The Dakota dozen: 12 must-see destinations in North Dakota and South Dakota

Twelve essential, must-do destinations in the Dakotas, from North to South.

South Dakota Children's Museum. (Credit: Travel South Dakota)
South Dakota Children's Museum. (Credit: Travel South Dakota)

— Travel South Dakota

North Dakota

Singers Taylor Leet, right, and J'Kobe Wallace perform in the 2020 Medora Musical. Tom Stromme, The Bismarck Tribune.
Singers Taylor Leet, right, and J'Kobe Wallace perform in the 2020 Medora Musical. Tom Stromme, The Bismarck Tribune.

1. Medora

After a day of scenic drives or hikes through Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Medora offers the evening entertainment, including a pitchfork steak fondue and the family-oriented, long-running Medora Musical. Both locations feature stellar views of colorfully layered buttes and sculpted landscapes. The little town's biggest draws, along with dining, museums and Teddy Roosevelt programs, are mostly run by a foundation created by the businessman behind Mr. Bubble.

Scandinavian Heritage Park (Credit: North Dakota Tourism)
Scandinavian Heritage Park (Credit: North Dakota Tourism)

2. Scandinavian Heritage Park • Minot

Intricately carved with dragons and crosses, a replica of a Norwegian stave church from 1250 blends pagan and Christian themes and anchors this free park honoring North Dakota's Nordic roots. The mostly outdoor museum features a 240-year-old log house, a stabbur, a Finnish sauna, a Danish windmill, a 27-foot-tall Swedish Dala horse and a gift shop. Norsk Høstfest, North America's largest Scandinavian festival, returns in 2022.

Enchanted Highway in North Dakota (Credit: North Dakota Tourism)
Enchanted Highway in North Dakota (Credit: North Dakota Tourism)

3. Enchanted Highway • Gladstone to Regent

Artist Gary Greff has been making supersized Instagam-worthy art from recycled oil drums and metal since 1993, coaxing I-94 travelers to detour along the Enchanted Highway. Starting with the 110-foot "Geese in Flight" statue, the 32-mile route features regionally themed scenes from leaping walleye to an invasion of grasshoppers. Look for a dragon above the former school-turned-hotel in tiny Regent.

Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. (North Dakota Tourism)
Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center. (North Dakota Tourism)

4. Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center • Washburn

Rewind more than 200 years along the Missouri River north of Bismarck. Tour the replicated Fort Mandan, where the explorers spent the winter of 1804-05 with the help of Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara peoples. Exhibits include 81 of Karl Bodmer's early paintings of Plains Indians. Head 23 miles west to Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site, where families hunted, farmed and traded from earth-lodge communities for hundreds of years.

North Dakota State Heritage Center and State Museum. (Credit: North Dakota Tourism)
North Dakota State Heritage Center and State Museum. (Credit: North Dakota Tourism)

5. North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum • Bismarck

This modern 97,000-square-foot free museum pays homage to Plains Indians, pioneers and prairie life, but also offers plenty for paleontology fans. Look for the world's largest giant squid fossil, a prehistoric turtle the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, and a rare 67 million-year-old mummified hadrosaur with skin and scales visible. Leave time to explore the capital's Riverwood Drive with the Dakota Zoo, Lewis & Clark Riverboat cruises and birding.

Drekker Brewing Company in downtown Fargo, N.D. (Visit Fargo-Moorhead)
Drekker Brewing Company in downtown Fargo, N.D. (Visit Fargo-Moorhead)

6. Downtown Fargo

Grab a seat on the patio or in the spacious Brewhalla at Drekker Brewing Company's converted 1883 railroad shop for a sample of the city's modern food and drink vibe. It sits within a mile of downtown, where other historic warehouses host the Plains Art Museum and Hotel Donaldson, with its rooftop bar. A wealth of restaurants, breweries and coffee shops tap the famously fertile Red River Valley for local produce and inspiration.

South Dakota

Bonna BigCrow, Kara Ashley and Brianna Roan Eagle laugh together while sitting on the rocks at Falls Park in Sioux Falls. (Erin Bormett / Argus Leader)
Bonna BigCrow, Kara Ashley and Brianna Roan Eagle laugh together while sitting on the rocks at Falls Park in Sioux Falls. (Erin Bormett / Argus Leader)

1. Falls Park • Sioux Falls

Waterfall connoisseurs might bypass a prairie falls, but the Big Sioux River carves a stunning 100-foot cascade across rosy pink quartzite in South Dakota's largest city. Climb the five-story observation tower, wander the Queen Bee Mill ruins or pedal the Big Sioux River Recreation Trail. Grab a meal at Falls Overlook Cafe or Bread & Circus Sandwich Kitchen before catching one of 40 free summer concerts at the Levitt at the Falls amphitheater.

South Dakota Children's Museum. (Credit: Travel South Dakota)
South Dakota Children's Museum. (Credit: Travel South Dakota)

2. Children's Museum of South Dakota • Brookings

Take the kids to this college town (pop. 24,000) along the rolling prairie coteau. They can stand beneath a roaring animatronic Mama T. Rex and her son Max, wind through outdoor prairie grasses, and tackle the cloud climber at the Children's Museum of South Dakota. Grab a grilled cheese sandwich that looks like an owl at Cafe Coteau or time-travel with lunch at Nick's Hamburger Shop.

Dignity, Chamberlain. (South Dakota Department of Tourism)
Dignity, Chamberlain. (South Dakota Department of Tourism)

3. Dignity of Earth & Sky • Chamberlain

Overlooking the Missouri River at an I-90 rest stop that feels like the gateway to the West, Dale Lamphere's striking Dignity sculpture is both a tribute to the Lakota and Dakota peoples and the new symbol of the state. Dignity's face is a composite of three Native women, and her star quilt is made of 128 blue steel diamonds that flutter in the breeze. Chamberlain's excellent Akta Lakota Museum offers a deeper dive into the culture.

Badlands National Park. (Credit: Mackenzie Reed, National Park Service)
Badlands National Park. (Credit: Mackenzie Reed, National Park Service)

4. Badlands National Park

After a long, hot day's drive across the South Dakota plains, the Badlands' tricolor sand castles rise suddenly from an ancient sea bed, like the stuff of vintage Rand McNally atlas covers. (The otherworldly landscape was more recently seen in "Nomadland.") The 40-mile, overlook-packed Badlands Loop Road is a required detour from the interstate, but stay a while for a fossil hike, overnight camping or a bison burger at the Cedar Pass Lodge.

Wind Cave National Park (Travel South Dakota)
Wind Cave National Park (Travel South Dakota)

5. Wind Cave & Jewel Cave • Custer

The third- and seventh-longest cave systems in the world lie within 30 miles of each other. Wind Cave National Park features delicate boxwork along its ceilings, along with frostwork and cave popcorn. Look for flowstones like wedding cakes, soda straws, cave "bacon" and glittery calcite crystals at Jewel Cave National Monument, currently undergoing elevator renovations that restrict tour choices. Reservations are advised for both.

Mammoth Site (Credit: Travel South Dakota)
Mammoth Site (Credit: Travel South Dakota)

6. The Mammoth Site • Hot Springs

Expect a hush of wonder with the first step inside the Mammoth Site, a museum and lab built atop an Ice Age sinkhole where more than mammoths have been excavated since the 1970s. Visitors can watch the scientific work in progress on still-buried bones and in the lab that preserves them. The museum offers a glimpse at other Ice Age creatures, including giant short-faced bears and ancestors of camels, llamas, wolves and marine life.

St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote two editions of Globe-Pequot Press' "The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path" guidebooks.