39-Mile Reach Paddler's Guide

View above a river valley of eastern red cedars and the Missouri River in the background.
Looking upriver near Sunshine Bottom River Access Area in the 39-mile reach.

NPS photo

Canoeing 39-Mile Reach - Fort Randall Dam to Running Water
The 39-mile reach begins immediately downstream from Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown, South Dakota, and continues to Running Water, South Dakota. Flows on this reach are influenced by controlled releases from Fort Randall Dam. (For river conditions, click here.)

Safety Comes First

Those who choose to paddle the Missouri River need to be well prepared for the adventure. Keep in mind the following:

  • Wear a life jacket at all times. Only experienced paddlers should plan to be on the river.
  • Water depth varies from a few inches to 40 feet.
  • Quickly changing weather, long distances between launch sites, and the current can create major problems for novice paddlers.
  • The water discharge rate can change hourly. The normal rate of flow is between 3 to 5 mph, while in periods of high water it can attain 7 mph or more.
  • Be aware that the wind is an issue on most days, with prevailing winds out of the south and southwest.


South Dakota law requires that non-motorized boats over 12 feet long, including canoes and kayaks, be licensed in South Dakota or another state. Every person in the watercraft must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal flotation device that fits properly, is readily available and in good and serviceable condition.

On The Missouri
The river is tamer now than before the closure of the dams. However, debris, logs, and silt still wash into the river, especially at the confluence with the Niobrara River. The Missouri follows a braided and winding course, with the channel alternating between the shorelines. Sandbars and islands exist in profusion; a few of these islands are privately owned. Some islands are covered with willows and cottonwoods, others are marshland covered with reeds and cattails. For the most part, the river gives the appearance of being natural, much as it was when the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through in 1804 and 1806.

The valley ranges from one to two miles wide and in some areas is flanked by nearly vertical limestone cliffs and loess bluffs, more than 250 feet above the river. Heavy stands of willow and cottonwood trees are found near the water, while hardwoods grow on the steeper, upland slopes.

Fish and Wildlife
Numerous fish species, including walleye, sauger, paddlefish, sturgeon, northern pike, smallmouth and largemouth bass are found in the river, while deer, fox, coyotes, mink, eagles, and turkeys are a few of the animals and birds that occupy its bottomlands.

Two bird species are of particular importance on the Missouri, the least tern and the piping plover. These shorebirds are on the federal Threatened and Endangered Species List and use the sandbars for nesting and raising young. These birds are protected under the Endangered Species Act, and it is unlawful to harass or disturb them. During the nesting season biologists post signs and use twine to delineate the nesting colonies. Please do not go into these areas when the birds are present.

Land Ownership
Most of the land on the Nebraska side is privately owned and permission is required for access. On the South Dakota side, private property extends down to the mean high water level.

River Mile Guide

Sites are listed below by River Mile (RM). River Miles are calculated as the distance on the Missouri above its confluence with the Mississippi River. Thus RM 0.0 is the confluence of the two rivers. Ponca State Park, NE, at RM 753.5, is 753.5 miles above the confluence. More information.

Randall Creek Recreation Area (River Mile 879.5)
You can begin your trip at the Randall Creek Recreation Area just below Fort Randall Dam on the west side of the river. The river access has a double boat ramp, with nearby camping, picnic and restroom facilities (a South Dakota State Park entry permit is required within the Recreation Area). Just downstream from the camping area is the Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge. It provides a year-round safe haven for bald eagles; there is no public access allowed in the refuge. As you paddle past the Refuge, watch on the right for Old Baldy. This hill with no vegetation is the place where the Lewis and Clark Expedition caught a "barking squirrel" (prairie dog) in 1804 to send back to President Jefferson at Monticello. More information.

Sunshine Bottom (River Mile 866.8)
The ramp on the Nebraska shore is unusable for boat trailers; however, it can be used for canoes and kayaks. To drive to this boat ramp follow Nebraska Highway 12 four miles west of Monowi or 2 1/2 miles east of Lynch to a "Sunshine Bottom" sign. The sign will direct you north along a gravel road which may not be passable during wet weather. Primitive camping only is allowed a couple hundred feet downstream of this access. Across from Sunshine Bottom is the Yankton Sioux Powwow grounds at Greenwood, South Dakota. Established in 1859, this community was the original Yankton Sioux agency. Tribal headquarters is located at Marty, about four miles to the north. More information.

Verdel Landing (River Mile 851.5)
The next river access, also on the Nebraska side, is Verdel Landing. To drive to this boat ramp, follow Nebraska Highway 12 and turn north at the "Lazy River Acres" sign, approximately eight miles west of the town of Niobrara. The paved road leads you directly to the river access. A pit toilet stands nearby. Primitive camping only is allowed here. The boat ramp can be busy, but is an excellent canoe access site. Across from Verdel Landing is Choteau Creek, the historic eastern boundary of the Yankton Sioux Reservation.

Six miles downstream from Verdel Landing on the right is Niobrara State Park. This popular park (daily permit required) has excellent camping and day-use facilities, and is located on Highway 12 two miles west of the town of Niobrara. It has no river access, however, there is one campsite for canoeists and kayakers close to a natural slide and about one mile upstream from the former site of an old railroad bridge (distroyed during a 2019 flood).

Niobrara Village Boat Launch (River Mile 844) - currently closed due to high water
From Verdel Landing to the Niobrara Village Boat Launch is 8 river miles. To drive to this location take Spruce Drive north from Highway 12 in the center of the village. Follow the road to the end. Turn left to the village boat landing. The site has a pit toilet and primitive camping only is allowed.

Old Ferry Landing (River Mile 841.0)
Due to natural river action during the flood of 2011, this site is no longer accessible.

Running Water Boat Launch (River Mile 840.5)
The old ferry boat landing on the South Dakota side, just downstream from the bridge, has a very unsatisfactory access and is not recommended. About 0.2 miles downstream from this former landing is the Running Water Boat Launch. It has a pit toilet and primitive camping only is allowed. To drive to this boat ramp, take the paved road to the community of Running Water from South Dakota Highway 37 about 1/2 mile north of the Standing Bear Bridge. Turn left at the stop sign at the bottom of this hill. Go about 0.2 mile and turn right toward the river, following the unpaved road to the boat ramp.

Your trip ends here at the eastern boundary of the 39-mile reach of the Missouri National Recreational River. You can continue your canoe journey on Lewis & Clark Lake for about 29 miles until you reach Gavins Point Dam. You will have to portage around the dam yourself. Click for the Paddling Guide for the 59-mile reach.

Other Local Rivers
Parts of nine Nebraska rivers--the Calamus, Cedar, Dismal, Elkhorn, lower Platte, Niobrara, North Loup, Republican, and Missouri--have been designated as state canoe trails. Maps and descriptions of the rivers, access points, campsites and services are available at Nebraska Game and Commission Offices, or by calling (402) 471-0641, or online.

Last updated: January 23, 2020

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