January 21, 2018

Road Trip: 9 Stops to Make Along I-94 in North Dakota


At the end of the summer, I had the opportunity to visit North Dakota for the very first time. Similar to my recent adventure in South Dakota, I drove all the way across the state on one highway. This time it was I-94, from Fargo on the east side to Medora on the west side.

My primarily reason for traveling to North Dakota was to run the Go Far Woman Half Marathon. I’m running a half marathon in every state and this race in Fargo was state #18.

Since I was flying all the way to Fargo from DC (and you can’t get there direct from here), I thought I should spend a few extra days to see more of the state. Over four days, I saw it all, or at the very least, I stopped at the “9 Places to Visit in North Dakota Along I-94.”

I was so glad I spotted the above brochure in the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center in Fargo. It was perfect. There are 16 stops to make along I-94 and I was going to stop at every one of them. Or at least try, but first, let’s talk about Fargo.

I literally knew nothing about Fargo before flying there in late-August (though now I wear my “Fargo, North of Normal” t-shirt at least once a week). It’s a very small town, but also very cute with lots to see like the historic Fargo Theatre and the Plains Museum.

Fargo is also a very bikeable town and thanks to Great Rides, a bike share in Fargo, I biked all over town, including in a loop around Riverside Gardens several times. It was so relaxing. I wanted to make the most of my one-hour rental.

I also stopped at Viking Ship Park while on my rental bike. There you’ll find a 76-foot long replica of a Viking dragon ship, as well as a replica of a 12th-century stave church. You’ll literally feel like you’re in Norway, even more so if you explore the Heritage-Hjemkomst Interpretive Center.

I stayed the night at the beautiful Hotel Donaldson in downtown Fargo. Every room features art created by local artists. You’ll also find reading rooms and book shelves with plenty of novels written by area writers, as well as books about the region.

The Hotel Donaldson just across the street from Vinyl Taco, a must-go in Fargo, which is also open late-night with a lovely outdoor patio. Unfortunately, my room was on the second floor facing Vinyl Taco, making it tough to fall asleep the night before a half marathon. Lesson learned.

So I ran the half marathon, took a quick shower, and then I was on the road to cross the state. Per the brochure I picked up in the visitors center, here’s where to stop along I-94.

Stop #1: Casselton, Exit 331

The first stop was Maple River Winery in Casselton, which is maybe 25 minutes west of Fargo. I live in DC’s Wine Country, also known as Loudoun County, Virginia. So when I think of wineries, I think of the picture below from Greenhill Winery in Middleburg, VA. This is not even a great photo since it was take in December, but you get the idea, rolling hills, water views.

Maple River Winery is basically a small store front in a strip mall in a small town. There were no rolling hills or water views. Maple River Winery is known for its fruit wines and all things made of rhubarb. Their Strawberry Rhubarb Wine was the 2010 International Fruit Wine of the Year.

I walked around the shop for a bit, checked out their different jams and barbecue sauces, as well as their collection of rhubarb-oriented cookbooks. I bought a rhu-berry flavored Spring Grove Soda Pop and was on my way. I considered buying a bottle of their award-winning wine, but decided against it when I realized I wouldn’t be able to take it on the plane.

Stop #2: Valley City, Exits 294-290 

So I got back on I-94 and drove west to Valley City. City of Bridges and Medicine Wheel Park were the must-sees in Valley City, but what I found to be the real must-see was Valley City State University (VCSU). VCSU is one of 11 state universities in North Dakota. I only explored a small portion of the campus, but it was beautiful.

When I entered Valley City, I was on College Street since that’s how I was mapped to get to “City of Bridges.” The parking lot and one of the footbridges that make up the City of Bridges is just across the street from the campus. When I saw the entrance above, I knew I had to go in.

After a short walk around campus, I crossed the VCSU Foot Bridge over the Sheyenne River in the photo above. This is one of eight bridges in Valley City. I also checked out the West City Park Bridge not far down the road. You can read the history of all eight bridges here.

Sadly, I could not find Medicine Wheel Park. Later I noticed (from a map) that it was on the other side of the VCSU campus. Since I drove around for at least 10 minutes looking for the park, I think I deserve at least an A for effort. At that moment, however, I still had a lot of stops to make before settling in for the night in Bismarck.

Stop #3: Jamestown, Exits 260-257

There’s not a lot to see and do in Jamestown. Fortunately, all of it is in the same place. So you can park once and see it all. Map to Frontier Village on your GPS and you’ll be on the outskirts of a Wild West town from the late-1800s.

Walk around the town and stop in old-time shops, like a trading post, dentist, barber shop and a frontier cabin. You’ll also find gift shops featuring handmade products made by local artisans. On select summer weekends, you may even be treated to a Wild West Shoot-Out.

Next, I wandered over to the National Buffalo Museum. The admission fee is $8 for adults and there’s a lot inside to see and learn about, including the history of bison and the Plains Indians. You can also read up on White Cloud, the legendary white buffalo.

White Cloud lived with the bison herd that roams the plains around the museum for nearly 20 years. Today, one of her offspring, Dakota Miracle, another white buffalo, can be seen roaming the pasture from time to time. I did not see him, but I trust he was there.

Albino buffalo are quite rare and some Native Americans consider them to be sacred, so White Cloud had a special place in the hearts of North Dakotans. There’s a viewing deck behind the museum to look out into the buffalo pasture.

Another buffalo worth checking out while at Frontier Village is the World’s Largest Buffalo named Dakota Thunder. It’s a monument on the property that stands 26-feet tall and looks over all of Jamestown down below. It’s definitely worth a selfie.

As you make your way back through Frontier Village to your car, pop in the Home of Louis L’Amour, a beloved writer of Western novels and short stories. Born in Jamestown, you can visit his home in Frontier Village (also known as the Writer’s Shack) or walk along the Trail of L’Amour.

Stop #4: Bismarck / Mandan, Exits 161-147 

Once I checked out all the Frontier Village had to offer, I got back in my rental car, filled up with gas at the closest gas station, got a snack and was on my way to Bismarck. Since I got a late start, I didn’t roll in to Bismarck until close to 5 pm. By then it was too late to see much of anything, so I checked in to the Radisson Hotel Bismarck and was out like a light.

The next day, I woke up early since I had a lot of stops to make before arriving in Medora (120 miles away) that evening. Fortunately, there was a time change in my favor along the way. I love it when that happens. 🙂

By 8 am, I was at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park in nearby Mandan. It was maybe 15-20 minutes from my hotel in Bismarck and it was so worth the drive. Fort Abraham Lincoln served as a military post and also has a rich Native American history. I was literally the only person there for awhile as I explored the Slant Indian Village and its unique earth lodges.

Next I drove up the hill to the infantry post, Fort McKeen, to walk around the blockhouses and palisades that served to protect the post. It’s a must to explore if only for the panoramic views alone. There’s also a cemetery and many placards describing what was once at this site.

Before I left, I stopped by the Custer House, which was home to General George Armstrong Custer during the time when he led his men to the Battle of Little Big Horn. I was fortunate to be able to chat for some time with a guide in period dress who shared all kinds of history with me.

On my way back to Bismarck, I checked out the Lewis & Clark Riverboat tied to the dock along the Missouri River. It was barely 10 am, so I knew I wouldn’t be cruising that day, but since it was on the list of places to visit in North Dakota along I-94, I was going to stop. Visitors can ride the steamboat during the day for a heritage cruise or in the evening to enjoy the sunset.

Before I got back on I-94, I had two more stops to make in Bismarck: the North Dakota Heritage Center and the North Dakota State Capitol. Fortunately, they are situated right next to each other, so I could park once and visit both. Always a bonus.

The North Dakota Heritage Center is a free museum with a variety of exhibits that give you a feel for North Dakota from all different angles. The Adaptation Gallery is all about geology and dinosaurs, while the Innovation Gallery is all about Native American life and influences in North Dakota. The Inspiration Gallery explores North Dakota from the 1800s to present day.

Next door, the North Dakota State Capitol is a massive 21-story government building. It’s actually the tallest building in the entire state. I was expecting more of a dome-like capitol building, like in Denver or Austin, but this one was great given all the green space and the park-like setting. Tours are offered year-round on weekdays, as well as on the weekends during summer months.

Stop #5: New Salem, Exit 127 

There’s not much at Exit 127 except for Salem Sue, the World’s Largest Holstein Cow. She stands at 38 feet tall. She’s been there since 1974 looking over the hay fields and cows in the pastures of this dairy community. Ask for a brochure at the gas station across the street from the small road that leads up to Salem Sue. If nothing else, it’s a nice place to stop and stretch your legs.

Stop #6: Richardton, Exit 84 

My next stop was about 45 minutes down the road at Assumption Abbey in the very small town of Richardton, North Dakota. Also known as St. Mary’s Church, Assumption Abbey was started by a group of Benedictine monks and was completed in the early-1900s. The church is beautiful both inside and out. Just a few miles off I-94, it was definitely worth a stop to explore.

Stop #7: Regent, Exit 72

Exit 72 is the entrance to the Enchanted Highway, which his home to more than a half-dozen public art sculptures along the sides of a two-lane road that leads all the way in to the Enchanted Castle Hotel in Regent.

The sculptures, like “Grasshoppers” and “Fisherman’s Dream,” are fun to check out, but to see all of them, you’ll need to drive 35 minutes (one way) to Regent. Then you’ll need to drive back 35 minutes to I-94. However, in Regent, there is a small gift shop with multiple flavors of ice cream and a variety of snacks to stock up on before getting back in the car.

Stop #8: Dickinson, Exit 61

Drive 15 minutes down the road and the next stop is Dickinson, a small town where you can explore the history of dinosaurs in North Dakota at the Dickinson Museum Center. You’ll also find a variety of gem and geology exhibits. As a bonus, there’s a McDonald’s next door for lunch or a quick cup of coffee before moving on to Medora.

Stop #9: Medora, Exit 32

After a long day of driving, I was quickly approaching a stop I’d been looking forward to for some time, Medora, North Dakota. Also known as home to Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s South Unit. The park is divided into two units, North and South. The South Unit is right off I-94, while the North Unit is about 50 miles north of the highway.

My first stop was the Painted Canyon Visitor Center. The views of the colorful badlands from this point are incredible. I must have taken two dozen photos. There’s also an easy .9 mile loop hike along the Painted Canyon Nature Trail. Again, more fantastic views.

At this visitor center, there’s a book store and gift shop, as well as restrooms and picnic shelters. It’s just outside the park so you won’t need to pay the park admission fee. At the Medora entrance, you’ll need to pay the $25 entrance fee and then it’s a short drive to the Medora Visitor Center.

Once you go through the Medora entrance, there’s a 36-mile scenic loop drive with lots of pull-out points for short hikes and scenic views. Allow at least 90 minutes for the drive and more time if you want to hike. The Skyline Vista hike is one of the first you’ll approach by car. It’s just .2 miles and the views are beautiful.

Park rangers offer a number of guided hikes along the Coal Vein, Lower Paddock and Wind Canyon Trails. Pick up a park newspaper when you arrive to check out hike times. Inside the Medora Visitor Center, there’s also a very helpful display of “Short” and “Medium” hikes at the park.

After my afternoon in the park, I checked in to the historic Rough Riders Hotel in downtown Medora. It’s very cute and is most definitely the place to stay when in Medora. I’m honestly not even sure whether there are any other hotels in Medora. It’s a very small town.

Aside from Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the other big thing that you do in Medora is watch the nightly Medora Musical, a Broadway-style musical show. That of course is preceded by dinner at Pitchfork Steak Fondue, an outdoor buffet-style steak restaurant located next door to the venue, so get ready to load up your plate with steak, baked potatoes, garlic toast and more.

It’s hard to believe that Medora was my last stop in North Dakota. It’s a beautiful state and it was so much fun driving across the state on I-94. I was so glad I picked up that brochure at the visitor center in Fargo. Definitely kismet. I can’t wait to go back. 

Disclaimer: I was hosted by the North Dakota Tourism Division. However, I was not compensated for this article and all opinions expressed here are my own.

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