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The eastern half of South Dakota doesn’t always get the accolades of the more mountainous western half of the state, but there is plenty to explore and enjoy when you treat yourself to the lakes, prairies, small towns, wide-open spaces, and general friendliness of the people in the state.
This area is known by many as “East River,” meaning it lies east of the Missouri River that bisects the state (you can follow the river on our Lewis & Clark Tour for the river). This is a loop tour, starting and ending in Sioux Falls but of course it’s easy to start and stop anywhere along the way. Best Western hotels have you covered six ways across five cities, so take your time and enjoy!
Since we also finish in Sioux Falls, we’ll detail everything about the state’s largest city at the end. From Sioux Falls, head up I-29 to Exit 132, which brings you into Brookings via U.S. 14. Brookings is a college town, home to South Dakota State University. SDSU, as it’s locally called, has about 12,000 students as it one of the top research universities in the Midwest. SDSU’s researchers have done everything from establishing the nation’s first on-campus facility for producing ethanol to the invention of cookies and cream ice cream. Stephen Foster Briggs attended SDSU and developed a six-cylinder, two-cycle internal combustion engine during his student days; that and meeting Harold Stratton at SDSU led to the founding of the Briggs & Stratton Corporation. SDSU’s athletic mascot is the Jackrabbit; they play sports in NCAA Division I and play in the Summit League and, for football, the Missouri Valley Football Conference.
“Hobo Day” is the university’s homecoming celebration and has been for over a century; it is billed as the “largest one-day event in the Dakotas.” The South Dakota State Agricultural Heritage Museum provides an excellent look at the university’s work with agriculture over the years, and the SDSU Dairy Bar sells milk, ice cream, butter, cheese, and more made fresh from the source in the university’s Dairy Plant. Student and regional artists’ work can be enjoyed at the South Dakota State Art Museum, and a stroll through the horticultural splendor of McCrory Gardens reveals just how much color and variety there can be in the flora of South Dakota, depending on the season. To top it off – literally – a trip up the 180 steps of the Coughlin Campanile offers a beautiful view of the town as you stand high atop the university campus.
Brookings has an NAHL hockey team, the Brookings Blizzard. Amateur hockey games can be enjoyed at the Larson Ice Center in season. Kids will love the Children’s Museum of South Dakota, one of the state’s top-rated attractions. Adults may enjoy some unique selections from the Wooden Legs Brewing Company, which include a variety of signature and seasonal house beers as well as “guest” brews from across the country.
Trivia: By checking out Sioux Falls, Watertown, Aberdeen, Brookings, Mitchell, and Huron, this Tour covers six of the 10 largest cities in South Dakota. Average population of these cities: about 30,000… and that includes Sioux Falls’ 165,000.
From Brookings, take a break from the Interstate and follow U.S. 14 west to U.S. 81, and then head north through Arlington to Watertown.
Watertown is the fifth largest city in South Dakota, with about 22,000 residents. Some of the “water” in question harkens to the lakes in the area, including Pelican Lake, Lake Kampeska, and a series of others that make this area from Brookings to Watertown and points north a “lake country” you don’t often see in the Great Plains. Several state recreation areas protects lands around some of these lakes and opportunities for fishing and boating are many. Watertown offers a variety of activities. The Bramble Park Zoo has been around for over a century and features over 800 animals across 130 different species. On the cultural side, the Redlin Art Center is an impressive 52,000 square-foot structure on the east side of town showcasing the work of native son and prolific wildlife artist Terry Redlin.
Over 150 original works from Redlin are on display. The Goss Opera Hall can tickle your ears and other senses with a variety of performances and events; a AAA-diamond restaurant, art gallery, and coffee house round out the features here. The Codington County Heritage Museum traces the area’s colorful history, and the Italianate 1885-era Mellette House offers tours of the last Governor’s Mansion of Dakota Territory and the first residence of the Governor of the State of South Dakota – before everything moved to Pierre. You can also try your luck at the Dakota Sioux Casino … just remember to double down on eleven.
In Watertown, the Best Western Ramkota Hotel is ready to accommodate you if the events in Brookings and Watertown led you to the end of your day.
Heading past Watertown, angle northwest out of the city on SD Highway 20 and then north on SD Highway 25; when you reach U.S. 12 in Webster, it’s kitsch time: look for the shoe-shaped Museum of Wildlife, Science & Industry. It features an extensive shoe collection, an iron lung, a collection of old farm equipment and African hunting trophies, topped by the world’s largest hairball (it did not come from the world’s largest cat).
From Webster, detour up Highway 25 to Roslyn, home of the International Vinegar Museum. Vinegar has thousands of uses, but there’s only one museum dedicated to it! Here, you can not only taste a multitude of vinegar varieties, but you can see how it’s made, find out its many uses, see paper and ceramics made from vinegar, and even create something from vinegar in the gift shop. Even vinegar on ice cream is a popular local treat here. Lawrence Diggs, aka The Vinegar Man, just might be on hand to give you all the skinny on this remarkable liquid. The museum is open June through Labor Day.
The Waubay National Wildlife Refuge is also nearby, so you can make an indoor/outdoor day of it.
To continue the Tour, head back to Webster via Highway 25 and then hit U.S. 12 west. You’re enjoying a portion of the original Yellowstone Trail by following this route, and we follow it to Aberdeen, the state’s third largest city with about 26,000 residents. One of Aberdeen’s nicknames is “Hub City”, so named for the railroads that converged on the city for many decades. Today, a few mainlines still go through, as do U.S. 281 and U.S. 12. Aberdeen is in the heart of the Glacial Lakes and Prairies Region of South Dakota, where open prairies often give way to hills and valleys and variety of lakes. Fishing, hunting, and all kinds of recreational activity across all four seasons await. Aberdeen hosts regional events, too, like the Midwest Water Ski Show Tournament and there are always plenty of fun things to do all year ‘round.
Aberdeen is also college town, home to Northern State University, a 3,600-student university on a 72 acre campus in town. Aberdeen has a famous connection in L. Frank Baum, who lived in Aberdeen prior to writing The Wizard of Oz. The yellow brick road, Emerald City, and Dorothy's prairie home may have originally been in Baum's imagination, but they exist in Aberdeen, part of the Land of Oz and Storybook World inside Wylie Park. The park features over 200 acres of grasslands and a zoo that is home to elk, deer, and buffalo. The Train Depot Museum is also part of the park; it’s an authentic old train depot, built in 1881 for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad stop in nearby Rudolph, South Dakota. Inside, you’ll find displays of railroad history for the area along with other trinkets. And ina sense, it’s a functioning depot, since you can take a mini-train ride around Storybook Land on the grounds.
Elsewhere in downtown Aberdeen, the Dacotah Prairie Museum traces the history of the city and the Dakotas; the Hatterscheidt Wildlife Gallery is a permanent exhibit featuring mounted animals from all of the world. Similar to Brookings, Aberdeen has an NAHL hockey team: the Aberdeen Wings, which play their games at the Odde Ice Center. This isn’t a picayune arena, either; it features jumbo HD screens, luxury suites, and usually a full house of over 1,700 fans when they drop the puck. The regular season runs from September through March, with playoffs extending into April.
Aberdeen has the Best Western Ramkota Hotel if you want to stay in Aberdeen for the night – or several – before exploring more in the state.
From Aberdeen, head back south on U.S. 281. After about 20 miles, you’ll past the Abbie Gardner Monument, marking the area where the famous young lady- one of the few survivors of the storied Spirit Lake Massacre, which happened in Iowa in 1857. The concrete obelisk marks the spot where Native Americans released her after holder her captive for 84 days.
Continue on U.S. 281 south through Redland. Approaching Wolsey, U.S. 14 joins for the ride; continue on U.S. 14 east towards Huron.
Along U.S. 14 approaching Huron you'll find the World's Largest Pheasant, proving that is this indeed, like the mural indicates, the heart of pheasant territory. The pheasant in question spans 40 feet beak to tail, stands 28 feet high, and weighs a whopping 22 tons – one of many reasons it doesn't fly. For live birds – and lots of them – the Maga-Ta-Hohpi Waterfowl Production Area holds 2,200 acres of land that can be a dream location for bird watching. Even if you're not into birds, the nature trails make for a great and peaceful hiking.
Just past the World’s Largest Pheasant, we head into Huron, a city of 12,000 residents and the annual host to the South Dakota State Fair. The downtown area added many splashes of color with "Murals on the Town", a city-wide project where artists use the sides of buildings in the city as a canvas to tell Huron's stories. Murals include "The Land Rush," "The Heart of Pheasant Territory," "Seasons of Sports," and more. Huron boasts a symphony orchestra, the only community-based symphony in the state; they play seasonal concerts at various venues. The Pyle House Museum salutes Gladys Pyle, the first elected woman senator in the U.S. Congress. The museum is in her former house, an 1894 Queen Anne style home with plenty of original fixtures and features to get along with the exhibits of Senator Pyle.
Another female political figure, Muriel Humphrey, was born and raised in Huron. She became a U.S. Senator in her own right in Minnesota; her husband Hubert Humphrey was Vice-President under President Lyndon Johnson from 1965 until 1969 and was born in nearby Wallace. The granite-clad Centennial Center downtown – often referred to as Old Stone Church – holds memoirs of the Humphreys as well as items from South Dakota's Centennial, celebrated in 1989. The drugstore where Humphrey worked during the Great Depression is still there on Dakota Avenue; descendants of the family still own and operate the store and proudly show a collection of memorabilia.
For summer outdoor water fun, Splash Central Waterpark offers water slides, rides, a lazy river, and more. Next door, Central Park offers a nature center and sensory garden, so wet or dry there are plenty of things for the family to enjoy here. All of this is located on the former campus of Huron College, and some historical remnants of college also dot the grounds. Also in Huron, the Dakotaland Museum features over 15,000 artifacts from Huron, Beadle County, and across the state.
The Best Western of Huron is right in town to offer accommodations as you enjoy Huron’s amenities.
From Huron, follow South Dakota Highway 37 south, which is a four-lane highway all the way to
Mitchell, home to the famous Corn Palace. The Corn Palace is quite distinctive; this is the third incarnation of the building, having gone up in 1921 (the first version was built in 1892). Using the “Moorish Revival” style of architecture, decorative ornamentation adorns the building, much of it “crop art” featuring murals and designs made from corn and a variety of other grains. Some of the exterior art changes each year, based on the whimsy of artists who follow new themes. The Corn Palace will undergo “corn-struction” with new “ear-chitecture” (their words, not ours… trust us) for 2015 to celebrate South Dakota’s 125th anniversary. Basically, if you saw the Corn Palace in previous years and took pictures, those are outdated and you need new ones.
The original purpose of the Corn Palace was to showcase Mitchell’s – and South Dakota’s – rich agricultural opportunities and lure both visitors and residents. It still lures plenty of visitors, who come to check out concerts, sporting events, and changing exhibits inside. The annual Corn Palace Festival draws thousands every year in late August with a citywide celebration, including concerts, rides, exhibits, and lots of “corny” humor.
Mitchell is home to Dakota Wesleyan University, which uses the Corn Palace for games and performances. An interesting place to visit on campus is the Dakota Discovery Museum. The museum offers a trip back in time through exhibits and sculptures, four art galleries, a historical village complex featuring an original train depot building, hands-on activities for kids in “Discovery Land,” gardens that highlight indigenous plants, and more. To go even further back, discover more about Native American culture in South Dakota at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village on the northwest side of town near Lake Mitchell. A museum and visitor complements the grounds, which is a real archeological dig site – it doesn’t get more authentic than this if you want to learn about early tribes such as the Lakota and check out true artifacts.
To continue the Tour, head east from Mitchell on I-90. In about thirty minutes you’ll reach U.S. 81, where you can head south to Canistota, a small town with a big reputation for chiropractic services. The Ortman Clinic has been around since 1915 and draws patients from all 50 states; if you have any aches or pains from driving or riding, you just might have come to best place to ease them. If you’re rarin’ to go for some outdoor activity, Lake Vermillion Recreation Area is just to the east and offers terrific boating, fishing, swimming, and hunting opportunities across different seasons. The Best Western U-Bar Motel is right in town to accommodate you whether you want to relieve a backache or jump in the lake and do the backstroke.
To wrap up the tour, let’s head a little further east on I-90 back to South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls. With 165,000 residents and growing, Sioux Falls is named for the falls along the Big Sioux River. Falls Park features these waterfalls cascading along rocks and the riverbed; these falls have drawn settlers of all stripes for centuries. Native American burial mounds can be visited in the park, and you can step on and across the rocks that form various falls. Nature trails, an observation tower, and a visitor center all provide plenty of options to enjoy the city’s namesake.
Downtown Sioux Falls features the SculptureWalk in summertime; it’s a series of sculptures and other art works enhancing the streets and storefronts. Other exhibits related to SculptureWalk can be found on the University of Sioux Falls campus and inside Sioux Falls Regional Airport. Other points of interest downtown include the Old Courthouse Museum, which is (obviously) located in the old courthouse – which when built was the largest courthouse between Chicago and Denver. Impressive on the outside, the exhibits on the inside showcase the history of the city and state. Admission is free. The Washington Pavilion of Arts & Science just down Main Street is a complex that brings performing arts, visual arts, and interactive science exhibits together.
Adjacent to downtown along Duluth Street you’ll find some popular historic buildings. Many like to marvel at St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which took four years to build during the World War I years and today ranks as one of the nation’s most beautiful. Tours are available, either guided or self-guided, every day except Sunday. A few blocks away, the Pettigrew Home & Museum was home to South Dakota’s first U.S. Senator. The graceful 1889 Queen Anne-style home is filled with artifacts, exhibits, and articles and is also available for free tours. Basically, downtown and Duluth Street are great areas for a nice walking tour.
The Great Plains Zoo features over 1,000 animals, including some you might only expect in larger city zoos. On the zoo grounds, the Delbridge Museum of Natural History features a rare collection of over 150 mounted animals, including 36 categorized as “vanishing species.” For more animal attractions, the Sertoma Butterfly House in Sertoma Park features – yes – butterflies… over 60 species of them! An aquarium called Marine Cove is also in the park. Other sights around town include the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial on 12th & Kiwanis, which honors those who served on the most decorated battleship of World War II, and a replica of Michelangelo’s David in Fawick Park by Augustana College, mere blocks from downtown but you’ll feel like you’re in Italy.
The city is big enough to host a few minor league pro teams. The Sioux Falls Canaries are in the American Association for baseball; on the hoops side, the Sioux Falls Skyforce is an NBA Development League team affiliated with the Miami Heat. They play at the Sanford Pentagon, an arena that opened in 2013 that also hosts concerts and other sporting events, including NCAA Tournament games in the next few years. A hockey team, the Sioux Falls Stampede, plays in the USHL.
As you can see, there is plenty to do in Sioux Falls – as well as all the cities and towns on our East River South Dakota Tour. Take some time and enjoy. Sioux Falls has two Best Western hotels for you, both along I-29: the Best Western Empire Towers and the Best Western PLUS Ramkota Hotel.
Enjoy the lakes, sights, and open spaces of eastern South Dakota!