Famed explorers Lewis and Clark once ventured inland from the Missouri River in search of legendary “little devils.” Tribal stories said the evil spirits inhabited a conical hilltop that rises above the prairie near Vermillion, S.D.
No devils were found.
These days, the spirits conjured are those of the explorers themselves. Standing on what’s now called Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, part of the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture this landscape as the expedition saw it in 1804.
Herds of bison no longer roam freely, but prairie flowers dot the landscape with purple. Blue sky arches like an umbrella. And a bench beckons me to sit and listen for meadowlarks or bobolinks singing among grasses that ripple like a green ocean.
Serene solitude and a welcome sense of timelessness can be found throughout South Dakota. As the fifth least densely populated state — behind Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana — it averages 11 people per square mile. Most live near Sioux Falls in the east or Rapid City in the west, both thriving urban hubs drawing an increasing number of young people back to their home state to start restaurants, breweries and farms where quality of life is like the prairie: deeply rooted.
That leaves plenty of small towns, dirt roads winding past sunflower fields and pastures, and scenic bluffs for travelers hungry for an open road and an uncluttered landscape.
The Missouri River, in particular, beckons with its rich Lakota history, natural beauty, lakes and dams, and tales of Lewis and Clark.
The Missouri, which originates in Three Forks, Mont., makes a 2,300-mile journey to St. Louis, where it joins the Mississippi River and where Lewis and Clark began their epic three-year quest to find a route to the Pacific Ocean. Combined with the Mississippi, the Missouri forms the world’s fourth largest river system.
West of Vermillion near Yankton, S.D., chalky bluffs scallop the Nebraska side of the river. Travelers can drive across the expansive Gavins Point Dam to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers visitor center with historic exhibits that include Meriwether Lewis’ handwritten notes for their first meeting with Yankton Sioux on Aug. 30, 1804, atop Calumet Bluff. The 11-page manuscript was preserved and passed through tribal members until it surfaced in 2003.
Views from the visitor center encompass the massive dam and Lewis and Clark Lake, a 25-mile-long reservoir bounded by 90 miles of shoreline. It’s become one of the biggest outdoor recreation destinations on the Great Plains, with more than 1.5 million visitors a year, who often come for the 400 campsites on or near its shores.
On the lake’s South Dakota shore, sailboats bob in the Lewis & Clark Marina, and outdoor guides take visitors to the best spots and offer advice for catching coveted walleye (the official state fish), white bass and even ancient-looking paddlefish, which can grow up to 7 feet long and weigh 150 pounds. Turtles, paddlefish and sturgeon swim quietly in tanks at Gavins Point Fish Hatchery and Aquarium.
Ben’s Brewing in downtown Yankton quenches thirst after a day on the lake, but 6th Meridian Hops Farm outside of town offers outdoor charm for weekend visitors. The farm taps at least a half-dozen rotating brews — from Crow Peak’s Black Currant Göse sour to Lost Cabin’s Lord Grizzly Scotch Ale. All are brewed with hops grown on the 8,000 vines that climb 18-foot-high ropes on 10 acres.
Ryan and Michelle Heine and their extended family dry and pelletize the fragrant hops on this multigenerational farm and offer short tours.
“We have our own unique terroir,” Ryan says, and part of the challenge is learning which varieties will thrive here — a project that can take up to four years at a time.
6th Meridian furthers its farm-to-table mission with Michelle’s Counterfeit Catering food truck, or guest chefs showcasing local, seasonal ingredients with handcrafted pizzas (sometimes using spent brewing grains in the crispy crusts), pot-roast poutines or beer-battered onion rings, to be savored while enjoying a laid-back vibe and acoustic music until twilight.
Back at the lake, the evening closes with a moonrise above the Lewis & Clark Resort and the whiff of campfires drifting through the air.
Where east meets west
Hwy. 50 angles west and north of Yankton, roughly following the Missouri through sleepy landscapes of grasslands and patchworks of hay, corn, soybean, sunflower and sorghum fields. A stop at Pickstown, about 60 miles from Yankton, offers a chance to walk through the ruins of Fort Randall, an 1856 military post and cemetery, and the Fort Randall Dam visitor center with artifacts such as supersized fossils from the area’s prehistoric sea and views of the 107-mile-long reservoir Lake Francis Case.
Travelers intrigued by hydroelectricity or flood control can learn about the 1944 Pick-Sloan Plan that led to the building of six Missouri River dams. Like Yankton’s Gavins Point Dam, the Fort Randall Dam has seasonal tours.
It’s about 70 more miles to Chamberlain, where the Missouri shoreline dimples and wrinkles, swelling with sweeping hills and western ranchlands. A driver heading west on Interstate 90 has the most dramatic view of the shift in landscape, which makes the Chamberlain rest area practically mandatory with its majestic river views and another chapter of Lewis and Clark history.
“Dignity: of Earth and Sky,” a 50-foot-tall steel statue of a Native American woman towering above the river valley, has grabbed the most attention since 2016. Visitors wrestle with how to fit her into selfies or shout to friends to “Keep going!” until she fits into a camera frame. Wearing an 1850s two-hide dress, Dignity holds a prairie star quilt in her outstretched arms. The quilt’s 128 stainless-steel pieces ripple to let the Great Plains wind pass through, as sunset pinkens the state’s newest icon.
Showcasing Lakota culture
South Dakota has an estimated 71,000 Native Americans and nine reservations, many of which are found along the 350-mile Native American National Scenic Byway that follows the river into North Dakota.
Chamberlain’s Atka Lakota museum artfully and poignantly offers a look at Lakota and Dakota culture with its deep respect for elders and children, artistry and storytelling through beading, leatherwork and art. The museum explores cultural changes and conflicts sparked by the fur trade, the Black Hills gold rush and westward expansion.
The museum sits on the campus of St. Joseph’s Indian School along the river. St. Joseph’s began like many early-1900s boarding schools intended to separate tribal children from their culture. Eventually restoring that culture kept St. Joseph’s going as a modern residential school for youths needing support.
Frank Bunker, a grandson of early homesteaders, can tell tales of his early years on a local ranch and of the pride he saw in Lakota children while he was a houseparent at St. Joseph’s. They all share a feeling of being deeply connected to the rolling bluffs that bracket the Missouri.
“I love the river,” said Bunker, now retired. “It’s just a peaceful, quiet way of life.”
Freelance travel writer and photographer Lisa Meyers McClintick wrote “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path: A Guide to Unique Places.” She contributes frequently to the Star Tribune and national publications.