09/04/2012 07:47 am ET Updated Nov 29, 2012

The Sioux Falls Challenge (PHOTOS)

When I told people I was going to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, they rolled their eyes, mimed munching on corn kernels on a foot-long cob, or simply twisted their index fingers against their temples, suggesting that it was wacko to go there.

I took all of it as a challenge and eat your cobs out, naysayers, because here is what I found in the city or within easy driving distance:

1. In nearby Mitchell, the surprise is a 1,000-year old agricultural Mandan village. Archeologists have unearthed 80 lodges, 1.5 million artifacts and identified areas for cooking, butchering and making pottery; they uncovered root cellars and a special sleeping area of respect for the grandparents. The villagers snacked on pemmican cakes made from bone grease, dried meat and berries and had hundreds of dogs for pets and as hardy haulers.

2. At the Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove, evening activities include making "smurritos": fill a tortilla with chocolate chips, peanut butter and marshmallow. Wrap it in tin foil and cook over hot coals for one minute. Then walk through the aquarium and remember to wash your paws before you reach into the shark and stingray touching pool.

3. At the Delbridge Museum of Natural History, even if you have a horror of hunting, you will gawk in wonder at the 150 mounts that were brought back many decades ago by Henry Brockhouse. Want to pet a live possum, skink or boa as you look at Brockhouse's cache of 36 taxidermized, vanishing species? When was the last time you saw a stuffed giant eland or a ferocious stuffed leopard attacking an equally stuffed deer? And the adjacent Great Plains Zoo is so hands-on and interactive that your kids will beg to stay longer as they feed a live giraffe, ride a real camel or learn about 17 resident endangered species.

4. The Dakota Discovery Museum has a fabulous pictograph on cotton muslin that was executed on the Pine Ridge reservation about 1891. It depicts the Sioux war with the Crow Indians, and features multiple warrior societies; long, flowing headdresses; bows and arrows; rifles; one warrior being trampled by a horse and another being pierced with a spear. Nearby is a sheep wool robe that is woven to look like buffalo hair and a collection of paintings by Indian master artist Oscar Howe (1915-1983).

5. The Corn Palace in Mitchell is a masterpiece of living American folk art. The outside murals change every year and are crafted from about 275,000 ears of corn and bushels of native grasses. The first palace was built in 1892 to attract immigrant farmers and convince them the land was fertile and bountiful. Keep your ear open for corny jokes by your guide; what else would you expect in a town whose high school teams are the Kernels and the name of their yearbook is the Maize?

6. While you're in Mitchell, stop in at Einstein's, a store with over 100,000 costumes that go back to the 1890's. Owner Brenda Olesen even has her mother's fourth-grade dress, and points out a black honeymoon dress; in the days before deodorant, a dark dress hid telltale (nervous?) sweat stains.

7. Freeman is a town of 1300 souls, grain elevators, a couple of bars, a post office and a few odd stores. But you'll want to go during Schmeckfest in the spring when the local Mennonites -- Germans who lived in Russia and cherish their heritage -- serve home-made delicacies like dampffleish (stewed beef), grune schaubel suppe (green bean soup) and sweet kuchen. The Mennonites are incredibly buoyant, welcoming and friendly.

8. The Heritage Hall Museum in Freeman is like a thousand grandmas' attics. The locals kept everything from their lives in Russia right down to the present. My fave item was a washing machine powered by a goat on a treadmill, but the hornets' nests and 4,000-piece collection of brooches, buttons and campaign pins were nothing to sneeze at.

9. Ever heard of the Hutterites? These German Russians live a completely communal lifestyle with no private property. They wear traditional dress, men are separated from women in the dining hall and when the community grows to about 150 people, they branch out and start a new colony.

10. You may have been to a rodeo with perilous bull riding and exciting barrel racing, but have you ever seen mutton bustin' by riders that are as young as four? It's an annual fundraiser for the McCrossan Boys' Ranch, and it's called an Extreme Challenge Rodeo. It's got all the thrills of the adult riders, and the tender moments when little ones in helmets go sliding off sheep.

11. The Center for Western Studies at Augustana College has a Scandinavian room from about 1900, including artifacts that were brought by early settlers. Of special interest is the Fantle family trunk. Apparently, when the family sailed to the U.S., there was some pretty poor planning and the ship ran out of victuals. Passengers and crew were starving to death. The Fantles opened their trunk, shared their private stores and saved everyone on board.

12. The Prairie Star Gallery in downtown Sioux Falls has art by 1,000 South Dakota native families, and the owners are very knowledgeable about the state's Lakota, Dakota and Nakota tribes.

13. In the summertime, go down to the picturesque Falls that gave the town its name and be treated to a sound and light show which tells the history of the burg through cartoon-like laser animation.

14. If sweet vino and rolling prairie vistas make you smile, you'll be sipping strawberry rhubarb, blackcurrent and dandelion wines during your visit. Wine production was banned in South Dakota until 1996, and they are making up for lost time. The Wilde Prairie Winery uses dry farming techniques and the owners fill each of the bottles by hand. The Schade Vineyard has wine from 12 different growers and provides all the wine for the Iditarod races in Alaska. Their beet wine is among their most unusual offerings. And the Strawbale Winery is the greenest in South Dakota with straw bale construction, a lot of recycling, Adirondack chairs on the lawn and a jalapeno wine with a real kick. In the summer, they have a summer porch series with live music, food and laid back, local fun.

15. In Brookings, they've been serving up burgers since 1929 at Nick's Hamburger shop. The early burgers cost a nickel, but today, with burger-flation, they sell for $1.48. I am not a burger eater, but I heard stories of hamburgers fried in oil, a lot of happy bellies... and a few growlers.

For more information about Sioux Falls, and to plan your own visit:

Judith Fein is an award-winning travel writer who has contributed to more than 100 publications. She gives travel talks, makes videos with her photojournalist husband Paul Ross, and is the author of LIFE IS A TRIP: The Transformative Magic of Travel. Her website is

Cool Sioux Falls