Paddle the Parks: The Missouri National Recreational River

A journey through time in South Dakota and Nebraska

Missouri National Recreational River. Photo: Aaron Schmidt
Missouri National Recreational River. Photo: Aaron Schmidt

Journey Through Time

The Missouri National Recreational River, South Dakota and Nebraska
By Norman Miller

I time travel. I know you don’t believe me, but it’s true.

I acquired a love of history at an early age. My imagination ran wild with stories of explorers, adventurers, fur traders and trappers. Later, in my teens, I discovered canoeing. The thrill of navigating my own craft and the ability to explore waterways captivated me. I realized that by combining my two passions I had created a time machine.

The Missouri National Recreational River (MNRR) is a 100-mile section of our country’s longest river system, the Missouri-Mississippi. It lies between Fort Randall Dam and Ponca State Park along the border of South Dakota and Nebraska.

Historically this water system was a major transportation route. Native tribes lived along its banks, trappers accessed the Rocky Mountains via the river and eventually steamboats brought supplies to settlements. This stretch of the Missouri River appears much the same as it did 200 years ago.

When I am paddling the river I read the current and choose my route using the same skills as the explorers before me. I see the sandbars, smell the willow and hear the waterfowl just as they did. I become immersed in the environment. The longer I am on the river the easier it is to imagine people of the past, the easier it is to become lost in time. I swear that I have heard voices on the breeze. Native tongues speaking at some long ago council, orders shouted out to 40 men under the command of Capt. Lewis and Lt. Clark, songs of the French trappers, the thud-thud-thudding of a steam wheeler plodding its way up river.

Early evening brings the magic light. I become overwhelmed with the sense of awe and the interconnectedness of the natural world and those who came before me. The sun’s glow on the water looks like the embers of a fire that burns in the heart of every river traveler. I invite you to experience your own journey through time. Grab a paddle and open your senses to the reality of time travel.

Click the links below to read about paddling adventures in a few of our favorite parks around the country:

Great Smoky Mountains National Park

Paddle over the horizon line of waterfalls in Tennessee and North Carolina


Wrangell St. Elias National Park

Paddle through a seascape of water and ice in southeast Alaska


Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore

Explore Lake Superior’s panoramic coastline in Michigan


Ozark Scenic Riverways

A secret worth sharing in Missouri


Channel Islands National Park

Experience isolation 40 miles south of Santa Cruz, California


Grand Canyon National Park

Experience America’s 2 billion-year-old river canyon in Arizona


Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks

Follow in the footsteps—paddle strokes—of great American explorers in Washington and Oregon


Big Bend National Park

Float through an isolated wilderness on the edge of Texas and Mexico


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The complete list of our favorite national parks for paddling


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