Best 9 things to do in Bismarck, North Dakota

Fascinating Bismarck is the beautiful capital of North Dakota. The city lies on the east bank of the Missouri River, with its sister city Mandan on the west bank. With a 130,000 population, Bismarck-Mandan is large enough to offer many experiences but small enough to be friendly and easy to get around. I had longed to visit Bismarck for many years because of its history, art, and outdoor experiences. I jumped at the chance to see. You should do that, too.

Roxie’s reliable report: Refer to the metropolitan area as Bisman.

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Bismarck-Mandan Convention & Visitors Bureau hosted me, but all opinions are mine.

In 1872, the Northern Pacific designated future Bismarck as its terminus. The financially strapped railroad decided to name it for Germany’s Iron Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Perhaps the honored chancellor would invest in the railroad. He did invest – the cost of postage for a heartfelt thank-you note.

Whether you’re looking for a traditional tourist destination or something more off the beaten path, Bisman has something for you. Here are some suggestions for your itinerary.

North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum, Bismarck, North Dakota
North Dakota icons appear on the side of the North Dakota state museum.

1. North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum, Bismarck

The North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum is North Dakota’s official history museum. The museum highlights the state’s history, culture, and natural splendor. Before you enter, stroll past the museum’s north side. Murals show some of North Dakota’s icons. The Pembina River Plaza between the parking lot and the entrance displays large concretions and petrified forest logs.

Dakota the Dinomummy in Bismarck, North Dakota
Preserved skin of Dakota the Dinomummy

The Dakota Dinomummy is the museum’s must-see exhibit. Most dinosaur mummies display skin impressions on the rock, but the skin itself is long gone. Not so with the museum’s mummy. This hadrosaur has mostly intact skin. Touch a copy of its skin on the pedestal supporting its display.

Roxie’s reliable report: Hadrosaurs were plant-eaters that weighed about four tons. Even with that bulk, hadrosaurs could run nearly 30 miles per hour.

Prehistoric tortoise in Bismarck
Notice the fascinating pie crust decoration bones on this prehistoric tortoise.

They will survive in Bismarck

The Adaptation Gallery displays fascinating stories of species’ survival and extinction. Habitats show oceans, dinosaurs, tropical wetlands, the Ice Age, and mammals. Tyrannosaurus Rex vs. Triceratops dinosaurs are frozen during a fight. Beside them, an interactive game allows you to join the fighting dinosaur ranks.

In the savanna display, look for the tiny proto horse Mesohippus trying to avoid the giant brontothere Megacerops and rhinoceros Subhyracodon. Admire the architectural genius of the Stylemys’ tortoise shell. It’s next to the terrifying Xiphactinus audax.

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At the Innovation Gallery, the center highlights the beauty of North Dakota’s Native tribes. So examine a tipi, and picture it as your house. Eastern North Dakota Natives wrapped their tipis in tree bark, while western Natives used the famous buffalo hide tipis. Revel in the lifestyle of plains village farmers. Learn about how the invention of guns and horses affected tribal societies, resulting in skilled hunters and mighty warriors, and mourn over Sitting Bull’s death.

Cara Mund's Wonder Woman boots at the North Dakota Heritage Center and Museum, Bismarck
Cara Mund’s Wonder Woman-themed boots

Fashion forward in Bismarck

The first glimpse of the museum’s Fashion and Function exhibit is a show-stopper. Cara Mund was North Dakota’s first Miss America. See her Miss America sash, tiara, and coronation gown, but the real treasure is her pair of Wonder Woman shoes. The Miss America Organization did not want her to wear her Wonder Woman outfit on her final full day as Miss America, but she did so anyway. Her costume expressed her empowerment in standing up for herself and others who would follow her. Look for Mund as Wonder Woman on the hand-painted boots. Covering the boots with rhinestones required 25 hours.

Examine the exquisite details of Native beadwork, and consider how many hours of painstaking effort each piece required.

Preparing the fashion show’s mannequins also required many hours. The museum could not afford pricey archival mannequins. Instead, they adapted regular mannequins by covering them with aluminum tape. The process required three weeks.

Just wunnerful in Bismarck

Lawrence Welk is also in that collection. In the display, watch Welk reruns on a vintage television. Your opinion of the North Dakota bandleader reveals your age: My father-in-law watches Welk reruns every week. Isn’t that wunnerful, wunnerful? 

North Dakota State Capitol, Bismarck, North Dakota
The capitol grounds with the “Skyscraper of the Plains” in Bismarck, North Dakota

2. North Dakota State Capitol, Bismarck

The state museum is on the North Dakota State Capitol Grounds in Bismarck. Like it does everywhere else in Bismarck, the capitol building towers over the museum. Most state capitol buildings resemble the U.S. Capitol with a dome and wings. Instead, North Dakota built a stone skyscraper. The building is a beautiful and imposing structure that has been a part of the state’s history for over 80 years.

The original state capitol building burned in 1930. Only the north wing’s lower two floors remained. The Legislature budgeted $2 million to build a new one.

Architect Joseph Bell DeRemer (PDF) designed the 21-story Art Deco-style capitol. It opened in 1934 at the cost of $2 million. During the design phase, the capitol commission nixed a dome because domes were unnecessary. The building’s design was to encourage efficiency, utility, and durability. The commission eliminated exterior decorations and limited interior décor to the legislative wing and the first two floors to save even more. It opened in 1934.

The capitol building is North Dakota’s tallest structure at 213 feet. The building’s plain exterior prefigured the post-World War II International Style.

Wander the capitol’s nature trails to see the monuments decorating the campus, such as Sakakawea, John Burke, Cortés, a Buffalo, Pioneers of the Future, Purple Heart Memorial, Pioneer Family, and more.  

Inside the capitol

Upon entering, look for chandeliers representing heads of wheat, ceiling lighting representing the waxing and waning moons, and murals showing the early history of North Dakota. The bronze elevator doors at the Capitol Building in North Dakota depict people’s daily lives in the prairie. 

Great Seal of the State of North Dakota in the capitol building's Great Hall, Bismarck.
Great Seal of the State of North Dakota

Forty-two stars for the 39th state

North Dakota’s Great Seal dominates the main hall. Curiously, the seal features 42 stars but North Dakota was the 39th – or 40th – state to enter the Union. North and South Dakota, Montana, and Washington were set to become states in 1889, but no one knew the order of entry. After President Benjamin Harrison signed the Dakotas’ statehood proclamations on Nov. 2, 1889, he shuffled the paperwork together so no one could determine which one he had signed first. “They were born together. They are one, and I will make them twins,” he said.

Apparently, the 42 represents the number of states at the end of 1889.

The lighting above the dais in both legislative chambers reminded me of the lighting in the Galactic Senate. As a former reporter, I noticed that the North Dakota Senate gallery had writing surfaces attached to some of its seats. The House gallery didn’t have them.

Rough Rider Hall of Fame

Look for the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Hall of Fame portraits in the basement. Members receive the honorary rank of Colonel because their actions have reflected “credit and honor on North Dakota and its citizens.” Roosevelt, the 28th President of the United States, credited his North Dakota experiences for helping him become President. Welk was the first inductee. Olympic women’s hockey gold medalists Monique Lamoureux-Morando and Jocelyne Lamoureux-Davidson are the newest. Others include Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Master Sgt. Woodrow Wilson Keeble and Secret Service Agent Clint Hill. Hill saved First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s life when her husband was assassinated.

Related: Singer Bobby Vee and his informal band The Shadows rushed to perform in Moorhead, North Dakota, on February 3, 1959, as fill-ins for Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens. Vee joined the Rough Rider Hall of Fame in 1999.

Enjoy the 360-degree view of the Bismarck-Mandan area on the observation deck. The scenery becomes more beautiful during sunset. Unfortunately, the observation balconies are closed, so visitors must admire the views through the windows.

Roxie’s reliable report: Guided tours are available, and walk-ins are welcome.

Custer House at Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park near Bismarck
The broad front porch welcomes guests to the rebuilt Custer House, where George and Libbie Custer lived from 1874 to 1876.

3. Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park

The Army established Fort McKeen in 1873, above the ruins of the abandoned Mandan village On-a-Slant. Congress tasked three infantry companies to protect Northern Pacific Railroad surveyors from Native attacks. A few months later, Congress changed the fort’s name to Fort Abraham Lincoln and mandated the addition of a cavalry post.

Lt. Col. (brevet Maj. Gen.) George Armstrong Custer was the fort’s first commander of 650 men from 1873 to 1876. After the initial post commander’s house burned, George and Libbie built a new home better suited to entertaining. Custer retained command until he died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. 

Custer was busy during his Fort Lincoln tenure. He guarded the Yellowstone Expedition that surveyed the Northern Pacific. Custer led the Seventh Cavalry to explore South Dakota’s Black Hills, where the surveyors found gold. Finally, he commanded the Seventh during the Great Sioux War. His death outraged the nation and eventually ended the Indian Wars on the Northern Plains.

Libbie Custer's piano
The piano, harp, and other instruments were welcome pieces of Euro-American civilization on the frontier.

Visiting Fort Lincoln

Today, you can revisit the past 15 minutes south of Mandan by visiting military buildings such as barracks, the fort’s makeshift theater, a stable, granary, several blockhouses, and Custer’s home are all restored to their original state. 

Touring the commander’s home is eerie. The sergeant docent discusses life at Fort Lincoln and the Custers on the front porch from a present-day view. As soon as guests enter the house, the sergeant returns guests to 1875, before the Seventh’s fateful trip to Montana. Photos on the walls and mantles show how many Custer family members lived at the fort. All the male members died at Little Bighorn. 

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: At the Fort McKeen Infantry Post, climb to the palisade’s top for 360-degree views.

On-a-Slant Indian Village
The Mandans had abandoned On-a-Slant Indian Village after the 1781 smallpox epidemic.

On-a-Slant Indian Village

The park also includes a Mandan village. I marveled at the Mandan tribe’s building skills demonstrated at On-a-Slant Indian Village. They constructed their earth lodges from cottonwood and soil. Because of the lodges’ thick insulation, the people who lived there didn’t feel the bite of frigid winters and hot summers.

The Mandans were not only successful architects. They also excelled in agriculture and commerce. Tribes came from far away to trade for the Mandans’ harvest. They also excelled at tool design, turning bison and local plant life into everything they needed.

In addition to such historical sites, the park also features trails that will leave hikers, bikers, and horseback riders admiring the panoramic views of the Heart and Missouri river bottoms.

With over 100 campsites available, visitors can stay overnight in a cabin or at a campsite beside one of the majestic rivers.

Roxie’s reliable report: Purchase a state park permit before visiting Fort Lincoln.

Meriwether Lewis meets Mandan leader Sheheke in front of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, Washburn, North Dakota

4. Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center and Fort Mandan

Located in Washburn, 45 minutes northwest of Bismarck, Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center showcases the journey of Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their Corps of Discovery. Jefferson commissioned the corps to explore the United States’ newly acquired Louisiana Purchase in 1804. 

The center explains the corps’ entire journey, but it focuses on the winter of 1804-1805 at Fort Mandan. Lewis, Clark, and Mandan leader Sheheke greet each other in front of the entrance. Sheheke welcomed the corps to the Mandans’ territory. His offer kept the company alive during the bitter winter. However, the benefits were not one-sided. Pvt. John Shields was a skilled blacksmith. He created and mended items for the Mandans.

Roxie’s reliable report: The state highways on that run beside the Missouri River are numbered 1804 and 1806 in honor of the years the Corps of Discovery traveled through the state.

Captain's quarters, Fort Mandan near Bismarck
The Captain’s quarters at Fort Mandan

Fort Mandan State Historic Site

After experiencing the center, visit the Fort Mandan replica at the confluence of the Missouri and Heart Rivers. The Lewis and Clark Fort Mandan Foundation built the replica to keep the fort’s legacy alive. (The original fort’s precise location is unknown, and the Missouri River has likely drowned it.)

Join a guided tour to learn about the corps’ North Dakota winter. Look for reproductions of Lewis’s field desk, Clark’s map-making tools, clothes, and Shields’ blacksmith’s forge.

The Americans did not build their winter home as well as the Mandans’ earth lodges. Roaring fires warmed the corps at the cost of regular firewood gathering. 

During that winter, the corps members prepared for the upcoming journey and readied their scientific samples to send home. The corps also added a crucial team member, Sakakawea. A woman carrying a baby validated the corps’ claims to come in peace. Plus, she helped them find and win over the Shoshone tribe in Idaho. Her brother provided the horses that the men desperately needed.

Aftermath

When the Corps returned to St. Louis, Sheheke and his family accompanied them. They then went to Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, Sheheke’s return became complicated. It eventually cost $20,000, four American lives, and George Shannon’s left leg. The costs ruined Lewis’s finances and contributed to his murder (or suicide). Sheheke lost standing at home because of his three-year absence and because the villagers doubted his tales.

5. Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

The Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site preserves the vibrant and historical culture of Hidatsa and Northern Plains Indians in North Dakota. The village, an hour northwest of Bismarck, was known as the major trading and agricultural area. The historic site spreads over 1783 acres of land.

The site is at the Knife and Missouri Rivers’ confluence in Standon, one hour northwest of Bismarck. The Mandans moved to the Knife River site after the 1781 and 1801 smallpox epidemics. The new location became a trade nexus, and its influence spanned the continent. Fort Clark, a trading post, and other Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa villages stood within a 15-mile radius. 

More tribes came to trade, but trade brought more than prosperity. Trade brought smallpox, and the 1837 epidemic was the worst. The disease decimated the Mandans, the Arikara, and the Hidatsa. Vaccination could have saved lives, but the government had denied it to the Natives in the 1832 vaccination program. As a result, the Mandans, Arikara, and Hidatsa formed a permanent alliance, becoming the Three Affiliated Tribes.

The site features remnants of earth-lodge dwellings, cache pits, and travois trails. The ruins are circles in the terrain about 40 feet wide. These dwellings could shelter up to 20 people with their horses and dogs. View art, crafts, clothing, and appearance exhibits that celebrate the traditional ways of the residents. 

Visitors can tour reconstructed buildings such as Awatixa Xi’e Village (Lower Hidatsa Site) and Awatixa Village (Sakakawea Site), see demonstrations of traditional hunting and gathering techniques, and view mounted animal exhibits. A museum discusses the area’s history and shows artifacts from archaeological digs.

6. Eagle sculptures in Bisman

To celebrate the National Bicentenary of the Corps of Discovery’s journey, North Dakotans created a series of five eagle sculptures beside Bisman’s Missouri River with help from United Tribes Technical College art students. The Thunderbirds was my favorite. Thunder beings produce lightning from their eyes and thunder from the flapping of their wings. The thunderbirds are not ordinary birds but part of the Great Spirit who lives above us. I also enjoyed The “Reflections” sculpture, a giant eagle ready to take a message to the gods.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: After you admire The Thunderbirds, visit a replica of the Corps of Discovery’s keelboat in Keelboat Park in Bismarck. A guided tour explains the Corps of Discovery’s journey. The park is part of the 4.8 mile Missouri Valley Millenium Legacy Trail.

Lead mural at Art Alley 5.5
The opening murals at Art Alley 5.5

7. Alley 5.5 (Art Alley) and Heritage Art Tunnel in Bismarck

In downtown Bismarck, Alley 5.5 presents local artists’ murals. The murals depict a wide range of cultural backgrounds of North Dakota, including old barn quilt-like works and a wide assortment of items that conjure up North Dakota’s rich history. Sitting Bull, Andrea Ficek Fulton’s barn quilt, Paul Noot and Bismarck High students’ mural with found art, Noot’s Dakota map with North Dakota icons (yes, including Welk), and Dennis Houle’s ledger art.

Detail of the Heritage Art Tunnel
Nomadic Natives’ tipis in the Heritage Art Tunnel

The Heritage Art Tunnel is across the street from the North Dakota Heritage Center. The murals on its walls depict North Dakota’s agriculture and energy history. The tunnel’s south side shows geography and agriculture while the north side shows energy.

Roxie’s reliable report: Welk also appears in Mandan’s North Dakota Music Hall of Fame.

8. Missouri River Natural Area and Trailhead 

On the Mandan side, this 157-acre preserve has pristine woodlands. Five miles of trails offer hikers and bicyclists options for exploring the Missouri River State Natural Area. Much of the trail runs below giant cottonwoods. In the winter, break out the cross-country skis and snowshoes.

The area offers a variety of habitats, including wetlands, forests, and prairies, home to several birds. Birdwatchers can find many types of birds in the area, including bald eagles, Canada geese, owls, woodpeckers, and various songbirds.

Roxie’s reliable report: The locals call this trail “The Car Bodies.”

9. Dacotah Speedway

Dacotah Speedway is a three-eighths-mile dirt track in Mandan. Its season begins in April with a car show, then dirt track races take center stage until the season’s end. Events also include monster trucks and a season-ending demolition derby. With a seating capacity of just over 4,000 people, the speedway is perfect for groups of friends and family to come together.

Brick Oven Bakery, Bismarck, North Dakota
An employee prepares the dough at Brick Oven Bakery.

Where to eat and stay

Downtown Bismarck is very walkable, and the neighborhood offers numerous dining options. Throw an ax before you eat and imbibe at Laughing Sun Brewing. 

The Butterhorn fixes French and Italian cuisine using local ingredients. The restaurant takes its name from its signature butterhorn rolls. Leftover rolls become bread pudding. Because they are so delicious, I couldn’t believe they could have leftover butterhorns, but the bread pudding is top-notch. After dinner, find the 510.2 speakeasy next door for classic cocktails. It’s hidden behind a door with chicken wire and bottles. I couldn’t resist ordering the Scofflaw. Yum, yum!

Don’t miss the beer and pizza at Stonehome Brewing Company in the First International Bank and Trust Building. I envied those bankers. Who wouldn’t want to work in a place with a brewpub? For food truck delights, look for 3 and Me.

For breakfast, you’ll struggle to choose which waffle to eat at Mandan’s Copper Dog Café, but don’t worry. They’re all delicious. The Brick Oven Bakery prepares its delights in a wood-fired brick oven. Ask about their cruffins, croissant dough baked in muffin tins.

Put some excitement on your tongue at the India Clay Oven Bar & Grill. Oh, that mulligatawny! Strut your stuff at the Peacock Alley with their Cuban sandwich and knoephla (NEFF-la) soup.

Stay at the Radisson Hotel downtown for easy access to these delicious options.

The last word

As you can see, Bisman will keep you busy. We haven’t mentioned everything the area offers. Plenty of outdoor activities like hiking, biking, fishing, and skiing will refresh your soul. Because Bisman provides so much to see and do, every visitor will find something of interest.

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