Across a vast expanse of natural beauty, South Dakota is rich in history, outdoor activities and one-of-a-kind experiences. The state boasts two of the longest caves in the world, the world’s largest mammoth research facility, the final resting place of western legends, sacred Native American sites and many other unique attractions the whole family will love. Ready to start planning your trip? From Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills to Badlands National Park and Crazy Horse Monument, read on for a list of the top things to do in South Dakota. (Note: Some tours and excursions may be affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Capacity restrictions, mask mandates and even closures may be in effect. Check with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local tourism boards before making plans.)
Crazy Horse Memorial
This larger-than-life mountain monument is dedicated to Crazy Horse (Tasunke Witco in Lakota), who led a band of Lakota warriors against George Custer’s battalion at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Crazy Horse monument, which has been under construction since 1948, is located in the heart of the Black Hills and is the world’s largest sculptural undertaking. Despite the fact that the monument remains unfinished, it attracts more than 1 million visitors every year. During your visit, you can also check out the Indian Museum of North America, which houses artwork and artifacts from more than 300 Native Nations, as well as the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, where you can learn about Native American history and culture through hands-on activities and instruction from Native artists. Throughout the year, the campus also hosts cultural performances, speaker series, art workshops, laser light shows and more. You can also dine at the Laughing Water Restaurant before you leave. Visitors say the memorial is a great place to learn about the Indigenous people of the region and to witness history in the making.
Address: 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD 57730
Carved into the Six Grandfathers Mountain, as it was known by the Lakota Sioux, Mount Rushmore is a tribute to four presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Located less than 25 miles southwest of Rapid City, the monument was first carved in 1927, and the final drilling took place in 1941. The end result was four faces, each 60 feet tall — the original plans included the presidents’ bodies down to their waists, but the project ran out of funds. Past visitors call Mount Rushmore a bucket list item and recommend taking one of the ranger-guided tours. The monument is busiest during the summer months, so if you want smaller crowds (without the cold weather), time your visit to Mount Rushmore for May, September or October.
Address: 13000 state Highway 244, Keystone, SD 57751
Custer State Park
Located roughly 30 miles southwest of Rapid City, Custer State Park boasts rolling hills, granite peaks and crystal-clear water. Whether you’re planning a daytrip or want to stay overnight (the park offers campgrounds and the historic Custer State Park Resort), there are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy. Options include hiking, biking, fishing, boating, hunting, horseback riding, swimming and snowshoeing. The park is also famous for its herd of nearly 1,500 free-roaming bison, as well as a variety of other wildlife, including deer, antelope, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys and more. Many visitors particularly recommend a visit to Sylvan Lake, which features calm water and stunning rock formations that make it a popular wedding destination.
Badlands National Park
About 60 miles southeast of Rapid City, you’ll find Badlands National Park. The park’s otherworldly landscape is a labyrinth of pinnacles, buttes, spires and canyons, which formed over the course of 75 million years. It’s also home to ancient fossils of saber-toothed cats and three-toed horses, among other species. Even if you just want to drive through the park via the Badlands Loop Road, you’ll likely want to make several stops to take in the region’s fascinating topography. Recent visitors praised Badlands National Park’s excellent hiking trails, but the Badlands are also a great place to observe wildlife, ride horses, go for a bike ride or spot constellations in the night sky — the park even hosts an annual Astronomy Festival every summer. Plus, for visitors looking to stay overnight, the park offers two official campgrounds.
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave, named for the barometric winds coming out of the cave’s entrance, is the first cave in the world to be declared a national park. According to Lakota oral tradition, the cave is a sacred place from which humans and bison first emerged to live on the earth’s surface. Spanning more than 150 miles, Wind Cave National Park is the sixth-longest cave in the world and is home to the world’s largest concentration of boxwork formations — a rare structure of honeycomb calcite on the cave’s walls. If you’re planning a visit, make sure you reserve a ranger-guided tour early, as they often sell out a few hours in advance. Above the cave, you can experience the biodiversity of the prairie. There are more than 30 miles of hiking trails, and you’ll be able to see free-roaming bison, prairie dogs, elk, various birds and more. The park has an official campground, but backcountry camping is also an option for more experienced adventurers. Recent visitors say the rangers and visitor center staff are very knowledgeable about the area, and even if you don’t get to tour the cave, the park is worth a visit.
Address: 26611 U.S. Route 385, Hot Springs, SD 57747
National Music Museum
Located at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion — about 60 miles south of Sioux Falls — the National Music Museum reopened its doors in 2021 after three years of extensive renovations. While the museum’s permanent exhibits are still closed — select spaces will open in 2022 — the museum hosts various events where guests can experience different musical styles and genres via live performances. As exhibits begin reopening, visitors will be able to learn about the art and craft of musical instruments and the role they play in our lives. You’ll also be able to see and learn about the various musical instruments that have been used throughout human history in different cultures and civilizations. For anyone who appreciates music and its contribution to the human experience, recent travelers highly recommend the National Music Museum.
Address: 414 E. Clark St., Vermillion, SD 57069
South Dakota’s intriguing Jewel Cave, located roughly 50 miles southwest of Rapid City, is the third-longest cave in the world. With more than 210 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, the cave provides a fascinating array of colors, fragile formations and scientific mysteries. Guided cave tours are available, though they tend to sell out quickly, so book in advance. Keep in mind, tours range from moderately difficult to strenuous, so consider your health and potential physical limitations before booking. The historic lantern tour is a half-mile route through low and narrow passages with a tour guide dressed in 1930s garb, and the only light is provided by lanterns. The scenic tour, the cave’s most popular tour, is another half-mile route that includes a visit to various chambers and passages along a paved trail with electric lighting. Meanwhile, the discovery tour is a short 20-minute introduction to Jewel Cave and is an excellent option for those who require a wheelchair or have difficulty climbing stairs. Past visitors to this tourist attraction say that the cave is an otherworldly experience and a great activity for families with small children.
Address: 11149 U.S. Route 16, Building B12, Custer, SD 57730
South Dakota Air and Space Museum
Situated less than 12 miles outside of Rapid City, the South Dakota Air and Space Museum is home to an extensive collection of aircraft, documents and artifacts that provide a complete history of Ellsworth Air Force Base, which played a crucial role in the Cold War. Here, visitors will be able to see B-29, B-52 and B-1 bombers; Titan I and Minuteman intercontinental ballistic missiles; an intact missile silo; and other artifacts. Entrance to the museum is free, but there is a small fee for the bus tour to the missile silo. As you plan your trip, note that the indoor galleries are closed in January and February and tours of the base and the missile silo are only offered from mid-May to mid-September. Recent visitors called the South Dakota Air and Space Museum an excellent educational experience, particularly if you’re an aviation or history buff.
Address: 24545 Cottonwood Road, Philip, SD 57567
Old Courthouse Museum
Sitting in downtown Sioux Falls, the Old Courthouse Museum is a restored 19th-century quartzite building with various exhibits detailing the history of the region. Inside the courthouse, you’ll find granite pillars, slate stairs, tiled fireplaces and stained-glass windows. Meanwhile, 16 large murals, painted in the early 20th century, adorn the museum’s hallways and depict early life in the Dakota Territory — the territory, which formed in 1861, initially included both North and South Dakota, as well as portions of Wyoming and Montana. The courthouse also features various exhibits where visitors can learn about the radiomen of World War II, the city planning efforts of early Sioux Falls, Native American tools and more. Past visitors say that the museum provides an interesting look at the region’s history, and the architecture of the building alone makes it worth the trip. Both admission to the museum and two-hour parking are free of charge.
Address: 200 W. Sixth St., Sioux Falls, SD 57104
The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs
This paleontological site and museum, located in Hot Springs, is ideal for history buffs. Despite the age of its ancient inhabitants, the site was only recently discovered when a heavy machine operator struck a 7-foot-long mammoth tusk while leveling the ground for a housing development in 1974. Still an active dig site, this attraction has produced a variety of Ice Age fossils, including bones from mammoths, mollusks, giant short-faced bears, camels and more. The museum also offers self-guided tours, along with various classes, learning activities, summer classes and other opportunities to learn about paleontology, archaeology, animal tracks and other related topics. Past visitors say The Mammoth Site is a great experience for both adults and children and offers fascinating archeological displays. The site is open year-round, with the exception of select holidays, and charges a fee for admission (kids 3 and younger are free).
Address: 1800 Highway 18 Bypass, Hot Springs, SD 57747
Predating the Grand Canyon, Spearfish Canyon is one of the most beautiful places to visit in South Dakota. The canyon stretches between Spearfish, which is near the South Dakota-Wyoming border, and Cheyenne Crossing, 20 miles to the south. Driving through the canyon, expect to see towering limestone cliffs, spruces, Ponderosa pines, aspens, birches and other tree varieties. You may also come across deer, mountain goats, porcupines and bobcats. Some of the major attractions you’ll want to include on your itinerary are Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Falls and Bridal Veil Falls, a cascading 60-foot waterfall with an observation platform. Plan your trip between September and October to experience Spearfish Canyon’s beautiful fall foliage. Locals never tire of driving through the canyon, but some visitors say that you’ll need to get out of your car and hike to get the full experience.
Bear Country USA
On the road to Mount Rushmore from Rapid City, you’ll find Bear Country USA. Open from spring through late November, the drive-thru wildlife park allows you to get up close and personal with a variety of animals, including black bears, elk, mountain lions, buffalo and reindeer, all from the comfort of your car. There’s also a Wildlife Walk area at this tourist attraction where you’ll find demonstrations, programs, keeper chats, a restaurant and a gift shop. Many past guests say it’s a great experience to see the animals in a more natural setting, although some note that depending on the time of day, it can get busy and the animals may be sleeping. Keep in mind, the park charges based on the number of occupants in each vehicle, not per vehicle. Understandably, convertibles, motorcycles and soft-top vehicles aren’t allowed, but the park does offer free courtesy vehicles you can use.
Address: 13820 U.S. Route 16, Rapid City, SD 57702
Established in 1876, Deadwood was a Wild West town established by gold prospectors. About 15 miles southeast of Spearfish, the town is now filled with attractions and fun activities. You can visit Mount Moriah Cemetery to see the graves of legends like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, visit the town brothel to learn about Deadwood’s history of prostitution — which didn’t end until 1980 — and check out the Adams Museum, which was founded in 1930 and provides a look into the history of the Black Hills. Some of the artifacts on display include a pencil sketch drawing of Wild Bill Hickok and Potato Creek Johnny’s original 7.346-troy-ounce gold nugget. The town is also home to several casinos and gaming halls, a handful of breweries and wineries, and shops where you can buy souvenirs, Amish furniture and a variety of other wares. Visitors say the charm of the Wild West is well preserved in the town and particularly enjoy the daily shootout reenactment.
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
If you’re a hardcore biker, there’s nothing quite like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Every year, hundreds of thousands of motorcyclists descend on the small town of Sturgis for one of the largest and longest-running motorcycle rallies in the world. Some non-bikers visit the town during the rally, which begins on the first Friday of August and lasts for 10 days, just to take in the experience. The rally hosts several events, including an opening ceremony, a pub crawl, a golf tournament, a beard and mustache contest, and a 5k run. There are also concerts with a mix of home-grown bands and household names. With so many people visiting this small town at once, be prepared to plan your accommodations well in advance. Options include hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, cabins, cottages, vacation rentals, campgrounds and RV parks.
Just 7 miles south of Rapid City, Reptile Gardens is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world’s largest reptile zoo. You won’t find more species and subspecies of reptiles at any other zoo or wildlife park anywhere on earth. This unique park is set in beautiful botanical gardens, which feature a variety of flora and fauna, and it even houses some of the world’s deadliest snakes, along with turtles, tortoises, lizards, crocodilians, birds, amphibians, bugs and some species that are native to South Dakota. In addition to the exhibits, which include a nearly 16-foot-long saltwater crocodile and giant tortoises you can mingle with, the park also hosts bird and snake shows, oceanic art, a gift shop and a cafe. Admission prices vary based on what time of the year you visit, with the summer season costing more than the others. Visitors recommend going early in the day to beat the crowds, but note that if you go during the offseason when admission is cheaper, you may miss out on some shows and experiences.
Address: 8955 U.S. Route 16, Rapid City, SD 57702
Good Earth State Park at Blood Run
South Dakota’s newest state park is located just outside of Sioux Falls near the Iowa border. The National Historic Landmark is an important cultural and historical site, as it’s one of the oldest sites of long-term human habitation in the country. The combination of the river, flood plains, wildlife, pipestone and protection from winds made the area a gathering place for ceremonies and a trading center for Native Americans between A.D. 1300 and 1700. At the massive visitor center, you can check out the exhibits and programs that highlight the area’s historical and cultural significance. You’ll also find hiking trails, fishing holes, picnic tables and other activities that allow you to connect with nature. Past visitors of the park have noted that the hiking trails are relatively easy with great views and the visitor center exhibits are impressive.
Address: 26924 480th Ave., Sioux Falls, SD 57108
This 14-mile scenic byway lies just 30 miles south of Rapid City, but you’ll feel like you’ve entered a completely different world. Completed in 1922, the road has you traverse sharp turns and narrow tunnels, dwarfed at every turn by needlelike granite spires. You’ll also pass through tranquil meadows surrounded by birch and aspen trees. The drive takes about 45 minutes to an hour, and you’ll want to take it slow, not only for safety reasons but also to savor the stunning views. However, recent visitors suggest going early in the day to avoid congestion on the road. Note that Needles Highway closes every year with the first snow of the season and doesn’t reopen again until April 1, or possibly later, depending on the weather conditions.
A lot of the top places to visit in South Dakota are focused on the state’s natural beauty and historical and cultural significance. But if you’re looking for a fun place to entertain your kids, Storybook Island in Rapid City should be on your radar. Just keep in mind, the theme park is only open during the summer season. It doesn’t charge admission, but there is a small fee for rides on the park’s carousel and train. The family-friendly theme park provides more than 100 storybook and nursery rhyme settings where children can play, as well as live theater productions to entertain the whole family. Past visitors call this unique attraction a must if you have small children, and while some exhibits are showing signs of age — the park has been around for more than 60 years — it doesn’t appear to take away from the experience.
Address: 1301 Sheridan Lake Road, Rapid City, SD 57702
Porter Sculpture Park
A little more than 30 miles northwest of Sioux Falls, Porter Sculpture Park offers a fascinating set of eclectic, larger-than-life metal sculptures created by Wayne Porter. The park is home to more than 50 installations, including a 60-foot-tall bull head, a butterfly, potted flowers and a pink rocking horse. You’re more than welcome to touch and even climb on the art, making the park an excellent destination for families with children, and if you have trouble walking, there are golf carts available. If you’re on your way to or from Sioux Falls, visitors say it’s worth the detour. Admission is affordable, and kids 12 and younger can get in for free. Keep in mind, the park is only open between mid-May and mid-October.
Address: 25700 451st Ave., Montrose, SD 57048
Black Elk Peak
If you’re an avid hiker, Black Elk Peak should be on your bucket list. The mountain is the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees Mountains in France. At the 7,242-foot peak, hikers will be able to take in views that stretch to North Dakota, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming. At the top, visitors can also check out the stone fire tower that was built in 1938 by the Civilian Conservation Corps. There are more than a dozen different trails that you can take to get to the top of Black Elk Peak, most of which range from 7 to 13 miles round trip. Note, however, that some trails require paid entry to Custer State Park. Visitors say the hikes range from moderate to difficult with some rocky areas and steep inclines, but the views are worth it.
Butterfly House & Aquarium
Located in Sioux Falls, the Butterfly House & Aquarium is perfect for children and adults alike. At the Butterfly House, visitors will get the chance to walk among more than 800 free-flying butterflies. You can even purchase feeding equipment to have the insects eating out of your hand. At the aquarium, you’ll get to see hundreds of species of fish and coral. There’s also a Pacific tide pool, where you can see and touch some of the animals that are found along the coast from Southern California up to Alaska. Past visitors say the Butterfly House is a calm and serene experience, and while the aquarium is on the small side, there’s still a lot to see.
Address: 4320 S. Oxbow Ave., Sioux Falls, SD 57106
If you only have time to do one thing in Sioux Falls, locals recommend Falls Park, which is where the city got its name. Spanning more than 128 acres, the park lies north of the downtown area and features a stretch of the Big Sioux River where it flows over three tiers of rose-colored quartzite. On average, 7,400 gallons of water drop 100 feet over the falls every second. Visitors can take in the majestic falls from various viewing platforms throughout the park, including a five-story observation tower. For a more active park experience, check out one of the park’s many walking and biking trails. Falls Park is easy to reach and is a great free activity the whole family can enjoy.
Address: 131 E. Falls Park Drive, Sioux Falls, SD 57104
Located near Spearfish, the Termesphere Gallery is one of the more unique experiences visitors can have in South Dakota. Termespheres are spherical paintings that their creator, artist Dick Termes, calls a three-dimensional exploration of an entirely closed universe. Some recent visitors call the artist’s work a hidden gem in the Black Hills. You can even purchase one of Termes’ pieces through his website. The gallery is open seven days a week, but entrance is by appointment only. To make an appointment to visit, call 605-642-4805.
Address: 1920 Christensen Drive, Spearfish, SD 57783
Spirit Mound Historic Prairie
If you’ve ever wanted to walk in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, Spirit Mound Historic Prairie is one South Dakota attraction you don’t want to miss. Due to the ever-changing course of the Missouri River, other sites they visited are in doubt. In the area near Vermillion, the pair of explorers visited the top of Spirit Mound in an attempt to understand the site’s mysterious legend. The local Sioux, Omaha and Otoe tribes believed that 18-inch humans with large heads lived on the mound. In fact, Indigenous people feared the area, believing the little people to be devils who would kill anyone who approached. Today, visitors can enjoy a tranquil hike to the mound while contemplating its historical and spiritual significance.
Address: 31148 state Highway 19, Vermillion, SD 57069
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