Cities of the Plain

Destination: Sioux City: Find color-splashed autumn prairies, hog roasts and corn mazes on a trip to Siouxland
By Marci Alboher, Time Out New York, September 14, 2000

Few Manhattanites would place Iowa high on their list of dreamy destinations, but for those of us who practice what’s known as state collecting (I’ve visited 38 and have just 12 to go), Sioux City, which straddles Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, rivals the better-known Four Corners. At the urging of an Iowan friend, my husband and I visited Sioux City this summer, happily adding three check marks to our dog-eared map of the U.S. But even those of you who don’t have a carto-fetish might have a hard time resisting a place that promises pig roasts, riverboat gambling, three Bomgaars farming-supply stores and some of the last original A&W drive-ins in the country. Not to mention gorgeous fall foliage, a rollicking football season and those amber waves of grain.

There are actually three Sioux Cities—Sioux City, Iowa; North Sioux City, South Dakota; and South Sioux City, Nebraska—that together form a region long known as Siouxland. Built on the banks of the Missouri River, Siouxland is the birthplace of Gateway Computers, Jolly Time Popcorn, SueBee Honey, and the Twin Bing candy bar (okay, so that one isn’t too well-known outside of Iowa). The locals are generally big and blond and have a funny habit of smiling all the time and saying hello or waving even if they don’t know you. Everyone we met had a farmer as a not-too-distant relative, and the 5am market report on local radio (“beans up 7 percent”) is not tracking the Dow Jones, although it often involves bulls. Flipping through the local paper, I stumbled upon the livestock section, whose lingo is as befuddling as the TONY personal ads (“500 feeder pigs weekly bred gifts to farrow soon”). We were far, far away from the New York version of the tristate area.

Of the three Siouxs, Iowa’s is the leader in the charm department; there’s a distinguished courthouse, a walkable downtown and a cluster of residential urban neighborhoods with stately homes. The South Dakota and Nebraska cities are more industrial. On the Iowa side of the river, you’ll find Historic Fourth Street (they really call it that), a budding downtown district with a small collection of restored late-19th-century buildings. Only two blocks long, it’s home to several good restaurants and antiques shops. Iowa also offers the Public Museum, a Romanesque mansion housing Native American and Civil War artifacts. As the city’s name betrays, in the years of westward expansion, this was Sioux Indian territory; today, there are several nearby Sioux reservations, and Native Americans make up an integral part of all three Sioux cities. A sculpture on a hillock in town, the War Eagle Monument (Exit 151 off Rte 129), honors a Native American hero (the inscription simply reads “Friend of White Man”), and is a great place to catch a view of all three state borders.

If you visit during fall, you won’t be able to miss either football or foliage, since both will be in high season. Leaf-peeping generally lasts from late September through mid-October, but since this year has been incredibly dry in the Midwest, the golden yellows have already begun to appear on the trees. The Loess (pronounced luss) Hills extend about 200 miles south of Siouxland, and afford many opportunities to hike through the local prairie, where the grasses turn bronze, gold and blueish-purple at this time of year. Dorothy Pecault Nature Center (4500 Sioux River Rd, Sioux City, Iowa, 712-258-0838) makes a convenient launching pad. Or you can drive 45 miles to Turin, Iowa, and book a night at the Country Homestead Bed & Breakfast (22133 Larpenteur Rd, Turin, Iowa, 712-353-6772;; doubles from $65); owner David Zahrt offers guided hikes through the prairie on his property and on an adjacent nature preserve.

To flee the city Siouxland-style, head 110 miles northeast to Lake Okoboji, western Iowa’s answer to the Hamptons and home to the decidedly un-Hamptons-like Arnold’s Park, the oldest amusement park west of the Mississippi (closes October 1). Take in some views by following Lakeshore Drive along West Lake Okoboji, or head to the Hogsback Wildlife Area (call for a tour with county naturalist Barbara Kettleson, 712-338-4238). On your way from Siouxland to the lake, make a stop at one of the original A&W Family Restaurant root beer drive-ins (101 Park St at the junction of Hwys 60 and 80, Sheldon, Iowa, 712-324-3368); a float costs $2.23, hamburgers are also a steal, and you’ll be served on a tray propped up against your car window. Or you can go inside, where phones on the tables allow you to “call in” your order.

As for football, most of the rooting in these parts is for the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are a preseason favorite this year. They play 150 miles away in Lincoln, but that doesn’t stop Siouxlanders from participating; to see a game, you can always stop in at Town House Pizza and Lounge (2701 Floyd Blvd, Sioux City, Iowa, 712-252-5146), a local dive with pizza and munchies. Plant yourself in front of one of the countless TV screens and sip beer from a mason jar mug.

Back down on the farm, the exciting news is cornstalk mazes. Terry Gahm, an Iowa native who did some time in New York as a struggling comedian before returning to make his way as a pumpkin farmer, has created just the spot, around 40 miles from Sioux City. During harvest season, Gahm dedicates some field space to “agritainment.” This year, he’s carved seven separate mazes into a 15-acre cornfield. After you’ve exhausted yourself wandering through cornfields taller than you are, wind down by renting a bonfire pit and roasting hot dogs and s’mores (E.G.’s Pumpkin Farm, 27126 Hazel Ave, Onawa, Iowa, 800-810-FARM).

If maize mazes are just too corny for you, local innkeepers Cynthia and George Wakeman have teamed up with a local music shop to put together a concert series featuring underground folk artists from around the country. The shows will be at the English Mansion Bed & Breakfast (see Accommodations, below).

Dining & nightlife

When it comes time for supper (a meal that begins around 6pm and is never called “dinner”), locals concur that the action is on Historic Fourth Street. Though the feel is more Soho than Sioux, Blue Stem (1012 Fourth St, Sioux City, Iowa, 712-279-8060) is notable as Sioux City’s nod toward fusion cuisine. When it launched in 1998, a mysterious item called couscous created quite a stir, but the locals gave it a chance and it survived (polenta is still disguised as “corn pudding” to avoid a replay of the couscous incident). The Victorian Opera House (1021 Fourth St, Sioux City, Iowa, 712-255-4821; sandwich, soup and chips $5.50), a café with an attached shop, features sandwiches, soups and frilly desserts. Just across the street is Buffalo Alice (1022 Fourth St, Sioux City, Iowa, 712-255-4822; 11-inch pizza, $10.75), a laid-back neighborhood bar and pizzeria.

For a really different dining experience, check the local papers to see if a hog roast is scheduled. Our hosts took us to one at McCook Lake. We parked at the local clubhouse next to pickup trucks and trailers, and within minutes we were sipping pop (Midwestern for soda) and pulling off pieces of succulent pork from the huge hog suspended over the barbecue pit (prices vary).

Siouxland also offers a few gambling options. The Belle of Sioux City (100 Larsen Park Rd, Sioux City, Iowa, 800-424-0080) is a cramped and smoke-filled riverboat whose most attractive feature is that it cruises the Missouri River for two hours each morning (it spends the rest of the day in port). For a larger casino where you’ll have more elbow room, you’ll need to drive 20 miles to WinnaVegas (712-428-9466), located on the Winnebago Indian reservation. Sadly, we didn’t get to see a “cow poop lottery.” During this popular local happening held at various venues around town, players place bets on patches of land and a prize is awarded to the lucky ticket holder whose parcel is the first to become the cow’s toilet. Siouxland may not have Broadway, but you can’t say it’s boring.


The two inns run by Cynthia and George Wakeman—corporate dropouts who’ve bought Sioux City white elephants and restored them—are rich in detail, cozy and affordable. At Rose Hill Inn (1602 Douglas St, Sioux City, Iowa, 712-258-8678; doubles $90–$150), expect feather beds, whirlpool tubs, and lovely antiques. The English Mansion Bed & Breakfast (1525 Douglas St, Sioux City, Iowa, 712-277-1386; doubles $90–$150) has more of the same, plus three-course gourmet breakfasts and hand-painted ceiling murals. Another option is the Marina Inn (Fourth and B Sts, South Sioux City, Nebraska, 402-494-4000; doubles from $89), the major hotel in town, which has views of the Missouri River, or Country Inn & Suites (151 Tower Rd, Dakota Dunes, South Dakota 800-456-4000, 605-232-3500; doubles from $59), a reliable Midwestern chain across the border in South Dakota.

A final note about state collecting: If you’re strict about what constitutes a visit to a state (do you count airports? must you have a meal?), you may want to make your lodging and eating decisions based on state residence. Our trip was Iowa-heavy, but Siouxland natives cross state lines regularly, and so can you.

Getting there

At press time, Travelocity’s lowest published fares for round-trip flights between New York and Sioux City were $335 (Northwest, Continental or TWA). You can rent a car at the Sioux City airport from Hertz for about $27.95 per day.


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