When travelling with kids, it’s tempting to just stick to the activities that are sure to be kid-friendly. But travel can be so much more enriching when kids are given the opportunity to explore beyond zoos and amusement parks!
That’s why I couldn’t wait to check out some of the historical sites in North Dakota with my boys. These tourist stops may not be traditional choices for travelling with children, but that doesn’t make them any less enjoyable!
Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center
The Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center was created to honour the point where these two mighty rivers meet. The center itself contains a large main exhibit area called Trails, Tracks, Rivers and Roads. The exhibit explores both the geography and geology of the area as well as the impact that humans had on the land upon their arrival.
I was fascinated to see some of the native animals of North Dakota from both past and present; I had never known there was such a thing as a paddlefish! And Zackary and Benjamin enjoyed the historic vehicles, which included a frontier army transport wagon and a 1904 Model A Cadillac. To make the exploration of the exhibit even more kid-friendly, a fun “treasure hunt” sheet was provided with riddles about the exhibits for kids to answer.
The other highlight of the center itself was The Art of Einar Olstad exhibit. The paintings of life in the American West are whimsical, entertaining and incredibly original. And the bright colours and somewhat exaggerated faces of the people in the paintings make them appealing for children as well!
Once we had finished exploring the center itself, we headed outside to explore the walking trail and enjoy the same scenery that Louis and Clark had once viewed on their iconic trek through the West. There is an abundance of wildlife in the area, which is especially renowned for bird watching. And any family with active children will appreciate the chance for kids to expend some of their energy on the picturesque trails! For those that want to stay longer, picnic areas and campsites are also located at the center.
Fort Buford State Historical Site
One of the bonuses of visiting Fort Buford is that the cost of admission is included with a visit to the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretative Center. And with energetic and knowledgeable tour guides on hand to walk us through the buildings, my boys and I were soon caught up in the history of this military post where Sioux leader Sitting Bull surrendered in 1881.
The tour starts in the Field Officer’s Quarters, which has both a variety of historical artifacts from the era as well as some hands-on fun for younger children. My boys were especially entranced by the recorded bugle call display, which played the different bugle calls the military unit had used to alert the soldiers to various activities. I recognized a few of the more popular ones, but I had no idea the military had used bugle calls for everything from announcing mail arrival to calling specific officers!
After exploring the Field Officer’s Quarters, we headed over to the Barracks. The one large building served as sleeping quarters, mess hall and kitchen for the soldiers stationed there. Zackary and Benjamin were intrigued by the idea of keeping everything they owned in a single chest at the foot of their bed. And I found it interesting to learn that the barracks building was just one of dozens that had once filled Fort Buford.
While we didn’t get the chance to explore the building firsthand, my favourite part of the tour was learning about the Stone Powder Magazine, a large stone building some distance from the Field Officer’s Quarters.
Our guide explained to us that the building, which held all the gunpowder and explosives, had thick stone walls, a heavy steel door and a flimsy wooden roof that wasn’t even nailed down. The rationale, of course, was that if the explosives were ever ignited, the blast would take the path of least resistance, shooting the roof high into the air but leaving the walls standing just as they were.
There is a lot of complex history and politics to the story of Fort Buford, but it is still also an ideal family destination. And that is thanks in large part to the tour guides that are so willing to walk through the areas with families and explain the history of the post in a kid-friendly way.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park: North Unit
The North Unit of this gorgeous National Park is about an hour’s drive from Fort Buford. From wildlife sightings to scenic views to hiking trails, the park is an active child’s dream come true! My boys spent the entire afternoon climbing rocks and exploring trails in the North Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park while I took in the stunning views of the badlands.
In addition to plenty of opportunities for physical activity, the park also has some amazing chances to experience the wildlife of the badlands. Buffalo are a common sight in the park, and whole fields of chirping prairie dogs provide endless entertainment for younger children. Spending time sightseeing here was easily one of our favourite things to do in North Dakota!
Of course, being a National Park, the area also offers camping sites, picnic grounds and a plethora of outdoor activities for both adults and children including fishing, horseback riding, canoeing, bicycling and so much more. The wide variety of activities makes the park a great choice for families with older children especially, but even younger children will love exploring the varied landscape of the badlands for a few hours!
Our first day discovering things to do in North Dakota was one that really gave me an appreciation for the landscape and history of the American West, and I loved the fact that my children had been able to enjoy that same experience. Heritage Sites and National Parks may not be the first thing to spring to mind when planning a vacation with younger children, but North Dakota does a great job of ensuring that history comes alive so that learning is fun for all ages!
And for those that want to add even more history on to a family vacation, consider making the drive into South Dakota and visiting Deadwood, SD as well! The area’s Wild West history is intriguing for families and there are all kinds of great activities for kids. Visiting both states is sure to be a memorable family vacation that will give kids a new appreciation for the rich heritage of the area!