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South Dakota is called the Mount Rushmore state for a reason — its No. 1 attraction, Mount Rushmore National Monument. But that carved rock monument to American history is just one reason to visit. From stunning landscapes to underground caves, these are the 15 things to do in South Dakota that should be on your bucket list. You’ll cover a lot of ground to see it all, so we also recommend the best hotels close to each attraction.
My first visit to South Dakota was on a family vacation with two teenagers. We took the classic Midwest road trip from Chicago to South Dakota. As we drove along I-90 looking out at the miles and miles of nothing but prairie grasslands broken up only by the Corn Palace in Mitchell (more on that in a minute), it was hard not to think of the pioneers who traveled this route not in the comfort of an air-conditioned SUV, but in a covered wagon filled with their possessions.
Then, after days and days of seeing nothing but flat prairie land, the bottom of the world dropped away as they reached the leading edge of the Badlands. I can’t imagine the level of despair as the exhausted families tried to figure out a way around, because they never could have gone through.
Lucky for us, there is no need for despair these days. A visit to South Dakota is filled with wonder. There are enough larger-than-life vistas, both natural and man-made, to keep visitors in awe for days.
TravelingMom Tip: Check the calendar for the dates of the Sturgis Bike Rally before booking your trip to South Dakota. We didn’t on our first visit and found it tough to book hotels and cabin rentals. Plus, our nature karma was lost as the hundreds of thousands of full-throated Harley motorcycles cruised along the winding roads.
1. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Yes, I know you’ve seen the photos. But the Keystone, South Dakota, home of the massive mountainside carving honoring U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln is one of the places you need to see with your own eyes. It’s somehow both much bigger and much smaller that you imagined.
Plan to arrive toward the end of the day to see the lighting ceremony. It’s a moving 45-minute presentation that talks about the contributions of each of the presidents.
It culminates in a flag-lowering ceremony attended by former and current members of the military who are invited to join the U.S. Park Ranger on the stage. It ends with each military member announcing his or her name and branch of the service. The first time I saw it, the Army vet from World War II who rolled onto the stage in his scooter drew the most applause.
While you’re waiting for the big finish, wander through the museum to watch a movie depicting the carving of the mountain between 1927-1941, learn about the artist, Gutzon Borglum, and see the equipment used by the workers who had to climb 700 stairs just to get to work where they spent their days hanging off the side of the mountain while they carved the rock.
Next, take the walk to the base of the monument and stop along the way to look up — straight up into George Washington’s nose.
Then reward everyone with a scoop of rich creamy vanilla ice cream still made from the recipe first brought to America by President Thomas Jefferson. The hot summer day we were there, it was a very long line, but it moved quickly.
Where to Stay Near Mount Rushmore
We stayed at Rock Creek Lodge and Cabins in Custer, South Dakota. Despite its location on a main drag in Custer, the evening was quiet and comfortable. My cabin had two queen beds, a small table, microwave and mini fridge, TV and wifi. Plus, there’s a pool. Each of the cabins in a little different, so research that before you book.
The stay includes breakfast, but skip it and walk the few blocks into town instead to feast on breakfast at Baker’s Bakery and Cafe. We had The. Best. Biscuits and Gravy. Ever. Plus, the cinnamon rolls are the size of your head. And worth every last calorie! The motto there is “You’ll love our buns.” And it’s true. We did.
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2. Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is still emerging from the mountain, more than seven decades after Korczak Ziolkowski started his massive project. Officials there resolutely refuse to name a target completion date. The privately-funded tourist attraction refuses to take government money so work progresses at a snail‘s pace with only about a dozen carvers working on the mountain at any time.
Definitely take the narrated school bus tour that gets you closer to the base of the mountain and offers a different view of the carving.
But spend most of your time wandering through the museum to learn about the origins of this monument to Native American Lakota Chief Crazy Horse, the man who fought Custer.
You’ll learn how Ziolkowski acquired the land, the challenges he overcame to get the project as far as it has come, the family members who carry on his work and the evolution of the carving process. We even learned about how the sculpture will be different from Ziolkowski’s model due to the realities of physics and engineering that made the original model unworkable.
And save time to wander through the gift shop to explore the Native American jewelry, art and other souvenirs for sale before you leave the site.
3. Badlands National Park
One look and it’s easy to see why the Lakota people named this bleak landscape of buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires “mako sica.” The name translates to “land bad.” This is when I think most about those pioneers who trekked across the vast, flat landscape of South Dakota in their wagon trains.
On our first visit, we arrived on an unseasonably cool summer day. Rather than the 110 degrees of a normal late July day, we had a merely warm 85-degree day. But the blazing sun and hot breeze made it easy to imagine what this desolate area must be like on a truly hot day.
My teens plunged into the Badlands National Park like a toddler runs to a sandbox. In fact, my 19-year-old son christened the Badlands the “best playground ever” as he scrambled over yet another crumbling rock.
TravelingMom Tip: If you plan to stop for even a short hike, make sure everyone is wearing the proper footwear (no flip flops!) and bring plenty of water.
4. Needles Highway
Riding between Mount Rushmore and the entrance to Custer State Park along the 14-mile stretch known as Needles Highway is one of those times I was sooooo glad I wasn‘t driving. It‘s not that the twisty-turny road is such a huge driving challenge. It‘s more that the breathtaking vistas of this scenic drive are far too distracting to keep one’s eyes on the road.
In several spots, the road narrows to one lane as it passes through a hollowed-out tunnel barely wide enough for one full size SUV. We could have rolled down the windows and touched the rocks on either side. I was truly impressed with the drivers who managed to squeeze their RVs through the opening in those tight tunnels.
Needles Highway is one of three scenic routes along Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.
Starting at the south end where it meets US 16A, we headed north along a road that offers vista after scenic vista, building to the crescendo of the Cathedral Spires and Needles Eye. (You can enter the road from either end, but if you start at Hill City and drive south, everything after the Cathedral Spires will feel rather anti-climactic.)
5. Custer State Park
The 71,000-acre Custer State Park is probably best known as the home of a herd of free-roaming bison (as opposed to the ones that are ranch-raised to supply the meat for the yummy bison burgers served in most restaurants we visited during our trip). The group we stumbled upon along the road were just hanging out, sunning themselves on a grassy area.
Our Buffalo Jeep Safari tour got us close to the bison and the cute little prairie dogs that popped up from the ground everywhere we looked. They were the hit of our group, much to the amusement of the South Dakota natives who think of prairie dogs as pests. We also caught glimpses of bighorn sheep, mule deer and antelope.
While driving the Wildlife Loop Road is the draw, Custer State Park has so much more to offer, including horseback riding, biking, boating and hiking trails. There also are stunningly beautiful lakes surrounded by prehistoric-looking rock formations. Parking near any of the lakes is severely limited, but it seemed especially difficult at Sylvan Lake. Plan to arrive early and spend the stay hiking, picnicking and kayaking.
Don’t miss a stop at the brand new Bison Center. You’ll get all of your bison questions answered there — including the one we all kept asking: What‘s the difference between a bison and buffalo?
TravelingMom Tip: Expect to have little access to wifi or cell service in the park. Embrace this time to be unplugged, but definitely pick up a Custer State Park map at the entrance. You’ll want it when your GPS announces it cannot access a signal.
Where to Stay in Custer State Park
There are campgrounds throughout the park. But there also are beautiful lodges and cabins where you can sleep in comfort and style.
On my last visit, we were lucky enough to stay at Creekside Lodge. It was built in 2008 and offers oversized rooms that would easily accommodate a family. Some rooms can accommodate up to six people.
The other Custer State Park Lodges are:
- Blue Bell Lodge
- State Game Lodge
- Sylvan Lake Lodge
- Legion Lake Lodge
6. Spearfish Canyon
Home to waterfalls, hiking trails and a breathtaking vistas, Spearfish Canyon is another not-to-be-missed spot in South Dakota.
We took the easy Roughlock Falls trail to the top of the falls where, a fellow hiker said, her now-husband brought her on a crisp winter day to propose. It was easy to envision such a romantic moment at such an achingly beautiful spot.
7. Rapid City
This town is the most centrally located spot for visiting all of western South Dakota’s famous spots — Mount Rushmore, Custer, Crazy Horse and the Badlands.
TravelingMom Tip: If you prefer not to do all that driving, consider taking a tour to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Custer or even Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. That way, everyone can sit back and ogle the incredible scenery.
Fun things to do in Rapid City include:
- Take a selfie with a president. The town is home to bronze replicas of every president up to Barack Obama. (President Trump’s statue is in process.) They dot the street corners around downtown. Pick up a map of the presidents at the Rapid City Visitor Center at 512 Main Street or download a map from the website.
- Stroll down Art Alley to see the murals created by local artists. If you see one you like, take a photo. Chances are it will have been painted over by the time you return! Art Alley is located between 6th and 7th, and Main and Saint Joseph streets.
- Visit a Speakeasy. The Blind Lion Speakeasy is in the basement of a non-descript building. The musty-smelling space with the decrepit furniture feels like a true 1920s underground bar. And the craft cocktails impress! Even more impressive were the individualized cocktails our talented bartender concocted for each of us after interviewing us about our preferences — sweet or dry, fruity or tart, etc.
For the kids, there are myriad options for fun things to do in Rapid City. From a dinosaur park (I was really sorry I didn’t have time to explore that!) to the world’s largest reptile zoo to the impressive South Dakota Air and Space Museum, you should find plenty to entertain the kids when you aren’t exploring the natural wonders of this part of the state.
Where to Stay in Rapid City
If you’re into ghosts, definitely opt for the historic Hotel Alex Johnson. The 1928 hotel is a member of the Curio Collection by Hilton (so definitely join the Hilton Honors program before booking).
But its claim to fame is its ghosts. The front desk has a binder full of ghost stories reported by guests who had “experiences.”
I scoffed. I like a good ghost story, but I was never a believer. Until I stayed in Room 405 and had my own “experience.” Let’s just say 3am is the bewitching hour.
Aside from my visitation, I really liked the hotel. It’s centrally located downtown so everything is within easy walking distance and the bed was comfy. My room was small, but since it was just me, I didn’t need more space.
If I had been traveling with kids, I would have stayed at one of the five hotels in the WaTiki indoor waterpark complex. You can choose from a Residence Inn by Marriott, Home 2 Suites by Hilton, LaQuinta by Wyndham, Courtyard by Marriott and the Fairfield by Marriott.
8. Hot Springs
Evan’s Plunge public pool features the natural mineral hot springs the town was named for. This is also the location of The Mammoth Site, an active fossil dig site that is unearthing the largest concentration of Woolly and Colombian Mammoths in one spot.
9. Wind Cave National Park
After you’ve explored the famous sights in South Dakota’s Black Hills, it’s time to head underground. President Theodore Roosevelt declared Wind Cave a national park in 1903. It was the seventh national park created and the first cave to be designated a national park.
TravelingMom Catherine Parker says Wind Cave is more than just a park with a cave. With nature trails, camping and a herd of bison, Wind Cave National Park can be a hub for exploring the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Wind Cave is the third longest cave in America, but only 5 percent of the more than 100 miles of passageways have been mapped. Its rock formations, called boxwork, look like honeycomb made of rock. There’s also popcorn and frostwork to see during guided tours of the cave system.
It’s called Wind Cave because it’s so vast that it has its own air pressure system. Mother Nature is always trying to equal the air pressure on the surface, so the wind coming out of the cave is strong enough to blow off a hat.
Note that all of the tours include more than 100 stairs.
10. Jewel Cave National Monument
Just 31 miles from Wind Cave, Jewel Cave was discovered by local prospectors in 1900. Proclaimed a national monument in 1908, the Civilian Conservation Corps developed the area in the 1930s.
There’s an easy tour that involves just 15 steps. But if you really want to explore the cave, you’ll need to climb up and down 732 steps on metal scaffolding. Kids cannot be carried and must be able to navigate the stairs on their own. For that reason, kids under 6 are discouraged from visiting.
11. Minute Man II Missile Silo
The key to keeping everyone happy on a family vacation is ensuring that everyone gets to do at least one thing he or she really wants to do. For my husband on our family vacation in South Dakota, that was the Minute Man Missile Silo tour near Wall.
The decommissioned missile (war head removed) remains in its silo on the middle of a South Dakota field, but it’s now part of a national historic site that includes a visitor center 15 miles away. You need to buy tickets to visit. You can make reservations from 90 days up until 24 hours before your visit by visiting this site.
Minute Man missiles were a Cold War creation and a stark reminder of how close the U.S. came to nuclear war. The missiles were kept as defensive weapons only. They deterred the Soviet Union from launching a first strike because the Soviets understood that the United States could launch a retaliatory strike before the Soviet missiles hit the U.S. It all adds up to the “mutually assured destruction” I remember learning about in my high school history class.
TravelingMom Tip: Let the kids collect a Junior Ranger Badge here.
12. The Corn Palace
This kitschy spot in Mitchell, South Dakota is a must-see roadside attraction on a road trip from Chicago to the natural beauty of western South Dakota.
Not surprisingly, it is the world’s only corn palace. This folk-art wonder in the middle of a South Dakota prairie started in 1892 as a way to prove to the world that South Dakota had a healthy agricultural climate.
Today, The Corn Palace is known worldwide. Each year, the building is redecorated in a new design created from naturally colored corn and other grains and native grasses. This corny spot (see what I did there?!?!) draws a half million visitors every year.
Stop here to stretch your legs and buy some corn-themed treats and souvenirs.
13. Wall Drug
Another must-stop spot on a road trip across South Dakota, Wall Drug is not your average drug store. It’s more like a mall-entertainment-center-restaurant-souvenir shop. Let the kids get some play time in the Backyard, where there can splash around the Train Station Water Show or pose for pix with a roaring T-Rex or in front of a miniature Mount Rushmore.
Since the Great Depression, thirsty travelers have stopped at Wall Drug for a free drink of ice cold water. You can still get free ice water today.
This is the Wild West town the brothels built. As we learned on a guided tour of The Brothel Museum, sex work was a staple of Deadwood from its earliest days as a Gold Rush town right up until 1980. (Our tour guide was a great storyteller, but many of the stories are R rated, so this might not be the right fit for a family adventure.)
I was excited to visit this Wild West town that was once the home of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok — and a little disappointed to discover it’s really just another town where gambling is legal and, therefore, everywhere.
The town is a National Historic Landmark. You explore that history with a walk through Mount Moriah Cemetery, where Jane is buried next to Bill, join a ghost tour through downtown Deadwood and visit the Days of 76 Museum to see the collection of horse-drawn wagons, stagecoaches and carriages, some of which are rumored to have their own ghosts.
Definitely take a few minutes to watch the free show on Main Street that includes a shoot-out and the re-enactment of Will Bill Hickok’s murder.
Where to Stay in Deadwood
We stayed at the Hotel by Gold Dust. This spanking new boutique hotel is housed in a renovated historic building, giving it the best of both worlds — an historic feel you want in Deadwood with all of the modern amenities you want anywhere you stay.
15. Sioux Falls
Falls Park is the place to be in Sioux Falls. After all, that’s where the town got its name.
The beautiful waterfall on the Big Sioux River is the highlight of a 123-acre public park and one of the best free things to do in Sioux Falls. The park is also home to a 5-story observation tower you can climb to get a view of the falls and surrounding area.
Wander around town, too, to see the public art that gets swapped out each year.