It’s coming back!

You will be able to experience water in the Badlands as a historical recreation area comes back to life.

badlands water dunn county

After a drive across the prairie, the blacktop turns to gravel and heads down to the water.

Changes in the regional population in the last 10 years has prompted Dunn County to provide more recreational opportunities – especially for families and outdoor-lovers. 

Trees surround Lake Ilo park and the fishing dock

Lake Ilo Park sits on the south side of Lake Ilo at the Lake Ilo Wildlife Refuge west of Dunn Center.

Now with the improvements of a historic lakeside region, the town of Dunn Center could become the hub of outdoor recreation.  Lake Ilo and the Lake Ilo Wildlife Management area to the west and now the Little Missouri Recreation Area to the north of Dunn Center will make the community a viable place for you to begin a fishing, boating, hiking, camping, picnicking, or wildlife viewing activity.

Lake Ilo and Little Missouri Bay

Beautiful and quiet Lake Ilo is easily accessed off of highway 200.  Now, a completely different water experience is coming back to life.  It’s the meeting of the Badlands and Lake Sakakawea.

The Little Missouri Recreation Area is on the Little Missouri Bay, a 15-mile drive from Highway 200 on the east side of Dunn Center. All but the last two miles are paved, but that will change. The Army Corps of Engineers agreed the final two miles of gravel on federal land will be paved in August 2019. Including turnouts, parking and paving costs, the project will be about $2.9 million. 

Paving the last two miles of gravel road is one of the first steps to turn the Little Missouri Recreation Area into a major outdoor recreation area enhancing the quality of life in the region, and providing both long-term residents and newcomers with more outdoor opportunities — provided the Army Corps of Engineers approves of the plans.

Dunn County Commission President Donna Scott said, “What we have in mind is phases. We’d like to see it mowed and maintained, and some picnic grounds this year.  We want it to become a popular public area, regulated, staffed and maintained.”dunn county little missouri recreaton area

Closed until the water came back

The bay extends southwest of the mouth of the Little Missouri River at its entry into the Missouri River and Lake Sakakawea.  It’s subject to high and low water changes and that can be a challenge.  Area residents who live between the bay and Dunn Center talk about how the Little Missouri Recreation Area had been a popular spot with a bait station, restaurant, cabins and camping ground. It was a private recreation area until the 1960’s when the Army Corps of Engineers took over. Then, water levels went down about 2005 and much of the area became a mud flat. The Corps changed policies and locked up the popular area; decay set in.

About nine years ago, the lake water started coming back up and the boat launch was reopened.  These days, the small parking lot is full on weekends with 50 or more parked boat trailers waiting for the return of the boats in the “day-use-only” facility.

Carie Boster, the Director of the Dunn County Jobs Development Association said a young entrepreneur from the area has contracted with the county to mow the area and to clean up the dead wood and driftwood.  The county’s down payment to the man helped him get the necessary insurance to start work, and by the first of August, it’s expected he’ll be mowing and cleaning up the area.  Then come picnic tables and paths to be mowed into the landscape.

dunn county little missouri recreatiion area

High water left driftwood to be cleaned up.

Camping and picnics

“There’s a lot of call for more outdoor recreation opportunities,” Boster said. “Right now, about all you can do is fish.  People want to picnic and camp.”

Scott agreed. She said, “We’re all for it. We don’t have water recreation in the county on this side of the lake.  Young people are moving in with the oil activity and are looking for something to do. It fits into our strategic plan to enhance our quality of life.”

little missouri recreation area

A treed area on a level above the water could become a camping area, if the Crops agrees.


The recreation area not only provides boater access to the south side of Lake Sakakawea, as it is rebuilt, primitive camping will be available.  Easy hiking trails are also on the plans pending Corps approval. The rugged Badlands hills slope down to the water’s edge where groves of trees provide shelter in some area.  In other areas, gravel beaches can provide water-side playgrounds. Except for the immediate parking area next to the boat launch, nearly all of the area is accessible only by walking.  Fences will come down, and more of the area will open up if the Corps approves.little missouri recreation rea

A 3-year plan

The tentative three-year plan calls for the return of a bait shop and concession stand.  Up the hill, away from the water’s edge, a fish-cleaning station could be set up,  

One of the members of the local task force pushing the project, Will Albrecht, says he is excited about the camping and hiking area. “We’re excited.  I think when you have such a neat opportunity, it’s all positive.  I can’t think of a more beautiful access area.”

The effort to revitalize the recreational area is a multi-agency effort; Dunn County, North Dakota Game and Fish, Army Corps of Engineers and even the Federal Highway Administration are playing a role.

In the end, the town of Dunn Center hopes to become the regional outdoor recreation hub. With the completion of the Little Missouri Recreation Area, a recreational circle will be created around Dunn Center with Lake Ilo to the west and the Little Missouri State Park to the north.  “It will give people an opportunity to get away quickly to a place that is close; they won’t have to travel a distance for the opportunity to go walking along the lake in the Badlands,” Boster said.

More Dunn County ideas

There is more than one way to escape that noisy busy week you just went through.  Here are 7 ideas.

Head into Dunn Center with the kids to tour an amazing museum better than you expect.

We’ve got more tips for you to enjoy while it is still summer.  Just subscribe to get a note in your inbox when a new story is published.  Or, follow us on Facebook.

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