North Dakota

Western North Dakota: A Road Trip Guide

August 17, 2020
Sunset in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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.

Bison roam the grasslands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota

Herd of Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in 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.

Sunset in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

 


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.  

Grasslands in Lewis and Clark State Park on Lake Sakakawea

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.

Canoeing in Lewis and Clark State Park in North Dakota
Canoeing in Lewis and Clark State Park in North Dakota

Beach in Lewis and Clark State Park on Lake Sakakawea

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.

Boating on Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota

Coastline of Lake Sakakwea

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.

Fishing on Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota

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.

Read Next: A Complete Guide to Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Painted Canyon Lookout in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Wild horse in south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park

A Bison in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

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.

Sunflower fields in North Dakota

Sunflower fields in North Dakota
Sunflower fields in North Dakota

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.  

The Medora sign viewed from the Pitchfork Steak Fondue

The town of Medora, North Dakota

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. 

Medora Playground in Medora, North Dakota

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.

Golfer at Bully Pulpit Golf Course in Medora, North Dakota

Golfers at Bully Pulpit Golf Course in Medora, North Dakota

Child Putting at Bully Pulpit Golf Course in Medora, North Dakota
Father and son golfing at Bully Pulpit Golf Course in Medora

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.

Medora Musical

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.

Medora Musical in Medora, North Dakota

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

There are several options for accommodations in town, including the Badlands Motel, a western-themed motor motel, the Rough Riders Hotel, and the AmericInn by Wyndham Medora.

For a larger rental with a kitchen, there are several options available on Airbnb in Medora.

Cute town of Medora, North Dakota

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.

Sunset near Williston, North Dakota

Sunset near Williston, North Dakota

Sunset near Williston, North Dakota

 


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5 Things to do in North Dakota
A Road Trip Guide to Western North Dakota

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9 Comments

  • Reply Amy Alton August 29, 2020 at 8:18 am

    Wow, it looks REALLY beautiful. I have never felt a pull to North Dakota before!

  • Reply April Blaszak August 29, 2020 at 9:28 am

    This is such a great post! I looked at going to Theodore Roosevelt NP when I visited the Badlands but it was just too long a distance. I was bummed but now I’m not. After this post, I realize I need to do a road trip just for North Dakota. It looks stunning and you don’t hear much about this state. So thank you!

    • Reply nomanbefore August 30, 2020 at 5:15 pm

      Hope you can make it another time!

  • Reply Kelsey August 29, 2020 at 1:03 pm

    Loving this last pic of you in your dress during the sunset! I’ve never been to North Dakota and so many other places in the USA… one day!

    • Reply nomanbefore August 30, 2020 at 5:15 pm

      Thank you!

  • Reply Nichole the Nomad August 29, 2020 at 1:53 pm

    Wow, North Dakota looks incredible! Your photos are stunning! Theodore Roosevelt National Park is on my bucket list, and your photos have convinced me to move it up! Thank you for this super helpful guide. I will definitely be using it when I visit North Dakota!

  • Reply Helena August 29, 2020 at 5:39 pm

    wow i never knew there was so much to see and do in North Dakota! Also amazing sunflowers fact! Would love to do a road trip and see these places

  • Reply Kelly August 30, 2020 at 4:20 pm

    I had no clue there was so much to do in North Dakota! I would love to do a road trip around the state, visit Badlands and see the Buffalo! Looks like an amazing place 🙂

  • Reply Michael Baker September 2, 2020 at 5:57 am

    Your photos are amazing! These are truly amazing places. I hope I can be there someday …

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