One of the things we’ve always loved about photographing North Dakota’s abandoned places and roadside attractions is that it feels like an alternative form of tourism–that is to say, most of these places are interesting and fun to visit, but there are generally no crowds and no admission fees. However, when you have the kids in the car, or Grandma and Grandpa tagging along on a day trip, sometimes you need something a little more family friendly, with fewer rusty nails to step on (and cheap is always good). So, gas up the family truckster. Here are eleven North Dakota attractions you can visit for free.
The original Fort Abercrombie was constructed in 1858, and it was the first military settlement in what would become North Dakota. Fort Abercrombie is a relic of the first transportation boom in the Dakota Territory — riverboats. Before the railroads, riverboats were one of the most efficient means of hauling cargo, and the Red River became a highway between Fort Abercrombie and Winnipeg. Two reconstructed blockhouses and the original guard house now reside at The Fort Abercrombie State Historic Site. Fort Abercrombie is right on the Red River, about forty minutes south of Fargo.
Gingras Trading Post
Gingras Trading Post is northeast of Walhalla about four miles from the Canadian border. The trading post was established in 1801 as a center of commerce on a sometimes hostile frontier. According to the State Historical Society: The buildings at Gingras State Historic Site are the oldest standing structures in North Dakota. They have been restored to their original appearance by the State Historical Society of North Dakota.
Cartwright Tunnel and Fairview Lift Bridge
Cartwright Tunnel and Fairview Lift Bridge, in McKenzie County, just a short drive southwest of Williston, is a two-for-one attraction–a lift bridge on the Yellowstone River (which was only raised one time), and North Dakota’s only railroad tunnel. Both have now been converted to tourist attractions, and are free to explore. Bonus: on a hot summer day, the Cartwright Tunnel features natural air-conditioning in a pitch black and blissfully cool tunnel.
Dakota Thunder and Frontier Village
Dakota Thunder, in Jamestown, is billed as the World’s Largest Buffalo. It’s a concrete statue of a North American Bison which stands at the east end of Frontier Village, a replica frontier town with actual buildings from places around the state. It’s free to get in, and for a few extra bucks, you can visit the National Buffalo Museum which is also on-site.
Standing Rock Hill Historic Site
Standing Rock Hill Historic Site, not to be confused with Standing Rock Reservation much further to the west, is a scenic and sacred site south of Kathryn and west of Enderlin, in Ransom County. Standing Rock Hill Historic Site consists of four Native American burial mounds, the largest of which is marked with the small standing rock shown here. Getting to the site requires a fairly steep uphill drive on a minimally maintained road, and the trip should only be taken by the adventurous if the weather is bad.
White Butte is the highest point in North Dakota, in Slope County, near Amidon, and of the fifty state high points, one of only seven on private land. It’s a fairly strenuous thirty-minute hike to the summit. The property owners are known to be friendly to the climbing community as long as you’re respectful and pick up after yourself. The last time we visited, there was a porta-potty at the base, but there are no other services of any kind, and no admission fee.
Northern Pacific High Line Bridge #64
High Line Bridge is the longest railroad bridge in the state, and like the Gassman-Coulee Trestle in Minot and the Sheyenne River Bridge near Karnak, we chose to photograph it and feature it here due to the railroads’ pivotal role in settling North Dakota. High Line Bridge is in Valley City, there’s a park at the base of the bridge, and plenty of restaurants and accommodations in town. No admission fee.
Painted Canyon Visitor Center is right off the north side of Interstate 94, a few miles east of Medora. If you’re entering the Badlands from the east, this is your first chance to get a look at them from a scenic overlook, and it is amazing. While it costs a few bucks to get into Theodore Roosevelt National Park a few miles west, the Painted Canyon Overlook is free.
Jensen Cabin at Wadeson Park
Jensen Cabin, in Barnes County, was built in 1878 by Norwegian immigrant Carl Bjerke Jensen, made from hand-hewn oak. The cabin and the land were donated to the State Historical Society by the Wadeson family in 1957. This cabin was in pretty bad shape until it was restored in 1981. It’s a beautiful drive to get here if you drive the Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway from Valley City, and the placid and soothing Wadeson Park Spillway is right across the road. It’s a nice history lesson, and it’s free.
Gassman Coulee Trestle
Gassman Coulee Trestle is one of three very large railroad trestles we’ve photographed, the others being the High Line in Valley City and Sheyenne River Bridge near Karnak. Gassman Coulee Trestle, just west of Minot, is an attraction in the roughest sense–you can drive under it, photograph it, or just stand in awe of it, but there’s no visitor center or anything like that. It’s just a great place to be outside with your camera on a hot summer night. There was once a ski resort under this trestle, and the former ski lodge is still there, but now it’s a private residence.
The site of Old Sanish
Old Sanish lies beneath the waves of Lake Sakakawea most of the time, but sometimes, if the water is really low, you can see the remains of Old Sanish. With the water at normal levels, the ruins are submerged, but you can still visit Crow Flies High Butte, see the monument to Old Sanish which features photos of the town, and get a fantastic panorama view of Lake Sakakawea and Four Bears Bridge.
Photos by Troy Larson and Terry Hinnenkamp, copyright © 2016 Sonic Tremor Media
Troy Larson is an author, photographer, gentleman adventurer (debatable) from Fargo, North Dakota, and co-founder of Ghosts of North Dakota. @NorthDakotaTroy