North Dakota at a Glance
On the country’s northern edge, where the Great Plains greet the Badlands and fields of sunflowers yield to feet of snow, lies North Dakota, one of the coldest — but coziest — states in the union. With under a million residents, North Dakotans may be outnumbered by cattle, bees, acres of grassland and pounds of beans, but its residents are outdone by no one.
With a low cost of living and an easy way of life, the state has a rich and diverse heritage, from numerous Indigenous tribes to Scandinavian settlers. You’ll find those legacies shine through in its food, activities and cultural centers.
More than 90% of the land area here is devoted to farming and ranching, making North Dakota as down-to-earth as states come. It takes some humility to live in a place where the average temperature is 40 °F — and it takes fortitude to stare down at the frozen surface of a lake and think you can pull a fish out of it for dinner. From the Indigenous tribes who built the area’s first earthlodges to the Scandinavians who came with saunas, the state has truly adapted to life in the far north.
Though, residents haven’t always embraced the state name. Two attempts have been made to — gasp — drop “North” from the state name: once in 1947 and another in 1989 (immortalized in a 1999 episode of “The West Wing”). But the legislature roundly defeated the proposed bills.
So, North Dakotans will remain leaders in energy, agriculture, and technology. Home of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the world’s largest buffalo and the largest pancake feed. Call it the Peace Garden State, the Flickertail State or Roughrider Country (if you must), but if you move to North Dakota, you can really just call it home.
What It’s Like Living in North Dakota
North Dakota is a family-friendly state to live in. One of the advantages is its relatively low cost of living and high quality of life. The Peace Garden State is at peace with its crazy-cold winters and routinely ranks as one of the happiest. Cold hands, warm hearts, it seems.
North Dakota is one of the dominant players in the country’s energy sector, producing over 42 million megawatts of electricity each year. It ranks third in oil and fifth in wind. Accordingly, the state government offers enormous financial incentives for energy developments, including tax exemptions.
The state’s dominant industry sectors are trade, transportations and utilities, with 91,000 people on the payroll. Government and education/health are also strong divisions.
Job opportunities in the state continue to grow, keeping the state’s unemployment level at 2.1%— the lowest in the entire country (as of December 2022). The mining and construction sectors saw the biggest gains over the past 12 months. Few industries saw any decline.
Employment in manufacturing has consistently increased since 2020, and the industry has seen 112% growth over the past nine years. One of the state’s burgeoning industries is advanced manufacturing, which encompasses areas like automation and cybersecurity.
The state has invested considerably in the growth of both sectors, establishing foreign trade zones, incentivizing workforce training programs and implementing new state policies to help focus efforts on the development of foreign markets. The state saw a 35% increase in export growth in 2018.
North Dakota’s two major public universities — the University of North Dakota (UND) and North Dakota State (NDS) — are critical resources for the state. UND is one of the state’s top five employers. Both institutions supply the state’s diverse businesses with a well-trained and well-informed workforce and serve as important healthcare hubs. Most importantly (let’s be honest) — they give North Dakotans some great sports teams to root for.
Weather in North Dakota
Wherever you move in North Dakota, you must — as poet Wallace Stevens might advise — have “a mind of winter” to endure this state’s most intense season. Winters in North Dakota can be brutally long and bitterly cold.
January temperatures average only 2 °F in the north and a comparatively balmy 17 °F in the southwestern part of the state. The state averages an astonishing 50 days below zero each year and once hit -60 °F, which is when you break out your collection of Jack London stories and pray to the furnace gods your house will have heat. In these temperatures, snowfall accumulates easily, so you’re in luck if you like the swishy sound of snow pants and the thrill of whizzing down slopes. Or, for that matter, the anti-drama of ice fishing.
Late spring and summer can bring dramatic electrical storms, including tornadoes. There isn’t a county in the state that hasn’t suffered through a twister since 2007. But the season’s other terror is hail. Did you know that hail as wide as five inches has fallen in North Dakota? It sounds like science fiction, but it’s North Dakota fact. Summer temperatures, on the other hand, are generally pleasant and mild, a relief while you’re having your roof replaced due to the grapefruit-size ice balls that pummeled it in May.
North Dakota is a relatively dry state that grows progressively dryer from east to west. The Great Plains in the east receive around 20 inches of rain annually, but the western badlands might only see nine inches of rain each year. Where other states count on April showers to bring May flowers, North Dakotans have to wait until June for theirs, which usually bring 3-4 inches in the month.
Late summer through early fall is generally the best window of time to move to North Dakota, when the air is cool and mild.
Best Cities to Live in North Dakota
The capital city of Bismarck (pop. 74,138) is a fast-growing metropolitan area on the Missouri River in central North Dakota. The city has gained nearly 13,000 new residents over the last 10 years. Housing in Bismarck is comparable to U.S. averages — the median home value is just over $254,000 and the average rent is $904 per month. The Bismarck-Mandan metropolitan area dates to Lewis & Clark’s journey of 1804. You can learn a lot about the area history aboard a riverboat cruise or by visiting the state capital building.
In addition to cultural attractions like the North Dakota Heritage Center and the Dakota Zoo, the city is also invested in contemporary arts, supporting dynamic public works like the Heritage Art Tunnel and others in Sertoma Park, where visitors can bike on riverside trails and share favorite verses in the park’s poetry boxes. In the wintertime, capital area residents enjoy the slopes at Huff Hills, which has a challenging terrain park for intrepid boarders.
The northeastern city of Grand Forks sits on the Red River, across the border from its sister city, East Grand Forks, in Minnesota. The area is home to the Grand Forks Air Force Base and University of North Dakota (UND), the oldest and largest school in the state.
The Ralph Engelstad Arena is where you can cheer on the UND Fighting Hawks, as well as take in a concert and other major events. The university presence makes this area fun and vibrant, particularly the downtown riverfront area. The city’s indoor water park, Splashers of the South Seas, is especially popular in the winter months, when adults must admit that any time spent in a tropical environment escaping windchills of –30 °F compensates for the crowds of squealing kiddos. Grand Forks has grown modestly over the last 10 years, gaining just shy of 6,000 new residents. Area housing is more affordable than the national average, with a median home value in Bismarck at $215,900 and rent averaging $850 per month.
Just 80 miles south of Grand Forks, the Fargo-West Fargo-Moorhead area comprises the largest metro district in the state, totaling 238,000 people. Fargo’s population of 126,748 has grown by over 20,000 since 2010, while West Fargo gained 14,000 in the same span of time. Why? Well, one reason is the growing job base in the Silicon Prairie. Microsoft has had a base here since the early aughts.
The bi-state area is also the home of North Dakota State — a leader in agribusiness research — as well as two Minnesota universities. The cost of living in Fargo is on par with Bismarck and Grand Forks (all of which are slightly above state averages). The median home value is $232,900 and rent averages $841 a month. West Fargo prices lean slightly higher.
Fargo is, of course, best known as the setting of the Coen Brothers’ 1995 film and subsequent TV series, which the city really takes in stride. The visitor’s center just off the interstate even has the film’s infamous woodchipper on display.
If you’re a movie fan, the historic Fargo Theatre still shows indie and foreign films, so it’s possible that you could see a screening of “Fargo” in Fargo. Nerdy bragging rights, indeed.
But there are lots of things to do in Fargo, even in the coldest months. The Broadway Square area has a great public skating rink. The city also hosts an annual “Frostival” each January through February, letting residents compete in creative cardboard sled races, snow sculpture competitions and “bock poking,” which involves heating your beer with a red-hot poker. Cheers?
Best Things to Do in North Dakota
If you’ve never been to North Dakota, one of the best places to get acquainted is at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. Located in Bismarck, the state capital, the site has permanent historical exhibitions that take you from prehistoric times to present day, as well as exhibitions of contemporary art and a special learning space for children called the Treehouse.
For a closer look at pioneer times in the state, you must make a trip to Bonanzaville, USA, an oddly named but highly enjoyable living history village in Fargo. You and the fam will be treated to a fun romp through 19th-century prairie-Americana, where you can tour 40 historic buildings, including a schoolhouse, a saloon, a train depot, a barber shop (maybe you need a little trim?) and a creamery.
A substantial portion of the population of North Dakota is of Scandinavian descent. One of the coolest spots to learn about this heritage is at the Minot Scandinavian Heritage Park. The full-size replica of the Gol Stave Church is an architectural wonder based on the 1250 original in Norway. Fans of “The Little Mermaid” (or perhaps more apt to the cold weather, “The Little Match Girl”), will want to see the Hans Christian Anderson statue in the park. Meanwhile, the Danish Windmill and iconic Dala Horse are popular sites for selfies.
If you’re wondering how the state of North Dakota earned its sobriquet, make a trip to the International Peace Garden. This botanical oasis in the Turtle Mountains celebrates the friendship between the United States and Canada and is dedicated to promoting harmony between nations. And DYK? In 1971 and 1973, legislators proposed replacing the state moniker, Peace Garden State, on North Dakota license plates with Roughrider Country, referring to the volunteer cavalry organized by Teddy Roosevelt. But peace won out — both times.
If you’re looking to work on your family bingo card of American roadside attractions, pack everyone into the minivan for self-guided sculpture tour on the Enchanted Highway. Along this 32-mile stretch of 100 ½ Ave. (hey, we didn’t name the road), you’ll be greeted by all manner of metal giants, including pheasants, grasshoppers and the world’s largest tin family. Here’s hoping the wizard gives them all the giant hearts they’ve been asking for.
Outdoorsy types will never be bored in the varied terrain of this enormous state. North Dakota is home to numerous state parks, as well as several public lands, a national park and historic sites managed by the National Park Service.
Kayakers and anglers will find themselves right home at Lewis & Clark State Park, located on picturesque Lake Sakakawea, which has more shoreline than the Pacific coast of California. On Lake Renwick, you’ll find the aptly named Icelandic State Park, which provides trail access to the Gunlogson State Nature Preserve, an amazing refuge for rare birds — like the mourning warbler, finescale dace and the pileated woodpecker — as well as rare plants like the crested woodfern and southern watermeal.
The Knife River Indian Villages is a national historic site that preserves a once vital center of Native American trade. It is a spectacular place to learn about the area’s original inhabitants — the Mandan, Arikara and Hidatsa — and how contact with European settlers changed the area forever. The Hidatsa communities were known for developing awahtes, or earth lodges, impressive round structures made from cottonwood, willow, grass and sod that could be up to 60 feet in diameter. You can take a tour of an awahte on site.
Located in Medora, Theodore Roosevelt National Park was named in honor of the nation’s 26th president, a staunch conservationist. He once built a homestead on the land where the park now stands. A naturalist’s paradise, here you can see over 186 types of birds, as well as feral horses, elk and bison who make their home in the badlands.
The Sheyenne National Grassland is a vast parcel of tallgrass prairie in eastern North Dakota. Across the more than 100,000 acres of public and private land, visitors can hike, camp, fish and even take a horse-drawn sleigh ride in the winter … if you can BYO horses and sleigh (maybe call Santa?). The site is popular with photographers, who can capture images of rare plant species, like the prairie fringed orchid, and animals like the greater prairie chicken, which has a spiky black crest and distinctive golden cheeks.
North Dakota Local Eats
If you’re moving to North Dakota, be sure to pack your appetite for comfort food. We are talking meat, cheese, pastries, stews and even meaty-cheesy-pastry-stews. No joke. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a town whose restaurants don’t show a strong influence of traditional German or Scandinavian heritage (particularly Norwegian). However, there’s plenty of innovative new cuisine to be found, too.
In keeping with other states west of the Mississippi, there sure is a lot of meat to eat in North Dakota. Owing to its cowboy history, you’ll find great steak here — the most devilishly good is prepared on a pitchfork over a hot, open flame. But you’ll also find incredible bison steaks, pheasant and even boar — all raised locally — not to mention the occasional rattlesnake, which has slithered its way into the exotic sausage menu at the Würst Bier Hall in Fargo.
Fish is also popular here — walleye, crappie, perch and even Chinook salmon (lakes are stocked with it) are found on restaurant menus and in anglers’ baskets.
You may be familiar with cheese straws, and you have almost certainly tasted a cheesecake, and there’s hardly any American who hasn’t shaken a cheese ball, a cheese doodle or a cheese curl out of a bag at a party. But you haven’t really lived until you’ve eaten a cheese button. Or, you haven’t really lived in North Dakota, at least.
A pierogi by any other name would taste as sweet (or savory) because cheese buttons are, simply, a type of dumpling stuffed with cheese. They are what the Polish call pierogi, the Romanians verenikas, the Germans knoephla and the rest of us straight-up “delicious.” You’ll find them stuffed with potatoes, cheese or sauerkraut. You’ll also encounter a lot of meat-filled pierogis in the state, too. Most often, cheese buttons are served pan-fried with butter and even more cheese on top. Lavonne’s Cheesebutton Factory in Bismarck is a great place to try them.
Then, there is knoephla soup. In this case, the knoephla are prepared more like gnocchi, rolling seasoned dough into rough balls, leaving them unfilled. They’re typically served in a cream-based chicken stew that’s packed with vegetables and herbs.
If you ever go ice fishing, you’ll want to take a bath in knoephla afterward. Kroll’s Diner serves a wickedly good bowl of it. But if you aim to please your ravenous family, the best thing to order here is the Fleischfest, which comes with four servings of fleischkuechle — deep fried, meat-filled pastries — knoephla and mashed potatoes. In case you were thinking ahead to breakfast, Kroll’s also makes bacon, egg and cheese fleischkuechle. There is no better cure for that beer hall hangover.
But let’s get one thing straight — pastries are not just for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They’re also for dessert!
This is where North Dakotans really get cookin’. We mean kuchen. (Did we spell that wrong again?)
If you’ve never tasted one, it’s like a group hug between cake and pie, topped with creamy custard. You’ll find apple, apricot, peach and rhubarb kuchen, to name a few — whatever’s in season, really). The bottom line? You will feel loved eating it.
The Model Bakery in Linton sells not just kuchen, but also sweet rolls, homemade soup noodles and cheese buttons, too. Karen’s Kuchens in Larimore bakes a mean juneberry kuchen.
Juneberries are another North Dakota treat — they taste something like a cross between dark cherries, apples and blueberries.
Last, but not least, there’s lefse — a delicate, crepe-like Norwegian specialty that’s usually made with potato flour and served with butter and cinnamon-sugar or jam. Freddy’s Lefse in Fargo has been griddling these delicious pancakes since 1946. You can even order them through its Nordic Kitchen division. Alas, the Nordic Kitchen’s mail-order lefse does not ship out with a personal Norwegian chef.
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