With less than 800,000 people, North Dakota is one of the least-populated states in America. This Centrally-located, Canadian border-hugging region may lack in big cities and the related social attractions, but it presents a more subtle, slower-paced, old-fashioned appeal. Visitors to "The Peace Garden State" will find just that: tranquility amidst a well-managed green space. The vast prairies are punctuated by magnetic badlands, and are supported by truly underrated state and national parks. And throughout the spacious scenery, there are quirky small towns to latch onto. Here are seven of the best ones to mark on your map.
Valley City is the county seat of Barnes County, which is part of the Sheyenne River Valley, in Southeastern North Dakota. The Sheyenne River winds through the heart of town, with three lovely parks and Valley City State University hugging its banks. History and engineer buffs will be excited to know that Valley City is nicknamed the "City of Bridges," and offers a walking tour of their eight uniquely designed highlights, including the 3,860-foot-long, 162-foot-high, Hi-Line Bridge – one of the longest and highest single-track railroad bridges in the country. Valley City is also a welcomed stop (or jumping on point) for the North Country National Scenic Trail, and the Sheyenne River Valley National Scenic Byway. For some attractive prairie views and excellent hiking/camping opportunities, consider a quick side trip to Sheyenne National Grassland – a mere hour's drive Southeast of town.
Just 35 miles West of Valley City, Jamestown is another modestly-sized settlement deserving of some attention. Historically, this Stutsman County city's main claim to fame has been the iconic prairie buffalo. So in honor of this national mammal, the community erected a 26-foot-tall, 60-ton statue, known as Dakota Thunder, that is not only a popular roadside attraction, but also the largest buffalo monument in the world. To learn more about these enormous herbivores, gallop over to the National Buffalo Museum afterwards. But Jamestown is about more than just bison, visitors can also check out the Fort Seward Military Post, the Sustman County Memorial Museum, the Sports Hall of Fame, and The Arts Center, for a full range of local subjects and displays. Don't spend all day inside though, for the 2,492-acre Jamestown Reservoir has two swimming beaches, miles of trails, and a disc golf course.
If giant roadside novelties are your thing, then don't miss Central North Dakota's New Salem – home of Salem Sue, the world's largest holstein cow sculpture. Overlooking the quaint and verdant community from atop the lovely School Hill, Sue stands at 38-feet-tall, is 50-feet-long, weighs 12,000 pounds, and can be seen from five miles out on a clear day. Keeping with the dairy cow theme, get your hands on some of the freshly made dairy products, perhaps at the humorously-named Udderly Caffeinated Cafe, or time your visit for July, when the Cow Town Hoe Down kicks off. This is New Salem's biggest weekend of the year, treating visitors to pancake breakfasts, a car and tractor show, parades, live music, a street dance, and all kinds of other spirited and family-friendly events.
The North-Centrally located community of Rugby just so happens to be the geographical center of North America. A 21-foot-high cairn on the South side of town marks this delightful factoid, beckoning tourists looking for a fun photo-op and bucket list item. But Rugby is more than just a one-trick pony. This seat of Pierce County also erected an impressive 88.5-foot-tall lookout station, the Northern Lights Tower, in honor of the Aurora Borealis that sometimes bless this prairie town. If you don't get a chance to spot them on your trip, visit the Interpretive Center next door for high-quality displays of the dazzling phenomenon. And finally, the Prairie Village Museum is well-worth a dedicated afternoon. It features 20 fully-furnished historic buildings and six exhibition halls covering a range of themes relating to the town's past.
En route between Jamestown and Rugby, be sure to stop into the seat of Ramsey County for a dose of blue amidst the long fields of green and gold. Devils Lake sits on the North shore of the expansive body of water by the same name. Dubbed the "Perch Capital of the World," anglers certainly love this spot (including in the winter). But so too do hunters, given the massive migrations of waterfowl that fly through each fall, and anyone looking to enjoy the full spectrum of water sports. Grahams Island, in the middle of the lake, houses a state park that is great for family camping trips and can be accessed by boat or car.
Skipping over to the Westside of the state, the only incorporated community in Billings County is a beautiful place to spend a vacation. Medora is situated on the Little Missouri River, sandwiched between massive swaths of unspoiled badland and grassland wilderness. Huge herds of bison, elk, deer, and wild horses roam Theodore Roosevelt National Park, to the North. For an authentic traverse of the beautiful buttes and canyons, sign up for a horseback tour. Loads of wildlife also relish the protection of Dakota Prairie Grasslands, to the Southeast – which also offers the opportunity to camp in solitude. In town, the old-fashioned Wild West culture still emanates in both aesthetic and spirit, and all summer long, the Medora Musical puts on live performances at the packed amphitheater.
Head up to the Northeast corner, on the border with Southern Manitoba, to visit North Dakota's the second-oldest town (which is also super close to the outright oldest). Get a sense of the early days by visiting Gingras Trading Post State Historic Site – the 1840s home and operation of Métis legislator and businessman Antoine Blanc Gingras. Walhalla benefits from its position on the Pembina River, which supports the Walhalla Riverside Campground, the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area, and the Tetrault Woods State Forest, and is a cherished playground for local paddlers. If visiting in the winter, make sure to take advantage of the Frost Fire Ski and Snowboard Area, which also functions as a mountain biking, dirt biking, and ATV hub in the off-season.
North Dakota is a heartfelt and unpretentious place that finds peace in its open farmlands, nourishing waterways, and scores or commenal mammals. There are more four-season attractions here than one may expect, and it all starts with selecting friendly and supportive towns to anchor the road trip. So don't overlook North Dakota for your next summer vacation. Go ground yourself in the family values, wholesome activities, and soul-soothing environments that these small towns so readily offer.