South Dakota is a vast state with rich Native American and colonial history, stunning scenery, famous monuments and landmarks, and beautiful parks. But there’s much more to see than what you’ve probably heard about.
The 16 Best Places to Visit in South Dakota
While you’ve probably heard of some of these places (we’re looking at you, Mount Rushmore), there’s far more to do in this quaint state than meets the eye. We’ve hand-picked what we consider to be the best things to do in South Dakota, hidden gems and all!
1. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Easily one of the most famous sites in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore National Memorial attracts over 3 million visitors each year as people come from all over to see the rock-carved likenesses of American presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln amazingly etched into the stone of Mount Rushmore.
The carvings stand over 60 feet high and were intricately done by nearly 400 men and women between 1927 and 1941.
While the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the main attraction here, you’ll want to spend some time wandering down the scenic trails and walking paths on a guided hike.
It’s a nice spot to have lunch at the visitor center’s cafe, peruse the gift shop, take a chairlift up to the monument, or zip your way down the thrilling alpine slide.
2. Badlands National Park
In the southwestern region of the state, Badlands National Park is another iconic South Dakota destination and stretches over 244,000 acres over prairies, canyons, and incredible rock formations.
There are two visitor centers with tons of information about the park (Ben Reifel and White River) that make the perfect places to start your trip. Part of the park (the South Unit) is ancestral Tribal Trust Land belonging to the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
The Native American history here is rich, with the park’s name coming from the Lakota tribe’s understanding that these lands lacked water and featured harsh weather and land that made it a tough environment to live in (the “badlands”).
There are some truly incredible overlooks and hiking trails to wander within the Badlands National Park at Sheep Mountain Table, the Door Trail, Castle Trail, and Medicine Root Loop.
An onsite Fossil Preparation Lab is educational for all ages, and even if you’ll only be here for a day, you can take Sage Creek Rim Road and Badlands Loop Road for great views from your car.
Read Next: When to Visit Badlands National Park in 2023
3. Falls Park
If you’ll be near Sioux Falls, you can’t miss Falls Park! This natural area encompasses almost 130 acres along the Big Sioux River with a series of powerful, cascading falls winding through the rock formations.
It’s close to Sioux Falls’ bustling downtown district, making it a convenient and fun stop beyond the natural beauty.
An elevator can take you five stories high to the top of the enclosed observation tower for the best views of the falls, park, and Sioux Falls skyline. The tower is attached to the visitor center, where you can purchase souvenirs and learn about the history of the park.
You’ll be able to get very close to the falls here, even taking steps out onto the rocks that line the cascades and feel the spray on your skin as you marvel at the rushing water.
When you’re finished at the park, head into the Sioux Falls downtown for lunch at the Falls Overlook Cafe, a trip to the farmer’s market, or a bike ride down the Big Sioux River Recreation Trail and Greenway.
4. Mitchell Corn Palace
South Dakota is packed with interesting spots to visit, and the Mitchell Corn Palace is one of the most fun. It’s a little bit silly, it’s educational, and it’s a long-standing beacon of Mitchell’s agricultural richness that’s been around since 1892.
As the World’s Only Corn Palace, the exterior of the building gets decked out in a new annual theme each year with kernels in a range of 12 natural colors, native grains, and wild grasses. Students at Dakota Wesleyan University cook up the new theme and help bring the murals to life.
The Corn Palace Festival happens each year in late August, but if you’re not here in time to check it out, there are performances, exhibits, and shows that happen here every month of the year.
Come to take a free tour, pose by the Corn Palace monument, and head across the street to pick up some corny mementos at the gift shop.
5. Custer State Park
Looking for a way to escape the city and surround yourself with green grass, gentle wildlife, amazing rock formations, and trails that lead you to great views of the countryside?
Custer State Park boasts over 71,000 wildlife-packed acres in the Black Hills of South Dakota with some of the most popular trails, paths, and roads for hiking, biking, horseback riding, and scenic drives.
Custer State Park features three lakes: Center, Sylvan, and Legion Lake, where people come to swim and fish in the warmer months, along with 9 campgrounds where you can pitch a tent or pull up an RV with incredible views of the lakes, rolling plains, or cool rock formations.
You’ll spot buffalo, mule deer, pronghorn, elk, donkeys, coyotes, and eagles if you keep your eyes peeled while you’re in the park. If you’re here in November, check out the Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival!
6. Crazy Horse Memorial
South Dakota’s massive Crazy Horse Memorial is located near Mount Rushmore and, though it’s still under construction, will be over 563 feet tall (that’s higher than a 60-story building) and 640 feet wide.
The monument features Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota Native American, riding a horse among the low pines of the Black Hills. This larger-than-life carving was originally commissioned by James Cook with the planned location in Fort Robinson, Nebraska where Crazy Horse was killed.
Chief Henry Standing Bear, a relative of Crazy Horse, wrote to Cook and explained that the location of the monument should be in Paha Sapa (Black Hills), the ancestral lands of his people.
After lobbying for the carving’s home to be in the Black Hills, the work began and is still underway. Today, you can see the progress made so far as Crazy Horse’s face beams from the mountain.
Check out the Indian Museum of North America, dine at Laughing Water Restaurant, head to the gift shop, and take a tour or stay for a festive event.
7. Native American Scenic Byway
The Native American Scenic Byway is one of the best places to visit in South Dakota, but it’s not a single site or destination.
Instead, it’s a winding path of roadways and stops that lead down through the state, following the path of the Missouri River along special points of interest from the state’s Native American history.
The scenic trip starts in Yankton, which was once the capital of Dakota Territory, where you’ll find a great museum showing artifacts and explaining the tribes that lived here. The Lewis and Clark Recreational Area is the perfect spot to hang out by the lake, swim, bike, camp, and boat.
Head down the byway to Randall Creek State Recreation Area and Karl E. Mundt National Wildlife Refuge to see bald eagles, especially in winter.
You’ll come to a 50-foot monument on a hill called Dignity: Of Earth and Sky that depicts a Native American woman of Lakota or Dakota ancestry. Native American murals at Mobridge Auditorium, a Sacagawea monument, and Sitting Bull monument are other highlights of the path.
8. Wind Cave
You can visit one of America’s oldest national parks at Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The park’s namesake and main feature is the intricate and winding Wind Cave that’s full of boxwork — thin calcite “blades” or fins that intersect to form rock structures that look like honeycomb.
The lattice structure of boxwork in Wind Cave means the air can easily flow in and out of the caverns, lending this historic and special place its name.
Today, the cave is outfitted with lights and easy-to-walk paths that make it fun to take a guided tour. You can visit the natural entrance with signage that teaches you about the spiritual significance of the cave to the Lakota people.
Above ground, you’ll find lots of buffalo, prairie dogs, and other wildlife with great hiking and biking trails spanning 30 miles. It’s a favorite spot for photographers and there’s a winding Geology Driving Tour through the park if you’re just stopping through!
9. Wall Drug
Want to do something a little different? Head to Wall, South Dakota to check out its iconic old shop, Wall Drug. This place is locally revered and if you’re in the state, you’ll probably see a billboard (or 5) advertising it.
Over 2 million people come to visit this old-timey store every year. It’s a great place to stop for lunch and a quick browse!
Located in a town with under 1,000 people, the 50,000 square-foot Wall Drug is decorated and outfitted like it’s still the Old West during the gold rush era. From themed shopping and dining to an art gallery and local-made treasures, this place has it all.
Grab a bite to eat at the Western Art Gallery Restaurant while you check out paintings and illustrations, pose with massive Mouth Rushmore and dinosaur replicas, let the kids play in the “backyard” area, and shop for souvenirs made by local tribes.
10. Needles Highway
South Dakota is full of scenic drives that take you past incredible rock formations, forests, hills, and rivers. One particular section of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is worth visiting while you’re here — Needles Highway.
This 14-mile route takes you up into the pine and spruce trees atop granite mountains, around Sylan Lake, past wildflower meadows and prairie lands, and amazing needle rock formations.
The needle formations are tall, skinny rocks that have been eroded and shaped by wind, water, and cold. The most famous formation along the route is Needle’s Eye, which looks like its namesake and features a small opening at the top of the vertical spike.
The route leads you through tunnels and overhanging trees in some of South Dakota’s most beautiful wilderness for a picture-perfect drive. Note the Needles Highway is closed down during the winter months as snow and ice can make the highway dangerous to drive.
11. Mammoth Site
If you’ve got some geologists, animal lovers, or history buffs in your group, you’ll have to stop by the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota! This is the world’s largest mammoth research facility and one of North America’s top fossil interpretation sites for the late Ice Age.
When you’re here, you can tour the massive indoor fossil dig site and see over 60 mammoth fossils and 87 other animals from the late Ice Age that have been uncovered here since 1974.
The first fossil found was a huge mammoth tusk and since then, dozens have been unearthed to tell the story of ages past.
Take a self-guided tour through the site, stop at the gift shop, let the kids take a STEAM class, or play at the interactive stream and topographic tables to learn about geology in the area. It’s a great place for the entire family!
Up in the Black Hills National Forest, you’ll find a small town that feels locked in the gold rush era with Wild West history and perfectly-preserved items that bring the old days back to life.
The entire town is a National Historic Landmark and you’ll find buildings, artifacts, and exhibits showcasing items from the late 1800s.
Reenactments happen regularly, so if you line up your visit, you’ll be able to witness realistic shootouts, gold panning, gambling, and daily life in the town happening just as they would back in the 1870s.
This old gold rush town is where famous figures from the era are buried, like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.
Check out the Adams Museum to see real gold nuggets, dinosaur fossils, and tour the historic Adams House that still looks like it did in the 1800s in its Victorian grandeur. The nightlife is awesome with gambling halls, saloons, music, and comedy shows that bring the place to life after dark!
13. Spearfish Canyon
Nature and wildlife lovers will appreciate the wilderness and rural appeal of Spearfish Canyon in the Northern Black Hills. This area boasts the incredible Spearfish Canyon, over 1,000 feet deep with a small but mighty creek running through it.
The creek has carved the gorge over millions of years and it’s a truly beautiful spot in the South Dakota wilderness.
Wildlife is abundant here, and you’ll be able to spot porcupines, bobcats, and mountain goats teetering on the narrow, rocky walls of the canyon. It’s a great spot for fishing and rock climbing if you’re so inclined!
While you’re here, wander out to the observation platform that overlooks the 60-foot Bridal Veil Falls (it’s an easy hike). Roughlock and Spearfish Falls are slightly harder to reach, but just as incredible.
If you don’t have much time but want to see the canyon, drive highway 14A for great views as you travel over the road built on an old railway.
14. National Music Museum
Another fun stop in South Dakota is Vermillion’s National Music Museum, a musical instrument museum run by the University of South Dakota.
There are 15,000+ instruments within its walls, covering centuries of musical history and focusing on different musicians that have changed the course of music over time.
You’ll be able to browse the museum through different collections, like woodwinds, plucked strings, and percussion along with special instruments played by celebrities and historic figures.
The museum runs events and exhibits on a regular basis so there’s always something happening when you visit year-round.
Tour galleries showcasing spiritual instruments, exploring how instruments have changed over time, global music, and the guitar and lute-making process that brings the instruments to life. It’s an educational place to spend a few hours as you move through southern South Dakota!
15. Fort Sisseton Historic State Park
The former army outpost-turned-state park was onced called Fort Wadsworth, but today, you might know it as Fort Sisseton Historic State Park. It sits in the prairie with beautiful, sprawling grounds that still contain the guard house, officers’ quarters, and barracks from its military past.
You’ll be able to learn about the park’s long-spanning history and enjoy outdoor recreation like biking, hiking, fishing, and kayaking. In the winter, you can rent snowshoes here to get around the park and see it as a winter wonderland!
An annual Fort Sisseton Historical Festival happens every June with reenactments featuring cavalry and infantry troops.
A visitor center has lots of great info about the park, maps, and souvenirs you can buy to remind you of your trip. If you want to book a guided tour, this is where you’ll start!
16. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Did you know that U.S. hid a huge arsenal of nuclear missiles in South Dakota’s prairie land during the Cold War? Just under the wild grasses growing up from the ground were over 1,000 missiles waiting at the ready as part of the Minuteman Missile program.
Today, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is one of two U.S. missile silos from the Cold War era and it’s right here in South Dakota just north of the Badlands.
Tour the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility (or watch an e-tour), see a real nuclear missile, check out exhibits in the lobby, exterior, and deep underground in bomb shelter basements.
Ranger-guided tours make this a really informative experience that people of all ages can appreciate. It’s open year-round (closed on holidays) and if you can’t spend much time here or arrive when it’s closed, virtual tours are available online!
Things to Consider
Planning a visit to South Dakota means you have beautiful parks and preserved lands, famous monuments, and scenic byways in your future. Here are some helpful travel tips to consider to make the most of your visit to the Mount Rushmore State!
- Plan to visit when the weather is mild. South Dakota experiences milder weather in the spring (highs in the 40s-70s), summer (upper 70s-mid 80s), and fall (low 40s to mid-70s) with very cold, snowy winters (low 20s-40s). Lows can reach single digits in the winter (especially January, the coldest month) that makes camping and enjoying the wilderness in the state less enjoyable.
- Make a comprehensive itinerary. If you’re hoping to make it to some of the best places to visit in South Dakota, you’ll want a working itinerary with your stops ordered in a way that efficiently gets you from place to place. Many of the best attractions are in the western part of the state. Take a look at a map of the state to plan smart or look for stops near the places you know you’ll want to see to pull together a comprehensive travel plan.
- Fill up your tank and stock up on snacks. Visiting South Dakota’s wilderness means you may not see a gas station for many miles in some regions, especially if you’re heading far out into the Black Hills or Badlands. To be on the safe side, make sure you fill up every chance you get and keep yourself stocked with plenty of water and snacks when you’re heading out into the backcountry.
- Consider camping. If you’re going to South Dakota during the warmer months, you’ll immerse yourself in the terrain and enjoy your visit more if you can camp out instead of staying in a hotel. There are hundreds of campgrounds, state parks, and national parks that offer prime camping spots across the state. From primitive campsites to electrical and water hookups at RV sites, there are plenty of ways to camp in South Dakota!
- Be mindful of the Sturgis Rally. Every August (usually the first week), hundreds of thousands of people descend on the city of Sturgis near the Black Hills National Forest for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It can mean hotels, campsites, restaurants, stores, and streets are a lot more crowded, so you may want to plan to come outside of this week in August if you’ll be visiting the Black Hills, Deadwood, Rapid City, Crazy Horse Monument, or Custer State Park.
Frequently Asked Questions
Wish you had some answers from a travel guru to help figure out your trip to South Dakota? Plan your trip with the wisdom you need by taking a look at the most frequently asked questions about visiting South Dakota below.
Can you do Mt. Rushmore and Badlands in one day?
Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial can be visited in one day, but you won't get to spend as much time as you need to really appreciate both sites fully.
Mount Rushmore is about an hour and a half from Badlands National Park, so you could plan on spending a couple of hours at Mount Rushmore and a few exploring or driving around Badlands' scenic roads if you really want to knock both places out in a single day.
What are 5 things South Dakota is known for?
South Dakota is known for its monuments (Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial), Native American history and tribal lands, state and national parks (like Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, and Falls Park), and vast prairie lands with abundant wildlife, farms, and lakes.
South Dakota is home to some incredible rock formations and canyons, cave systems, evergreen forests, and outdoor recreation options on its lakes, in its forests and plains, and in its granite mountains and hills.
What attracts people to South Dakota?
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the number one tourist attraction in South Dakota, bringing well over 3 million visitors each year to come see the presidents carved into the rock.
The wild-west themed Wall Drug and gorgeous Custer State Park in South Dakota each see over 2 million visitors annually, while the vast Badlands National Park sees around a million.
What are the best months to travel to South Dakota?
The best months to travel to South Dakota are generally the milder months with warm weather between May and September. You'll arrive to temperatures in the 60s-mid-80s this time of year, limited rain, and lots of sunshine for ample outdoor time each day.
Can you just drive through the Badlands?
You can drive through the Badlands if you don't have much time or worry about trail accessibility. The Badlands Loop Road and Sage Creek Rim Road are both great ways to drive around or through the park for scenic and wildlife views.
You'll pass 12 overlooks and a few picnic areas on the Badlands Loop Road, which takes you through the North Unit of the park. There are 4 overlooks on Sage Creek Rim Road that take you through the heart of the park and you'll see wildlife on each route!
So, Where Will You Visit in South Dakota?
The best places to visit in South Dakota are wildly varied and each are special in their own rite. From famous carvings in granite mountains and Native American ancestral lands to preserved Wild West towns and incredible national and state parks, South Dakota is a nature and history lovers’ paradise.
Wildlife, evergreen forests, lakes, canyons, mountains, hills, and prairies make South Dakota a truly stunning place to visit — especially when you head to any of the spots on our list. Whether you’re spending a weekend or 7+ days in South Dakota, there are plenty of places to see and go to experience all this state has to offer!