Thirty or more 19th century steamboats are buried beneath the Missouri’s waters and bottomlands between Yankton and Omaha.

Lewis & Clark Marina may be the largest sailboat port on the Northern Plains. More than 200 sailors dock there.

Giant paddlefish, some measuring 7 feet long, thrive in our river. It’s North America’s oldest species, dating back 350 million years.

Welcome to Yankton!

Walking Into History

Yankton, Dakota Territory was a river port, territorial capital and rollicking frontier outpost. That same spirit thrives today amidst the century-old architecture and culture of a modern city of 15,000. Enjoy restaurants and bars in the Meridian District, where riverboat captains once headquartered. Our entire downtown is on the National Registry of Historic Places and many of the 100-plus old buildings are open to the public.

One-of-a-Kind Eateries

Yankton has more than 50 places to dine, including wonderful family establishments that have been here for generations like the Black Steer steakhouse, Tastee Treet (a pioneer of the drive-up that specializes in what we call a “tavern”); and Charlie’s Pizza, a 1959 classic that ranks among the West’s best pizzerias. Go to visityanktonsd.com for a full listing.

Enjoy the Missouri

We are a river town. The last wild stretch of the 2,341-mile Missouri River flows past us (the river is dammed to the north and channeled to the south.) Explore that history at the Mead Cultural Center or the Missouri National Recreational River headquarters (508 E. 2nd). Tour Gavins Point Dam, tube or canoe the river, rent a pontoon on Lewis & Clark Lake. Tubers, canoeists & kayakers like to float from just below the dam to Riverside Park downtown. Depending on the wind, the journey takes 90-120- minutes.

The Meridian District

Explore a renaissance underway in The Meridian District, our old-town entertainment and retail center by the river. Walk (l.2 miles both ways) a 1924 double-decker steel bridge that rises high over the Missouri. Shop dozens of little shops (including a stretch of women’s clothing stores). Experience river nightlife with two local breweries, an axe-throwing venue, live music on weekends and cozy nooks with cocktails and good food.

DID YOU KNOW? Our Meridian District takes its name from U.S. Highway 81, aka the Meridian Highway which follows the 97th meridian from Canada to Mexico.

A Perfect Day

Begin with a “build your own” omelet at Willa B’s bistro. Walk it off by hiking the nearby Meridian Bridge, then shop the Meridian District. Lunch at El Tapatio (true Mexican dining) or several family diners on Broadway. For history, visit the Mead Museum or drive to the Nebraska side of the lake to see the Lewis & Clark Visitor’s Center. Tour the Gavin’s Point powerhouse visit the G.A.R. Art Gallery (508 Douglas) and Mount Marty University’s Bede Art Gallery. Walk the historic residential district (northeast of downtown) or Riverside Park, which features outdoor sculptures watching the summer boaters or the eagles that roost atop cottonwoods and a replica of the territorial capital.

A Kid-Friendly Community

How much do we like kids? We just built a $12 million aquatics park (Douglas & 19th). A splash park is free at the foot of the walking bridge. The Karttrax Family Fun Park by the lake has go-carts and miniature golf. We keep a “wild” duck & geese flock in West Side Park just so kids can feed them. And while all our restaurants are kid friendly, Czeckers Bar & Grill serves “mac and cheese” and actually encourages young diners to get up and run about!

We’re the Archery Capital

OK, most of our politicians left when we lost the territorial capital in 1883. But now we’re the archery capital of the USA, and archers are straightshooters so it’s not a bad trade. The National Field Archery Association’s headquarters on E. Hwy 50 offers classes, leagues and activities for youth and adults.

Plan On Riverboat Days

Our river valley’s premier event is Riverboat Days, a three-day extravaganza of music, food, arts and crafts, kids’ activities and comradery held the third weekend of August. The celebration attracts tens of thousands of fun-seeking families. In summer, enjoy Tuesday night concerts in the bandstand at Riverside Park and Thursday night music and fun at the foot of the walking bridge. Check our South Dakota Magazine calendar of events (link) for all area events.

We Love Our Farmers

Experience Yankton’s rich agricultural culture. Sit in on a cattle sale at Stockmen’s Livestock (Tuesdays and other special days). Find amazing home-made brats, hot dogs and jerky at Kleinschmit’s (406 E. 3rd), a family meat shop. Visit our festive Farmers Market (2nd & Douglas) every Saturday morning (April to October).

Hangings Now Outlawed

We haven’t hung anyone since Jack McCall, the outlaw who infamously shot Wild Bill Hickok. When a Deadwood jury found McCall innocent, he was brought here, tried and hung in 1877. The courthouse still stands at Third & Capitol (see marker on east side) and the place where he was jailed is at Fifth & Douglas. Another historic marker is at the hanging site, north of Wal-mart in the soccer park. Read more about McCall’s sad legacy.

Bird-Watching Paradise

Bring binoculars. Our prairies, river valley and hill country attract lots of birds, migratory and year-round. Eagles winter near the river in winter, and some now nest here. Waterfowl hang out in West Side park; they’re so tame you can photograph and feed them. Hike trails along the lake and river west of town for the best birding but explore wherever you see trees or water.

Take Short Drive East

Got time for a short drive? Leave Yankton on Whiting Street (aka Old Highway 50), travel a few miles to Mission Hill and look for the old, weathered statue of Abraham Lincoln. Return to Old 50 and proceed east. You are now in the “hay capital of the world,” because the flat river bottomland is ideal for alfalfa. During haying season, stop the car and enjoy the aroma. Big round hay bales weigh about 1,000 lbs. and the small squares are 100 lbs. Hungry yet? The friendly Hay Shed on Gayville’s main street has morning sweets and noon specials. Return to Yankton on “new” U.S. Highway 50.

A Short Drive West

Leave town on Eighth Street (which becomes State Hwy 52) to the lake. Visit the free aquarium on the left (in summer), pass by the marina and look for three big crosses on a hilltop marking the House of Mary Shrine, a tranquil place hosted by local Catholics who welcome anyone seeking a bit of tranquility. Follow Highway 52 to the Gavins Point exit and take a hike on Chalk Bluffs Trail, with great views of the lake. Return on Highway 52 and enjoy a refreshment at Stringers, Cottonwood Corral or the Marina Bar & Grill — all popular “river rat” hangouts.

More stories on Yankton…

More Winter By The River

Almost every morning, you’ll find retired Yankton High School teacher and debate coach Paul Harens along the Missouri, scouting for fresh views of our old river town. We shared a few of his cold-weather shots in “Winter by the River,” a story in our January/February 2020 issue, but here are a few more for your enjoyment. Look for more of Harens’ work on Instagram.

Yankton’s Civil Rights Champion

Until the day Ted Blakey died in 2004, he possessed a newspaper clipping from February 1838. It advertised his grandfather, an 11-year-old boy at the time, for sale at a slave auction in Missouri. For Blakey, a Yankton businessman and tireless Civil Rights advocate, it served as a reminder of how far his family had come.

We Winter with Eagles

Eagles were a rare sight in South Dakota just decades ago. The pesticide DDT got in their food (fish) chain and decreased the birds’ fertility. Then, 522,000 acres of their favorite habitat along the Missouri River was flooded by the Corps of Engineers’ six big dams. Eagle sightings became rare.

The Last Nurseryman

One of the saddest days of Jay Gurney’s life came in 1977 when his father lost his job at what had been the family nursery. “I helped my father gather up his stuff,” he remembers.

By the early 1940s the Gurney family no longer owned the historic family business in Yankton. The company changed owners several times and was eventually bought by American Garden Products. “Shortly after my grandfather’s death, the company said to my father Sidney: ‘We’ll offer you $100 to continue using your name and likeness in our mail order catalog. If you don’t sign the agreement, you’re fired.’

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