Pierre, South Dakota: The Country's Second-Smallest Capital Is Big On Attractions

Never mind that it’s the second smallest state capital in the union -- after Montpelier, Vermont -- this 14,000-person burg on the muddy banks of the upper Missouri has more to do than you might expect.

While you’d never confuse it with Austin, Columbus or Madison -- not to mention Boston or Atlanta -- Pierre’s unique small-town charms and an enviable position in the middle of the state offer plenty to explore on the way to the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore or, going the other way, Sioux Falls.

First things first in this seat of state government: a free walk through the 1910 capitol building that was refurbished to its original grandeur in 1989, ahead of the centennial of South Dakota statehood. On my visit, the Christmas at the Capitol display of nearly 100 decorated trees made for a particularly festive visit. At other times of the year, wandering freely through the senate and house observation galleries offers an up-close look at government.

Near the Capitol, the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center has outstanding exhibits on the native and post-Columbian history of the state. Among the highlights are the Sioux Horse Effigy Dancing Stick, a beautiful Native American artifact that's been adopted as a sort of logo for the center and the Verendrye Plate, a quirky artifact laid in 1743 near Pierre by French trappers and not discovered until 1913 by local school children. The nominal $4 admission fee is probably the best deal in town.

The enormous Oahe Dam holds back the Missouri River just a few miles north of Pierre and is an epic engineering triumph on the scale of the Hoover Dam. Dedicated in August 1962 by President Kennedy, the gargantuan earthworks hold back a 231-mile long lake of the same name that stretches all the way north to Bismarck, North Dakota. Better visited in the summer months, the lake and dam provide all manner of waterborne recreation, but the scale of the project is impressive year-round.

One of the newest restaurants in town is RedRossa, a sprawling outpost of a four-kitchen mini-chain that spans Iowa, Minnesota and South Dakota. Attached to the slick new ClubHouse hotel, they have classic Italian dishes as well as more contemporary takes, all at very reasonable prices. There's a solid tap selection, too, with a few regional brews from time to time. You'll find a more meat and potatoes menu at the old-school Mad Mary’s Steakhouse a few blocks away, where local beef meets grill, with magical results.

Around the corner from Mad Mary's, Prairie Pages serves as Pierre's locally owned bookshop and literary hangout. You'll find the usual selections, as well as staff favorites, book signings and other events.

Cognoscenti of a different sort should head for the ChrisaMari Vineyard, three miles outside of town, where owners and vintners Randy and Nita Sarvis welcomes visitors to try wines made from locally and estate-grown grapes and other fruit. It's a boutique operation -- and it's best to call ahead for a tasting appointment -- but for those interested in truly local flavors and boots in the dirt agriculture, a tasting (and conversation) with Randy offers a unique window on the farming culture of central South Dakota.

Where to stay:
The newest hotel in town is also one of the nicest. The 100-room ClubHouse, which opened this spring, has comfortable, dark-wood-accented rooms and a beautiful lobby, complete with roaring fireplace. While it's a few blocks from the capitol complex, it's located right on West Sioux Avenue, the main drag through town.

The Charms of Pierre, South Dakota