Have you ever been to South Dakota? If not, you’re missing out on some of the best scenery and attractions in the United States. From the majestic Black Hills to the Badlands, there is so much to see and do in this beautiful state.
And since it’s located in the heart of the country, it’s easy to get to from almost anywhere. In this guide, I’ll share with you a list of the 20 Best Things to Do in South Dakota.
This includes everything from popular tourist attractions to hidden gems that you may not have heard of. So whether you’re looking for a weekend getaway or a week-long vacation, you’ll find something on this list that interests you.
Things to Do in South Dakota
1. Badlands National Park
The Badlands National Park is one of the most unique places to visit in South Dakota. This vast expanse of wilderness looks like something out of a sci-fi movie, with its eerie rock formations and canyons.
The name ‘Badlands’ comes from the Lakota people, who used to call this place’ mako sica,’ meaning ‘land bad.’ And it’s easy to see why they thought that when you look at the eerie landscapes. The Badlands is full of canyons, spires, and pinnacles, which have been carved out by millions of years of erosion.
One of the best ways to explore the Badlands is by taking a drive down the Badlands Loop Road. This scenic route takes you past some of the most incredible rock formations in the park. If you’re feeling adventurous, there are plenty of hiking trails to explore. The Castle Trail is a particular highlight as it takes you to the top of a towering spire for breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
As well as being a photographer’s dream, the Badlands are also a great place to spot wildlife. The park is home to bison, which you can often see grazing on the grasslands.
2. Caster State Park
If there’s one thing South Dakota is known for, it’s beautiful national parks. And Caster State Park is one of the most scenic. This vast park covers over 71,000 acres of stunning cliffs, canyons, and rock formations.
There are plenty of things to do in Caster State Park, from hiking and camping to horseback riding and mountain biking. And if you want to get up close and personal with some of the wildlife, you can go on a safari tour. I suggest taking a drive along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. A drive along this scenic route is one of the best things to do in South Dakota, as you’re sure to spot some bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, and elk. The drive takes about two hours, including stops for pictures and wildlife watching.
3. Mammoth Site
The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs is one of the most unusual attractions in South Dakota. This archaeological site is home to the remains of over 60 mammoths.
It is believed that this site was once a watering hole for these huge beasts. But around 26,000 years ago, something happened that caused them all to die. No one is quite sure what it was, but the most popular theory is that they got stuck in the mud and drowned. Today, you can explore the site and see the mammoths’ remains. The bones are still in the same place they were discovered, and you can see some of the tusks.
The town of Deadwood is one of the most iconic places to visit in South Dakota. This former gold-mining town has a rich history and was even the setting for the HBO series of the same name.
Deadwood first came to prominence in 1875 when gold was discovered in the area. This led to a surge in population as prospectors flooded into the town in search of their fortune. But it wasn’t just gold that made Deadwood famous. The town was also home to some of the most notorious figures of the Wild West, including Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.
Today, Deadwood is a popular tourist destination, and you can learn all about its fascinating history at the Adams History Museum. This museum covers everything from the town’s gold-mining past to its more recent history as a gambling destination.
No trip to Deadwood would be complete without taking a walk down Main Street. This historic street is lined with old casinos and hotels, as well as some of the best restaurants in town. And if you’re feeling lucky, you can even try your hand at gambling in one of the casinos.
5. Good Earth State Park at Blood Run
This fascinating state park is located on the site of an ancient Native American settlement. The Good Earth State Park at Blood Run was once home to the Oneota people, who lived here between 1400 and 1700.
This was one of the largest settlements of its time, with around 10,000 people living in the area. Today, you can explore the park and see the remains of their homes, as well as burial mounds and earthworks. You can tour the newly built 11,000-square-foot visitor center to learn about the site’s history.
One of the best things about this state park is that it’s located on the Big Sioux River. This makes it a great spot for fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. It’s also a great place to go for a walk or cycle, with over 6 miles of trails to explore. This makes a visit here to be one of the best things to do in South Dakota.
6. Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is another must-see attraction in South Dakota. This monumental sculpture is still being carved into a mountain, and when it’s finished, it will be the world’s largest sculpture.
The memorial is dedicated to Crazy Horse, a Lakota leader who played a key role in the resistance against European settlers. The sculpture depicts him riding a horse and pointing in the distance. Work on the memorial began in 1948, and it’s estimated that it will be finished sometime in the next few decades. In the meantime, you can take a shuttle bus to the viewing platform to get a close-up view of the carving.
When it’s finished, the Crazy Horse Memorial will be 563 feet high and 641 feet wide. It will be the world’s largest sculpture and an impressive sight to behold.
7. Cosmos Mystery Area
Do you want to experience something truly bizarre? Then head to Cosmos Mystery Area, where you can enjoy a bewildering array of optical illusions. This is one of the weirdest attractions in South Dakota and is sure to leave you baffled.
This area has a collection of bizarre buildings where the laws of physics seem to have been forgotten. For example, you’ll be able to lean at a 45-degree angle without falling over, toss a ball in the air and watch it get stuck in the air, or see people appear to grow or shrink.
No one knows exactly how the Cosmos Mystery Area works, and that’s part of the fun. This is a great adventure for the whole family and is one of the unique things to do in South Dakota.
8. Wind Cave National Park
South Dakota is home to some of the most incredible caves in the world, and Wind Cave National Park is one of the best places to see them. This park is home to one of the world’s longest caves, which stretches for over 140 miles underground.
The cave was discovered in 1881 by a group of men who were looking for bison. They heard a loud whistling noise and followed it to a small hole in the ground. Once they crawled through, they found themselves in an incredible cave system that stretched for miles.
These caves are full of incredible calcite formations, including the world-famous ‘boxwork.’ This is a type of calcite that forms in a honeycomb-like pattern and is unique to the Wind Cave. You can take a guided tour of the cave to see these formations up close.
9. Spearfish Canyon
If you’re looking for things to do in South Dakota that are off the beaten track, then head to Spearfish Canyon. This beautiful canyon is located in the Black Hills and is full of dramatic cliffs, waterfalls, and lush forests. This makes it one of the best places in South Dakota to appreciate the state’s natural beauty.
The canyon is around 20 miles long, and there are plenty of ways to explore it. The most popular way is to drive the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. This route takes you past some of the most beautiful scenery in the canyon, including the Bridal Veil Falls.
If you’re feeling active, there are plenty of hiking trails to explore. The trail to Rough Lock Falls is a particular highlight as it takes you past some stunning waterfalls.
10. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
One of the most famous attractions in South Dakota, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, is a must-visit for anyone traveling to the state. Located in the Black Hills, this massive sculpture features the faces of four US presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
The idea for Mount Rushmore came from the local sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who wanted to create a monument that would attract visitors to South Dakota. In 1927, work on the project began, and it took 14 years to complete. Today, over three million people come to see Mount Rushmore every year.
In addition to the massive sculpture, there is also a museum at Mount Rushmore that tells the story of the monument’s construction. You can also take a ranger-led tour or hike one of the many trails in the area.
11. National Music Museum
A tour of The National Music Museum in Vermillion is one of the best things to do in South Dakota if you love music. This incredible museum has over 15,000 musical instruments and objects on display, making it the largest collection of its kind in the world.
Highlights of the museum include the Stradivarius Collection, which features eight violins by the famed Italian luthier. There’s also an impressive collection of historic keyboard instruments, including a piano that belonged to Frederic Chopin. There are also interactive exhibits where you can try your hand at playing a variety of different instruments.
12. Mitchell Corn Palace
Imagine a building made entirely out of corn. No, this isn’t a scene from the Wizard of Oz; it’s the Mitchell Corn Palace. This strange attraction is covered in around 275,000 ears of corn, which are used to create murals and patterns on the outside of the building.
The Corn Palace was built in 1892 as a way to showcase the agricultural wealth of South Dakota. Every year, the corn is replaced with a new crop, and the designs on the building are changed too. As well as being a pretty strange sight, the Corn Palace is also a great place to learn about the history of South Dakota. There’s a museum inside with exhibits on the state’s Native American tribes and cowboys.
And being one of the top tourist attractions in South Dakota, the Corn Palace is also a popular venue for events and concerts. So, even if you’re not that interested in corn, it’s still worth checking out the schedule to see if there’s anything going on during your visit.
13. Theodore Roosevelt National Park
This beautiful national park is located in the badlands of North Dakota and is named after the US president, who was a big advocate of conservation. It’s easy to see why he fell in love with this place, as it’s simply breathtaking.
There are three sections to the park, the North Unit, the South Unit, and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit, and each has something special to offer. The South Unit is the most popular as it is located along Interstate 94 and has the most developed infrastructure. Here you can enjoy activities such as hiking, horseback riding, scenic drives, and wildlife watching. The park is home to an incredible variety of animals, including bison, elk, deer, pronghorn, and wild mustangs.
The other two units of the park also offer a true wilderness experience. So if you’re up for an adventure, be sure to include a visit to this park on your list of best things to do in South Dakota.
14. Visit the Falls Park
The largest city in South Dakota, Sioux Falls, is a bustling metropolis that’s full of great things to see and do. From the iconic falls for which it’s named to the many museums and art galleries, there’s plenty to keep you entertained.
The city’s centerpiece is, of course, the magnificent Sioux Falls. At an impressive drop of around 100 feet, it’s one of the biggest waterfalls in the country. You can admire the falls from the viewing platform or take a walk along the scenic Falls Park trail that follows the river.
What I loved most about Falls Park was that most of the trail is easily accessible for wheelchair users and strollers. And this makes it one of the top attractions in South Dakota for families and those with limited mobility.
15. Old Courthouse Museum
The Old Courthouse Museum in Sioux Falls is one of the most interesting places to visit in South Dakota for history buffs. This beautiful Romanesque building was constructed in the late 19th century and served as the county courthouse for over 50 years.
Today, the building is a museum that tells the fascinating history of Sioux Falls. The exhibits cover a wide range of topics, from the city’s early days as a frontier settlement to its more recent past. In addition to the permanent exhibits, there are also temporary exhibitions that change on a regular basis.
16. Take a Scenic Drive Along the Needles Highway
Looking for the best things to do in South Dakota that are completely free? Then take a drive along the Needles Highway. This scenic weaves its way through the Black Hills and features some pretty jaw-dropping views. The highway is named after the towering granite pillars that line the route, known as ‘needles.’ These impressive rock formations were formed by glaciers around 2.5 million years ago.
The highway first opened in 1922 and is just 14 miles long, but it’s definitely worth the journey as you’ll be treated to some of the most incredible views in South Dakota. Be sure to stop at the Needles Eye Tunnel, a 60-foot granite tunnel that was carved out by hand.
17. Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove
The Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove is another of the top attractions in South Dakota if you’re traveling with kids. This unique facility is home to hundreds of different species of butterflies, many of which are native to South Dakota. And while the butterflies are the true highlight, there’s also a marine cove where you can see stingrays, sharks, and other fish. The best part is that you can touch them. If you’re feeling brave, you can even feed the stingrays.
This attraction is great for kids as there are lots to see and do. And it’s also educational, with informative displays about the different species of butterflies and marine life.
18. The Journey Museum
Every country has a story to tell, and South Dakota’s history is no different. The Journey Museum is one of the best places to learn about the enriching history of the Black Hills and Native American culture.
The museum is split into different sections, each of which tells a different story. The first is all about the geological history of the area, including the famous fossils that have been found here. The second section is about the Native American people who have called this place home for centuries. The third part of the museum is dedicated to the pioneers who settled in the area, and the fourth explores more recent history.
Take your time to explore each section of the museum and learn all about the fascinating history of South Dakota.
19. Rush Mountain Adventure Park
Are you looking for some thrills? Or perhaps you’d prefer to take things at a slower pace? Either way, you’ll find what you’re looking for at Rush Mountain Adventure Park.
This family-friendly attraction has something for everyone, with a range of activities on offer. For the adrenaline junkies, there’s zip-lining, a treetop adventure course, ATV tours, and much more. And if you want to take things a little easier, you can enjoy a scenic horse-drawn wagon tour or a leisurely hike. And if this is not enough to tire you out, there’s also a gemstone mine where you can sift for precious stones.
All in all, a tour of this park is definitely one of the best things to do in South Dakota for anyone who loves the great outdoors.
20. Black Hills National Forest
Want to get away from the hustle and bustle of city life? Then make your way to the Black Hills National Forest. The rugged landscapes of the Black Hills were created by millions of years of volcanic activity. And today, they offer a haven for nature lovers and adventure seekers alike. There are plenty of trails to explore, as well as lakes and waterfalls.
The most popular activity in the Black Hills National Forest is driving on one of the many scenic routes. The forest offers a number of different routes, each offering different views of the stunning landscapes. But if you’re feeling adventurous, then why not explore on foot? There are plenty of hiking and biking trails to discover.
One of the best things about the Black Hills National Forest is that it’s home to some of the most iconic landmarks in South Dakota. The Black Elk Peak, which is the highest point in the forest, is the tallest mountain in South Dakota. So when planning your trip, make sure you add this forest to your list of places to visit in South Dakota.
There’s no shortage of things to do in South Dakota. Whether you’re looking for thrills or simply want to take in the scenic views, you’ll find it all in this state. I have only highlighted a few of the best things to do, so choose your own adventure and explore all that South Dakota has to offer.