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South Dakota in Pictures: 15 Beautiful Places to Photograph

Written by Brad Lane
Feb 5, 2020

Badlands, bison, and giant faces carved into a mountain are a few of the most beautiful things to see in South Dakota. In a state blessed with natural features, like the Black Hills and Custer State Park, South Dakota provides several great picture-taking opportunities. Like many of the adventurous playgrounds in the state, the more you photograph South Dakota, the more you realize what's left to be discovered.

Note: Some businesses may be temporarily closed due to recent global health and safety issues.

1. Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park

An hour east of Rapid City and the Black Hills of South Dakota, these badlands attract visitors from around the world. Don't let the name fool you, the terrain might be harsh, but the rugged beauty of the national park inspires everyone who visits. Lined with views of the spires, buttes, and colorful canyons, the Badlands Loop Road is the main thoroughfare of the park.

2. Needles Highway, Custer State Park

Needles Highway
Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is a winding road that traverses through some of the best scenery in Custer State Park. A national scenic byway, the Needles Highway twists and turns with a corkscrew construction for 14 miles through the park. Alongside the verdant Black Hills, towering pinnacle rock formations line the highway and make for great photographs.

3. Deadwood

Historic buildings in Deadwood, South Dakota
Historic buildings in Deadwood, South Dakota

The Wild West is very much alive in the city of Deadwood. On the west side of the state in the Black Hills, this western town has a long history with gunslingers like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Throughout Deadwood's main street is authentic architecture and embellished western storefronts. The city also performs historical reenactments in downtown throughout the summer.

4. Wind Cave National Park

Inside Wind Cave
Inside Wind Cave | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The only way to explore this sprawling cave system in the Black Hills is by a guided tour offered by the National Park Service. Many of the trips explore lighted passageways of the cave on a concrete walkway, while one tour provides a wilder experience with flashlights and crawling. Anyone who enters the cave will immediately notice the rare boxwork formations that hang from many ceilings in the cave.

5. Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Keystone

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

The centerpiece attraction for many Black Hills vacations, the stoic faces of Mount Rushmore make for a great picture. Alongside iconic photos, several educational resources fill the Mount Rushmore complex. The Sculptors Studio provides detailed information about the construction of the monument. A popular place on the weekends during summer, Mount Rushmore is one of the many beautiful places to photograph in the Black Hills.

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Mount Rushmore: Best Areas & Hotels

6. Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake

Accessed via the Needles Highway in the 71,000-acre Custer State Park, this human-made lake is one of the most popular spots for photography in the park. With magnificent rock formations along much of the shore, Sylvan Lake is also surrounded by the lush forests of the Black Hills. Activities like boating, hiking, and taking pictures are all prevalent at Sylvan Lake.

7. Crazy Horse Memorial, Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial | Seth Morabito / photo modified

Located less than 10 miles from Mount Rushmore and still under construction, the Crazy Horse Memorial commemorates the native cultures of the region. This massive mountain sculpture will someday depict a full-size Lakota leader riding on horseback.

Much more than a memorial, the Crazy Horse campus is also home to The Indian Museum of North America. Special events and educational programs regularly occur at the monument.

8. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, Spearfish

Spearfish Falls in Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Falls in Spearfish Canyon

Lined with thousand-foot canyon walls, Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills is arguably the most scenic spot in South Dakota. In the Northern Hills, the 22-mile Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway takes in all the beauty with plenty of roadside stops along the way. Waterfalls, like the impressive 47-foot Spearfish Falls, are the most photographed features in Spearfish Canyon.

9. Falls Park, Sioux Falls

Falls Park, Sioux Falls
Falls Park, Sioux Falls

The centerpiece attraction of Sioux Falls, this public park is home to the city's namesake feature. The triple falls of Sioux Falls plummet with thousands of gallons of water over the colorful Sioux quartzite every second. Visitor resources punctuate the entire park, including a Falls Overlook Cafe and a five-story visitor center. The observation deck at the visitor center offers a great perspective of the area.

10. Bear Butte, Sturgis

Bear Butte with Bison
Bear Butte with Bison

Photographers need to show extra respect when visiting Bear Butte State Park in the Black Hills, a sacred spot for American Indian Tribes. Bear Mountain, or "Mato Paho," is a massive mountain feature that stands more than a mile from the nearest elevated landscapes. This outstanding mountain on the horizon is fun to photograph and offers a stunning snapshot from the top of its 4,426-foot summit.

11. Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Columbia

Pheasant at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Pheasant at Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge | USFWS Mountain-Prairie / photo modified

A haven for migratory birds and other species of waterfowl, Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a top spot to go for wildlife photography. Encompassing nearly 25,000 acres in northeast South Dakota, the refuge is a recognized Globally Important Bird Area. A "Wildlife Drive" within the sanctuary allows visitors to get moving perspectives of the area. The on-site observation tower offers a high vantage point.

12. Black Elk Peak

Black Hills from Black Elk Peak
Black Hills from Black Elk Peak

The highest point in the state, Black Elk Peak, also known as Harney Peak, provides an excellent view of the Black Hills. A challenging but well-trodden route, the most popular trail leading to the 7,242-foot summit starts near Sylvan Lake within Custer State Park. The summit of Black Elk Peak provides an incomparable view of the Black Hills region.

13. Palisades State Park, Garretson

Palisades State Park
Palisades State Park

While many of the most beautiful places to photograph in South Dakota are on the west side of the state, Palisades State Park stands out on the eastern side near the Minnesota border. Giant Sioux quartzite rock formations line either side of Split Rock Creek, which flows through the park. Connecting to viewing platforms and hiking trails, the Palisades State Park campground is a popular place to spend the night.

14. Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

Wild Horses at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary
Wild Horses at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary has been providing a home to wild mustangs for over 30 years. This 11,000-acre property receives wild horses from BLM programs and other resources and has flourished as a place these horses can run free. The sanctuary offers several tours to see and get a good picture of these wild horses.

15. Sertoma Butterfly House & Aquarium, Sioux Falls

Moth at the Sertoma Butterfly House
Moth at the Sertoma Butterfly House

For beautiful butterfly photography, look no further than the Sertoma Butterfly House in Sioux Falls. Filled with hundreds of different butterfly varieties, the Sertoma Butterfly House is a favorite family destination in the city. Featuring underwater attractions, too, the aquarium at the facility includes exhibits like a Pacific Tide Pool and Stingray Touch Pool.

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