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Photo courtesy of Jason Lindsey and North Dakota tourism

North Dakota Attractions

I’m visiting my final U.S. state -— North Dakota. I’m not alone: it turns out that many Americans 50th state is North Dakota. I learn this from Annette M. Schilling, Cultural and Heritage Tourism Director. "You’ve saved the best for last," she promises. I also hear this from the people I meet while traveling the state.
I speak with one retired couple from Bethesda, Maryland, who are marking off their last state. They love the west and have seen the rest; I ask them why they waited so long to visit North Dakota. A sheepish look passes between them. The wife offers, "It’s not one of the fashionable western states." Her husband nods.

I understand: it’s not Arizona or Colorado or New Mexico or Wyoming, with their big marketing budgets and chi-chi towns.

"But we love it here," he adds. "The air is clean, the landscape is beautiful and the people are friendly. And there’s no traffic."

The Northern Plains are a wide-open space. With a statewide population of just 635,000, the roads are indeed blissfully empty. "I like this country for there is room to move about without stepping on the feet of others," said Marquis de Mores, the French nobleman who founded the town of Medora, named for his wife, in 1883. The land inspires contemplation.

Low-hanging black clouds fill the sky as I drive from Bismarck to Medora. Fields of sunflowers flank both sides of the interstate, their stalks rising more than five feet tall, brown-centered heads reaching for the sun. Golden wheat ruffles in the wind, awaiting harvest. Photo courtesy of Fred Walker and North Dakota tourism

Bismark to Medora and the Enchanted Highway

Located off of Interstate 94 at exit 72, artist Gary Greff has conceived and built seven monumental sculptures along a 32-miles stretch of road dubbed The Enchanted Highway. My favorite, Geese in Flight, is listed in the Guinness World Book of Records as the largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. Starkly beautiful, the geese are built of used oil well pipe and oil tanks. The largest has a 30 foot wingspan and is 19 feet long.

Medora is the gateway to the Badlands. President Theodore Roosevelt first visited in 1883, when there were just 38 U.S. states. An avid naturalist from childhood, he underwent a transformation in the Dakota Territory. Arriving in a buckskin outfit from Brooks Brothers and knives and guns from Tiffany; "old four eyes" earned respect in the soil and among the people. "I never would have been President if it had not been for my experiences in North Dakota," Theodore Roosevelt once remarked. His spirit informs the town, the state's top destination.

My digs are at the historic Rough Riders Hotel, a downtown landmark for more than a century. As if on cue, red-shirted, mustachioed Cowboy Lyle Glass clomps down the main street on a handsome brown and white horse; he delivers daily lectures on topics such as how to read a brand and cowboy clothing. Every morning, the local Boys Scouts raise the flag over town. It seems like an impeccably dressed movie set.

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame opened in 2005. Easily navigable, its galleries are filled with memorabilia of Native Americans, homesteaders, ranchers and rodeo riders, including a glorious headdress worn by Sitting Bull, and The Hall of Honorees, which pays tribute to the those who contributed to the state’s horse culture. Also worth a look is the Harold Schafer Heritage Center. Schafer was a successful businessman and the creator of Mr. Bubble; the artifacts here offer a nostalgic trip through the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Outside of town, the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site is the 27-room rustic home the French frontier rancher built for his family. De Mores’s innovation was building a slaughterhouse to process beef from local herds and shipping it to market in refrigerated railroad cars.

The centerpiece is Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Sixty five million years ago, dinosaurs were extinct and the Rocky Mountains were being formed by the bucking and folding of the land. The Little Missouri River began to carve the Badlands about 600,000 years ago when glaciers were diverted from the Hudson Bay. Today as you enter the park, the gently rolling hills open dramatically into raw, striated and colorful layers of rock. Locals call the clay-rich red rock "scoria," burned coal from ancient volcanic eruptions. Its color dramatically changes appearance depending on the time of day.

It’s late summer and wildflowers dot the 36-mile scenic driving loop of the South Unit, which winds through Prairie Dog Town. Cut, alert little creatures, they sit on upright on hind legs and emit short, staccato calls, then scurry into their burrows. Songbirds trill. A few wild horses appear, tails swishing. The park is also home to bison and elk, bighorn sheep and deer. It’s wild and peaceful simultaneously.

Photo courtesy of Dan Koeck and North Dakota tourism As evening falls, I head out to the Medora Musical, a seasonal production at the spectacular outdoor Burning Hills Amphitheater overlooking the Badlands. I pull on a fleece as the air cools and line up for the Pitchfork Steak Fondue. The main attraction of the buffet-style meal is local beef cooked in boiling oil. In 1965, actor David Soulberg (aka David Soul of Starsky & Hutch fame) performed at the musical. The sweet smell of sage fills my nostrils. I take my seat and chat with a family from outside Bismarck about my visit as the sunblazes persimmon across the night sky. Elk appear on a butte behind the stage. A full moon rises over the set. This is wholesome, patriotic Western entertainment: singers, dancer, horses, cloggers. It's a magical evening.

The following day before I head out, I take a tour of Bully Pulpit, a five-year old golf course. Its name is a nod to President Roosevelt’s reference to the White House as a terrific platform from which to advocate an agenda. The challenging 18-hole course is a knockout: sensitively designed to conform to the landscape, it features one jaw-dropping hole after another. Of course, it’s also a phenomenal value and uncrowded.

I'm making my north. Sometimes called the "Stonehenge of the Prairie," Mystical Horizons is located on scenic Highway 43 near the North Dakota and Manitoba borders. The stone and cement structures were designed and built by local engineer Jack Olson to view the summer and winter solstices and the equinox; there's also a sundial and a North Star sighting tube. As far as the eye can see is an unbroken view of the farmland west of the Turtle Mountains.

You need a passport to re-enter the U.S. after a visit to the International Peace Garden, which straddles the border between Canada and the U.S. Devoted to the world's longest unfortified border, the 2,300 acres of botanical gardens commemorate peace between the two nations. More than 150 flower varietals wash the park in color. There’s also the 9/11 Memorial and the Peace Tower, a 120-foot high tower symbolizing people from the four corners of the world. But the main attraction is the simple and stirring Peace Chapel, where etched limestone tablets feature the quotes about peace from Buddha, Gandhi, The Bible and The Torah.

Heading east, I overnight in Grand Forks on my way to Fargo. The Canad Inn provides sophisticated accommodations and easy access to downtown. In 1997, Grand Forks and East Grand Forks (just over the bridge in Minnesota) flooded when the Red River broke the dikes. The waters devastated both towns which had to be completely rebuilt. You’d never know it today, walking around the vibrant pedestrian area. Cabela’s is an outdoor enthusiast's dream, an outfitter with a soaring open-air environment, trophy game animals, an aquarium and all the latest sporting goods.

But my favorite discoveries are culinary. At Dakota Harvest Bakers, I nosh on a caramel roll, big as a cat’s head, rich and gooey. At Widman's Candy Shop, 88-year old proprietor George Widman woos me with a succession of creative sweets. A third generation chocolatier, he and wife Betty -– married for 60 years -— turn out 150 varieties including zingers made with fresh blueberries, chocolate covered dill pickle chips, chocolate-covered green olives and chippers, chocolate-covered potato chips. My favorite? Chocolate-covered Fritos, the perfect blend of sweet and salty. At Whitey's, named after bootlegger Edwin "Whitey" Larson, I ogle the stainless steel Art Deco "wonderbar" and tuck into sautéed walleye, a local catch.

Before I roll into Fargo, I stop at the Maple River Winery 15 minutes west of town. Using farm fresh North Dakota fruit—chokecherry, rhubarb, elderberry, cranapple—owner Greg Kempel crafts sweet and semi-dry wines. He explains that fruit wines don’t require aging as I sample several varieties in the tasting room. "I use old timer’s recipes." He lets me try a new release, lilac wine. I'm smitten: it's dry, subtle, faintly floral, delicious.

Downtown Fargo is undeniably charming - every other shop offers me coffee on this late summer afternoon - with a tidy collection of galleries, shops, restaurants and bars. The Fargo Theatre, which dates from the 1920s, has killer Art Deco lines and neon signage and shows indie films. My destination is The Hotel Donaldson, the HoDo for short. A former working man’s hotel, the Hodo is a touch of cosmopolitan chic on the plains. It features a rooftop patio (Sky Prairie), 17 suites decorated with the work of North Dakota artists and a street-level bar and restaurant.

My martini with bleu cheese-stuffed olives is big-city cold and bone-dry. It’s early — just 5 p.m., but several folks are already at the bar. Soon, we are all talking. Tom Munsey, a transplanted talent buyer from Los Angeles, tells me he could live anywhere, but chooses Fargo. Two other locals chime in, praising the quality of life in North Dakota. Tom and I move to the dining room and enjoy a fine meal of walleye cakes, bison balls and grilled bison tenderloin washed down with a bottle of red wine.

At this moment, North Dakota feels as fashionable as New York City, but with a lot more elbow room.

For more information visit North Dakota Tourism

A former Navy brat who traveled and lived abroad extensively, Suzanne Wright is a fulltime, freelance writer based in Atlanta. She is a member of NATJA, and has written numerous travel, food and decor features for numerous international, national and regional publications. Her articles have appeared in Elite Traveler, Wine & Spirits, Veranda, Atlanta Magazine, The Tennessean, Atlanta Homes & Lifestyles, Piedmont Review, Charlotte Place, Where, On Magazine and others. A suitcase is always packed and her passport always up to date.

© 2009