Too often travelers overlook all that North Dakota has to offer, limiting their stops to cities along the outskirts of the state. A week spent exploring it a bit deeper revealed a destination full of surprises and worthy of a further exploration.

From picturesque lakesides to quaint downtowns, here are some of the highlights from a road trip through the northern part of the state.

Small town charm

There are several notable small towns to check out, all with their own unique vibe.

Minot is home to an air force base and a rich aviation history. There are plenty of activities for the whole family. Talk to locals and they will share emotional stories of how neighbors came together to help each other during the devastating floods of 2011, but also about their rich heritage. Start your day at the Classic Rock Coffee. Check out the Badlands Restaurant and Grill for lunch. Don’t miss Minot’s quaint downtown and street art, and enjoy dinner at 10 North Main—order the bison steak. Have post dinner drinks at Saul’s, a speakeasy that is said to be haunted, but the experience is so lovely it’s worth the risk of a spook.

Watford City is an oil town that has also experienced an recent boom due to the energy industry there. But it also artsy and eclectic and welcoming. A good place to start your day is at Door 24 where the coffee is good and there’s plenty of art to peruse. Stop at Stonehome Brewing for a fun scene and some of the best brews in town.

Bottineau is located at the base of the Turtle Mountains making it an ideal place for outdoor lovers. It is home to Tommy the Turtle, the world’s largest snowmobiling turtle and some of the regions most beautiful natural landscapes. Start your day at Penelope’s Coffee House. Lunch along the shore of Lake Metigoshe at A Frame Bar and Grill. Pick up a sweet treat at the historic and award-winning Pride Dairy and enjoy dinner at Marie’s in Downtown Bottineau. Cobblestone Inn and Suites is a great lodging option in the area.

Nature and wildlife experiences

The International Peace Garden is as far North as you can get. The 2,400 acres of botanical gardens is nestled in the Turtle Mountains and shared between North Dakota and the Province of Manitoba, but can be explored freely from within. Dedicated in 1932, the garden is meant to represent the friendship between the two countries and for visitors it serves as colorful escape through prairies, gardens, and forests.  There are hiking and biking trails, a 9/11 memorial site, picnic areas, as well as an indoor cafe and garden. You will need to cross an international port of entry when leaving, so please be sure to have passports and birth certificates ready to show.  The garden is located in Dunseith, about a two hour drive from Minot.

The J. Clarke Slayer National Wildlife Refuge is an oasis not just for the wildlife that lives there, but also for those who enjoy hiking, canoeing, bird watching and photography. There’s a lot to see in this 58,700 acre refuge so first time visitors might want to do the one of the two different auto tours offered—one covering a 22-mile scenic trail and the other a 5-mile grassland trail, which can also be explored by foot. The refuge is located in Upham, an hour drive from Minot.

J. Clarke Slayer National Wildlife Refuge

Many road trippers already know about the majestic Theodore Roosevelt National Park. This park boost over 70,000 acres of natural beauty and is home to hundreds of different bird species, prairie dogs, and even wild ponies. Most impressive are the hundreds of bisons that live here. It is possible to get a good glimpse of them without the need to endanger yourself and without having to search for too long.

Viewfinder Tip: When bison viewing, please stay in your car and give them plenty of space to move and cross.

The popular Badlands views are located on the South side of the park, but another beautiful yet contrasting view of the park is from the North unit from the Oxbow Overlook. The scenic route leading to it is about 28 miles long with plenty of colorful photo opportunities along the way. There are campsites and Watford City is also just a 30-minute drive away.

Water fun and activities

The family-owned Tobacco Gardens Resort and Marina is the perfect spot for a camping or cabin experience with access to water sports, fishing, hunting, and scenic hiking trails. Favorite activities include hiking the Birnt Hill Trails just 3 miles from the resort site or kayaking along the resort’s shores. Just 26 miles north of Watford City and along the south shore of Lake Sakakawea and the Missouri River.

Rent a boat or kayak and explore Lake Metigoshe in Bottineau. This friendly lake community is North Dakota in a way few have experienced. If visiting during the summer months,  try to catch a performance by the local Club de Skinautique, made up of super talented local kids making the most of lake life.

Lake Metigoshe, ND

Culture, art, and community

North Dakota’s culture begins with their strong and active indigenous peoples, of which there are about 30,000. There are many opportunities to learn about the Native Americans from the region, often with reservation visits or by attending a Powwow. To understand the full story of Lewis and Clarke it is important to understand the community already in place that helped to guide their expedition and made their journey possible.

The Scandinavian Heritage Park was created to honor the cultures of the Nordic immigrants that first arrived to the region in search of land and a prosperous future for their families. There are five Scandinavian countries represented throughout the park—Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland—through beautiful art and architectural displays. The park is located in Minot, which also hosts the annual Nordic Hostfest in celebration of the Scandinavian heritage shared by so many in the area.

Mystical Horizons is a modern-day interpretation of England’s Stonehenge. It was built in 2005 from the vision of Bottineau artist and NASA engineer, Jack Olsen. This artwork is also a solar calendar, marking the change of seasons, and its location, overlooking farmland and the Turtle Mountains, is especially breathtaking during the sunset hours.

Mystical Horizons

Though Annie’s House is an adaptive recreation program that provides year-round services those with intellectual and physical disabilities. It allows guests to enjoy and experience activities with the confidence and support of an able bodied person. The house and program itself was inspired by Ann Nicole Nelson whom the community lost in the terrorist attack of 9/11. A list of life goals she left behind inspired this home, built and operated by volunteers, and represent her love for life and Bottineau.

Venturing beyond the borders and through these different towns made for an enriching road trip complete with awe-inspiring landscapes.

Minot has an International Airport just two miles outside of the city center, a convenient entry point.

What would you like to do in North Dakota?