but failed to complete the trip all via waterways. About one quarter of the expedition was spent in present day North Dakota, with much of it paddling or traveling along the Missouri River.
Lewis and Clark State Park encompasses an upper bay of Lake Sakakawea (the dammed portion of the Missouri River), about 30 minutes from the town of Williston. The park is home to the largest native mixed-grass prairie in any North Dakota State Park. It also features a large campground, several miles of hiking trails, beaches, and a marina.
The park offers day-use rentals for kayaks, canoes and stand-up paddle boards. Rentals cost $8/ hour or $50/day. We rented a canoe and paddled around the bay and small inlet – the water here was so calm and felt great on a warm summer day.
Tobacco Gardens Resort & Marina
Almost directly across from Lewis and Clark State Park on the opposite side of the lake lies the Tobacco Gardens Resort & Marina. This area is named for a plant called Kinnikinnick that was commonly dried and smoked by Native Americans, though it no longer grows here.
We hopped onto a Pontoon boat with the owner of the resort, Peggy, who showed us the stunning coastline and secret little bays along the lake. This resort open year-round and is popular for camping, with over 100 campsites for RVS and tents. There are also two heated log cabins available for rent, perfect for the colder months.
The campground has several modern conveniences, like bathrooms, warm showers, plus picnic shelters and fire rings. There is also a convenience store, bait shop and restaurant, so you can grab supplies or take the night off from cooking. The restaurant is best known for its chicken fried steak and Peggy’s homemade apple pie, but all of the desserts looked pretty amazing.
Fishing on Lake Sakakawea
Lake Sakakawea is one of the most popular places for fishing in North Dakota with healthy populations of walleye, sauger, and northern pike.
The lake completely freezes over in the winter, making it a popular place for ice fishing. The ice is so thick that many people set up ice fishing houses and live there all winter. You can read more about ice fishing in North Dakota here and find a Lake Sakakawea fishing map here.
Where to stay when visiting Lake Sakakawea
Make a camping reservation at Lewis & Clark State Park or Tobacco Gardens to stay right by the lake. Both places also have a few cabins for rent. If you prefer to stay in a hotel, there are several options in Williston, including the Hampton Inn & Suites, about 30 minutes from Lewis and Clark State Park. For more hotels in Williston, see booking.com or Airbnb.
Watford City is the closest town to the south coast of the lake near Tobacco Gardens Resort & Marina. We enjoyed our stay at the Roosevelt Inn, which has comfortable rooms, an indoor pool and jacuzzi, and a good breakfast. For more hotels in Watford City, see booking.com or Airbnb.
2 EXPLORE THEODORE ROOSEVELT NATIONAL PARK
I’ve written a thorough guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park which you can read here, so these are just a few quick highlights:
In the North Unit, take the scenic drive and stop at the cannonball concretions, River Bend Overlook and Oxbow overlook. Take part of the Achenbach trail out to Sperati point for an even better view over the Little Missouri River.
In the South Unit, enjoy the views at Wind Canyon trail and Boicourt overlook, watch the bison, wild horses and prairie dogs. Don’t miss the hoodoos in the badlands or Painted Canyon, which is an 8-mile drive east of the south unit entrance.
3 STOP BY THE SUNFLOWER FIELDS
Did you know that North Dakota grows almost 40% of the sunflowers in the United States? If you drive the right roads in late summer, you’ll find over 450,000 acres of golden yellow flowers.
We just happened upon a sunflower field while we were driving between the North and South units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but Travel North Dakota put together a sunflower field map so you can find one along your route. They also note what percentage of the field is in bloom, so you can plan the best time to go. Most fields reach peak bloom in August.
Many farmers are happy to have visitors stop by and take photos from the edge of the fields. Don’t enter a field without a landowner’s permission, and take care not to knock down or damage any of the stalks along the edges.
4 VISIT THE TOWN OF MEDORA
Medora is located conveniently next to the entrance of the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, but it’s more than just a place to stay the night.
Play at Point to Point Park
The brand new Point to Point Park in Medora currently features a zipline and an 18-hole mini golf course that highlights the history and natural features around the town. The next phase of the park will be completing a lazy river and pool.
The park will also have several free activities once it is complete, including a splash deck, jump pillow, and picnic areas. Next to the park is a large children’s playground that looks like a mini-sized western town.
Bully Pulpit Golf Course
If you’re looking to take it up a few levels from mini golf, then check out the Bully Pulpit Golf Course. This course is ranked as one of America’s Greatest Public Golf Courses, located just outside of Medora within the badlands. We spent the afternoon enjoying the incredible scenery and perfectly manicured greens. I’d bring a few extra balls, the tall grasses lining the course and occasional canyons meant a few more lost balls than normal.
Pitchfork Steak Fondue
Dig into a delicious steak dinner with the best view in town at the Pitchfork Steak Fondue. Yes, these 12 oz steaks are really skewered and cooked on full-size pitchforks. A steak dinner also comes with all the best barbecue sides served buffet style, including baked potatoes, baked beans, coleslaw, fruit salad and garlic toast. There’s a sweet ending to the meal with mini cinnamon-sugar donuts and frosted brownies.
The best way to follow up the Pitchfork Steak Fondue is head next door to the open air amphitheater that hosts the Medora Musical. The Medora Musical is a live show featuring singing, dancing, live horses, and fireworks. It’s an ode to President Theodore Roosevelt’s time in North Dakota, patriotism, and the Old West.
The Musical started in 1965 and has been running every summer since. The secret to the musical’s success and longevity is planning a new show every year, so returning visitors can enjoy something different every summer. Over 4 million people have seen the musical! The show is family-friendly, and on Wednesdays and Sundays children 17 and under are free.
Places to Eat in Medora
Medora has some great restaurants in town. We enjoyed the juneberry ice cream from Fudge & Ice Cream Depot, the Badlands Pizza Parlor, and to-go breakfast sandwiches and deli subs from the C-Store. Don’t miss out on the caramel rolls at the Cowboy Cafe!
Where to Stay in Medora
For a larger rental with a kitchen, there are several options available on Airbnb in Medora.
5 ENJOY THE WIDE-OPEN SPACES
We loved driving along the empty roads lined with beautiful grasslands, prairies and wheat fields. It was a nice break from what we’re used to in California, with so many cars, people, and buildings. We made a few random stops along our drive to appreciate the beautiful fields and stunning skies.