12 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in South Dakota

Written by Brad Lane
Nov 17, 2020
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Situated in the center of the country, South Dakota offers urban attractions and rugged natural beauty. From badlands jutting into the sky to National Music Museums, South Dakota offers several reasons to take a vacation.

The outdoors is truly stunning in South Dakota and is what draws the most visitors. The Black Hills on the western side of the state define most outdoor adventures. Within these wooded acres, which supported indigenous populations for thousands of years, visitors find an array of attractions, including underground caves and larger-than-life monuments.

As evident in the patriotic nature of monuments like Mount Rushmore, the landscapes of South Dakota also come with a unique history that adds to the experience of visiting. Other places to visit, like Deadwood, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Good Earth State Park, also expand on the history of the region.

Find your own story to tell with our list of the top attractions in South Dakota.

1. Mount Rushmore National Monument

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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 Gutzon Borglum, 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.

While Mount Rushmore is often a defining feature of a South Dakota vacation, most people only spend about a half day at the monument. The Black Hills surrounding Mount Rushmore offer many more days to add to a vacation itinerary. To make the most out of the area, it's recommended to look into some of the best campgrounds near Mount Rushmore.

Address: 13000 SD-244, Keystone, South Dakota

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/moru/planyourvisit/index.htm

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

2. Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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 Reifel 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.

The Cedar Pass area is home to the park's eight designated trails. Routes like the Door, Window, and Notch Trails offer an easy hike into the challenging environment. Maps can be obtained from the park administration or from visitor centers.

For camping, check out our article on the best campgrounds in Badlands National Park.

Official site: https://www.nps.gov/badl/index.htm

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Badlands National Park

3. Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

As one of the best state and national parks in South Dakota, Custer State Park covers a wide range of different terrain. A large herd of bison roams the peaceful landscape, which is also home to a wide variety of other wildlife. And 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. And several campgrounds within the park host visitors from around the world. For the more adventurous, there are trails for hiking, biking, and horseback riding.

One must-travel route in Custer is the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. This waterfront route leads around the rock-lined reservoir and has many side trails to explore. In the same area, hikers will also find the challenging trailhead leading up to Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak, and the highest peak in the state.

Another must-see attraction in Custer is the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road in the southeast corner of the park. The best time to make this scenic loop is early morning or late evening, when the resident bison are most active.

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

Official site: http://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer/

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Custer State Park

4. Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial | Jennifer Kirkland / photo modified

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 revered Lakota leader Crazy Horse 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. The museum grounds feature several visitor experiences, including the Native American Education and Cultural Center. Visitors can access scheduled bus rides to the base of the memorial throughout the day to meet Crazy Horse face to face.

Address: 12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, South Dakota

Official site: https://crazyhorsememorial.org/

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Crazy Horse Memorial

5. Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

Wind Cave National Park, located just north of Hot Springs, is home to a huge karstic 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 "boxwork," 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 sightseeing 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. The Elk Mountain Campground at the national park sits among these above-ground surroundings and provides a less crowded experience than other campgrounds in the area.

Official site: http://www.nps.gov/wica/index.htm

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Wind Cave National Park

6. Mammoth Site

Mammoth Site
Mammoth Site | PatrickRohe / photo modified

The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs features a large number of Columbian 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. The on-site Ice Age Exhibit Hall displays some of the fossils being found underground.

Address: 1800 US Bypass, Hot Springs, South Dakota

Official site: https://www.mammothsite.org/

Accommodation: Where to Stay near Mammoth Site

7. Deadwood


Dense Black Hills scenery surrounds Deadwood. And this blast-from-the-past destination is steeped in the rich history of the Black Hills Gold Rush.

Deadwood's Wild West origins are on full display and waiting to be experienced throughout the downtown streets. Some of the top 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 Moriah Cemetery is the final resting place for some of the biggest characters of the Wild West, including "Wild Bill" Hickok, who met his demise in a local Deadwood establishment.

The city still has a touch of its wilder days, but much of the fun is centered towards families looking to enjoy a South Dakota vacation.

Accommodation: Where to Stay in Deadwood

8. Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon is a beautiful natural area known for an abundance of ponderosa 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. The city of Spearfish, the northern terminus of Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, is a great basecamp, with a lively community and several places to spend the night.

Official site: https://visitspearfish.com/things-to-do/spearfish-canyon

9. National Music Museum

National Music Museum
National Music Museum | loyaldefender2004 / photo modified

The National Music Museum & Center for Study of the History of Musical Instruments at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion features thousands of American, European, and non-Western instruments from all over the world. The museum also covers a wide 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, ranging from American electric guitars to German zithers.

The museum features over 15,000 instruments on display. A 2021 expansion to the museum is set to add more space for the growing collection.

Address: 414 East Clark Street, Vermillion

Official site: http://orgs.usd.edu/nmm/identity.html

10. Good Earth State Park at Blood Run

Good Earth State Park at Blood Run
Good Earth State Park at Blood Run | Photo Copyright: Brad Lane

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 Oneota 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 a newly installed 11,000-square-foot visitor center.

The park also maintains over 650 acres of native habitat, including interpretive trails that lead to the Big Sioux River. These allow visitors to experience the environment that has hosted these Native American people for thousands of years.

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

Official site: http://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/good-earth/

11. Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove

Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove
Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove | minnemom / photo modified

The Sertoma 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, Sertoma also has a Marine Cove that 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 Sertoma Butterfly House, including yoga, meditation, and tai-chi in the garden.

Address: 4320 Oxbow Avenue, Sioux Falls

Official site: https://sertomabutterflyhouseandmarinecove.org

12. Old Courthouse Museum

Old Courthouse Museum
Old Courthouse Museum

The Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls is a restored 1800s quartzite building with three floors. The interior contains several interesting features, including murals on the walls showing life in an earlier era of South Dakota. All the museum displays exhibits relate 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.

Address: 6th and Main Street, Sioux Falls

Official site: http://www.siouxlandmuseums.com/home-page/old-courthouse-museum-exhibits/

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More Places to Visit in South Dakota: The things to do in South Dakota spread far and wide. You'll find plenty of culture in cities like Sioux Falls, and Rapid City. Outside of the urban areas, the national parks of South Dakota offer a range of outdoor adventures. For ideas on great places to pitch your tent or park your RV, see our article on the top-rated campgrounds in South Dakota.

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