By E. Nolan



As a travel writer for the past twelve years, I’ve collected a list of my favorite places to visit – my favorite American small towns – a list that includes Ely, Minnesota, Estes Park, Colorado and Medora, North Dakota. Ely is the gateway to the Boundary Waters. Estes Park is surrounded by Rocky Mountain National Park and Medora… well… Medora just might be the most unique small town in America. It certainly has some of the most unique amenities.

Medora, North Dakota sits five hours west of Fargo, two hours west of Bismarck, and 25 miles east of the Montana state line. It’s an easy day’s drive (8 hours) from the Twin Cities and well worth it for an extended golf weekend or summer family vacation. The classic, historic little town with the “Old West” vibe is bordered to the north by Theodore Roosevelt National Park, to the south by Bully Pulpit Golf Course, and surrounded by the North Dakota Badlands. Tucked a mile off of Interstate 94, you could easily miss it if you weren’t paying attention. Boy would THAT be a mistake!

Medora “The Town” is a collection of old school wooden buildings, from the gift shops to the candy stores and ice cream parlors to the hotels. There are plenty of great shops to choose from for clothing, souvenirs, “Made in the USA” merchandise, baked goods and art. There’s a children’s park, miniature golf and (NEW in 2019) even The Manitou – A Badlands Zipline Experience. The man who saved Medora many years ago, Harold Schafer, would be proud of the roots the little town on the prairie has maintained, and blown away by the incredible tourism draw it has become. Who’d have thunk it?

It is a city of lights in the darkness, a hub of international entertainment in the most natural of arenas. In Medora you can find famous shows like the Medora Gospel Brunch (4 days a week at 9:30 AM), Todd Oliver and His Talking Dog Irving, Carl & Greta’s Cowboy Sing Along, Teddy Roosevelt Salutes and a number of great Tribute Shows, but no show in the state has the draw of the World Famous Medora Musical.

Billed as “The Greatest Show in the West,” the Medora Musical (established 1965) is a salute to Patriotism and a Tribute to Theodore Roosevelt. Performed live all summer long (100 nights from May 31 – September 7) at 7:30 PM outdoors “under the Badlands sky” in the stunning Badlands Amphitheatre, the show (which can seat 2,900 people) frequently sells out (Kids get in free on Wednesdays and Sundays). Suffice it to say, this side of the famous outdoor amphitheaters in Utah and Colorado, this setting is unrivaled in dramatic natural beauty and outdoor acoustics. The high energy singing, dancing and acting of the Burning Hills Singers and Coal Diggers blends with humor, horses, fireworks and even gets the kids (yes, your kids too if they want) up on stage to be a part of the act. It is can’t miss entertainment in North Dakota… rather, in the Midwest… rather… in America.

Speaking of “Can’t Miss Entertainment,” I mentioned Medora as a great “Golf Escape” and if you haven’t yet played golf here you have no idea just how great (and unique) the golf experience is. We won’t argue over which Medora attraction is THE marquee, but Bully Pulpit Golf Course certainly doesn’t take second billing to anything else for the golfer. Pulling up to the clubhouse and stepping out onto the first tee box you KNOW you’re in for something special, just by taking a spin and absorbing the setting around you. You can see that there are golf holes leading up into the Badlands, into the canyons, and you can see that there are golf holes out there by the river. You can see the drama, the beauty and the diversity of play you’re in for… all from the first tee. While the Badlands holes (14, 15 and 16) stand out on their own, with drama few other golf courses in America can provide, it’s worth pointing out that the course (in general) is ranked one of America’s Top 100 Public Golf Courses.

Renowned architects Dr. Michael Hurdzan (and Dana Fry) were granted a most unique of opportunities to build this course in The Badlands, but they relished the opportunity to carve the land beyond the Badlands as well. Hurdzan weaved his routing through meadows and woodlands, and keeps the golfer enthralled with some holes along the Little Missouri River. You’ll walk off the course wowed by the three upper holes, no doubt (especially the Par 3 15th over the canyon), but you will be raving about a handful of the other holes, and impressed by the many false fronts and other tricks on the greens. There is beauty, fun and challenge galore here for sure.

My favorite holes on the front nine are the Par 5’s, the 4th and 6th holes, snaking along the river with majestic stone bluffs towering above you, and the Par 3 8th hole that can be played from different angles. There is plenty of trouble around you, with forced carries and tall grass giving maximum effort to snatch your golf balls.

Your anticipation keeps pace with the increase in dramatic scenery as you launch off onto the back, and before you even get to the Badlands trio you get a shot at my favorite hole on the entire course – the short Par 4 13th hole. Fire away at that flag at the base of the massive canyon wall… hold nothing back. The 15th hole is an easy pick as “The Signature” and it is worthy of the moniker. Everyone loves that hole and it is likely THE most photographed golf hole in North Dakota (if 16 isn’t). Suffice it to say, you’ll be a bit sad when this round concludes (unless you get to go back out again). Keep your promise you make to the always friendly staff in the pro shop. Come back real soon!

A round at Bully Pulpit is worth squeezing in if you’re just passing through, but if you have the chance you REALLY should stay in town. Check out the website for a complete list of lodging options, but start your overnight search at The Rough Riders Hotel. Check in to luxury accommodations with an “Old West” feel (and check out a book from their amazing library).

You don’t have to go far for great food. Theodore’s Dining Room and TR’s Tavern in the Rough Riders Hotel have everything you need for meals (with pizza, ice cream and fudge down the street), but… you can’t talk about Medora, or the Musical, or the food, without insisting that you plan dinner (at least one night) at the incredible Pitchfork Fondue (nightly from 5:30-6:30 PM). As close as you get to dinner and a movie, the Pitchfork Fondue is exactly as it sounds, tons of meats and treats cooked by cowboys and cowgirls on pitchforks “camp style” up on the bluffs of the Tjaden Terrace adjacent the Black Hills Amphitheater (with live music). Come hungry and stay awhile. You sure won’t leave hungry. (Fruit, salad, vegetables, toast, brownies, donuts, lemonade, coffee, beer and wine all available.) A “Prairie Potluck Party.”

The golf, musical and pitchfork meals all give you samplings of the setting, glimpses of the Badlands, a taste of the natural greatness. But remember, you’re just a few miles from Theodore Roosevelt National Park here, where you can get even more of that drama, on foot, bicycle or horseback. There is PLENTY to do in Medora besides golf, plenty to fill up a weekend… enough to fill up a week. This is one of America’s Greatest Small Towns in my book. Make it one in yours as well.

Bully Pulpit Hole #16 Photo Courtesy Chip Henderson