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Sioux Falls: Nature meets nurture

Courtesy Sioux Falls CVB

The beautiful river cascades in the center of town may entice you to pay a visit to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. But you won’t be the first.

For centuries, the falls of the Sioux River have drawn people to the area. When European settlers arrived in the 1830s, the land around the falls was already populated by more than 10,000 Native Americans from numerous tribes who set up advanced agricultural communities along the river and even erected burial mounds on some of the high bluffs surrounding the falls.

Today, well over a century and a half later, Sioux Falls is still the center of an agricultural zone, with some 200,000 people living in the metro area. Located at the intersection of interstates 29 and 90, the city sees a lot of traffic from tour groups on their way to or from the Black Hills in the western part of the state; increasingly, though, visitors are recognizing Sioux Falls as a city worth exploring on the way. The town offers a mix of natural attractions, a thriving arts scene and exciting annual events.

Now, just as in the past, it all begins with the falls.

Natural Attractions
Now preserved as Falls Park, the falls of the Sioux River still take center stage in town. With rocky outcroppings, lush green space and plenty of walking paths, the park is a favorite of both locals and visitors.

“People love to come to Falls Park,” said Teri Ellis Schmidt, executive director of the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Many people who haven’t studied the city are surprised to find that we really do have falls. They’re beautiful falls, in the center of our community.”

Falls Park covers 123 acres of land. At the 100-foot waterfall, an average 7,400 gallons of water plummet over the edge every second. Groups can spend some free time milling about the park, or they can visit the five-story observation tower for a great view of the cascades and downtown Sioux Falls. During the summer, the park also presents a sound and light show at the waterfall, which takes place at dusk. Other attractions at the park include a historic horse barn that has been converted into an arts center, a large granite bison statue and the Falls Overlook Café, which is housed in a century-old power company building.

Another stop for nature lovers is the Great Plains Zoo and Delbridge Museum of Natural History, an institution that combines a traditional outdoor zoo and an indoor collection of mounted exotic animals. The zoo features a variety of Great Plains animals, as well as rare creatures from all around the world, such as numerous large Asian cats.

“Our Asian cats exhibit gets you very close to these amazing animals,” said zoo president and CEO Elizabeth Whealy. “They are endangered animals you wouldn’t get to see in the wild. Our war tigers are very rare, and we have a mom and three cubs. In that same area, we have snow leopards. You can get really close to them and understand how they survive in the wild with those extreme temperatures.”

At the end of 2010, the zoo opened a new exhibition of African rhinoceroses that accompanies exhibits of other African animals, including cheetahs, ostriches and meerkats. Other exhibits include a group of lemurs, squirrel monkeys, gibbons and other primates, as well as a face-to-face farm, where visitors can interact with young camels, sheep, goats and cattle. Indoors at the Delbridge Museum of Natural History, a collection of 150 mounted animals from around the world gives visitors an insight into faraway continents.

Groups that make advance plans with the museum can arrange to have a special animal encounter or behind-the-scenes tour.

“Your group can spend time with an animal handler, who will present a number of interesting animals — a chinchilla, a blue-tongued skink or other animals that you can handle,” Whealy said. “We can also put together a behind-the-scenes tour where you might see our food commissary and learn about what the animals eat, or meet with a zookeeper and learn about that person’s day.”

A Love for the Arts
Back in the center of town, visitors will find another important aspect of modern Sioux Falls: a thriving arts scene. The city’s artistic pride is displayed on its street corners through a public art program that brings the best work from local artists into an outdoor spotlight each year.

“Sculpture Walk is a very popular item for group tours,” Schmidt said. “It’s an exhibit of sculptures on every corner throughout downtown. They rotate every year, so every year we have new sculptures. At the end of the year, they are purchased by local businesses.”

Art lovers can also peruse a number of galleries downtown. One of the most popular, Prairie Star Gallery, presents artwork in the Native American tradition created by local artists and craftsmen from a number of different tribes. The gallery is another popular stop on many group tour itineraries.

The city’s biggest arts attraction is Washington Pavilion, a multiuse facility that combines an 1,850-seat theater with a visual arts center and science museum.

“We’re a one-of-a-kind facility in the country,” said president and CEO Larry Toll. “We’re in a repurposed high school in the heart of downtown. The visual arts center has access to some really great shows. We just concluded a show about Norman Rockwell, and this summer, we’re going to have a group of pieces from the Andy Warhol Museum.”

The theater at Washington Pavilion offers a season of travel plays, musicals, concerts and other performances. Highlights from the past season included Garrison Keillor, a number of touring Broadway shows and a dance performance. Each year on Labor Day weekend, the pavilion also hosts an event called Sidewalk Arts, closing surrounding roads to traffic to create a fine-arts street market with vendors from around the country.

Summer full of Fun
In addition to Sidewalk Arts, a number of other special events throughout the summer tourism season present opportunities for groups to catch some excitement during their visit to Sioux Falls. Perhaps the largest event is JazzFest, a free event over a three-day weekend in July that attracts around 100,000 people for great musical performances.

In late June, Automania fills downtown with hundreds of classic muscle cars, hot rods and other beautiful street machines, along with a dose of feel-good rock ’n’ roll music. German Fest and the Festival of Cultures both bring an international flair to Falls Park complete with foreign foods and traditional music. And in September, the Spirit of the West Festival is a heritage event that features Western performers, chuck-wagon-cooking competitions, trail rides, and cowboy art and apparel vendors.

A local motorcycle dealer with a passion for tourism created another great July event: Hot Harley Nights.

“He wanted to make Sioux Falls a destination for Harley riders,” Schmidt said. “Harley riders come in from all over the country, and there’s a parade that goes for about five and a half miles. They end up downtown at Falls Park, and there’s music and food everywhere. It’s become a fabulous, growing annual event.”

On the back of a horse, the top of a “hog” or the front seat of a ’57 Chevy, the longtime migration to this falls city continues.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.