The second-smallest and by far the sleepiest state capital in the country, Pierre (pop. 13,980; pronounced “PEER”) is an odd amalgam of South Dakota characteristics. Part farm town, part railroad town, and best of all, part river town, Pierre accurately embodies South Dakota’s dominant activities. Located at nearly the geographic center of the state, quiet, easy Pierre is filled with natural attractions and totally lacking in the usual power-broker trappings of other state-capital cities.
Pierre’s one not-to-be-missed stop is the excellent South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center (900 Governors Dr., 605/773-3458, daily, $4), built into the side of a hill on the north side of town. A startling and beautiful structure, it is designed to be a modern evocation of a traditional energy-efficient Native American dwelling. Inside, the museum has the usual interpretive historical displays of indigenous and pioneer cultures, with a focus on the Sioux people and the battles for the Black Hills region. A glass case holds the actual lead plate the brothers Louis-Joseph and François de La Vérendrye, the first Europeans to explore what’s now South Dakota, left behind when they claimed the entire territory for France in 1743.
At the center of town, the state capitol grounds are a verdant island of tranquility with an arboretum, walking trails, and the Flaming Fountain Memorial, dedicated to South Dakotans who have fought for their country in times of war. The fountain sits on the shore of a lake that is home to thousands of migrating winter waterfowl.
For travel-weary road hogs, especially those traveling with children, the coolest museum has to be the hands-on South Dakota Discovery Center (805 W. Sioux Ave., 605/224-8295, daily, $4), in the old Pierre Municipal Power & Light building, with loads of science exhibits.
Museums aside, nature is what draws folks to Pierre. Bordering the town to the south is the long LaFramboise Island Nature Area, a perfect place to while away time, recuperating from the drive along the beautiful bay.
The nicest place to eat is La Minestra (106 E. Dakota Ave., 605/224-8090), a surprisingly cozy and elegant bistro in a restored 1880s building that during its storied history has housed a funeral parlor, a card room, and a country-western saloon. The sophisticated Italian specialties make this one of the nicest restaurants you’ll find along the 100th meridian. There’s also a pretty good steakhouse next door, Mad Mary’s (605/224-6469). If beef is what you live for, you’ll also want to try the local landmark Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse (605/224-9774), one of the country’s great cowboy haunts, six miles or so east of town along the river via Hwy-34.
There are the usual assorted motels on US-83 as it swoops in from the north and follows the wide landscaped boulevards. West of the state capitol building, you’ll find lots of locally owned places: the Governor’s Inn (700 W. Sioux Ave., 605/224-4200 or 877/523-0080, $64 and up) is at the top end of the price and comfort scale, and this same can’t-miss-it main drag holds a popular Days Inn (520 W. Sioux Ave., 605/224-0411, $45 and up).