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Fort Sisseton State Park  (South Dakota)

(Reprint from News: August 30, 2001)

August 30, 2001

 

One of the reasons I like to travel is discovering terrific out-of-the-way places that few people know about.  During my 3-month trip around America in 1995 (see Previous Roadtrips, 1995-1999), the most outstanding "hidden jewel" that I discovered was the Cumberland Island National Seashore on the southern coast of Georgia.  So far during this trip, that honor goes to Fort Sisseton State Park in northeastern South Dakota.

 

I drove out to Fort Sisseton (SIS-a-ton) during my fourth evening in Webster while doing research at the Day County Courthouse, having spent the previous nights at a motel, on Ole Svang's homestead, and at a rather mundane State Park nearby.  I planned to stay at Fort Sisseton for a night or two before heading up to Bismarck, but I enjoyed my stay there so much that I stayed for a week and a half, mostly getting caught up with my website and e-mail, and just relaxing. 

 

I'm still trying to figure out why more people don't visit this park.  And I left only because the empty campground would be filled the next night for the start of Labor Day weekend.  Compared to all the crowded, dingy State Park campgrounds that I stayed at in the South that cater to obnoxious beer-chugging, muscle-t-shirt-wearing powerboat owners, this park was a gem.  Even not compared to them. 

 

As I walked around Fort Sisseton, I kept thinking about F Troop, the 1960 TV series about a cavalry fort on the frontier.  Here's the song.

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Fort Sisseton was built in 1864, a few years after the Dakota Uprising, on what was then the wild frontier of the Dakota Territory (think "Dances With Wolves" for the era and the setting, and you'll get the idea).  For the next 25 years, the fort was manned by soldiers in the U.S. Army and Cavalry, most of whom were not exactly thrilled to be stationed at this remote outpost.   

 

After Fort Sisseton was abandoned in 1889, the buildings fell into disrepair but in 1960, the land was acquired by the South Dakota State Parks Department.  They've worked hard ever since to restore the fort and have done a magnificent job.  There are about 15 buildings open to the public, each labeled with an interpretive sign and filled with interesting displays inside, including the North Barracks, which now serves as the spacious and informative Visitor Center.  

       

Above left:  The Officer's Quarters at Fort Sisseton State Park.

Above center:  The North Barracks have been converted into a Visitor Center and also contain a replica of the barracks.

Above right:  Sunset over the peaceful and empty campground.  The old stable, reputedly the longest stone structure in the U.S., contains the campground's restroom and showers.   This is the only place where I've showered in a stable!

 

       

Above left:  I was going to stay at Fort Sisseton for only a day or two, but I liked the peaceful campground here so much that I stayed for a week and a half.

Above center:  An inquisitive horse.

Above right:  The lonely highway near Fort Sisseton.  There's very little traffic on this road during the day and virtually none at night.  Fort Sisseton is one of the most peaceful places I've ever visited in the U.S.

 

This park reminds me of Fort Snelling in Minneapolis or Fort Laramie in Wyoming except there are very few visitors and, unlike those parks, there's also a campground.  The wonderful 14-site campground overlooks a beautiful prairie that provides magnificent sunset vistas across the prairie each night.  Amazingly enough, the campground was empty (or nearly empty) every night I was there.  The restrooms and showers are located in the former stable that's reputed to be the longest stone building in the U.S., and the grounds are very well-kept.  

 

A gentle wind blew through the campground each day, the weather was perfect, I was well-stocked with carrot cake from Jim's Supermarket in Webster, and I fell asleep each night to the soft chirping of crickets.  For nine peaceful days, all was right with the world.

 

I still can't figure out why more people haven't discovered this place.  Fort Sisseton is one of the best kept secrets in the Dakotas and it made my list of 10 Favorite State Parks in the U.S.  There isn't a lot of glitz here, but if you like solitude, are interested in history, and enjoy watching beautiful sunsets over the prairie from a quiet campground, you'll really love this out-of-the-way gem.

 

 

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