We drove for hours and hours, through a flat landscape that felt like the furthest point from civilisation. Just a long straight road, a speed limit of 80 mph (129 km/h), and our 4 wheels. It seemed like the asphalt would never end.
The disappearing sun threw a dancing pattern of gold, amber and violet across the sky as it bid farewell. Night was encroaching.
In the distance a blurry mirage peeked over the horizon.
Soon I realised the mirage was real. And a glittering city lifted out of the apparent nothingness. Getting closer, it was much larger than I expected. This sea of lights was Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota.
Best Place To Stay
While in Sioux Falls we stayed at the TownePlace Suites South. It’s a brand new hotel located at the southern end the city. It was close enough to be able to maneuverer around the city easily and far enough away to be spacious and quiet. The fully equipped kitchen and dining table in our suite made it feel more like home than a hotel room.
The 1 Thing You Must Do
If you are fortunate enough to be in South Dakota during December (or around Valentine’s Day) then you are in luck. It doesn’t happen every day, but if you time your trip right and make an advanced booking you can see something rare and beautiful.
Sioux Falls invited us to take a Twilight Flight at the Strawbale Winery. During winter the city lights up especially bright with a Winter Wonderland at Falls Park and the best way to see it is from above.
The Strawbale Winery was a short drive north of the centre of Sioux Falls. They promised heavy appetizers with the flight, but we found sufficient food for a decent dinner. Arrive early and indulge in meatballs, chicken wings, kielbasa, pasta, cheese and crackers and so much more. Pair it with a wine tasting to really top it off. I tried beautiful flavoured wines like Sweet Pear and Blackcurrant, but my favourite was the Sweet Cranberry.
The helicopter flights are scheduled in advance so when it is your turn a friendly team member will come and get you. You can fit 3 people onto a flight so I sacrificed my position for my kids who had never been in a helicopter before. I figured it wasn’t much of a sacrifice with the beautiful warm winery, delicious food and sweet wine to keep me company.
We carefully made our way through the mud to a patch of grass where the helicopter waited. I watched my husband and kids load into the helicopter. Josh opted to take the front passenger door off so he could better capture the views on camera. The spinning rotor roared to life and the helicopter lifted off as I raced back into the warmth of the cosy bar.
Josh described the views over Sioux Falls at dusk as sublime. The pilot, Josh and our kids could communicate via a headset and microphone. Both children had their noses firmly pressed against the back seat windows the entire journey while Josh snapped away from the front seat. Surprisingly, without the door it wasn’t as cold as Josh expected.
The Christmas lights at Falls Park was the highlight, but the entire town was just as beautiful. Before I knew it, the helicopter was landing again and my clan jumped out with beaming smiles splashed on their faces.
Josh and the kids were all a twitter about their journey. And despite being on their very first helicopter ride, the kids’ were quickly distracted by the assortment of indulgent home made desserts - cakes, chocolates, blackcurrant cheesecake shots, oh my! The food was fit for a fine dining restaurant.
Twilight Flights sell out fast so if you are looking for something special during your trip to South Dakota, then book early.
Prices: US$235 for 2 passengers and $270 for 3.
6 More Things To Do In Sioux Falls With Kids
So what else should you get up to with your family while in Sioux Falls? Here’s our 6 favourite kid-friendly activities:
Falls Park winds along the city’s namesake Sioux River, covering 123 acres. The famous falls, situated in the middle of the park, sends an average of 7,400 galloons over a 100-foot drop every second.
The park was perfect for a scooter ride (or walk) to admire the falls. Josh also scaled the 50-foot observation tower in the visitors centre for spectacular panoramic views of the whole park.
Rug up if you’re visiting in winter as it can get pretty chilly, but regardless, it still makes for a beautiful stroll.
This was one of our kids’ favourites. It’s a joint project between South Dakota’s Department of Game, Fish and Parks and the City of Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation Department.
In the summer you can enjoy an outdoor museum which includes a 3,000-galloon aquarium, 2 miles of walking trails and classes like fishing, archery and more.
As the weather was very cool the day we went we spent our time indoors doing outdoor activities. The indoor play area includes camping equipment, kayaks, and hands-on educational displays. The kids spent a good couple of hours enjoying outdoor life. In the end we had to bribe them out of there.
Outdoor Campus also had a couple animals located indoors, which we learnt about from seasoned specialists.
Towards the end of our visit we sat down for a camping cooking class, creating a South Dakota delicacy. Sunshine In A Cloud might not be my idea of a well-balanced meal, combining graham crackers, whipped cream, and peaches, but the kids thought it was fabulous.
This building was quite the surprise in little ol’ Sioux Falls. Inside this re-purposed school building made from rose quartzite (one of the strongest known natural substances), is an extensive science centre, arts centre and theatre.
We spent the majority of our time in the Kirby Science Discovery Center. It offers over 100 interactive exhibits across 3 floors, providing hours of educational fun for the kids. They especially loved the interactive science shows sprinkled throughout the day. I can see why over 80,000 visitors per year are drawn here.
Set aside at least 3 hours to spend a the discovery centre, because your ticket also includes a movie at the Wells Fargo CineDome Theatre. A giant dome screen took us into the Pacific Ocean’s depths with James Cameron’s record-setting deep-sea challenge.
We’ve been to plenty of zoos around the world and the Great Plains zoo is pretty awesome, especially considering the size of the city. The zoo houses over 1000 animals from anteaters to zebras across 45 acres.
Our favourite display was the indoor viewing area for primates. Those monkeys were hilarious! I could watch them all day.
Part of the zoo is an indoor display of 38 “vanishing species”. It’s a great spot to warm up on those cold, rainy days, and just as enjoyable as seeing the real live animals outside.
While we were there a visiting exhibition called “Here Be Dragons” was on-location, and for a small extra fee we got to see real life dragons (lizards), and learn about dragons throughout history. Our kids’ favourite exhibit was a hands-on catapult game.
For us Australians who grew up on the beach we can often take marine life for granted. For South Dakota’s children who are nowhere near the ocean or Great Lakes, the Marine Cove is a special treat.
While it isn’t the largest aquarium we’ve been to by far, we appreciate the significant window to the sea it offers for those living in a landlocked state. The exhibits are being regularly expanded, with a new display of Caribbean sea life opening soon
800 brightly coloured butterflies fly freely within the lush tropical conservatory. You can’t help but feel peaceful strolling amongst these gorgeous, delicate creatures. And the cocoon displays are a fun way for kids to learn about the caterpillar’s lifecycle. The best time to visit is between 9am and 1pm when the butterflies are most active.
A neat feature of this facility is the Reading Room where all ages are invited to grab a book and get comfy. In addition to the wide array of books, the colourful room contains several animal exhibits and a free screening of an animated children’s DVD created in-house.
Tip: Membership options are available so locals can make use of the butterfly house, marine cove and reading room all year round.
You’ve seen these reality shows on TV and this one is no different. A big, black warehouse full of goods for sale. In fact there’s 70,000 square feet of space containing a fully functioning rock radio station, TV network, tattoo shop and deli. This place even comes complete with a gun shop and firing range.
Each week live concerts are held in-house, attracting world-class rockers.
You’ll notice the warning signs as you walk in that you may be filmed for the TV show. So enjoy the peculiar characters, the radio, and the merchandise, but what you really want to see in this store is the $1 million dollar gold bar display sitting behind bulletproof glass. It’s the only place in the country where you’ll see this much gold in one spot. Think about the caption you’ll use for that selfie!
We only spent 3 days in Sioux Falls, South Dakota on our #motherofallroadtrips because of a tight driving schedule. But we could have easily stayed longer. If you’re taking a family road trip to South Dakota’s Mount Rushmore, then make sure you save a few days for Sioux Falls. And if you’re lucky enough to be in town during December, a Twilight Flight might just be the highlight of your vacation.