I really didn’t think there’d be anything in Medora for me.
I’m primarily an urban traveler, addicted to new passport stamps and exploring local shops, museums and restaurants. I’m attracted to street art and food trucks, not country roads and chuckwagons.
I’d heard that the scenery around this little North Dakota town was beautiful (it’s nestled in the heart of the badlands) but it all seemed so cowboy, so completely and unattainably western. It looked beautiful and all, but just didn’t seem like my thing.
I was totally wrong.
When my friend Liz and I set off on the very first #PrairiePeople, #PrairiePlaces road trip, we didn’t have a clue what to expect from North Dakota’s #1 tourist destination.
Would it be super touristy? Would we need to wear cowboy boots to fit in? (We’ve tried, without much success.) Would there even be enough to do? Could we actually fill up a weekend in such a small town? (In case you were wondering, the answers turned out to be, “kind of — but in a good way,” “no” and a resounding “yes.”)
Medora is an unexpected place for a girls’ weekend, but it was both fun and relaxing. And if two city girls like us can do it, you can too.
We weren’t terribly ambitious with our sight-seeing. We relaxed and wandered the little city. We started our mornings with hot coffee on the patio, explored the shops and lingered over drinks. We found some fun and unexpected food. We took lots of photos of the scenery, the wildflowers and randomly cool stuff like petrified wood. We even attended two plays in as many days.
Not bad, Medora. Not bad at all.
The high season for the region extends into early September, although some attractions are open through the end of September or year-round.
It’s almost freakishly easy to book an impromptu Medora vacation — just visit Medora.com and watch it all magically fall into place. And even if the hotels in town start to fill up, you can stay in a neighboring community like Dickinson or Sentinel Butte and make the easy drive into town to check out the attractions.
So settle in for a quick mini-tour of Medora and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Don’t forget to set your watch to Mountain Time!
The absolute, must-do item on any Medora hit list is exploring the spectacularly beautiful badlands that cradle the tiny city. The scenery is breathtaking. This landscape is greener than the badlands in South Dakota and much more dramatic than the neat farm fields and rolling prairies to the east.
Rugged hills with colorful striations rise up into a seemingly endless sky. Western North Dakota even smells different than the rest of the state, fresh and fragrant with the scent of sweet clover.
Medora is located right next to the South Unit entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which you can access by car, on foot, on bike or on horseback. (We tried really, really hard to ride a horse on this trip, but a rainstorm on the day of our arrival meant that the trails were washed out for the duration of our stay. Next time, Medora!)
If you don’t have time to venture down into the park, the Painted Canyon Overlook is a gorgeous photo opportunity. And you barely have to pull off the interstate to see it. Just look for the signs 7 miles east of Medora on I-94. You’ll find a Visitor Center, the trail head, restrooms and beautiful vistas.
But the striking scenery isn’t all badlands bluffs and buttes. The stark beauty of western North Dakota also includes protected grasslands, remote ranches and almost achingly photogenic dirt roads and prairie sunsets. If you’ve never visited the state’s western edge, make this the year that you go.
Time seems to move more slowly here. And even though this the most visited spot in the state, it never feels crowded.
Our home base in Medora was The Hyde House, a charming little cottage operated by the Rough Riders Hotel. You check in at the hotel’s front desk, but the house itself is located nearby.
When we read it was once a workers cabin and one of the first structures in town, we were expecting something totally rustic. But it turned out to be luxurious and fabulous with a decidedly western twist.
While Liz perched on this completely Instagram-worthy throne and channeled a “Game of Thrones” vibe, I made a pot of coffee and paged through some of the books in that room to get an overview of the history of the place. There was a lot to take in.
Medora and the surrounding countryside have captured the imagination of noblemen and cowboys, investors and opportunists (including Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, who once ranched nearby), since the Dakota Territory cattle boom before statehood. Once properly caffeinated, we set off to see the show that offers an introduction to the region that captivated so many.
The “Medora Musical” is one of those quintessential Medora experiences that locals rave about. Neither of us had ever seen it, so we ambled into the impressive amphitheater, cut deep into the hills. We settled back into our seats, ready for anything.
I think we were the only people there that had never seen the show. The musical is in its 50th year and every single person we talked to had seen it several times. Some people had gone almost every year, coming to Medora in a sort of annual pilgrimage that only major life events like graduations, weddings and serious illness could disrupt.
The “Medora Musical” is actually more of a musical revenue that features a solid cast of singers and dancers and a live band. The show itself changes a little bit every year, so the thousands of loyal fans are always surprised when they return for the first show of the season.
This year the first act covered 50 years of American music and the history of the musical itself, while the second gave us some Medora history. It was sunny and more than a little patriotic, a fun, high-energy show with lots of catchy songs. The finale, which lights up the bluffs behind the stage, is especially beautiful.
We ended up sitting in front of Sheila Schafer, the unofficial queen of Medora. She and her late husband Harold founded the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation and basically made the place what it is today. Her delight in the show was absolutely palpable.
And she definitely wasn’t the only one. The atmosphere in the theatre is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve seen shows on Broadway and in London’s West End, and I’ve never seen an audience so engaged. It was more like a concert than a show.
Just soaking up that energy and watching the colorful lights paint the hills behind the set are reason enough to check out “The Medora Musical.”
We also caught Joe Wiegand in “A Teddy Roosevelt Salute to Medora”. I was a little concerned that this might be a dry history lesson geared toward Roosevelt enthusiasts, but it was a totally engaging one-man show that really brought the former president and life-long North Dakota fan to life.
We started every day at Hidden Springs Java, a teeny little coffee shop tucked into a mercantile building on the east side of town. Medora has a stylized western vibe with wooden sidewalks and frontier-style storefronts for added charm.
Most people took their coffee and baked goods to go, but we grabbed one of the tables on the patio and watched the sunlight streaming in over the hills. The view of the quiet side street and small prairie church put us in a meditative mood.
There are lots of shops and restaurants located in the very walkable little town. I fell in love with Western Edge Books, Artwork, Music, a unique local store that specializes in western, frontier and Americana. I really don’t gravitate toward these genres, but I thought this shop was fascinating. I left with a few postcards, a book about Sioux artist and writer Zitkala-Sa and a promise to return.
We bought pressed wildflower bookmarks and juneberry jam as souvenirs at Joe Ferris General Store and tried in vain to find cowboy boots that didn’t make me look ridiculous at several boutiques. (We found lots of options, but that look still isn’t happening.)
Liz found a more unconventional souvenir at Cowboy Lyle’s Candy. Yep, you read that right — crickets. Apparently the bacon and cheese flavor is a hot item.
After all this shopping, we figured we’d better learn something, so we set off in search of a little more Medora history.
The city was founded in 1883 as a meat packing town by Marquis de Mores, a young French nobleman. He named the town after his young wife, Medora, who sounds like a someone I’d like to know. She was a mother and a philanthropist who scandalized Victorian society by hunting and riding in pants and housing her servants, male guests and the family’s children all on the same floor of their summer home, the 26-room Chateau de Mores, which is located in the hills above the city.
Now a historical landmark, you can tour the home and get a peak at how the family’s life might have looked in the 1880s. Tickets include a visit to the Chateau de Mores Interpretive Center and a little background on the house from a series of guides.
We stumbled across these two fine gentlemen as we were leaving the Interpretive Center. Medora used to be a stop on the stagecoach line that ran to Deadwood, South Dakota back in the day. Chip and Jim re-live the line’s glory days with the Prairie Rose Stagecoach and they had some great stories. When they asked if we wanted a ride, we didn’t hesitate.
Stagecoaches are part of western mythology, but I’d never even sat in one before this trip. There’s something perfect about riding through the badlands the very same way the very first white settlers would have.
The stages stopped every few miles for fresh horses and if the ride we got was any indication, the passengers probably needed the break. It was a wild one!
My attempts at a stage coach selfie resulted in a dozen photos of our flying hair, weird, trying-to-balance expressions and the not terribly photogenic roof of the stagecoach. And we got a tamer ride than usual. Usually they go along the river, which too muddy on that particular day. You can catch a stagecoach ride from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. through the end of September.
Our favorite place to eat in Medora was easily, Theodore’s Dining Room, an upscale place in the Rough Riders hotel complex. We both had a giant bison burger –how can you not when you’re in western North Dakota? — and I tried a very good Roughrider beer, which also seemed entirely appropriate.
We had a great time in Medora and we’d go back again. There’s a spa that we didn’t make it to during this trip, so next time I’d love to do a hike in the Badlands in the morning, a spa day all afternoon and a few beers at night — the perfect mix, don’t you think?
Tag your pics and tips #PrairiePeople and #PrairiePlaces on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Your tips and photos could inspire my next road trip!
Thanks to our friends at the Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation for sponsoring this post and covering our lodging and tickets. Seriously guys, they make planning your trip incredibly easy.