Situated in the center of the country, South Dakota offers urban attractions and rugged natural beauty. From badlands jutting into the sky to National Music Museums, South Dakota offers several reasons to take a vacation.
The outdoors is truly stunning in South Dakota and is what draws the most visitors. The Black Hills on the western side of the state define most outdoor adventures. Within these wooded acres, which supported indigenous populations for thousands of years, visitors find an array of attractions, including underground caves and larger-than-life monuments.
As evident in the patriotic nature of monuments like Mount Rushmore, the landscapes of South Dakota also come with a unique history that adds to the experience of visiting. Other places to visit, like Deadwood, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Good Earth State Park, also expand on the history of the region.
Find your own story to tell with our list of the top attractions in South Dakota.
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1. Mount Rushmore National Monument
This historical monument is South Dakota’s most prominent tourist attraction. Carved majestically into the side of the mountain are the heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. The carving, designed by Gutzon, was begun in 1927, halted for several decades, and finally completed in 1991.
In its creation, more than 400,000 tons of rock was blasted from the side of the mountain. The monument is illuminated in the evening and accompanied by a patriotic ceremony. Located on the terrace overlooking the monument, the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center is a fun part of any visit. The 0.6-mile Presidential Trail allows visitors to get a closer look at the monument.
While Mount Rushmore is often a defining feature of a South Dakota vacation, most people only spend about a half day at the monument. The Black Hills surrounding Mount Rushmore offer many more days to add to a vacation itinerary. To make the most out of the area, it’s recommended to look into some of the best campgrounds near Mount Rushmore.
Address: 13000 SD-244, Keystone, South Dakota
2. Badlands National Park
The dramatic landscape of Badlands National Park consists of uniquely formed hills and pinnacles made from the erosion of clay and sand. A large herd of bison roams freely within the park, adding a unique element to the whole experience. This inhospitable scenery is strangely beautiful and one of South Dakota’s most visited destinations
Lined with parking places and viewpoints, the Badlands Loop Road tours the scenic environment from the northwestern Pinnacles Entrance to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Changing vistas of rugged rock formations are the real appeal of this scenic route, as well as the Buffalo Gap National Grassland, one of the last remaining intact prairie landscapes in North America.
The Cedar Pass area is home to the park’s eight designated trails. Routes like the Door, Window, and Notch Trails offer an easy hike into the challenging environment. Maps can be obtained from the park administration or from visitor centers.
3. Custer State Park
As one of the best state and national parks in South Dakota, Custer State Park covers a wide range of different terrain. A large herd of bison roams the peaceful landscape, which is also home to a wide variety of other wildlife. And Granite peaks tower over the forests, lakes, and streams.
Scenic drives, like the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, provide easy access to the park with great views along the way. And several campgrounds within the park host visitors from around the world. For the more adventurous, there are trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.
One must-travel route in Custer is the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. This waterfront route leads around the rock-lined reservoir and has many side trails to explore. In the same area, hikers will also find the challenging trailhead leading up to Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak, and the highest peak in the state.
Another must-see attraction in Custer is the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southeast corner of the park. The best time to make this scenic loop is early morning or late evening, when the resident bison are most active.
Address: 13329 U.S. 16A, Custer, South Dakota
4. Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park, located just north of Hot Springs, is home to a huge karstic cave system, thought to be among the largest in the world. It was discovered in 1881 by a hunter, who noticed a draft coming from a split in the rock. The cave contains a unique and delicate cave structure known as “boxwork,“ which is found in few other places in the world.
The only way to explore Wind Cave is through one of the many Park Ranger guided sightseeing tours that take place nearly every day of the year. Different tours are available for different ability levels, with most routes following along lighted and cement pathways installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
For those not interested in an underground tour, the above ground area of the park is also very beautiful, with rolling hills and roaming bison. The Elk Mountain Campground at the national park sits among these above-ground surroundings and provides a less crowded experience than other campgrounds in the area.
5 . Mammoth Site
The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs features a large number of Columbian mammoth bones. More than 60 mammoths, including three woolly mammoths, have been discovered at this site. Visitors can see partially uncovered mammoth bones shown as they were found, in a covered, climate-controlled building.
Guided tours are available, giving visitors a glimpse of the excavation process. Junior and Advanced Paleontology Classes are available for anyone interested in getting their hands dirty. The on-site Ice Age Exhibit Hall displays some of the fossils being found underground.
Address: 1800 US Bypass, Hot Springs, South Dakota
Dense Black Hills scenery surrounds Deadwood. And this blast-from-the-past destination is steeped in the rich history of the Black Hills Gold Rush.
Deadwood’s Wild West origins are on full display and waiting to be experienced throughout the downtown streets. Some of the top attractions of Deadwood include reenacted shootouts on Historic Main Street, the Adams Museum, and the Broken Boot Gold Mine.
Another fun place to visit in Deadwood, the Mount Moriah Cemetery is the final resting place for some of the biggest characters of the Wild West, including “Wild Bill” Hickok, who met his demise in a local Deadwood establishment.
The city still has a touch of its wilder days, but much of the fun is centered towards families looking to enjoy a South Dakota vacation.
7. Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon is a beautiful natural area known for an abundance of ponderosa and spruce pine trees, as well as stunning waterfalls and dramatic cliff walls. Popular roadside attractions and hikes in Spearfish Canyon include Bridal Veil and the Rough Lock Falls, and the Spearfish Peak and Little Crow Peak.
While anytime of the year guarantees beautiful natural scenery along the 22-mile route, the entire area is particularly scenic in the fall, when the foliage begins to change color.
Just north of Spearfish is the geographical center of the United States. The city of Spearfish, the northern terminus of Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, is a great basecamp, with a lively community and several places to spend the night.
8. Good Earth State Park at Blood Run
On the western side of the state and outskirts of Sioux Falls, Good Earth State Park has a deep history in the area despite its relatively new status as a state park. Good Earth State Park, as part of the larger Blood Run National Historic Landmark, occupies a lush area that once served as a thriving trading center and gathering places for the Oneota peoples.
The site is currently regarded as one of the oldest areas of human history in the country. Visitors today can learn about the culture and history of the area through a newly installed 11,000-square-foot visitor center.
The park also maintains over 650 acres of native habitat, including interpretive trails that lead to the Big Sioux River. These allow visitors to experience the environment that has hosted these Native American people for thousands of years.
Address: 26924 480th Ave, Sioux Falls, South Dakota
9. Old Courthouse Museum
The Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls is a restored 1800s quartzite building with three floors. The interior contains several interesting features, including murals on the walls showing life in an earlier era of South Dakota. All the museum displays exhibits relate to the history of the state and town.
Admission is free, although donations are accepted. Popular permanent exhibits at the Old Courthouse Museum include a replica of a 19th-century schoolroom and an artifact-filled gallery dedicated to the first World War.
Address: 6th and Main Street, Sioux Falls