Exploring the Parks and Nature Areas Around Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls has 76 named parks throughout the city that range from small sites suitable for neighborhood gatherings and playgrounds to large well developed nature centers such as Great Bear Recreational Park, Arrowhead Park, the Wegner Arboretum and East Sioux Falls Historical Site, and the linked park system along the Big Sioux River. The state provides outdoor recreation areas and state parks including the Big Sioux Recreation Area, Beaver Creek Nature Area, Lake Alvin Recreation Area, Newton Hills State Park, and the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls that is a joint city/state operation.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Big Sioux Recreation Area - Valley of The Giants: First Day of Winter

Dry conditions and warmer than normal temperatures continue to dominate this part of the northern plains, and we have taken walks in nature areas nearly each day. If the temperature is 30 degrees and there is no snow on the ground, hiking seems so much more preferable than going to a gym.
Today we returned to the Big Sioux Recreation Area for a hike along the Valley of the Giants trail. We began at the gazebo and entered the woods along a trail that parallels the Big Sioux River, leading from the heights down to the bottomland along the flood plain. We were surprised to find that there are still some green plants in the depths of the woodland.
Some of the bare trees along the way are quite interesting in silhouette, trees that might well pass unnoticed if leafed out.
There was intermittent sun appearing through the cloud cover that reflected off the river.
This walk allowed an opportunity to stroll along the shoreline on a beach that alternated from dried out mud flats to sandy stretches. Downed tree trunks that might be strainers during times of higher water extended across sections of the river flow.
We had a great time moving along the pathway and along the river bank. Taking these walks on December 21, the first day of winter and the longest day of the year, is a special seasonal gift that appears only rarely in this climate.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Outdoor Campus: an Oxbow of the Big Sioux River: Early Winter

Today was another day without snow in Sioux Falls, and I decided to visit the Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls and take a walk along the well-tended trails in this little oasis of nature that is near the most congested part of the city.
The Outdoor Campus is located between 57th and 49th Streets adjacent to Sertoma Park and the Butterfly House. The Empire Mall is nearby as well as the heavy business activity along 41st Street. The campus is located along an oxbow of the Big Sioux River in a nature center featuring native grasses, a variety of trees, and lots of bird life.
A hike around the campus begins at the rear of the campus building, along a path through the butterfly garden that leads to a bridge over the oxbow. The oxbow is a swamp-like body of nearly motionless water, a closed segment of the Big Sioux River. Many birds frequent this oxbow near the bridge, including both perching birds and waterfowl. Lots of turtles can also be seen on warm sunny days.
Once over the bridge, the “Prairie” trail makes a loop along a field of magnificent native grasses. The trail abuts a levee of the Big Sioux River. The bike trail runs along the river on the opposite side. This segment of the trail system is just .6 miles and merges into the “Woodland” trail that leads out of the grassland and along a pathway through the woods.
Moving along the Woodland trail, the oxbow is off to the right through the trees, and a variety of wildlife might be observed along this walk. Today, I ran into two pair of Mallard ducks; I wondered if they had missed the memo advising them to head south for the next few months.
The Woodland trail leads along a path with apartment houses visible in the distance through the leafless trees. The sight of these apartments highlights the urban nature of this park setting.
The trail continues to border the oxbow as it moves around toward the entrance drive into the campus. There are many spots to move up to the shoreline of the oxbow to look more closely at the plant and bird life.
As the Woodland trail exits the woods after a course of a little over a mile, it moves along the roadway until reaching a pathway leading into the inner loop of the trail system. The “Riparian” trail leads along the edge of a second meadow of native grasses for about .7 of a mile.
The Riparian trail passes two shelters on its way to a pond within the campus, a pond used by campus staff to teach canoeing, kayaking, and fishing skills.
Past the pond, the trail returns to the butterfly garden and the rear entrance to the campus building.
A hike around the trails of the campus is about two miles and takes forty-five minutes. There is great variety in the landscape and in the birdlife that lives or passes through this nature area. My wife and I have taken advantage of bird watching classes that are held on the grounds of the campus and along the trails. In addition, a good number of classes are presented both in the building and along the trails in a number of nature-oriented interest areas. Snowshoeing and cross-country skiing classes are offered, and equipment is available on loan. Perhaps my next visit to the Outdoor Campus will be with my snowshoes.
The outdoor campus is a joint effort of the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish, and Parks and the Parks Department of the city of Sioux Falls. The Outdoor Campus is a great place for a solitary and contemplative walk, a brisk run, a bird watching stroll, or a site to reconnect with nature here in the city. There are lots of activities that are particularly suited to the interests of children and nature lovers. My wife and I and our sons love the Outdoor Campus; we consider it another of the “jewels” of Sioux Falls.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Big Sioux Recreation Area – Prairie Vista Trail: Early Winter

Taking advantage of the remarkable delay in the arrival of winter here in the Sioux Falls area, we again headed out for a hike this afternoon. The temperature was about 32 degrees and there was no wind. There was also no sun, but that was almost immaterial to our decision.
The Prairie Vista trail at the Big Sioux Recreation Area is my favorite hiking location in the area. The trail begins at the lower shelter within the BSRA and leads across the edge of the disc golf course, crosses the bike trail, and continues to the edge of the Big Sioux River. A suspension bridge crosses over the river to a multi-use trail system for hikers, bikes, and horses.
After moving along for a few hundred yards, the trail comes to an intersection with one pathway moving parallel to the BSR, one pathway leading directly up onto the ridge of a long hill that dominates the area, and one that leads around the archery range.
As long as there are no archers about, my preferred route is to move along the ravine that borders the archery range and circle around the backside of the large hill overlooking the BSR valley. This is a wonderful walk with a continuing view of the landscape while climbing the hill.
This pathway up to the ridge is a circuitous route that winds up the backside of the hill toward the ridgeline. The alternate route up to the ridge is one of those pathways that lead nearly straight up the hill. The walk around the archery range is more pleasant, assuming that people shooting arrows are not about.
The view from the ridge is spectacular. The trail continues along the ridge for half a mile or so, past a couple of large cottonwood trees, and reaches a rest bench that looks out over the valley. All of Brandon is spread out in the view from this spot. With binoculars, the wind turbines located over the border in Minnesota are visible.
This panoramic view is well worth any effort required to climb the hill. Since we take our dog with us on this walk, it is comforting to see a long distance ahead to note the presence of any other hiker, especially one with a dog.
Just in front of the bench is a straight path that runs down to the valley floor. This a path used by very fit people who are trying to build endurance and strength – not by me!
After passing this point on the trail, the pathway moves down through a thin thicket of trees as it descends to the valley floor. Plum and chokecherry trees are thick along the perimeter of the pathway on this portion of the hike.
The landscape between the hill and the woods along the riverbank is largely native prairie grasses with scattered trees in a meadow-like setting.
Once down off the ridge, the trail moves along the river back toward the suspension bridge that leads back into the flood plain and crosses the Brandon bike trail. Another short pathway then leads back to the park shelter building and the parking lot.
With the walk around the archery trail, the hiking distance is about 3 miles, and it takes me something over an hour. Avoiding the archery trail would shorten the trip down to something just over 2 miles.
I encounter someone else along this trail occasionally, but usually it offers the chance for a more solitary hike. This is really a great hiking spot for people in this area from May through November. The flooding along the BSR can inhibit access to the trail, although the trail itself is high enough to be relatively free of flood waters. In the winter, this area is used by snowmobiles. We feel lucky indeed to have been able to roam about the trail this late in the year. Surely, the time is near when access will be closed for hiking because of deep snow.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Mary Jo Wegner Arboretum and East Sioux Falls Historical Site: Early Winter

Today, we went out to the Mary Jo Wegner Arboretum and East Sioux Falls Historical Site for our hike. The temperature was in the low 30s and the day was grey with a hint of an approaching “wintery mix” that has been forecast. We did not encounter anyone on this visit.
We began at the parking lot and crossed over to the old rail bed that extends east toward the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) building and the banks of the Big Sioux River. This pathway runs parallel to Highway 42 and is about 100 yards off the road.
The pathway intersects a road running into the arboretum site and curves over to the FOP building.
A trail moves down the slope toward a cultivated field along a curve of the river. We walked on a trail alongside the field heading toward the green maintenance shed for the park service.
This pathway across the field led up onto a gravel road that circles through the nature area, and we walked along this road past a shelter along a brook that runs through this part of the park.
There are two shelters within the park, one up on the main road near the visitor center with interpretive signage and the other down in the lowland along the brook. This area is popular with families, and there are picnic tables.
We continued through this area and crossed over the brook at a point leading back into the wooded area. A pathway continues through the woods, through some private property, and back up upon the old rail bed. Along the way, ruins of an old homestead are passed.
Up on the old rail bed again, the pathway moves east toward the main part of the park.
We have encountered deer on several occasions along this path. The path again runs parallel to Highway 42.
During nine or ten months of the year, this is our Sunday hike. Like most of our walks in the country, this hike takes us about an hour. There are great plans ahead for this nature area, and it will one day be one of the jewels of Sioux Falls. A plan is even envisioned that will link the arboretum with Arrowhead Park through a tunnel under Highway 42.

Big Sioux Recreation Area - Along the River: Early Winter

Sunday was a grey day with temperatures in the low 30s and a stiff wind. We decided to take our hike at the Big Sioux Recreation Area on the edge of Brandon. Although we wanted to go up on the ridge across the river along the Prairie Vista trail, we were dissuaded by the biting wind.
Instead, we took another of our routine hiking routes, this time beginning at the kiosk up on the rise and starting off down the bike trail. This is the trail that extends into the park from Brandon and moves around the perimeter of the park before continuing on back into Brandon from the park entrance.
We started off down the slope of the bike trail for a half-mile or so until we reached a point near the parking lot for the playground equipment alongside the park shelter.
From there we entered the wooded area through the disc golf course, a pathway that moves through the woods parallel to the Big Sioux River. This is a great pathway over a flood plain of grey soil and through a wooded area between the bike trail and the river. There are many opportunities to walk up to the bank and observe the flow of the river.
Over the years, I have made several canoe trips beginning at Lein Park in Sioux Falls and continuing the 12 miles to the BSRA. There is another 12-mile stretch along the river that begins at this launching point and continues to an access point across from the Lake Alvin Recreation Area.
The walk through the flood plain along the river intersects again with the bike trail, and we continued just a hundred yards of so until we could cross into the camping area of the park.
There is a pathway near one of the log cabins that leads onto the one-way road that circles through the campgrounds. We walked along the two loops of the camping area until we could exit into a meadow that leads across to the park shelter.
The campgrounds were empty, as they usually are during this time of the year. There is abundant birdlife to notice and the occasional squirrel. Mostly, this is just a great empty road that serves as a pathway through the grounds.
After crossing the meadow and walking through the playground and picnic area parking lot, we got back on the bike trail and made our way up the slope toward the kiosk on top of the hill.
Again, this is a walk of about an hour. It is one of my first walks during the spring. As the sun gains in strength and the days lengthen in March, the bike trail and the campground road soaks up the heat and provide the first snow-free hiking opportunity. By March, I expect to again be able to roam along this part of the BSRA while looking for any possible sign of spring.