15 Top Rated Tourist Attractions in South Dakota

Jul 22, 2021

South Dakota is part of the American West, where the prairie gives way to the frontier. The state capital, Pierre, is the largest city in South Dakota and, along with Rapid City and the Black Hills National Forest, is one of the most scenic destinations in the United States.

Founded by the Sioux people, the capital was the first major American settlement on the western frontier and the gateway to the plains. The city of Rapid City and the Black Hills National Forest offer the natural highlights of South Dakota: the massive sandstone cliffs and rocky badlands of the Black Hills and the vast grasslands of the prairie region.

South Dakota is a diverse place to visit, whether you're a visitor looking for natural beauty, attractions and destinations, or a resident who wants to get a peek at this quietly attractive and relaxed state. Discover some of South Dakota's best attractions with our list of the top tourist attractions in South Dakota.

Custer State Park

Photo of Custer State Park
Custer State Park: en.wikipedia.org

American Indians and homesteaders first inhabited the area surrounding Custer State Park. The Sioux settled nearby in 1881, and large deposits of fossils, pottery, and other archaeological finds were discovered, making Custer State Park the site of the American dinosaur discovery. The city of Custer has been reconstructed in a southwestern frontier style, while the surrounding park was designed to replicate a Plains Indian village, with a colorful petroglyphs and grassy walking trails winding through the re-creations of structures like an Indian tipi. Situated along the Black Hills Highway, Custer State Park is located 80 miles from Rapid City, at the western edge of the Black Hills National Forest. The state park contains the 2,342-foot-high Mount Rushmore monument to four U.S. Presidents, carved into the massive granite peaks.

Mount Rushmore

Photo of Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore: en.wikipedia.org

Home of the world's tallest freestanding sculptures, this impressive landmark in Mount Rushmore National Memorial is well-placed with some of the area's most scenic views. Designed by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the carving of the head of a giant American president faces the Continental Divide to overlook the spectacular mountain landscape of the Black Hills. You can see the mountain before you arrive, but you can't miss the black monolith of the presidential face that forms the main sculpture.

Badlands National Park

Photo of Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park: en.wikipedia.org

Badlands National Park is one of America's most remote and scenic national parks. The remarkable landscape here is home to crumbling but spectacularly colorful sandstone formations, often referred to as badlands. Formed by millennia of erosion, these rocks cover a vast area of rugged, semi-arid high plains that are all part of the badlands' Badlands National Park. Visible here are eroded sandstone flats, hoodoos, crests, pinnacles, and buttes. Inhabited by prairie wolves and bison in the 1800s, these remnants of the 19th century American West are today protected and protected. Visiting this park is like entering another time, since they still use the past, ancient methods of building this world. These are the World's largest and most perfect sandstone formations, some of them being over 400 million years old. These rocks were formed by forces of nature and erosion. Badlands National Park can be visited year-round because of the climate. In winter the park is a cold, quiet place, and in summer there is still plenty to see.

Black Hills

Photo of Black Hills
Black Hills: en.wikipedia.org

Black Hills is located just south of the Missouri River, bordering Wyoming and Montana, in a scenic region that contains a number of unique attractions. Notable among them is Devils Tower, the world's most famous example of a giant natural tower of igneous rock, reaching 1,461 feet above sea level. Other draws include rock formations known as Arches National Park, which include a formation called Towering Arches, which is the tallest natural arch in the world. Two other parks, Wind Cave National Park and Wind Cave, feature the cave's spectacular limestone formations. One of the most unusual and remote sites is Jewel Cave National Monument. Located deep inside the Hill Cumorah, where the Book of Mormon claims it will be found, the site features a remarkable "blue marble" inner chamber that is now the centerpiece of the visitor center. For more about the unusual world of the Book of Mormon, visit the Mormon Visitors Center at Nauvoo. For outdoor adventures, the region is home to White River National Scenic Byway, a route that will bring you through breathtaking views of the landscape. The National Bison Range covers up to 160,000 acres, making it a great place to see the bison, the bison herd, or the bison, individually, when viewing the animals in their natural habitat.

Wind Cave National Park

Photo of Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park: en.wikipedia.org

With caves etched into the limestone mountains of Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota is home to over 500,000 underground limestone formations. Famous for its unique colors and stunning variety, there are caves here that look almost otherworldly, such as Small Boy and Forest. Others feature colored stalactites and stalagmites with outlines resembling surreal cartoon characters. In addition to its natural beauty, Wind Cave is home to two incredible museums. The Museum of the Earth explores the unique history and geology of the park, with its displays including samples of caves' different rock layers and minerals, as well as information on the park's mineral resources and economic history. Inside the mineral-rich caves, visitors may also be inspired by wall hangings called mudhacks. When the caves dry, limestone is sculpted to resemble a variety of different objects such as faces, wreaths, and hearts, according to the water flow. An exhibit at the museum features unique objects that can only be seen here, including an actual spruce tree growing in the cave and a cake, sculpted in the rock, that is one thousand years old. The Cave Dome Theater, located in the geological exhibit area, presents films that highlight the park's unique geology and underground wonders.

Crazy Horse

Photo of Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial: en.wikipedia.org

The fourth largest Native American reservation in the US, Crazy Horse is home to about 1,600 American Indians, a great many of them descendants of the Sioux nation. There are now numerous museums and cultural centers, all of which offer information and displays about the history, culture, and traditional beliefs of the native Americans. A visit here is much less of a tourist event and much more of a small town with a variety of history exhibits and the chance to meet native Indian people. Crazy Horse's most important attraction is the Oglala Sioux Indian Museum. Exhibits here detail the history of the Native American Sioux, but there is also a collection of traditional and ceremonial objects, along with a detailed history of the Battle of Little Big Horn, an event that occurred in the area now known as Wounded Knee.

Sioux Falls

Photo of Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Sioux Falls, South Dakota: en.wikipedia.org

Known as "Mother of the West", Sioux Falls has a long history dating back to when the Santee Sioux built a trading post in the 1800s. While there are many attractions, including the Kestrel Sky Theater and Rapid City's Summer Storm Museum, the city is also a good base for shopping, dining, and plenty of outdoor adventure. If you like food, you can experience local flavor with a burger at Top of the Rock Bar & Grill, or enjoy a beer at the Hoodoo Brewing Company.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

Photo of Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail: en.wikipedia.org

This trail connects 21 sites and natural wonders as the Lewis and Clark Expedition passed through South Dakota on their expedition to the Pacific in 1805 and 1806. Begin your visit in Pierre, South Dakota's capital city, where at the riverfront Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, national park rangers provide an informative presentation on Lewis and Clark's expedition. See where the two explorers landed to begin the expedition, as well as where they built their lodgings. Exhibits and historical markers help to explain the explorers' mission to open a route to the Pacific. Hiking to the first of the South Dakota sites on the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, Fort Pierre, a reconstructed frontier trading post and a National Historic Landmark. At the Fort Pierre interpretive center, learn about the mission of Lewis and Clark in North Dakota, where you'll see the first map ever made of the Lewis and Clark expedition, as well as the original journals, which are of great interest to scholars and curious travelers. Hiking into the Black Hills from Fort Pierre, a great views can be seen of Mount Rushmore, one of the nation's most-famous landmarks, and Crazy Horse, a soldier for the Lakota tribes.

Rapid City, SD

Photo of Rapid City, South Dakota
Rapid City, South Dakota: en.wikipedia.org

Standing on the edge of the Badlands National Park, Rapid City, South Dakota, has a unique character. Although it is surrounded by an area so remote it inspired Stanley Kubrick's fictional portrayal of the American west in his movie, The Shining, South Dakota has maintained a bustling modern town. Things to see and do in Rapid City include visiting the Old Main Museum, where exhibits about the rich cultural history of the state's seven million residents are held. Other attractions include the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, the South Dakota state capitol, and the Great Plains Museum. If you're a history buff, the Dakota Women's Education Center is an ideal place to catch up on the state's past. For those of a more relaxed disposition, games can be enjoyed in the Friendly Native Village.

Mesa Verde

Photo of Mesa Verde National Park
Mesa Verde National Park: en.wikipedia.org

Mesa Verde was occupied by people from AD 200 to 1300, and was inhabited until the early 17th century. Unlike most of the sites that have been inhabited continuously over the past 4,000 years, Mesa Verde boasts cliff dwellings that were constructed around 1500, some of which are at least 800 years older than the pyramids of Egypt. Over 130 dwellings have been discovered and explored at the site, which is a Unesco World Heritage site. These dwellings include the 30 dwellings in the Great Gallery, the largest of the cliff dwellings in the area, with a clear, central chimney as its crowning glory. About a quarter of the dwellings have been reconstructed in whole or in part, allowing visitors to see how these people lived. The dwellings have been painted with brightly colored polychrome pigments and contain features such as elaborate friezes, spiral staircases, and arched doorways. Travelers wishing to visit Mesa Verde have to stay in the town of Cortez, the base for the site. Visitors to the site can take tours that take about three hours, and travel to the cliff dwellings and back by bus. There are a number of exhibits and displays in the Great Gallery.

Black Hills National Forest

Photo of Black Hills National Forest
Black Hills National Forest: en.wikipedia.org

This redwood forest of longleaf pine is one of the most beautiful wilderness areas in the country. Located just south of the tiny town of Pennington, the South Dakota landscape is marked by big, looming redwoods and open prairies. In the autumn, the wildflowers are among the most colorful and plentiful you'll see anywhere. To enjoy the vistas, trails run through some of the most remote country in the United States. The base for the Black Hills National Forest is marked by a statue in front of the Pennington Public Library. From there, take the South Dakota Scenic Route, which circles the area on dirt roads. To the east, you'll find the Dakota Badlands, which are home to beautiful red cliffs and buttes. In the south, there's Amboy Crater, where you can explore the remains of an extinct volcano. At its summit, more than 100 quartz crystals have been discovered over the last 25 years. The Dakota Badlands are just a 20-minute drive from the town of Huron.

Devils Tower National Monument

Photo of Devils Tower
Devils Tower: en.wikipedia.org

The shape of this popular tourist attraction is defined by an enormous, sharp-edged, 45-degree-boulder sitting atop an eerily green valley. In the early 1980s the National Park Service (NPS) decided that its 90-year-old sandstone peak needed to be restored. Devils Tower is not only a big draw, it's also beautiful. As an attraction, the tower gives visitors a unique look at a national monument. You can spend an afternoon exploring its layered sandstone surface, or you can climb it to find views and a topographical viewpoint of the area. The tower stands 19,710 feet above sea level. The best time to visit the area is in early summer, when the tower is at its most beautiful. You can visit by taking a guided hike to the top of the nearly vertical cliff (or by taking the lift) from the adjacent visitor's center. Guided tours are available, as are ranger-led talks. The attraction is located on the Missouri River valley floor, and the nearest town is Deadwood.

Black Elk Peak

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Black Elk Peak: en.wikipedia.org

The Black Elk Peak consists of several extinct volcanoes in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The highest of the peaks is the Black Elk Peak (8,660 feet), with the summit of the mountain appearing as a stunning white peak through the rugged prairie, which in itself is an impressive sight. This beautiful mountain was named after a Native American chief who lived in the late 1800s and recorded the story of his people and their beliefs. On this mountain, the chief also performed a ceremony, bringing together the spiritual and the physical. He prayed to the Great Spirit for healing and prosperity. The mountain is now part of the Black Elk Wilderness, which consists of an area of protected land on the western end of the Black Hills. The best thing to do in Black Elk Peak is to head into the wilderness, where there are lots of hiking and mountain-biking trails. The Black Elk Wilderness offers a number of challenging hikes, the most popular of which are the Big Bear Lake Trail, the Sky City Trail, and the Indian Trail. To visit this site, go by car from Rapid City to Custer State Park. You'll need a car at the state park, which is 70 miles south of the park entrance. If you get to the park late, you can camp for free on its southern plains before heading out to the Black Elk Peak.

State Capitol

Photo of South Dakota State Capitol
South Dakota State Capitol: en.wikipedia.org

America's tallest building, the South Dakota state Capitol (officially the 102-story First Interstate Center), has its origins in a red-brick, turret-roofed neoclassical courthouse designed by architect Chester Atwood in 1927. The great but highly functional building houses state government offices as well as the capitol gallery, where visitors can learn about the state's history and its government. The building also features a richly ornamented rotunda, designed by Edward Tallmadge, with skylights and a stained-glass ceiling. The 1,760-foot spire, built in 1976, is the second highest in the United States after the Empire State Building's 1,454 feet, but the tallest is that of the Carolina Skyscraper in Charlotte. The oldest structure in the building is the Conference Hall. The best way to reach the building is by car or taxi, the former from I-90, the latter from the Northgate and Westgate exits. The building is also visible from Interstate 90, and drivers who find themselves there between traffic and weather can have a look at it from the western (Ravalli County) approach.

Little Big Horn Battlefield and Memorial

Photo of Battle of the Little Bighorn
Battle of the Little Bighorn: en.wikipedia.org

In 1876, a skirmish between Sioux and Cheyenne Indian tribes took place on the Little Big Horn River in South Dakota. Almost all of the Cheyenne were wiped out by the end of the day, but 200 Lakota and Northern Cheyenne managed to escape. You can learn about the Battle of the Little Big Horn at the nearby site of the former Crow Creek Reservation, where you can visit a living Lakota village, see the 1876 log cabin where the tribe's leader, Sitting Bull, was shot, and tour a 19th-century trading post. The Bighorn Battlefield, within the Fort Robinson Reservation, is more than 900 acres of grassland and shrubbery containing the remnants of several field battles.