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Lewis & Clark Trail
Touring South Dakota's Historic Trail
Meriwether Lewis & William Clark certainly took a memorable and influential trip at the start of the 1800s! From 1804 to 1806, they explored the “frontier” along the Missouri River including north through the Dakotas and westward toward the Pacific. South Dakota was a big part of their trip and we’ll follow the Lewis & Clark Trail – well, technically the roads along or near it – through the state on this Tour.
Let’s begin in far southeast corner of South Dakota… from Sioux City, Iowa, entering South Dakota along I-29, paralleling the Missouri River just a few miles away. Off Exit 4 (McCook), you can connect to the Adams Homestead & Nature Preserve. This area features one of the last free-flowing segments of the Missouri River, which means it’s one of the few places you can see the river in its original character. Imagine Lewis & Clark’s team dealing with the unpredictable flows and sandbars. The preserve covers 1,500 acres and includes native prairie, plenty of wildlife, and miles of trails for hiking, biking, or cross-country skiing.
Just up the road near Elk Point, you’ll find the Site of First Election. At this site, the death of a Sargent on the Lewis & Clark expedition meant a new one had to be elected – an event that is believed to be the first election by U.S. citizens west of the Mississippi River. A marker in downtown Elk Point commemorates the event.
Back to I-29, continue to Exit 26 (Vermillion) and head west on SD Highway 50 to Vermillion. Vermillion, perched on a bluff near the Missouri River, has been home to Native American settlements for centuries. Lewis & Clark camped at the mouth of the Vermillion River on August 24, 1804. Today, it’s home to the University of South Dakota, the largest in the state with 10,000 students. Cutting right through campus via Cherry Street downtown, you’ll find the Best Western Vermillion Inn, which serves as a great starting or ending point for a Lewis & Clark Tour. Musicians and non-musicians alike will love the National Music Museum on the USD campus, with its remarkable and eclectic collection of instruments, including guitars from Johnny Cash, Elvis, B.B. King, and Bob Dylan. Some instruments date back to the 16th century!
For the Lewis & Clark historical experience, head six miles up Highway 19 to Spirit Mound. This conical hill was approached explored by Lewis & Clark after hearing of Native Americans telling of its “little devil spirits.” They didn’t find any “little devils,” but they did spot massive herds of buffalo in the distance…which for them wasn’t a bad thing.
Out of Vermillion, we stay on Highway 50, closely paralleling Lewis & Clark’s path to Yankton, once the capital city of Dakota Territory. You’ll find a modern replica of the original territorial capitol building in Riverside Park. On the west side in West Side Park, the Dakota Territorial Museum features plenty of artifacts from the days when this was a territorial capital, along with an old train depot and retired caboose. Being the territorial capital earned Yankton one of its nicknames, “Mother City of the Dakotas”; it’s also referred to as “River City” for its location right on the Missouri River, and every year the city celebrates Riverboat Days the third weekend in August.
While the river is natural and free-flowing right past Yankton, Gavins Point Dam four miles upstream created Lewis & Clark Lake, a 31,000-acre reservoir, in the 1950s. This inspired the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area, which offers 25 miles of land along the river for a variety of recreational purposes and draws over one million visitors per year (remember, all of South Dakota has only about 800,000 residents). It’s accessible via Highway 52 west from Yankton. For a great overlook of the land, head just across the river into Nebraska and up historic Calumet Bluff. You’ll find the Lewis & Clark Visitor Center here, which offers plenty of exhibits, a prairie garden, theater, and the Lewis & Clark Interpretive walk. Calumet Bluff is where Lewis & Clark met with the Yankton Sioux Tribe in 1804 during a four-day stay. According to legend, a male child born during that meeting nearby became a Yankton tribe chief named “Struck By the Ree” (possibly “Struck” for short), and a moment involving him is coming up shortly on the Tour.
Crossing between the Lewis & Clark Recreation Area, you can drive using U.S. 81 (known as the “Meridian Highway”) on a relatively new crossing called the Discovery Bridge. The former road crossing, called the Meridian Bridge, opened in 1924 and is still open for pedestrians and bicyclists in what just could be the longest pedestrian- and bikes-only bridge in the country connecting two states.
While in Yankton, you can feel free to spend a day or two and stay at the Best Western Kelly Inn as you explore the town, the trail, and the history.
From Yankton, follow SD Highway 50 west through Tyndall and Avon. An optional side trip is to head south from Wagner and check out the Yankton Treaty Monument near Greenwood. This obelisk commemorates the Treaty of 1858, signed between the U.S. and the Yankton Tribe of Sioux and Dakota Indians. This was led by Struck-By-The-Ree (also known as “Padaniapapi”), who according to legend was born during the Lewis & Clark meeting with the Yankton Sioux in 1804.
It was in this area that the Lewis & Clark exploration team discovered what they coined the “prairie dog.” They were curious about these “talking squirrels” that barked at them and then scurried back into their holes. They actually spent a day trying to capture a prairie dog and send it to Washington DC as proof of a “new animal” discovery.
From either Wagner via Highway 46 or south via Highway 50 and U.S. 18 from Lake Andes, you can connect to the Randall Dam and the site of historic Fort Randall. The Fort existed from 1856 to 1892 and hosted not only military personnel but visitors such as Buffalo Bill Cody, who brought his “Wild West Show” to the fort, famous mountain man Jim Bridger, and renowned Civil War General Phillip Sheridan. You can walk the grounds and view archeological remains of the former buildings, including the historic chapel. Nearby, you can check out Randall Dam, a massive earthen dam that was completed in 1956. It created Lake Francis Case, essentially a widened area of the Missouri River that runs for over 100 miles to the north.
From here, we continue following the Lewis & Clark Trail via Highway 50 and also Highway 1804, named of course after the year they explored the Dakotas. You go through Platte, named after a settler named Pratte but a misspelling stuck. Although you won’t see any, when Lewis & Clark explored the area they were reportedly told to watch for “burning bluffs” in the area. Platte Creek and Snake Creek have state recreation areas named after them closer to the river if a break to enjoy nature is in the cards for you; fishing, hiking, and more can be enjoyed in these areas. Highway 44 west of Platte is an opportunity to cross the Missouri River and Lake Francis Case; it’s the longest bridge in South Dakota. For this Tour, we’ll stay east of the river and follow Highway 50 up to Interstate 90, the main east-west artery across the state.
At the junction of I-90, Highway 50, and the Missouri River we reach Chamberlain. This city of 2,400 is home to the South Dakota Hall of Fame and the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. The Lewis & Clark Information Center along the river at I-90 offers beautiful views of the river and Lake Francis Case. The two-story balcony – shaped like a keelboat – is a great place to step out, take in the view, snap some pictures, and take in the majesty of the landscape. Exhibits inside the center depict items explorers like Lewis & Clark brought on their journey, although with examples of the wildlife they encountered. Being a major crossroads, Chamberlain also where you’ll find the Best Western Lee’s Motor Inn, right on Highway 50/King Avenue just three blocks from the river. Boating and fishing on the river from here is a very popular activity.
Continuing north from Chamberlain, stay on Highway 50. We’re heading into the Crow Creek Reservation, home to the Fort Thompson Mounds. These low burial mounds date from around the year 800 and hold evidence of pottery making from the people who lived there at the time; it was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964. Highway 50 ends at “Lee’s Corner”, an intersection with Highway 34. Head west on Highway 34 to Fort Thompson and the Big Bend Dam. Big Bend is a major rolled-earth dam that is 95 feet high and almost two miles in length, completed in 1963. It’s named after a big bend in the Missouri River creating almost a compete loop. It certainly wowed Lewis & Clark; they explored the area in September of 1804 and Clark noted that while the bend was almost 30 miles on the river, the area between the two ends of the loop – called “the Narrows” – was only 2,000 yards! Despite the passage of time and creation of dams, the Big Bend is still a big bend.
Highway 34 brings you past the bend and begins to head west. You can detour to the West Bend State Recreation Area if you want to enjoy some fun and relaxation before we head to the capital city.
Next up is Pierre, South Dakota’s capital city. With 13,000 residents, it’s the second-smallest state capital city in the nation after Vermont’s own Montpelier. The city sits amidst rough bluffs overlooking the Missouri River. The South Dakota State Capitol is a beautiful Greek Revival building that opened in 1910 and was given a full restoration in 1989. Self-guided and free guided tours of the building and grounds are available. Don’t miss the four memorials on the grounds, including the Fighting Stallions Memorial and the natural gas-fed Flaming Fountain, a tribute to South Dakota veterans.
The South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center is built into the side of a bluff on the Missouri River, just north of the capitol. The “Oyate Tawicoh'an” (Ways of the People) exhibit showcases the religious, social, and cultural practices of the Yankton and Teton Sioux, the Arikara and other Plains Native American tribes. Check out the Arikara bullboat just like the one William Clark described in his journal back in 1804, or the colorful beadwork and quillwork. For some interactive, occasionally scientific and educational play, check out the South Dakota Discovery Center. For fun in the middle of the river, take the causeway to the otherwise-foot-traffic-only La Framboise Island (Lewis & Clark called it “Good Humor Island” in their journals for some reason… maybe somebody told good jokes there?) With plenty of nature trails and some unique scenery, it’s a favorite for local runners and photographers.
Across the river is Fort Pierre, both the town and the old fort. Lewis & Clark met with the Teton Sioux where the Bad River meets the Missouri in 1804, and Fort Pierre Chouteau went up 28 years later to serve primarily as a trading post. Pierre Chouteau was the man behind establishing the fort, and the capital city is named after him. The Verendrye Monument overlooks Pierre, Fort Pierre, and the river from the Verendrye Site, an archeological site that was named a National Historic Landmark in 1991. The monument commemorates where Francois and Louis-Joseph Verendrye buried a lead tablet in 1742 to mark their exploration of the area in the name of France – 62 years before Lewis & Clark showed up.
Pierre is home to the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, where you can stay to catch up on things around the capital city and prepare for more exploration northward!
Just north of Pierre via Highway 1804 (the Lewis & Clark Trail) is the Oahe Dam and the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area. The dam rises 245 feet and provides power to five states. Tours of the dam are available between Memorial Day and Labor Day. Its immense size created Lake Oahe, the fourth-largest reservoir in the United States. Lake Oahe – essentially a widened, enlarged section of the Missouri River – extends north over 230 miles, well into North Dakota. The lake is very popular for fishing; while walleye, bass, catfish, and northern pike are the most common fish, Chinook Salmon – typically found in Pacific Northwest waters – are artificially maintained in the lake. Aside from fishing, Lake Oahe has 51 recreation sites along its shores, so there’s plenty to do as we continue northward on the Tour.
Continuing north on Highway 1804 to the intersection with U.S. 212; nearby, you’ll find the West Whitlock Recreation Area. Near here in October 1804, Lewis & Clark spent several days at an Arikara village, home to farmers to who tended crops and built earth-lodge homes along the river. In the recreation area, you can step inside a full-size replica of an Arikara lodge from 200 years ago. The lodge is made of logs and branches, and its grass roof blends into the surrounding prairie. Follow the signs from 1804 to get there.
Past the West Whitlock Recreation Area, use either U.S. 212 or County Road 103 and connect to U.S. 83, as Highway 1804 is discontinuous for a while. At South Dakota Highway 20, a good side trip is to head 13 miles east to Hoven. You won’t need to travel 13 miles before you see why this is a good side trip: the Cathedral on the Prairie will loom on the horizon pretty quickly. This little town of 600 people draws visitors from all over the world who come for Mass in the cathedral, which holds 1,000. The ornate intricacies and prominent design are said to be patterned after designs popular in Bavaria. Built in 1921, the cathedral was originally called St. Bernard’s and it’s now St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church.
Back to U.S. 83 northbound, four miles prior to Selby and a junction with U.S. 12, look for the Bangor Monument, commemorating a town that literally vanished. Once a thriving county seat, Bangor was on the losing side of a decision by the Milwaukee Road, which pushed a major rail line through the area but located it four miles north of town. This created Selby in 1899, which became the county seat and doomed Bangor to extinction. Colorful stories of the battle for the railroad, the county seat, and more can be recounted by older locals. The area is popular for hunting and fishing, especially with Lake Hiddenwood State Park just northeast of town (they have a terrific secluded swimming hole) and Lake Oahe about 10 miles to the west.
Speaking of, let’s go west for the final leg of this tour: follow U.S. 12/SD Highway 20 to Mobridge, located right along the Missouri River and back on Lewis & Clark’s Trail. Mobridge sprang up because it was the railroad’s bridge crossing over the river; even its name (“Mo” = Missouri River, and then “bridge”) is proof. With 3,500 people, Mobridge has a main street with plenty of shops – especially antiques – and good recreational activity happening along the river. Across the river, let’s top off the Lewis & Clark Tour by checking out three more monuments.
The Sacajawea Monument in Mobridge salutes the only woman to accompany the “Corps of Discovery” on Lewis & Clark’s journey. She died only six years after the expedition ended. The monument to this remarkable woman overlooks the Missouri River.
Across the river about 10 miles west of Mobridge is the Sitting Bull Memorial. This is the final resting place of the great Sioux Indian leader; he was originally buried in Fort Yates, North Dakota. The move of his remains in 1953 was controversial, but his final resting place today is perched atop a hill with a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape and the Missouri River.
Finally, back in Mobridge look for the Klein Museum, which explores both Native American and European culture in the Dakotas. Inside the museum is the recently-relocated Leavenworth Memorial, a memorial to the many battles fought between Native Americans and Europeans during the 1800s after Lewis & Clark’s journey. The memorial is named for Colonel Henry Leavenworth, who battled with the Arikara natives in 1823 in what was thought to be the second bloodiest battle with Native Americans in today’s South Dakota (27 casualties). Two years later, a treaty was signed.
From Mobridge, you can head north on Highway 1806 (via U.S. 12) to check out North Dakota, head back down U.S. 83 to Pierre and the rest of southern South Dakota, or head east on U.S. 12 toward Aberdeen (home of the Best Western Ramkota Hotel, a sister hotel to the one in Pierre). After all, more South Dakota adventures await!