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Heading through eastern South Dakota on a road trip? Add Watertown to your must-stop list. Why? It’s a great place to get your art on. Or take a dip in lovely Lake Kampeska. And, if your kids love zoos, Bramble Park Zoo is worth a visit. Best of all? Many of the best things to do in Watertown are free. Here are TravelingMom’s favorites.
Along the I-29 corridor in eastern South Dakota you’ll find the city of Watertown. While it may not be the largest city, the town provides a great deal for families to enjoy. Whether you like art galleries and culture or outdoor and recreational opportunities, don’t miss out on what Watertown has to offer – much of which is free!
It might only have 21,000 residents, but that’s enough to make Watertown the fifth largest city in South Dakota. It is located just over 100 miles from Sioux Falls and about 50 miles from Brookings.
Fronting on two lakes, Lake Kampeska and Pelican Lake, means there are many opportunities for water activities. Camping, hunting and fishing are also popular. For those who aren’t as outdoorsy, there is a great deal to see and do indoors for family fun as well.
Here are 10 (mostly) free things to do in Watertown SD.
TravelingMom Tip: Opening times and days as well as admission rules (mask requirements, capacity limits, etc.) can change without warning. Always check the website or call ahead before venturing out for the day.
Free in Watertown SD: Terry Redlin Art Center
Terry Redlin was a well-known wildlife and Americana artist from Watertown. He created more than 200 paintings during his 30-year career. For several years he was voted “America’s Favorite Artist.”
The Terry Redlin Art Center showcases more than 150 of his original oil paintings that capture the nostalgia of Terry’s childhood. His art tells the story of the “simpler” times of American small town life in the early 1900s. Built in the mid 1990s as a gift to his hometown, the Center is open year-round and never charges an admission fee.
The highlight of the Terry Redlin Museum is definitely the stunning artwork. But the 30-acre site is also home to a park with walking trails and gazebos. The museum also hosts special events throughout the year.
The cell phone audio tour allows you to hear the stories of some of Terry Redlin’s paintings in his own voice.
TravelingMom Tip: Make the art museum fun for kids by picking up a Kid Connection activity booklet. It works like a scavenger hunt to challenge kids to find specific things in the paintings.
About Terry Redlin
After losing a leg in a motorcycle accident at age 15, Redlin received a small scholarship from the state and went to art school. He worked as a commercial artist for 15 years before retiring at age 42 to pursue a career as a full-time wildlife painter. After 10 years of painting only wildlife scenes, he began incorporating people into his paintings. After that, he began to paint small town life as he remembered it to become well known as an Americana artist.
Terry Redlin loved playing with light in his paintings, incorporating both natural and artificial lighting sources. This, along with his use of earthy colors, makes his paintings easily recognizable. Local Watertown features can be found in many paintings, although none were painted in their original settings.
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My kids love to paint and draw, so I would love to show them Terry Redlin’s artwork.
The Center includes some of his early school-age drawings, up through his commercial art period and then all of the beautiful originals. You can understand the story of his life and see the evolution of his career and the stories behind his art.
Free Things to Do in Watertown SD: Watertown Artwalk
Downtown Watertown consists of a 40-block area designated as a historic district, with 64 buildings on the National Historic Register. The architecture and history alone are plenty of reasons to stop and check out what locals call their ‘Uptown’ area.
Uptown is also host to Watertown’s annual public art program called Artwalk. Each year the local area chooses new art, in order to provide a unique variety that appeals to all ages.
There are 13 sculptures in the Uptown area. Two more are on display at the Terry Redlin Art Center and Lake Area Technical Institute. Each sculpture includes a plaque listing the name of the art, the artist, the Artwalk sponsor and a statement about the art.
TravelingMom Tip: Pick up a brochure listing the sculptures and their locations at many area businesses. Enjoy a leisurely stroll to explore or let your kids hunt for each sculpture as you go. Don’t miss any of them!
Free Things to Do in Watertown SD: Parks on Lake Kampeska
Lake Kampeska is more than 5,000 acres in size, with 13.5 miles of shoreline. Although most of the lake frontage is privately owned, there are public access points and beaches for everyone to enjoy the recreational opportunities that the lake provides.
Stokes Thomas City Park
Located on the eastern shore of Lake Kampeska, Stokes Thomas City Park is free and offers plenty of family-friendly fun. The park includes a (non-supervised) swimming beach, boardwalk and bike trail, basketball and sand volleyball courts, playgrounds and picnic shelters. If you’re looking to stay overnight, there are also 72 camping spots available on a first-come basis and a boat launch. The park is also home to Watertown’s Veterans’ Memorial.
TravelingMom Tip: If you do have a little money to spend, you can also rent non-motorized vehicles such as bicycles, kayaks or paddleboats here. This is an inexpensive and fun way to enjoy even more recreational opportunities together as a family.
Also located on Lake Kampeska (northern side) is the 90-acre Memorial Park, which offers swimming, a playground, picnic shelter and more, all for free. In fall there is a monarch butterfly garden, and any time of year you can enjoy the hiking trail and scenic overlook. Camping is also available here (not free).
If you are able to get out onto the lake, don’t miss the beautiful houses along the shoreline. Local artist Terry Redlin built a home on the lake’s eastern shore and his family still spends time there. On my pontoon boat ride around the lake, we passed the property and were treated to a friendly wave from Terry’s son, Charles.
Although not free, the Sandy Shore Recreation Area offers options for boating, camping, swimming and more.
Free Things to Do in Watertown SD: Mellette House and Heritage Museum
If your family is into history, these two sites are are definite (and free!) must-sees on your stop in Watertown.
Built in 1885, the Mellette House was the home of South Dakota’s first governor and has been restored with many original furnishings donated by the family. Admission and guided tours of the site are free (although donations are accepted) from May 1-October 1. Check hours and availability before you arrive.
The Codington County Heritage Museum showcases local history and also offers free programs for elementary-aged kids every weekday afternoon. The museum is housed in the former Carnegie Library building in downtown Watertown. In 2022, masks are encouraged and hours may be limited.
(Almost) Free Things to Do in Watertown SD: Bramble Park Zoo
Although the Bramble Park Zoo isn’t technically free, it does participate in reciprocal membership programs with many other zoos around the country. It’s always a good idea to call ahead first, just to confirm, but if you’re a member of your local zoo then chances are that you can visit Watertown’s Bramble Park Zoo for free.
Even if you do end up having to pay admission, this zoo is definitely worth the price.
Bramble Park Zoo is the second-largest in South Dakota and home to more than 800 animals, including monkeys, otters, wolves, camels, jaguars and tigers. There is a KidZoo area, a playground, picnic shelters and a fun Ottertown exhibit.
Unlike other zoos I’ve visited, this one allows you to (safely) get much closer to the animals. Even though not all of them were up and moving around, they were easy to spot at such close distance.
The zoo also focuses heavily on education, considering itself a ‘living classroom’, and is a participant in Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots youth educational program. The zoo’s Terry Redlin Environmental Center includes many interactive and educational displays, focusing on native South Dakota fish and wildlife.
When we visited, I was struck by the KidZoo area. More than just a petting zoo, kids can get up close with goats, donkeys, cows and more. The animals are cared for by teen volunteers – a great way to keep older kids involved. The zoo also has many outreach programs that bring wildlife out into the community.
Kids can explore, climb and play all throughout the KidZoo. The area also includes sculptures and a historic circa 1918 windmill.
More (Mostly) Free Things to Do in Watertown SD
- I’m intrigued by the idea of Watertown’s Kid Only Fishing Pond, located in Riverside Park. Only kids aged 18 and under (accompanied by an adult) are allowed to fish there. There’s no fishing license required and no fees. I’m told that it’s well-stocked with fish and therefore very popular!
- If you love history and architecture, definitely check out the Historical Homes Walking Tour, which showcases many well-preserved local homes. Guidebooks are available at the Visitor Center.
- The historic Goss Opera House & Gallery in downtown Watertown should also be a must-see on your list. It’s free to walk in and check out the historic building and artwork displayed on the main floor.
- If shopping is your thing, check out the one-level Watertown Mall, located on 9th Ave. This, of course, is only free if you stick to window shopping!
Food & Drink in Watertown
- Don’t miss the dining options at Crossroads Bar & Grill, located inside the historic Goss Opera House.
- The Glacial Lakes Distillery offers hand-crafted spirits. Tours and tastings are available.
- Dempsey’s Brewery & Pub is the second oldest brewery in South Dakota, located in a landmark building in downtown Watertown.
- Watertown Brewing Company is located on Kemp Avenue, providing handcrafted beer and pub fare.
Watertown SD Weather
Essentially, you can expect plenty of wind, along with hot, humid summers and very cold, snowy winters. The best times to visit are usually spring and fall to avoid both the extreme temperatures as well as peak tourist season. Make sure to wear layers that can be easily taken off and put back on if the weather changes without warning.