Watertown may not be the biggest city in South Dakota, but there’s certainly plenty for families to do. If you’re heading along I-29 on the eastern side of the state, make sure to plan a stop here. There are all kinds of fun art, culture and recreation opportunities, and many of them are free!
Located in the heart of the agricultural eastern side of South Dakota along I-29, Watertown has frontage on the shores of both Lake Kampeska and Pelican Lake. Water activities are definitely very popular here, along with camping, hunting and fishing. This city of 21,000 is the fifth largest city in South Dakota and offers many different types of fun activities for families. I recently had the chance to explore the area, and am happy to share five (mostly) free things to do in Watertown. Plus a few extras!
Free Things to Do in Watertown SD: Terry Redlin Art Center
Terry Redlin was a well-known wildlife and Americana artist from Watertown, who created over 200 paintings during his 30-year career. For several years he was also 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 1900’s. Built in the mid 1990’s as a gift to his hometown, the Center is open year-round and never charges an admission fee.
The spotlight of the Center is definitely the stunning artwork, but the 30-acre site is also home to a park with walking trails and gazebos. They also various host special events throughout the year. The cell phone based audio tour allows you to hear the stories of some of Terry Redlin’s paintings in his own voice. You can also use their Kid Connection activity booklet which challenges kids to find specific things within the paintings themselves (like a scavenger hunt). The Kid Connection can also be a fun activity for families to do together.
A few fun facts about Terry Redlin… After losing a leg in a motorcycle accident at age 15, he 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.
I visited the Center without my daughters this time, but would love to take them back there someday to explore. My girls love to paint and draw, so it would be a great educational experience 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 not only understand the story of his life, but also see the evolution of his career and the stories behind his art.
One of my favorite paintings is Spring Fishing, which showcases a beautiful stone bridge. You can see the same stone bridge still today in Watertown’s Riverside Park. I love how Terry Redlin incorporated his home town and memories, making his paintings the story of Watertown as well as his own life.
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.
Ten of the sculptures are located along a three-block stretch of the Uptown area, while the last is on display at the Terry Redlin Art Center. Each sculpture includes a plaque listing the name of the art, the artist, the Artwalk sponsor and a statement about the art. You can 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 over 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.
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 Veteran’s Memorial.
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. Our group had the opportunity to take a pontoon ride around much of the lake, and were treated to a friendly wave from Terry’s son Charles as we went by the family’s property.
Free Things to Do in Watertown SD: Mellette House and Heritage Museum
If your family is into checking out historical sites and museums, 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).
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.
(Almost) Free Things to Do in Watertown SD: Bramble Park Zoo
Although the Bramble Park Zoo isn’t technically free, they do 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 over 800 animals of all kinds, including monkeys, otters, wolves, camels, jaguars and tigers. There is a KidZoo area, a playground, picnic shelters and a fun new Ottertown exhibit. Unlike other zoos I’ve visited, this one allows you to (safely) get much more up close 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. Their 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 definitely 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.
Bonus 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 history and architecture are your thing, 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 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. Although once inside, you may as well stay for a meal at Charley’s Restaurant or Crossroads Bar & Grill.