by Luann Dart
Watford City’s hotels include amenities found in any larger community. PHOTOS COURTESY WATFORD CITY TOURISM
Trek the rugged Maah Daah Hey Trail. Reconnect with nature – and your family – with the scenic North Dakota Badlands as a backdrop. Or float in the lazy river in Watford City’s impressive Rough Rider Center.
Watford City and the surrounding area welcome visitors with a wealth of outdoor adventures and family fun.
“Watford City is centrally located for our natural attractions,” says Watford City Tourism Director Doug Bolken.
“To the south of us is our premier destination, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit,” he points out. The park offers camping, hiking and scenic drives. From shorter paved paths for beginner hikers, to opportunities for more strenuous outings, the park’s trails take visitors to prairie dog towns, sagebrush terraces, deep canyons and high open prairies.
“There’s a wide variety of hikes that can be taken throughout the park,” Bolken says.
Use Watford City as the starting point to access the world’s longest single-track trail, the Maah Daah Hey Trail. The north end of the trail begins at the U.S. Forest Service CCC Campground in McKenzie County, located 14 miles south of Watford City, off Highway 85. The 97-mile trail then winds its way to its southern terminus at Sully Creek State Park in Billings County, south of Medora. At the northern terminus, you are able to access additional trails: Long X Trail, Summit Trail, Bennett Trail and Cottonwood Trail.
The Maah Daah Hey Trail winds through the Little Missouri National Grassland. As a nonmotorized trail, it is open for hiking, mountain biking or horseback riding. The trail crosses the Little Missouri River twice, and covers high ridges to deep drainages and rough badlands to rolling prairies. Legendary Adventures New Discoveries (LAND) hosts races on the trail during the season.
“It has some incredible vistas,” Bolken says, with opportunities for wildlife viewing or birdwatching. “It’s one of those places to bring your camera.”
About 25 miles north of Watford City is the Tobacco Garden Resort and Marina, with a convenience store and restaurant serving breakfast, lunch and dinner. Fishing supplies and snacks are also available. The resort also hosts 100 campsites and rents log cabins. It is near the the Birnt Hills Trail, which is approximately 2.5 miles long with beautiful scenic vistas of Lake Sakakawea.
East of Watford City is the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, with an earth lodge village, and the Three Affiliated Tribes Museum at Four Bears Casino and Lodge.
More history can be unearthed at the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site or Fort Buford State Historic Site, just 50 miles northwest of Watford City.
Follow the Yellowstone River along Highway 200 to the Fairview Lift Bridge and Cartwright Tunnel. The bridge and tunnel, now closed to vehicle and rail traffic, stretches 1,320 feet across the Yellowstone River and has been turned into a walkway listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“It’s a nice little stop there,” Bolken describes.
Once visitors have explored the outlying areas, Watford City offers more than 800 hotel and motel rooms.
“We have beautifully well-appointed hotels,” Bolken says. “I can comfortably say that we can compete with any hotel in the state and the region for accommodations.”
Start your visit at The Long X Trading Post Visitor Center and Pioneer Museum, which will introduce visitors to McKenzie County’s past and present. The center is home to North Dakota’s largest petrified tree stump and presents the pioneering spirit of McKenzie County residents of the past and present. Exhibits range from the sewing and quilting of the early prairie homestead women of McKenzie County to a presentation on drilling for oil in McKenzie County, with a scale model of a drilling rig.
One of the newer attractions in Watford City is the Rough Rider Center, a complex that includes sporting arenas, a convention center and more.
“This Rough Rider Center is spectacular,” Bolken says.
The center includes two sheets of ice, with one rink open year-round. A fieldhouse, arena and convention center are all part of the complex. Visitors will find an indoor water park with a waterslide, lazy river and a splash park for little swimmers, alongside a competition pool. The complex also includes a rock climbing wall and gymnastics center.
“It’s a busy little place out there,” Bolken says.
Watford City also boasts more than 25 eating establishments, from fast food to steakhouses and sushi offerings.
The Stonehome Brewing Co., which brews beers on site, describes itself as “the blueprint of the North Dakota community-immersed pub that opened its doors in 2016 and built out the microbrewery the following spring of 2017.”
“It’s a great place to get a local brew or one of the regional brews,” Bolken says.
The Little Missouri Grille is a popular stop for local residents and visitors looking for huge portions of incredible food, with breakfast available all day.
Dining is also available at Fox Hills Golf Course, which is expanding this summer from nine holes to 18 holes. The local airport is also expanding to accommodate more private jets and airplanes arriving in Watford City, with a population of about 10,000.
Watford City’s downtown area also draws visitors to eclectic shops and eateries.
“They’ll find a great downtown, a very walkable downtown. It will be a very welcoming visit for them,” Bolken says. Door 204 is a coffee shop which also sells local art; gift shops offer unique offerings; and one of the drug stores has an old-fashioned soda fountain.
Watford City also shares its green spaces, including five miles of walking paths, one of which winds past the outdoor water park, Wild West Water Park.
“We’re a city of parks. There are parks everywhere throughout the city,” Bolken says.
“It’s a safe, walkable community,” Bolken says. “We have all the amenities of a big city with the small town hospitality.”
McKenzie Electric Cooperative and RTC are cooperatives providing key utility services in this area of the state.
Luann Dart is a freelance writer and editor who lives in the Elgin area.