As our travel focus remains close to home, many are wondering where in the U.S. they can visit that offers safe, new experiences. South Dakota seldom comes to mind – and that’s a shame, as the city of Sioux Falls is a delightful mid-sized destination for travelers seeking a socially-distanced getaway. The crowning gem of the region is arguably Falls Park, right in the center of the city. With an enticing mix of history, natural diversity, and monuments, this 123-acre preserve is the perfect spot for a picnic, a long afternoon exploration, or a fun photo shoot.
History and features of Falls Park
Originally the domain of indigenous tribes, Falls Park was introduced to Europeans in the 1800s. Following the incorporation of Sioux Falls in 1856, the Falls became the center of both industry and recreation – focused mainly on the Queen Bee Mill, though other buildings and structures appeared later in the 20th century. Here’s a look at what brought Falls Park to life:
Queen Bee Mill
Local visionary Richard Pettigrew facilitated the building of Queen Bee Mill on the site of the park back in 1878 to spare local farmers the expense and hardship of shipping their grains to Minnesota or Wisconsin for milling. Nearly $500,000 (close to $20 million in modern currency) was spent on the mill and its adjoining buildings, opening to the public in 1881. Sadly, the mill lasted only two years, closing due to a bushel of problems. The excitement surrounding the mill’s construction brought heaps of attention to the Falls and the surrounding area, however.
Some relics from the mill’s heyday remain, repurposed for resident and visitor exploration. The millrace, for instance – the channel that directed water flow to the mill for power – has been converted to a viewing platform.
Light and Power Company Building
Other major facilities and buildings joined the mill near the Falls, including the Light and Power Company building, erected in 1908. This was critical to industrial operations in the area, though unlike the mill, it continued operation until the 1970s when it was donated to the city and remodeled as a café.
North of the Falls lies a mysterious horse barn – a building whose provenance is unknown. Some have theorized that it served miners who worked in the quarries, though this hasn’t been confirmed. By the late 1990s, the Horse Barn had been converted into an art gallery and now serves as an agriculture “exposition” space where the region’s agricultural history is explained via exhibits and artifacts.
Caption: An aerial view of Falls Park, including the Light and Power Company building, Queen Bee Mill, and Big Sioux River. (Source: Shutterstock / photo.eccles)
What to do/see at Falls Park
Exploring the many corners of Falls Park without an agenda is enjoyable in its own right, but there are several specific activities you can engage that might make your experience more enjoyable. For instance:
- Visit the farmers’ market at Falls Park Open Air Shelter. Open every Saturday, May through October, this market offers everything for the locavore foodie – including apples, berries, gourds, meats, breads, and crafty items like soaps and seasonal decorations.
- Grab a bite at Falls Overlook Café. Once the Light and Power Company building, this remodeled gem features a sprawling outdoor patio and light-soaked interior with ample views of the Big Sioux River and Falls Park. Pizza is tops on the menu, but you can tuck into a hearty panini, BLT, or nachos, too. Save room for ice cream – it comes from local fave Stensland Ice Cream.
- Capture the rushing water of Big Sioux River on film. Bisecting Falls Park is the gushing Big Sioux River, tripping over falls as it makes its way south until it joins the Missouri River. This is the city’s namesake, and for good reason – with the surrounding natural landscape, the rushing river is a captivating scene for photographers and videographers alike.
- Walk, run, or bike along The River Greenway. Starting in Falls Park, The River Greenway stretches for 29 miles, looping around the city. The trails are well-maintained – even in winter – so you can enjoy them any time of year. Bikes are available for rental nearby; visit The River Greenway link above for more information.
- Admire the sculptures. Several permanent sculptures dot Falls Park, showcasing both classic and avant-garde-styles. These include an homage to the American farmer, a 12-ton granite sculpture titled “Monarch of the Plains,” a children’s wall, and many others. Rotating SculptureWalk pieces are also featured, adding to the diversity of the monument collection.
- Celebrate the season during Winter Wonderland. From mid-November to mid-January every year, Falls Park is decorated to the hilt with more than 350,000 lights, 270 ornamented trees, dozens of wreaths, and other festive fixtures. There’s no better time to see the center of Sioux Falls lit up in the spirit of Christmas.
For more information about what to see and do when at Falls Park, visit Sioux Fall’s tourism website.