What to Do in South Dakota—11 Top Spots (+ Two Extras)

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Fun things to do in South Dakota?? I’ll admit it: I teased someone about being from South Dakota years ago, asking, “Who would want to live in South Dakota?” I have wanted to visit Mount Rushmore for some time now but was reluctant. After all, what is there to do in South Dakota to warrant a trip?

This is what I expected:

Truthfully, there is a lot of grass, especially in the eastern part of the state, but South Dakota hides so much more.

I was surprised by how much this state offers visitors and found I wished I had more time to explore. Here are my top ten things to do in South Dakota and why you’ll want to visit.

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Fun Things to Do in South Dakota and Why You Should Go

After returning from an amazing week in South Dakota, I’m thrilled to eat my words. There are so many fun things to do in South Dakota.

It’s a beautiful state with wide geographical diversity from the flat grass-covered plains, rolling green hills, badlands painted in stunning shades of brown and red that change in color throughout the day, and pine-studded mountains.

What better time to go than during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally?  Whoops! If you notice many bikes in pictures, now you know!

I am still in awe of how much fun I enjoyed exploring South Dakota, and this post lists my favorites.

  1. Visit Mount Rushmore
  2. See the beauty of the Black Hills
  3. Explore the beauty of Badlands National Park
  4. Drive through Custer State Park
  5. Experience history in Deadwood
  6. See the famous sinkhole of the Mammoth Site
  7. Learn about the life of Laura Wilder
  8. See traditional buildings from the 1880s
  9. Explore the Minuteman Missile Museum
  10. Stop at a Wall Drug on I90
  11. Visit the Corn Palace
  12. See Devil’s Tower
  13. Tour some amazing caves

1. Mount Rushmore

“..let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.” Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore Sculptor, 1930

The monumental memorial of Mount Rushmore was the inspiration for my trip to South Dakota, and it did not disappoint. We got a tip to go both during the day and night, and first went to view it at dusk. You first walk through an area with flags overhanging the walkway, watching the memorial get closer in view.

If you want something even more special than the typical visit, check out these tour options:

Our Visit

A viewing area overlooks an area with stadium seating and a stage.  Patriotic music plays. As it gets darker, an announcer ramps up excitement with the crowd. Then, a movie is shown about the monument and shares the lives and successes of the presidents featured.

Following the movie, the monument is lit up in brilliant white, shining against the dark backdrop of the Black Hills.

We went again in the morning to view the monument and walked around the base to enjoy it from different views. Then, we visited the Lincoln Borglum Museum to learn more about the conception and creation of this masterpiece.

The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center includes a really interesting 20-minute video about the monument’s creation and exhibits on the sculpture. I later learned that there were two videos, but I watched one.

In 1927, with the help of over 400 workers, 57-year-old Borglum began carving. It took 14 years to complete, and Borglum never saw the masterpiece. His 28-year-old son, Lincoln, oversaw the completion.

Mount Rushmore is located at 13000 SD-244, Keystone, SD 57751, and the grounds and memorial are open daily from 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. The Visitor’s Center is open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and the nightly illumination runs from around 9:15 p.m. to 11 p.m. There is no entrance fee but a $10 entrance fee per vehicle.

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2. The Black Hills

I had been told they were gorgeous, but that didn’t prepare me for the exquisite beauty of the Black Hills. Originally granted to the American Indians living there, the United States government took back the land when gold was found in 1989.

Ponderosa pine and spruce offer a contrast to the rugged granite rock formations. Many tourist sites are located in the Black Hills, including Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, the Mammoth Site, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Custer State Park, and Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

Though you’ll want to see as many of these places as possible, I suggest making the Black Hills a destination in its own right. It’s worth just driving around this beautiful area and soaking it all in.

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Black Hills

3. The Badlands

The Badlands National Park is a stunning sight to see. It’s located in the Northern Great Plains and contains 244k acres. The park was established as a national monument in 1939 and redesignated Badlands National Park in 1978.

This rugged beauty features deep canyons and towering spires resulting from erosion and deposition. 50% of the park is co-managed with the Oglala Lakota Nation, the eighth largest American Indian Reservation in the United States. Called Mako Sica, or “badlands” by the Lakota people, some still live in the park.

Conservation writer Freeman Tilden described the region as:

“peaks and valleys of delicately banded colors–colors that shift in the sunshine, .. and a thousand tints that color charts do not show. In the early morning and evening, when shadows are cast upon the infinite peaks or on a bright moonlit night when the whole region seems a part of another world, the Badlands will be an experience not easily forgotten.”

The Badlands started eroding around 500,000 years ago when water cut down through the rock layers. Numerous fossil beds have been found. In 2010, erosion exposed an ancient fossil of a saber-toothed cat found by a 7-year-old child. The park continues to erode at a rate of 1/3 inch per year.

There are numerous hikes and viewpoints along Loop Road. This road is approximately a one-hour drive and showcases some of the most stunning views in the park.

The Badlands are located an hour east of Rapid City, off of I90. Entrance to the Badlands is $25 per vehicle and is open 24 hours a day year-round, though the visitor’s center has more limited hours.

4. Custer State Park

I visited Custer State Park because I was told I would see a lot of animals there. Ironically, we saw few; however, this park is incredibly beautiful, so I wasn’t disappointed.

Custer Park, located in the Black Hills, contains over 71,000 acres of pine-topped hills, granite peaks and spires, and rolling plains. There are many entrances to the park, and we were greeted by two guys standing under a pop-up tent.

First, we drove the Needles “Highway” through a forest of pine and spruce, birch and aspen, and gorgeous granite peaks. The ride takes you through a small tunnel in the granite, which opens to some gorgeous narrow cylindrical spires of granite, also known as hoodoos.

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Next, we drove to the stunningly beautiful Sylvan Lake, swarmed by bikes as it was the Sturgis motorcycle rally week, and truly awe-inspiring. From the beautiful rock formations surrounding this small lake to the stunning reflections held within, it was a jewel to see.

We stopped at the Game Lodge for a late lunch, then headed to the wildlife loop.

Custer State Park is one of many stunning parks to visit in South Dakota. When you’re visiting, be sure to check them out!

Custer State Park is located at 13329 US Hwy 16A, Custer, SD 57730, and is open 24 hours a day year-round.

Tour Options

A tour that looks like a lot of fun that I wanted to share is this private jeep safari and hiking tour in Custer Park. I wish I had seen it before I went, as I probably would have seen more animals!

And, what could be more amazing than seeing this incredible area of Custer and the Black Hills by hot air balloon?

5. Deadwood

The infamously lawless town of Deadwood began illegally (of course!) in the 1870s on land granted to the American Indians in the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie.  The Black Hills Gold Rush started when it was announced gold was found in Deadwood.

This led more than 5,000 to move in, bringing with them gambling, prostitution, and an increasing murder rate.  The town increased in notoriety when “Wild Bill” Hickok was murdered on August 2, 1876. Signs are hanging where Wild Bill was killed and where his murderer, Jack McCall, was captured, only two blocks away

.According to Wikipedia, “the entire city of Deadwood is a National Historic Landmark District, for its well-preserved Gold Rush-era architecture.”  Most of the town was built before 1900. Deadwood was the first small town to legalize gambling as a means of economic revitalization in 1989. There are currently several casinos in town. It is well worth walking down the main street in town.

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Main Street, Deadwood, SD

Mt. Moriah Cemetary

Mt. Moriah Cemetary was established in 1878, overlooking the city of Deadwood. It was created in accordance with Victorian customs of the day, laid out in an oval configuration, and divided into quarters surrounded by two potter’s fields. Mt. Moriah Cemetary closed to new burials in 1949.

A number of people known in Deadwood history are buried here, the most well-known of which was  James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickock and Martha “Calamity Jane” Canary.

According to legend, “Calamity Jane” was the sweetheart of “Wild Bill.” However, historians now believe that to be a figment of her imagination. However, her request to be buried next to him was fulfilled.

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View from Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood, SD

Adams House

No, this is not the house that came to mind when I first thought of the family, Addams.  [snap, snap] Though it may hide something almost as interesting.

Harris and Anna Franklin built the Queen Anne-style Adams House in 1892. This house was the physical representation of a “rags-to-riches” story.  Harris was a peddler who made and lost several fortunes. 

The Cape Ann and Victorian house is stunning and features all of the most modern amenities of the time, including electric lights in all rooms and even servant buzzers in every room, with a foot pedal in the dining room to call the servants.

Deadwood businessman and former Mayor William Adams bought the house in 1920 following the sudden deaths of his wife and two daughters. His second wife refused to live in the home after his death and later sold it to become a museum. The furniture and furnishings are from the Williams family.

The Tour

The guide was fantastic and brought the owners to life, as well as the haunting story of the last owner, who lost his entire family in the span of a week. He thought he would never find love again, and yet, 71-year-old William Adams married 29-year-old Mary, causing quite a scandal. 

Ten years later, he died in the house, where, according to employees, he remains. Our guide shared his three occurrences, including on the day of his interview. As a scientist, he said he doesn’t believe in hauntings and ghosts, however, did share what he personally saw and felt.

You can purchase your tickets in advance to avoid any lines if you’re interested.

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Adam’s House

The city of Deadwood is located North of the Black Hills. Adams House is located at
22 Van Buren St, Deadwood, SD 57732. It is open daily from 9-5, and tickets for the hourly tour are for $10. Mount Moriah Cemetery is located at 10 Mt Moriah Dr, Deadwood, SD 57732. Admission is $2, and the cemetery and visitor’s center is open from Memorial Day through mid-October from 8-6.

6. Mammoth Site

In June of 1974, digging for a housing development unearthed a 7-foot-long tusk along with other bones. Work was immediately halted, and experts were brought in.

The landowner sold the property at a fair market value to create the Mammoth Site, a non-profit organization dedicated to “the preservation, research, and interpretation of The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota.”

The Mammoth Site is a current paleontological excavation site and a treasure trove of information. We took a 45-minute tour back to the time of the last Ice Age, where excavation of this sinkhole has uncovered the remains of more than 60 Colombian and Wooly Mammoths, camels, wolves, and giant short-faced bears believed to be more than 100,000 years old.

There are also displays of full-sized replicas of mammoths and a giant short-faced bear.

We peered inside the sinkhole to see the remains of these majestic creatures. We learned that all were young males who left their herds in search of mates. They saw the grass growing around the edge of the sinkhole, which filled in with water.

When they tried to get a meal, they fell into the sinkhole, unable to escape. What remains is an incredible snapshot in time.

The Mammoth Site is located at 1800 US 18 Bypass, Hot Springs, SD 57747. During peak season from May to August it is open daily from 8-8, and the last tour runs at 7 p.m. Hours during other times of the year vary. Admission is $10.14 + tax.

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The Mammoth Site

7. De Smet and Laura Ingalls Wilder

I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series of books, Little House on the Prairie, and watching the television show of the same name, so visiting De Smet, South Dakota, was a given. I wrote another post dedicated to my visit to De Smet.

In this tiny town of 1,100, three organizations showcase all things Laura Ingalls: the Ingalls HomesteadLaura Ingalls Wilder Historical Society, and the Wilder Welcome Center. We visited the first two and learned a lot about what it was like to live in this area in the mid-1800s, as well as about the lives of Laura and her family.

You can walk back through time to learn more about the history of this area and enjoy the beautiful landscape on these tours. People are incredibly friendly, including the county’s finest (beware of the speed trap when driving north out of town.)

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Visit Details

The Ingalls Homestead Farm is located at 20812 Homestead Rd, De Smet, SD 57231. In the summer (May 25 – September 2) it is open daily from 9 to 7, and in the fall (September 3 – October 31) it is open from 9-5. The homestead is closed in the winter. There are lots of activities for people and children, including carriage rides, and the cost for a day visit is $15.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes is located at 105 Olivet Ave SE, De Smet, SD 57231. It costs $14, and hours vary throughout the year.

8. 1880 Town

1880 Town consists of more than 30 original and authentic 1880-to-1920 era buildings that were relocated to this area. According to the brochure, “There’s a good place about 22 miles west of Murdo to stretch your legs. Fact is, you can stretch them clear back to 1880 as you walk down the main street at 1880 Town.”

The 30 buildings are laid out as a town might have been and include a barn, Wells Fargo Office, Mayor’s office, one-room schoolhouse, saloon, church, and many others. 1880 Town also has a collection of “Dances with Wolves” movie memorabilia and re-creations of scenes and structures from the movie.

1880 Town is located at 24280 SD Hwy 63 I90 Exit 170, Midland, SD 57552, just off I90. Admission costs $12, and though hours vary through the year, during peak season from June to August, it is open from 6:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.

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1880 Town

9. Minuteman Missile Museum

This National Historic Site, the Minuteman Missile Museum,  includes three locations off Interstate 90. We didn’t know that reservations were required (and booked up well in advance) to tour the site with the missile.

However, we did walk around the visitor center and learned a lot more about the Cold War and the role that the Minuteman Missile played in “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD).

Visiting the Museum

There is an interesting and informative movie that runs for around 20 minutes. I had been to the Titan Missile Museum in Tucson and believe it would be worth making a reservation to tour the other facility.

Congress established the site in 1999 to preserve two 1960s missile sites, Delta-09 and Delta-01. In 1991, the Cold War was coming to an end, and there was a strategic arms reduction, leading to the closing of these facilities.

The National Park Service and US Air Force determined that this site could represent the Minuteman’s role during the Cold War as a dedication to the personnel who staffed the site.

There was a really interesting and equally terrifying exhibit that showed the “close calls” almost leading to a nuclear war between the United States and Russia.

The Minuteman Missile Museum is located at 24545 Cottonwood Road, Philip, SD 57567. The visitor’s center is open daily from 8-4 from March to December and is closed on Sunday and Monday from December through March. You can tour one of the sites but it requires advanced reservations. Tours cost $12 and can fill up eight weeks in advance. Reserve your tour here.

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Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, SD

10. Wall Drug

These stops along I90 are well-known in the state and are worth a quick stop if you have the time. You can only see these in South Dakota, after all.

Wall Drug

Dorothy and Ted Hustead bought the only drugstore in this small town on the edge of the Badlands. Dorothy had the great idea to hang signs on the highway offering free ice water to the people riding this long, dusty road across the state. Their business was never light again. Even today, you’ll see signs for more than 20 miles before the store complex.

This store has become an attraction. Wall Drug is now around a full city block and includes a cafe, pharmacy, and pharmacy museum, western art gallery, Black Hills gold and jewelry store, a backyard waterpark, and more. It’s a bit of a “tourist trap”, but a fun stop along a long road.

Wall Drug is located at 510 Main St, Wall, SD 57790, right off I90. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.

11. The Corn Palace

Built in 1892, the Corn Palace is a multi-purpose facility in Mitchell, South Dakota. The Corn Palace has become a destination attracting around 500,000 people annually to this small town of 3,000.

Three successive palaces were built when the last became too small, and in the 1930s, they added Moorish minarets and murals made of 13 colors of corn, grain, and grasses.

These are updated every year with a new theme. Called the “agricultural showplace of the world” and “a folk-art wonder of the prairie of South Dakota,” the Corn Palace is a fun and unique place to visit.

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If you are interested in a bite to eat when you stop to visit, a new restaurant called The Back 40 was a fun stop with great food. The brunch offerings were creative and very good.

The World’s Only Corn Palace is located at 604 N Main St, Mitchell, SD 57301. It’s open at different hours throughout the year, and you can find the hours here.

2 Extra Things to Do In (and Near!) South Dakota

If you have more time and want additional fun things to do in South Dakota, check these out.

Visit Devils Tower

This is not in the top 10 list because it’s not in South Dakota; it is located in Wyoming but only an hour or so from the South Dakota border. It is considered sacred by the Native American people and became the first United States National Monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906. Around 500 people climb it every year, allowed by permit only.

Devils Tower is open 24 hours a day and seven days a year. The Visitor’s Center is open from 8 to 7 from the spring through the fall. It is located at WY-110, Devils Tower, WY 82714. Entrance is $25 per vehicle.

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Tour a Cave

There are two incredible caves in the western region of South Dakota, and they are worth seeing!

We were unable to visit because we ran out of time and weren’t prepared. Our hotel told us that they require long pants and close-toed shoes as a result of white-nose syndrome, a disease caused by a fungal infection in bats.

We were told temperatures in the caves average around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and this Arizona girl packed for temperatures in the 80s.

Jewel Cave (location, hours vary year- round and the cost varies based on the tour) or Wind Cave (26611 US Highway 385, Hot Springs, SD 57747, open daily year-round from 8 to 4:30, cost $12). This is not on my top ten list, as I was unable to go, but I really, really wanted to.

So, Are You Planning Your Trip to South Dakota Now?

I hope you enjoy reading about this trip and are inspired to add it to your list of places to visit. There is a lot of natural beauty in South Dakota. When you visit, be sure to check out the state and national parks in South Dakota.

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