It’s not often that my expectations of a place are completely (and pleasantly) defied, but during our recent visit to Lake Sakakawea (pronounced: sa-KAH-kuh-we-uh) in North Dakota, that is exactly what happened.
Having visited North Dakota a number of times over the past decade or so (Julia is originally from ND), I’ve learned North Dakota to be a place of beautiful rolling prairie hills, magical cottonwood forests, and impressive river scapes that the mighty and majestic Missouri River creates.
Heck, I’ve even come to know North Dakota as a place with otherworldly and nearly rainbow-colored twisting river and stream banks carved through the soft bentonite clay of the Theodore Roosevelt National Park otherwise known as the North Dakota Badlands.
North Dakota as a place with a world-class coastal and water-front scene? I used to think, “Not a chance.”
After our recent visit to Lake Sakakawea, my notion of North Dakota was massively and pleasantly expanded.
Lake Sakakawea – More Coastline Than California
When we first drove up to Lake Sakakawea, I remember thinking to myself, “This looks like an ocean.” To put it more simply, the lake is MASSIVE!
Did you know that California’s coastline is ~840 miles long? Well if you did, you’ll likely be surprised to know that its shoreline is 1,320 miles long! Who knew?
And aside from the fact that Lake Sakawea is the fourth largest human-made lake in the continental United States, covering over 300,000 acres, I think the most impressive feature of the entire thing is that it resembles an ocean.
In fact, the first thing I thought when we drove up to the edge and saw the jagged and eroding sandstone and mudstone cliffs is that we had somehow been transported to the Algarve in Portugal. Admittedly, Lake Sakawea is a bit different than the Algarve, but still, it reminded me of Portugal.
As an aside, when I say we visited Lake Sakakawea, we actually only visited a TINY part of the lake. In particular, we explored in and around the town of Riverdale, North Dakota – the part nearest Lake Sakakawea State Park and Lake Sakakawea State Park Marina.
Lake Sakakawea – Oceanic Proportions
Looking out over the expansive body of water, truly, I could have been standing at the edge of any one of the world’s major oceans.
The long and the short of it is:
If you’re in or around North Dakota and you like the ocean (as well as many of the watersport activities that you can enjoy on the ocean), I highly recommend you plan a trip to Lake Sakakawea.
Frankly, even if you’re not in the area, I think there is enough to do here (if you’re the beach-going, watersports, or fish angling type) that you could plan a trip explicitly to enjoy the many marvels of Lake Sakakawea.
Below are the details of the short trip we took, and I’m sure you’ll be able to use them as a jumping-off point for planning your own trip to this spectacular area.
Lake Sakakawea Questions/Comments?
As always, if you have any questions or comments, we’d be glad to hear your thoughts, so leave us a comment below!
Where We Stayed At Lake Sakakawea
Riverdale High Lodge
Have you ever dreamed of spending a night in a high school?
Honestly, we hadn’t either, but when we learned that the Riverdale High Lodge was a result of converting the Riverdale high school into a hotel, we decided to check it out.
Suffice it to say, the lodge was affordable, comfortable, and ideally located near Lake Sakakawea State Park.
So, we recommend this place if you’re looking for comfortable and basic accommodations.
There are a number of campgrounds in this area, so you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. Since we didn’t camp in this area, we can’t personally recommend any of the sites, but we did hike/drive past a few of them (listed below), and they looked really nice.
The Downstream Campground, located nearby to the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, looked like it would have been a mellow and quiet place to camp.
Lake Sakakawea State Park Campgrounds
At Lake Sakakawea State Park, there were a number of different campgrounds. We suggest you check out the state park map to choose the one you’d most like.
Once you’ve decided where you’d like to stay, you can make your state park campground booking at travel.parkrecnd.com
There are many other campgrounds in this area, so if you’ve been to any of them and could recommend one or two, leave us a comment below.
Things To Do At Lake Sakakawea
Relax On The Beach
Given Sakakawea’s 1,300+ miles of shoreline, there are PLENTY of beaches. We chilled in the following two spots, and we loved them.
There are certainly more spots, so if you know of any good ones, again leave us a comment below, and let us know!
Government Bay Boat Ramp
Can you swim in Lake Sakakawea? The short answer is “yes.” This spot is easy to get to, has a decent amount of rocky beach, but is right next to a public boat ramp. We spent two afternoons here, so in spite of the boat ramp, we really enjoyed this area.
“Secret” Locals’ Spot
This spot is a bit harder to get to, but it’s not at all crowded, and it was a better choice for an all-day beach experience. Another perk of this spot is that there is an area that is shaded all day as well as one that’s in the sun all day.
If you’re like us and need some relief from those UV rays, this will be a great choice.
NOTE: To get down to and back up from this spot, you’ll likely need a vehicle that has at least all-wheel drive. The road going down is made of dirt and is pretty steep. If there is a chance that the road is wet, i.e. after a recent rainstorm, I’d recommend you don’t attempt to get down here.
Garrison Dam And National Fish Hatchery Tour
Hands-down, one of the most unexpected and interesting experiences we had while we were at Lake Sakakawea was the free self-guided tour we were able to take of the Garrison Dam and National Fish Hatchery.
As an aside, you can also take a free 45-minute guided tour, but we thought that might be a little bit too long for Peri and Kai, so we opted for the self-guided option.
From being able to pick up painted turtles to getting up close and personal with sturgeon, striped bass, and even some walleye, the entire experience was very engaging for us and the kids.
We also took a walk around the large outside hatchery ponds, so we even got to stretch our legs a little bit here too.
Again, I never expected to see anybody SCUBA diving in North Dakota, but alas, you can SCUBA dive in Lake Sakakawea. In specific, people scuba dive here to go spearfishing, to marvel at the interesting underwater geology of the lake, and to enjoy drift dives from the current that the Missouri river creates by running through the lake.
If mountain biking is your thing, there are a good number of mountain biking trails near Lake Sakakawea. We didn’t do any biking, but we did see a number of people out on bikes.
When we visited Lake Sakakawea State Park, we hiked the Shoreline Trail. Fortunately, we had two cars, so we were able to leave one car at one end of the trail and the other at the other, so we didn’t have to retrace our steps.
Nevertheless, there are many trails inside the state park and outside the state park that are gentle, family-friendly, and of course scenic.
I highly recommend you download the Guru Maps app (download for iOS/ download for Android), and then use it to find spots that you would like to explore. We used this app to find the locals’ secret beach, and we have used it all over the world to find various off-the-beaten-path gems. We use and love this app so much, that we actually wrote a Guru Maps App review.
If you’re feeling quite a bit more intrepid, you can consider hiking the North Country National Scenic Trail, or at least the section here in North Dakota that begins at Lake Sakakawea.
Fishing and Hunting at Lake Sakakawea
Given that Lake Sakakawea is North America‘s fourth largest human-made lake, of course, there’s going to be great fishing on lake sakakawea!
Depending on the season, you can expect to catch walleye, northern pike, and even perch. There are many more, but I’ll let you experience the surprise of finding one of those on your very own hook!
There is also excellent hunting in the area, and again, seasonally you’ll be able to bag a variety of different animals.
REMEMBER: In either case, make sure you buy either a North Dakota fishing license or a North Dakota hunting license, or even both.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are many opportunities to enjoy water sports on Lake Sakakawea.
From jet skiing to water skiing to tubing and more, if you have your own boat or even if you rent watercraft at Lake Sakakawea, you can even more fully enjoy the beauty of Lake Sakakawea.
Again, we didn’t play any golf while we visited the lake, but there are a number of courses in the area. I can imagine that if you get an early tee time, you could also enjoy some time on the lake later in the day!
If you like to immerse yourself in nature while quietly waiting to view wildlife, there are TONS of places around Lake Sakakawea that would be perfect for just this. Head out close to either dusk or dawn, and you’ll have the highest chance of spotting some wild critters.
Where To Eat
Riverdale High Lodge Knights Bar And Grill
We only tried eating at one place in Riverdale, The Riverdale High Lodge Knights Bar and Grill. The reason we didn’t try anywhere else is that the food was EXCELLENT at the Knights Bar and Grill.
The Dam Bar & Steakhouse
My in-laws, who have been to this area before, also have had great meals at the nearby Dam Bar & Steakhouse.
Other Eateries Near Lake Sakakawea
In any case, in addition to the two spots we’ve mentioned above, there are a few other eateries in and around Riverdale, so if you end up trying any other spots and think they’re recommendation-worthy, leave us a comment below!
What To Bring To Lake Sakakawea
Since we LOVE hiking, we always bring our day hiking gear wherever we go, and we use our day hike packing guide to make sure we don’t forget anything.
As for the exact gear you should bring on your own trip to Lake Sakakawea, you’ll have to base that on the experience you plan to have.
Below are a few items we bring more or less everywhere, so we recommend you bring them too.
No matter what you do, you’ll likely need some protection from the sun. We bring the items below, and we highly recommend them.
Related to sun protection, if you do decide to lounge on any one of the many beaches at Lake Sakakawea, you’ll likely want some shade. This shade tent should certainly do the trick.
Is there any type of outdoor adventure where you won’t need water? I really can’t think of one. We like the bottles you see below as they’re insulated, reusable, and built to last.
Plan Your Own Adventure To Lake Sakakawea – North Dakota’s Ocean
By now you should have enough information (and hopefully inspiration too) to plan your own outdoor family adventure travel experience to Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota.
But, as always…
If you have any questions or comments, we’re happy to field them. So, leave us a comment below, and we’ll get back to you in a flash. And in the meantime, happy adventuring!
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