Best Vacation Lodges in the Great Plains
December 15, 2017
Great Plains sportsmen have excellent locations for hunting and fishing camps next to some of the best areas in North America. Rather than buy expensive cabins and land, or committing to long-term leases, outdoorsmen here can take advantage of state parks and recreation areas across the Great Plains landscape.
And it's not just a much lower cost to do this, but also greater variety by far. It is easy to set up a base camp in a different good hunting and fishing location each year.
We've picked out some of the top base camp areas in the Great Plains. But there are many more than we have listed. We've selected spots very close to some of the best hunting and fishing. Many are nearly empty during the off-season, which is sometimes when we can enjoy the best hunting and fishing of the year.
Also, note that the cost per sportsman is usually even less than indicated below, because the rates are per cabin, or per yurt. So, with a four-bed cabin, if there were four sportsmen booking it, the cost per person would be one-fourth of the cabin fee.
The good fishing and hunting from Cross Ranch State Park lies right outside the front door of the yurt. The deluxe yurt includes gas heating, kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms and a loft. A variety of cabins are available, too, and also campsites ranging from RV spots with electrical hookups to hike-in tent camping if one goes the more primitive route.
But it is the yurts which are unusual. They are dome shaped structures that most people associate with the nomadic cultures of Mongolia.
The Knife River Villages National Historic Site nearby is a kind of hand-on experience, and you can get a very good look at how the Earthlodge people lived in this setting. Close at hand, the Missouri River flows right along the edge of Cross Ranch State Park. You can fish from shore or take a boat out from the boat ramp. From there, it's a long stretch of natural river to Garrison Dam and Sakakawea above, and down through and past Bismarck below. The fishing is great. Walleyes bite all year, and there are also channel cats, saugers, and northern pike.
The one thing not recommended here is ice-fishing. This is a natural stretch of the Missouri, so there is good water flow underneath the ice in winter. It wears the ice thin in places, and the problem is that one can't tell exactly where those thin spots are for certain.
But the flowing river makes a wonderful fishing experience, whether with a big boat, or even by paddling a canoe downstream.
This is the heart of the Central Flyway. Ducks and geese migrate through here in some of the biggest migrations in the world. They're available to sportsmen each fall. The North Dakota Game and Fish Department maintains PLOTs land where hunting privileges are leased from landowners. It provides public hunting near Cross Ranch for deer, pheasants, and, in some cases, waterfowl.
Just across from the state park lies the Nature Conservancy's Cross Ranch Preserve. At more than 5,500 acres it's nearly 10 times as big as the state park. Hunting is allowed on it, though there are some special regulations that hunters must review.
All of this is spectacular and gets about as close as one can still get to the kind of hunting and fishing that existed in this part of the continent in the 1800s.
1403 River Road, Center, ND - 701-794-3731 - parkrec.nd.gov
AccomModations: Four yurts ($65-$125), three cabins ($70-$80), and one tipi ($35). Rates can vary by date.
Custer State Park is one of the top-tier state parks in the United States. And it's big. It offers excellent camping possibilities in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. Custer State Park is 71,000 acres of mountains, pines, trout streams and valleys flush with deer, elk and wild turkeys. Across the park boundary lies the Black Hills National Forest, with more than 1 million acres of the same. All of it is bordering Wyoming, with a relatively minuscule human population to partake of this wild natural setting.
The park is by far the busiest during summer. This is a big tourist area. But some of the 50 camper cabins are open year-round. They're small but sufficient. They have air conditioning for summer, and heaters for winter.
There are also lots of regular campgrounds. It is in those campgrounds that the cabins are located all over the park. Showers and toilets are not attached. Cabin renters use those facilities in the campgrounds.
A horse camp with a very large horse trailer parking camping area is here too, if you are inclined to bring your horse and ride the trails.The hunting seasons in the park are separate from the rest of the seasons in the Black Hills and western South Dakota, so if you hunt inside the park that requires entirely different permits and season dates.
The 1,300 or so buffalo roaming the park go their own way. There are trophy bull bison and cow culling hunts where very specific animals are harvested with the help of park guides. Most buffalo are rounded up in the annual fall bison roundup. At that time, the park facilities can be more full. The same is true during the summer tourist season, and particularly during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in early August.
Center, Blue Bell, Sylvan, Stockade and Legion lakes here have good rainbow trout fishing. The trout are stocked. But the lakes are very scenic and can be fished from shore, or from a canoe or belly boat.
French Creek Natural Area flows through 12 miles of mountains, with trout fishing and bighorn sheep viewing along the way. It's all hike-in. No road. George Custer's 7th Cavalry came through here and found flecks of gold, thus setting off the Black Hills Gold Rush in the 1870s.
13329 US HWY 16A, Custer, SD 57730 - 605-255-4515 - gfp.sd.gov
AccomModations: 50 camper cabins, starting around $50 per night. Rates can vary by date.
The big draw here on the banks of the Missouri River is the river, itself. This 59-mile stretch from Gavins Point Dam to the north is designated the Missouri National Recreation River area. And it is more like what the river looked like when Lewis and Clark's men pulled a heavy wooden boat upstream, headed for the Pacific Ocean.
There are twists and turns and islands in this river. It makes good fish habitat, and very interesting fishing.Ponca State Park sits on the banks down at the lower end of this wonderful waterway. Anglers can fish right from the shore to take off in boats and head up the entire 59 miles of natural river.
This is one of the few unchannelized sections of the river that is left. So, the good fish habitat has not been destroyed here. Anglers go after channel cats, sauger, walleyes and smallmouth bass.
There is waterfowl hunting in autumn. Many hunters use boat blinds, said Scott Wessel, wildlife biologist with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. From a base camp in one of the cabins at Ponca State Park, hunters can also hit Elk Point Bend Wildlife Management Area, as well as Wiseman, Buckskin Hill and Powder Creek wildlife management areas. In the small WMA reservoirs are largemouth bass, crappies and catfish.
Another nearby public area is Danish Alps State Recreation Area, which features lake fishing, upland game hunting and a campground, if needed.
In the Missouri, itself, sportsmen take everything from canoes to bass boats to large open-water walleye powerboats. There is enough channel and current to create a river fishing environment — fishing the heads of pools and along edges of fast flows. It's exactly the type of habitat preferred by saugers and channel cats.
"It's good all spring summer and fall," reported Wessel. "During summer, the catfish is king there. Channel cats mostly, with some flatheads."
Ponca State Park is one of the Nebraska parks showcases, with an archery range, kayaking and equipment available for fishing and bowfishing. There's an aquarium with "touch tanks" for family excursions, and interpretive programs. The archery range is open all year.
The Missouri River Expo at the Park draws 45,000 to 50,000 visitors the third week in September.
As for lodging options, the park offers a variety of cabins and mini lodges. The mini lodges include four bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchens, cable TV and more. The rustic cabins are two bedrooms and feature many similar amenities.
88090 Spur 26 E., Ponca, NE 68770-0688 - (402) 755-2284 - outdoornebraska.gov
AccomModations: 31 cabins, including mini lodges and rustic cabins. Cabin rates start around $85 per night, can vary.
A diverse variety of hunting and fishing lies near Tuttle Creek State Park and Wildlife Area, where you can set up base camp in cabins or in one of the more than 100 campsites here.
Fishing opportunities are immediate. The campground and cabins lie along the Blue River and backwaters just below Tuttle Creek Dam. Fishermen go after walleyes, crappies and just about every fish in Kansas. It's especially noted for the flathead and channel cat fishing.
Just upstream, where the water pours out of the big dam, catfishermen fish "the tubes." When its high water or flood stage up above in the main lake and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing high water from the tubes, the roar of whitewater is impressive as the water powers out from under the dam.
During normal water releases the big cats cozy up to the current to feed. And the catfishermen dangle baits over the guard rail and down into the depths. Just downstream lies Rocky Ford, where fishermen go after white bass below the old mill dam. Freshwater drum are caught here, too, as well as crappies and walleyes.
Rocky Ford is a good place to wade and fish, so long as the water flow isn't too high. There are riffles and rocks, and it's a bit like fishing a rocky mountain stream in places.
Up on the main part of the lake, the walleyes abound. And there are flatheads that are so big, some fishermen used hand-sized fish as bait.
Farther up Tuttle Creek Lake, hunters like Olsburg Marsh for some of the best duck hunting in Kansas. Mallards are a prime quarry, especially in November and December. There is also quail hunting and some pheasants, plus wild turkey and deer hunting. The marsh is on 12,000 acres.
Cabins at Tuttle Creek are modern and accommodate either 4 or 6 people, depending on the unit. Cabins are air conditioned and heated and include bathrooms and kitchens.
5800 River Pond Rd A, Manhattan, KS 66502 - 785-539-7941 - ksoutdoors.com
AccomModations: 11 cabins, starting around $55 per night. Rates can vary.