35 Unique Things to do in South Dakota

View along Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway in Black Hills of South Dakota

Planning a trip to South Dakota and looking for the best South Dakota attractions? Find our recommendations for the best things to do in South Dakota including Mount Rushmore, Black Hills, Badlands National Park, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, and more in this South Dakota tourism travel guide.

21 Best Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Planning a trip to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and looking for things to do on your visit? Read our Theodore Roosevelt National Park travel guide to see the highlights in a day including Chateau de Mores Historic Site, Painted Canyon, Prairie Dog Town, and Oxbow Overlook.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has long been on our bucket list because of its rugged Badlands formations and abundant wildlife.

Located in western North Dakota, the park has a stunning landscape of eroded geological landforms. 

Named after US President Theodore Roosevelt, the national park shares a special connection with him.

Roosevelt spent several years as a rancher in the park’s wilderness and considered the experience as instrumental to becoming the 26th President of the USA.

His time in North Dakota is also said to have influenced his conservationist policies.

The park preserves his legacy and visitors can learn a lot about him at the Visitor Center museum. 

Hiking in the park with our kids

Fun Fact: Did you know that the badlands in western North Dakota are often referred to as the ‘other badlands’? The most popular badlands in the world are located inside the Badlands National Park in South Dakota. 

The park is divided into 3 units: the South Unit, North Unit, and the Elkhorn Unit.

The South Unit is the most popular one due to its accessibility from I-94 and its proximity to Medora, a charming small town that makes a perfect place to stay and explore the park. 

The North Unit is about an hour and a half away from Dickinson while the Elkhorn Unit is halfway between both the units. Another less-visited area is the Petrified Forest trail in the south unit. 

If you have just one day to explore the park, we would recommend visiting the south unit but if you have more time be sure to check out the more wild and less crowded north unit as well – it’s totally worth the trip! 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has stunning landscapes and plenty of wildlife

Things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota’s only national park not only has 3 units but also covers over 70,446 acres.

Needless to say, the park has plenty of outdoor recreation opportunities. Inside the park, visitors will find miles of hiking and biking trails, equestrian trails, rock climbing, camping, and photography opportunities. 

Here are some of our favorite things to do in the national park; we have tried to cover the attractions in all three units so it will help in your trip planning. 

See the myriad of colors from Painted Canyon Overlook

The park’s Painted Canyon Visitor Center is one of the most accessible areas of the park.

Located right on the I-94, this non-fee area is the best place to experience the badlands in as little as one to two hours. 

The Painted Canyon abounds with stunning geological beauty.

This unique region was created due to continuous erosion by the wind and the water, similar to the other areas in the park.

But here, you can spot multiple layers of red, brown, orange, and white rock formations.

From the Painted Canyon Overlook, you can see the incredible view spread over miles and miles of badlands. 

Hike the mile-long Painted Canyon Nature Trail to see the layers from up close.

The trail has steps that take you down into the canyon.

The trail is kid-friendly and a great way to experience the landscape in less time.

While you are there, stop inside the Visitor Center to see interesting exhibits about the park and its geology. 

Views on the scenic drive in the park

Get maps & more at the Visitor Center

Theodore Roosevelt National Park has three visitor centers and all of them are excellent places to start your trip.

The Visitor Centers include Painted Canyon Visitor Center, South Unit Visitor Center, and the North Unit Visitor Center.

The south unit also has a museum on Teddy Roosevelt. 

The visitor centers are good to stock on souvenirs, see exhibits, pick up Junior Ranger books for the kids, and ask the rangers any questions.

The Visitor Centers also have family fun packs that you can borrow.

Our included activities, magnifying lenses, and binoculars. The kids loved the activities and field guides in the bag. 

Tour the historic Maltese Cross Cabin Ranch

The Maltese Cross Cabin Ranch is located right beside the south unit visitor center.

This was President Theodore Roosevelt’s first cabin in North Dakota. He lived here from 1883 – 1884 when he came to the state to hunt bison before he became President in 1901. 

Since then, the cabin has been removed from the state several times and taken to the World’s Fair in St. Louis and the Lewis & Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland.

It was returned to the park in 1959 and since then has been carefully restored and opened to the public.

On a tour of the cabin, visitors can see several objects originally used by the President as well as other replica items including a writing desk, trunk, rocking chair, and more.

You can see the kitchen, bedroom, and living room. The cabin offers a fascinating glimpse into the life of the country’s only cowboy President and should be a must on your visit to the park. 

Closeup view of mushroom cap rocks

Spot the critters at Prairie Dog Town

At the Prairie Dog Town Overlook, you can see hundreds of black-tailed prairie dogs, one of the most famous mammals living inside the park.

These critters are actually rodents that bark in high-pitched noises if they spot predators. 

They live in communities called towns and burrow their homes.

At the overlook, you can spot several standing guards over their burrows and jumping up or down – or barking – if you happen to go near.

The prairie dogs are herbivores and you can spot them nibbling on grasses and weeds. 

The prairie dogs are abundant throughout the park and you will soon start spotting them throughout their visit!

Look out for the bison herds on your path

The American Bison is synonymous with North Dakota and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the best places in the state to see these majestic creatures.

The bison was once prolific on the Great Plains but soon came near to extinction due to excessive hunting. 

Fun Fact: Did you know that the American Bison is the national mammal of the United States? It is also the largest mammal in the country and can weigh up to 2000 pounds!

Fortunately, the conservation efforts carried out by Roosevelt protected their habitat, and today, you can see the bison roam freely in the state.

The national park has hundreds of wild bison. You can see lonely bison while hiking on the trails. 

However, our favorite experience was to encounter a large bison herd crossing the road in the south unit.

We had to make way for the bison as they slowly continued to cross.

While waiting, we could watch bison calves as well as adult bisons rolling in the dirt. 

You are sure to see bison in the park

Learn about the unique history of the feral horses

While most of the park wildlife can be found in both the units, the feral horses can only be spotted in the south unit of the park.

These horses were originally brought from Europe during colonial times and since then, they have roamed freely on the Great Plains.

The horses do not belong to anyone and are truly wild. 

The Native American tribes used them to hunt buffaloes and during battles.

The horses contributed vastly to the growth and development of the indigenous people. The horses were also important to ranchers.

They are recognized as an indispensable part of the cultural history of the state. 

We actually learned a lot of this information in the ‘Horses of North Dakota’ exhibit at the North Dakota Cultural and Heritage Center in Bismarck.

But seeing the wild horses run free in the National Park was a unique experience. The horses stay in groups called bands.

It was fascinating to see them run and graze on the grasslands. We could also spot a few young foals. 

Wild horses in the park

Have other equally amazing wildlife encounters in the park

The national park is home to rich and diverse Great Plains wildlife.

Visitors can see a variety of other mammals and birds apart from the famous bison herds, prairie dogs, and feral horses.

While hiking in the park or camping, you can spot coyotes, badgers, elk, bighorn sheep, mule deer, pronghorn antelopes, and more. 

We also spotted white-tailed deer, hare, chipmunks, as well as a variety of birds including golden eagles.

We could hear a rattlesnake as we hiked in the park. Our kids loved seeing the wildlife in their natural habitat and it was a fun and educational experience.

To increase your chances of viewing wildlife, we recommend bringing along a pair of binoculars. 

Take in the Badlands formations on the South Unit Scenic Loop Drive

The 36-mile long scenic loop road is the best way to experience the popular south unit of the park.

Overlooks, trailheads, and interpretive signs are conveniently located along the drive.

The scenic drive begins at the visitor center and takes you through remote areas of the national park. 

Along the way, you will see the Little Missouri River, the badlands, and abundant wildlife.

If you happen to visit spring to early summer, the green grass sways in the wind and you can spot a variety of wildflowers.

Late summer to fall, the dried brown grass makes the landscape even more unique and desolate.

We recommend stopping at all the overlooks and taking your time on the scenic drive.

Take photographs and see wildlife. Hike the Wind Canyon Trail to see spectacular views of the Little Missouri River.

Admire the badlands from the Boicourt Overlook and the North Dakota Badlands Overlook. 

While the drive seems short, considering the many viewpoints and hiking trails, we would recommend keeping anything from 3 hours to a full day to enjoy the scenic drive. 

The vista at Boicourt Overlook

Visit Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch

While the Maltese Cross Cabin Ranch was Roosevelt’s first ranch in North Dakota, the Elkhorn Ranch was where he spent a significant amount of time.

His books refer to the Elkhorn Ranch as his home ranch. 

While only the ruins of the ranch remain, you can still visit to see the foundation stones at the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.

This is the place the president chose to grieve in solitude after the death of his mother and wife – and is a fascinating place to visit. 

A short 0.7 miles one-way trail leads from the parking lot to the site.

The solitude of the site and its location amidst beautiful landscapes is breathtaking.

Due to the lack of visitors and amenities, you can almost step back in time and experience what the President experienced while living there. 

“My home ranch-house stands on the river brink. From the low, long veranda, shaded by leafy cotton-woods, one looks across sand bars and shallows to a strip of meadowland, behind which rises a line of sheer cliffs and grassy plateaus. This veranda is a pleasant place in the summer evenings when a cool breeze stirs along the river and blows in the faces of the tired men, who loll back in their rocking-chairs (what true American does not enjoy a rocking-chair?), book in hand–though they do not often read the books, but rock gently to and for, gazing sleepily out at the weird-looking buttes opposite, until their sharp outlines grow indistinct and purple in the after-glow of the sunset.”
– From ‘Hunting Trips of a Ranchman’ by Theodore Roosevelt

See the panorama from Buck Hill

Buck Hill, in my opinion, is one of the best-kept secrets of the park.

This overlook is not on the main scenic drive; you need to take a turn just a little before Boicourt Overlook. That’s why it is avoided by most people.

When we visited Buck Hill, there were just a couple of other visitors there. 

At 2855 ft, Buck Hill is the highest point in the south unit. This is an excellent place to watch a panoramic view of the prairies and the badlands.

You can also spot wildlife including the wild horses and bison. The view from up here is especially popular with photographers. 

From the parking lot to the top of the hill is a steep but short half-mile-long trail.

The trail is family-friendly, our 4-year-old could easily hike to the top without any help. 

Canoe or kayak down the Little Missouri River

The Little Missouri River is a tributary of the Missouri River.

It flows through both the units of the national park and through the badlands formations. The gentle river is popular for paddling.

From the water, you can have a unique perspective of the eroded badlands formations. You can spot the different layers of deposits and its rich vibrant shades.

Avid outdoor enthusiasts can actually canoe or kayak from the south unit in Medora to the north unit.

Along the way, you can hike or spot wildlife including pelicans, eagles, mule deer, desert bighorn sheep, bison, and owls.

Late spring or early summer is one of the best times to go on a paddling trip.

However, the trip takes about 5 days and is not for the fainthearted! To plan a trip, read the official information here

Mountain bike the scenic Maah Daah Hey Trail

To experience the best of the Little Missouri National Grasslands, consider traversing the Maah Daah Hey Trail.

The name is from the Mandan Indian language and means ‘an area that will be around for a long time’. 

The trail is 144 miles long and connects the north and south units of the national park. You can bike/hike along the trail.

Several campgrounds are located along the trail for backpackers. The trail is also open to horseback riders.

Even if you can’t hike it in entirety, we recommend walking a mile or so on it in the south unit, for the unique experience and vistas. 

Along the trail, you will be treated to expansive views of the grasslands and the uneven badlands.

You will also experience North Dakota’s magnificent solitude and have a variety of wildlife encounters. 

Hiking in the park is great fun

Drive the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit Scenic Byway

Theodore Roosevelt National Park’s North Unit offers a much more isolated experience than the popular south unit.

Accessible by an hour’s drive along North Dakota 85 from I-94, the North Unit is known for its dramatic scenery.

The badlands seem more colorful here plus you can get more up close to them.

Drive along the 28 miles out and back scenic drive to explore the highlights of this area.

You will be driving through the badlands and see the park from beautiful viewpoints such as the River Bend Overlook and Oxbow Overlook.

You can also spot bighorn sheep, bison, and deer on the drive as well as see unique geological landforms such as cannonball concretions. 

See the cannonball concretions in the North Unit

One of the more unique geological landforms that you will see in the north unit is the sandstone cannonball concretions.

Stop at the Cannonball Concretions Overlook on the North Unit scenic drive to see these unique natural phenomena.

The sandstone cannonball concretions are large spherical boulders that formed naturally in the rock layers.

They are formed by the deposition of minerals around a central core.

The boulders became exposed as erosion weathered away the surrounding rock layer.

The cannonballs are fascinating to see. Some of them are as large as five feet and perfect spheres.

You can also see some being embedded in the surface; partially eroded from the bedrock.

The cannonball concretions look striking against the surface of the badlands and are a must-see on a visit to the north unit. 

These cannonball concretions in Bismarck are similar to those in the national park’s North unit

Explore more of the park by hiking

Hiking is one of the best ways to experience the rugged badlands, abundant wildlife, and fascinating landscapes of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The park has many hiking trails in the south unit as well as the north unit that are perfect for a variety of difficulty levels. 

The Wind Canyon Trail is an easy trail along an eroded canyon that leads to spectacular views of the Little Missouri River.

The views from here are especially scenic at sunset, making it popular with photographers.

Equally stunning is the panorama from Buck Hill, the highest point in the park. The trail is just under half a mile and kid-friendly. 

We also enjoyed hiking along the Old East Entrance Trail and seeing the now abandoned visitor center.

We saw a hare and prairie dogs on this trail plus the kids enjoyed running over the flat grasslands. 

Another must-do hike is the Petrified Forest trail that takes you past an entire area covered with petrified trees.

Petrified trees are trees that instead of decomposing have been turned to stone due to unique environmental conditions.

The landscape here is especially stark and desolate with colorful petrified trees in every direction. 

Also Read: 15 Best Hikes in Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Spotting wildlife from Badlands Overlook

View the dark night sky

For both astronomy lovers and amateurs alike, Theodore Roosevelt National Park and its surrounding areas are great places to view the night sky.

The sky here is especially dark at night and you can see thousands of planets, stars, and constellations clearly. 

The Milky Way is also clearly visible from the park.

Carry along binoculars or a telescope to make the most of your stargazing.  The park is especially popular for watching meteor showers, shooting stars, and comets. 

While you need to camp in the park to observe the night sky and go on the scenic drives at night, areas around the park such as Medora are also excellent for stargazing.

The park also holds the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival in the summer. 

Watch the spectacular Northern Lights

Few people know that Theodore Roosevelt National Park is also a good place to watch the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis.

While sightings are not guaranteed, when they do they light up the sky in beautiful shades of green and blue. 

While the chance for sightings is year-round, they are more frequent and visible from late fall to spring.

If you are hoping to see the northern lights on your visit, then read this before you go. 

Surreal eroded badlands

Camp in the stunning wilderness

Camping in Theodore Roosevelt National Park is one of the best ways to experience this unique landscape of deep canyons and gullies at night.

You can try to spot both the Northern Lights as well as the beautiful dark sky. 

The park has three campgrounds: Cottonwood in the south unit and Juniper in the north unit, as well as the equestrian RoundUp campground also in the south unit.

The park also allows backcountry camping, but you need to obtain free permits at the visitor center. 

See the snow-covered badlands in the winter

While most people visit the Theodore Roosevelt National Park from spring to fall, the badlands look beautiful even when covered in the snow in winter.

However, the conditions are harsh: the park receives over 300 inches of snow throughout the season and blizzards are also common. 

Theodore Roosevelt called the park ‘an abode of iron desolation’ and in no other season is this comparison more apt than in winter!

Visiting in winter will also give you an idea of the extreme winter of 1886-1887 that killed over half of Roosevelt’s cattle. 

The park is open year-round and the scenic drives also do not close for the season.

There may be occasional closures, which you can verify at the visitor center before your visit.

You can engage in winter activities such as snowshoeing, cross country skiing, and ice fishing inside the park. 

Old East entrance building

Visit Chateau de Mores Historic Site

Just outside of the south unit entrance to the park, you will find the Chateau de Mores State Historic Site.

This historic home was the hunting lodge and residence of the Marquis de Mores, who founded the town of Medora, named after his wife.

The house was built in 1883 and is preserved as a historic site. 

On a tour of the historic house, you can see the many spacious rooms that the marquis built for his wife, Medora.

You can see various daily items used by the Marquis and his wife, most of which are still in excellent condition.

It is fun to listen to the history of those times and the story of the Marquis. 

Enjoy a stay in the charming town of Medora

Medora is the perfect base for exploring the south unit of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

It has ranked among the best small towns in the USA and has a charming vibe that you simply can’t help falling in love with.

There are several things to do in Medora and we recommend spending at least half a day here. 

Some of the must-see attractions include exploring the Chateau de Mores Historic Site, the charming downtown with pioneer-style buildings, the Medora Musical dedicated to Teddy Roosevelt, and unique dining destinations such as the Pitchfork Fondue and the Cowboy Cafe.

You can also spend a relaxing day playing mini-golf, zip-lining, or just strolling around the boutiques and antique stores.

Charming Medora makes the perfect base to explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park

We hope you liked our post on things to do in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota.

Did we miss out on any outdoor activities or things to do in the park? Let us know in the comments!

Disclaimer: We visited Theodore Roosevelt National Park and several other destinations in North Dakota as part of a paid campaign with North Dakota Tourism. All opinions, local businesses, and activities recommendations are our own.

18 Best Places to eat in Bismarck, North Dakota

Visiting Bismarck, North Dakota, and looking for the best places to eat while in the city? Check our guide for the best restaurants as well as recommendations on what to order in North Dakota’s capital. Also, read our post on 21 Fun (and Free) things to do in Bismarck.

Welcome to Bismarck, North Dakota’s capital, located on the banks of the Missouri River!

Bismarck has grown a lot from its humble origins as the Crossing to the popular state capital and a modern, vibrant city. And along with this growth have come a host of restaurants that serve a variety of cuisines, comparable to those in major food cities of America. 

Kroll’s legit has the best breakfast in America, per Food Network!

Living in Houston has made us accustomed to an exciting and ever-changing dining scene and honestly, we did not know what to expect as we embarked on our trip to North Dakota. But the city has an impressively diverse food scene. We could spot everything from chic cafes, gluten-free eateries, coffee shops, fine dining restaurants, and international foodie spots. 

Bismarck’s food scene is very much locally influenced – that means a variety of red meats from local ranches, breads and pastas from local durum wheat, steaks and burgers in creative styles, and a strong mix of German and Norweigian dishes that reflect the city’s ethnic heritage. 

Bismarck is a fun and vibrant city with a lot of foodie destinations

Best Restaurants in Bismarck

We visited Bismarck as part of our North Dakota road trip and tried several dining options in Bismarck as well as nearby Mandan area. Here is our guide to some of Bismarck’s top eateries based on our short but thorough stay in the city! Along with eateries, diners, and restaurants, we have also tried to cover a variety of bars and pubs in this post. 

Try the famous Knoephla Soup at Kroll’s Diner

Kroll’s Diner is one of the legendary eateries in Bismarck. Opened in 1969, the diner quickly became famous for serving German food and North Dakota specialties like the knoephla soup and Fleischkuechle, a savory deep-fried ground beef pastry. They also serve many other German specialties, a nod to the German heritage of North Dakota. 

The diner has many locations throughout the state. We especially loved the one in Mandan for its vintage charm. We visited Kroll’s for breakfast and loved their skillets as well as the chocolate chip pancake. The eatery has even featured in Food Network’s Best Breakfast in the USA List. 

Cozy atmosphere of Kroll’s Diner

Try the daily specials at the Little Cottage Cafe

Another great place to try the knoephla soup, fleischkuechle, and other German foods. The cafe has a vintage 1960s diner feel plus has a great wallet-friendly menu. Their home-style cooked food is totally worth the trip. Conveniently located on Main, they are a good choice from breakfast to dinner.

Order a beer flight at the Laughing Sun Brewery

Laughing Sun Brewery has been consistently voted one of the best in Bismarck and that’s why it was on the top of our list. The brewery is kid-friendly before 9 pm and that’s why we went there for lunch. We loved the decor, the brews, as well as the food. The Brewery also has live music events at various times during the month. 

The Laughing Sun Brewery

Dine in the shadows of famous personalities at the Peacock Alley

Peacock Alley is Bismarck’s most iconic steak house. It is located in the lobby of the former Patterson Hotel and has hosted many famous personalities including former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Lyndon Johnson. The restaurant features many vintage photographs on the wall from that era. On a visit, you should really try our the steak cuts – they have the perfect balance of juiciness and tenderness. 

Drink like the Irish at Blarney Stone Pub

Blarney Stone Pub is the only authentic Irish Pub in Bismarck. Located on Main Avenue opposite the Rail Depot and adjacent to the Dakota Stage Theatre, this pub is located in a historic building. The exposed brick walls, rich wood paneling, and counters lend to the Irish pub atmosphere. They also serve a variety of food that goes beyond the regular bar menu and includes favorites like the Irish stew and bread pudding. The variety of draft beers on tap is sure to satisfy varying taste buds. Tip: You need to be 21+ to enter!

Blarney Stone Pub on Main Avenue is must visit

Visit Terra Nomad for brunch

Terra Nomad offers the quintessential hipster cafe experience in downtown Bismarck. The vibe of this cafe is more Pacific Northwest than Midwest and you can order holistic options like chia pudding and quinoa salad. They also have a variety of cookies and pastries. This is a great option to visit from breakfast to lunch and their vast drinks menu is sure to satisfy even the more exacting coffee aficionados. 

Dine-in outer space at the Space Aliens Grill & Bar

The Space Aliens Grill & Bar was an instant hit with our kids. This outer space-themed restaurant has futuristic interiors – you will see aliens, spaceships, rockets, and more throughout the restaurant. The food is good and the menu items are named after space objects. The restaurant also has few arcade games and kids of all ages love it. 

Kids love the alien-themed restaurant

Stop for a coffee and a smile at Coffee Break

Stop in this quaint cafe for your morning cup of coffee and you will be off to a great day. Their coffees are piping hot, come fast, and are budget-friendly. They also have coffee beans, so this is the place to stock up on your supplies. The decor is also really pretty!

Taste the bison medallions at Pirogue Grille

Looking for an elegant place for date night or just a nice place to have dinner? Visit the Pirogue Grille. The restaurant has a really great interior – think exposed bricks, warm wood detailing, and pristine white table cloths – so cozy and romantic! They have a vast menu from drinks to desserts and the restaurant is a great place to order bison meat. 

Pirogue Grill is a perfect date spot

Try the wood-fired pizzas at the Toasted Frog

If you want a really good wood-fired pizza or martini in downtown, then visit the Toasted Frog. This eatery also has locations in Fargo and Grand Forks and is good to visit for its atmosphere and an extensive menu of pizzas, chicken wings, burgers, and more. You can also order local delicacies like elk burger and the chicken dumpling soup. They have some really unique martinis on the menu including dessert martinis like key lime pie martini and lemon cheesecake martinis. 

Sample the Neopolitan pizza at FireFlour Pizzeria & Coffee Bar

Another pizza place located in Downtown Bismarck! They have really light airy crust Neopolitan style pizzas. Along with pizzas, you can also order coffee and cookies at the coffee bar. They also have a good selection of craft beers and desserts – their affogato is delicious!

Pizza time

Enjoy a splurge-worthy dinner at the Butterhorn

Butterhorn is an upscale restaurant that serves up delicious French and Italian inspired dishes. They serve several small plates and while the portions are not huge, the taste is always spot on and delicious! It’s great for special occasions like birthdays or anniversaries. 

Try the charcuterie board at Anima Cucina

If you love charcuterie boards, then you must try the one at Anima Cucina. Located opposite the iconic Patterson Place Hotel, Anima Cucina is a sister restaurant of FireFlour Pizzeria. This downtown Italian deli-style restaurant has a great selection of meats and cheeses. They also have excellent wines and an extensive menu of Italian dishes. 

Anima Cucina with Luft rooftop bar in the background

Try the American fare at the Bistro

Bistro 1100 is located inside a carriage house and serves excellent American food. Their burgers and sandwiches are really good and the eatery often has live music on weekends. Its located right next to the Laughing Sun Brewery, so you can grab a beer too while you are at the Bistro. 

Order a bowl of noodle soup at Noodlezip

For a fresh, hot, steaming cup of pho or ramen, visit the Noodlezip in downtown Bismarck. They have multiple vegan options as well and cater to a variety of tastes. The soups are especially comforting on a cold fall or winter night!

Try a burger made from local meat

Enjoy the prohibition era atmosphere at 510.2 Speakeasy

Looking for a hidden cocktail bar in downtown Bismarck? Try to locate the 510.2 Speakeasy! Along with the prohibition theme, you will find unique drinks and an intimate atmosphere. Perfect to impress a date! Alternatively, you can also visit their sister bar – the Luft Rooftop Bar for beautiful views over Bismarck as well as good drinks and food.

Catch a game at the Elbow Room

The Elbow Room, located downtown, is one of Bismarck’s most popular sports bars. It’s a great place to hang out, watch a game, and have a drink or two with your friends. However, the bar can be quite crowded on weekends and it is more popular with younger crowds. 

Eat the icecream at FOMO 10/40

If you are visiting the city on a hot day – or like us, love ice cream – then you should definitely visit FOMO 10/40 creamery. They have really amazing flavors of Italian style gelato ice cream named after different countries and you can get them in a waffle cone. Plus you will be supporting a local business!

Beer on tap at Laughing Sun Brewery

That’s it. Our list of the best of the best eateries in Bismarck. I’m pretty sure we missed some fantastic dining spots in the city – so if y’all know of any that should be on the list, just leave us a comment and we can add it right back in!

Disclaimer: We visited Bismarck and several other destinations in North Dakota as part of a paid campaign with North Dakota Tourism. All opinions, local businesses, and activities recommendations are our own.

23 Amazing Things to do in Bismarck, North Dakota

Planning a visit to Bismarck in North Dakota and looking for things to do in the state capital? Find the best things to do in Bismarck including the North Dakota State Capitol tour, the North Dakota Heritage Center, Bismarck Art Alley, the Dakota Zoo, and more in this ultimate guide. Find recommendations on where to eat in Bismarck and where to stay in our Bismarck travel guide.

Located on the banks of the Missouri River, Bismarck is the state capital of North Dakota. We recently visited Bismarck on our summer road trip to North Dakota and were blown away by the many attractions and things to do in Bismarck. 

The city is amazing to visit with kids and has many family-friendly activities. While we spent a little over a day in Bismarck, we would recommend everyone to devote at least two to three days to enjoy the many points of interest and attractions in the city. 

Here’s a little history about Bismarck for the curious: Founded in 1872, the city was formerly known as Edwinton. Its name was later changed to honor the German Iron Chancellor, Otto Van Bismarck of Prussia. The city has strong German and Norwegian heritage and you will find it reflected in the traditions and cuisine of the region. 

Downtown Bismarck

After the formation of the state of North Dakota in 1889, Bismarck contested with Jamestown for the honor of the state capital. The city won and today, the Capitol Grounds along with all its buildings are one of the premier attractions in the city. 

Because of its location along the Missouri River, Bismarck played an important part in Lewis and Clark Expedition and historical landmarks related to the voyage of discovery can be found all over the city. 

Fun fact: Did you know that Bismarck’s earliest name was Missouri Crossing or simply, ‘The Crossing’? 

Bismarck is also a great place to learn about Native American history of the area, the state’s geology. For history buffs, the city has many interesting attractions including the North Dakota Heritage Center and the Steamboat Park.

We flew into the Bismarck airport (BIS) and began our trip to North Dakota in the city. The airport itself is worth seeing for reasons that we mention later in the post. (Hint: dinosaur alert!) Here’s a detailed travel guide to the city for planning your trip. 

Beautiful murals in Art Alley

Best Things to do in Bismarck

Bismarck is the perfect place to explore many things that are unique to North Dakota: the prehistoric past, German-inspired state cuisine, and cultural attractions. It also makes a perfect base for day trips and weekend getaways to nearby attractions including Jamestown, Valley City, Dickinson, and Medora. 

Because of its location on the I-94, it is easy to visit on a North Dakota road trip. In short, you don’t have any excuse to skip this city and you should definitely add it to your North Dakota bucket list. Here are some of our favorite things to do in Bismarck.  

Tour the North Dakota State Capitol

We highly recommend beginning your Bismarck trip by seeing the North Dakota State Capitol. Located in the center of the city, the state capitol is quite unusual compared to most other white-domed Capitol buildings. 

Here you will find a 21 story tower in Art Deco style of architecture. At over 241 feet, this is the tallest building in North Dakota and called ‘ The Skyscraper on the Prairie’. The Capitol was built during the Great Depression era and the architecture was chosen to reduce costs. 

Visitors can take a free tour of the building to see it from the inside. An observation deck is located on the 18th floor from where you can have amazing 360 views of Bismarck. The state capitol building is usually open till 5 pm, we recommend checking the website for updated hours. 

The building is also beautifully decorated during the holiday season – window lights are used to create displays of Christmas Tree and ring in the New Year – in case you are visiting during the winter. 

North Dakota State Capitol

Walk around the Capitol Grounds and the Arboretum Trail

After visiting the State Capitol, take the time to explore the Capitol Grounds. You can take beautiful pictures of the Capitol building from the grounds as well as check out the many monuments and memorials located here. 

The Capitol Grounds also has two parks: the Capitol Park and the Myron Atkinson Park, named after Bismarck’s famous civic leader. The parks are great for a stroll. You can also take a walk along the Arboretum Trail which will take you past different species of plants before ending at the Pembina River Plaza. 

Some of the popular sculptures and statues include the Buffalo sculpture, Sakakawea’s statue, the Pioneer Family Statue, and the Horse ‘Cortes’. You can also see the All Veterans Memorial and Purple Heart Memorial.

See prehistoric beasts at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum

The North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum is located in the Capitol Grounds next to the State capitol and is a must-visit attraction. Entry to the museum is free and it has thousands of artifacts from around the state displayed in well-arranged galleries. 

Our favorite gallery was by far the Adaptation Gallery where visitors can see skeletons of dinosaurs like T-Rex and Triceratops, prehistoric underwater creatures, and ice age mammals including a ground sloth. The giant skeletons and cast leave visitors awed and the gallery is a great place to learn about the state’s earliest residents.

Other popular galleries display the history of horses in North Dakota, the geological timeline of the state, the indigenous people, birds of North Dakota, as well as modern exhibits about agriculture and oil drilling in the state.

The museum is popularly known as the ‘Smithsonian on the Plains’ because of its large variety of exhibits and free entry. 

Horses in North Dakota temporary exhibit
Mosasaurus in the Heritage Center
A Triceratops and T-Rex in battle at the musuem

Admire the Northern Lights Atrium

Located at the entrance of the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum, you will spot a giant steel and glass structure. Known as the Northern Lights Atrium, the architecture is inspired by early Native American tipi structures. 

On the floor, you will find engraved the North Dakota state seal as well as the names of all 53 counties. The atrium is popular for events and small weddings and is a great place to take Instagram worthy shots in Bismarck. 

At night, the Atrium is lit up and lights resembling the Northern Lights are projected against the glass ceiling. The view looks really beautiful and photogenic – you can admire it even from the outside. We recommend visiting again after dark just to see the lighted atrium if you have the time.

The Atrium from the inside

Explore the Pembina River Plaza

The Pembina River Plaza is the wide-open area located just outside the museum entrance, in front of the Northern Lights Atrium. The plaza highlights some of the most important geological events in the state. 

You can spot several pieces of petrified wood found along the shores of Lake Sakakawea. This is a nearly 65 million years old petrified sequoia tree that grew in the delta that was western North Dakota. 

Pembina River Plaza and Northern Lights Atrium

You can also see several sandstone spheres that occurred naturally about 56 million years ago. Known as cannonball concentrations, these perfectly spherical geological landforms are found along the Little Missouri River in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. They are also found along the Cannonball River. 

You can also spot granite boulders and plants native to the prairie grasslands in the plaza. The plaza also has benches to relax. We enjoyed sitting here and reflecting on the various exhibits and artifacts in the museum as kids played around the sandstone cannonballs.

Petrified sequoia tree found in North Dakota

Find your favorite mural in Alley 5.5

Alley 5.5 or Bismarck Art Alley is the place to visit if you love vibrant street art and murals. The Alley is home to beautiful public art all falling under the theme ‘Reflections of North Dakota’. The murals showcase elements unique to the state such as bison, indigenous people, cows, prairies, farmlands, windmills, etc. 

A project of the Dakota West Arts Council, the murals were created in partnership with the local community in 2016. They feature many local artists as well as art students. The Alley is located on 5th Street halfway between Broadway and Main and should be on the top of your list.

Some of the most beautiful murals in the outdoor art gallery include a portrait of the Lakota leader Sitting Bull, a map of all 53 counties, a beautiful mosaic of sunflowers, a wall of happy faces, and more! I loved walking down the alley and finding my favorite among the colorful murals. This is also a great background to take photos for the ‘Gram in Bismarck.

Bismarck Art Alley
Thought-provoking murals in the alley
Murals depict local elements

Walk around the Downtown Bismarck Historic District

While you go to Downtown to see Alley 5.5, we recommend just strolling around the nearby area. Walk along Main Ave and spot some of the iconic buildings such as the former Patterson Place hotel building. Shop in boutique stores, try some of the trendy restaurants in the area, browse through art galleries, or take a vintage family photo.

This part of the city is preserved as the Downtown Bismarck Historic District. The area is 16 blocks large and comprises many prominent buildings. You will see late Victorian and revival style architecture buildings, most of them the work of architect Arthur Van Horn. I loved the Spanish revival style Northern Pacific Railway Depot building. 

Downtown Bismarck Historic District

See the vintage railroad engine at Camp Hancock State Historic Site

A little further on Main Street, you will find the Camp Hancock State Historic Site. The exact address is 101 East Main Avenue. This is the oldest building in Bismarck. Built-in 1872, Camp Hancock is on the National Register of Historic Places. The camp was established as a military building to protect the railroad and railroad workers. 

Today, Camp Hancock serves as a museum and has many artifacts and exhibits about Bismarck’s history. The historic site also has many other attractions. You can visit the oldest church in Bismarck as well as see a 1909 Northern Pacific Locomotive Engine. The church has beautiful stained glass windows while kids enjoy seeing the engine up close.

Learn the area history

Tour the beautifully restored Victorian Former’s Governor’s Mansion

The Former’s Governor’s Mansion State Historic Site is a great place to visit for history buffs. This Victorian mansion was built in 1884 in Stick Style and was home to the state’s governors till the 1960s. Since then, the house has been beautifully restored and is open to visitors for a free tour.

The house is 2.5 storeyed and even has a carriage house on the grounds. On a tour, you can see period furniture and decor throughout the house. You can see furniture from several eras and understand how the house changed with different governors. The house even has the reputation of being haunted and it is fun to know more about the folklore on the tour. 

Visit the Bismarck-Mandan Convention and Visitors Bureau

We always enjoy visiting local tourism offices on our trips to get maps, brochures, and inquire about any special events in the area. The Bismarck-Mandan CVB is an excellent place to get the latest information on farmers’ markets, concerts, and other happenings in the city. When we went the friendly staff provided a lot of information on attractions as well as dining options in the area. 

Be sure to stop at the Visitor Center

Climb aboard Lewis & Clark’s keelboat at Keelboat Park

We would highly recommend visiting Keelboat Park while in Bismarck. Not only can you admire the views of the river and the Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge but also see a replica of the keelboat used by Lewis & Clark on their expedition to discover the Louisiana Purchase territory. Visitors can actually climb the keelboat and read information about keelboat and steamboat transportation up and down the Missouri River. 

You can also see Eagle sculpture and statues of Lewis & Clark with Sacagewea. The park also has benches by the riverside, walking trails, and a boat ramp. You can also see a sculpture of the mythical Native American creature, Thunderbird. The Steamboat Park and Steamboat Plaza are located adjacent to the Keelboat Park and if you have time, you should also check these out. Both the parks are located along the River Road. 

Wish to set sail in the Keelboat?

Cruise down Missouri River on the Lewis & Clark Riverboat

Visitors need not admire the Missouri River only from the banks. You can also take a cruise down the river in the Lewis & Clark Riverboat. The cruises are usually an hour long and depart from May to September during the busy tourist season. On the cruise, you can enjoy views of Bismarck from the water as well as spot wildlife along the river from the open upper deck. You will also learn information about the Missouri River Valley. The cruises leave from Keelboat Park and when not in operation, you can find the steamer anchored here. 

Note: The 2020 season was suspended due to current events, and the cruises will resume in 2021. You can find more details here.

Admire the waterside views from Pioneer Overlook Park

Besides Keelboat Park, Bismarck has many urban parks and gardens located along the banks of the Missouri River. From Pioneer Overlook Park, you can watch a beautiful sunset or just walk along the river. The park has beautiful views and there are hiking and biking trails to get some exercise. The park also has skating paths and volleyball courts and is a great place to spend some time in Bismarck. 

Our kids playing at Pioneer Overlook

Take in the panorama from Chief Looking’s Village

Just a little further from Pioneer Park, you will find Chief Looking’s Village. This Native Indian village site is located off Burnt Boat Drive. Set atop a bluff overlooking the river, it has some of the best views in the city. An interpretive trail leads around burial sites and narrates the story of Bismarck’s earliest residents, the Mandan Indians. 

Continue further along the road to Pioneer Park Overlook. Here you will find a very pretty garden and an amazing view of the Missouri River Valley. Benches along the edge are perfect to admire beautiful sunsets that you see from here. When we visited the garden was blooming with summer flowers and the children’s play areas made our kids very happy. 

Information about Chief Looking’s Earthlodge Village
Walk the trail to see the archeological site

Understand Bismarck’s history at Fort Abraham Lincoln

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is the oldest state park in North Dakota. Begin your visit at the Visitor Center where you can understand the cultural history of the area. You can also tour the Fort as well as military buildings surrounding the fort. Fort Abraham Lincoln was built to protect the Northern Pacific Railroad line being built west of the river. 

It is fascinating to tour the fort and see the reconstructed supporting structures and military buildings like granary, barracks, and stables. You can even see Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s House when he was stationed here before the battle with Sioux Indians at Little Big Horn. 

An ancient Mandan Indian village site is also located inside the park. Here you can see reconstructed Earth Lodges, similar to those built by the indigenous people years ago. The park is popular with outdoor enthusiasts. You can hike, bike, fish, or go horseback riding at the state park. For a unique experience, you can also camp in tipis or stay in cabins along the river.

Custer House in Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

Be awed by dinosaur skeletons at the Bismarck airport

If you are flying into Bismarck, then you will be amazed to see a Triceratops skull right after you exit the security area. I mean, how often do you just stumble upon prehistoric remains of these famed creatures? 

When we embarked on our trip to North Dakota, we knew that we would be seeing a lot of prehistoric artifacts but seeing them right at the airport definitely made our kids day. You will also see the flying dinosaur Pteranodon as well as pieces of petrified wood and other fossils. The airport also has a lot of other sculptures and artwork including a beautifully painted piano which you can play. 

Be welcomed by a triceratops skull at the airport

Meet the animals at the Dakota Zoo

If you are visiting Bismarck with kids, then you should definitely head out to the Dakota Zoo. The Zoo is located on the banks of the Missouri River inside the urban Sertoma Park and has many different species of animals. On a visit, kids can see tigers, bears, reindeer, moose, and mountain lions. 

The best part about the Zoo though is that you can actually take a train ride to see the different animals. The ride is about half an hour long and is perfect for hot summer days when you don’t want to walk around the area with kids. 

Hike in the Missouri River State Natural Area

Just a little outside of Bismarck-Mandan, you will find the Missouri River State Natural Area. The area has scenic views and plenty of hiking trails and is a great place to spend time outdoors. The 157-acre preserve is located along the river, right next to the historic railroad bridge. The preserve has over 5 miles of hiking trails through the woods as well as plenty of backcountry trails. You can spot wildlife including deer, fox, and eagles in the preserve.

Missouri River State Natural Area, located along the river, is a good place to stay

Learn about science at the Gateway to Science Museum

Gateway to Science is a kids museum with lots of interactive activities and events. The museum has many galleries and kids of all ages can have a variety of hands-on experiences in the fields of electricity, robotics, aquaponics, and more. The activities are highly educational and interesting for all ages. This is a good place to visit if you want to mix indoor activities with outdoor time.

Splash in the water at Raging Rivers Waterpark

Looking for ideas to spend a relaxing day in Bismarck? Have had enough of all the historic and cultural attractions and looking for some family fun? Visit the Raging Rivers waterpark in Mandan. This park is great for the kids and has a variety of slides, lazy rivers, and splash play area for little ones. It is a great way to cool off when the temperatures reach the high 90s in the summer. 

Raging River Waterpark

Shop till you are tired at Kirkwood Mall

If you are tired from all the sightseeing and just want to spend a day in retail therapy or are in Bismarck for work and looking to go shopping, then you should definitely head out to Kirkwood Mall. This typical, modern mall is the second largest in the state and has plenty of popular eateries as well as retailers. 

Step back in town at Buckstop Junction Historic Town

Buckstop Junction is located on Old Highway 10 outside of Bismarck. Here you can see plenty of historic buildings and listen to the stories of people of North Dakota – both indigenous and pioneers. The late 19th century buildings were moved from different areas of the Missouri River Valley to Buckstop Junction for preservation. 

Visitors can see a historic schoolhouse, post office, bank, mine camp, pioneer church, and more in Buckstop Junction. There is also a railroad caboose which is an instant hit with the kids. The Gift Store and Visitor Center has souvenirs, gifts, antiques, and other relics from the past.  

Kayak or canoe at McDowell Dam Recreation Area

Located 5 miles east of Bismarck, you will find the McDowell Dam Recreation Area. This is a great place to spend the day outdoors. Visitors can swim at the public beach, fish at the docks, launch their own boats, or even rent a variety of equipment including paddle boats, kayaks, etc. The recreation area also has picnic tables and a playground for the kids. A small paved nature trail that goes along the edge of the reservoir and into wooded areas is perfect for those looking for some exercise. 

Where to eat in Bismarck

Bismarck has many popular restaurants that serve the regional cuisine as well as great American fare. During our visit to the city, we tried several of them including Kroll’s Diner which is famous for its knoephla soup, Space Aliens Grill & Bar, and the Laughing Sun Brewery. 

Other popular places to eat include Pirogue Grill and Peacock Alley inside the former historic Patterson Hotel. And off course you must visit the Blarney Stone Pub for Irish fare and FOMO 10/40 Creamery for delicious ice cream! For more recommendations on Where to Eat In Bismarck, check out our detailed post 18 Best Restaurants in Bismarck now.

Eat the famous breakfast skillet at Kroll’s Diner

Where to stay in Bismarck

During our stay in Bismarck, we stayed at Everspring Inn & Suites. We really liked the location which was close to the airport as well as downtown and our big, spacious suite including a separate room for the kids. The hotel has good amenities including a pool to beat the heat. 

Bismarck also has plenty of other accommodation options. The Radisson Hotel is located in a convenient location downtown while many other chains including Residence Inn by Marriott and Fairfield Inn & Suites are located near the Capitol Grounds. 

EverSpring Inn & Suites is a good place to stay in Bismarck

We hope you liked our post on the best things to do in Bismarck, North Dakota. Did we miss out on any popular attractions or free things to do in Bismarck? Let us know in the comments. Planning to visit Bismarck soon? Send us your photos of favorite attractions in Bismarck!

Disclaimer: We visited Bismarck and several other destinations in North Dakota as part of a paid campaign with North Dakota Tourism. All opinions, local businesses, and activities recommendations are our own.