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Before the main east-west road across central and southern North Dakota was Interstate 94, it was U.S. Highway 10. U.S. 10 once ran from Detroit to Seattle; today it runs from Bay City, Michigan to Fargo, where it disappears into I-94.
The interstate is great for getting you somewhere quickly, but it’s the classic two-lane roads crossing this nation that once served as main thoroughfares across the land – including through the heart of America’s towns and cities. Following the “old” route somewhere is an increasingly popular pastime because it gives you a glimpse of local flavor interstates tend to rush you past.
The “Old Red Trail” is essentially the old U.S. 10 across North Dakota, which in its heyday served as North Dakota’s “Main Street” from Fargo to Bismarck and Dickinson and beyond. This is a great tour for people heading across the state on a longer run towards Montana or Minnesota, but who want take in some of North Dakota’s best attractions. I-94 is the main east-west highway nowadays and certainly saves time, but following the “old road” when time allows gives you a real feel for the old North Dakota – and in a land where some believe there’s not much to see, you certainly see a lot more.
Start in Fargo, North Dakota, just across the narrow but occasionally impactful Red River from Moorhead, Minnesota. Fargo is famous for winters that can be challenging (a trait shared with the whole state), but is also known for a high quality of life and a movie that bears its name despite not being set in the city. Nonetheless, the infamous wood chipper from the movie Fargo is on display at the Fargo-Moorhead Visitors Center, complete with a fake foot sticking out. Fans of the film can also see a copy of the screenplay and some ear-flapped hats to wear for pictures. Start your tour here, at Visit Fargo-Moorhead off I-94 at Exit 348, just south of the Best Western PLUS Kelly Inn & Suites.
Before you make your way west, take in what Fargo has to offer, such as the pioneer village and museum known as Bonanzaville, with a car museum, an air museum, and over 400,000 artifacts across 43 buildings. Or take in exciting North Dakota State University Bison hockey, basketball, football, or baseball games – or even concerts of all kinds – at venues like the FargoDome, Scheels Arena, and Newman Outdoor Field.
Fargo’s downtown is classic Americana and offers the historic Fargo Theatre, the Plains Art Museum, and many boutiques and unique bars and restaurants. Just northwest of downtown is the campus of the 14,000-student NDSU. On the west side, baseball fans will love the Roger Maris Museum, featuring archives and memorabilia from the local boy who made a huge impact in baseball with the New York Yankees. The Red River Zoo features over 300 animals from around the world, from cold weather-hearty species to tropical tarantulas. On the northwest side, bask in flora and natural splendor at the Northern Plains Botanical Garden; next door, the kids will love Yunker Farm & Children’s Museum, rated by Child magazine as one of the top 25 children’s museums in the country. It offers numerous hands-on exhibits, miniature trains, a carousel, play gardens, a dog park, mini-golf, and more – all centered around Dakota Territory’s first-ever brick house.
Once you’ve taken in Fargo, head west on County Highway 10 (12th Avenue NW, the old U.S. 10) through Mapleton and you enter an area where several winemakers and distillers have found a home. In Casselton, take a stop at the Maple River Distillery and Maple River Winery downtown. The distillery uses local fruit to make brandy and vodka, while the winery specializes in fruit wines that include an award-winning Strawberry Rhubarb.
From Casselton, duck down Langer Avenue to I-94 and head west to Exit 314 (State Highway 38) and head north to Buffalo. There, you’ll find the Red Trail Vineyard – named for the Old Red Trail, of course. Since importing vines and planting them in the hearty North Dakota soil in 2003, Red Trail has been producing regular and special varieties of wine, including ice wines – all available in their Tasting Room, which is open May through September. They also host a popular annual “Grape Stomp” every August.
From Buffalo, head west on County Highway 10 (the Old Red Trail) through Tower City where I-94 takes over again and you’ll hit Peggy Lee’s hometown, Valley City. Named so because it’s quite a valley for North Dakota’s landscape, it’s also known as the “City of Bridges” for its many bridges than span the eponymous valley and the Sheyenne River. One of them, the Hi-Line Railroad Bridge, was the world’s longest bridge for its height in the world when it opened in 1908; it remains one of the longest and highest single-track railroad bridges in the United States and is still in full use today.
From Valley City, jump back on I-94 westbound. You’ll head through Hobart Lake National Wildlife Refuge, a popular stopover location for waterfowl, as well as tundra swans. Places to do some bird watching are accessible from the highway.
Trivia: North Dakota contains 63 National Wildlife Refuges, more than any other state.
Continuing on I-94 to Jamestown, home to the World’s Largest Buffalo. Built in 1959 and named “Dakota Thunder”, it stands 26 feet high over the grounds of the National Buffalo Museum (701-252-8648) and makes for great pictures. The museum features not only information and artifacts on these magnificent animals, but also houses herds of actual buffalo roaming, including a rare white albino buffalo. An observation deck offers views of the herds and surrounding scenery, and the gift shop offers some unique items.
From Jamestown, jump on I-94 west again until you reach Exit 208 (Highway 3/Dawson); go a few hundred feet south and get on County 10 re-join the original road. As you go through Steele, check out the World’s Largest Sandhill Crane. When you meet up with U.S. 83 near Sterling, there is an opportunity for a side trip to the Lawrence Welk Birthplace.
The iconic musician who delighted generations with his musical style (known frequently as “champagne music”) and his Lawrence Walk Show from 1955 to 1982 was born in 1903 on a farm in Strasburg, North Dakota, about 75 miles southeast of Bismarck. Off the Old Red Trail (or Exit 182 of I-94) follow US. 83 south for about 45 minutes.
When you reach Strasburg, signs will direct you to his homestead. It’s open to the public and was just sold by Welk’s relatives to the North Dakota Historical Society in 2014. They will be giving it a facelift in 2015. Currently on display, you will see Lawrence Welk’s original accordion along with a bandstand and other accoutrements. Follow U.S. 83 back north to join the Old Red Trail.
From U.S. 83, continue west County 10/Old Red Trail (don’t forget that I-94 parallels just to the north if you need a time saver). On 10, you may notice a tall building from miles away; that’s the capitol building of this great state, and you’re entering the capital city, Bismarck. Bismarck, along with its sister city across the Missouri River, Mandan, are at the heart of the second-largest metropolitan area in North Dakota.
While Bismarck serves as the state capitol and second largest city, Mandan proclaims itself as “Where the West Begins” – which makes sense, given its location on the Missouri River’s west bank and the impending Badlands ahead. Lewis & Clark explored this area while following the Missouri River and were hosted by the Mandan and other Native American tribes before they continued on their way. That’s how Mandan got its name; what is now Bismarck was originally named “Missouri Crossing” and then “Edwinton.” In 1873, railroad interests renamed the city after German chancellor Otto von Bismarck in an attempt to lure German investment. Bismarck became the capital of North Dakota when it entered statehood in 1889.
While In Bismarck, be sure to check out the beautiful, 19-story Art Deco tower that is the North Dakota State Capitol, the North Dakota Heritage Center, and the beautiful grounds surrounding it. There are plenty of historic areas on both sides of the Missouri River, including Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, Chief Looking’s Village Historic Site, Camp Hancock State Historic Site, Buckstop Junction, and in the heart of the city, the Cathedral Area Historic District just north of the Capitol grounds. Sports fans can take in Bismarck Bobcats Hockey in the wintertime or races at the Dacotah Speedway in summer. Sertoma Park, along the Missouri River, offers the Dakota Zoo and Raging Rivers Waterpark. Or, get a view from the Missouri River by boarding the Lewis & Clark Riverboat to enjoy the river bluffs, city scenery, and perhaps a beverage or dinner while aboard.
Through Bismarck, we’re following Main Avenue; in Mandan, the road becomes Memorial Highway and then officially the Old Red Trail. The Best Western PLUS Seven Seas in Mandan is actually located right on the Old Red Trail. From this westward, the Old Red Trail is better marked and is officially designated a scenic byway. A “talking trail”, travelers will find regular stops where signs offer phone numbers they can call for more information about each location they visit. The most popular stop? Thirty miles west of Mandan in New Salem, where you can greet Salem Sue, the World’s Largest Holstein Cow. Perched on a hill, this fiberglass bovine is 50 feet long and stands 38 feet high.
West from New Salem, just follow the signs through Glen Ullin, Almont (where there’s an Old West Museum), Hebron, and Richardton. When you approach 100½ Avenue, you’ll see a sign to Gladstone; that offers a second side tour, the 21-mile “Enchanted Highway.”
Off I-94’s Exit 72 at Gladstone (or off the Old Red Trail at Gladstone), you can follow a 32-mile stretch of Regent-Gladstone Road, a county highway that is becoming a long sculpture exhibit. Retired teacher and sculptor Gary Greff has led development of structures along the highway, hoping to help his remote hometown of Regent, at the southern end of this road.
The first sculpture, along I-94, is called “Geese In Flight” and may just be the World’s Largest Outdoor Sculpture. Additional sculptures down the Enchanted Highway include the Tin Family, the Covey of Pheasants, the World’s Largest Grasshopper, the Deer Crossing, Fisherman’s Dream, and a depiction of Theodore Roosevelt riding a bucking horse. More are planned, so check out the drive!
From Gladstone, the Old Red Trail heads into Dickinson, home to Dickinson State University and a gateway to the Badlands, which lie just ahead. In town, check out the Dakota Dinosaur Museum with its life-size dinosaur statues out front; the Dickinson Museum Center also includes three smaller museums focusing on art and history exhibits, historic and reproduced frontier-era buildings, and pioneer machinery from the 1800s. Racing fans can enjoy the dirt and clay track at Southwest Speedway. North Dakota has a large Ukranian community, and the Ukranian Cultural Institute is in Dickinson.
West of Dickinson, follow Old Highway 10 (37th Street SW) out of town to Belfield, where you can use U.S. 85 to re-join I-94 (Exit 42). Ten miles later at Exit 32 you’ll find the Painted Canyon Visitor Center, where you can enjoy beautiful views and even a hike on the trail. Don’t be surprised to be herds of bison literally roaming the landscape. The visitor center will tell you more about rocks, colors, and formations in Painted Canyon.
At this point you’re entering Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the scenery is among the most beautiful in the state, if not the country. Off Exit 27, follow the road into Medora, where the “wild west” feel comes alive. The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and the Center of Western Heritage & Cultures, brings the character and life of cowboys, ranchers, rodeo riders, and others alive. For great music and performances, check out Medora Musicals at the Burning Hills Amphitheater, or hit the links at the Bully Pulpit Golf Course, rated one of the top 100 public golf courses in America by Golf Digest. Tour the beautiful Chateau de Mores State Historic Site, an elegant 26-room house built in 1883 by an early railroad and business tycoon.
You can continue west on old Highway 10 to Beach, North Dakota, where you re-join I-94 into Montana. Or, stay in North Dakota and check out one of the other tours!