This Tiny Western Town Goes Full Broadway in the Badlands

Spectacular views and pitchfork-fried steak are deep in the Midwest.

"Welcome to the Medora Musical!" | Photo courtesy of Laura Grier
"Welcome to the Medora Musical!" | Photo courtesy of Laura Grier

The Burning Hills Amphitheater is a little like LA's Hollywood Bowl… only with a lot more elk. From the top row, the vast badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park spread out into the distance. On the butte directly behind the stage, a Hollywood-like, multi-story sign reading “Medora” fills the hillside where, today, a couple of elk are prancing in full view.

“Welcome to the Medora Musical !” Chet Wollan bellows as he meets me outside the Roberts & Co. Billiard Hall. It’s not an actual pool parlor, but rather one of the elaborate facades that make up the set of the Medora Musical. “Whaddya think?”

He’s a sturdy man somewhere in his late-30s, with a round face and deep sunburn. If we weren’t standing over his mark for that night’s musical performance, I might have assumed he was an off-season cowboy. In fact, he’s an in-season musical-theater performer. His stage name is “Cowboy Chet,” and he's the host of the Medora Musical.

The small-town revue isn’t some hokey community theater night put on in a rickety high school gym. It’s a full-scale musical, complete with live musicians, two-story set pieces, and an amphitheater with escalators. The cast hails from all over the country, auditioning in cities like Minneapolis and Memphis for the chance to come to this North Dakota town of 134 and hear their voice echoing off the badlands.

Those badlands are part of the South Unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, a far-flung spread of dramatic landscapes filling much of western North Dakota. It’s a part of America few people visit — hours from the nearest regional airport in Bismarck, and days from a city one might call “major.”

This otherworldly expanse of long, green hills and jagged moonscapes is the absolute last place one would expect to find a full-scale theater and dinner experience—though it does make sense that the dinner part of that equation would involve huge steaks.

Huge steaks, bigger pitchforks and bubbling cauldrons of oil. | Photo courtesy of Laura Grier

“Steak or hotdog,” the teenager at the entrance to Steak Fondue asks flatly as I hand her my ticket.

“Steak,” I tell her. She motions for me to queue up on the right of the massive picnic shelter sitting atop the Burning Hills Amphitheater. The shelter hosts the nightly meat parade known as Steak Fondue, the quintessential way to pregame the Medora Musical.

As patrons line up next to the parking lot, men in aprons hoist six-foot pitchforks topped with raw New York strip steaks. Not satisfied to grill or broil steaks like every other steakhouse in the world, in Medora they impale hundreds of cuts on these forks, lowering them into boiling oil half a dozen at a time.

The hiss of frying meat fills the air as hungry visitors grab metal trays and peruse a full buffet of salads, coleslaw, and baked potatoes. Then they select one of the hundreds of fried steaks awaiting at the end.

Surprisingly, the steaks don’t taste a whole lot different than if they were cooked in an oven broiler. Steak fondue is rich, make no mistake. But the style also managed to blend char and juiciness in a way few traditional restaurants can. And it's among the most purely North Dakota things you can experience.

Beer and wine flow freely, but in a state known for its rowdy college-football tailgates, Steak Fondue is hardly a debaucherous pregame for the performing-arts set. It’s strictly a family-friendly affair, where you can fill up on pitchfork-fried steak and gaze out over the Burning Hills and badlands before settling into your seats.

It’s not Broadway, but it’s definitely memorable. | Photo courtesy of Laura Grier

After the deep-fried feast comes the Medora Musical, a 90-minute revue telling the history of Medora and the life of Theodore Roosevelt, who ventured to this valley after the death of his wife and mother—on the same day—in the early 1880s. It’s not exactly Hamilton, but the choreography and the bulk of the vocal talent are as good as you’d find in any regional production.

The jokes skew corny—the year I went there was an entire bit featuring Cowboy Chet’s “mother” making the North Dakota equivalent of “yo mama” jokes—but it’s self-aware and campy. It’s also broken up by a feature act, oftentimes a comedian who brings a snarkier brand of humor to the second act.

The show—which runs six nights a week from June-September—typically ends with a cowboy riding up the mountain behind the amphitheater, flag in hand, standing triumphant above the Medora sign. Fireworks explode above him, the cast takes a bow, and the crowd rides off into what we assume is the only traffic jam in North Dakota not caused by buffalo.

Descending back into Medora, the show’s energy continues through the town. It’s not that the Medora Musical is the only reason people come here, but it’s very much the centerpiece to summer, giving it an eventful air that’s akin to game day in a college town.

medora sign
The tiny town of Medora abuts Theodore Roosevelt National Park. | Photo courtesy of Laura Grier

Medora’s streets are lined with Old West facades housing bustling bars, restaurants, and ice cream shops. But much like you can’t go to the Medora Musical expecting Broadway, this isn't Aspen in the Badlands. It’s just upscale enough to make even the bougiest of travelers comfortable for a few days, but there’s no Ritz Carlton coming any time soon.

Live, outdoor music fills the air most summer nights outside Boots Bar and Grill, where you'll find a hefty selection of local beers on tap and Medora’s closest thing to a nightlife scene. There’s also the Little Mo Saloon just down the street, complete with dual swinging doors and gunslinger vibes. For a more modern experience, Medora Uncork’d pours rare, small-batch wines you wouldn’t necessarily expect in the badlands, making it a rare place where park tourists and locals find common ground.

Inside the Rough Riders Hotel—Medora’s poshest digs—is Theodore’s Dining Room, the town’s lone white-tablecloth dining experience. A short walk away is the Cowboy Café, a cash-only breakfast spot adorned in cowboy memorabilia. If the Rough Riders is a little out of your budget, the Badlands Motel is an ideal place to base yourself. The restored old motor inn has a serious Schitt’s Creek vibe. Its pool sits at the base of the butte on the city’s edge, with a zipline and mini golf course right across the fence. The motel also offers almost-instant access to the Pancratz Trail, a 1.5-mile vertical trek that takes you to the finest views of the city.

That view looks out across the Little Missouri River valley and the town of Medora, across to the waving flags and colorful lights of the Burning Hills Amphitheater. Perhaps most alluring about Medora is that you have to know it’s there to get in on the action. It's like America’s own secret speakeasy, hidden behind the red curtain of North Dakota badlands. To find it, just follow the smell of frying steak.

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Matt Meltzer is a Miami-based contributor for Thrillist.