If you threw a dart at the middle of a map of the North American continent, you’d end up somewhere around Valley City, North Dakota. Far from any oceans, gulfs or seas, North Dakota is part of what’s known as the heartland of America. Much of North Dakota is classic heartland America, with hard working people, rustic communities and remarkable landscapes and scenic highways to connect them all.
North Dakota may be better known for Fargo (great movie) and Bismarck (state capitals trivia question) but there are many charming small towns to be discovered and Valley City is one of them. About an hour’s drive west of Fargo along the I-94, Valley City lies on the winding banks of the Sheyenne River. The river is a long one, meandering for nearly 600 miles around the state before dumping into the Red River which heads north into Canada.
Very early fall along the Sheyenne River
Valley City got its start in 1874 as a new railroad line stop and grew into a hub for the surrounding farmers and tradesmen. A notable railway bridge was built over the Sheyenne river in 1908, and at the time was the longest bridge (0.73 miles) for its height (162 feet) in the entire world. The Hi-Line Bridge is still one the longest railway bridges in the America, 110 years after it was built. And it makes for some great photos (see above).
The river and river valley define the city, as do the many bridges (11!) which helped garner the nickname “City of Bridges”. All these elements lend a picturesque charm to Valley City and the surrounding areas. The term “city” in North Dakota has the potential to mislead, as all officially incorporated communities are recognized as cities, including about 150 “cities” with populations less than 100!
Looking out over the fertile lands outside Valley City
Valley City itself hosts around 6,500 permanent residents, with countless more passing through with the I-94 hugging the south end of the city, and numerous active farms in the region. Valley City has a nice collection of parks (30 acres) to stroll through and several attractions such as a railroad history at the Rosebud Visitor Centre, a massive outdoor solar calendar formed from rocks at Medicine Wheel Park and a nice and somewhat eclectic collection of shops in town.
North of Valley City, the Sheyenne River, once prone to flooding, was tamed in 1951 thanks to the Baldhill Dam. The resulting Lake Ashtabula has become a popular destination for camping, fishing, hiking and all-season activities. To the west of town one finds the Hobart Lake National Wildlife Refuge provides some quality bird-watching at a distance.
Nature walks at Fort Ransom State Park
A byway is more than just a quaint term that Frank Sinatra used to rhyme with “My Way.” A “National Scenic Byway” is an official designation to bring attention to some of the most scenic, or culturally significant roadways in America. North Dakota has only roadway worthy of the title, and the Sheyenne River Valley Scenic Byway is a beautiful drive for a couple hours along country roads that the follow the endless twists of the river.
If you’re staying in Valley City, your options include clean, modern motels, charming guest inns and bed and breakfasts as well as several nice campgrounds. There is a reasonable selection of restaurants in town, and more in the neighboring “cities.”
We’d recommend a trip to Valley City and the Sheyenne River Valley in the summertime, to take in the warm charm of a country summer, or in the fall to enjoy the forests along the Sheyenne River Scenic Byway in full autumn colour. Whether in a Winnebago or a convertible coupe, take your time savouring the charms of this relatively undiscovered corner of the American heartland.
One rocky arm of the massive solar clock built as Medicine Wheel Park