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5 Genuine Gems in Southeast South Dakota

5 Genuine Gems in Southeast South Dakota


avatar   Stacy
Trip Date 07/28/2020
Posted On 09/19/2020 09:30:00

Destinations | Camping | South Dakota | Garretson | Mitchell | Sioux Falls | Falls Park | Palisades State Park | Split Rock Park | Devil's Gulch | Jesse James | Corn Palace | Chamberlain Rest Area | Destiny



The most talked about tourist destinations in South Dakota are all west of the Missouri River. However, there's much more to see than Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, Crazy Horse and Badlands National Park! Unfortunately, so many people traveling cross-country miss out on some unique and really cool gems. To be honest, our stop in Garretson was initially reserved solely for our convenience.

We spent more time planning our two weeks in South Dakota than is typical for us. We wanted to make sure that we found great sightseeing stops for each and every day. During the past three years, it has always just been the two of us camping in our RV. For the first time ever, we had family (Scott's brother and sister-in-law) join us for this part of our road trip.

The journey from Kansas City to the Black Hills was just too long for a single day. Garretson happened to be at about the half-way point, perfect for a driving break. The more research that we did, the more convinced we were that we had made an awesome choice!

To get a taste of the region, we reserved the first two nights for the four of us at Palisades State Park. Nearby local parks, Split Rock Park and Devil's Gulch, allegedly have ties to Jesse James. The unique local legends plus the intriguing rock formations thought to be over a billion (yes, billion with a "b") years old make them both gems worthy of a visit. Falls Park in the nearby "big city" of Sioux Falls is an easy addition - either before checking in for camping or as a day trip for those with more time.

With just a short detour, all who are headed to the Black Hills will pass right by another of the state's popular tourist attractions. No matter the season, there's something fun to see at The World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell.

These five gems range in age from over a hundred years to over a billion years. To complement these "older" sites, plan for a restroom break as you continue toward the Black Hills at the Chamberlain Rest Area. It is there where you can see Destiny, a new sculpture that is gaining in notoriety with each and every visitor. This article will give you an introduction to and some photos of each of these gems, all aimed at enticing you to add them to your itinerary!

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1. Falls Park

As the namesake for Sioux Falls, the Falls of the Big Sioux River are a must-see for anyone visiting the area. With a total of 123 acres, Falls Park is located at North Phillips Avenue and Falls Park Drive.


Entering Falls Park on the Big Sioux River

Entering Falls Park on the Big Sioux River

With water flowing over, around and through the craggy pink-hued quartzite rock, the falls are unlike any other. Just steps away from the city's downtown streets, pick your favorite spot on the rocks, the walking path or atop one of several viewing platforms. You'll surely be mesmerized not only from the soothing sounds of the falling water, but from their sheer beauty as well.


Falls of the Big Sioux River

Falls of the Big Sioux River

Exploring Falls Park

Exploring Falls Park

You Can Almost Hear the Water Falling!

You Can Almost Hear the Water Falling!

In addition to witnessing the falls that have been flowing since long before the 1856 founding of the city, those that have additional time have plenty of options. Exploring more of the river can be done on foot (walking or jogging), bike or rollerblades on the almost 20-miles of paved trails. Some of the oldest buildings in the city are in the area including the ruins of the Queen Bee Flour Mill.


Queen Bee Flour Mill at Falls Park

Queen Bee Flour Mill at Falls Park

Old Hydroelectric Power Supply for Mill Operations

Old Hydroelectric Power Supply for Mill Operations

Falls Park from a Viewing Platform

Falls Park from a Viewing Platform

Today's Falls Overlook Café was once the city's Light and Power Company Building. There are both permanent and rotating sculptures located throughout the park. Monarch of the Plains was sculpted from a single piece of mahogany granite tipping the scales at 12-tons!


Monarch of the Plains

Monarch of the Plains

There's no charge to climb the five story Observation Tower for a bird's-eye view of the falls and the city. The folks at the Visitor Information Center (open most days of the year) in the same building can help those with even more time by providing ideas of what to see around the city.

Parking Tip for RVers: If, like us, you prefer to see Falls Park on your way to your campsite, you may be in luck! When NOT open for business, look for a space in the Farmer's Market parking lot. The market, located across Falls Park Dr. from the park, is open each Saturday until 1:00 PM from May through October. (We arrived on a Sunday afternoon in July and the lot was virtually empty.)

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2. Devil's Gulch

It's history, legend and nature that make a trip to Devil's Gulch Park (free entrance) so exciting. Jesse James and gang attempted a bank robbery in Northfield, Minnesota in September 1876. Jesse and his brother Frank James escaped on horseback and made their way to Split Rock Creek with the sheriff's posse on their tail. Legend says that the stolen horse successfully jumped over the nearly 20-foot wide Devil's Gulch to help the gang members escape the law!


Devil's Gulch

Devil's Gulch

A hike along the trail is the perfect way to determine whether or not you believe the legend. The trail starts at the Jesse James Bridge, a footbridge with a view of the gulch. Could the horse on which Jesse James was riding have jumped across the gulch and landed safely on the other side?


Jesse James Bridge (& Trailhead) over the Gulch

Jesse James Bridge (& Trailhead) over the Gulch

Continuing along the trail, you'll find amazing views of the natural beauty within the park - both from up above and down below. Towering high, the quartzite rock formations flank the gulch. Catch your first glimpse of the partially obstructed Devil's Falls as it peaks out. Continuing along the trail, you'll get a more complete view as you head toward Devil's Stairway.


Devil's Falls Peaking Out in the Distance

Devil's Falls Peaking Out in the Distance

Hiking toward Devil's Stairway

Hiking toward Devil's Stairway

Devil's Falls

Devil's Falls

From the Jesse James Bridge, the trail passes ten markers. Most are easy to spot along the way. Parts of the hike do require scrambling on some rocks. The hike includes both uphill and downhill sections and crosses a second footbridge.


Gulch with a Footbridge in the Distance

Gulch with a Footbridge in the Distance

Hiker's Tip: Download to a smartphone or print-out the 10-point Devils Gulch Hiking Tour. As you hike the trail, you can easily read about each point of interest along the way.

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3. Palisades State Park

Popular with campers, rock-climbers, hikers, kayakers, photographers and sometimes even white-water rafters, Palisades State Park is best known for its unique geological features. Split Rock Creek meanders through the park between tall cliffs formed of quartzite. Amazingly, the cliffs (some as tall as 50 feet) were formed naturally and are estimated to be over 1 billion years old.


View of Split Rock River from Truss Bridge

View of Split Rock River from Truss Bridge

At just over 150 acres, the park is among the smallest in the state. What it doesn't have in size is made up for in diversity. Crossing the 1908 truss bridge takes visitors from the campground east of the river to the more rocky western side.


Truss Bridge in Palisades State Park

Truss Bridge in Palisades State Park

Trails take walkers and hikers over the quartzite, through the woods and beside the river to unforgettable viewpoints. Although jumping from the rocks is highly discouraged on signage throughout the area, we did see people taking this route to cool off.


Taking a Walk on the Quartzite Cliffs

Taking a Walk on the Quartzite Cliffs

These Cliffs Weren't Made for Walking!

These Cliffs Weren't Made for Walking!

Hiking (and Climbing) on the South Wall Trail

Hiking (and Climbing) on the South Wall Trail

While difficult to see, the rare mineral catlinite can also be found in the park. More commonly known as pipestone, Native Americans made peace pipes out of the mineral found in the park.

Money Saving Tip: If you plan to visit additional state parks during your visit to South Dakota, consider buying an Annual Park Entrance License. Valid through the following May, the $36.00 pass covers the entrance fee for all passengers in the car at all South Dakota state parks, plus some other designated areas. (At $8.00 per vehicle per day for a two-night camping stay plus $20.00 for a week at Custer State Park, we broke even on our pass in our first few days in the state!)

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4. Split Rock Park

Although the quartzite rock in Split Rock Park (no entrance fee) is similar to that at other area parks, there's additional enticing draws that make the park worth a visit. Still standing structures built in the 1930s by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) include bridges, a dam and an old bathhouse. All created from stone native to the area, the dam forms a small waterfall and the bathhouse is now a museum and snack shop.


WPA Built Bridge in Split Rock Park

WPA Built Bridge in Split Rock Park

Waterfall at Split Rock Park

Waterfall at Split Rock Park

Enjoying the park's beauty can be as simple as bird watching or taking in the scenery from one of the many benches. More active options include hiking, canoeing or kayaking, fishing or even swimming. A limited number of primitive tent sites and small RV sites with electric are also available.


Enjoying the WPA Built Dam and Waterfall

Enjoying the WPA Built Dam and Waterfall

According to local legend, it was in a cave alongside the Split Rock River where brothers Frank and Jesse James hid out in that September of 1876. Following the James gang's unsuccessful Minnesota bank robbery, the brothers were the only two to escape. After crossing the river on horseback and finding a cave where they could hole up, it is said that they got help from a nearby farmer who supplied them with food and other necessities.

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Tip for Finding Jesse James' Hideaway: The land in which the hideaway cave is located is now privately owned. Unfortunately, there is currently no public access to the cave. If you'd like to get as close as possible to this unique piece of history, you may be in luck!

Join a 45 minute pontoon ride with Captain Bruce Rekstad at the helm ($10.00 per person; cash only). Several times daily during the summer, the U. S. S. Jesse James sails along the Split Rock River from the park to the Jesse James Cave and back. As you navigate through the rock canyons, you'll learn more about the history and geology, and may even see some wildlife along the way. Reservations can be made by calling the captain directly at (605) 594-2225 or (605) 323-5031.


U. S. S. Jesse James

U. S. S. Jesse James

Amazing Riverside Quartzsite Rock

Amazing Riverside Quartzsite Rock

Floating on the Split Rock River

Floating on the Split Rock River

Where is that Cave where Frank & Jesse James Hid?

Where is that Cave where Frank & Jesse James Hid?

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5. The World's Only Corn Palace

The city of Mitchell, South Dakota is best known for The World's Only Corn Palace. Believe it or not, today's building is the third in the city! Due to continuing rises in popularity, the first two were outgrown.

The first palace was built in 1892 and today's structure, completed in 1921, is nearing it's 100th birthday. The community tradition known as the Corn Palace Festival, last celebrated in late August 2020, is now nearing 130 consecutive years.


The World's Only Corn Palace

The World's Only Corn Palace

Today's building is much larger with more functionality. During it's first year, a boy's state basketball tournament was hosted. The Corn Palace continues to host basketball games and has also been the home of dances, graduations, proms, exhibits, performances and much more.


Corn, Corn Everywhere!

Corn, Corn Everywhere!

Basketball Court doubles as a Gift and Souvenir Shop

Basketball Court doubles as a Gift and Souvenir Shop

In addition to learning the history of the palace, we learned some fun facts by watching a short introductory video. The corn murals which adorn the building are changed every year at a cost of about $130,000 annually. The process starts with agreeing on a theme for the upcoming year. Before removing the prior year's murals, new designs are created. Shortly after the annual festival, the old murals are removed. In about two months, each ear of corn is halved lengthwise and then nailed into place. Today, twelve natural colors of corn plus rye and other grasses are used to complete the murals by early October.


Annual Theme: South Dakota Homegrown

Annual Theme: South Dakota Homegrown

Celebrating 100 Years in 2021

Celebrating 100 Years in 2021

Parking Tip for RVers: There is a large parking lot with space for RVs between North Kimball Street and North Lawler Street. The lot is located at the approximate point where East 8th Avenue would intersect the streets (GPS coordinates: 43.7167195, -98.0234595).

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Headed to Custer, South Dakota?

While this wraps up our recommended not to be missed gems in the southeastern quadrant of the state, if you're headed to Custer, we would be remiss if we didn't share one more stop.

Just one hour west of the Corn Palace, we stumbled upon the Chamberlain Rest Area. The timing was perfect as we needed a quick stretch and bathroom break. We immediately saw the imposing Dignity sculpture and knew that we should take a closer look.


Dignity of Earth and Sky

Dignity of Earth and Sky

A gift to the state from a local family, Dignity stands tall on a ridge over the Missouri River just off of Interstate 90 (where you would expect to see Exit 264). Dignity was sculpted to honor the state's Lakota and Dakota people during the year of South Dakota's 125th anniversary and forever more. Don't miss gazing at the back of her quilt - the blue diamond pattern is truly amazing.

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While at the rest area, make sure to walk along the paved walkways to both the Missouri River Overlook and the concrete tipi which is included on the National Register of Historic Places. If you have more time, we've heard that the free onsite Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center is also worth a visit.


Tipi, a Historical Symbol of South Dakota

Tipi, a Historical Symbol of South Dakota

Missouri River Overlook

Missouri River Overlook

Need a Place to Camp in Southeastern South Dakota?

We chose Palisades State Park for our first two nights of camping in South Dakota. In addition to 6 cabins and a group lodge which sleeps 12, the park has 34 campsites. While none have on-site water, all but 12 have 50-amp electric. The nearest dump station is at Devil's Gulch, about a 10 minute drive away.

We selected Site 18E, a back-in site on a paved and level parking pad. The site has an aluminum picnic table and a grated fire pit and was clean when we arrived. Tall trees provided shade as well as a separation from our site and the nearby creek.


Palisades State Park Campsite 18E

Palisades State Park Campsite 18E

Crockpot Shrimp Boil for Dinner at Palisades State Park

Crockpot Shrimp Boil for Dinner at Palisades State Park

Amenities at the park include playgrounds, hiking trails, a swimming area, a small amphitheater, vault toilets, a bathhouse and, of course, dumpsters. A variety of games are available for guests to check-out including volleyball, ladder ball, croquet, horse shoes, frisbee and even decks of cards. In addition to all that the park has to offer, seeing Devils Gulch, Split Rock Park and Sioux Falls can easily be done in one or two day trips.


Playground at Palisades State Park

Playground at Palisades State Park

We had a limited number of broadcast television stations available and our cell phone service through both Verizon and T- Mobile was good. While data service through Verizon was also good, T-Mobile's data service was extremely slow and only worked until my maximum roaming limit was reached.

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As we typically do, we walked around the entire camping loop to find our favorite sites. Should we return to Palisades State Park, we would try to reserve one of the following:

  • Directly across from the campground host, Site 29E is well shaded and fairly secluded. The picnic table sits on the parking pad which seemed level, and the fire pit is down a small hill in an area surrounded by a few trees.
  • Neighboring Sites 13E, 15E and 18E (our site) are well shaded with similar layouts (picnic table and grill positioned near the RV entry door; electric connections on the opposite side). With the creek beside, Site 18E, would be our first choice of the three.


    Creek Flowing by Site 18E

    Creek Flowing by Site 18E

  • Even though we weren't as happy with the layout (table and fire pit are on the same side as the electricity), Site 14E rounds out our favorites list. (If desired, the table should be able to be moved to sit behind a parked RV.)

Reservations for 1 - 14 nights (as well as site selection) can be completed online. Payment is due in full at the time that a reservation is made.

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Make the Most of a Visit to Custer State Park

Check back in the coming weeks for plenty of tips on how to make the most of a visit to Custer State Park. From the wildlife and the scenic drives to which sites to see and which hikes to take, we'll provide plenty of tips to help ensure that you leave with lasting memories. We'll also include plenty of photos to whet your appetite as you plan!

The Best of South Dakota

If you were to recommend 3 - 5 of the must see locations for any visit to South Dakota, what sites would be on your list?




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5 Genuine Gems in Southeast South Dakota







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