When is the last time you explored northwest North Dakota? You might think there’s not much there – but a series of small communities offer a lot to explore, both indoors and out. One such place is the town of Williston, North Dakota.
While Williston is home to only around 15,000 people, it is actually the sixth-largest city in North Dakota. While it isn’t on any of the major interstates that traverse the state, it is located along U.S. Route 2 and near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. For these reasons, Williston has experienced a cycle of booms and busts; today, the city has a lot to offer on top of its historic and storied history.
If you’re going to pass through this part of northwest North Dakota and considering an extended stop or overnight in Williston, read on. You’ll discover the best things to do in Williston that show how much this community has to offer.
In this post, I promote travel to a destinations that is the traditional lands of the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara, Niitsítpiis-stahkoii ᖹᐟᒧᐧᐨᑯᐧ ᓴᐦᖾᐟ (Blackfoot / Niitsítapi ᖹᐟᒧᐧᒣᑯ), Michif Piyii (Métis), Assiniboine peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in October 2021, and was updated most recently in August 2023.
1. Head to Fort Union Trading Post
Exploring slices of American history is one of the top things to do in Williston. Between 1828 and 1867, Fort Union positioned itself as the most important fur trade post on the Upper Missouri River. Although called a fort, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site had no connection to the military or the government.
n 1828, John Jacob Astor, the American Fur Company’s founder, built Fort Union at the request of the Assiniboine and other six Upper Missouri tribes. For nearly forty years, the fort was a busy trade spot, where the seven Northern Plains Indian Tribes exchanged furs and buffalo robes for manufactured goods, such as guns and clothing. The peaceful relationship between the tribes and Astor made Fort Union America’s longest-lasting fur trade post one of the most profitable ones.
2. Visit the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center
The Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center is one of those great things to do in Williston if you’d like to look at the local geography and how it shaped history.
Located half a mile from Fort Buford State Historic Site, the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center documents the history of the confluence of the Yellowstone and the Missouri Rivers and its importance to the indigenous tribes and the Lewis And Clark Expedition. There is a 2,000-square-foot permanent exhibit, Trails, Tracks, Rivers, and Roads, sharing interesting facts and photos of the area.
The interpretive site also features three large murals with quotes from the Lewis and Clark Journals and paintings of the Missouri River landscape by Colonel Philippe Régis de Trobriand, commanding officer of Fort Stevenson near present-day Garrison, N.D., in the late 1860s. Outside you can find spots to enjoy a sprawling view of the mighty rivers.
3. Learn at Fort Buford State Historic Site
Some travelers argue that Fort Buford State Historic Site is the most interesting historic site in Williston. The historic site tells the story of this fort and the life of the soldiers who called it home.
In 1866, soldiers under the command of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel William G. Rankin started building Fort Buford State Historic Site near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. Its purpose was to protect overland and river routes that settlers used when traveling to the West and serve as a major supply depot for military field operations.
A few original buildings still stand, like the cemetery and officers’ quarters. The most impressive place is the room where Sitting Bull gave his rifle to his son to give to the US Army as he surrendered in 1881.
4. Step Back in Time at the Frontier Museum
A visit to the Frontier Museum is one of those activities in Williston that caters to everyone in the family. The museum is a window to the past, showing all about the people who migrated to colonial America and their lives in these lands. While you’ll find typical exhibits and buildings, Frontier Museum has gone to great extents to build an interactive experience.
From April through November, the museum offers self-guided tours where guests enjoy “living history.” You have two major sections: The Old World and America. For both sections, the museum hires actors wearing costumes who illustrate the diverse people and cultures of early America. It’s genuinely engaging, and kids love it!
5. Admire the Wheat Monument
If you’re wondering what to do in Williston that won’t take much time, visiting the Wheat Monument is an excellent option.
Davidson Park in Williston is home to the Wheat Monument. The giant stalks of wheat are a tribute to the men and women who envisioned Williston as agricultural land and raised wheat and other grain on its prairies. Williston artist, David Njos, designed and built the Wheat Monument. Njos finished his work in 1987. The monument features three 35 feet high iron wheat stalks and three black granite plaques where people engrave the names of area pioneers.
Locals see the monument as a lovely reminder of the strong women and men who made Williston and its economy grow with their labor. To this day, people approach the park’s staff, asking to add names to the monument.
6. Take in the View from Cut Bluff Outlook
The Cut Bluff Outlook is one of the somewhat adventurous things to do in Williston. A historic landmark just east of Williston, the Cut Bluff Outlook commemorates Lewis and William Clark’s campsite from two centuries ago.
You’ll also find information about a family that used to live in the same place in the late 1800s. The site has a kiosk (with all the information about the location), a short trail, and a scenic overlook. The kiosk features a covered eating area with a barbecue pit for picnicking. If you’re on a road trip through North Dakota, Cut Bluff Outlook is a nice and quiet spot to make a stop and relax.
7. Admire Art at James Memorial Art Center
Lovers of the arts, step inside the James Memorial Art Center and admire local, regional, and international art exhibits in all media. This entertaining museum is in a beautiful Beaux Arts-style building that served as the former James Memorial Library. Their exhibits change every month. So there’s always something new to see.
During non-Covid Times, the museum offered events such as Open Mic Night, Game Nights, and even an Open Studio that allows artists to come in and work on their art in a quiet space! Check out their website to find the latest updates on their exhibits.
Where to Stay in Williston
If you’re sold on spending some time in Williston, you probably need a place to rest after each day of adventure. There are a few dozen hotels, motels, and campgrounds to choose from in the Williston area, but here are a few that caught my eye across the range of travel styles and budgets:
- Budget: Baymont by Wyndham (from $41/night)
- Mid-Range: El Rancho Hotel (from $71/night)
- Luxe: Hampton Inn & Suites (from $120/night)
- Local Option: Landmark Suites (from $107/night)
Do you know of other great things to do in Williston, North Dakota? Let me know in the comments!