Deep within the heart of Montana, the Missouri River starts its southward journey at the confluence of the Cow, Sacagawea, and Musselshell Rivers. When Lewis and Clark explored the river looking for a passage to the Pacific Ocean the Missouri flowed fast, wide and shallow. Countless logs drifted in the swift current through ever shifting banks and sandbars. Hundreds of paddleboats went to the bottom in the westward expansion of the 1800's stopping in the growing communities of Omaha, Sioux City and Yankton.
Progress brought vast amounts of change to the Missouri River. From Sioux City, Iowa the river has been forced into a deep channel and a series of levees and dikes help keep the Missouri on a straight course. North of Sioux City mighty dams with names like Gavins Point, Fort Randall, Big Bend, Oahe, Garrison, and Fort Peck control the flow of the water to keep the river navigable and prevent flooding. The thick groves of cottonwoods and willows along massive chalk bluffs are long gone, cut by paddle wheelers for fuel and settlers for homes. If Lewis and Clark returned to their mighty Missouri River they would recognize very little, with exception to a 57-mile stretch on the South Dakota and Nebraska border.
The Missouri National Recreational River was originally created in 1978 protecting a twenty-mile length of the Missouri River from Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, South Dakota to Ponca, Nebraska. In 1991 another 37 miles was added protecting the river from the Fort Randall Dam in Pickstown east to Niobrara, Nebraska, including 25 miles of the lower Niobrara River.
The 57 miles of the Missouri River protected by the Missouri National Recreational River is the only section in South Dakota and Nebraska left in a semi-natural state. The Big Muddy flows fast and wide through sandstone and chalk bluffs, some as high as 100 feet. The river valley is as wide as two miles in some places, a testament to the twists and turns that the Missouri has taken over the millennium. In the fall the hardwoods on the loess hills to the east come alive creating a thin ribbon of vibrant color on the horizon. The park itself doesn't have any facilities and access to the river is limited in this remote area.
If there is anything to do along the Missouri National Recreational River it is just about anything you can image in the water. Power boating, jet skiing, sailing, fishing, canoeing and kayaking are all popular activities. A visit to Lewis and Clark Lake offers swimming in the calm waters behind Gavins Point Dam and divides the two units of the national park. Eight state parks, five in South Dakota and three in Nebraska, as well as an excellent Army Corps of Engineering facility complete the area and offer plenty of land-based exploration.
Thousands of people come to the Missouri to paddle the great river. A float trip by canoe or kayak on the Missouri is not easy and is not for the inexperienced paddler. Although the water is flat and generally free of holes, riffles and hydraulics, the Missouri can flow very fast, up to seven miles per hour. The river is littered with strainers and snags, and the relentless prairie wind makes it difficult to maintain a straight course. Paddlers have to share the river with both pleasure craft and occasional commercial barge traffic. But if you have the experience, retracing Lewis and Clark's path is a very rewarding trip.
If you want to paddle the eastern half of the park you will start at the Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, South Dakota. Access to the river can be found below the dam on the Nebraska side, but be very cautious during times of dam releases as the water flow and currents can be very unpredictable. The first ten miles of the trip is relatively uninspiring past Yankton on the South Dakota side and farms on the Nebraska side. In the fall the banks come alive with black oak, black walnut, ironwood, and cottonwoods changing color. While passing Yankton you will go under the US Highway 81 Bridge. The very unusual structure is a former train crossing now used for auto traffic with southbound traffic using the old train trestle and northbound traffic going over the top of it.
The first pull out you come to is about 11 miles past the dam on the South Dakota side of the river at the Clay County Lakeside Use Area in Vermillion. The park only offers day use facilities including a boat ramp, parking lot, and picnic tables. Past Clay County the river becomes more secluded with forested bluffs to the south and rolling fields to the north. Paddlers can exit the eastern end of the Missouri National Recreational River at Ponca State Park in Nebraska, about 10 miles southeast of Vermillion, and two miles north of Ponca, Nebraska.
The better float trip on the Missouri National Recreational River starts below the Fort Randall Dam. Here the Missouri is more than twenty feet deep with thick groves of willow and cottonwood trees growing on numerous islands and sandbars. Limestone bluffs rise 250 feet over the untamed river. Marshes line the banks at the foot of the cliffs and the main channel twists and turns in gnarled braids from one shore to the other. At times of low water the current is slower, moving at a lazy two miles per hour. It is the wildest remaining section of the Missouri that has been left unchanged since Lewis and Clark first paddled up it in 1802.
Just below Fort Randall Dam the Randall Creek Recreation Area, run by the Army Corps of Engineers, offers excellent camping facilities. The recreation area offers 134 campsites, some on the banks of the Missouri, and is open from May to September. Showers, playgrounds, flush toilets and a boat ramp are available. Campgrounds can be reserved online and are available for $15 a night. It is also an excellent location to start your Missouri River paddling adventure.
Find out more about the Missouri National Recreational River NOW!