South Dakota is full of natural beauty and interesting history! From Native American heritage and gold rush towns to National Parks—there are plenty of sights and attractions to explore. Whether you’re a nature lover, science enthusiast or a history buff, there’s something for everyone. Here are eight top things to see in South Dakota for your itinerary.
What’s in this post:
- Cool things to see in South Dakota
- Getting to South Dakota
- What to pack for South Dakota
Cool things to see in South Dakota
This mining town set in the Black Hills, may be familiar to you via the HBO television series. While the series was mostly produced on a ranch in California, let me assure you, Deadwood is a very real place. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, many colonial settlers moved in to try to make their fortune. They found a gulch filled with dead trees and a creek glittering with placer gold. That place was named Deadwood and was soon transformed into the stuff of Wild West legend.
One such story is that of Wild Bill Hickok. The gold seeker was playing poker one night in Saloon #10 when angry Jack McCall shot him point blank. The hand of aces and eights Wild Bill was said to have been holding at the moment he was murdered is, to this day, known as the Dead Man’s Hand.
Wild Bill was buried in the Moriah Cemetery on a hillside overlooking the town. Calamity Jane, another name you probably recognise, is buried right next to him. It’s said that Jane was smitten with Bill, but the feeling wasn’t mutual. Well, he’s stuck with her now, and you can visit both their graves, along with Saloon #10.
These days, Deadwood is a Hollywood version of itself, but the history is real and worth a couple of hours stop on your journey.
2. Custer State Park & Black Hills National Forest
Located not far south of Deadwood, in the Black Hills, are Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest. These protected wilderness areas are absolute gems and some of the best things to see in South Dakota.
Custer State Park is best traversed using Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road to take in all the gorgeous landscapes. The scenic byways thread through rock arches and wind around unique pigtail bridges, passing by alpine lakes and panoramic pull-outs.
The Park also offers lots of neat 2-8-km (1-5-mi) trails for day hikers. The Park charges $20 per vehicle for a 7-day pass – get more details here.
Tip: Don’t miss the annual Buffalo Roundup, held the last Friday of September. Each year cowboys and cowgirls round up the Park’s 1300+ bison. The event is part of managing the Park’s herd and includes various health checks on the corralled animals.
3. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is arguably the most famous landmark in South Dakota. The massive sculpture features the faces of four U.S. presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – carved into the granite mountainside.
Visitors can take a Ranger-led tour, watch a film about the monument’s history, take a short hike on the Blackberry Trail and explore the visitor’s center. Don’t miss the nightly lighting ceremony, where the faces are illuminated against the night sky.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free to enter, but there is a charge of $10 for parking.
Tip: During the warmer months, the Memorial is open from 5am to 11pm. To avoid the crowds and get great photographs, arrive before 9am. After 4pm the sight begins to quieten down again but the light isn’t as favourable for photography.
4. Crazy Horse Memorial
One of the most impressive landmarks in South Dakota is the Crazy Horse Memorial. This massive sculpture is still a work in progress, but when completed, it will be the largest mountain carving in the world.
The yet incomplete sculpture will one day depict the Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse riding a horse and pointing into the distance. For now, just his face and outstretched finger are complete.
Visitors can take a bus tour to the base of the sculpture for $5 per person, and learn about its history and significance. There is also a neat museum on site that showcases Native American art and culture. An evening laser show during the summer months, illuminates what will be the completed sculpture.
Admission to Crazy Horse Memorial is $30 per vehicle during low season (October to early-May) and $35 per vehicle in high season (late-May to September).
5. Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is a must-see destination in South Dakota. If you’ve enjoyed a visit to Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah or Arizona’s Painted Desert, you’ll appreciate the Park’s stunning rock formations. In addition to the geologic features of the Park, you’ll experience expansive prairies that are home to a variety of wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and prairie dogs.
Visitors can hike the many trails, take a scenic drive, or even camp in the park. Don’t forget to stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to learn more about the park’s fascinating history and geology.
6. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
For those interested in the Cold War or nuclear weapons, there is a little-known site right outside of Badlands National Park you must take the time to visit. Stretched across three different locations along the I-90 E are remnants of Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile System.
In addition to the Visitor’s Center, the National Historic Site preserves two facilities in their historic state:
- Launch Control Facility Delta-01, which is fairly non-descript, yellow ranch house that is the topside support for an underground control facility 31-feet below the surface. You can tour the underground control center, but book well in advance. Due to the confined space, tour groups are small and usually sell out.
- Delta-09 Missile Silo, is where you can look down into a silo which for almost three decades concealed a Minuteman Missile equipped with a warhead that could devastate an enemy. The silo now contains a deactivated training missile beneath an aluminium and glass enclosure allowing visitors a look into the launcher.
7. Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park is a unique destination in South Dakota, known for its intricate cave system and diverse wildlife. Visitors can take guided tours of the caves, which feature rare formations like boxwork and frostwork.
Above ground, the park offers hiking trails, camping, and opportunities to see bison, pronghorn, and other animals.
Visiting the Park’s spectacular cave system is by Ranger-led tour only. During high season it is best to book in advance.
Tip: The cave is a constant 54°F (12°C) and the floors are uneven, so be sure to dress appropriately.
8. Hot Springs Mammoth Site
In the small town of Hot Springs lies an unexpected natural history treasure—a mammoth mass grave and active paleontological site. The scientific and educational facility encases what was once a sinkhole where Columbian and wooly mammoths, came to eat and drink. Unfortunately for the giant creatures, once inside they could not escape the steep-sided watering hole and drowned.
So far, scientists have exhumed up over 60 mammoth skeletons in this tiny area, along with other ice age mammals. They have dug down to roughly 190,000 years in geologic history and continue to explore the area.
Adult admission to the Hot Springs Mammoth Site is $14. The Site does not receive government funding and admissions go towards the upkeep, research and educational programs at the facility.
Getting to South Dakota
The highest concentration of things to do in South Dakota, is in the western half of the State, making Rapid City a convenient base for your travels. There are two ways to get there: fly or drive. Amtrak does not service South Dakota.
Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) operates direct flights to and from seven US cities: Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, Charlotte, Chicago and Minneapolis. If you are visiting from another part of the US, it is likely you will need to connect through Denver.
Tip: If you are driving to South Dakota from the west, say you’re travelling from Grand Teton or Yellowstone National Parks, make sure you plan your route via Devil’s Tower National Monument. The unusual geologic feature is located close to the Wyoming-South Dakota border.
Best time to visit South Dakota
Western South Dakota experiences warm, fairly clear summers and freezing, snowy winters. May is the rainiest month, although in our experience that just meant a passing afternoon thunderstorm. In winter, roads and attractions may be closed due to heavy snowfall.
Based on weather and longer daylight hours for exploring, the best time to visit South Dakota is the end of May through to early September. However, you may want to avoid mid-July to the end of August if you don’t like the heat—meaning average high temperatures of about 30°C (85°F).
What to pack for South Dakota
For a late-spring through early-fall trip to South Dakota, pack light layers in breathable fabrics. Sturdy walking shoes, sun protection and bug spray are a must. A light rain jacket is advisable. Don’t forget your camera and your America the Beautiful National Parks pass, if you have one.
South Dakota will surprise you with its abundance of scenic landscapes, Native American heritage, wild west history, Cold War remnants and more. The Midwestern State flies well under the radar of most travellers and is just waiting to be explored!
Peace, love & inspiring travels,