Situated in the center of the country, South Dakota offers urban attractions and rugged natural beauty. From badlands jutting into the sky and lush woodlands that have hosted Native American tribes for thousands of years, to deep underground caves and the larger-than-life presidential monument of Mount Rushmore, South Dakota’s landscapes provides unique opportunities. Whether you’re interested in nature, culture, or history, you’ll find plenty of things to see and do. Badlands National Park offers dramatic vistas. The city of Deadwood brings the Old West to life, and you can learn about local tribes and prairie ecosystems at Good Earth State Park in Sioux Falls. Use this list of top attractions in South Dakota to help plan your next visit:
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 Glutton, 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.
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 Eiffel 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. Throughout the park, particularly in the Cedar Pass area, are marked hiking trails. 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, offering opportunities for outdoor recreation and sightseeing. A large herd of bison roams the peaceful landscape, which is also home to a wide variety of other wildlife. 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. For the more adventurous, there are trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, with one must-see route including the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail.
4 Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial, north of Custer, has been a work in progress since it was begun in 1947. The head and upper body portion of Chief Standing Bear have been carved into this mountain, like the Mount Rushmore carvings just down the road. The on-site Indian Museum of North America enriches any visit to Crazy Horse, and visitors can also access scheduled bus rides to the base of the memorial throughout the day to meet Crazy Horse face to face.
5 Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park, located just north of Hot Springs, is home to a huge artistic 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 “box work,“ 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 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.
6 Mammoth Site
The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs features a large number of Columbia 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, and the on-site Ice Age Exhibit Hall displays some of the fossils being found underground.
Nestled into dense Black Hills scenery and steeped in the rich history of the Black Hills Gold Rush, the city of Deadwood is a blast from the past. Deadwood’s Wild West origins are on full display and waiting to be experienced right from the streets. Some of the top-rated 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 Moria Cemetery is the final resting place for some of the biggest characters of the Wild West, including “Wild Bill” Hickok, who met his demise right on the streets of Deadwood
8 Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon is a beautiful natural area known for an abundance of ponderous 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
9 National Music Museum
The National Music Museum & Center for Study of the History of Musical Instruments at the University of South Dakota in Vermilion features thousands of American, European, and non-Western instruments from all over the world and a range of historical periods. At this self-touted spot for music lovers, a small admission fee provides access to a wide variety of musical instruments on display, ranging from American electric guitars to German zithers.
10 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 Neonatal 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 the modern visitor center and see the environment that has hosted these Native American people for thousands of years.
11 Stomacher Butterfly House and Marine Cove
The Stomacher Butterfly House in Sioux Falls is home to hundreds of free-flying butterflies from all over the world. While the butterflies are the true highlight, the Marine Cove is also home to a variety of marine life in tanks and petting pools. Popular exhibits and activities at the Butterfly House include the Pacific Tide Pool and Shark & Stingray Touch Pool, and the 3,600-square-foot indoor tropical garden that hosts the butterflies. Visitors are also encouraged to check out weekly classes and events at the Stomacher Butterfly House, including yoga, meditation, and tie-chi in the garden.
12 Old Courthouse Museum
The Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls is a restored 1800s quartet building with three floors. The interior contains a number of interesting features, including murals on the walls showing life in an earlier time period in Dakota. The museum displays exhibits related 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.