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, May 26, 2013

Spirit Mound Historic Prairie

For many years I was a professor at the University of South Dakota and made a nearly daily commute between Vermillion and Sioux Falls.  Sometimes to fight sleep and to bring some novelty into the drive, I would take the secondary roads and avoid the Interstate.  State Highway 19 out of Vermillion across the Vermillion River and heading north towards Centerville is one of secondary paved roads that I occasionally used, but I never recognized Spirit Mound just six miles north of the USD campus.  It took the celebration surrounding the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition alert me to the existence of Spirit Mound.

Yesterday morning I drove down to Yankton to observe and photograph the departure of 129 kayaks and canoes as the South Dakota Kayak Challenge got underway.  On the way back to Sioux Falls, I decided to turn north at Vermillion and return on Highway 19 to visit Spirit Mound.
Going north, Spirit Mound Historic Prairie is located just six miles north of Vermillion on the west side of the highway.  Passing over the Vermillion River, the landscape is flat farmland.  Spirit Mound is a glacially formed geological anomaly that drew Lewis and Clark up from their journey on the Missouri River in 1804 for the panoramic view of prairie and wildlife.  They had heard Native American tales of tiny spirit people who inhabited the hill. The site continues to have a spiritual significance to many Indian people.
Spirit Mound restoration was a project of a local conservation group and the state and federal governments that came to fruition in 2001.  The park covers 320 acres and includes a developed trail that leads from the parking lot across the prairie, around the mound and up to the summit. Interpretive signage along the trail offers historical and geological information to visitors. The trail is designated as a National Recreation Trail by the federal government. 
There is a small park on the south end of a parking lot with a picnic table and vault toilet.  The trail leads north from the park for .8 miles, approaching Spirit Mound from the south and climbing around the hill to a final assent to the summit on the north side. The total hike is about 1.6 miles over a landscape with no shade and no water.  The trail is well designed so that inclines are gradual and the surface easy for most hikers.  I saw families with small children, even a mother pushing a baby buggy up the trail.
The prairie along the way is composed of native grasses and has a population of perching birds often found on grasslands.  It is a pleasant walk with a gradually broadened view of the landscape.  There are benches located at intervals for those needing a rest or desiring a moment of contemplation. 
The summit of the hill has a panoramic view over the landscape.  The DakotaDome at the University of South Dakota, about seven hills off, is visible to the south.  Farmland instead of bison herds now surround the site and provides a great view of current land usage.
Spirit Mound is about 60 miles south of our eastside Sioux Falls home.  It is an easy spot to visit when returning from Yankton or Vermillion.  If I were visiting the site from Sioux Falls, I think it would be good to leave early in the morning to avoid the heat and strain of climbing under the summer sun.  It would be good to leave Sioux Falls about 6:30 a.m. or so, drive an hour to reach the site, spend an hour on the hike, and then stop for breakfast in Centerville or another small town.  There are also a couple of great museums in Vermillion that might be visited on the same trip: The National Music Museum on the campus of USD and the W.H. Over Museum located on the north side of Vermillion.  I’m so glad that I have finally visited Spirit Mound and heartily recommend the trip.

There are several excellent websites about Spirit Mound, and I suggest that a prospective visitor review them prior to making the trip: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spirit_Mound_Historic_Prairie