The Surprising Beauty of North Dakota

Sunset over the badlands of North Dakota
Sunset over the badlands of North Dakota

Did you know that North Dakota is usually the last state that people visit? This happens so often that there’s a store in North Dakota that sells products revolving around completing the journey to all 50 states there. Admittedly, it was toward the bottom of my list. But I regret that now. North Dakota is a butte (I promise, no more geology puns). In fact, I loved it so much that I went back twice during my time living in its southern neighbor. Each time, I visited the national parks in North Dakota. Yes, North Dakota has national parks. In fact, there are three. With this post, I hope to inspire you to visit one of America’s most under-appreciated states.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Theodore Roosevelt National Park's north unit featuring views of badlands and a winding river
Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s north unit

This quickly became one of my favorite national parks in the entire system. Yes, I’m as surprised as you are. It’s divided into two parts: its isolated northern unit and its comparatively bustling southern unit. I visited the north unit first and was completely floored. It was similar to Badlands National Park in South Dakota, but it was different. There was more vegetation, there was a river flowing straight through the middle, and, the best part, there was hardly anyone around. Herds of bison walked on the road in front of us without a care in the world. I knew right then that I was coming back.

Wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park run along the Park Road
Wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park run along the Park Road

The second time, my visit focused on the south unit. It was a bit busier but still gorgeous. I had one of the most magical camping experiences here, as detailed in a guest blog I wrote for the National Park Foundation:

“One of my most memorable moments this year was an evening spent in Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Sitting at a campsite in nearly freezing temperatures, this Floridian was uncharacteristically comfortable because I was amongst nature. Resting on that picnic bench, I could hear elk bugling in the distance, a sound I had never had the pleasure of hearing. Later, coyotes added to the atmosphere, yipping away on isolated badlands. Hours passed as I was rustling in my sleeping bag trying to get warm, the elk still bugling, interrupted only by the hoots and calls of owls in nearby pines.”

Doesn’t that sound absolutely idyllic? In addition to pure bliss while camping, we explored the park further on hiking trails where wild horses roamed. One of my favorite areas was a canyon that had been completely eroded by wind rather than water. I got to walk through a cabin Theodore Roosevelt himself had called home. It’s still on my bucket list to walk the backcountry trail that connects the two units of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, so you bet I’ll be returning.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Enjoying my time at Knife River Indian Villages, climbing through teepees
Enjoying my time at Knife River Indian Villages by climbing through teepees

Knife River Indian Villages is a very small site that most people have probably never heard of. Regardless, it boasts some fascinating history. Sacagawea, the Native American who aided Lewis and Clark on their westward expedition, called this village home. On your visit, you’ll see replica teepees and huts and walk a trail along the river with burial mounds on either side. It’s a beautiful area filled with a lot of information to take in.

Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site

The entrance to Fort Union Trading Post
The entrance to Fort Union Trading Post

One of the more fun things about Fort Union Trading Post is that it sits on the border of North Dakota and Montana. You’ll park your car in one state and enter the fort in another. Ever wanted to be in two places at once? At one time, this was the most important fur trading post on the Missouri River. Today, you can explore the fort and visit with re-enactors.