Road to Nowhere

Cutting across America’s heartland, US‑83 remains a must-do long-distance byway—transnavigating this broad, odd nation without once grazing a conventional tourist destination.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site

Between Garrison Dam and Washburn, scenic Hwy-200 passes two of North Dakota’s most significant historic sites: Fort Clark and the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (701/745-3300, daily, free), both of which, though small, saw key scenes of the late 18th- and early 19th-century interactions between Native Americans and interloping European traders and explorers. Downstream from Garrison Dam along the west bank of the Missouri River, the Knife River Indian Villages is one of North Dakota’s most fascinating historic places, and the only federally maintained site devoted to preservation of the Plains tribes’ cultures. Standing above the Missouri floodplain, on the site of what was the largest and most sophisticated village of the interrelated Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara tribes, the park protects the remains of dozens of terraced fields, fortifications, and earth lodges, remnants of a culture that lived here for thousands of years until the 1830s, when the tribes were devastated by smallpox and other diseases within a few short years of European contact.

A highlight of the park is an earth lodge, reconstructed using traditional materials, which gives a vivid sense of day-to-day Great Plains life. Measuring 40 feet across and 12 feet high at its central smoke hole, the earth lodge looks exactly as it would have when the likes of George Catlin and Karl Bodmer were welcomed by the villagers during the 1830s. Just north of the earth lodge spread circular depressions in the soil—which are all that remain of the Hidatsa community where, in 1804, the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery was joined by the French fur-trapper Charbonneau and his wife, Sacagawea.

The modern visitors center, well signed off Hwy-200 at the south edge of the park, has high-quality reproductions of the drawings and paintings that Catlin, Bodmer, and others made of the Knife River Indian Villages, along with archaeological and anthropological summaries that help bring to life these intriguing Native American peoples. The center also has information on the many annual events, festivals, and powwows held at Knife River throughout the year, including the Northern Plains Indian Culture Fest in late July.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site