9 Best National & State Parks in South Dakota

Nov 28, 2017

Standing proudly as the gateway to the American West, the state of South Dakota is filled with history, adventure, and a wide range of astounding landscapes. Spread throughout the state, extending from the glacial lakes and prairies in the northeast to the Black Hills and Badlands in the west, South Dakota proudly displays these scenic areas through a vast system of state and national parks. Whatever kind of outdoor experience you're looking for, whether it's exploring underground at Wind Cave National Park, or learning about native cultures at Good Earth State Park, every experience is always backdropped by a rugged beauty unique to the state of South Dakota.

1 Badlands National Park

The enchanting buttes of Badlands National Park
The enchanting buttes of Badlands National Park

Boasting beautiful buttes, pinnacles, and spires, Badlands National Park stands brightly against the prairies of South Dakota. Created by ancient deposits of sediments and minerals, followed by 500,000 years of erosion, the layered rocks of different color lend to a stunning landscape. Some of the best ways to experience the beauty of Badlands National Park include roadside attractions, short hikes, and a full list of campgrounds to extend your stay.

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center, on the southeastern edge of the park, is a great place to start your visit. After collecting information and getting questions answered from park rangers at the visitor center, heading west on Highway 240 takes you through the heart of the park, with plenty of places to pull-off and enjoy the environment. Of the many places to stop, a visitor favorite tends to be the Door, Window, and Notch trailheads, which all share the same parking lot and provide accessible hikes into the desolated beauty that is Badlands National Park.

2 Custer State Park

Buffalo along the Wildlife Loop Road
Buffalo along the Wildlife Loop Road | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Encompassing more than 70,000 acres within the Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park ranks as one of the largest state parks in the nation, and alongside the scenic drives, abundant wildlife, and eye-popping geological beauty, it's certainly one of the top tourist attractions in the state. Any visit to Custer State Park can go many directions, and whether you're interested in hiking trails, fishing spots, or some of the best campgrounds near Mount Rushmore, the park deserves multiple days on your itinerary.

With so many things to do and acreage to explore at Custer State Park, any first visit can seem overwhelming. A few recommended courses for adventure include accessing the impressive Sylvan Lake via the scenic Needles Highway, taking part in a naturalist program at the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, or keeping an eye out for buffalo on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. Other fun activities at Custer State Park include rock climbing the granite spires, chuckwagon cookouts hosted by the park, and snowshoe hikes during the winter.

Address: 13329 U.S. 16A, Custer, South Dakota

3 Editor's Choice Wind Cave National Park

The "Fairgrounds Tour" at Wind Cave National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Located in the Blacks Hills National Forest just south of Custer State Park, Wind Cave is home to a dichotomy of environments. Above ground, swaying prairie grass and forested hills define the landscape, concealing the complex cave system found beneath the soil. With more than 140 miles of its passageways mapped, Wind Cave is one of the longest cave systems in the country and receives its name from the change in barometric pressure found at the small, natural entrance to the cave. If you want to explore this underground labyrinth yourself, the only way to check out these impressive passageways is through one of many guided tours led by park ranger staff.

Most guided tours into Wind Cave begin with an elevator ride 12 stories underground and proceed through the cave using the cement pathway and electric lights installed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s. Wind Cave National Park offers tours nearly every day of the year, and caters towards a wide range of ages and abilities. Along any route, visitors can expect to see a unique geological world filled with dark corners, large ceilings and a plethora of cave speleothems, including the unique Boxwork formation, which while abundant in Wind Cave, it is one of the few places in the world where it exists.

4 Palisades State Park

Split Rock Creek and pink Quartzite rock formations.
Split Rock Creek and pink Quartzite rock formations. Jerry / photo modified

Located on the southeast corner of South Dakota, Palisades State Park is a hot spot for hiking, camping, photographing, and rock climbing. At the center of all this action is Split Rock Creek, which has dramatically carved its way into the environment. Jutting out from either bank of Split Rock Creek, jagged pink Sioux Quartzite dominates the landscape and provides the eye-catching appeal that makes Palisades so popular. Visitors to Palisades can hike along the shore to appreciate the scenery, scale the rock formations with the proper gear and experience, or use any one of the 34 campsites or six cabins available that make Palisades State Park one of the best campgrounds in South Dakota.

Address: 25495 485th Ave, Garretson, South Dakota

5 Hartford Beach State Park

Hartford Beach State Park
Hartford Beach State Park Goamick / photo modified

In the glacial lake region of northeast South Dakota, Hartford Beach State Park is defined by the impressive section of the Warren River known as Big Stone Lake. Water activities are abundant at Hartford Beach State Park, and besides fishing, boating, and sandy beach swimming, visitors also enjoy five different hiking trails and a nine-hole disc golf course. A particularly interesting and accessible hike for all ages to do while visiting Hartford Beach State Park is the Village View Trail, which provides interpretive information and a glimpse of American Indian Mounds and a way of life that dates back much further than our own.

Address: 13672 Hartford Beach Road, Corona, South Dakota

6 Good Earth State Park

A domed domicile on display at the Good Earth State Park visitor center
A domed domicile on display at the Good Earth State Park visitor center | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

While Good Earth State Park is relatively new to the South Dakota State Park system, the area that it encompasses is no stranger to civilization. As part of the larger Blood Run National Historic Landmark, Good Earth State Park pays tribute to one of the oldest areas of human history in the country. Dating back to pre-colonial times, the land that comprises Good Earth State Park at Blood Run was once a thriving trading center and gathering place for the Oneota peoples, including Omaha, Ponca, Ioway tribes. Today, you can learn more about these indigenous cultures through the 11,000-square foot Visitor Center, and see for yourself the abundance in the land through the six miles of woodland and prairie trails that ultimately lead to great views of the Big Sioux River.

Address: 26924 480th Ave, Sioux Falls, South Dakota

7 Bear Butte State Park

A camper overlooking the waters of Bear Butte Lake
A camper overlooking the waters of Bear Butte Lake | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Located north of the Black Hills National Forest, just outside the motorcycle-friendly city of Sturgis, Bear Butte State Park and its namesake feature still hold cultural significance for the native peoples of South Dakota. Known as Mato Pahu or "Bear Mountain," Bear Butte stands well over 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, offering impressive views and unparalleled outlooks from the top via a 1.85-mile summit trail. As well as roaming buffalo herds, Bear Butte is home to current American Indian ceremonies and spirituality, and respect for the space and for the acts of worship are an important aspect of any visit to this unique state park of South Dakota.

Address: N Highway 79, Sturgis, South Dakota

8 Newton Hills State Park

Hikers on the Woodland Trail at Newton Hills State Park
Hikers on the Woodland Trail at Newton Hills State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Encompassing a little more than 1,000 acres of rolling hills and dense forest, Newton Hills State Park draws visitors throughout the year to explore its woodland environment. Hikers, bikers, and horse riders can enjoy most of the trails at Newton Hills through the six miles of Blue Diamond multi-use trails found sprawling throughout the area. Come wintertime, the unique prairie plateau that is Newton Hills becomes an exciting place to explore on cross-country skis and snowshoes. The fun doesn't have to be limited to a day visit at Newton Hills State Park, and with more than 100 campsites available, this eastern South Dakota state park is the perfect place to pitch a tent and stay awhile.

Address: 28767 482nd Ave, Canton, South Dakota

9 Fort Sisseton Historical State Park

Fort Sisseton Historical State Park
Fort Sisseton Historical State Park Rural Learning Center / photo modified

Located atop the Coteau des Prairies in the northeast region of South Dakota, 70 miles west of Hartford Beach State Park, Fort Sisseton was first established in the eastern Dakota Territory in the late nineteenth century. Today, 14 of the original buildings of this frontier army post remain, including officer's quarters, stone barracks, and guard houses. Visitors to Fort Sisseton Historical State Park are encouraged to explore the different historic sites on their own or with a group walking tour, and parts of the park are available to rent for special events, including weddings and family reunions. It's worth checking out the annual Fort Sisseton Historical Festival that takes place each June, which includes a cast of characters and all sorts of activities the whole family can enjoy.

Location: Lake City, South Dakota

More Exciting Outdoor Opportunities in South Dakota

If you are looking to extend your outdoor adventures in South Dakota, there are many great campgrounds to discover. For an overview of the entire state, our Best Campgrounds in South Dakota article can inspire some new vacation ideas, and for a more specific look at a couple of recommended areas, our Best Campgrounds in Badlands National Park and Best Campgrounds around Mt. Rushmore articles can help narrow it down.

For cities that draw on the scenic beauty of South Dakota, areas like Sioux Falls and Deadwood deliver some of South Dakota's most eye-catching natural attractions.

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