Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Grant
The Missouri National Recreational River preserves the last two free-flowing stretches of the iconic river. Even before Lewis and Clark famously used the Missouri River as their route West, this river served as both a transportation and trade hub for Native American tribes throughout the area. In fact, Native American tribes have called this area home for more than 10,000 years.
The area is also home to plentiful wildlife, including dozens of species of birds and fish. Sadly, most of the major fauna, like elk, bison and grizzly bears, have long since disappeared. You will find plenty of other wildlife throughout the area, though.
The National Park Service co-manages various areas of the park with cooperating agencies like the National Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers and the states of Nebraska and South Dakota. This makes for an exciting mixture of recreational and informational opportunities within the area of the park.
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Where to Start Your Visit to the Missouri National Recreational River
If you are like us and don’t have a motorboat, finding something to do in the park can be a bit difficult. The park is very much set up to accommodate boaters. Still, there are cool things to do and plenty to learn in the area.
We suggest starting your visit at the National Park Service headquarters in downtown Yankton, SD. While this is NOT a traditional visitor center, you can get information from the park rangers and watch the film on the park.
The ranger we spoke to gave us plenty of cool ideas for what to do. She even signed us up to do some kayaking with the rangers on Yankton Lake. (More on that below)
If you are staying on the Nebraska side of the river, be sure to check out the Missouri River Resource and Education Center at Ponca State Park.
One thing to note about visiting this park: there are two sections of the park. The 39-Mile District to the west and the 59-Mile District to the east. We spent our time in the 59-Mile District. If we had a little more time, we might have headed west to find a paddling outfitter so we could canoe the 39-Mile District, which tends to be shallower.
Places to Visit on Land at Missouri National Recreational River
Gavins Point Dam Area
One of the big areas to spend some time in the water is just downriver of the Gavins Point Dam. There are three campgrounds plus Lake Yankton, which was created out of a former channel of the Missouri River when the dam was built. You will find a sandy beach to lay out on and plenty of places to do some fishing. There are also boat launches for both the river and the lake here.
We actually camped at one of the three campgrounds, the Chief White Crane Recreation Area. This campground was really nice (more on that below) and we really enjoyed all this area had to offer.
Lewis and Clark Visitor Center
The Lewis and Clark Visitor Center is just across the river. The US Army Corps of Engineers operates the center. Normally, you can drive across the top of the dam. That road (Crest Drive) was closed when we visited, so we had to drive around through Yankton to get there. Yep, that turned a 5-minute drive into about a 30-minute drive. It’s a nice visitor center, though, so it was worth it.
The Lewis and Clark Visitor Center does a good job going into the history of the dam and its impact on the people in the area. It also goes into the flora and fauna found along the river. It is a decent substitute for a national park visitor center.
We enjoyed the visitor center and spent about an hour there.
Paddling at Lake Yankton
While at the park headquarters, the ranger asked us about our interest in their kayak training class.
We said, “Sure!”
This would be a good way to get out on the water without having to hire an outfitter or rent a canoe or pair of kayaks. We have not equipped our truck to handle kayaks or canoes.
So, we met the rangers one cool, cloudy morning by walking from our campsite a few minutes to the boat launch on Lake Yankton. We spent the next few hours getting a pretty good lesson on how to kayak. We have both been kayaking but have never been taught anything other than paddle and don’t fall in! The course was good and we got out on the water to practice our “new” skills with a few games. Then we set off to paddle into the more wooded part of the lake.
We paddled along the shore, talking with the rangers and looking for wildlife until it was time to head back. All in all, it was a good time and we are glad we did it.
Interestingly, the rangers did mention they planned to start running paddling trips on the river again. I will be honest, we were a bit bummed we visited before they restarted those trips. If we are ever in town again, we will be sure to do a ranger-led paddle trip down the Missouri River.
Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium
The Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium is located on Hwy 52 just before you turn in by the dam. This US Fish and Wildlife Site produces the endangered pallid sturgeon and American paddlefish, among other fish, for stocking the Missouri and other nearby rivers.
What makes this a cool site is the aquarium, which offers visitors a glimpse into the murky waters of the “muddy” Missouri. The aquarium has several exhibits on the various species of fish found in the waters, as well as some of the reptiles and amphibians.
You can also visit the hatchery itself, with tanks of thousands of fish as well as large rearing ponds where the hatchery grows fish to put into rivers throughout the region.
Walking to Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium
One of the things that’s cool about visiting this site from the Chief White Crane Recreation Area is you can walk! We walked a nice paved trail from the campground all the way to the fish hatchery.
There are plenty of nice views of Lake Yankton along the way. We didn’t spot much in the way of wildlife but we were walking in the middle of the day. Earlier in our stay, we did see some wild turkeys hanging out on the trail.
You can either walk the paved trail back or loop through the rearing ponds to rejoin the trail. We opted for the latter and it made for a 3.5-mile walk that was nearly flat.
Two Missouri National Recreational River Sites Near Vermillion
We followed the park ranger’s recommendation and headed east to the small town of Vermillion, SD for two park sites: the Mulberry Bend Overlook and Spirit Mound.
Mulberry Bend Overlook
This site is a quick visit on the south (Nebraska) side of the river near the town of Vermillion. Here you can find a really nice overlook of the river and see how it would have looked when Lewis and Clark paddled it years ago.
There are a few short trails here but the real attraction is the view of the river, which is quite nice.
We also took this as an opportunity to drive the nearby Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway to the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center. It is worth noting that many of the roads around the visitor center are unpaved but in good condition.
Spirit Mound Historic Prairie
When Lewis and Clark visited this place on their expedition, they were told by local Native Americans that Spirit Mound was cursed, inhabited by little people with big heads who would shoot anyone who came close with arrows.
When the expedition arrived, they had walked nine miles from the Missouri River and found… lots of wildlife. The area was rife with bison (so numerous they did not bother to count), a massive herd of elk and tons of birds.
The men climbed to the top of Spirit Mound and looked out at the prairie stretched before them and remarked on the beauty of the land. Here is one place you can stand in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark and know you are standing exactly where they once stood.
Spirit Mound is preserved as a joint measure between the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, the National Park Service and a private organization that raised the money for the purchase and preservation of the park.
There is a brief hike to the top of the mound through land that is being restored to tallgrass prairie. It is more than worth the drive to see and experience this place.
Walk the Meridian Bridge in Yankton at Sunset
The Meridian Bridge spans the Missouri River at Yankton and connected the Meridian Highway, which spanned from Winnipeg, Canada to Mexico City, Mexico. The bridge was constructed in 1924 through public fundraising.
The bridge has two levels. Originally, the lower level was intended for train traffic but was never used for that purpose and was eventually converted for vehicular traffic. The bridge served as the river crossing in the Yankton area until 2008 when it was replaced by the Discovery Bridge just upriver. Afterward, the bridge was turned into a pedestrian and bike bridge.
You can walk across either level and it is a great place to watch the sunset on the Missouri River.
The City of Yankton also uses the upper deck of the bridge to launch fireworks on the Fourth of July. We found a great place to watch the fireworks just downriver in Riverside Park.
Where to Stay and Eat
Where to Stay
We stayed at the Chief White Crane Recreation Area campground just west of downtown Yankton by Gavins Point Dam. We felt like this campground was about perfect for our needs. It was quiet, even over the holiday, and well-shaded by cottonwood trees.
While the sites are electric only, there are several bathhouses with showers scattered throughout the campground. We found those bathrooms well kept even during the Fourth of July holiday when the park was quite busy. There are water fill and dump stations both right as you turn off the highway and right at the campground.
This campground was also convenient to several of the activities we did while visiting the park. There are two other campgrounds in the same area operated by the US Army Corps of Engineers. Both of those campgrounds seemed nice as well.
If you aren’t camping, there are hotels in town though we can’t specifically recommend any of them.
Where to Eat
We tried out a couple of establishments in Yankton. First, we went to Ben’s Brewing Company, which has two locations in Yankton. We visited the 3rd Street location, which was a comfy bar in downtown.
I got a couple of pints and Bonnie tried a flight of their beer. The beer was good but nothing jumped out at us as a must-drink. We enjoyed our beer and would return, though.
After getting a few beers, we headed to Charlie’s Pizza House to see why it was a top-rated restaurant in town. We got the Hoss, which was a buffalo chicken pizza. The pizza was quite good but a bit salty. Otherwise, we enjoyed the spot and can see why it is so busy.
For dessert, we just had to try the Dairy Dock, which was near our campground out on Hwy 52. Every time we went by, there was a line, which is promising. We pulled in one night, waited about half an hour and got some really good soft-serve ice cream. I got a peanut butter shake and Bonnie got a Snickers supreme sundae! Delicious!
All that said, the Hy-Vee grocery store in town was excellent. The meat counter, in particular, was outstanding! There were something like 14 varieties of bratwurst, as well as some other inventive selections. We got the jalapeno popper chicken, which was a chicken breast, stuffed with cream cheese, wrapped in bacon with jalapenos and spicy seasoning. Scrumptious!
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Missouri National Recreational River
Like most of the national rivers and recreation areas we visit, this site is really set up for boaters. While we like getting out on the water, we don’t own our own boats or kayaks or a canoe. It’s something we are thinking about when we retire and go full-time. As such, we don’t feel like we do these sites justice when visiting.
The Missouri National Recreational River is no different. We feel like this park is best visited by someone who can spend a good while out on the river, either paddling or motoring.
Still, we really enjoyed our visit here and did learn a lot about the area, especially about Lewis and Clark’s travels through the area. It is a beautiful place and we can certainly see why it is so popular for recreation for folks in the area. It joins the rest of South Dakota’s National Park sites as favorites of ours.
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