Thanks to an oil boom, North Dakota has been experiencing a renaissance in recent years. And considering that it’s one of the least visited state in the US, that’s a good thing! Made famous by the Cohen Brothers movie Fargo, and home of the stunning Roosevelt National Park, this state is big on sky and scenic views. Known as the Peace Garden State, it’s also big on nicknames.
These are 15 of the most picturesque and interesting small towns that North Dakota has to offer:
Interesting starts with the name. Gackle was named after George Gackle, the farmer who founded the town in the early twentieth century. Three hundred people now call it home. Located on a beautiful prairie in the southern part of the state, Gackle is known by some as the Duck Hunting Capital of the World. The locals are friendly and love sharing their town and states history with visitors. You’ll definitely see some big sky here. Be sure to visit one of the many lakes in the area: Hehn-Schaffer, Arnies, and Marvin Miller are some of the most popular. If hunting isn’t for you, enjoy boating and fishing as you relax in this lovely town.
Jud is the Town of Murals. It’s 75-ish residents have come together over the years and painted beautiful murals on almost all of the buildings in town. It’s one of a kind from top to bottom. Named for a politician in the earlier twentieth century, the murals lend a sweetness to the town. You’ll see cottages, landscapes, patriotic scenes, cartoon characters, and even postage stamps on the buildings. It’s a unique take on community that shouldn’t be missed.
Completely within the boundaries of Theodore Roosevelt National Park is Medora. There are only about 150 residents, but it’s considered the number one tourist destination in the state. The activities that Medora affords are almost endless. Stroll around the town proper and visit Chateau de Mores, a historical site that was once the summer home to the towns founder. For more history visit the 19th century meat packing plant. Check out Chimney Park, or Pitchfork Steak Fondue – a scenic spot overlooking Tjaden Terrace bluff where they’ll cook you a western style steak. If you’re lucky, catch a show at Burning Hills Amphitheatre, an open air venue next to the Missouri River Valley. They’re famous for the Medora Musical. It’s a tribute to the time President Roosevelt spent in the area. Most people love to learn more about his time as a Badlands rancher. With the national park on all sides, you’ll be blown away by all the beauty.
4. New Salem
Founded in the late nineteenth century, New Salem has a very interesting attraction. In the 1970’s, the local Lion’s Club built a 38 foot Holstein cow. Made entirely out of fiberglass, Salem Sue is a monument to the hardworking dairymen of the area. Tourists love to stop and see this amazing cow. Many North Dakotans retire to New Salem because of the slow pace and natural beauty. There’s a lot of history to see, as well as six local parks, and a beautiful old auditorium where you can catch a show like the Cow Town Hoe Down.
5. Valley City
The City of Bridges is located on the curving Sheyenne River. Valley City is home to no less than 11 historical bridges. The most famous are the wooden Valley City State University footbridge, and the Highline Bridge. This is one of the highest rail bridges in the US and is a designated landmark with the National Civil Engineering system. Visit sacred American India burial grounds in Medicine Wheel Park as well as two ancient solar calendars. Most visitors spend a day on the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway. It covers over sixty miles from Lisbon to Baldhill Dam. It’s absolutely gorgeous in the fall when the leaves change. You can also enjoy snowmobiling, downhill and cross country skiing as well as birding, biking, hiking, and canoeing. Don’t forget to bring your camera.
Settled in the late nineteenth century by hardy pioneers, Hatton and Garfield Township lay in the eastern part of the state. The name changed to Garfield after President Garfield’s assassination several years after county and surrounding townships were developed. Originally a trading post, today the population is less than 1,000. It’s most famous resident was Car Ben Eielson. In 1928, he became the first person to fly over both the North and South Poles. You can see a monument and museum to his life and adventures when you visit.
The second oldest community in North Dakota is just a few miles from the Canadian border. Walhalla is known as the Heart of the Rendezvous Region. If you love history, this is a great stop for you. The oldest building in the state is here, the Kittson Trading Post. You can also visit the Gingras Trading Post State Historic site to see some of the oldest Euro-American structures in North Dakota. To the west of town is Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area. Several trails give you miles and miles of hiking opportunities. Or if you’re more adventurous, on horseback. In addition, the Pembina Gorge affords plenty of outdoor activities. Mountain biking, primitive camping, tubing along the Pembina River, birding, and geo cashing. The Tetrault Woods State Forest is a dedicated and undeveloped wildlife setting. Enjoy both of the awe-inspiring overlooks while visiting.
The Four Seasons Playground, otherwise known as Bottineau, North Dakota, is another northern town. Completely surrounded by rolling hills and wonderfully green forests. The town specializes in outdoor activities suitable for all four seasons. It’s tucked between two federal wildlife refuges, you’ll find plenty of moose, deer, geese, and duck. It’s the last stop on the way to the Turtle Mountains, which has a reputation for being a Mecca for adrenaline junkies. In town you’ll find Tommy the Turtle. He’s Bottineau’s town mascot, and he’s also 26 feet tall. Making him the world’s largest turtle!
Jamestown is one of the larger communities on this list. But at roughly 16,000 souls, it’s still got the heart and feel of a small town. It’s been nicknamed the Pride of the Prairie thanks to its long history. It begins with the building of the Northern Pacific Railway. You can revisit this late nineteenth century setting at the Jamestown Frontier Village. Visitors are treated to re-enactments of what life on a prairie town was like. In the Village, you can also visit the Louis L’Amour Writer’s Shack, a novelist of American Westerns who was born there in 1908. Visit the National Buffalo Museum and see the 26-foot-tall Dakota Thunder, the states monument to the buffalo. You can see many varieties of bison here, as well as the world’s only certified albino bison.
The largest wind farms in the state are in Edgeley. With a population of less than 700, this town is a vital agricultural and community oriented place. It’s a short drive from Jamestown to visit this pastoral setting. In the first years of the twenty-first century, wind energy came to the town. There are now 41 turbines that are strikingly serene on the horizon. Be sure to stop by the homemade Lions Weaver Memorial Park – created solely by residents, and if you’re visiting in the summer, you’ll love SummerFest Celebration.
Settled primarily by Ukrainian immigrants in the early years of the 20th century, Wilton is an important piece of North Dakota’s cultural heritage. Less than ten miles from the Missouri River and Lakes New John’s and Heckers, there’s a wide variety of outdoor activities on offer here. Jet skiing, water skiing, boating, fishing, camping, and more. The 800 some odd residents have an average age that’s less than 40 and they pride themselves on their welcoming and friendly town.
On the edge of Lake Sakakawea (one of the nation’s largest manmade lakes), is a small town sometimes called the Walleye Capital of the World. In Garrison, there are plenty of fishermen and plenty of fishermen who visit from far and wide. They also have the Heritage Park and Museum. This is an open air museum that showcases what life was like in the early 20th century and includes a replica of a train depot from 1905. The museum also includes an old county school, country church, and the towns first telephone office. In nearby Fort Stevenson State Park, you can visit the Guardhouse Interpretive Centre. It’s a replica of the original guardhouse lost long ago when it was flooded by the building of Lake Sakakawea. You can see an actual full-sized three-in rifle cannon.
13. Fort Ransom
You wouldn’t think that a place with less than 100 inhabitants would be worth visiting, but if you’re a history buff, you can’t miss Fort Ransom. Founded in the 1860’s as a military post to aid new settlers, you can still visit original homesteads in Fort Ransom State Park. Depending on the season, the park affords cross country skiing, hiking, snowmobiling, and more. Twice each year, the town hosts Sodbuster Days – two weeks of a living history festival that honours the pioneering ways of their founders. North Dakotans also love the Sheyenne Valley Arts and Crafts Festival that highlights rural south-eastern artists and culture. While you’re there, check out the Ransom Country Historical Museum, the Viking Statue Monument, the swinging bridge, Old Flour Mills, and the National Scenic Byway.
Possibly North Dakota’s quintessential small town is Hillsboro. Another settlement that dates back to the 1860’s, and was literally founded on hospitality. As prospecting railroad magnate James J Hill traveling the area in preparation for his new railroad, many settlements shunned him due to his shabby appearance. But, in what would become Hillsboro, they welcomed him with open arms. The railroad, not surprisingly, ran right through town and helped the settlers survive in the early years. An easy drive from Fargo or Grand Forks, many come for the weekend to stay at a B&B and just get a way. The coffee is good, the conversation is always flowing, and it’s easy to settling into the slow pace of life Hillsboro affords.
A boomtown for the Northern Pacific Railroad in the late 19th century, Lisbon is a beautiful homage to life during that period. As you walk through town you’ll see historic homes and business – like the Lisbon Opera house (built in 1889). It’s not just history here, the fresh air is intoxicating and nature lovers come for the wildlife, birding, and general ‘outdoorsy-ness’ of the place. Lisbon is also home to Prairewood Winery, one of only six in the state. It’s open for tastings and tours and has built up a nice reputation over the years. Be sure to visit the National Grasslands Recreation area, a conservatory of over 70,000 acres, for some amazing views of Mother Nature.