An Awesome North Dakota Road Trip: Grand Forks to Pembina Gorge
When I told people we were traveling to North Dakota, I was often met with questions. A lot of people think of North Dakota as flat, unexciting, and a drive through state. Many people have trouble placing it on a map, but I have a feeling that is about to change. I spent five days on a North Dakota road trip with my middle son, and we found that the northeastern part of the state is anything but boring. There are lively college towns, lovely rural scenery, and action packed state parks. On top of that, there are endless amounts of wide open spaces for social distancing. North Dakota has everything you need for an amazing vacation, so start planning yours now!
*Disclosure: This post was written in partnership with North Dakota Tourism. As always, our opinions are 100% our own. Please check out our disclosure policy for more details. Thank you for your support!
North Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
We spent the week exploring Grand Forks and the northeastern part of North Dakota (known as the Rendezvous Region) and enjoyed every minute. Our trip took us from Fargo to Grand Forks to Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area and back, and every day was a new adventure. Here’s what you can expect on a North Dakota road trip in this part of the state.
Where is Grand Forks?
Grand Forks is located in the northern part of North Dakota, where it shares a border with Minnesota (you can literally walk across a bridge between the two states). It is home to the University of North Dakota, and it is a quintessential college town. We flew into Fargo and drove an hour and twenty minutes to Grand Forks. It was a well maintained highway, and the time flew by.
Things to Do in Grand Forks
Our first stop in Grand Forks was Sertoma Park, one of the city’s largest parks. Upon arriving, the first thing we noticed was the amazing playground. This colorful play structure is known as Ali’s Boundless Playground and was created for all children to use, including those with disabilities. It was awesome to see all of the kids laughing and having fun.
We continued on the walking path to the Japanese Garden. The garden was a gift from the city of Awano, Japan, their sister city. It was given to commemorate the region’s recovery from the 1997 Red River Valley flood (more on this later). Within the garden is a mediation area, Japanese lanterns, and a small stream with a bridge.
After visiting the garden, we continued on the trail that winds through the park and saw people biking, rollerblading, and jogging. It was the perfect spot for an afternoon stroll.
The Greenway and Red River Flood Memorial
Grand Forks sits along the Red River, across the river from East Grand Forks, Minnesota. Unfortunately, this area has seen more than a handful of catastrophic floods in the last 100+ years, the most devastating one occurring in 1997. That year, the area received more rainfall than normal, an early freeze, and a late season blizzard, that led to ice blocks and the Red River overflowing its banks.
It didn’t overflow just a bit, but by four feet! The result was 52,000 residents being displaced and livelihoods destroyed. Today, the Red River Flood Memorial sits alongside the river, commemorating that flood and all the previous ones that caused damage to the city.
Along the river is the city’s Greenway, a walking and cycling trail. The Greenway spans 2200 acres, which is three times the size of New York’s Central Park. This area passes through downtown Grand Forks, local parks, and even golf courses. It is the perfect spot for a stroll or bike ride any time of day.
Turtle River State Park
There are thirteen state parks in North Dakota, and Turtle River is the closest park to Grand Forks. Just twenty minutes from the city, this is the perfect space for getting away from the city and relaxing in nature. Upon arriving at the park, there’s a breathtaking lake surrounded by forest, quite different from the surrounding farmlands. If you don’t have a North Dakota State Park pass, be sure to check in the visitor center to pay the daily fee.
Turtle River State Park is spread over 784 acres, and features campsites, spots for hiking, mountain biking, and cross country skiing in winter. The Turtle River is stocked with rainbow trout, making it perfect for fishing for all ages. We grabbed fishing poles and lures from the office but didn’t catch anything.
Ralph Engelstad Arena
I’ve never made time to tour many sports arenas, but when I was told about The Ralph, I couldn’t resist. This is home to the championship University of North Dakota hockey program, and it is more luxurious than most NHL venues.
Not a penny was spared in this $100 million, 12,000 seat, five story arena, gifted by Ralph Engelstad and his wife, Betty. The concourse is covered with marble tiles from Italy and India, every seat is made of cherry wood and leather, and it has the largest center hung scoreboard in college hockey. There are forty eight luxury suites and club lounges on both ends of the arena (one with an intricately designed 1926 Mortier organ from Belgium). It truly is a spectacular sight to behold.
And it doesn’t end with the ice arena. The center also has a training room with an underwater treadmill, 24 person jacuzzi, and study rooms for all UND athletes. An additional section includes basketball courts and an Olympic size ice arena. The UND hockey team has won 8 national championships and sent over 100 players to the NHL. Sounds like they deserve a facility this awesome.
Kayak the Red River
My entire life, I have always thought rivers flow south, but it turns out the Red River flows north to Canada. Of course, this was a bit disconcerting when I was trying to mentally picture how we were going to kayak the river. Thankfully, Jim, owner of The Boathouse on the Red, was able to show us the best way to tackle the Red.
We paddled south against the swift current (it was hard work), for about forty five minutes. It was important to stay close to shore so we didn’t get caught up in the fast moving water. Once we thought we could paddle no more, we turned the kayak around and headed back to our starting point. Want to know how long that took? Five minutes. Ok, maybe six, but who’s counting? It was a fun afternoon urban kayaking.
Where to Eat in Grand Forks?
Darcy’s Cafe – this is an old school diner serving Midwest classics like cinnamon roll pancakes, fleischkuekle, and corned beef hash. The service was fabulous and the portions were huge and delicious.
The Donut Hole – this former Tim Horton’s offers donuts and coffee to go, making it an easy stop before hitting the park or the road.
Red Pepper – this Grand Forks landmark has been a staple for over 50 years. We tried the taco meat grinder and boy, was it good! Good prices and perfect for taking to a picnic along the river.
Blue Moose Bar & Grill – located across the river in East Grand Forks, the Blue Moose has an awesome deck and patio, so everyone can have the space they need. The menu offers something for everyone from wraps to sandwiches to entrees. We thought the Outlaw Burger and Louisiana Poutine were fabulous.
Rhombus Guys – not far from the river is Rhombus Guys, voted one of the best pizza places in the state. We sat on their rooftop patio which had some good views overlooking the city. There are plenty of pizza options, so we tried the T-Rex, winner of multiple pizza competitions. It was so good!
Where to Stay in Grand Forks?
I have never been to a Staybridge Suites, and was pleasantly surprised by the one in Grand Forks. Centrally located to everything, the property offered an evening buffet and morning breakfast. Our two bedroom suite was ridiculously spacious for the two of us and super clean. We loved that it has a comfortable living room and kitchen too. Would highly recommend this as a place to stay in Grand Forks.
North Dakota Rendezvous Region
After spending two days in Grand Forks, we headed north to the Rendezvous Region of North Dakota. North Dakota roads are easy to drive, and the scenery doesn’t disappoint. We drove past endless miles of farmland, but it was so beautiful with a variety of textures and colors. The vibrant greenish yellow hues of the canola and golden sunflower fields made for quite a scenic drive.
This area covers the northeastern part of the state and borders on Minnesota to the east and Canada to the north. It is so far north, we entered into the Canadian cell service zone for a bit.
What to Do in the Rendezvous Region
The Rendezvous Region is the perfect stop on a North Dakota road trip as it is an adventure lovers’ paradise. During the summer there are opportunities for mountain biking, hiking, kayaking, ATV rides, and horseback riding. It’s unlike anything you would expect for North Dakota, in a good way.
Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area
Our day began exploring the Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area by kayak. Driving into the area feels like entering another world. Endless fields give way to dense forests, steep valley cliffs, and pockets of wetland. Spread over 2,800 acres, and 30 miles of trails, this is the largest continuous, undisturbed forest in North Dakota, and it will take your breath away.
We picked up kayaks at Frost Fire, the local ski resort that operates several summer outdoor adventures in Pembina Gorge State Recreation Area. If you are looking for mountain biking trails in the area, start here at their terrain park, where they provide bikes and trail maps. They also arrange for kayak rental on the Pembina River, so once we were fitted with life vests, we headed for the water.
Kayaking the Pembina River
We didn’t know what to expect when we set out in our kayaks, but we were pleasantly surprised. The river flowed much slower than the Red River, but it offered small white water rapids along the way. This is North Dakota’s only “white water river”, and I’m sure that means something when the water level is high and fast moving, but it was a relaxing paddle with some moments of excitement.
Our favorite parts of the kayak trip on the Pembina River were the towering sandstone cliffs, the thrill of tackling white water rapids (and not knowing what to expect from each one), and seeing three different bald eagles. We happened to pick a perfect day weather wise, and our only complaint was that it ended too soon.
Icelandic State Park
Our final day was spent at Icelandic State Park, which was quite unique. Upon arriving at the park, we were amazed to see what looked like an old church and several other historic buildings. We decided to explore, and found the Hallson Icelandic Lutheran Church (built in 1897) as well as the Gunlogson homestead (the family who donated 200 acres to the park as a nature sanctuary), a school house, and other homes. There is also a Pioneer Heritage Center with a variety of exhibits that highlight North Dakota’s homesteading years.
From here we headed to Lake Renwick, a 204 acre reservoir within the state park. The lake offers fishing, camping, and boating. There’s even a beach area roped off for swimmers. Children and adults alike were enjoying a day at the lake.
We decided to rent a paddle board and kayak to head out on the lake’s calm waters. It was so peaceful and relaxing, the perfect way to end our trip.
Where to Stay in the Rendezvous Region
One Majestic Place
One Majestic Place is owned and operated by the lovely Jenson family of Mountain, North Dakota. They have built two separate structures on their land so families can be out in nature and enjoy time with family. We stayed at Gathering Place, a beautiful one bedroom home overlooking a hay field surrounded by trees. The property has everything you need for a relaxing family vacation in North Dakota, from a fully stocked kitchen to a super spacious living room and a comfortable bedroom that sleeps 5 (a queen bed on the bottom, with three twin bunks overhead). There was even a laundry room, fireplace, smart TV, and queen size Murphy bed. We did not lack for anything.
I have to give a shout out to Staci, who warmly greeted us upon arrival. She ensured we had everything, and when I inquired about where to pick up a pizza, she offered to bring us one of theirs. Super sweet and a very good communicator throughout our stay.
Be sure to make time to see the night skies if you stay here. Since it is not near any major cities there is little to no light pollution. One Majestic Place offers all the social distancing you need in one extremely comfortable accommodation.
Where to Eat in the Rendezvous Region
Mountain Chalet – located in the Icelandic town of Mountain, this café is located in the town’s community center. Breakfast was delicious and the staff was super welcoming.
Blue Fox Coffeehouse – this charming coffee house in Cavalier offers delicious sandwiches, baked goods and coffee. Loved the warm ham and swiss!
HWY 32 Diner – located in Walhalla, this diner is known to have the best burgers in town and ice cream for a mid-day treat!
Sporty’s Bar – this sports bar and restaurant in Langdon serves up pasta, pizza, and salad. Perfect after you have worked up an appetite exploring the parks all day.
We really enjoyed exploring the wide open spaces of North Dakota, and hope we have encouraged you to make the trip.