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Meriwether Lewis & William Clark made one of the most legendary explorations of the United States, following the Missouri River from St. Louis, through the Dakotas and into Montana before pushing through to the Pacific coast from 1804 to 1806. They made big impressions on North Dakota…let’s explore their paths!
Start along ND Highway 24 at Fort Yates, about 68 miles south of Mandan (you can follow Highway 6 or 1806 south from Bismarck-Mandan to reach the starting point). Fort Yates is home to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The area features a World War I monument, a marina along the Missouri River, and the original burial site for Sitting Bull, now part of the Sitting Bull State Historic Site.
From Fort Yates, follow Highway 24 and continue north when it becomes Highway 1806. You’ll come upon the Fort Rice State Historic Site, where depressions, foundation lines, and WPA corner markers from the original buildings are still visible. The fort itself was established in 1864 and lasted until 1878, when Fort Yates made it obsolete.
Continuing along Highway 1806 – named so because 1806 was the final year of Lewis & Clark’s expedition – you’ll reach Huff Hills Ski Area, a wintertime ski area features a 425-foot vertical and 21 runs for skiers and snowboarders (who knew there ski areas in North Dakota?). Along the way, you have beautiful views of the Missouri River, the longest in North America. Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park is up next, which features the partially reconstructed fort. It was the last command of George Armstrong Custer before the famous Battle of the Little Bighorn (aka "Custer's Last Stand"), which took place over in Montana in 1876. Check out On-a-Slant Village, an original – though largely reconstructed – earthlodge village for the Mandan tribe, which occupied the site from 1575 until about 1781. Guided tours of both sites are offered in the summertime.
Continuing north on Highway 1806, you reach Mandan and its sister city, North Dakota’s capital, Bismarck, which combine to form the state’s second largest metropolitan area. While Bismarck serves as the state capitol and second largest city, Mandan proclaims itself as “Where the West Begins” – which makes sense, given its location on the Missouri River’s west bank. Lewis & Clark were hosted by the Mandan and other Native American tribes here, which is how Mandan got its name; what is now Bismarck was originally named “Missouri Crossing” and then “Edwinton.” Bismarck, named after the German chancellor at the time, became the capital of North Dakota when statehood began in 1889.
While In Bismarck, be sure to check out the beautiful, 19-story Art Deco tower that is the North Dakota State Capitol, the North Dakota Heritage Center, and the beautiful grounds surrounding it. There are plenty of historic areas on both sides of the Missouri River, including Chief Looking’s Village Historic Site, Camp Hancock State Historic Site, Buckstop Junction, and in the heart of the city, the Cathedral Area Historic District just north of the Capitol grounds. Sports fans can take in Bismarck Bobcats Hockey in the wintertime or races at the Dacotah Speedway in summer. Sertoma Park, along the Missouri River, offers the Dakota Zoo and Raging Rivers Waterpark. Or, get a view from the Missouri River by boarding the Lewis & Clark Riverboat to enjoy the river bluffs, city scenery, and perhaps a beverage or dinner while aboard. Find more Bismarck-Mandan attraction here.
From Highway 1806, follow Main Street to I-94 eastbound. Cross the Missouri River and head north on Highway 1804, named for the year Lewis & Clark start their expedition (Highway 1806, as you’ll remember, was named for the year they finished). Following the east bank of the river, enjoy the bluff and view at the Double Ditch Indian Village. The Heart River meets the Missouri here; the Mandan tribe lived here for three centuries, and remains of earthen lodges, mounds, fortification ditches, and more can be found. Upriver, look to the square buttes visible that once marked territorial boundaries between the Mandan and the Hidatsa tribes.
Further north, shortly after Highway 1806 joins U.S. 83, you reach Washburn, home to Fort Mandan State Historic Site and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. Take the opportunity to hang out where Lewis & Clark settled in for the winter of 1804 to 1805, plotting the rest of their journey to the Pacific Ocean and meeting local villagers, including Sacagawea. The Interpretive Center features artifacts, an authentic wood canoe from the era, and even robe made of buffalo you can try on. The Fort Clark Exhibit in the gallery showcases the steamboat era in the region along the Missouri River, and the Bergquist Gallery houses a collection considered among the most complete in the world on Upper Midwest Native American cultures. Three 12-foot statues greet you at the entrance (depicting Lewis, Clark, and Mandan tribal chief Sheheke), along with a 6-foot statue of Lewis & Clark’s dog, Seaman.
For more history and a huge dam, double back slightly on U.S. 83 and follow Highway 200 west across the river. Back on the west bank now, you can check out old Fort Clark and the Fort Clark State Historic Site, which lies almost directly across the river from Fort Mandan. A few miles later, hop off on Highway 31 to Stanton and to the Knife River Indian Village National Historic Site. This was a major Native American trade center for hundreds of years before also becoming a fur trading center in the mid-18th century. Along with the history of the village, interactive exhibits, and cultural sites, the 1759-acre site includes exotic grasslands, archeological remnants, hardwood forest, and wetlands.
Trivia: Sacagawea was living at the Knife River Indian Villages when her husband joined the Lewis & Clark expedition as an interpreter.
From Stanton, you can double back to Highway 200 or follow County 37 on a zigzag route back to meet up with 200. Continue north (though the Highway 200 sign will say “East”) about five more miles and you’ll curve into Lake Sakakawea State Park on the shores of Lake Sakakawea, the widest part of the Missouri River.
Why is it so wide? Well, dam, here’s your answer: the Garrison Dam. Two miles long, it’s the largest dam on the Missouri River and the fifth-largest earthen dam in the world. Completed in the 1950s, the dam created Lake Sakakawea, the third largest man-made lake in the nation (Lake Mead and Lake Powell are first and second, in case you were wondering). Highway 200 runs along earthen ledge of the Garrison Dam and over the spillway, which helps regulate the level of the Missouri River all the way down to St. Louis, and to an extent, the Lower Mississippi River, too.
The Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery is the largest walleye and northern pike-producing facility in the world; they also work to repopulate fish species whose populations are dangerously low in the wild. The Garrison Dam area offers several hiking trails, including the Wetlands Trail Loop and the Lewis & Clark Trail Loop, which meanders through cottonwoods that house nesting bald eagles and turkey vultures. Enjoy views of the Missouri River and its high banks along with potential construction activity being performed by beavers… after all, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers aren’t the only dam-builders around here.
Obviously Lewis & Clark didn’t deal with the Garrison Dam or Lake Sakakawea but we can still roughly follow their path along the original river. Follow Highway 200 east and then continue north on Highway 1804/U.S 83 (County 19/32nd Avenue NW can serve as a shortcut, saving a few miles).
Access to the Audubon National Wildlife Refuge, a 14,700-acre preserve of native prairie, grasslands, and wetlands, can be found just north of Coleharbor. Bird-watchers and nature lovers can get tours and check out other activities at the Visitor Center, located just east of U.S. 83. The Visitor Center (701-442-5474) is open Monday to Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30pm.
The Audubon NWR borders Audubon Lake, which lies east of a long causeway talking U.S. 83 and Highway 1804 across the waters; west of the causeway is Lake Sakakawea, including the Missouri River outlet from earlier.
A few miles later, we leave U.S. 83 and continue westward on Highway 1804, which pairs with Highway 37 heading into the next town, Garrison, which the dam was named after. While in town, look “Wally Walleye,” a 26-foot fish designed to showcase this town along Lake Sakakawea as “Walleye Capital of the World” – a title hotly disputed by numerous towns across the upper Midwest. But if you like giant fish statues, here you go. While in Garrison, look for the twin water towers marked “hot” and “cold.”
You can also check out the North Dakota Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum; along with the recognizing the state’s cream of the crop in sportfishing, this place will try to ‘lure’ you in with a variety of historical or significant artifacts and equipment used in North Dakota. For more fishing and native plant species, check out Fort Stevenson State Park & Aboretum. Located just south of Garrison via County Road 15 right on Lake Sakakawea, the Governor’s Cup Walleye Fishing Derby and a slew of other fishing tournaments take place there. It also features a marina. The original Fort Stevenson, which was established here in 1867 and was abandoned sixteen years later, but a replica of the guardhouse offers interpretive exhibits, including on Lewis & Clark’s multiple campsites in the area. The arboretum covers features over 50 native and non-native trees, plants, grasses, wildflowers, and more.
From Garrison, continue west on Highway 1804; Highway 37 will leave and then come back about 20 miles later. You’re winding way around the Van Hook Arm, a large section of Lake Sakakwea (remember, this is a huge lake!), so we head north for quite a while to get around it. You’ll reach the little town of Parshall, where you can take in the local “acropolis on a hill,” the Paul Broste Rock Museum. Creator Paul Broste built this beautiful structure in 1965 out of natural granite stones; inside are some remarkable displays and collections of rocks, including fine and polished specimens from around the world. The unique Infinity Room is a must-see. Open May 1 through Labor Day, call 701-862-3264 for hours or special tours. It’s just west of Highway 1804 via 7th Avenue NE in town.
Just after Parshall, Highway 1804 turns west again, joining ND Highway 23 for the ride westerly, past the lake’s Van Hook Arm, and into New Town. Why is there a “New Town”? Because two old towns, Van Hook and Sanish, were about to get submerged by the new Lake Sakakawea. Consequently, they had to move, and they decided to combine and form a new town – called New Town – in the early 1950s. The Fort Berthold Reservation was also located in an area where the lake would take over, and today the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara tribes share affiliations. The Three Affiliated Tribes Museum showcases this history, along with artifacts, displays, pictures, and more. The Museum is open mid-April through early November and occasionally host traveling exhibits. While in New Town, also look for a quirky roadside sight: the “Outhouse on a Pole.” Complete with someone sitting down and a vulture hovering above, it was designed to draw attention to a port-a-potty business… and it does.
A brief side trip along Highway 23 just west of New Town by a few miles can bring you to Crow Flies High Butte Historic Site. French explorers viewed the Little Missouri Valley from this high butte, visible for miles around, in 1742. You can climb it too, and take in beautiful views of Lake Sakakawea; and when the water is low enough, remnants of the original town of Sanish can be visible.
To continue the Tour from New Town, follow Highway 1804 north and west again. At times the road gets close to the Missouri River for views and good places to stop; others, you’re heading across more of the North Dakota prairie and also through increasingly varied topography. Golf enthusiasts will appreciate the Links of North Dakota, a links-style course rated among the Top 100 golf courses in American. It’s right off Highway 1804 and offers views of the river and lake in the distance, along with great golf.
At County Road 42, you can head south and east to Lewis & Clark State Park, located along the Missouri River about 20 miles east of Williston. This 490-acre park offers views of and access to the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea, complete with a marina, a sandy beach with great swimming, and the scenic towering buttes in the distance; some of which we saw up close earlier on the tour. There are plenty of opportunities for fishing, swimming, hiking, mountain biking, snowshoeing, and cross-country skiing; knowing North Dakota weather, this could possibly all happen in a single day.
Next up along Highway 1804 is fast-growing Williston, the epicenter of the oil and gas boom in North Dakota. The Williston Frontier Museum offers a glimpse of life a century or more ago out here, laid out as an original frontier town complete with a schoolhouse and train depot. The Best Western PLUS Williston Hotel & Suites offers a great night’s stay after all thus touring!
From Williston, you can complete the North Dakota portion of the Missouri River by continuing on Highway 1804. About 22 miles southwest of Williston, you’ll find the Missouri-Yellowstone Confluence Interpretive Center, which tells the story of the confluence of these two rivers. Enjoy the same view Lewis and Clark enjoyed when they visited in 1805 and 1806; and inside the rotunda, you'll find murals, paintings of the landscape, and more. Essentially next door, previously guarding the confluence, is the Fort Buford State Historic Site.
Established in 1866, it was the surrender site for Sitting Bull in 1881. You can still see original items such as a stone powder magazine, cemetery site, and former officers’ quarters…which now serve as an on-site museum. Before Fort Buford, the confluence area bustled with trading activity; the Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site chronicles this period. From 1828 to 1867, Fort Union was the principal trading post of the American Fur Company. Seven Native American tribes and European settlers converged here to trade everything from buffalo robes (over 25,000 annually) to blankets and beads. It’s been rebuilt to its original appearance from its 1850s heyday. Original items like arrowheads unearthed by archeologists are on display.
From Fort Buford (and the old Fort Union), you can continue west on Highway 1804 to the Montana border, which is just a few miles. Or, double back to U.S. 85 and head south to the Lewis & Clark Trail Museum in Alexander. Just beyond you’ll find Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the North Dakota Badlands – another adventure unto itself. Enjoy!