North Dakota is one of those states that no one seems to visit. You really have to mean to go there – even cross-country drivers typically bypass it to the south on I-90. And while I personally love the state, it’s not hard to see why it isn’t a shining beacon of tourism. Most of the state consists of huge expanses of rolling prairie, with barely a tree in sight (let alone a town). Conditions can be rough too – winter temperatures routinely dip into the negative numbers, and high winds combined with frequent snow create monster drifts. All this doesn’t exactly make the perfect recipe to attract droves of tourists.
Still, the state’s residents make a great effort to draw sightseers. Fargo has become a beer and culture hotspot, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park attracts nature lovers from all over the country. But when it comes to attractions, this remote prairie state does one thing better than anyone else: gigantic animals. They can be found all over the state, vigilantly watching over the endless farms, ranches, and small towns. Why does North Dakota have such a high concentration of larger-than-life beasts? That’s anyone’s guess. Maybe the cold winters give the locals plenty of time to think up ideas, or maybe the builders simply wanted to put their towns on the map. Either way, these immense animals rival any other attraction in the country when it comes to the “wow” factor. Let’s take a look.
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The town of New Salem (see map) has been renowned for its excellent cows for over a century. The small town’s Holsteins have received national attention at times for the quality of their milk and butter. Still, New Salem felt that their bovine companions weren’t getting the recognition they truly deserved. So, they did the only rational thing: commissioned an absolutely massive fiberglass Holstein cow to watch over the town. Salem Sue, constructed in 1974, stands atop the tallest hill in town, and can be seen from up to 5 miles away on the nearby interstate. She’s 38 feet tall, 50 feet long, and a hefty 12,000 pounds despite being hollow. Sue’s easy accessibility from the highway and the beautiful views from her hilltop perch make her (arguably) the most well-known individual animal on this list.
Salem Sue. Photo by David Goehring on Flickr (cc)
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If you travel east from Salem Sue on I-94, you’ll eventually hit the town of Steele (see map) and Sandy, the world’s largest sandhill crane. Real-life cranes are absolutely massive already – they’re around 4 feet tall with a wingspan of 6 feet. They also frequently stop in North Dakota as part of their migration path. In 1998, a welder named James Miller from a nearby town was inspired by these giant birds, and set about building an even bigger monument to them. He finished his project quickly and hauled the end result over to Steele, where it has stood just off the highway ever since. Sandy stands at 40 feet tall (unfortunately, her wings are tucked in so we don’t get to witness the 60-foot wingspan). She’s easily accessible from the highway, and there’s an informational sign about the sculpture and the history of sandhill cranes right next to her.
Sandy standing tall. Photo by Matt Reinbold on Flickr (cc)
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A Trio of Turtles
Sure, North Dakota has turtles, but the state’s obsession with them seems gloriously disproportionate. As it turns out, the northern area of the state is known as the Turtle Mountains (despite being nearly flat). And boy, have the locals embraced it: not one, not two, but three shelled statues dot the landscape here. The first, affectionately named Rusty, sits in the appropriately named town of Turtle Lake (see map). The most lifelike of the three turtles, Rusty gets his name from his bronze color and weighs a solid two tons. Rusty’s not the tallest, though – that honor goes to Tommy the Turtle, who lives up north in Bottineau (see map). Tommy, built in 1978, shatters records at 30 feet tall. He also sits atop the biggest snowmobile in the world (34 feet long), because why not?
Tommy on his snowmobile. Photo by Mark Goebel on Flickr (cc)
The most creative of the three North Dakotan turtles, however, might be the W’eel Turtle of Dunseith (see map). W’eel isn’t as tall as Tommy, but he’s larger at nearly 40 feet long. Plus, he’s made of 2,000 green wheel rims! W’eel’s head is on a pivot, so it bobs if you put enough force into it. He’s been the centerpiece of Dunseith since his construction in 1982, and the town dresses him up every year for Christmas.
W’eel’s profile. Photo by Jimmy Emerson on Flickr (cc)
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A Few Fish
North Dakota has plenty of rivers and lakes interspersed with the prairie, and fishing is one of the state’s major forms of recreation. So, it’s no surprise that two of the world’s largest fish reside here. The first one, named Wally Walleye, lives in Garrison (see map). This small town lies on the banks of the massive Lake Sakakawea, which is chock full of the freshwater fish. In fact, Garrison proclaims itself as the Walleye capital of the world (a claim it shares with the coincidentally named Garrison, Minnesota). Wally helps to flaunt this claim, all 26 feet of him flopping majestically above 1st Street.
Wally Walleye. Photo by Mark Goebel on Flickr (cc)
Down in the southeastern corner of the state, the town of Wahpeton lies on the banks of the catfish-rich Red River of the North (see map). To celebrate accordingly, the town erected a massive catfish (affectionately dubbed “The Wahpper”) by the riverside. Constructed by the same man who built Salem Sue, The Wahpper is 40 feet long and right about 5,000 pounds. The Red River floods extremely frequently, and when it does locals say the big fish looks like he’s swimming!
The big Wahpper. Photo by Matthew Paulson on Flickr (cc)
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The oldest entry on this list, Dakota Thunder was constructed in 1959 to stand on a hill outside of Jamestown (see map). The massive sculpture is 26 feet tall, 46 feet long, and 54 tons. It cemented Jamestown’s nickname of “The Buffalo City,” and has become one of the largest tourist attractions in the state. Since its construction, Jamestown has built an Old West-style Pioneer Town as well as a buffalo museum to complement the big bison. Its name is actually fairly recent, chosen in a contest in 2010. Today, Dakota Thunder shares its name with an extremely rare (and, to the local Native Americans, sacred) albino buffalo, which grazes in the fields below the statue. I’ve seen both Dakota Thunders – they’re a must-visit if you’re heading down this stretch of highway.
Dakota Thunder in the snow. Photo by Geof Wilson on Flickr (cc)
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The Enchanted Highway
The Enchanted Highway is one of North Dakota’s newer attractions, but it’s already one of its most famous. In 1989, Gary Greff realized that his tiny town of Regent (see map) was dying, and he began setting up art installations to put it back on the map. Today, seven huge pieces of scrap metal art dot the roadside between Regent and I-94, with an eighth in progress.
Deer Crossing (note the car). Photo by Drew Weber on Flickr (cc)
Five of the sculptures depict massive animals: Fisherman’s Dream, Pheasants on the Prairie, Grasshoppers, Deer Crossing, and Geese in Flight. And frankly, these creatures put the other entries to shame when it comes to size. The largest pheasant is 40 feet tall and 60 feet long, and the fish leap to heights of 70 feet. The grasshopper (the world’s largest) is 40 feet tall, never mind its length of 60 feet. Finally, the feature piece, Geese in Flight, is 154 feet wide by 100 feet tall – enough to earn the title of largest scrap metal sculpture in the world. The highway is enchanting in every sense of the word, and may just be the masterpiece amongst all of North Dakota’s larger-than-life animals.