…WATERTOWN, SOUTH DAKOTA?” I can hear some of you saying it already. Yeah, Watertown, South Dakota. You heard about it here first. It’s just over an hour north of Sioux Falls, and it’s leading the wave of small towns creeping up our bucket lists — well, mine. And now yours.
Whether you’re making the drive to the Badlands, or you’re going on your next cross-country road trip, or you just want to experience how badass a small town can be, add this little point to your Google Maps. It’s a city of just over 20,000, only no one’s told them. And if I hadn’t just told you, you wouldn’t have guessed. Here are 12 other facts you’d never guess either.
1. This is the fifth-largest city in South Dakota.
Which sounds like something…until you realize South Dakota has around 850,000 people. Once you acknowledge the scale you’re dealing with — it took me a while — everything sort of falls into place. How are there two breweries, a distillery, and a winery here? How is there a glacial lake with some of the best fishing in the nation, and yet it’s not commercialized? How is their downtown full of modern stops with charcuterie plates and Edison light bulbs but also dive bars with bowling alley tables and beer martinis?
The only conclusion I’ve been able to draw is the people here have had to step up and create their own world, small town be damned. They’re not wishing they were Chicago, LA, or New York — they’re just taking what they’ve got and running with it. And what they’ve got is nothing but wide open spaces and lots of innovative people up to the challenge. Speaking of which…
2. The DIY game is strong.
Do me a favor and take everything you know about distilleries and wineries and throw it out the window. You’ve done that? Great. Now let’s talk about Glacial Lakes Distillery and Ghost Town Winery.
Glacial Lakes Distillery is almost worthy of speakeasy status — they have a website and a product, but they don’t really have a tasting room. Until you learn they do, if you know who to ask (hint: Phil). They’ll let you into their shop, have you sample their lineup, and mix you a drink. It’s not glamorous. There are no fancy stools or graffitied murals or tin ceilings. It’s just their small warehouse, them, and their product they bottle by hand (last hint: their un-aged rum tastes just like Bananas Foster).
And then there’s Ghost Town Winery. It’s in the cellar of Watertown Confectionery (this building is a brick and mortar version of Valentine’s Day), and it’s more an experience than anything. They craft their own wine, yes, but they let you take part in the process of making your own, too. You do everything from selecting your kit and creating the batch (and waiting for it to ferment) to bottling, labeling, and sealing. There’s tons of vino varieties to choose from, colors and sizes to consider for your bottle, and you get to design your own label. If you’ve ever wanted a case of Cabernet with your face on it (who doesn’t?), now’s your chance. (Or just skip the weeks of fermentation and grab one of Ghost Town’s pro wines.)
3. You can fly here direct from Denver.
In 75 minutes (75 minutes!), you’ll land at ATY, sunscreen at the ready to take on the “tropical Dakota.” You’re less than two hours from the red rocks of Devil’s Gulch and Palisades State Park, less than five hours from Badlands National Park, and about six hours from Mount Rushmore. You’re also ten minutes from the shores of Lake Kampeska, and right in the middle of the surprisingly long list of things to do in Watertown. You don’t even have to rent a car in summer — the Watertown Trolley goes to all the spots downtown, the hotels, and the Redlin Art Center.
It might not be the most obvious getaway, but that’s what I like about it (the prices don’t hurt, either). When a friend says, “I just spent the weekend in Miami!” the reactions are pretty standard. Tell them you went to Watertown, and let the surprise on your Instagram commence.
4. The Goss is definitely, probably, definitely haunted.
For decades, the Goss Opera House wasn’t open to anyone. Now the bottom level of the giant three-story building is a coffee shop, restaurant, and bar, but walk up the stairs and BAM. Opera house. Box seats, balcony, stage, and all.
Since it was closed for so long, most of it hasn’t been touched since the 1880s. It took me a second to realize why that’s actually an asset — everywhere I’ve been from Versailles to the Biltmore to the Apollo Theater has been restored, and there’s something about updating things that makes the experience harder to understand and appreciate. After all, the sentence “This is what this would’ve looked like in 1880″ is far less impressive than, “This is what’s left from 1880.” They even went through the old seats recently and collected a bunch of lost objects — from over a hundred years ago.
It’s like walking into an almost-ghost town. Speaking of — get on a tour, and go up to the third floor. There’s a room that’s clearly seen a fire, and that’s the one you should spend a minute in. Rumor has it she doesn’t much care for women, but that’s all of the story I’m going to tell you.
5. Barack Obama stopped here — and gave a speech — for a reason.
The 44th POTUS didn’t just pick where to give commencement speeches out of a hat. He picked Lake Area Technical Institute for a very specific reason: It was the Aspen Award’s #1 two-year college in the nation this year. If you’re over all that four-year tuition stuff, Watertown isn’t such a bad place to be — and by “isn’t such a bad,” I mean “it is seriously the best.”
6. Sometimes the best pizza is South Dakotan Irish.
Did you know there’s such a thing as “pizza school?” I didn’t either. If I did, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with my ultra-useful linguistics degree. But Sean Dempsey knew, and he went, and he came out of it the only certified pizzaiola in South Dakota and the International Pizza Expo’s “best in the Northwest.” (Seriously, I miss all the best events.)
But what I am in on is his pizza, and I can vouch for this whole “pizza school” thing. Even though Dempsey’s is a family-run Irish-esque restaurant (with hints of Austrian because of Oma), the pizza’s good enough that no one asks any questions. “Good enough” here meaning “the best across nine states.” Same goes for the calzones.
If you’re against the idea of Irish-ish pizza in South Dakota, try Oma’s wienerschnitzel and a Sassy Lass cocktail. You’ll feel a bit more authentic — but you’ll still go home wondering about the pizza.
7. You can hang with lemurs for under $10.
The Bramble Park Zoo is no provincial outpost — this is a serious facility that’s run and has been recognized by top names in the field. Director Dan “Zoo Man” Miller is said to wander the grounds on weekdays — catch him if you can and say hi.
As for the zoo itself, there are 800 animals, and not the petting zoo variety. Tigers. Jaguars. Lemurs! Even a baby kangaroo (Olive) and a baby camel (Clyde). Admission is $9 per adult for the entire day — that’s a dent in the price of movie and popcorn. And what movie and popcorn has alpacas you can feed?
8. The town holidays hard.
No one quite knows how, but Watertown manages to have South Dakota’s longest 4th of July parade, the largest fireworks display, and the largest vintage car show. That last one sees nearly 500 cars from the early 1900s through the ’70s and ’80s line the streets of town the weekend after Labor Day.
9. The town breeds art.
You probably know Terry Redlin’s work even if you don’t realize it — he’s like Norman Rockwell meets Bob Ross, and the setting is usually a nature scene, a holiday scene, or a sunset. You know, the guy with the geese? The one whose works all look like puzzles? That guy!
Turns out he’s from Watertown, and he bestowed a multi-million dollar facility to his hometown that shows his work for free. He donated millions to keep costs down and made sure it was about more than just his art — the grounds are meant to be picnicked on, the trails walked, and there’s even some resident geese who are said to have “auditioned” for his paintings.
And then there’s Joshua Spies, a sort of protégé of Redlin’s. He’s also an internationally renowned artist, widely regarded as one of the best exotic wildlife painters in the biz. His works focus on wildlife (and wildlife conservation), depicting images from Cameroon, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mongolia, and all over the globe.
And recently, the town’s put together a public art walk downtown — 11 sculptures pop out on street corners (there’s a 12th at Lake Area Technical Institute and 13th at the Redlin Art Center), and most of them are from regional artists. What other city of 20,000 has its artsy side so together?
10. Hops grow super well here.
“No one ever accused us of being normal, Don,” I hear one of the staff members at Watertown Brewing Company say to the owner during my last visit. It was a total coincidence, because I was pretty much thinking the exact same thing.
I had just had three want-to-order-again brews (a flight, not pints!), was sitting down to a giant charcuterie board that would’ve cost me $50 on the coast, and had just learned that the place grows their own hops, too. Like, what? Am I in the twilight zone? Is this place Brigadoon? Having Iowa roots, I definitely understand that all this awesome Midwestern farmland should lead to a beer game this strong, I just wasn’t expecting to find it happening in Watertown, South Dakota.
By the way, those three beers were the Kampeska Kold Press, the Not So Bitter, and the Dublin Vision Irish Red. If you’re like me and aren’t a fan of the IPAs but still want tons of flavor — stouts, porters, sours, reds — these three are a solid trinity.
11. Wild West retreats are a real thing.
Joy Ranch is a little hard to explain, but I’ll try: It’s sort of like a giant bed and breakfast teamed up with a retreat center and campground. It’s just outside Watertown in those famous South Dakota prairie hills and has an 1880s prairie town design (but with modern amenities).
Set up shop there to completely get away from everything. They’ve got themed bedrooms, “bunk rooms,” lake-view dining and home cooking, areas for riding horses, a lake for pontoon rides and paddle boats, old school shops, The Thirsty Boot, and endless coffee by a crackling fireplace. It’s like a getaway inside a getaway — you’re basically getting incepted.
So if Watertown isn’t quite off the grid enough for you, there’s a way to go one level deeper. Consider it a bucket list for your bucket list.
12. Pro fishermen call this place gold.
The North American Ice Fishing Circuit stopped in the Watertown area this past winter, and for good reason: It’s the “gateway to the glacial lakes,” and Lake Kampeska, right outside town, has 13 miles of shoreline for fishermen to choose from (the slightly smaller Pelican Lake is a good option, too).
I’m not the type to lug around a rod and reel, but Lake Kampeska was surprising to me, too. For starters, I’m used to lakes that are all fancy marina restaurants and expensive houses and just absolutely packed with people. Kampeska? Not a bit. There’s one restaurant — The Prop, which has been around for ages — and the rest is pretty much a free-for-all. There’s bike trails all around the water, golfing, disc golfing, and I easily killed half an hour on one of the docks snapping photos of the pink-and-gold sunset. I’d say “something for everyone,” but that’s just a cliche, right?