The fun thing about loving a city is getting to explore it during different seasons of the year. For me, Grand Forks, ND, is one of those places. I was stationed there for 5 ½ years during my Air Force service. I grew to love the area during that time. The winters were tough, but the area and people made them easier to survive. Plus, just as anywhere, you adapt to the environment. Our youngest daughter was born there. I fell in love with hockey in Grand Forks.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Grand Forks three times over the past five years -once in early autumn, early winter and then summer. Each visit has been enjoyable. That’s the great thing about loving a destination. So, what did Lisa and I do to keep ourselves busy for three days? That was never an issue as the visitors bureau, who hosted us, arranged a fulfilling visit.
Let’s start with a walk around downtown. As you may be aware, the Grand Forks area suffered major floods during the mid-1990s. The 1997 flood nearly destroyed the downtown area. Grand Forks residents saved the city and rebuilt. Today, several of the original buildings threatened during that flood, which saw floodwaters crest at 54 feet, still stand. The 1997 flood saw floodwaters travel three miles inland, causing about $3.5 billion in damage. Following clean-up, dikes and levees were built along the Red River of the North to prevent another major flood.
People enjoy walking and riding bicycles along a riverfront trail that includes a flood wall as a backdrop. A monument serves as a reminder of previous floods in the area.
While downtown, we enjoyed coffee at Urban Stampede, a coffeehouse located in an old furrier shop. Owner Kelly Thompson said the coffeehouse has a unique design aimed at getting people to socialize if they want. Knowing some people may not want to sit by themselves in a booth or at a table, he installed a bar, similar to an old-time saloon. This way, someone can pull up a stool next to you and either enjoy their drink privately or engage in conversation. The concept has been successful since they opened the doors in 1992, he said. Some people who met at the bar have ended up getting married, Thompson said.
Urban Stampede proudly showcases the “world’s smallest” art gallery. The art on display is quite good, including a mural focusing on coffee.
Downtown is also home to a couple of craft breweries – Half Brothers and Rhombus Guys. We tried a few samples at Rhombus Guys, as well as dinner. With a flight of six beers, our drinks ranged from a stout to fruit-infused beers. I preferred the Iconic Blonde, an ale, while Lisa enjoyed the Beach Bod, a fruit beer. I also enjoyed a Half Brothers beer – Classic ale – at our hotel. Both breweries produce outstanding beer.
I made my second visit to the North Dakota Museum of Art, which is located on the University of North Dakota campus in an old armory building. A couple of nice items about the museum is that admission is free and it rotates exhibits on a regular basis, offering a reason to visit often. During our visit, a special exhibit – “Power : Empower” – focused on issues brought to light by four contemporary artists, which artwork dating back only to the mid-1980s. One piece, in particular, struck a familiar chord with me. Michael James Boyd, who died in 2005 at the age of 43, was an Ojibwe artist. His untitled mural focused on the typical view of Native Americans, that we are relics of the past, celebrated only at powwows. Instead, his piece not only included the past, but modern Indian life – people working regular jobs, going to movies, driving cars. His message was “we are still here.”
Another display I found interesting was one that highlighted North Dakota’s role during the Cold War, with missile fields in the area. The Grand Forks Air Force Base’s missile wing consisted of 150 missiles with 10 launch control facilities (security and launch officers). John Collee Rogers grew up the son of a military officer. He created the art pieces to represent the missile launch sites scattered around an area larger than the state of New Jersey. Rogers’ art also included taking weapons, such as pistols, and creating works of art.
While we were at the Museum of Art, we enjoyed lunch at the Museum Cafe. I suggest dining there when visiting. The food and service were outstanding. Lisa and I enjoyed a delicious lunch; hers was a chicken apple brie sandwich with fruit, while I enjoyed a club with chicken tortilla soup. We split an opera cake for dessert – a layered chocolate espresso.
While the art museum was enriching, I may have had the tour of a lifetime when we received a behind-the-scenes tour of the Ralph Engelstad Area, the home ice of the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks. I fell in love with UND hockey during my time in Grand Forks and always look forward to watching games there, including previous visits to see UND play Wisconsin, Michigan State and our local Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks. The arena is considered the best place in the country to watch college hockey – always a sellout with more than 11,000 people clad in green and black rooting on UND.
The tour took us around the arena, including inside suites, as well as the media room and players/coaches area. We also toured the Betty Engelstad facility, where the women’s basketball and volleyball teams play. Both facilities are among the best in college sports.
Following our tour, we stopped by the Columbia Mall to do some shopping at the Scheel’s store. While there, Lisa saw a large Pac-Man game she wanted to play. We both enjoyed turns taking on the ghosts.
Grand Forks is home to outstanding restaurants. We enjoyed dinner at the Toasted Frog downtown as well as The Tavern at the Canadinn. The Toasted Frog offers a truly amazing menu. Starting with the fried pickles as an appetizer, the lightly-coated dill spears set the table for what is going to be an impressive experience. Lisa ordered a vegetable lavosh (a cracker bread pizza) topped with an egg. I struggled with my choice. The steak looked good, while a burger also sounded tasty. After much internal debate and verbal hemming-and-hawing, I went with an elk burger, which was actually juicy (I’ve found elk burgers at other places to be a bit dry), and a side of sweet potato fries. Neither of us was disappointed with our choices. While I normally second guess myself when I am torn over choices, I was glad I went with the elk.
We actually dined at The Tavern so we could watch the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs. With almost every screen eventually showing the game, I felt like I was with my people, again enjoying hockey in Grand Forks. We went with pub food, including a quesadilla for Lisa and a Reuben sandwich for me. We enjoyed our dinner and hockey.
Sunday brunch at the Sky Lounge was a special treat. The crab cakes Oscar and the crème brulee pancakes were amazing! The pancakes, two of them took an entire plate, were so good that I pushed myself to eat as much of them as possible. Alas, I couldn’t finish them. A nice lounge for brunch on a Sunday morning, Sky is a great downtown attraction.
While in Grand Forks, we enjoyed a nice suite at the Staybridge Suites. It was our second time at the hotel, so we had a good idea of what to expect and appreciated being hosted there. The suite had a nice sofa and workspace, as well as a full-sized kitchen area for people staying a while.
Grand Forks was the first leg of an eight-day stay in North Dakota, and it was tough saying good-bye. I always enjoy visiting and look forward to our next visit; hopefully, a UND hockey weekend. On our way out of town, we stopped by Tim Horton’s to get some Timbits (donut holes) and coffee. The Canadian-based donut shop is a family favorite.
While we were hosted by the Grand Forks visitors bureau, as always, our views and opinions are ours. We strongly recommend putting Grand Forks on your must-see Midwest travel list. The area has a lot to offer visitors. For more information, such as attractions and special events, please visit www.visitgrandforks.com.