A lot happens on the road to Medora, North Dakota. As you drive west on I-94, a subtle shift begins. The horizon looks endless. The terrain changes. But mentality of the world around you changes too.
“Here’s the boundary between east and west,” said John Steinbeck when describing how it felt to cross the Missouri River. “On the Bismarck side it is eastern landscape, eastern grass, with the look and smell of eastern America. Across the Missouri on the Mandan side it is pure west with brown grass and water scoring and small outcrops. The two sides of the river might well be a thousand miles apart.”
Then quietly, unceremoniously, you shift from Central to Mountain time. The gravel roads are a rich, scoria red that you never see back east. The air smells of sweet clover. You will breathe it in and smile, but not be able to place the scent until you ask the locals.
By the time you read this post, I’ll already be having adventures in the pretty western town of Medora. (Follow me in real time on the social media outlets listed at the bottom of the post!)
Medora is in the the same state but a world away from my fast-paced, much more urban day-to-day life. And it’s the last stop on my AmericInn summer road trip. As with all road trips, getting there is half the fun. So here are some of my favorite North Dakota stops along the way.
If you’re coming through Fargo, take a break to stretch your legs at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center. I know that sounds like a really generic spot for my first suggestion, but my city’s official tourism checkpoint is just as weird as we are. And that always makes me happy.
You can compare handprints with celebs’ on the Celebrity Walk of Fame. Then go inside for free coffee and popcorn and a photo with the woodchipper from the movie “Fargo”.
If you can make it to Tower City, North Dakota, pull off for “a slice of heaven at exit 307” (yep, that’s their slogan) at the Tower Travel Center. It’s one of those comfort food classics that Midwestern grandmas, long haul truckers and traveling salespeople consistently recommend. The pie is absolutely worth a stop.
The Frontier Village in Jamestown (exit 260) is a great stop for kiddos and history buffs. There are a bunch of homesteading era buildings filled with antiques, a small play area and picnic space, a few shops and a giant buffalo statute. (My mother is obsessed with this thing.) If real buffalo are more your thing, there are also incredibly rare albino buffalo roaming near the village. They’re considered sacred.
Some of my favorite stops are less well-known stops. I like exploring the Old Red/Old Ten Scenic Byway that winds 108 miles from Mandan to Dickinson. It’s easy to get on and off I-94 and explore the small towns, rolling hills and rugged buttes in the area. There are audio tours you can listen to on your phone that explain each stop on the route. (Or you can listen here, although I don’t think it will have quite the same effect.)
As you’ve probably deduced by now, I get a kick out of weird roadside attractions, so of course I have to stop and say hello to Salem Sue in New Salem, North Dakota. Sometimes a little kitsch is cool. And New Salem is located right off of exit 127, so you won’t have to go far to find her.
Turn off exit 102 and head to the little town of Hebron, home of a few hidden gems. One of my favorite coffee joints in North Dakota is located here. It’s called Dark Side of the Brew (yes, the name is inspired by the Pink Floyd song) and it’s a combination coffee shop, lunch spot and art gallery run by a very cool family. Oh, the desserts there are fabulous as well.
And you should definitely make time to stop by Dacotah Clayworks a retired Texaco station where master potter Robin Reynolds makes beautiful vessels from native Hebron clay. Her work is underrated and subtly beautiful.
Did you know there’s a gorgeous monastery tucked away on the North Dakota prairie? If you didn’t, don’t feel bad. Assumption Abbey in Richardton (exit 84) is maybe the state’s best kept secret.
Benedictine Monks live, work, pray and serve there. The courtyard gardens and the beautiful worship space, with its soaring ceilings painted in the colors of the prairie (wheat gold, sky blue, the red of the region’s scoria roads) are open to the public. There are also monestary-made soaps, pottery, freshly baked bread for sale, as well as wine from the wine cellar.
The Enchanted Highway (exit 72) is a collection of giant metal sculptures along the roadside between Gladstone and Regent, just over 30 miles. Seeing them all can take a while, but even rushed travelers can squeeze in a photo of “Geese in Flight” (located right off of interstate) and “Deer Crossing” just a few miles down the road.
Having coffee in a church that Teddy Roosevelt once attended is one of those things I never knew I wanted to do, but I’ll always be glad I did. (And seriously, who’d even think that was a thing?!) I always try to stop by The Brew in downtown Dickinson (exit 64) whenever I can, because it really is one of the most unique coffee and dining experiences in the region. Then I stop in and see what’s new at Celebrations ‘n’ Crafts. This charming little local gallery, art supply shop and gift store carries work from local artists in the region.
How about you? What are your favorite things to see on I-94 on the way to Medora? Did anything on this list surprise you? Where would you like to stop next time? What stops did I miss?
I’m traveling as a guest of AmericInn on this trip. They’re giving away a free hotel room stay here and you should totally check them out! That said, all opinions expressed here are my own. I only partner with businesses I like and that I think you’ll like too.
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