Pierre and Fort Pierre straddle the Missouri River in South Dakota below the 231-mile-long Lake Oahe. To appreciate the area’s scenery, stand above the Oahe Dam and turn 360 degrees. Beautiful hills, lakes, and rivers spread before you.
Pierre (pronounced PEER) is the nation’s second-smallest state capital, with 21,000 people in the micropolitan area. However, the region is proof that population size need not matter. All that water makes the area a four-season destination. The river and lake are alive with swimmers, boaters, and anglers for three seasons. In the winter, people ski cross-country, ice skate, and fish through the ice.
Pierre is one of only four state capitals without an interstate. It’s on Highway 83, 34 miles north of I-90. However, the highway is a four-lane divided highway. Pierre Regional Airport (PIR) offers round-trip flights to Denver.
Pro Tip: Lyft operates in Pierre, but drivers may not always be available. If not, call River Cities Public Transit. Much of Pierre is walkable, but you’ll want a car. It’s also one of our best South Dakota places to retire. The Missouri River divides Pierre from Fort Pierre. It’s also the Central and Mountain Time Zone boundary.
One of Pierre’s biggest draws is Lake Oahe, which boasts over 2,000 miles of shoreline and more than 50 different fish species. It’s the nation’s fourth-largest reservoir, stretching from Pierre almost to Bismarck, North Dakota. Whether you’re an avid angler or just looking to relax on its sandy beaches, the lake offers enjoyment. Visitors can also take advantage of numerous recreational activities like boating, kayaking, and birdwatching while enjoying stunning views across one of America’s largest reservoirs.
Pierre brags about its walleye fishing. Walleyes like cold, clean water, which Pierre’s water bodies provide.
The best walleye fishing begins in mid-May around Little Bend. Attack Lake Oahe’s lower end from late June to early July. Anglers prefer Lake Sharpe’s Westbend from April to May. The bluffs, Fort George and Antelope Creek are good in May and June. In the winter, target the stilling basin, bridge abutments, and Marion’s Garden.
Pro Tip: Don’t trust river ice.
Desperate northern pikes seek to spawn when the ice leaves Lake Oahe around mid-April. To land a 20-pound-plus fish, place your boat in warm-water bays or creek arms. Winter anglers can catch the Big One through the ice or by spearfishing in a darkhouse.
2. Water Sports
Kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding are popular activities for locals and visitors. Whether you’re an experienced kayaker or a beginner looking to try something new, Pierre offers plenty of options.
The Dam Run starts at the Oahe Dam and ends at the La Framboise Causeway. Combine land and water recreation options by cycling to the dam and kayaking down the river. For a more significant challenge, head down to the Missouri River. With its swift currents and narrow channels, the Missouri provides an exciting adventure for experienced kayakers. Try spearfishing to combine diving and fishing.
Pro Tip: Obtain your outdoor adventure equipment at Fun Time Rentals in Fort Pierre. Channel your inner frog and float the river on a lily pad.
South Dakota’s Great Lakes Birding Trail (PDF) includes three sites beside the river near Pierre. Birders have observed 322 species on the trail, including 164 breeding species. Look for raptors, songbirds, owls, and waterfowl.
Pro Tip: The birding trail includes state parks requiring a permit to enter.
4. La Framboise Island And Farm Island
The Causeway Fishing Pier connects La Framboise Island to Pierre. Farm Island to the south is now a peninsula and is part of the Farm Island State Recreation Area south of Pierre. Both feature lovely beaches and easy gravel and sand trails. Get the best of both and alternate between walking on the beaches and trails beneath the trees. Watch for notches at the high-water mark. These are pleasant places to enjoy the scenery or to fish. Download a La Framboise trail map.
Pro Tip: The Missouri looked vastly different when the Corps of Discovery traveled the river in 1804 and 1806. The visitor center explains the Corps’ journey and the dam’s construction. President John F. Kennedy visited the site in 1962, and the center preserved the photos. The Corps of Engineers leads dam tours from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Tours start at 1 p.m. CDT from Wednesdays through Saturdays, but confirm the tour times by calling 888-386-4617.
Fun Fact: South Dakota numbered the road east of the river “1804” and the west road “1806” to commemorate the Corps of Discovery’s passage in those years.
5. South Dakota State Capitol
The South Dakota capitol building is impressive, but its true glories are on the grounds. The Fighting Stallions Memorial commemorates Gov. George Mickelson and seven others who perished in a plane crash on April 19, 1993. The stallions are an enlarged replica of Korczak Ziolkowski’s mahogany sculpture. Ziolkowski designed the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Flaming Fountain Memorial honors veterans and the eagle with it specifically honors Sioux veterans. Additional sculptures commend service members from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam.
Fun Fact: Pierre had to fight (PDF) for its capital status. The city defeated Huron, Sioux Falls, Aberdeen, Mitchell, Yankton, Watertown, and others. South Dakota used the same plan as the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Montana, to save money.
6. South Dakota Heritage Center
Unity Through the Great Spirit (PDF) is the first sight that greets the South Dakota Heritage Museum’s guests. Paul War Cloud’s mural depicts South Dakota’s cultures reaching each other. After the optimistic vision, the museum continues with the Oceti Sakowin (Sioux) creation story and their migration into the states named for them.
The second section begins with the Verendrye Plate, a lead plate French explorers deposited in 1743. Three children discovered the plate above the Missouri and nearly sold it to the local printing plant for melting into lead type. The exhibits continue telling South Dakota’s story up to the present.
Pro Tip: Relish the view from the museum’s observation gallery.
7. Dine At Local Restaurants
Pierre has a wide variety of eateries, and here are three that we recommend.
Mad Mary’s Steakhouse
Mary Etzkorn decided to start a steakhouse a few years after her divorce. Her sister suggested that she name it Mad Mary’s because Mary was so angry at her ex-husband. The restaurant has no dress code, so customers can come dressed in tuxedos or straight from the livestock sale barn. Eat the pan-seared walleye. The fish is subtly sweet with a buttery mouthfeel.
Family-owned and operated, La Minestra has served Pierre for about 20 years. They serve pizza, pasta, steaks, and seafood. They also feature daily specials. I chose the Italian-Cajun fusion jambalaya with Italian sausage and tortellini and a garden salad. The combination worked well.
Zesto is open only from March to October, but their ice cream is worth the wait. The store lives up to its slogan, “Zesto is the besto!” Look for the throwback diner-style restaurant with the ice cream cone rising from the top. Before ordering a frozen delicacy, check their sherbert calendar — your favorite flavor may await you. Zesto is more than ice cream; they also sell classic diner entreés and sides.