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21 Fabulous Things To Do in South Dakota

Many people are under the impression that South Dakota is just an endless expanse of vast farmland, but the reality is anything but, particularly in the western half of the state in the region known as the Black Hills. If you’ll be visiting South Dakota consider experiencing at least some of these fabulous things to do.

Swim in Sylvan Lake, Custer Sylvan Lake, Custer
Credit: Sylvan Lake, Custer by bigstock.com

Swim in Sylvan Lake, Custer

What Is It? Even if you’ve never been to the Black Hills, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Sylvan Lake, the crown jewel of Custer State Park.

Why Do It? It’s a favorite with photographers, with its image splashed across numerous brochures, postcards and other Black Hills-related material, and it was also featured in the 2007 film “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets.” This beautiful little lake offers a swimming beach as well as equipment rentals, including paddle boats, canoes and other watercraft. 

Good to Know: Taking a dip in the cool, refreshing waters after a long hike in the park is the perfect way to enjoy it.

See the World's Largest Ongoing Mountain Carving at Crazy Horse Memorial Crazy Horse Memorial
Credit: Crazy Horse Memorial by crazyhorsememorial.org

See the World's Largest Ongoing Mountain Carving at Crazy Horse Memorial

What Is It? While this massive mountain carving isn’t finished yet, you can witness the creation of a true world wonder by visiting Crazy Horse Memorial in Custer.

Why Do It? This is the world’s largest ongoing mountain carving, started in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski. Paying tribute to the tradition, culture and living heritage of American Indians, and the spirit of the legendary Lakota leader Crazy horse, when completed, it will be the largest mountain carving in the world. The campus includes the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational & Cultural Center which offers cultural and educational programming. 

Good to Know: Visitors can also see Korczak’s Studio & Home, which showcases many of the artist’s works, including the Horse’s Head that he carved in nine days, Old Pagen, and the Polish Eagle. A gift shop and restaurant are also onsite.

Take a Scenic Drive on Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop Wild burro, Custer State Park
Credit: Wild burro, Custer State Park by bigstock.com

Take a Scenic Drive on Custer State Park's Wildlife Loop

What Is It? Custer State Park, located in the heart of the Black Hills, is comprised of 71,000 acres of picturesque terrain and is filled with an abundance of wildlife. 

Why Do It? One of the best ways to see its highlights is by driving the scenic Wildlife Loop Road. The route traverses through 18 miles of pine-dotted hills and open grasslands, much of which the park’s wildlife calls home. You’ll have the chance to spot bison (usually in big numbers), elk, pronghorn, deer, coyotes, prairie dogs, eagles, and even wild burros. 

Good to Know: The burros thrive in the park’s pine savannas and tawny prairies – they were introduced by humans years ago when they were used for treks to Harney Peak Summit. Nowadays, they’re known as the “begging burros” as they often pander for food from tourists, particularly along the Wildlife Loop Road.

See Mount Rushmore, Keystone Mount Rushmore, Keystone
Credit: Mount Rushmore, Keystone by bigstock.com

See Mount Rushmore, Keystone

What Is It? While Mount Rushmore comes into view while driving some of Custer State Park’s roads, particularly Iron Mountain Road which includes one-lane tunnels that were built to showcase the iconic American symbol, it’s worth an up-close visit. 

Why Do It? Mount Rushmore National Memorial features the 60-foot faces of four American presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, who were all carved into the granite face of the mountain. 

Good to Know: It’s the state’s most popular attraction, and the surrounding park includes a museum with interactive exhibits and two theaters that show “The Shrine,” a short film that provides an introduction to the memorial; a half-mile walking trail, dining room and gift shop.

Explore Badlands National Park, Wall/Interior Badlands National Park
Credit: Badlands National Park by bigstock.com

Explore Badlands National Park, Wall/Interior

What Is It? Located just east of the Black Hills, Badlands National Park offers a unique and stunning painted landscape that includes a labyrinth of canyons, buttes, spires and pinnacles. 

Why Do It? At this top attraction near Rapid City, you can get out on the trails that range from flat stretches across the prairie to steep ascents through spellbinding formations. If you’re limited on time, take one of America’s most scenic drives, the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, which stretches for 31 miles along SD 240, passing through dramatic cliffs, buttes and multi-colored spires in a maze of the other-worldly-like landscape. 

Good to Know: Be sure to get out for at least one short stop at the Fossil Exhibit Trail. This one-quarter-mile trail showcases fossil replicas and exhibits of now-extinct creatures that once roamed the area.

Relive the Old West Day, Deadwood Deadwood, South Dakota
Credit: Deadwood, South Dakota by bigstock.com

Relive the Old West Day, Deadwood

What Is It? Deadwood is one of the most famous Old West towns, thanks to the HBO series with the same name. 

Why Do It? This gold rush city in the Black Hills was the real deal. Looking to strike it rich or to make money off those who did, thousands arrived in the 1870s, including legendary Wild Bill Hickok who was shot in the back by Jack McCall during a poker game in the summer of ’76. While the return of legalized gambling in 1989 transformed Deadwood into a popular tourist destination, it still offers a number of historic attractions, and the chance to relive the Old West Days. 

Good to Know: Tour the lavish Adams House, a Queen Anne-style mansion, view interesting exhibits at Adams Museum, pan for gold at the Lost Boot Mine and even watch a good ‘ol fashioned shootout, with a cast of talented entertainers reenacting the historic events on Main Street throughout the summer each year.

Ride a historic 1880 Train, Hill City  Hill City
Credit: Hill City by bigstock.com

Ride a historic 1880 Train, Hill City

What Is It? The 1880 Train is a vintage steam train similar to the ones that helped settle the American West.

Why Do It? It offers the chance for what may be the highlight of your time in South Dakota, with a two-hour, 20-mile round-trip ride through the scenic Black Hills between Hill City and Keystone. This fun and entertaining historical steam train experience allow passengers to explore the astounding beauty of the area while rolling across the rugged terrain, listening to the whine of the whistle and getting a fascinating education through narration covering the railroad and the region. 

Good to Know: Daily departures from Hill City and Keystone are available between May and October, with occasional special events offered, including the Mother’s Day Express, Wine Express, Old West Shootouts, Oktoberfest Express and more.

Check out the famous Corn Palace, Mitchell Corn Palace, Mitchell
Credit: Corn Palace, Mitchell by bigstock.com

Check out the famous Corn Palace, Mitchell

What Is It? Mitchell, a prairie town that’s “corn crazy,” is home to the world’s only corn palace. 

Why Do It? In fact, Mitchell is all about the corn, with all of its high school sports teams known as the “Kernels,” and even its local radio station’s call letters are K-O-R-N. The palace isn’t actually made of corn, it was constructed with reinforced concrete, but every year in the spring, its exterior is totally covered with thousands of bushels of South Dakota corn, grain and grasses which are arranged into large murals.

Good to Know: In the winter, it becomes the World’s Largest Bird Feeder, with the local wildlife enjoying a feast. Unless you happen to be a huge corn fanatic, it’s probably not worth going out of your way to visit, but it is worth stopping for a photo of this quirky attraction when making the long drive across the state on Interstate 90. If you want to stick around, Mitchell offers a number of other attractions like the Dakota Discover Museum and the Prehistoric Indian Village as well as unique specialty shops.

Grab a Drink at World-Renowned Wall Drug Store, Wall Wall Drug Store, Wall
Credit: Wall Drug Store, Wall by bigstock.com

Grab a Drink at World-Renowned Wall Drug Store, Wall

What Is It? Admittedly, this is one of the world’s biggest tourist traps, after all, it’s advertised on billboards across the globe, from London to Kenya and even the Taj Mahal. 

Why Do It? You’ll pass hundreds of signs for the famous store on Interstate 90 through South Dakota alone, all attempting to lure travelers in with offers of free ice water and five-cent coffee. While the Wall Drug Store is now the main industry for the town of Wall, it wasn’t always that way.

Good to Know: It was purchased in 1931, and with just 231 residents in this place referred to as “the geographical center of nowhere,” business wasn’t exactly booming. But then, the owners decided to advertise free ice water to travelers going to Mount Rushmore. Every other drug store did the same, but they didn’t promote it. It didn’t take long before customers began lining up, and it’s been a legend ever since. It’s almost impossible to drive through Wall without a stop here.

Join Bikers at Sturgis Rally, Sturgis/Black Hills Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Credit: Sturgis Motorcycle Rally by Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Join Bikers at Sturgis Rally, Sturgis/Black Hills

What Is It? Sturgis Rally, now in its 80th year, is a motorcycle rally held annually, typically during the first full week of August. 

Why Do It? While it’s based in Sturgis, events take place throughout the Black Hills. In 2015, it had the highest attendance ever with nearly three-quarters of a million participating. During the rally, every town within 100 miles of Sturgis is completely packed with motorcycles, the majority of which are Harleys, and riders clad in leather. Exhibitors feature just about anything and everything you can imagine when it comes to biker clothing as well as fancying up bikes, as well as demos on virtually every kind of bike on the market today. In addition to the bikes, there are races and concerts, with the main streets of Black Hills’ towns generally shut off to all but bikes during the rally. 

Good to Know: For non-bike enthusiasts seeking a more tranquil experience in the Hills, this is the time to avoid the area, while those who enjoy lots of excitement will find plenty of it here, though you’ll probably hear the sound of loud pipes ringing in your ears for weeks after you leave.

Check Out Mysteries at Cosmos Mystery Area, Rapid City Cosmos Mystery Area
Credit: Cosmos Mystery Area by vwcampin via Flickr

Check Out Mysteries at Cosmos Mystery Area, Rapid City

What Is It? There are a number of “Mystery Spots” throughout the U.S., including the Cosmos Mystery Area, which just so happens to be located right off the main highway between Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. 

Why Do It? Its sign declares, “The laws of nature seem to have gone completely berserk.” Entertaining tour guides will show you the “awesome power” of the Cosmos “force,” which includes water defying gravity, balls that are tossed into the air mysteriously veering off course, and people shrinking or growing, depending on where they happen to be standing. 

Good to Know: They say the Black Hills mystery spot was discovered by two college students in 1952, who stumbled upon the area and experienced a slight imbalance that increased considerably when they entered the old house that still sits on the property. See if you can experience for yourself its promise to “See it. Feel it. Survive it.”

Play in the Black Hills National Forest, Hill City/Custer/Keystone Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota
Credit: Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota by bigstock.com

Play in the Black Hills National Forest, Hill City/Custer/Keystone

What Is It? The Black Hills National Forest offers a wide variety of adventures, with 13,000 acres of wilderness and 600 miles of trails for off-road vehicles along with 11 reservoirs and 1,300 miles of streams. 

Why Do It? In addition to four-wheeling, visitors can enjoy everything from fishing, swimming and boating to biking, hiking and horseback riding. There are a host of campgrounds too, with more than 30, all offering easy access to the trails.

Good to Know: No matter what you choose to do, be sure to watch for the wildlife that call this region home, including elk, whitetail and mule deer, bison, mountain goats and pronghorn antelope.

Go Underground at Jewel Cave National Monument, Custer Jewel Cave National Monument
Credit: Jewel Cave National Monument by bigstock.com

Go Underground at Jewel Cave National Monument, Custer

What Is It? The third longest cave in the world, Jewel Cave, with 173 miles of explored passageways, offers a variety of tours, allowing you to go below the surface, as well as explore a 1,279-acre park with nature trails above ground. 

Why Do It? Hell Canyon Trail, a 5.3-mile trek, will bring you to limestone cliffs with amazing views of the canyon and surrounding area. The underground environment showcases brilliant color and fragile rocks in an ecosystem that can’t be seen anywhere else. You’ll be mesmerized by its calcite crystals, stalagmites, stalactites, frostwork, boxwork, draperies, flowstone and hydromagnesite balloons. 

Good to Know: After the tour, bird-watchers can enjoy watching for the roughly 120 species that call the national monument home – red-breasted nuthatch sightings are common, while bald eagles are occasionally spotted too.

Visit Flintstones Bedrock City, Custer  Flintstones Bedrock City
Credit: Flintstones Bedrock City by wikimedia.commons

Visit Flintstones Bedrock City, Custer

What Is It? This 62-acre theme park is focused on the Modern Stone Age Family – and, while the original cartoon series was canceled over four decades ago, just about everyone still recognizes the beloved characters, including Fred, Wilma, Barney, Betty and Dino. 

Why Do It? South Dakota’s Bedrock City opened in 1966, the first of four total, with two in Canada and two in the U.S. At the park’s entrance is a drive-in restaurant serving Brontoburger and a large gift shop. Inside, you’ll find a miniature 1880s train which takes guests through Dinosaur Canyon and around the park. The prehistoric town also includes the homes of the Flintstones, the Rubbles, Mr. Slate, and Mr. Granitebilt as well as a working movie cinema, playhouse theater, radio station, grocery store, and a number of other typical city facilities. 

Good to Know: There is also a playground for kids, and a campground with an arcade, swimming pool, mini-golf, cabins and campsites.

Go on a Wildlife Safari at Bear Country USA, Rapid City Bear Country USA
Credit: Bear Country USA by Bear Country USA

Go on a Wildlife Safari at Bear Country USA, Rapid City

What Is It? Located just south of Rapid City, Bear Country USA is home to the largest collection of privately owned black bears in the world. 

Why Do It? Go on a wildlife safari by taking the two-mile drive through the park, tucked away on 250 acres in the Black Hills, where you’ll get to see more than 20 species of North American animals, including black bears, grizzly bears, wolves, bighorn sheep, elk and buffalo, all living in large natural exhibits to mimic their wild environment as much as possible. 

Good to Know: After your drive tour, you can head to Babyland – this is likely to be the highlight of your time here, offering a chance to walk through the area, watching baby bears romp and play with each other as well as some of the offspring of the parks’ other animals.

Take Selfies with Giant Aldabra Tortoises at Reptile Gardens, Rapid City Tortoises at Reptile Gardens
Credit: Tortoises at Reptile Gardens by Reptile Gardens

Take Selfies with Giant Aldabra Tortoises at Reptile Gardens, Rapid City

What Is It? Reptile Gardens holds the Guinness World Record for the largest reptile collection. 

Why Do It? It also features a spectacular botanical garden with 50,000 flowers as well as tropical birds and gorgeous minerals. Be sure to bring your camera, as you may be able to get close enough to one of the three giant tortoises (Orville, Tank and Quazi) to take a great selfie. Up close and personal animal encounters are possible with one of the snakes, a baby gator and some of the other photogenic critters. 

Good to Know: At Bewitched Village, an Old West ghost town, you can go gemstone and arrowhead sluicing and more, and, visitors can also take in a variety of shows. The Gator Show features crocs, caimans and alligators, while the Exotic Bird Shows offer the chance for intimate interaction with a variety of exotic birds, including a falcon, macaw, parrot and owl.

Go Off-Road with Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours, Custer State Park Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours, Custer State Park
Credit: Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours, Custer State Park by custerresorts.com

Go Off-Road with Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours, Custer State Park

What Is It? By taking this buffalo safari jeep tour in Custer State Park, you’ll get to experience places that many visitors never get to see. 

Why Do It? Guides take visitors on an exciting off-road adventure in an open-air jeep, deep in the wildlife-filled backcountry, among the burros, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, pronghorns, elk and bison. 

Good to Know: In addition to helping you spot the animals, you’ll learn interesting facts about the park and its wildlife, and you may even discover some of its hidden secrets too.

Splash in the Warm Waters at Evans Plunge, Hot Springs Evans Plunge
Credit: Evans Plunge by evansplunge.com

Splash in the Warm Waters at Evans Plunge, Hot Springs

What Is It? Evans Plunge is an indoor and outdoor natural spring-fed mineral water pool that stays at a pleasant 87 degrees. 

Why Do It? Located in the small town of Hot Springs at the southern end of the Black Hills, it’s been one of the region’s most popular attractions for over 225 years. It features a 164-foot indoor water slide, an aqua jet-speed slide, a kiddie slide and traveling rings. 

Good to Know: The facility also includes hot tubs, a sauna and steam room, as well as a gift shop and concessions.

The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota
Credit: The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota by The Mammoth Site

The Mammoth Site, Hot Springs

What Is It? The Mammoth Site, also located in Hot Springs, in an active paleontological dig site that’s home to the world’s largest concentration of mammoth remains. 

Why Do It? Most of the fossils found here are from the North American Columbia mammoth, though evidence of three woolly mammoths have also been discovered, making this the only site where both species have been found together. Scientists estimate that over 100 mammoths accumulated here in this small area, with the animals found right where they died. A wealth of other Ice Age animal fossils have been found in this now-dry 26,000-year-old sinkhole, including the giant short-faced bear, camel, wolf, llama, coyote and prairie dog. 

Good to Know: Admission includes an introduction video, a 30-minute guided tour and entrance to the Exhibit Hall which features full-size replicas of mammoths and a giant-short faced bear.

Stop for a Drink at the Iconic Moonshine Gulch Saloon, Rochford Moonshine Gulch Saloon, Rochford
Credit: Moonshine Gulch Saloon, Rochford by Moonshine Gulch Saloon

Stop for a Drink at the Iconic Moonshine Gulch Saloon, Rochford

What Is It? Moonshine Gulch Saloon is an ideal stop for those that prefer places with lots of character over shiny and new – i.e., if you’re a neat freak, as one reviewer noted, you should probably head to somewhere else. 

Why Do It? The only place along the George S. Mickelson Trail between Lead and Hill City, it’s popular with hikers and bicyclists who frequent the trail during the warm months as well as motorcyclists, ATVers and others who appreciate the saloon’s earthiness and laid-back charms. Despite its remote location, during the summer it tends to get pretty packed with those looking for a burger and a sarsaparilla or a beer. 

Good to Know: The town itself had just 48 residents and a post office in 1900 – and in the 1950s, only the saloon, the Irish Gulch Dance Hall and one store was open. Today, Rochford is home to 25, and Moonshine Gulch is the only place that is still in operation.

Visit Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon, Spearfish Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon
Credit: Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon by bigstock.com

Visit Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon, Spearfish

What Is It? Spearfish Canyon is one of the most beautiful locations in the Black Hills – so stunning, in fact, that cinematographers chose it as the setting of the final scenes in “Dances with Wolves.”

Why Do It? One of its highlights is Roughlock Falls, which offers a picturesque place to enjoy a picnic or to cast your line. 

Good to Know: There are also a number of hiking trails throughout the canyon, and in the fall, it’s an ideal place for photographers to capture the vibrant gold and red aspen leaves.

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