Kayaking in South Dakota: 10 of the Best Places to Paddle and Canoe

Looking for places to kayak in South Dakota? While the state is famous for the magnificent Mount Rushmore, hundreds of rivers and lakes run through South Dakota, offering kayakers and canoers alike dozens of opportunities. 

Whether you’re a kayaking professional or you’d like to enjoy a relaxing afternoon paddling with some family and friends, we’ve listed 10 of the best places to kayak in South Dakota based on various locations, grades, and characteristics.

1. Big Sioux River, SD

Located in eastern South Dakota, the Big Sioux River runs 419 miles long, southward toward Sioux Falls. The river forms the border between South Dakota and northeastern Iowa, then finally meets at the Missouri River. 

Throughout the spring and summer seasons, the water levels are fairly good. You can even paddle along US 14—close to Brookings—to the river’s meeting point with the Missouri River. 

With a class II rating, most seasoned kayakers particularly enjoy the section from Lien Park in Sioux Falls to Newton Hills State Park. 

Paddlers can experience this segment typically during spring and summer. Other interesting points include the Gitchie Manitou Park, the old Klondike Mills site, Newton Hills State Park, and of course, the Big Sioux Recreation Area. 

Newton Hills and Big Sioux features kayak launch sites and plenty of additional camping facilities for those who plan on extending their trip. 

For advanced kayakers, the Big Sioux River has excellent paddling conditions, However, it’s worth noting that water levels can get dangerous near low head dams; in this case, you should portage your kayak to the other side.

2. Split Rock Creek, SD

Split Rock Creek by Jerry (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Though geography shows it as a creek, kayakers and canoers alike tend to refer to Split Rock Creek as a river. With beautiful vistas, tranquil scenery, and even a tour boat that frequents the waters, Split Rock Creek is another great spot for kayaking in South Dakota. 

Red quartzite lines the rock wall formations along the paddling route, making this a scenic ride.

The paddling route runs through northeastern Minnehaha County and concludes at the Big Sioux River east of Sioux Falls. With an average flow rate of 4660 CFS and 10.82 inches high, paddling conditions are rated at class I-II. 

The heavy rain during the spring and summer months results in elevated water flow throughout the creek. For more experienced white-water paddlers, this destination is a must-visit spot in South Dakota. 

Less experienced paddlers might want to opt for something less extreme. 

Certain stretches can be dangerous for paddlers who don’t know what they’re doing. Between the SD 11 access point west of Garretson to the SD 11 access point north of Corson, the stream has a 130-foot drop in, specifically as it travels through Palisades State Park. 

Kayak launch sites are located at Palisades State Park and township, county, state, and federal routes that meet the river.

3. Missouri River: Myron Grove Access, SD

Stretching 787 miles, the Myron Grove Access of the Missouri River features two long sections that provide excellent opportunities for experienced paddlers. 

The Myron Grove boat launch site is located 11.4 river miles downstream from St. Helena Boat Ramp.

The Myron Grove kayak route runs through a portion of the second section and concludes at Ponca State Park, located in Nebraska. 

As a class II rating, the large river often experiences rough waters with moderate wind speeds. Some sections along the route have particularly strong currents that demand paddling from a more experienced kayaker.

There are also a few large islands and sandbars which require skillful navigation, which also doubles as camping sites. 

The river does include several take-out spots in case of emergencies, or to modify your trip into a shorter route.

It’s important to note that this access doesn’t include any picnic or camping facilities. While it does have restrooms, there’s no running water. 

4. Lake Traverse, SD

Bordering Minnesota and South Dakota, Lake Traverse is the southernmost located in the Hudson Bay drainage basin.

Located in Roberts County, SD, Lake Traverse initiates at the Bois de Sioux River flowing northward. To regulate the lake’s water levels, a dam created by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is located at the outflow. Just above the dam, the Mustinka River flows directly into Lake Traverse.

Prehistorically, the lake was a result of a large glacier that carved out the land during the last ice age. Today, activities like fishing, boating, and wildlife viewing are popular at Lake Traverse. Various species of fish—including smallmouth bass, pike, largemouth bass, and walleye—great for fishing enthusiasts.

At a class I rating, Lake Traverses is fairly easy to paddle, making it a great kayaking destination for beginner paddlers.

5. Missouri River: Randall Creek Access, SD

As the second paddling route along the Missouri River, the Randall Creek Access starts downstream from Ft. Randall Dam and flows through Running Water, South Dakota. 

The 39-mile-long stretch is great for skilled paddlers looking for a challenge. The rate of water discharge can change hourly, but the average flow rate is 3 to 5 mph. Water depth also varies from a few inches to approximately 40 feet, so be sure to wear a life jacket!

As with most routes along the Missouri River, Randall Creek might experience rough waters and high south and southwest winds, which demands a more experienced paddler. 

Various fish and wildlife can be spotted along your journey, including sauger, paddlefish, sturgeon, northern pike, smallmouth, and largemouth bass in the river. 

Along the bottomlands, animals like deer, fox, coyotes, and eagles occupy the area.

6. Oakwood Lakes Recreation Area, SD

Located in Brookings County, South Dakota, Oakwood Lakes State Park features a total of eight glacial lakes, offering nearly all kinds of water and land activities, including boating, hiking, fishing, swimming, and camping. 

Originally, the park operated as a summer camp gathering place for Native Americans. In 1869, the park underwent further development.

An assortment of hiking trails and trees line much of the waterfront, and paddlers can view turtles, ducks, geese, and other aquatic birds along Scout Island. 

Oakwood Lakes has a class I rating, which is great for beginner paddlers. Each vehicle requires a fee of $6, and for those who don’t own one, kayak rentals are available.

7. Roy Lake Resort, SD

Stretching approximately 7 miles, the kayak route at Roy Lake Resort has a class I rating with easily navigable waters. Situated in Marshall County, this 2,000-acre body of water features an approximate depth of 10 feet and over 4 miles of shoreline.

Vast burial hills originated near the lake before the Roy family decided to build a large settlement, planting various crops along the shore. 

Now, families can gather to enjoy the resort’s various activities and facilities. Visitors can enjoy fishing, camping, sandy beaches, boat ramps, picnic areas, and island trails. Additionally, the kayak routes are relatively easy to paddle. 

The resort also offers cabins and condos, along with fishing trips and rentals. The resort charges an $8 per vehicle fee. However, there are various payment packages to choose from for frequent visitors. 

8. Pactola Lake, SD

Located in the Black Hills area, the reservoir at Pactola Lake is the largest and deepest body of water. Starting at the northern launch point, this kayak route offers a beautiful, calming ride complete with exquisite sights and wildlife.

To get there, the North Access is located off Highway 385, about 15 miles west of Rapid City. 

On weekends, the lake is generally crowded with fellow kayakers; we advise going on a weekday to receive the full experience.

The marina is considered a heavily used area, especially on the weekends. The park charges a $5 vehicle fee during the day fee, and kayak rentals are available.

9. Lake Oahe, SD

Lake Oahe by Argyleist (CC BY 2.0)

Located on scenic Lake Oahe, Okobojo Point offers plenty of opportunities for kayaking and canoeing enthusiasts. To access the launch site, take SD 1804 to 194th Street, where the Recreation Area is situated northwest of Pierre. 

As you paddle through the calm waters of Okobojo Point, visitors can enjoy some of the best fishing in the region, with species like walleye, northern pike, catfish, and smallmouth bass.

The lakeshore features Lake Oahe’s signature long, sandy beach, offering families plenty of fun water and land activities. 

The Recreation Area also includes various facilities, such as a boat ramp, picnic shelter, several campsites, running water, and restrooms. The site also requires each vehicle to pay a $6-day fee.

10. Legion Lake, SD

Legion Lake by blucolt (CC BY-SA 2.0)

For families with young kids, Legion Lake has a wide range of activities for visitors to enjoy. Located in Custer State Park, the kayak destination has a water surface of 9 acres, a class I rating, and a 1/2 mile shoreline. 

As you glide through the smooth waters, feel free to take in the natural beauty surrounding the lake, including the large rock walls and reflections of ponderosa pines. 

While the entrance fee is slightly more expensive ($15) than our other listings, Legion Lake includes cabins, fishing docks, campsites, a gift shop, and a quality restaurant lodge.

Final Thoughts

We hope that helps to inspire you for your next kayaking trip in South Dakota. It’s safe to say this state is one of the most beautiful locations for scenery with lakes, rivers, canyons, and falls—making South Dakota a must-visit for any kayaking enthusiast.