7 ways to enjoy driving across North Dakota

June 26, 2019
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park: definitely worth the drive across North Dakota

Thank you to the Bismarck-Mandan CVB and the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting my stays in Bismarck and Fargo and to the Medora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau for hosting the 2019 Midwest Travel Network Conference.  As always, all content and opinions are my own.

"Driving across North Dakota" is shorthand for the most boring sort of road trip: the state is flat and sparsely populated, with vast distances and unchanging scenery.  "Driving across North Dakota solo" is pretty much the opposite of my idea of a good time—I'm more of a plane person than a road tripper.  But the thing is, I really like North Dakota and driving from my home state of Minnesota is the most practical way to travel there. 

You can definitely grit your teeth, crank up the stereo, and endure the hours-long drive.  Or you can actually learn to enjoy driving across North Dakota, making the journey part of your vacation. 

On a recent trip to North Dakota, I figured out how.

North Dakota county map mural, Art Alley, Bismarck, North Dakota
North Dakota map mural, Art Alley, Bismarck

1) Stop as often as you want

Maybe it's my Type A personality, maybe it's because I'm a numbers person, but on past road trips I've tried to subdivide my drive into even intervals—i.e., stopping every 90 minutes or 100 miles.  Unsurprisingly, this strategy does not lead to an enjoyable trip.  Inevitably I have to go to the bathroom sooner than my allotted break, or I start getting bleary eyed, or my back hurts.  On this trip, I realized road trips are much more fun if you stop whenever you need to (shocking!)

For me, that sometimes means that I need to take a break every 45 minutes or pull over at every rest stop I come across.  Maybe that means that my drive will take an extra 20 minutes, but if I'm on the road for several hours, I'd rather get to my destination a little bit later and happier than spend several hours being uncomfortable and cranky.

Bison along road at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Definitely brake for bison

2) Allocate enough time

Also related to the Type A personality thing, in the past I've based my itineraries on driving time instead of travel time.  What does that mean?  If according to Google Maps the drive from my house to Fargo will take three hours and 15 minutes, I planned on it taking three hours and 15 minutes. 

Obvious flaw with that strategy: it will always take longer than I think to get somewhere.  I will need to stop to go to the bathroom.  I will hit road construction.  I will need to stop at a gas station to buy a 32-ounce fountain pop.  And if I don't budget in the extra time I will inevitably need, I'll feel like I'm in a time crunch and I don't enjoy the journey.

I've found that I should build in 10-15 minutes of extra time for every hour I'll be on the road—for example, the six-hour drive from my house to Bismarck took me seven hours and 15 minutes.

Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, North Dakota
Wide open spaces at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

3) Keep an eye on the gas gauge

North Dakota is a sparsely populated state, so don't expect there to be a gas station at every freeway exit.  Watching the gas gauge tick lower and lower without a gas station in sight is stressful and unnecessary—instead, I keep my gas tank at least a quarter full and I don't mind if gas ends up being five cents cheaper down the road.  It's a small price to pay for a more enjoyable drive.

Don't be like me on my first-ever drive across North Dakota, making a panicked phone call to my husband when the "empty" light clicked on and the upcoming exit sign said "No services" (Mike: "Stacy, I don't know what you expect me to do.  I am at work in Minnesota.")

Bianca pizza, FireFlour Pizzeria and Coffee Bar, Bismarck, North Dakota
FireFlour Pizzeria and Coffee Bar, Bismarck

4) Know your food preferences and plan accordingly

Nothing is very much fun on an empty stomach, especially driving for hours across a relatively boring landscape.  As I mentioned above, don't count on there being a convenience store or restaurant nearby when you need one.

If you appreciate getting off the highway to take a break for a meal, take some time beforehand to figure out what restaurants are along your route.  If you enjoy nibbling on chips and candy, stock up at a convenience store when you're filling up your gas tank.  And if you're like me and have very specific preferences, bring a bag of food from home and munch on Old Dutch pretzels, Granny Smith apples, and Kirkland Signature Chocolate Brownie protein bars as you rack up the miles.

Presidential Sweet ice cream cone, Silver Lining Creamery, Fargo
Silver Lining Creamery, Fargo

5) Drive the speed limit

Outside of cities and construction zones, the speed limit on I-94, North Dakota's main east-west thoroughfare, is 75 miles per hour.  This isn't great for gas mileage, but it's perfect for zipping across the prairie.  In Minnesota, the speed limit tops out at 70 miles per hour, so I always feel like I'm getting away with something by driving the speed limit in North Dakota.

Tempting as it may be to speed, don't.  Not only is it illegal and unsafe, there's a more pronounced law enforcement presence on North Dakota's highways than you might expect. 

World's Largest Buffalo, Jamestown, North Dakota
World's Largest Buffalo, Jamestown

6) Pull over at roadside attractions (even if that's not usually your thing)

In case it isn't blatantly apparent by now, I am a destination-driven person: I like to get where I'm going in a timely manner.  Stopping at roadside attractions isn't my thing; I want to get to the next city so that I can take pictures of food and go for a run. 

But when I'm driving across North Dakota, I appreciate a change in scenery—even if that comes in the form of a 26-foot tall buffalo.  Taking a quick selfie gives me something to look forward, breaks up the monotony of a several hours-long drive, and doesn't add much time to my overall trip.

My favorite North Dakota roadside attractions are the World's Largest Buffalo in Jamestown; Salem City Sue, a giant Holstein; and the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center, where you can get a photo with the infamous Woodchipper and enjoy free popcorn and coffee. 

Stacy with Fargo Wood Chipper, Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center
Photo opp with the infamous wood chipper at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center

7) Spend the night

If you have the time, spending the night in North Dakota will make your drive across the state less daunting and will also give you a chance to truly experience the state's cities and wide open spaces.  Fargo is on the state's eastern border and offers a walkable downtown, thriving food and drinks scene, and quirky sensibility.  Bismarck is conveniently positioned in the middle of the state and has attractions like the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum as well as a burgeoning local food and drinks scene.

If you want to stay in western North Dakota, Medora is a historic small town that borders Theodore Roosevelt National Park.  In addition to the park, there are family-friendly activities like the Pitchfork Steak Fondue and Medora Musical.

Has driving across North Dakota converted me into a diehard road tripper?  Not quite.  But my recent drive was something I never thought it would be—fun.

Friendship cocktail and avocado fries, Proof Artisan Distillers, Fargo
Toasting a successful drive across North Dakota at Proof Artisan Distillers in Fargo

Thank you to the Bismarck-Mandan CVB and the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau for providing my hotel rooms in Bismarck and Fargo.  In addition, I was compensated for speaking at the 2019 Midwest Travel Network Conference in Medora, and conference attendees were provided with tickets to the Pitchfork Steak Fondue, Medora Musical, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park free of charge.  I paid for all other expenses out of pocket.

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