The state of North Dakota might not be the first place you think of when planning a US road trip, but it’s for this very reason that it makes for one wild adventure! Picture a destination that has stunning landscapes, rich history and warm hospitality, and now picture it without the hustle and bustle of overcrowded attractions and overpriced everything. Welcome to North Dakota!
If finding a new travel destination in 2021 and beyond is on your ‘to-do list’, then take a trip with us through western North Dakota and learn about what this great state has to offer!
Watford City is the definition of a hidden gem! This quiet unsuspecting town completely surprised us in all the right ways. Recent developments in the last decade have quadrupled Watford City’s population and brought a lot more investment into the area, which was evident as soon as we checked into the beautiful Little Missouri Inn.
Watford City History
Start your Watford City experience at the Long X Trading Post Visitor Center and Pioneer Museum to get a crash course in everything about town. The exhibits paint the picture of Watford City’s long history and development from past to present. History buffs will love all the memorabilia that adorn the walls and exhibits, showcasing a real life look at Watford City throughout the decades.
True crime fanatics will be fascinated by the story of Charles Bannon, a man who killed a whole family back in 1931 and tried to conceal the evidence. An angry mob of locals, extremely unsettled by the murders and seeking immediate justice, busted Bannon out of jail and executed their own justice by hanging him off the nearby town bridge. The whole story, along with first hand witness statements and other interesting facts, is presented in the museum; they also have displayed the rope that was used to hang Bannon, the last man hanged in North Dakota.
Eating in Watford City
We thought we’d just be eating at small local diners (they have a lot of good ones, especially Little Missouri Grille), but as it turns out, Watford City has quite the offering for restaurants. In the few days that we spent in Watford City we did our best to sample as much as we could from all the food options. This included delicious wood-fired pizzas and amazing craft beer from Stonehome Brewing, burgers and more local beers at JL Beers and even a SoCal inspired Mexican spot called Slow Ride that serves up tasty street tacos and margaritas.
And being the agricultural hub that it is, for all you meat eaters there are plenty of steak and rib options in town, including Outlaws Bar and Grill and American Smoke Wagon BBQ. There’s also a ton of other cool places to check out like Teddy’s Lounge for a fancy cocktail and dessert and Door 204 for coffee and breakfast.
Maah Daah Hey Trail
After exploring Watford City, if you want to stretch your legs a little further we recommend a short 15 mile drive down to the north section of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. This 144 mile world-renowned trail is the perfect spot to walk, bike or horse ride yourself through the diverse North Dakota landscapes.
Whether you’re looking to walk a couple of miles of scenery, or want to backcountry hike and camp the whole trail, the Maah Daah Hey Trail showcases quintessential North Dakota nature. Grasslands, rivers, iconic badlands buttes and more awaits anyone who wants to get off the beaten track and explore this serene trail.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
For National Park lovers North Dakota doesn’t disappoint with the picturesque Theodore Roosevelt National Park to explore. There are two main sections of the park, the North Unit and the South Unit, and if you’re coming from Watford City it’s just a short 15 mile drive to get to the North Unit visitor center.
From here there’s a road that runs through the park, taking you across the different terrains and showcasing all the park has to offer. Within the first 5 minutes of driving we were fortunate enough to come across a couple of wild bison that were grazing in a distant field.
Careful not to disturb them (keep your 50ft distance, people) we parked the car on the side of the road and observed them gracefully meandering through the fields like the enormously docile creatures they are. After taking a few snaps we jumped back in the car and continued our journey along Scenic Drive, winding through the park until we got to River Bend Overlook.
Just a short walk from the carpark, the overlook takes in wide spanning views of the river gorge below. There are a couple of viewing platforms to admire different angles, along with some great spots to pull up for a sunset picnic.
Tobacco Gardens and Birnt Hills Trail
The next stop on our North Dakota road trip was further north to the Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina, which is just a short 40 minute drive. Situated on the expansive Lake Sakakawea this location has a number different accommodation options, including camping, cabins and RV hook up. Being right on the lake means not only perfect views, but it’s perfect for fishing, watersports or simply splashing around on a hot summer day.
If you’re getting a little waterlogged on the lake and want to dry out for a couple of hours why not try a local hike. A short 10 minute drive from Tobacco Gardens are the Little Missouri National Grasslands, where you’ll find rolling hills and plenty of hikes to take in the abundant landscape.
One hike in particular is the Birnt Hills Trail, a moderate 3 mile loop that goes through the grasslands and along the coast, with a couple of hills, and offers amazing views of Lake Sakakawea. The path is set up with route markers along the way and weaves you through the landscape with ease.
And what the hike might lack in difficult terrain or natural wonders, it certainly makes up for in its sheer isolation from the rest of the world. During the whole hike we didn’t see one single person, which meant we could really escape the world for those few miles and just sink into nature.
MHA Interpretive Center
After taking in the scenery it was time to learn more about the local history. Our next stop on the road trip was the MHA Interpretive Center in New Town. MHA stands for Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara, which are the three local tribes of the area.
This expansive center is much more than just a museum exhibition on the three tribes, but also an integral part of the community, responsible for protecting and nurturing the traditional values of the tribes. The center also functions as an event space, conference center and workshop facilitator.
Give yourself a number of hours to properly explore the exhibition, which is rich in knowledge about the three tribes. We’d also recommend taking a local guide to walk you through the extensive displays and help answer any questions you might have. No phones / photos are allowed in the exhibition, so it’s a great opportunity to be distraction free and just soak in the many centuries of culture uninterrupted.
Don’t miss the Earth Lodge Village located behind the center. You can go inside one of the lodges that acts as a museum to see what they look like from the inside and find more artefacts. While in there we were fortunate to speak to one of the elders from the Arikara tribe who told us the tribe represented in the movie The Revenant was the Arikara, and that he advised on the movie. They even have some original props from the movie.
The last stop on our western North Dakota road trip was Skunk Bay, located inside the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. While visiting Skunk Bay we had the pleasure of staying at the local resort The Rooster at Skunk Bay.
This cozy, family run resort is nestled on Lake Sakakawea and a perfect location for water lovers and those looking for some R&R. With a number of accommodation options, like super cute rooms, fully equipped cabins and RVs. Our one bedroom cabin was perfect for Jules and I. The fully stocked kitchen meant we could make breakfast in our pajamas and relax in the living room before getting outside for the day. We also had a deck with a BBQ to watch the sun go down while grilling some local fish (if Jules had caught any!)
Being right on the lake means there’s a boat ramp, so you can launch a boat for fishing or jetting around the coves. If you prefer to stay on shore, you can wander down to the lakeside and hang out on the sand for the afternoon. Perfect for picnics, reading on a blanket or just soaking up the sun. Want to get some exercise? Grab one of the resort’s kayaks for a paddle around the bay. Skunk Bay is the spot to be on a hot summer day in North Dakota. The resort is the only full service bar and restaurant on the lake so boats from around the area come to party throughout the day. They have tons of options for kids, as well, including slides that run into the lake, water toys and an inflatable movie screen for family friendly flicks.
Overall, North Dakota was one pleasant surprise after the next. At the risk of sounding braggy, we’ve been to a lot of places around the world, and it’s rare that we’re surprised anymore. North Dakota’s warm hospitality, serene nature and interesting local culture kept us wanting to explore more and more of this beautiful state. We can’t wait to go back!
Massive thanks to Watford City and North Dakota Tourism for hosting us during this trip. As always, all opinions are our own and we wouldn’t recommend anything that we truly didn’t believe. North Dakota was rad!