Great Escapes

08.29.13

The Lure of North Dakota’s Enchanted Road

In a remote area of North Dakota, one town discovered an ingenious way to keep from going under: entice tourists to town along a road lined with stunning scrap-metal sculptures. Nina Strochlic reports.

The Dakotas are known more for their abundance of empty space than their inhabited areas. But one local artist has turned a vast expanse along an isolated road into a surprising, enchanted art gallery that seduces travelers into visiting one of North Dakota’s tiny, off-the-trail towns.

Along a 32-mile stretch of Highway 21, giant geese fly in a frozen circle around the sun, massive fish swim among plant life, and Teddy Roosevelt waves from a bucking horse. At the end lies the 162-person town of Regent, a modest cluster of homes and shops, which can now boast that it has hosted visitors from all 50 states and countries around the globe.

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Wikimedia Commons

The stretch of seven (soon to be eight) sculptures known as the "Enchanted Highway" was built to attract drivers from the busier I-94 onto the two-lane Highway 21 which connects the 103-year-old town of Regent to the main interstate. In 1990, Regent was on the brink of adding its name to North Dakota’s roster of ghost towns, when retired teacher Gary Greff came up with an idea to lure in tourists and keep the town above water.

In the late ’80s, Greff had noticed that a farmer’s hay-bale sculpture was drawing camera-wielding drivers to the main highway’s shoulder. Despite having no welding or art experience, he crafted the idea for what would become the Enchanted Highway, hoping to achieve the same effect as the hay bale, but on a much bigger scale.

Since then, the Regent native has spent the past two decades building a trail of massive, distinct pieces to attract the attention of drivers on the interstate. Near the town’s exit off of I-94, a 78.8-ton flock of geese forever circles the sun (and holds the title of the world’s largest scrap-metal sculpture). Farther along on Highway 21, the “World’s Largest Grasshopper” extends massive legs into the prairie. A 75-foot-tall buck appears to soar in midair over a fence. And a mile and a half from Regent, a Lego-esque tin farmer—who’s an astounding 45-feet-tall and Greff’s very first sculpture—smiles at his slightly smaller wife and son.

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Layne Kennedy/Corbis

The art pieces are funded by individual contributions and revenue generated by the gift shop in town. Today, Greff continues to dream up new sculptures while doing all of the upkeep on his existing masterpieces and the picnic and playground areas surrounding them.  

Last summer, to encourage the Enchanted Highway’s visitors to stay in town, Greff converted Regent’s elementary school into a 19-room, castle-themed inn, complete with a drawbridge and knights in armor. “I wanted the ‘wow’ factor, something people didn’t expect—a castle in North Dakota? Part of the Enchanted Highway has been that ‘wow,’” Greff told the Bismarck Tribune. One recent visitor on a Trip Advisor forum agreed with him, dubbing the Enchanted attractions “the best things in North Dakota.”

But outsiders are equally impressed. National Geographic Traveler included the Enchanted Highway in its definitive list of the Top 10 U.S. Roadside Attractions, along with the likes of Texas’s Cadillac Ranch and California’s Cabazon Dinosaurs.