8 ways to discover your inner cowboy in North Dakota

Peter Watson

Follow in the hoofprints of movie legends John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and find your inner cowboy or cowgirl in North Dakota.

Discover your inner cowboy in North DakotaKarl Johan Larsson/Shutterstock

Fields of grain – verdant green during springtime and summer, copper-dry in the fall and blanched white in winter – spread across every vista in much of North Dakota's Roughrider Country.

The Peace Garden State is one of the least-visited states in the US, but that statistic betrays just how captivating North Dakota is.

Near the Montana border, there is natural beauty that justifies a trip to the state alone, while the Missouri River is stippled with sights linked with the infamous Lewis and Clark Expedition.

The legends of the American West run through the heart of North Dakota, from the aforementioned Lewis, Clark and Sakakawea to Custer and Sitting Bull.

You’ll find wide-open plains, rodeos, powwows and plenty of rich history. A cowboy hat and boots aren’t required, but they won’t look out of place.

And then, movie icons such as John Wayne and Clint Eastwood created lasting memories for a generation by playing cowboys on the big screen.

Come to North Dakota as a tourist, leave as a Cowboy! (Video: Travel North Dakota)

Legends were indeed born in North Dakota and you can follow suit – why let them have all the adventure?

North Dakota can be the backdrop for you to discover your inner cowboy or cowgirl on the trail. As such, I've put together eight ways you can discover your inner cowboy in North Dakota.

Come in as a tourist, leave as a Cowboy!

1. Watch the REAL cowboys

A century ago, cowboys broke broncs and roped cattle as a way of life. They still do that today, and you can watch in rodeo arenas throughout North Dakota.

A cowboy waiting to compete in a rodeoKobby Dagan/Shutterstock

Watch as cowboys and cowgirls compete in the events that shaped the American West.

Catch a rodeo during the remainder of the summer, and start your fall with the North Dakota Rodeo Association and Roughrider Rodeo Association finals in September.

Both of the websites above have links to their upcoming rodeo schedules.

2. Cowboy wannabe?

Gunplay was part of the Old West and that experience is kept alive today through Cowboy Action Shooting (CAS) competitions.

Cowboy Action Shooting is the fastest-growing outdoor shooting sport in the United States.

CAS is a sport where individuals shoot at steel targets with live ammunition using firearms that are originals or reproductions of those available between the Civil War and 1899.

Cowboy Action ShootingJim Parkin/Shutterstock

Props, stages, aliases and period clothing help create an aura of the American West of over 100 years ago. Matches are scored based upon elapsed shooting time plus penalty points for missed targets.

Events are staged Old West style and open to the public.

More information is available on the Sheyenne Valley Peacekeepers website.

3. Cowboy up at the state fair

It doesn't get more North Dakota than the State Fair, which features the NPRA Bull-A-Rama, all kinds of horse shows, a 'showdeo" and a ranch rodeo.

The North Dakota State Fair is an annual state fair held each July in Minot, North Dakota.

The North Dakota State Fair 2021 lineup (Video: NDStateFair)

The Fair also has carnival rides, agricultural expositions, government and commercial exhibitions, and a variety of musical and performance entertainment.

Thrill-seekers can also test their skills on the mechanical bull… I dare you!

More information is available on the North Dakota State Fair website.

4. Saddle up

You're never too old to play cowboy. North Dakota has hundreds of miles of horseback riding trails.
and myriad landscapes which are best viewed from the saddle.

Hit the trail on your own horse, or enjoy a short ride at the Medora Riding Stables or ride as part of a ranch vacation at Black Leg Ranch.

Saddle up for real western fun!TR Medora Foundation

There are trails throughout the state, from Theodore Roosevelt National Park to the Pembina Gorge for those who don't own a horse but want to see the country up close, the cowboy way.

There also are trails across the state for those who have their own horses and are looking for new sights to see.

Other North Dakota horseback riding areas include:

5. Celebrate the horse culture

In July, leave the car at home and experience life in days of old at Taylor Horsefest. It's a weekend for and about horses.

Step back in time at the Taylor HorsefestTaylor Horsefest

This celebration of the horse culture includes a parade of horses and horse-drawn equipment, craft vendors, driving competitions, demonstrations, music and cowboy poetry.

All activities for this festival are done by horse or horse and buggy.

6. Tales and tails

The North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora is an absolute must for anyone interested in horses and cowboys and American Indians and their relationships on the northern Great Plains.

An exhibit at the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of FameTripadvisor

The NDCHF preserves and promotes the history and culture of North Dakota’s Native American, ranching, and rodeo communities by informing and educating people of all nations and cultures about the state’s rich and colorful western heritage.

​Mount up and ride on in as we host several events and activities at the Center of Western Heritage & Cultures such as the National Day of the Cowboy, Day of the Great Plains Horse People, Old-Fashioned Cowboy Christmas and more.

7. Overnight on the trail 

When a day ride on your own horse isn't enough, there are many opportunities to pack a bag and sleep out under the stars.

Hit the dusty trail and explore North Dakota by horsebackNDTourism

There are several horse camps and corrals available that can accommodate travelers with their own horses so take your time and enjoy the ride. 

8. Act the ranch hand

Have you ever wanted to rise with the sun, do the chores, round up and brand cattle until the dinner bell and drift off to sleep with the setting sun?

Have you ever wondered what it was like on a wagon train crossing the North Dakota prairie?

If you can answer yes to any of the above then a ranch vacation is what you're looking for.

The experience is an annual family-oriented covered wagon train adventure! (Image: @ft.sewardwagontrain)

Spend a week on the Fort Seward Wagon Train to find out exactly what it was like.

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Peter Watson is a writer, photographer and adventurer. A keen trekker and climber he can usually be found on the trails of the Greater Ranges. He’s visited over 80 countries and is currently focused on climbing the seven summits – the highest mountain on every continent. Four down, three to go... He has also travelled extensively around the US developing a penchant for American backcountry, abandoned buildings and natural wonders en route.

Phoenix, AZ

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