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With his Viking battle ax, Leif Erikson guards the approach to the Gol Stave Church.
With his Viking battle ax, Leif Erikson guards the approach to the Gol Stave Church.

Scandinavian Heritage Park

Field review by the editors.

Minot, North Dakota

If you want to enjoy Vikings and trolls and a Lord of the Rings aesthetic, you don't have to travel abroad. Scandinavian Heritage Park will satisfy the Nordic needs of most horn-helmet-minded tourists, with 14 Valhalla-lite acres on the prairie of North Dakota.

Swedish Dala Horse is one of the world's largest.
Swedish Dala Horse is one of the world's largest.

"It's the only park in the world that celebrates all five countries" -- Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden -- said Kay Watson of the Scandinavian Heritage Association, which oversees the park. "We love the fact that we descend from Vikings."

The park, which was originally a city landfill, was launched like a dragon-headed longboat in the late 1980s by members of local heritage groups such as the Icelandic Society and the Sons of Norway -- grandchildren of the Scandinavians who homesteaded North Dakota a hundred years earlier. Statues and buildings honoring the five countries were gradually added, transforming the park into a kind of permanent Nordic World's Fair. Norway was first with statues of two famous local downhill skiers (which is surprising since North Dakota has few hills). Denmark donated a little windmill -- resembling a miniature golf obstacle -- in 1992, Iceland a statue of battle-ax wielding Leif Erikson in 1993, Finland a sauna in 1997, and Sweden a giant blocky Dala Horse -- the second largest in the world -- in 2000. Other statues, buildings, and monuments have been added periodically ever since.

Plaza Scandinavia displays the Nordic countries in granite, and can be seen from space.
Plaza Scandinavia displays the Nordic countries in granite, and can be seen from space.

Hans Christian Andersen and the Ugly Duckling.
Hans Christian Andersen and the Ugly Duckling.

The park's landmark -- also the star attraction of Minot -- is its Gol Stave Church, a towering, fairytale-style structure made of Northwoods pine. It's an exact replica of one in Oslo, built 800 years ago. "Ours is only 25 years old so it still has this wonderful pine smell," said Kay. The church was the passion project of a local doctor who traveled to Norway a dozen times to do research. He then built an exact scale model of the church with 15,000 hand-cut shingles -- it's on display in the park's Heritage House museum -- before the full-size replica was completed. According to Kay the sap from the wood helps to glue the building together (It has very few nails). There's no heating or insulation, and snow sometimes drifts in through the church's tiny open windows.

Kay described those who visit the frigid building during the park's Christmastime festivities as "hardy."

Another building in the park, the Sigdal House, originally sheltered a Norwegian couple and ten tightly packed children. Built in 1771, it's the oldest building in North Dakota, shipped piece-by-piece across the Atlantic in 1991. "They brought Norwegians here to put it back together," said Kay. The Stabbur, which Kay described as "a Norwegian garage," has a grass roof, while the Finnish sauna is fired up twice a year for the public, who are welcome to wear their swimsuits (even in winter).

Danish mini-windmill was built by a North Dakotan in 1928.
Danish mini-windmill was built by a North Dakotan in 1928.

Out by the statue of Hans Christian Andersen and an eternal flame held aloft by giant skis is Plaza Scandinavia, a huge map of the Nordic countries made out of different-colored slabs of granite, visible from space. Flags from all five countries plus Canada, which is only an hour's drive north, flap in the prairie breeze.

Most of the park's buildings are unheated and closed from October to mid-May, although the gift shop is open year-round, where visitors can pose with a wooden troll and buy copies of the book, "Sondre Norheim: Father of Modern Skiing." The grounds are also kept open throughout the year for those who want to experience the park in sub-freezing Scandinavian temperatures. "We're a little bit different up here," said Kay, who often wears her Swedish costume when she gives tours. "We're built for the cold, I guess. Yah, we don't mind the weather too much."

Famous ski jumper Casper Oimoen.
Famous ski jumper Casper Oimoen.

Scandinavian Heritage Park

214 11th Ave. SW, Minot, ND
South side of downtown. On the north side of 11th Ave. SW, just west of its intersection with US-83/S. Broadway.
Park buildings open mid-May - Oct. Gift shop and Visitors Center open year-round, M-F 10-4. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Free, donations appreciated.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

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