Eye on KELOLAND: Flocking to the Falls

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Even during a drought, Sioux Falls’ namesake can still draw a crowd. The drought has diminished the flow of water over the falls at Falls Park. But it’s still providing an eyeful for visitors.

Visitation at Falls Park is way up this year, and that’s having a spillover effect for other local attractions, helping boost tourism numbers in the area.

“It would be nice to see the water a little more, but we still enjoy it,” Janelle Garrison of Walker, MN said.

Janelle Walker and Evan Dixon of Minnesota brought along their children for a first-time visit to Falls Park.

“I didn’t know anything about it. I’ve driven through here, and near it, probably fifty times and I never saw it before,” Evan Dixon said.

More and more people are soaking in the beauty of Falls Park during the summer tourist season. The park is on pace to equal, or surpass, strong attendance totals going back to 2016 and 2017.

“We usually start numbers tick-up probably May 1, for sure. But April, they started going, we started watching the numbers citywide, they were ticking up and ticking up,” Experience Sioux Falls Executive Director Teri Schmidt said.

The wide-open spaces of Falls Park offered an enticing outdoor refuge from the pandemic for locals last year. But shutdowns at many attractions across the nation kept out-of-state visitors homebound. Now they’re back this summer.

“This year, there’s pent-up demand, people have saved money, they’re ready to get out of the house, and they are here,” Schmidt said.

The park’s visitor center keeps a hand-counted tally of the people who enter the gift shop. Two of those clicks included Bill and Debbie Hensiak of Milwaukee, who wanted to get an up-close look at the falls.

“It was quite interesting. There’s nothing like it in Wisconsin, that you can get that close to,” Bill Hensiak said.

The head-count does not include park visitors who don’t go inside the visitor center. So the actual attendance is much higher than the official numbers recorded by the staff.

“This is the place that people want to see when they come to Sioux Falls,” Schmidt said.

While overall numbers are up here at Falls Park, the number of international visitors is down significantly, representing only about a half-dozen countries so far. That compares to 61 countries back in 2019. The drop-off is a reflection of the global impact of the pandemic.

“We know that foreign travel worldwide is not what it was before COVID, so we just keep working on that and hope they’ll come back,” Schmidt said.

It turns out that the less-than-robust current of the falls does not appear to be a hindrance to attendance. Visitors observe a different type of natural beauty to the park during a drought.

“To me, I think it’s kind of neat to see a little more with less water. There’s probably less covered-up and I could see where the water line used to be, it’s pretty interesting,” Dixon said.

“I would get worried when the falls weren’t roaring. But people started saying, oh, the rock! And they would talk about the rock and want to know more and more about the rock and it was really a lesson for us that hey, we need to promote this rock just as much as the water! And it works,” Schmidt laughed.

And as the drought wears on, exposing more rock underneath the thinning veil of water, visitors are expected to still flow into the park, to witness this emerging quartzite canvas through the rest of the summer.

Sioux Falls is no longer a drive-by destination for tourists heading to attractions like Mount Rushmore or Wall Drug. Schmidt says leisure travelers stay here an average of 3 to 5 days, giving them more time to fit in a visit to Falls Park during their stay.

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