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.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Great Bear: The Lower Trail and Up on the Ski Lift Hill

Great Bear is one of our most frequented hiking areas from April through the first serious snowfall in the late fall.  It is usually thought of as a winter park, but it is also one of the primer hiking opportunities within the Sioux Falls area for the rest of the year.

This city-owned park is located along Rice Street between Sioux Falls and Brandon and parallels the east flowing Big Sioux River. Going east on Rice Street, the park is clearly marked on the right side of the road, just past a rock/sand/gravel processing plant.  There is a long paved entrance road that leads up to the park; the first exit on the left leads to the archery range and the road continues to gravel parking lot that fronts a large wooden chalet that hosts the winter activities. The chalet is also used to host various gatherings for the rest of the year, including weddings.

The Ralph and Doris Wallin Nature Trails system has a main route constructed of crushed asphalt that provides easy access for nearly anyone.  There are grass trails that spread out from that main trail so that people can take a more varied path.  In addition, there are trails that lead up onto the hills that loom over the main route.  In fact, there are three sets of hills that connect with the wide-spread web of pathways through the park. Map boards are scattered throughout the park, but without a clear notion of ordinal direction, they can be difficult to follow.

There is a large pond along the right side of the trail that leads into the wooded area.  This pond hosts a variety of life, including many turtles that are often seen sunning themselves on moss covered logs just offshore toward the end of the pond.  I have often seen geese and ducks on the pond as well.  Toward late summer, a large portion of the pond is covered in green algie, although there are a couple of aerators that keep the keep a portion of the pond clear throughout the year. The pond is one of the key interest area along the trail.

The main trail passes along the pond, but there is an alternative pathway at the head of the pond that leads the hiker into a tree-covered route on the opposite side, and this is the route that I usually take.

I like moving on natural surfaces if possible, although the improved trail is preferred when there has been heavy rain that makes the natural path muddy.

If following the alternative trail, the pathway continues on until reaching the first of several wooden bridges.  If going along the improved trail, the hiker turns to the right at a crossroad, just opposite a set of metal benches developed as part of a Boy Scout Eagle project.  Just past the first bridge, there is a pathway that leads up hill toward the ski lift summit.  This pathway is rather steep, but it is part of my regular hike.  It passes the ski lift machinery and continues along the rim of a steep hill overlooking part of northern Sioux Falls and the Big Sioux valley. 

The path moves on to an overlook that provides a panoramic view of the city; a map board has been erected with prominent Sioux Falls landmarks indicated. This is really a great view and well worth the effort to climb the hill.

I noticed that, like many of our nature areas, home development seems to be in the future.  A sign at the end of this elevated section of the park advertises home lots for sale.  Again, I am so thankful that the city has acquired this property so that all citizens an enjoy strolling through wooded hills that have been preserved for the public.

Another steep pathway leads down off the hill, back to the valley with the main trail, providing a looping aspect to the hike up and down the hill. The trail continues into the woods for another few hundred yards until ending at one of the many benches.  I generally pass the end of this trail and double back on the opposite side of the ravine.  There is also a route up the second set of hills that leads through a meadow and back downhill to the continuing trail in the second valley.  This assent pathway is very steep, nearly straight up the hill. 

As the pathway returns to the crossroad, the main trail continues to the right and leads over other bridges deep into the second valley.  A roofed rest station is located at the end of this section of the main trail.  This is a nice quite spot to sit for a while and listen to the birds and the wind blowing through the trees.

On the walk back toward the chalet, just before the pond, there is another opportunity to climb up the second large hill, this one overlooking the parking lot, the chalet, and providing another panoramic view over northern Sioux Falls. 

On strolls through these trails, I have seen many types of birds, including hawks and turkeys.  I have also twice seen lone coyotes moving through, deer on several occasions, and once a skunk.   This is a wonderful spot for a stroll through the wooded areas and is another of the many outdoor gems within the Sioux Falls area.  It is one of our favorite hiking areas and is only a few minutes away from our eastside Sioux Falls home.  Most new hikers to this area just wander around the pathways the first few times to become oriented to the web of trails. 

For the complete set of photographs associated with this narrative, visit my Flickr page at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jayheath/sets/72157629504889318/

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