Exploring the river by canoe or kayak is a great way to see the park and what Lewis and Clark may have experienced during their 1804 and 1806 travels. Appropriate watercraft is required for safely enjoying the river.
Before You Go - Please read this!
The Missouri is a big and demanding river. Keep in mind:
- Windy days can look more like a large reservoir with white-capped waves that can easily swamp a canoe.
- Be cautious! There are sandbars, snags--uprooted trees stuck in the river bottom--and other obstacles you may encounter.
- An eddy is a sure sign of an obstacle just below the water's surface.
- The Missouri can be deep--20 feet or more in places.
- Know your paddling ability and don't exceed it.
- The thalweg or river channel will change its course from year to year. This ten- to twenty-foot deep channel is constantly moving as it erodes banks, islands, and sandbars and then builds up new sandbars or adds onto existing ones.
Paddler's and Boaters Resources
- Map of the Missouri National Recreational River.
- Visit the Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail site and the Missouri River Outdoor Recreation Access Guide for maps and resource information.
- Aerial Photo Maps of the river may be purchased at the Lewis & Clark Visitor Center or ordered form Jefferson National Parks Association. Order # 13719 and/or #13722; use discount code YNK10.
- Maps are also available through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for Fort Randall and Gavins Point areas.
- Where can I find an outfitter for canoes/kayaks/boats in South Dakota or Nebraska?
- Do I know the basic paddle strokes?
- I need a list of required and recommended equipment for paddling the Missouri.
Access to the river is available only at public launch sites. These are few and unevenly spaced along both reaches of the park. Visit the Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail site and the Missouri River Outdoor Recreation Access Guide for information.
Depending on releases from Fort Randall Dam and Gavins Point Dam, the river can flow from 3 to 5 miles per hour. (Visit the Gavins Point and Fort Randall See Useful Links window for current flow rates.) Local storms can temporarily increase flows as runoff pours in via the James River, Vermillion River, Bow Creek, and lesser streams.
The wind is an issue on most days. The wider portions of the river are most affected by wind. In the summer the prevailing wind is from the south and southwest. That, and the river current (from 3 to 5 mph), can make steering a straight course difficult. Wind can hide changes in the river by creating surface ripples, which have nothing to do with water depth. If the wind is gusty, read the surface between gusts. Wind is always a challenge with which canoeists must deal. Strong wind is something most canoeists should stay away from altogether.
On the Great Plains, storms may crop up abruptly. These storms are often accompanied by strong winds that can easily capsize a small craft. Lightning, heavy rain or hail can turn a pleasant trip into disaster. Watch the sky and be aware of your surroundings for signs of inclement weather. If you see bad weather approaching, get off the water and take cover (not under trees) as quickly as possible.
Most of the land along the park is privately owned and there are few public camping possibilities. Primitive camping is normally allowed on islands and sandbars, however, please adhere to restriction signs for nesting least terns and piping plovers. The river bank on both sides of the river, sandbars and islands on the Nebraska side, and deeded islands on the South Dakota side of the river are private property. Only the water belongs to the public. In areas other than designated campsites, permission is required to walk, picnic or camp on private property. Sandbars on the South Dakota side of the river are public property. In several locations along the river, the state border is still undetermined. Please adhere to the "Pack-it-in, Pack-it-out" (Leave No Trace) ethic. Call 605-665-0209 or e-mail for additional information.
Protect the River & Endangered Species
Sandbanks and bars provide habitat for the summer nesting of least terns and piping plovers. They are protected under the federal Endangered Species Act due to their low populations and loss of habitat. The chicks and eggs are difficult to see and avoid; therefore, restriction signs may be posted on sandbars to minimize disturbance to nesting colonies. Please do not disturb any nests of birds.
Zebra Mussels - Aquatic Invasive Species
These are an unwanted invasive species in North America and are rapidly spreading. Currently found below Gavins Point Dam in the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark Lake, as well the Mississippi River, these small, sharp-edged striped mollusks compete with native species for resources, can clog river intake structures, and create other unwanted problems. In many places, explosive population growth has led to heavy encrustation of boats, docks and native mussel species. For your safety it is recommended to wear swim socks or water shoes to avoid getting cut feet.
It is possible to transfer accidentally the juvenile form of zebra mussels to your boat or equipment. If you have paddled other locations, please take the time to clean your equipment and boat properly prior to launching on the Missouri or its tributaries. Visit the zebra mussels link for additional information and how to prevent their spread.
The National Park Service recommends wearing a life jacket at all times while in and on the water. Paddling alone is not recommended. If you go alone, let someone know your launch and take-out points as well as your estimated arrival time.
- Bring insect repellent, plenty of drinking water, and an extra paddle. For Nebraska waters, each canoe/kayak occupant must have a U.S. Coast Guard approved Type I, II, III, or IV life preserver. Persons under 13 must wear a life preserver. Also for Nebraska waters, each canoe/kayak must have a bucket or sponge for bailing water.
- Use appropriate watercraft, not pool toys.
- Take sunscreen, sunglasses, and a wide-brim hat. The sun's reflection off the water can be intense. If it is hot, start early or later in the day and make the trip shorter.
- Cold water can be paralyzing to both mind and body. Know proper procedures for cold weather paddling if going on the water in spring and/or autumn. Dress appropriately and bring spare clothes in case you get wet. Know the symptoms of hypothermia.
- Weather on the Great Plains is very unpredictable. Carry foul weather gear for unexpected storms and emergencies. Layered clothing is best. Tennis shoes work but once your feet are wet, they will stay wet all day and they will draw heat away from your wet feet at the same time. Durable river sandals (not flip-flops) made of rubber and nylon are preferred by most professional guides. Have dry shoes for the end of each day.
- A basic first aid kit should be in every canoe or kayak. Learn what poison ivy and poison oak look like, as well as black widow and brown recluse spiders.
- Have tether ropes on both ends of the canoe/kayak, but keep them coiled and secured to the fore and aft decks.
- Kneel in the bottom of the canoe while in areas of rough water for stability. Standing and sudden sideways shifts can make the canoe unstable.
- If you fall out of a canoe keep your head upstream, feet downstream, kick back and paddle to control your movement if you can't stand up. Your canoe floats, so you can also hang onto it, remembering to stay on the upstream side.
- Water riffles mean that rocks lie close to the surface. Follow the smooth water shaped like a "V" point downstream.
- Keep the bow of the canoe headed downstream with the current or headed into boat wakes.
- Dial 911 to reach emergency personnel in the area. However, cell phone service may be spotty along the river.
- It is a good idea to provide someone with your planned put-in and take-out locations, expected length of trip and number in party. They can then contact authorities if you are overdue. Cell phone signals are weak or non-existent along much of the park.