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Over two days, a native South Dakotan explores two familiar areas for the first time.
Those who know me, know I love South Dakota (and even if you don’t know me, you can tell just by looking at my Instagram page; I’m a little obsessed). I’ve been to every corner of the state, from Faith to Jefferson and everywhere in between. I’m happy to call both Sioux Falls and Rochford (two very different places) my home and I’ve spent way too many hours driving on back country roads. That being said, I have never really taken the time to see it through the eyes of a visitor, so I decided to take a few days to see the place I call home from a different perspective. I chose to become a full-fledged tourist, giant camera and all, in two areas I thought I knew a lot about: Vermillion and Yankton.
Day 1: Vermillion
As I drove into Vermillion, I was greeted by some typical South Dakota charm. A couple cafés to my right, a park or two to my left, but what is most peculiar about Vermillion, is that on this day, there were people everywhere! No kidding! Vermillion is home to the University of South Dakota and I arrived during the first week of fall classes. Students were showing off their red everywhere you looked, and, being a former USD Coyote myself, it brought back some great memories. I managed to navigate through the crowds of people and made it to Main Street where I made my first stop at Silk Road, an Asian-style eatery that sits in the heart of downtown Vermillion. You may think it’s difficult to find authentic Asian cuisine in South Dakota, but that is where you’re mistaken. Silk Road’s menu offers everything from your typical General Tso’s chicken to your not-so-typical Bi Bim Bop, an authentic Korean dish. For simplicity’s sake, I enjoyed their lunch buffet, which allowed me to try a variety of spectacular food.
After lunch, I spent some time exploring the campus of the University of South Dakota, where I spent countless hours as a student but never really took the time to look around. Beautiful does not even begin to describe it. Old Main, the crown jewel of the campus, was built in 1883 and it’s been watching over the campus ever since. More modern buildings like The Munster University Center (the MUC) and the Beacom School of Business, prove that the University is not only striving to hold onto its glorious traditions but also growing to accommodate a more modern style of education.
After a little bit of reminiscing, I found myself back on Main Street, this time for a quick cup of coffee. Café Brule has become a staple of the Vermillion culinary scene with their eclectic menu, unique coffees, and vibrant, fun atmosphere. The team at Brule has mastered the art of comfort food and there is a reason they are often packed during breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their muffaletta with a side of mashed potatoes is to die for and be sure to try their signature Café Brule specialty coffee.
After a little pick-me-up, I then toured the National Music Museum. Home to more than 15,000 beautiful instruments, the museum is located on the USD campus. Upon walking inside, I was immediately struck with amazement at how many instruments and musical artifacts surrounded me. From bass guitars to bassoons and Stradivaris to Fenders, you cannot believe all the history this museum holds. Personally, I was a huge fan of the acoustic guitar room on the main floor; but there are many other marvels to be found, including a violin constructed by Antonio Stradivari in the late 17th century.
As the sun began to get lower in the sky, I made a few more stops before heading to dinner. Once again on Vermillion’s Main Street, I popped into Valiant Vineyards, where not only can you get a fresh taste of South Dakota wine, you can also have some of the most amazing views in the eastern part of the state from one of their two balconies. The winery perfectly combines the traditions of South Dakota with the upscale style you’re likely to find at many west coast wineries.
On the eastern side of Vermillion, I took a brief walk through beautiful Prentis Park. The park is perfectly situated between USD’s campus and Vermillion High School and is a great spot for all sorts of recreation. Jungle gyms, basketball courts and baseball diamonds, a large swimming pool, and a Frisbee golf course provide locals and visitors with a variety of activities to choose from. Also, the amphitheater in the southernmost part of the park is home to the annual South Dakota Shakespeare Festival.
With the day quickly coming toward an end, I head to dinner at one of Vermillion’s finest restaurants, RED Steakhouse. The restaurant towers over the middle of downtown in the historic First National Bank and Trust building. Designed with formal tableware, marvelous chandeliers, and wonderful South Dakota artwork, RED provides a nearly perfect dining experience for any visitor. Though known for their steak, I instead chose to enjoy their “Darn Gouda Burger,” which was…well…darn good! The cuisine at Red has always been, in my opinion, some of the best in the state and I would absolutely recommend it while you’re in the area.
Before calling it a day, I make one more quick stop at Spirit Mound Historic Prairie which is one the areas in the state where historians are sure that the Lewis and Clark Expedition stopped during their exploration across the plains.
Day 2: Yankton
On the second day of my adventure, I traveled just a little farther west to the growing community of Yankton. The city is known for being a beautiful lake and riverfront town and (what a lot of people don’t actually know) the first capital of South Dakota. I was in Yankton just a few days prior for their annual Riverboat Days, which is sort of like a weekend fair for the community of Yankton to celebrate on the river and partake in a plethora of annual events. It was so fun to see the city nearly overflowing with people, all of whom seemed to be having an awesome time!
I grabbed a quick bite before getting to the fun. I stopped into Muggsy’s Sub Galley, which, for a New England Patriots fan such as myself, was like stepping into heaven. The walls were covered in red and white Pats décor as well as a multitude of other sports and South Dakota memorabilia. The online reviews of this place promised me it would be wonderful and that was definitely the truth. I had their Italian sub and it was one of the freshest (and most affordable) sandwiches I’ve had in a long time. A perfect stop to grab a quick meal before you head to the river.
After lunch, I headed south toward the Meridian Highway Bridge, which at one point was a double decker bridge that connected South Dakota and Nebraska over the Missouri River. Exactly 84 years after the bridge opened, it was closed due to safety issues and a new bridge was built just to the west. The Meridian Bridge now serves as a pedestrian walking and biking bridge. One of the coolest parts of walking the bridge wasn’t necessarily the amazing view of the river below, but instead, the hundreds of “love locks” attached to the fencing on the sides of the bridge.
After getting in my daily exercise by walking the length of the bridge and back, I made my way toward downtown and some of the historical areas of the town. Since Yankton was the first capital of South Dakota, there is quite a bit of history tucked into the central part of town. Spectacular Victorian-style homes line many of the streets and catch your eye with their large porches, high peaks and, in some cases, magnificent watchtowers. On the corner of 4th and Capital Street, you can find a historical marker that tells the story of how the Capitol building of South Dakota once sat upon this spot.
Downtown Yankton is filled with history and culture. Modern art and sculptures are placed upon many of the street corners and there are dozens of funky shops and restaurants. Yankton has an awesome contemporary feel perfectly mixed with historic South Dakota tradition.
After hanging out by the river for most of the afternoon, I ventured toward Lewis and Clark Lake. On my way, I stopped at Gavin’s Point Fish Hatchery and Aquarium. The quaint aquarium sits just next to Gavins Point Dam and has nearly every species of fish, turtle and frog that live in or near Lewis and Clark Lake. A perfect stop for anyone who wants to know more about the lake or any youngster who loves getting up close and personal with a two-foot long catfish.
It was a bit of a windy Wednesday afternoon, so there were not too many fishing boats out on the lake as there usually are, but it was a perfect day for sailing and the sail boats were out in full force. Lewis and Clark Lake is one of the biggest lakes in the state (created by the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River). It spans more than 30,000 acres so it’s a perfect lake for fishing, sailing, water skiing or just relaxing on one of the beaches. There are also multiple campgrounds around the lake that allow visitors to really experience the nature and beauty of the area while they are visiting. And, if camping isn’t quite your style, the Lewis and Clark Resort offers many two- and three-bedroom cabins to rent near the lake. The resort is also home to a beautiful 4,000-square-foot lodge that is perfect for retreats and weddings.
After walking around the marina for a little while longer and seeing the hundreds of boats packed away in their individual slots, nearly ready to be taken out of the water before the cold of fall sets in, I decided to make my way back into town. I headed over to Riverside Park, which is, as its name would suggest, just off the Missouri River. The park is one of the prettiest spots in town. There are boats cruising past on the river, people playing fetch with their dogs, and kids running around the jungle gyms.
Just north of the park is one of Yankton’s newer restaurants, The Landing. Their biggest claim to fame is that they have the largest beer selection in all of South Dakota, so obviously I was very happy. The restaurant sits about 100 yards away from the Missouri River so the views from their large patio are pretty extraordinary. They also have a wonderful interior with a giant wine wall. Next door to the restaurant is the Excelsior Mill, built in 1872, which the owners have transformed into a very cool, very spacious event space. For dinner I enjoyed their Wednesday night special, which was to create your own pasta dish. My creation was incredibly flavorful and a perfect cap to the day.
I left Yankton just as the sun was setting on the Missouri River, which created a breathtaking view. That view, in and of itself, is a great reason why Yankton continues to grow and why it would be a perfect place to spend a weekend…or two.