South Dakota might not be the first state that comes to mind when you're planning a vacation -- but this Great Plains gem actually has a lot to offer. While the state has heavily relied on agriculture as an economic mainstay over the years, the tourism industry has been growing rapidly to become a serious contender. The state’s charms go far beyond Mount Rushmore.
While Mount Rushmore is probably the most famous attraction in South Dakota, there are many other beautiful sites, towns, and natural wonders to explore.
Here are eight things you absolutely must see and do during your time in this underrated state.
1. Explore Badlands National Park
The Lakota named this area of the state Mako Sica, meaning “no good land,” for a good reason. Located in the western portion of the state, the Badlands showcase some of the most extreme, rugged, isolated terrain and geological formations in the nation. Badlands National Park covers 244,000 acres of buttes, pinnacles, spires, and some of the world’s richest fossil beds, all juxtaposed with mixed-grass prairies that are home to bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.
One of the best ways to experience this national park is on the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway. It’s a two-lane, 31-mile route that guides you through some of the most magnificent areas of the park. There are numerous pull-offs and trailheads along this route, giving you plenty of options to get out and fully immerse yourself in the scenery. You can access this scenic drive from Interstate 90, which connects with Highway 240 (the loop road).
Badlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance fees are $25 per private vehicle, $15 per motorcycle, and $12 to hike or bike through (all entrance fees cover visitation for seven days).
2. Experience Local Wildlife At Custer State Park
About 15 miles east of Custer, you’ll find some of the wildest land in the country. Within Custer State Park’s 71,000 acres, you can experience hiking trails, scenic driving routes, well-kept recreational areas, boating, swimming, fishing, horseback riding, as well as herds of bison and other indigenous wildlife. (Don’t try to pet them.)
The park is sectioned into four quarters (Northeast, Southeast, Central, and West), each with its own activity options. Don’t know where to start? Try one of the scenic drives. The Wildlife Loop (18 miles) takes you through prairie and pine-studded landscapes, offering the real possibility of getting up close and personal with the bison, white-tailed deer, elk, prairie dogs, and feral burros that all freely roam the area. (Again, if you do come across a group of animals, stay in the car and never try to make direct contact.)
Needles Highway (14 miles) takes you through a striking landscape of Black Hills spruce forests and granite mountains. Be sure to stop and see the Needle’s Eye rock formation, located southeast of Sylvan Lake along Highway 87.
Custer Park is open year-round and has an entrance fee of $10 per motorcycle and $20 per car. Want to stay for multiple days, but don’t enjoy camping? Book a room at the Custer State Park Resort.
3. Visit Dignity
Set high on a bluff, just off of Interstate 90 near the town of Chamberlain, you’ll find a striking statue called Dignity. This 50-foot-tall, stainless steel sculpture is a beautiful blend of art and history. Artist Dale Lamphere crafted the statue to honor the Lakota and Dakota people, who were some of the first inhabitants of what is now South Dakota.
The statue depicts a Native American woman holding a star-and-diamond-studded quilt that waves and glitters in the wind. At night, Dignity is softly lit and casts a glow that can be seen from the interstate. Dignity is free to visit and can be found between exits 263 and 265 off of Interstate 90.
Just across the interstate from the statue, in the town of Chamberlain, you’ll find the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. This museum is truly an interactive experience, showcasing the past and present of the area native people's lives.
4. Shop And Eat At Wall Drug Store
North of the Badlands along Interstate 90, you’ll find the town of Wall. It might not look like much -- it’s quite small and unassuming -- but the local pharmacy, Wall Drug Store, has become one of the most popular tourist stops in the state.
Wall Drug Store originally opened in 1931. Since the 1930s, it’s grown into a sprawling roadside attraction that proudly offers free ice water to all patrons, as well as 5-cent coffees.
At Wall Drug Store, you can find leather goods, Western wear, plenty of South Dakota-related gifts, an art gallery, a full restaurant, homemade ice cream, and much more. It’s the perfect place to stretch your legs and shop, and there is plenty of free parking nearby.
5. Travel Back In Time In Hot Springs
In the southwestern portion of the state you’ll find the town of Hot Springs. It was here, 26,000 years ago, that woolly mammoths, giant short-faced bears, camels, llamas, prairie dogs, wolves, and coyotes became trapped and died in a watering hole. Now, just off the Highway 18 Bypass, you can explore the active paleontological dig site, where more than 60 mammoth fossils have been discovered.
You can visit the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs and tour the dig site for an up-close view of the fossilized remains. The museum’s hours change with the seasons, so be sure to double check the times before setting out for the day. Admission for children and military personnel costs $7.37. Admission for teens and adults costs $10.14, and seniors pay $8.29.
6. Walk Among Art And Natural Wonders In Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls, the most populous city in South Dakota, is located at the far eastern edge of the state, slightly south of Interstate 90. The city got its name thanks to the numerous cascades along the Big Sioux River, and Falls Park is the city’s best spot to enjoy these waterways.
The park is located just northeast of the downtown area and features a 50-foot viewing tower, the remnants of the old Queen Bee Mill, as well as plenty of recreational space. Hours change seasonally, but from March 8 to November 1, the park is open to the public from 5 a.m. to midnight every day.
When you’re finished enjoying the scenery at Falls Park, you can start the city-wide sculpture walk that will lead you from Falls Park to the Washington Pavilion. Established in 2004, the Sioux Falls SculptureWalk is the largest exhibit of public art sculptures in the country. Each year a new set of sculptures is installed, and the public votes on their favorite piece.
You can find statues in the downtown, uptown, and eastbank areas of the city; most of the pieces are located along Phillips Avenue between 13th Street and 8th Street. If you have any questions about the walk, you can find the visitor center on the second floor of the Washington Pavilion.
7. Tour Sunflower Fields Between Adventures
Kansas might be the Sunflower State, but South Dakota is actually one of the country’s top producers of these floral marvels. This means that if you’re driving through the state between July and August, you’ll catch a glimpse of some massive flowering fields. Most sunflower farms are located off of Interstate 90, with some of the best spots said to be near Pierre (north of Interstate 90 off of Highway 14) and between Rapid City and Box Elder.
If tracking down a flower farm seems like too much of a hassle, you can book a room at the Hydeout Bed & Breakfast in Highmore, located just south of the intersection of Highways 14 and 47. The owners offer tours of the local fields, so you'll get to relax and enjoy your time in town without having to worry about the details.
8. Create Your Own Adventure In The Black Hills
Butting up to the Wyoming-South Dakota border, the Black Hills National Forest covers more than 5,000 square miles and is home to numerous monuments, parks, and natural wonders. You could easily spend months exploring this part of the state, but since most people don’t have that kind of time, these are some of the must-see attractions.
The Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial are both located in the Black Hills, north of Custer. Visiting these legendary monuments is a virtual rite of passage for all Americans.
Jewel Cave National Monument is one of the country’s largest known caves, with more than 190 miles of passageways under the ground of the Black Hills. Guided tours of the caves allow you to see naturally created calcite crystals, stalactites, stalagmites, flowstone, and hydromagnesite balloons. Keep in mind that any cave tour will involve some moderately difficult walking paths and limited lighting.
Historic Deadwood has been a town since 1876, when the gold rush of South Dakota brought prospectors to the area. Its rough-and-tumble history includes the stories of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The town survived and is currently thriving, brought back from the brink of extinction in 1989 with the legalization of limited-wage gambling.
Today, your visit to Deadwood can include a luxury hotel or a charming bed and breakfast. You can find upscale dining options as well as more casual eateries, not to mention a few old-timey Western saloons. Visit the casino or spend your day at the local spa or antique shops. Deadwood may be worlds away from its Wild West origins, but it’s still as exciting as ever to visit (not to mention quite a bit safer).
Whatever you do in South Dakota, you’re sure to head home with incredible memories.