Home to landscapes found nowhere else on Earth, rich Native American history, and more opportunities for outdoor recreation than most can imagine, South Dakota is an under-appreciated gem of North America. Set amid the Great Plains, which stretch well into the neighboring states of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Minnesota, and beyond, the sparsely populated northern state boasts a surprising diversity of unique natural terrain and historic sites well worth exploring on foot, by bicycle, and of course, by car (or motorcycle, RV, camper, van, you name it). As they say, ‘you gotta see it to believe it!’
We recently spent a long weekend getting to know the endlessly impressive western region, home to the Black Hills and Badlands. It‘s an area punctuated by towering spires of granite set among dark green hills of pine, surrounded by eroded prairie and vibrant grasslands. Though the eastern half of the state lays claim to the capital in Sioux Falls, glacial lakes, and the Missouri River, which is all well worth a visit if time allows, this article focuses on the areas we‘ve explored ourselves—and where most visitors will want to dedicate their rare free time, too.
Each of the following “things to do” has been independently vetted by yours truly. And well, we’d go back and do it all again in a heartbeat if given the chance. Read on, take notes, then book a cozy South Dakota cabin rental, and enjoy!
13 Family Friendly Things to Do in South Dakota
See Stunning Rock Formations & Wild Bison in Badlands National Park
In the southwestern corner of South Dakota on land previously and currently belonging to the Oglala Sioux Tribe, among other Native American peoples, Badlands National Park consists of 244,000 acres of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires surrounded by grass prairie. And boy is it beautiful! We have 75 million years of geologic history (and a massive ocean during Pangea times) to thank for the unique landscape—and one of the world’s richest fossil beds as proof. Pro Tip: Enter the park via the Northeast Entrance off Highway 240 and enjoy epic views and short, accessible hikes off the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway—but instead of heading back to Highway 240 at Pinnacles Overlook, continue onto the Sage Creek Rim Road to see a less-traveled portion of the park where wild bison and bighorn sheep (and prairie dogs) roam free. Bonus points if you stay at night at the Sage Creek Campground.
Hike to Cathedral Spires & Black Elk Peak in Custer State Park
Located just 45 minutes or so southwest of Rapid City, Custer State Park is the crown jewel of the truly impressive Black Hills. After a leisurely stroll around photogenic Sylvan Lake (a local favorite for boating and swimming in summer), the first stop for all visitors who’ve done their homework, it’s time to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trail. Custer State Park is filled with fantastic hiking trails for hikers of all abilities. For the most adventurous, Black Elk Peak is the state’s highest point at 7,244 feet and features a stone fire lookout tower that was built in 1939 and overlooks the Black Elk Wilderness and Great Plains below. Pro Tip: Hike in from the Cathedral Spires Trailhead and pass one of the forest’s most unique rock formations on the way.
Drive the Needles Highway in the Black Hills National Forest
Throughout the Black Hills are winding roads with impressive views, so whichever way you turn, you’re in for a scenic drive. The Needles Highway is one not to miss, complete with many inspiring vistas of ponderosa pine forests and valleys and three narrow tunnels blasted through solid granite. Fifth wheel owners and RV driver’s beware: the narrowest of tunnels (Needles Eye Tunnel) is just 8'9" wide by 9'8" high.
Pay Respect to the Indigenous Lakota People and Native American Tribes of South Dakota
For some 10,000 years, Indigenous peoples lived among the Great Plains and Black Hills, before betrayed treaties and US government-ordered slaughter brought a tragic end to their way of life. Today, the Lakota Sioux and other Indigenous peoples still have a presence on their ancestral lands, albeit greatly diminished. As visitors recreating on stolen land, we have the responsibility to acknowledge their history and ours, and educate ourselves by paying respect to the cultures that came before us. One way to do so is with a visit to the Heritage Center and Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home of the Oglala Sioux Tribe and one of the most impressive collections of historic and contemporary Native art in the country.
Visit Mount Rushmore & Crazy Horse Memorial
Both colossal sculptures are worth a drive by at the very least. Mount Rushmore National Memorial features, as you likely know, stone-blasted portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by sacred lands once belonging to the Lakota Sioux and other Indigenous tribes. If you‘re not keen on entering the park, you can see Mount Rushmore from the highway—both Highway 244 and Iron Mountain Road from Keystone—quite readily.
Rushmore's counterpart is the Crazy Horse Memorial, an ongoing stone sculpture of even greater size representing celebrated Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse. The Crazy Horse Memorial can also be seen from the road (Highway 16), but viewing it up close offers an opportunity to learn more about Crazy Horse himself and the important history of the Lakota people.
Go Hiking, Climbing, and Fly Fishing in Spearfish Canyon
On the northern edge of the Black Hills sits Spearfish, an outdoorsy town surrounded by lush forests of spruce, birch, and aspen, waterfalls, and its namesake, Spearfish Canyon. Drive the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway to access a host of impressive outdoor activities. Fly fish for browns, brookies, and rainbow trout in the Spearfish Creek, hike Devil’s Bathtub Trail for a swim in summer, and explore many other trails in Roughlock Falls State Nature Area. Bridal Veil Falls is worth a visit, too. And the climbing? Spearfish offers the state’s best, with beginner-friendly ice climbing in the winter and heaps of sport climbing (and some bouldering) spread across a handful of canyon crags. Bonus points for going full Rocket Power with some biking and kayaking in the canyon, too.
See Dinosaurs, Lizards, and Ghosts in Rapid City
Rapid City, aka the "Gateway to the Black Hills,“ is where you‘ll want to stay for your first night in South Dakota. Just a 20-minute drive from the regional airport, the modest town of some 75,000 people has a quaint, walkable main street downtown area, quality restaurants (try Tally‘s Silver Spoon for breakfast), shops (pick up camp gear at Roam‘n Around), and a Black Hills Visitor Center. Pro Tip: Stay at the famously haunted Alex Johnson Hotel and swing by Dinosaur Park at sundown to enjoy near 360 degree views of town and some fun dino facts among perfectly kitsch sculptures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1936. Reptile Gardens is another tourist attraction with a colorful history—expect to see a lot more live action there than at Dinosaur Park.
Go Spelunking in Wind Cave National Park
About an hour southwest of Badlands National Park sits another, much more unassuming, Midwest national park worth visiting. Wind Cave National Park was the first cave to be designated a national park and remains home to one of the country’s longest and most complex cave systems.
If guided tours are your thing, check out Jewel Cave National Monument, home to the third longest cave in the world, while you’re at it.
Learn All About Dinosaurs and Sue the T.Rex at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research
Sixty seven million years ago Tyrannosaurus Rex roamed the coastline of a great inland ocean in what is now South Dakota. Now, the Black Hills, Badlands, and more are home to some of the richest fossil beds in the world. Learn all about these remarkable creatures and stand face to face with dozens of real skeletons at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City, a cramped old gymnasium turned world-class research facility. This not-so-glamorous museum and gift shop was an unexpected highlight of our visit and a must stop for any dino fan. Pro tip: Watch the Emmy award winning documentary "Dinosaur 13" prior to visiting—the film centers around the institute and the controversial US government seizure of "Sue," the largest and most complete T-Rex skeleton ever found.
See the Real Wild West Preserved in Deadwood
The old west is alive in Deadwood, a historic town born of the 1876 gold rush. Fans of wild west lore will recognize names like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane—both former Deadwood residents, and both buried in the town’s Mount Moriah Cemetery. Nowadays, casinos, theater troupe re-enactments, and the Adams Museum bring the near-ghost town back to life. If you’re heading to the northern Black Hills, add this town to your road trip itinerary.
Partake in an Active Paleontological Dig at the Mammoth Site
Located in Hot Springs, SD, the Mammoth Site offers visitors the opportunity to view—and at times, even partake in—an active dig site of Ice Age fossils. To date, over 61 mammoths have been found, including Columbian and wooly mammoths, making this single site the largest concentration of mammoth remains on Earth. The uniquely immersive museum and dig facility is literally built around the 120-foot by 150-foot dig site, offering visitors a bird’s eye view of discovered fossils left in place and others that are still being uncovered.
Get Free Ice Water & 5 Cent Coffee at World Famous Wall Drug
A case study in marketing genius, the once humble Wall Drug Store in a barely-there prairie town outside Badlands National Park became one of America’s most popular tourist attractions—thanks in large part to free ice water, five cent coffee, and signs advertising the like around the globe. Today, the water and coffee are still available at the 76,000-square-foot tourist trap, gift shop, museum, restaurant, and yes, pharmacy, along with just about everything else you could imagine. An estimated two million people visit Wall Drug a year... we suggest swinging by in the morning before it‘s too crowded for a surprisingly tasty classic diner breakfast (with homemade donuts) before visiting Badlands for the day.
Soak in Natural Mineral Hot Springs
At the southern end of the Black Hills of South Dakota sits Hot Springs, a quiet little town with a lot of natural beauty. And natural mineral hot springs. Called Minne-catta, meaning Warm Water Creek, by the native Cheyenne people, the area is known for six major thermal springs that flow water as warm as 87 degrees. Once a frontier health spa destination, the small historic town is now quite quiet. Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa is a highlight though, and a worthy stop. To make the most of your visit, book reservations at Buffalo Dreamer, a celebrated restaurant on the same property.
Motorcycle enthusiasts will be sure to add the infamous Sturgis Rally to their to-do list while music nuts will want to visit the family-friendly National Music Museum in Vermillion. Ditto for budding engineers and design lovers with the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.