Flitting past the boisterous blooms of angel’s trumpets, an electric-blue butterfly escapes my camera lens yet again. No matter. It’s easy to be patient, to linger and to savor the chance to stalk something so beautiful in Sioux Falls’ Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove. Visitors breathe in warm, humid air and admire the compact but lush gardens. Within a minute or two, another blue Morpho flutters by, lands on a leaf and opens deceptively drab wings to reveal its trademark blaze of color. My camera clicks, and someone laughs nearby as a butterfly lands on her leg. For a spring family getaway, Sioux Falls offers a double dose of the tropics, pairing more than 800 butterflies with an adjoining marina where kids press noses to aquariums vibrant with live coral, tropical fish and sea horses. In the touch tank they eagerly (or gingerly) let their fingers glide across the backs of stingrays and baby horn and bamboo sharks.
The attraction is much like others in Sioux Falls: a compact version of what you might find in much larger urban areas, with the convenience of a smaller city (pop. 164,676) when it comes to getting around and a welcome that reflects a mostly rural state. The city draws families to feed giraffes at the Great Plains Zoo, explore the physics of skateboarding at the Kirby Science Center, get up close to art through downtown’s Sculpture Walk and enjoy an increasingly chic downtown dining scene.
Don’t miss the chance to climb the Falls Park tower that offers a sprawling, sweet view of the Big Sioux River as it tumbles down the city’s iconic falls and carves a canyon into pink quartzite. Visit at sunrise or sunset for the full effect of golden light bathing rosy rock.
Great Plains Zoo: With train rides, camel rides, red pandas, a petting zoo, snow monkeys and a specialty in breeding tigers and rhinoceroses, this zoo ranks as the favorite family attraction. In addition to live animals, the zoo includes the Delbridge Museum of Natural History with 150 mounts and 36 vanishing species grouped by habitat and continent (admission $6.50-$9.50; 1-605-367-7003; www.greatzoo.org).
Falls Park: Like the Mississippi in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the Big Sioux River was essential to powering the start of Sioux Falls. Walk among the ruins of the Queen Bee Mill, read about the city’s specialty in cutting petrified wood, and meander the 123 acres where anglers, runners and sightseers congregate to enjoy seeing an average of 7,400 gallons per second drop 100 feet as it moves through the park. Bikers and runners also can access the 19-mile Big Sioux and Recreational Greenway at the park (1-605-367-7430; www.siouxfalls.org).
Kirby Science Discover Center: This fun little museum lets kids touch a tornado, make their own stop-action film, see Stan the Trex, identify South Dakota wildlife by sounds, practice hefting quartzite, and watch bees making honey in a hive just outside an upper-story window. The museum is part of Washington Pavilion, a converted stone school that also houses the Wells-Fargo Cine-Dome Theater, Visual Arts Center and Husby Performing Arts Center ($6-$12; 1-605-367-6000; www.washingtonpavilion.org).
Stroll downtown: From dinosaurs and Humpty Dumpty to abstracts and Indians, there are more than 50 sculptures lining downtown and making a stroll among boutiques and cafes more intriguing (www.sculpturewalksiouxfalls.com). Share a too-pretty-to-eat dessert at CH Patisserie, grab a good book at Zandbroz Variety and admire American Incraftsmanship at Prairie Star Gallery. You can find creative dining and artsy shopping in the nearby East Bank neighborhood (www.dtsf.com).
Outdoor Campus: Check out free wildlife and fish exhibits, play in the back yard and butterfly garden, try the orienteering course or sign up for kids’ or family classes focused on fishing, camping, paddling and naturalist activities (1-605-773-3391; www.outdoorcampus.org).
Strawbale Winery: This pretty farm and vineyard a few miles north of the city has roving chickens, farm cats, weekly summer concerts and slushy drinks made from their black currant wine (1-605-543-5071; www.strawbalewinery.com).
Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove: Plan about an hour to explore both winged and finned creatures ($3-$8.50; 1-605-334-9466; www.sertomabutterflyhouseandmarinecove.org).
It’s a four-hour drive from Minneapolis to Sioux Falls using Interstates 35 and 90.
If you want to be in the heart of downtown and not far from Falls Park, both the Holiday Inn City Centre (From $111/night; 1-605-339-2000; www.sfcchotel.com) and Country Inn and Suites (From $124/night; 1-605-373-0153; www.countryinn.com) are good bets.
Falls Overlook Cafe: With lovely views and the spaciousness of a 1908 hydroelectric power plant, this cafe provides the ideal stop for shrimp po’boys, hot beef sandwiches, vegetarian soups and sweet potatoes piled with brisket and cheese (1-605-367-4885; www.fallsoverlookcafe.net).
Prairie Berry: The popular Black Hills winery opened its East Bank building last year, creating a chic combination wine bar, microbrewery, gourmet marketplace and casual cafe with indoor and outdoor dining (1-605-496-7175; www.prairieberry.com/eastbank). Wander next door to Queen City Bakery for something sweet like its Brooklyn blackout cake (1-605-274-6060; www.queencitybakery.com).
Sanaa’s Gourmet Restaurant: This cafe at the East Bank’s Eighth and Railroad building strikes a balance between homey and exotic with intriguing Middle Eastern and Mediterranean fare. Look for fatayers (calzone-like stuffed pita pockets with eggplant falafel or feta and olives) a beef meat pie with pomegranate molasses and delicate pastries spiced with orange blossom water, pistachios, cinnamon and pine nuts (1-605-275-2516; www.sanaacooks.com/restaurant).
Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-605-275-6060; www.visitsiouxfalls.com.
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick (www.LisaMcClintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From Twin Cities” and “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path,” which has a new edition ready for release in May.