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’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 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. It’s not pretty.) Would there even be enough to do to actually fill a weekend? (In case you were wondering, the answers turned out to be: kind of — but in a good way, no and and a resounding yes, respectively.)
Medora is an unexpected place for a girls’ weekend, but it was both fun and relaxing.
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, which means you still have at least two weekends left to check out almost everything on this list. (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 (more on some of my favorites later this fall!) and make the easy drive into town to check out the attractions.
So set your watch to Mountain Time and check out my favorite spots in Medora.
The absolute, must-do item on any Medora hit list is exploring the spectacularly beautiful badlands. The scenery is breathtaking.
Rugged hills with colorful striations rise up into a seemingly endless North Dakota sky. Western North Dakota even smells different than the rest of the state, fresh and fragrant with the scent of sweet clover.
Medora is right next to the South Unit entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, which is accessible by car, on foot, on bike or horseback. (We tried really, really hard to ride a horse on this trip, but the trails were washed out, so it wasn’t meant to be. Next time, Medora!)
If you don’t want to venture down into the park, the Painted Canyon Overlook is pretty stunning and you barely have to get off of interstate. Just look for the signs 7 miles east of Medora in I-94. You’ll find a Visitor Center, the trail head and lots of photo opportunities.
If you want to see more photos of the scenery in western North Dakota, check out this post about the stark beauty of this part of the state.
We stayed at Hyde House, a charming little cabin operated by the Rough Riders Hotel.
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.
Liz channeled “Game of Thrones” while 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. Then it was off to explore the town.
The Medora Musical is one of those quintessential Medora experiences that everybody talks about. Neither Liz or I had ever seen it, so we ambled into the giant amphitheater, cut deep into the hills, 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 and features a solid cast of singers and dancers and a live band. The show itself changes a little bit every year.
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 a little sunny and patriotic for Liz, who prefers weightier musicals like “Les Mis” and “1776”, but we both had a good time.
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.” It runs nightly at 7:30 p.m. through September 6, so you still have time to catch a performance.
We also caught Joe Wiegand in “A Teddy Roosevelt Salute to Medora”. I was worried this would be a dry history lesson, but it was a totally engaging one-man show that brought the former president, Medora-area rancher and life-long North Dakota enthusiast to life. The show runs at 3:30 p.m. daily at the Old Town Hall Theater in Medora until September 4.
We started our days at Hidden Springs Java, a teeny little coffee shop tucked into a mercantile building storefront (Medora has a stylized western vibe with wooden sidewalks and the whole bit) just across from a little prairie church.
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.
There are lots of shops and restaurants located in the very walkable little town. We fell in love with Western Edge Books, Artwork, Music, a unique local store that you can read more about in this post.
We bought pressed wildflower bookmarks and juneberry jam as souvenirs at Joe Ferris General Store (open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.) 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 (also open 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.). 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 Medora history.
The city was founded in 1883 as a meat packing town by Marquis de Mores, a young French nobleman and named for his young wife, Medora, who sounds like a someone I’d like to know. She was a mother and a philanthropist who also 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
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, at least on the day we visited, 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.
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 pretty wild ride.
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 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! Seriously guys, they make planning your trip incredibly easy.