If there’s a holy trinity of South Dakota photos for Minnesotans road-tripping west, it usually involves a silly pose at Wall Drug atop a giant jackalope, the must-see presidents of Mount Rushmore, and Mitchell’s famed Corn Palace.
Less than five hours from the Twin Cities, the Corn Palace is a welcome place to stop and stretch your legs, take a bathroom break and shoot selfies. But there’s much more to this Taj Mahal of folk art than a schmaltzy photo op. And there’s more to Mitchell than the Corn Palace, including an ongoing excavation of a prehistoric village and vibrant art and pioneer history displays in its Dakota Discovery Museum.
At the Corn Palace, artists can be seen each summer creating almost a dozen new murals on what could be dubbed the world’s funkiest bird feeder. Themes and murals have changed every year since the palace was built in 1892, encompassing everything from space exploration and nursery rhymes to sports to patriotism. This year’s historic scenes commemorate South Dakota’s 125th year of statehood using 12 colors and more than 275,000 ears of corn, plus 3,000 bushels of grains such as oats, sorghum and rye for accents.
Inside the palace, free tours and a 15-minute film tell about other agricultural-themed palaces from America’s era of grand spectacles, dreamed up by fledging communities eager to draw more businesses and farmers.
“The World’s Only Corn Palace” has endured for more than 120 years and still attracts up to 500,000 visitors a year. It doubles as a sports and concert venue, and has added hands-on exhibits about corn. Kids climb into a combine and try virtually harvesting a field, while others gawk at a towering mound of products made from corn.
The palace is undergoing a $7.2 million makeover that will redesign the onion-like turrets and add more lighting, wind turbines and an outdoor balcony for visitors to see one of the Midwest’s most iconic free attractions more closely.
With a perfect blue summer sky as a backdrop, it remains a stellar spot for a classically corny vacation photo, but leave time to look around and learn more.
Why go now
Dakota Discovery Museum: Enjoy exhibits on Lewis and Clark, cowboy camps, pioneer wagons and more amid vibrant murals at this museum on the Dakota Wesleyan University campus. Learn the story of Richard Sears of Sears & Roebuck fame, study the creatively cluttered studio of western illustrator Charles Hargens, and admire paintings by Harvey Dunn and American Indian artist Oscar Howe, who designed many early Corn Palace murals. Grab an activity book for kids ($3-$7; 1-605-996-2122; www.dakota discovery.com).
Wesleyan is also home to the free McGovern Legacy Museum, highlighting the life of former U.S. senator and presidential candidate George McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, from their college years here through World War II and into the 1970s.
Prehistoric Village: Archaeology buffs can geek out on the northern edge of Mitchell, where scientists estimate a village of about 80 earth lodges thrived more than 1,100 years ago. See displays of a typical earth lodge, food caches, tools, farming (corn, squash, beans and amaranth) and bullboats made from a single buffalo hide. The nearby Archedome lets you watch excavation work that’s been underway for 30 years ($4-$6; 1-605-996-5473; www.mitchellindianvillage.org).
Corny shopping: Inside the Corn Palace, the large gift shop that’s center-stage in the auditorium has everything from comically kitschy souvenirs and corn snacks to nicely priced practical hats, accessories and gear for road-tripping (1-800-289-7469; www.cornpalace.com).
Where to eat
Café Teresa serves an inexpensive breakfast and lunch with paninis, wraps, deviled egg potato salad and coffee a short stroll from the Corn Palace (1-605-990-2233; www.mitchellcafeteresa.com).
Dine in a restored 1908 train station at the Depot Pub & Grill, featuring steaks, buffalo burgers and the Ultimate Conductor, a sandwich stacked high with top beef round, gravy, cheeses, peppers and onions. A model train chugs around the restaurant. Desserts include a chocolate chimichanga (1-605-996-9417; www.mitchelldepot.com).
For old-fashioned fine dining with steak, prime rib, lamb or cranberry pecan pork chops, Chef Louie’s Steakhouse still gets good buzz after more than 70 years in business (1-605-996-7565; www.cheflouies.net).
If you’re craving just dessert, try flavors such as chocolate almond, chocolate peanut butter or vanilla latte at Crazy About Cupcakes (1-605-990-9866; Crazy About Cupcakes on Facebook).
Where to sleep
River Road B&B offers two guest rooms in a log home 3½ miles east of Mitchell, where guests can enjoy the quiet countryside from the wrap-around porch ($100/night; 1-605-996-5813; www.riverroadbb.com).
Mitchell’s I-90 location guarantees many lodging chains, including Holiday Inn Express & Suites. Room options include a two-queen suite that can sleep up to six (from $134/night; 1-877-859-5095; www.ihg.com).
Mitchell KOA has a pool and playground with tent and RV campsites, and a few camper cabins that can sleep four (from $23/night for tent sites; 1-605-996-1131; www.koa.com).
Mitchell lies about four hours and 45 minutes (about 310 miles) from Minneapolis. Follow Hwy. 169 south to Mankato and continue on Hwy. 60 until you reach Interstate 90. Follow it west to Mitchell.
Mitchell Convention and Visitors Bureau: 1-605-996-6223; www.visitmitchell.com.
Lisa Meyers McClintick (www.lisamcclintick.com) wrote “Day Trips From the Twin Cities” and the latest edition of “The Dakotas Off the Beaten Path.”