To the right, kids lined up shoulder to shoulder to fish in a pond, squealing as they hauled out realistic trout and sunfish. To the left, beyond willow twig tunnels and mazes of prairie grasses and flowers, a roar erupted behind Brookings’ former school building. A towering, protective T. rex mama snarled and twitched her tail as kids got too close to her baby, ratcheting up the shriek factor and adding to the thrill at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota.
Opened in 2013 in the historic 1920s school building, it combines the fresh fun of an interactive, modern museum with a distinctive South Dakota setting.
Kids not quite brave enough to face the T. rex in person can watch the roars from inside the former school gym, where they can climb clouds up two stories, play house in a sod home, explore a tepee or harvest potatoes on a farmstead.
Flowers, tractors, Little House
With the museum as the star attraction and a variety of laid-back, family-friendly activities, the town of 22,600 provides a fun stopping point for a trip west or a hub for exploring the town and getting a glimpse of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy in De Smet, about 41 miles west on Hwy. 14.
Get a little wet: It may be tough to get Children’s Museum visitors indoors when a whimsical outdoor play area beckons with a stream for splashing and collecting buckets of water for activities such as rock-filled cylinders that teach about filtration. Word to the wise: Bring a towel or change of clothes ($6; 1-605-692-6700; prairieplay.org).
Stop and smell the flowers: Junior green thumbs will enjoy a long romp through the 25 acres of McCrory Gardens, an arboretum run by South Dakota State University. Among its draws are gardens dedicated to day lilies, sensory plants, new varieties and seed trials, and an eco building made of straw bales with a living room planted with sedum (technically free, but donations of $3-$6 requested; 1-605-688-6707; www.sdstate.edu/ps/mccrory).
Tractors and big machines: With no admission, the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum shows off the evolution of tractors, threshers and other technological advances that changed farming from the 1860s through the 1960s. It’s best for anyone who can appreciate engines or grandparents who can lightheartedly point out the farm chores and responsibilities older generations had (1-605-688-6226; www.agmuseum.com).
Cookies and cream team: Less than a block from the agricultural heritage museum, the modern dairy bar at Alfred Dairy Science Hall offers affordable ice cream and a sweet afternoon pick-me-up. Look for flavors such as butter almond or playful variations of cookies and cream, which the university claims to have invented (1-605-697-2585; www.sdstate.edu/ds/plant/).
Prairie art: Before leaving campus, stop in at the South Dakota Art Museum, anchored by Harvey Dunn’s painting “The Prairie Is My Garden.” His idyllic prairie works were inspired by his memories as the son of South Dakota homesteaders. He went on to illustrate World War I as it unfolded and to become one of the most prolific artists of his time. Other exhibits include works by Native American and South Dakota artist Oscar Howe.
Take a field trip: It’s less than 45 minutes to reach tiny De Smet, pop. 1,100, where kids can wander through barns, play with kittens, see newborn foals and take a buggy ride to a one-room schoolhouse at the 1880s Ingalls Homestead, which inspired stories in “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” It’s open Memorial Day through September. The town also has additional historic sites and the cemetery where several members of the Ingalls family are buried (1-605-854-9011; www.desmetsd.com).
Where to sleep
Several chain hotels can be found in Brookings (especially along Interstate 29). Hampton Inn and Suites ranks among the newer properties with 87 rooms ($114/night and up; 1-605-697-5232; brook
Where to eat
Funky flavors: The Pheasant Restaurant may look a little ho-hum on the outside, but it’s a winning blend of creative and sophisticated on the inside, with an oil and vinegar tasting room, a wine cellar and frequent live music. Fresh twists on comfort foods range from bison burgers with Thai flavorings and crisp pheasant salad wraps to homemade dulce de leche ice cream floating in a frosty mug of oatmeal stout. Daily ice cream flavors catapult past the usual with combinations such as peach and riesling sorbet, coffee ice cream with candied bacon and saffron ice cream with pistachios and pomegranate ripple (1-605-692-4723; www.pheasant
Downtown dining: Within view of the children’s museum and Brookings’ main street, Old Market Eatery and Bar serves refreshing salads, Mediterranean pitas, basil hummus, hand-cut market fries and desserts such as rhubarb upside-down cake (1-605-692-5757; www.oldmarketeatery.com).
Clever eats: For the ultimate in kid-friendly dining, grab a seat in the sunny atrium of the Children’s Museum, where the Coteau Café serves grilled cheese sandwiches that look like owls, plus plenty of salads and pastas.
Contact the Brookings Area Chamber of Commerce & Convention Bureau for more information (1-605-692-6125; brook
St. Cloud-based travel writer Lisa Meyers McClintick (lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities.”