Some 800 miles of the Missouri River muscle through mountains and high plains in North and South Dakota and inspire adventurers along the Iowa and Nebraska lines. Trails blazed by the great tribes and Lewis and Clark lead to country that still feels largely undiscovered.
Whether you explore by foot, on horseback, by boat or in your car, you'll come away with a new appreciation for the early explorers. "The journey was comparable to going to the moon, no feat more difficult in terms of time and interaction with native people. This is what it's all about," says Mark Nelezen of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, marveling at the reconstructed Fort Mandan, Lewis and Clark's 1804-05 winter home.
Fort Mandan 
A half-dozen mustangs glare down from a butte, hooves stamping and tails swishing along North Dakota's Killdeer Mountain Four Bears Scenic Byway. The wild horses belong completely to this world of striated buttes showing eons of mountain building and erosion; sightseers can't help feeling like intruders. The byway, 64 miles on State-22 east of Watford City, follows the Missouri River Valley through country that is part forest-capped mountains and part arid badlands. Mornings, ghostly mist hangs in canyons lined with hardy grass that shimmers like green velvet.
Bits of white and shiny stones speckle paths through undulating mounds covered with waving grass. "Here's a piece of flint; this is animal bone," explains Ranger Terry O'Halloran, cradling the pieces in his palm, then tucking them reverently back into the earth.
The shards and the surrounding mounds hold hints of the Knife River Indian Villages, a rich culture that thrived in west-central North Dakota near the
Missouri River's banks when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark arrived in 1804. The disappeared cities, now a national historic site, yield thousands of fragments of intricately worked pottery, game pieces, arrowheads and bone tools.
Some are displayed in the museum and replica earth lodge (left) that mark the site, but many more will remain undisturbed. "They're where they should be," Terry says. Trails weave through the surrounding sage and wildflower-dappled prairie to the remains of villages, one where Sakakawea lived before she joined Lewis and Clark.
As young historian Hannah Verlinde tells stories about life in the 1870s barracks at Fort Buford along the Missouri near North Dakota's Montana line, visitors' eyes take on a faraway look. It's as if they're peering into the past. A buffalo coat like the ones the army issued for four men to share hangs on a peg beside the rough wool jackets the soldiers wore winter and summer. Narrow bunks where two men slept head-to-foot flank a woodstove that looks too small to heat the big room.
"They froze in the winter and baked in the summer," Hannah says. She points to stiff black boots that the soldiers called "Left and Right Jeffersons" because they were poorly made to fit either foot. Worse yet, the army might have provided them only in size 7.
The commander's Victorian cottage stands alone at Fort Buford as if it's keeping vigil, the only remaining witness to July 19, 1881, when a Sioux party crowded into the parlor to watch their great Chief Sitting Bull surrender.
Two-lane highways follow the Missouri River haphazardly through North and South Dakota like kids running along, having trouble getting close or keeping up. Other vehicles are scarce, and you watch one coming for a while against the big sky and broad horizon. When you finally meet, it's sort of an occasion. You look in each other's direction, lift an index finger and nod. It feels more than polite, like a genuine connection between fellow adventurers.
When you're ready to get off the highway, there's adventure of another sort waiting at the Western-themed Outlaws Bar & Grill in Watford City, North Dakota (701/842-6859). Elk and bison steaks don't provoke comment; it's the rattlesnake cakes that get the attention.
The imposing white house at Fort Union, where the head merchant lived, looks strangely grand against the North Dakota landscape near Williston, like a suburban mansion built expressly to outshine its neighbors. And that's what it was. "They wanted the tribes who came to trade to be impressed," explains Superintendent Andrew Banta.
George Catlin, the famed painter who depicted Plains Indians, set up his studio in one of the bastions of the fort, now a national historic site. The rectangular gun ports still frame views of the river and empty prairie.
East of Williston, the Missouri River coils through the undulating prairie in front of Missouri River Breaks Lodge (left) like a lazy serpent, its surface flashing green-blue. Darroll and Joanie Myers are used to collecting mesmerized guests and leading them inside. The log lodge, filled with the couples' collections, ornate European antiques and lush rooms with expansive whirlpool tubs, is almost as stunning. "High cowboy," Darroll calls it.
A long, bumpy ride past prairies and gleaming glacial-pothole lakes makes guests appreciate the size of Knife River Ranch, an 8,000-acre west-central North Dakota spread that Lois Wanner manages with the help of her grown children.
Guests stay in rustic cabins with porches that look out on the Knife River, a Missouri tributary, next to the lodge and across from stables that house 40 horses. They can take trail rides or paddle canoes on the river. But mostly they want to work with the horses and cattle like paid ranch hands. "They want to help us with our work, mending fence or whatever we're doing," son Justin Wanner says, shaking his head in disbelief (701/983-4290).
"This box is magical somehow. It always has babies," Analene Torgerson says, as she lifts the lid of a small wood box nailed to a pasture fence post (left). Seven fuzzy, wide-eyed babies snuggle inside. The box is No. 1 on one of four bluebird trails that Analene and her husband, Jim, created around their Lund's Landing, a restaurant and collection of simple cabins near the north shore of Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota.
Birders come to follow the trails and taste the couple's from-scratch juneberry pie, a tradition made from wild berries that flourish along prairie streams. Analene relishes serving slices to people who remember picking berries as children. "I love to watch that first bite," Analene says. "I see the memories on their faces."
Lund's Landing Lodge 
Bismarck's Lewis and Clark riverboat, a replica paddle wheeler, churns through pink-tinged molten gold as sunset bathes the river in soft light. Passengers sip glasses of wine as the boat chugs past sandbars where kids swim. Fishermen in boats cast toward grassy banks. The Missouri seems friendly and almost tame here, more like a lake than a mighty river.
Standing at attention in his dress blues, Pvt. Obediah Bauer offers to answer questions about Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer; his wife, Elizabeth; and their time in the tidy, white-frame house looking out at the parade grounds of Fort Abraham Lincoln. "We all know 'The General' and 'Mrs. General,'" he says, carefully staying in character.
Custer rode out from the fort overlooking the Missouri, reconstructed in a state park on the outskirts of Bismarck, North Dakota, to the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn. Obediah confesses that the post's soldiers, himself included, don't quite know what to make of the general, his specially made black velvet uniform with gold braid or the hours he spends at the small desk in his study writing love letters to his wife when she travels back East. The longest? 40 pages.
Tribes warned Lewis and Clark that little devils infested Spirit Mound, a solitary prairie knob six miles north of Vermillion, South Dakota. But when the explorers reached the crest, they found only a grand Dakota panorama and the first big buffalo herds of their trek. A three-quarter-mile trail flanked by primroses, sunflowers and wind-rippled grasses leads to the still-glorious high view.
Black dots appear mysteriously on the hilly horizon along South Dakota's State-1806. They're buffalo, you realize, not comprehending their numbers. The immense landscape of the 60,000-acre Triple U ranch, where scenes from Dances with Wolves were filmed, dwarfs a herd of more than 3,000 -- the kind of view that once regularly greeted travelers along the Missouri River.
Triple U Ranch 
Drifting on Lake Oahe with the steady prairie wind, the boat needs only slight nudges from a trolling motor. Almost as soon as the rod tip points out over the big water, it dips and doesn't snap back.
The hook has something solid, heavy but hidden in the cool water. A snag? Except snags don't try to circle away from the boat. "Set the hook!" the angler yells mostly to himself, not expecting a strike so fast. "Grab the net!"
The drama plays out a thousand times a day in June and July, the prime season for walleye on one of the best walleye lakes in North America, actually a dammed stretch of the Missouri River. From south of Bismarck, the lake flows south for 231 miles to Pierre with 2,250 miles of shore and hundreds of fish-harboring coves.
Sometimes there's a surprise on the line -- a pike, catfish, Chinook salmon or bass. But many get what they're after -- strike after strike and strings of fat, sleek, green walleye weighing as much as 8 pounds.
Lake Oahe 
The Native American Scenic Byway twists and dives across a rolling sea of grass for 357 miles from Bismarck, North Dakota, south almost to
Chamberlain, South Dakota. You'll find plenty of spots to fish and picnic along the way. But the immense western landscape captures travelers and urges them forward, especially along the 100-mile stretch from Pierre to Chamberlain.
Honor the Lakota: In the Akta Lakota Museum on the grounds of St. Joseph Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, quilts, beadwork, paintings and sculptures by contemporary Native American artists mingle with trade goods, weapons and other artifacts that help tell the story of the people who once ruled the lands along the Missouri.
Load up on trinkets: Travelers stop at Al's Oasis for the nickel coffee, burgers and pie, and leave with rubber tomahawks. That's the charm of this ever-expanding Interstate-90 complex, more than 50 years old, overlooking the Missouri in Chamberlain, South Dakota.
Sip South Dakota red: Visitors sample Shiraz, Merlot and Chardonnay at Valiant Vineyards Winery at the junction of the Missouri and Vermillion rivers. The rich bottomland nurtures the winery's vineyards, South Dakota's first.
Discover an oasis: Near Oacoma, South Dakota, Cedar Shore Resort appears on the west shore of the Missouri River's Lake Francis Case. Guests settle into plush rooms with balconies overlooking the water and a marina that buzzes with fishing boats. There's walleye on the menu in the resort's Bridges Restaurant.
Al's Oasis 
Cedar Shore Resort 
From Gavins Point Dam in Yankton, South Dakota, to Ponca State Park in Nebraska, paddlers canoe a section of the Missouri River that still feels wild. For 59 meandering miles, the stream flows free of dams and channels, broad and lazy.
At Ponca State Park, bluff-top Three State Overlook provides a view that includes parts of Iowa, South Dakota and Nebraska -- and the river as it looked to the explorers. Nearly 200 feet below, the river ambles in from the northwest shallow, milk-colored, sinuously irregular -- an unruly, half-mile-wide stream punctuated by broad sandbars and weathered snags.
Suddenly, it narrows by half, takes on the regular features of a canal, and the current accelerates. The overlook surveys one of the last untamed stretches of the Missouri.
Ponca State Park