September 30, 2010
You won't find a better way to celebrate a break from work than by spending time with your family at these Great Plains destinations.
By Tim Lilley
Photo by Tom Berg
Summer's here, and folks across the Great Plains are planning their getaways.
It's vacation season, so families are getting ready for some fun in the sun. Some will stay close to home; others will travel in search of new places, new sights, new adventures. This story should interest both groups.
Those who don't want to travel very far will learn about some destinations that will provide great family fishing vacations close to home. Those who are interested in new scenery will get lines on destinations throughout the Great Plains that will provide good fishing and great times this summer.
The choices here aren't arbitrary, but they're also not the only places in the Great Plains for family fishing vacations full of variety. And "variety" is indeed the byword in this group. Some may be familiar to you; others, not. Each offers something you may find attractive; all of them are just a little different. One thing you can depend on: When it comes to family fishing vacations in the Great Plains, these spots are representative of what you'll be able to enjoy this month -- and all summer long.
Listings are by state, and states are in alphabetical order.
Southeast Kansas' Fall River State Park offers vacationers the opportunity to fish a very good impoundment, albeit a not too large one, in the form of Fall River Reservoir, beneath whose 2,540 surface-acres swim bass, bluegills, crappie, walleyes, white bass and channel cats. They can also try their hands at stream-fishing in the wondrously clear waters of Fall River and Otter Creek above the lake. Stream-anglers will find bass, sunfish and catfish in plenty.
Wade-fishing can be great fun, but you might want to consider a trip to Eureka, about 16 miles away, to rent a canoe. A lazy afternoon of drifting on Fall River, stopping to fish if and when you get the urge, is simply an unparalleled pleasure.
Camping facilities include both primitive sites and sites with RV hookups. For more information on the park and everything you can do there, contact the park office at (620) 637-2213.
Some 23 miles west of Hays in western Kansas, Cedar Bluff State Park offers anglers a chance to sample what may be one of the best fisheries in all the Sunflower State. Over the last decade and more, much has been written in these pages about the rebirth of western Kansas reservoirs, when, about a dozen years ago, rains returned after protracted drought. The state now owns the water rights to Cedar Bluff, so the lake no longer suffers severe impacts from long dry spells such as the other western reservoirs are subject to.
The lake's area is 6,800 acres at normal pool. You're likely to find it low this summer, but certainly not unfishable. The state park actually has two areas -- Bluffton on the north shore and Page Creek on the south shore. A jewel adorning this area, the trail west of Page Creek allows you to walk or to bike along an area that a spectacular view of the Smoky Hill River Valley and the 100-foot-tall limestone bluffs that, all dressed in cedar, earned the lake its name.
There are five cabins available at the pWark, along with 121 campsites, utility hookups and hundreds of primitive campsites. For more information, contact the park office at (785) 726-3212.
Kansas' largest impoundment at 16,000 surface-acres, Milford is home to solid populations of bass, walleyes, crappie and catfish. And June gives you the chance to fish spawning bass at Milford. You also should contact the park office at (785) 238-3014 to ask about the date of the annual kids' fishing clinic and derby, which comes to Milford each June.
When you're not fishing, there are a half-dozen trails for hiking or biking. And two park trails -- the Old River Bluff Trail and the Eagle Ridge Trail -- join with the Junction City Riverwalk Trail to take you on the 17 1/2-mile trip into town, if you like.
Rush Creek Marina offers full services to boaters and anglers on Milford, and there are four different areas with full-service campsites. Another, Walnut Grove, offers only primitive camping, but it has a personal watercraft launch area. So if you want to take your big water toys with you on a summer getaway, Milford and its Walnut Grove area may be your destinations.
South-central Nebraska's Crystal Lake, adjacent to the Little Blue River less than two miles north of Ayr on U.S. 281, is similar to Fall River in Kansas in that it gives anglers the chance to fish both still and flowing water. The park's 30-acre lake is open only to those craft propelled solely by electric motors or oars. Anglers on outings here will encounter bluegills, bass and channel cats.
The park offers a total of 70 campsites, 20 of which have electricity. You'll also find a playground and a tennis court there, so your time away from home won't be limited to just fishing and relaxing around the campsite -- unless you prefer it that way.
For more information, contact the park office at (308) 385-6210.
Pawnee State Recreation Area lies west of Lincoln and northwest of Emerald in southeastern Nebraska. Anglers here have a chance to get into northern pike, since, in addition to walleyes, bass, bluegills and catfish, this SRA is home to the toothy critters. If you've never fished for northerns, you owe it to yourself to visit Pawnee or one of the other pike fisheries on our list. They're great fun.
Pawnee's Lakeview Campground offers almost 200 campsites, 48 of which feature concrete pads with electric hookups. Another 34 have pads, but no utilities.
You'll also find six miles of trails for hiking and biking. Anglers can choose from three launch ramps for their boats, and they have access to four docks. Call the park office at (402) 796-2362 for more information.
If fishing doesn't have to play a major role in your family vacation, consider Platte River State Park. This park has just about everything -- even the chance to spend the night in a teepee!
The terrain in this park is rugged enough for there to be no campsites here, but there are 31 cabins, and teepees for rent in the Oto or Pawnee teepee villages. What a cool way to camp this is! And if you want to camp with your own conventional gear, you'll find room at nearby Eugene T. Mahoney State Park.
Golfing, horseback riding, arche
ry and swimming will tempt you to leave the fishing rods in the back of the SUV -- and here at Platte River, that might just be OK. For more information, contact the park office at (402) 234-2217.
Not only does Mahoney State Park offer campsites for those who'll be spending time at Platte River State Park, but it's also one of the most feature-packed facilities included in this article. If you'd prefer not to rough it on this year's family fishing vacation, Mahoney State Park may be the place for you. Its lodge features 40 guest rooms -- 16 with fireplaces -- furnished with comfortable beds and plenty of amenities.
In addition to fishing, the park itself boasts an aquatic center with a water slide, miniature golf, a driving range, tennis courts, a 70-foot observation tower and sand volleyball courts. Fishing is this story's focus, however, and anglers can get the latest information on conditions and where the big ones are biting at Owen Marina.
For more information, contact the park office at (402) 944-2523.
One of Lake Sakakawea State Park's coolest features is that anglers who just want to catch a bunch of fish can book a guided trip through Captain Kits Marina at (701) 487-3600 -- and since this Missouri River impoundment offers salmon as an option, a guided trip might be the way to go. If you prefer, however, you can head out on your own in search of more common Great Plains species like walleyes, bass and catfish. At 178 miles long, Sakakawea will offer you plenty of spots to explore.
Apart from the main campground, the park offers two cabins for rent. Call the park office at (701) 487-3315 to find out if either will be available during your visit.
Sakakawea lies adjacent to the Garrison Dam and Fish Hatchery, one of several attractions in the area. You can also visit the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center -- a reasonable move, since you will, after all, be staying in a state park named for the Shoshone woman who accompanied the storied explorers on their expedition to find a waterway to the Pacific Ocean.
You won't get much farther north in the Great Plains than Icelandic State Park, which is west of Cavalier, near the U.S.-Canada border. Another park with a pike fishery, it has some attractions that'll appeal to history buffs as well as those who are just interested in the heritage of the Great Plains.
The park's campgrounds offer full amenities (utility hookups, dump station and showers). Three sleeping cabins are available for rental; check with the park office at (701) 265-4561 for availability.
June brings to the park the annual Rendezvous Festival, an event designed to take you back to North Dakota in the 1870s and give you a chance to see recreations of a frontier military encampment and a buckskinners' encampment. Past festivals have also included blackpowder turkey shoots and a Teddy Roosevelt re-enactor.
Lake Metigoshe State Park, on the shores of a lake that the Chippewa called Metigoshe Washegum ("clear-water lake surrounded by oaks"), is yet another northern pike and walleye fishery. You'll find a boat ramp for launching the ol' fishing rig, or you can leave the boat home and just rent a canoe on site.
You'll also find 130 campsites and facilities that include utility hookups, a dump station and showers. Cabins and group dorms are available as well.
Every weekend in June and throughout the summer, you'll find programs at the park amphitheater and supervised hikes to explore the natural beauty and history of the area.
For more information on the park and what's going on this month, call the office at (701) 263-4651.
You can consider Little Missouri and Sully Creek state parks as one destination when your plan is to visit "the badlands." They're just a few miles apart, and Little Missouri offers a wonderful chance to experience the Missouri Breaks and some of the most beautiful acreage in all of the Great Plains.
Sully Creek is very close to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. These two areas, while offering fishing along the Little Missouri River, are more likely to enthrall you with their natural beauty and history. Little Missouri offers 30 campsites, some of which have utility hookups. Another 33 sites are available at Sully Creek, where canoe access to the river can be found. Sully Creek also offers access to the 120-mile-long Maah Daah Hey Trail in the Little Missouri National Grassland. Make no mistake -- this is some of America's most amazing, most historic land, and it's well worth a visit.
You can contact the Little Missouri office at (701) 794-3731 or 260-1753, and the Sully Creek office at (701) 623-4496 or 667-6340.
Sited on the south side of the Oahe dam, the Oahe Downstream Recreation Area gives access to some of the finest fishing to be found on the Missouri River system. Species include saugers, northern pike, walleyes, bass, channel cats, trout, salmon and panfish. Honestly, this may be the destination in the Great Plains if you want to do a mixed-bag fishing vacation.
Three campgrounds offer more than 300 campsites, all with electrical hookups; you'll even find three wheelchair-accessible sites. Showers, water and a dump station are on site as well.
You can hike or bike the trail loop here, and you might want to bring your bow or favorite firearm along, because the area has an archery range, rifle range and a trap range. And there's an off-road vehicle area and a 9-hole disc golf course!
This is another spot where you might want to consider just booking a guide trip. Give the folks at Downstream Marina and Resort a call at (605) 223-2627 to find out what's available. You also can contact the park office at (605) 223-7722.
Oakwood Lakes State Park provides the chance to fish a chain of glacial lakes whose angling action for walleyes, northern pike, perch and bullheads is of notable quality. You can rent canoes if you don't feel like bringing your boat. Also, there's a wheelchair-accessible dock.
You'll find 73 campsites here, 65 of those with electrical hookups. There also are three cabins available to rent, each of which sleeps up to four people. Three trails invite lots of hiking and biking -- one of them is an island trail -- and the park features a horse camp that you can use as a base for explorations of the extensive trail system. There's also a 9-hole disc golf course, basketball and sand volleyball courts and horseshoe pits.
Get information on all of the great attractions here from the park office at (605) 627-5441.
West Pollock Recreation Area, one of the state parks that South Dakota maintains along the Lewis & Clark Trail, gives access to an area of Lake Oahe in which walleyes, smallmouth bass, white bass, pike and perch abound.
There's a boat ramp for convenient launching and loading. You'
ll also find 29 campsites, all of which have electrical hookups. Showers, water and a dump station are present on site.
West Pollock RA is one of the few destinations mentioned in this article that's primarily about the amenities and details anglers need for fishing vacations. It's in a great area with some great fishing.
For more information, contact the park office at (605) 845-7112.
TWO OTHER POSSIBILITIES
In researching this story, I ran across two other pretty cool Great Plains destinations that aren't necessarily fishing-oriented -- but I felt that I just had to include them.
The first is Prairie Spirit Rail Trail in Kansas. If you live in the Kansas City, Topeka or Wichita areas -- or if you'll be visiting one of them this summer -- here's a chance to bike almost 30 miles of trails along the eastern edge of the Flint Hills. Originally a railroad right of way, at one time, part of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad, this trail also provides access to fishing in Garnett city lakes. Note: You'll need a city fishing license.
Running south from Ottawa to Welda, the trail uses railroad beds built in the 1860s and 1870s. For more information, contact the park office at (785) 448-6767.
Another rail trail in the Great Plains that you definitely should consider courses through the heart of the South Dakota's Black Hills region. Comprising more than 100 converted railroad bridges and four hard-rock tunnels, the George S. Mickelson Trail has to be one of the most interesting and most beautiful non-fishing vacation destinations that you can visit. (And if you're a fan of the HBO original series Deadwood, you'll be intrigued to note that the trail passes through that town.)
For information on the trail and activities such as the Mickelson Trail Scavenger Hunt, e-mail the trail staff at MickelsonTrail@state.sd.us.