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Last Updated on February 11, 2024 by Sarah Puckett
North Dakota has always been a mysterious location for me. It’s one of those states I just hadn’t heard very much about growing up or even as an adult. This made North Dakota all the more fascinating to me as a road trip destination. North Dakota is a big state, with wide-open spaces, from prairies to badlands. We spent a week road tripping through North Dakota, experiencing the best things to do along this one-week itinerary. Keep reading for everything you need to know to plan your own trip to North Dakota!
How to Get to North Dakota
If you are driving, North Dakota is easily accessed via its neighbors, South Dakota, Minnesota, or Montana. It’s only a 3.5 hours drive from Minneapolis to Fargo, North Dakota. For the purposes of our North Dakota road trip, we started our itinerary in Bismarck, North Dakota. We flew to BIS on Delta via Minneapolis (MSP), which has direct flights. It takes about an hour and a half to fly from Minneapolis to Bismarck.
Once in Bismarck, we picked up a rental car. A rental car is a MUST for your North Dakota road trip itinerary since public transportation options are limited and a car is the only way to really explore the state fully.
Weather in North Dakota
What to Pack for North Dakota
Regardless of when you visit, you’ll need to bring:
- Backpack to carry everything (but the car!) in
- Camera (see our camera gear here)
Here’s what I recommend packing if you are visiting in the winter:
- Underwear (duh!)
- Baselayer – wool pants and a shirt
- A thermal/wool sweater (Paka is my favorite brand for ethically and sustainably made alpaca wool clothing. You can get 15% off your order if you use code SPUCKETT at check out).
- Thermal hiking pants (him) or fleece-lined leggings (her)
- Wool socks
- Waterproof hiking boots
- Warm coat
- Wool hat
- Microspikes for hiking on icy trails
All of our winter hiking gear (except Paka-brand items) can be found in our Amazon storefront in our Winter Hiking Gear list!
Here’s what I recommend packing if you are visiting in the summer:
- Underwear (no one likes a sweaty bum)
- T-shirts/tanks (sweat-wicking and with SPF are best!)
- Hiking pants or shorts (if you opt for pants, I recommend the kind you can roll up or convert for hot days)
- Light, water-wicking socks
- Hiking boots or sandals
- Light jacket and sweater for cool nights and mornings
Stuck in a packing quandary?
Check out our ultimate Road Trip packing list!
North Dakota Road Trip Map
North Dakota Itinerary
Day 1 – Bismarck
We arrived in Bismarck in the late afternoon. You can choose to explore Bismarck or head straight to Jamestown, an hour and 40 minutes east.
If you want to explore Bismarck, here are some of the best things to do:
- At Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park you can tour George Custer’s home, watch reenactments of fort life in the late 1800s, and visit On-a-Slant Village, where Mandan Indians settled from 1575-1781.
- Five Nations Art Museum showcases the work of over 200 artists from the Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Lakota and Dakota tribes.
- Visit the State Capitol building.
- Tour the exhibits at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.
Days 2-3 – Jamestown and surrounds
Make your way to Jamestown, North Dakota, where you can learn about both the natural and human history of North Dakota.
Things to do in Jamestown, North Dakota
- Visit the National Buffalo Museum to learn about the history of the American Bison and how western expansionists hunted them to near extinction. The exhibits are interactive and informative, and they even have views of a live buffalo herd in the hills around the museum. Admission is $8.
- Explore the Frontier Village, a re-creation of a typical western frontier town. You can visit a general store, see antiques and artifacts, and get a sense of what life might have been like for settlers.
- Take a photo with the World’s Largest Buffalo Monument, which is conveniently located at the Frontier Village. Kitschy? Yes. Fun? Yes.
- Tour Fort Seward, a historical site that re-creates life at the fort when the US miliatary lived there in the late 1800s. The mission of this site is to accurately tell the history of both the military, and, more importantly, the indigenous communities that lived at this location. This is a great place to bring children, since the open air museum is entirely interactive. Admission is by donation, and you can also pay to camp there or even glamp in one of their period-specific tents.
- Take a drive to Valley City. Check out the scenic bridges on the self-guided Valley City Bridges tour and stop by the Medicine Wheel Park to learn about the indigenous use of this astronomical calendar known as a “sacred circle.”
Where to Stay in Jamestown, North Dakota
For basic but clean and pet-friendly accommodation, My Place Jamestown met our needs well. Note that although My Place hotels have kitchens in the rooms, they do not provide any dishes or cookware. Rooms start at $85 per night.
As mentioned above, you can glamp at Fort Seward in one of their tents. Glamping starts at $65 per night, and RV and tent camping sites are also available.
Where to Eat in Jamestown, North Dakota
Jonny B’s Brickhouse serves up creative pizzas and American fare in downtown Jamestown. This is the only place I have ever seen a peanut butter jalapeno pepperoni pizza on the menu. Who would have thought it would be in a small city in North Dakota?
Babb’s Coffee House feels more like a cozy living room than a coffeeshop. They serve delicious Seattle coffee, along with an array of decadent cheesecakes, pastries, and breakfast meals. Tim and I got the Golden Garden Quiche and Pine Street Breakfast Sandwich and both were delicious. We highly recommend Babb’s! Bonus tip: they also have a location in Fargo, North Dakota!
The Depot Cafe is a classic diner serving up American favorites for breakfast and lunch. Tim got a burger and I got a classic BLT, both served with ruffle chips and their delightfully familiar salty crunch.
For Mexican food in Jamestown, you cannot beat La Carreta. We loved the vibrant atmosphere and absolutely devoured the fajitas we ordered.
North Dakota is known for its buffalo burgers. Skip the beef and opt for leaner, and tastier in our opinion, buffalo burgers at Sabir’s Buffalo Grill in downtown Jamestown.
Days 4-7 – Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park via the Enchanted Highway
Here’s what we recommend for a three-day visit to Medora!
Medora, North Dakota Itinerary Day 1
- Depart Jamestown in the morning. You can drive directly to Medora from Jamestown on I-94 in 3 hours and 20 minutes. However, I rcommend taking a detour onto the Enchanted Highway, a collection of seven of the world’s largest metal art sculptures in the world! The Enchanted Highway begins at Exit 72 on I-94 near Gladstone and ends 32 miles later in the small town of Regent. This detour will add about an hour to your drive, but allow an additional 30-60 minutes depneding on how many of the scultptures you choose to stop at. Our favorite sculptures on the Enchanted Highway were Geese in Flight, Grasshoppers in the Field, and Pheasants on the Prairie.
- Once settled into Medora, head into Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit. The entrance is in town and costs $30 per vehicle. You can also use a national park pass like the America the Beautiful pass for free entry to this and other US national parks.
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- Hike the Boicourt Overlook trail for incredible views over the badlands. The late afternoon light illuminates the hills and sunset makes the colors pop! The trail is only 3/4 mile long out and back, and there are benches available to relax and enjoy the view.
- For sunset, hike the Wind Canyon trail, which is a 1/2 mile loop with sweeping views of the Little Missouri River Valley. Be sure to look for wild ponies, buffalo, and prairie dogs, which are most active at dusk and dawn, though you can see them throughout the day as well!
Medora, North Dakota Itinerary Day 2
- Get up early for sunrise at Painted Canyon Overlook in Theordore Roosevelt National Park. Follow the trail to the right of the fenced‐in portion for the best views!
- After sunrise, head into downtown Medora and pick up a mountain bike rental from Dakota Cyclery to hit the iconic Maah Daah Hey trail. Bike rentals start at $50 for 4 hours. Serious bikers can complete the full 144 mile trail over 4 days. For a fun morning ride, we recommend starting at the Maah Daah Hey Trailhead and riding out 3 miles into the buttes. You will find unique rock formations and actually bike right alongside them as the trail cuts in to the rocks. If mountain biking is not your thing, you can also hike this portion of the trail! Just be sure to always give way to bikers.
- Nearby Sully Creek State Park offers a scenic trail that is 2.5 miles round trip and offers views of the river and badlands as well! There is a $5 entry fee and campsites are also available!
- After hiking and biking, return your mountain bike to Dakota Cyclery and grab lunch in downtown Medora. We’ve listed some food options further below this post!
- In the afternoon, head to Medora Riding Stables for a guided horseback ride through the badlands. This is a beautiful and unique way to see the landscape, and let’s be honest, what’s more western than riding horseback in a place like this!? My horse, Doc, was easy going, taking up the rear of our train of horses. You can book your reservation with Medora Riding Stables online in advance. Guided horseback rides start at $42.95 for 1 hour or 79.95 for 2 hours. We did the 1 hour trip, and it was wonderful. If we’d had more time, I would have enjoyed a 2 hour ride to get deeper into the badlands.
- Spend the remainder of the afternoon exploring the heart of the south unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park via the 36-mile scenic loop drive. If you’re still feeling energetic, take on the Petrified Forest Loop Trail. The 10.5 mile loop takes about 5-6 hours and showcases the park’s petrified forest.
Medora, North Dakota Itinerary Day 3
- On your third day in Medora, make the hour drive to Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit. Don’t miss the Cannonball Concretions Pullout, where you can see fascinating rock spheres. These perfectly smooth cannonball-like rocks are a bit of a scientific mystery. While scientists are confident erosion created the spheres, they don’t know why some rocks erode into hoodoo-like sturtcures while others erode into these unique “cannonballs.”
- We highly recommend hiking the full Caprock Coulee loop trail (4.4 miles), which meanders up bluffs to incredible vistas over the most dramatic badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. There were so many times on this hike that Tim and I literally jumped for joy, shouted “THIS IS EPIC!” into the wilderness, and were generally in absolute awe of this spectacular landscape. You will also get to hike past unique rock formations and views of the Little Missouri River.
- We didn’t have time to complete the 14-mile out-and-back Scenic Drive (28 miles roundtrip), but if we had, we’d have definitely stopped at the River Bend Overlook and Oxbow Overlook.
Medora, North Dakota Itinerary Day 4
- On your last full day in North Dakota, explore downtown Medora. We really enjoyed learning about history at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame, a museum dedicated to the human history and culture of the region. We particularly appreciated the indigenous history and the exhibits dedicated to the rodeo. The museum is open 7 days a week from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Entrance to the museum is $9.
- In the late afternoon, head up the hillside in Medora to visit the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, historic home of the pioneer town’s most famous family. Antoine de Vallombrosa, the Marquis de Mores named the town for his wife, Medora, when they arrived in the late 1800s. The entrance is $10.
- Right next to the chateau grounds is the location of Pitchfork Steak Fondue and Medora Musical. Pitchfork Steak Fondue is a nightly buffet event in the summer serving up 12-ounce steaks cooked on pitchforks and served up with classic sides like coleslaw and garlic toast. The buffet ticket costs $33.95 and includes one steak, unlimited sides and desserts, and live music. The buffet ends shortly before the musical, making it easy to do both in one evening.
- The Medora Musical tells a story of the founding of the town through song and dance. The musical changes every year, but has run since 1965 in the stunning Burning Hills Amphitheater. The open-air amphitheater alone is worth the visit alone because it is nestled amid the badlands in front of Medora’s very own Hollywood-style sign. The setting is breathtaking and there’s really something unique about watching a musical performance in a natural environment. Tickets to the Medora Musical, which runs nightly during summers, are best booked in advance and cost $39.95.
- If you are visiting outside of the summer season, there are still opportunities to visit the Burning Hills Amphitheater and attend shows and events. You can view the schedule and book tickets online.
Where to Stay in Medora, North Dakota
For a luxurious stay with western flare, consider the Rough Riders Hotel in downtown Medora.
Stay in Medora’s badlands at the Spirit of the Badlands Lodge to immerse yourself in the rugged landscape.
A budget-friendly option boasting tiny-home charm, opt for Elkhorn Quarters near downtown Medora.
Cat-friendly accommodation is limited in Medora, North Dakota, so we stayed in nearby Dickinson, North Dakota at the La Quinta Inn and Suites by Wyndham Dickinson.
Where to Eat in Medora, North Dakota
Cowboy Cafe is a charming western-themed diner in downtown Medora serving hearty breakfasts and American food like burgers and soups.
As mentioned above, Pitchfork Steak Fondue is an iconic dinner option in Medora, featuring steak, an array of sides, and desserts overlooking the Burning Hills Amphitheater.
Hidden Springs Java is a hidden java gem in downtown Medora. This is an excellent place to grab coffee, pastries, and smoothies before hitting the trails!
JD’s BBQ is a western-style barbeque joint and local favorite in nearby Dickinson, North Dakota.
Final Thoughts on North Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
You can totally do this North Dakota road trip itinerary in the opposite order, which is actually what we did. We drove to Medora directly after landing in Bismarck and then visited Jamestown after. I recommend visiting Jamestown first, however, primarily so you can visit the National Buffalo Museum before seeing bison in the wild!
Check out my other USA guides for more travel advice to help you organize your own adventures!
This post was written in paid partnership with North Dakota Legendary. As always, all opinions are my own!