The International Peace Garden is the most tranquil border I’ve ever crossed. There is a spot where you can literally stand with one foot in the U.S. and one in Canada, surrounded by a lush garden that is the centerpiece of this unusual green space, which was created as gesture of goodwill between the two nations.
It’s a photo opportunity that’s just too good to pass up, one that made even a few strolling groups of senior citizens giggle as they grinned for the camera. It’s kind of magical to imagine yourself straddling the black line on a map. As as you watch children gleefully run back and forth between countries (“I’m in the United States! Whoops, now I’m in Canada!”), it’s hard not to think that the nature of our borders is awfully ephemeral.
The International Peace Garden is a strange and compelling place to visit. It seems to rise up out of nowhere, a forested oasis featuring 2,300 acres of lakes, trails and gardens marking the spot where the prairie and perfectly cultivated farm fields give way to something new. It flowers at the foot of the Turtle Mountains, a hilly plateau that stretches from North Dakota into Manitoba.
I took my son Eli here on a scorching hot day in late June, when the smoke from wildfires in Saskatchewan made the midday light hazy and moody. (The countries were sharing more than just tourists on this particular day, it seems.) It was bizarre to not need sunglasses when the sun was high in the sky. The photos I took have an otherworldly quality that matched the mood of the garden on that day.
There are lots of trails and camping spots to explore, as well as more cultivated spaces. We spent most of our time in three places — the lovely formal garden, in the conservatory and at the Peace Chapel, where Eli watched the sprinklers water the grass and I sat and read the limestone inscriptions throughout the intimate chapel space.
I was surprised to find thoughts from many of my favorite writers, artists and thinkers there. Most worship spaces focus on visual images to promote reflection, so it was refreshing to see words used instead.
The chapel is the only building on the grounds that straddles the Canadian and American border, which makes it a popular photo spot. I liked it because it was such a soothing place to sit and rest and think.
I could have sat there all day. My child is rarely still, so (like most parents around the world) I rarely get to be still either. Time to sit and think is a luxury. It was nice to stop running for a moment or two.
The formal garden was fantastic, all gurgling water features and big lush flowers. The main fountain was a little green (we arrived on algae removal day, apparently) but still soothing.
There are wide paths for strolling and benches, small shelters and picnic tables if you need to sit down and rest. This is where you’ll take your “straddling the border” photos. It’s also where I’d recommended having a picnic if you’re using the International Peace Garden as stop on your road trip.
The conservatory was great too. It’s a good spot to warm up if the weather is chilly or rainy and it’s an interesting place to learn about different types of plants that might not grow in your own garden. (You’ll find a gift shop, cafe and restrooms here as well.)
I never knew cacti and succulents were so photogenic! I seriously could have taken photos here for hours. A pretty little succulent sits on my desk now. It’s not a souvenir from this trip, but it definitely reminds me of it every time I see it.
But, since I had a toddler in tow and he was all about running around the paths outside, it was back to the gardens for us. I made a metal note to come back again soon.
It takes about an hour to an hour and a half to walk the loop around the center section that contains the majority of the gardens. You’ll find numerous water gardens on the grounds, as well as a popular flower clock (which contains up to 5,000 flowers), and renderings of the U.S. and Canadian flags entirely in flowers.
A cairn has stood at the gates since the gardens were dedicated in 1932, a quiet, consistent reminder to cultivate hope and peace. Beams from the World Trade Center at the 9/11 Memorial remind us that we still have far to go.
You can also drive, walk or bike to campgrounds, picnic spots and several pretty lakes on either side of the border. I saw evidence of campers here, but the grounds were overwhelmingly quiet and still.
Just take the south loop to explore the North Dakota side or head north a few feet to get to Canada. You’ll also find hiking and biking trails, as well as a wildlife refuge and other less cultivated scenes.
This lake is technically in Canada.
I couldn’t resist spending time on the Canadian side, because when else can you do that without a passport? I even spontaneously taught Eli the Canadian national anthem. In retrospect, I probably should have taught him his own national anthem first, but “O Canada” is infinitely easier to sing.
You don’t need a passport to get in, but you will need to go through customs on your way out of the park on the U.S. side, so have an I.D. handy. If you have kids in the car, bring their birth certificate along.
I forgot Eli’s at home and that held us up a bit. The fact that he greeted the customs agent with a hearty “Hola, amigo” (did I mention I’m teaching him Spanish?) and kept repeating the first line of “O Canada” probably didn’t help him seem particularly American. Whoops
I didn’t know what to expect from the International Peace Garden, but I left feeling calmer and happier, with a lot of great photos and plenty to think about. If you like being outdoors, admire a well tended garden or just appreciate the novelty of a soothing border crossing with flowers and trees instead of checkpoints and lines, the International Peace Garden is definitely worth a stop.
“The mind can go in a thousand directions, but on this beautiful path, I walk in peace. With each step, the wind blows. With each step, a flower blooms.”
― Thích Nhất Hạnh
What about you?
What was your most memorable border crossing?
How does crossing a border make you feel?
What do you love about the International Peace Garden?
What makes up a soothing outdoor scene for you? (Flowers? Trees? Hiking trails?)
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