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Small Towns, Big Stories: Unveiling South Dakota’s Missouri River

Small Towns, Big Stories: Unveiling South Dakota’s Missouri River
Whether you are coming for a sea of sunflowers in late summer or seeking the Milky Way-spilled skies over the prairies along the Missouri; if you are hoping for a pheasant or fish dinner or some smooth-as-glass water to ski, the ‘Mighty Mo’ is waiting.

Explore the South Dakota you haven’t met. Yet.

South Dakota is known for a lot of big things — some big rock faces, a giant drugstore, a vast expanse of rocky land that some folks consider ‘bad.’ On that list, the Missouri River may not have been top of mind — but this big water should be. Roadtrippers who have a penchant for small towns and good stories will adore the rural American gems strung along the river’s shores. The ‘Mighty Mo’ beckons lovers of the outdoors, history buffs, and art enthusiasts — let me show you!

This story was created in partnership with Visit USA Parks.

The River: Make a Splash

Rivers naturally draw water-lovers, and the rugged section of the Missouri running through South Dakota is home to all types of recreation, both on and off the water. Four dams turned this river into four wide reservoirs, making it perfect for water skiers, wakeboarders, and tubers, while leaving plenty of room for swimming, kayaking, and paddleboarding.

Below the surface swim an assortment of fish species which draw thousands of anglers each year. Along the shore, rolling hills offer picturesque camping spots, rich hunting habitat, and perfect places to hike, bike, or take stunning photographs.

Local History: Explore the Past

The land is steeped in stories. Indigenous cultures play an important role for both residents and visitors, and a host of local museums provide multiple opportunities to learn about life on the great plains. Perhaps most famously, Lewis and Clark trekked through this region on their 1804 exploration of the continent. On your road trip, follow their journey along the river on state highways 1804 and 1806, marked as the Lewis & Clark Trail, which coincides with parts of the Native American Scenic Byway. The Byway passes through the lands of five tribes that border the Missouri River: Standing Rock, Cheyenne River, Lower Brule, Crow Creek, and Yankton
Sioux tribes, all part of the Oceti Sakowin Nation.

In South Dakota’s capitol city of Pierre, visitors can walk through the lovely architecture of the 100-year-old state capitol building, open to the public year-round. North of the capitol is the Oahe Dam, one of the largest rolled-earth dams in the world, commemorated by President JFK in 1962. The Corps of Engineers gives public tours of the Oahe Dam Power Plant during summer.

The Arts: Where Culture Meets Canvas

With such a rich culture base, the arts have been a conduit for contextualizing and interpreting life on a land that can often be harsh to live in, but is always beautiful to behold. A prominent homage to this beauty and resilience is Dignity: of Earth & Sky in Chamberlain off of I-90. This striking statue of an Indigenous woman of steel and glass stands tall in honor of the Lakota and Dakota people.

The northern town of Mobridge is home to the Oscar Howe Murals and the wildly wrought Walleye Up bronze sculpture. Many small towns along the river have local art galleries displaying South Dakota’s artists, western-inspired and authentic indigenous art. The more you explore, the more you’ll find there is no shortage of art in this stretch of South Dakota.

The Missouri River: Your South Dakota Escape Awaits

La Framboise Island

Whether you are seeking a sea of sunflowers in late summer, on a quest to gaze at starry skies over the lonely prairies, hoping for a pheasant or walleye dinner, or ready to ski on smooth-as-glass water, the ‘Mighty Mo’ in South Dakota is waiting to offer up that river life experience.

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Aerial view of Missouri River

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