Some of the best road trips in the USA include a South Dakota road trip. There are a ton of things to do in South Dakota that it’s a must to be on your itinerary.
To help you plan your South Dakota trip we put together what we consider the 15 best things to do in South Dakota.
1. Badlands National Park
The jagged pinnacles and colorful canyons make Badlands National Park one of the best things to do in South Dakota. Covering over 244,000 acres, this park is home to some of the world’s oldest fossils. While exploring the massive geological formations, you’ll see the remains of ancient Brontothere, Oreodonts, and Nimravids.
Other features of the park include the 60-mile Badland’s Wall, the Roberts Prairie Dog Town, and the Yellow Mounds Overlook. Wildlife enthusiasts might be able to spot bison, bighorn sheep, and the once-endangered black-footed ferret. With so many things to see in the park, it’s also possible to spend the night at one of the campgrounds.
2. Custer State Park
Custer State Park is an outdoor adventure paradise. Custer State Park is teeming with activities for every type of traveler, from nature trails and birdwatching to kayaking and boating. You could easily spend an entire week in the park and still not have time to see everything.
Visitors can spend the morning rock climbing around Sylvan Lake or going for a leisurely scenic drive through the Wildlife Loops Roads. It’s common to see herds of free-roaming bison or bighorn sheep meandering through the pastures along this route. Wrap up the evening with a sunset trek around Black Elk Peak Trail or a dip in Stockade Lake before heading back to camp for dinner.
3. Needles Highway
The scenic 14-mile Needles Highway (also known as SD Highway 87) is an iconic road trip through the heart of Custer State Park. As you wind through miles of tunnels and hairpin turns, you’ll enjoy panoramic views of granite peaks and canyons right out your car window.
The most famous section of the highway is the Needles Eye Tunnel. At only 8ft 4 inches wide, you’ll have to squeeze your way through this exhilarating rock formation. Don’t forget to pull over to the different lookout points along the way for the chance to see the spectacular views of the wild landscape.
Related Article: Driving Needles Highway
4. Mount Rushmore
Considered to be one of the most iconic landmarks in the entire United States, Mount Rushmore should not be missed during your visit to South Dakota. As you approach the Black Hills in Keystone, you’ll notice the familiar faces of US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln carved into the side of the rock.
These 60-foot granite heads took almost 15-years for sculptors to complete. Over the last 80 years, it has become South Dakota’s most popular tourist attraction. Besides snapping a few photos in front of the faces, it’s also worth checking out the on-site museum and interactive galleries to learn more about the history and influence of this historic site.
Related Article: Things to do near Mount Rushmore
5. Wall Drug
If you’re planning a road trip through South Dakota, make sure to add Wall Drug to your itinerary. This famous roadside attraction is a cowboy-themed mall, western art museum, and chapel all rolled into one massive 76,000 square foot building. There are even multiple restaurants to keep your bellies full during your long journey on the road. Throughout the years, Wall Drug has earned its friendly reputation by providing visitors with free water, 5 cent coffee, and bumper stickers.
However, the most unique thing about Wall Drug is the 80-foot brontosaurus that lives on site. He can be seen directly from Interstate 90, although he’s much more impressive when you look at him up close and personal.
6. Crazy Horse Memorial
While South Dakota is known for the famous Mount Rushmore carving, very few people know that the state is also home to the largest rock carving in the world. The Crazy Horse Memorial is located on Thunderhead Mountain, which is also in the Black Hills, roughly 17 miles away from Mount Rushmore. Although it’s been under construction for the past 70 years, you can still see one completed structure – the massive head of the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse.
Once it’s finished, it will be 641-feet long and 563-feet high, which is almost ten times the size of Mount Rushmore. Although you may not be around long enough to see the final structure, it’s still worth stopping by Thunderhead to witness this architectural feat.
7. Corn Palace
Established in 1892, The Corn Palace is the only attraction of its kind in the world. This agricultural work of art contains murals decorated with naturally colored corn, grains, and grasses. This year, they even produced and used green corn, which is extremely rare to find. These corn murals change each year, and the designs are created by digital media and design students from the Dakota Wesleyan University.
Besides being home to these larger-than-life murals, the Corn Palace is also an exhibit and event hall. Throughout the year, you’ll find different live performances, shows, and even basketball games taking place within its walls. Even if you stop by for a short break during your road trip, it’s still worth ticking the Corn Palace off your South Dakota itinerary.
8. Try an Indian Taco
As the state’s official bread, the Indian Taco is a mouthwatering local delicacy that can be found all around South Dakota. To make an Indian Taco, you’ll need to start with fry bread invented by the Native Americans during the 1800s. These circles of dough are deep-fried and piled high with a variety of delicious toppings. Ground beef, onions, lettuce, and sour cream are a few popular favorites.
There are plenty of powwows and restaurants selling their own distinct version of this crispy, doughy snack. Places like Cedar Pass Lodge, Laughing Water Restaurant, and Cheyenne Crossing are a couple of popular hotspots among locals and visitors. Indulging in an Indian Taco is an authentic South Dakotan experience you need to try while you’re here!
9. Wind Cave National Park
Besides being the first cave designated as a national park, Wind Cave National Park is known for a few other memorable achievements. Not only is it the densest cave on the planet, but it’s also one of the longest cave systems ever discovered.
At the moment, the underground caves are closed for restoration. While it’s possible to book a guided tour once they reopen, it’s also worth taking the time to explore the national park above ground. On the surface, you can go hiking, wildlife-watching, or even back-country camping. If you’re still eager to learn more about the caves, you can stop by the visitor center to learn about the cave’s history and the different rock formations underground.
10. Black Hills National Forest
Dividing South Dakota from Wyoming, the Black Hills National Forest is an astounding 1.2 million acres of natural wilderness. Between the rolling hills, jagged mountains, and vast plains, Black Hills National Forest has no shortage of engaging outdoor activities for all types of travelers and visitors.
Hikers have access to over 450 miles of trails and paths, while fishers can choose between 11 different on-site lakes and reservoirs. If you’re interested in exploring the park by car, there are more than 5,000 miles of roads that you can venture down. You can also go swimming or sunbathing if you’d rather enjoy your relaxing vacation outdoors. It’s worth giving yourself a few days to see everything inside the park, so make sure to book a few nights at one of the 30 different campgrounds scattered throughout the area.
11. Snowmobile in the Black Hills
Are you planning a trip to South Dakota in the winter? While most visitors come during the warmer months for hiking and wildlife watching, winter offers thrill-seekers a unique opportunity to explore the midwest’s scenic landscape. From December to March, the Black Hills open their trails to snowmobile riders, who are allowed to race through 350-miles of forests, meadows, and fields.
Consistently ranked as one of the best destinations for snowmobiling, the Black Hills is ideal for off-roading and trail riding. You can obtain your snowmobiling permit at the Black Hills courthouses, or book a tour with a Black Hills snowmobiling company. Either way, be prepared for a heart-pounding adventure as your whizz through the snow-covered hills of South Dakota!
Related Article: Epic Snowmobiling in the Black Hills Trip
12. Minuteman Missile National History Site
For a bit of American history, make your way to the Minuteman Missile Visitor Center in Jackson Country. This museum focuses on the intercontinental ballistic missile development of the US Air Force during the Cold War. There are two 1960s missiles on-site, the Delta-01 and the Delta-09, which could fly a nuclear weapon to the Soviet Union in under 30 minutes.
During your ranger-guided tour, you’ll be able to view the grounds and facilities of the Delta-01 compound. This 45-minute tour also visits the Launch Control Center, which is located 31-feet underground. Since the Launch Control Center can only be accessed by descending a 30-foot ladder, it’s not advised for people with health or mobility issues. However, everyone has the opportunity to visit the on-site visitor center, which shows a fascinating documentary about the history of the Cold War and the Minuteman’s influence on ending the battle.
13. The Mammoth Site
South Dakota is known as one of the biggest sites in the United States for fossils and wildlife, and the Mammoth Site is no exception. Located near Hot Springs, this museum and paleontological excavation site was once a sinkhole that collapsed. Since the discovery of the sinkhole in 1974, excavators have found 61 mammoth remains (58 North American Columbian and three woolly mammoths.) Other mammals – including shrub oxen, ferrets, prairie dogs, and minks – have also been found in the area.
Make sure to book the 30-minute guided tour of the indoor excavation site to make the most of your trip to the Mammoth Site. As you walk the edges of the building, you’ll have a birds-eye view of the sinkhole where the majority of the fossils and bones have been found. You can also visit the Ice Age Exhibit Hall to see full-size replicas of what the mammoths and other animals look like. Of course, you’ll also find excavated bones and models found right here in Hot Springs. Amateur paleontologists can participate in the summer programs to try their hand at digging up bones.
14. Jewel Cave National Monument
With 200-miles of dark passageways, the Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-longest cave in the world. Discovered in 1900, the cave has transformed to become one of the most popular tourist attractions in the state. Jewel Cave is considered to be a “breathing cave,” which means the entrance and exits have created its own atmospheric pressure system.
During your visit, you’ll have different tours to choose from. You can take a half-mile paved tour, a candlelight history tour, and even a wildlife tour through some of the most untouched portions of the cave. This is an excellent opportunity to see different stalagmites and geodes lining the cave walls and ceiling. If you’re lucky, you’ll also see spar crystals, frostwork, and other jeweled mineral deposits, after which the cave was named.
15. Falls Park in Sioux Falls
The cascading falls and sparkling pools of water at Falls Park in Sioux Falls is something all travelers should see once in their lifetime. The park covers more than 120-acres of landscape and is situated around the Sioux River, which runs 419-miles through South Dakota and Iowa. It is believed that over 7,400 gallons of water pour down the 100-foot drop every second.
For one of the best views of the falls, head up to the observation tower. Besides admiring the landscape, you can also stop by the seven-story Queen Bee Mill, the Stockyards AG Experience Barn (which is now a museum), or the Falls Overlook Cafe. It’s also worth coming to Falls Park in the evening when you’ll have a memorable view of the illuminated falls.