While you might think South Dakota is just a flat state full of farms in the middle of cornfields, this midwestern state has so much to offer. The state’s natural beauty makes it a paradise for outdoor lovers, with the Badlands National Park, lakes, trails, and numerous state parks. Even the “biggest cities” are small towns in South Dakota, and if you’re looking for community charm, you’re sure to find it here.
Much of South Dakota is in the High Plains, but you’ll find that the land becomes more rugged west of the Missouri River. You’ll find flat-topped hills (buttes), ravines, and rolling hills in this area. There are many scenic drives in South Dakota, from the 19-mile Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway to the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway, where you can experience much of the area’s landscape, wildlife, and small South Dakota cities!
The most notable attraction in South Dakota is the Mount Rushmore National Monument, with four revered U.S. presidents carved into the granite, but there is also the Crazy Horse Memorial, a tribute to the storied Native American tribal leader.
South Dakota is sparsely populated, with many small towns scattered across the state. It is divided in half by the Missouri River, cutting through Sioux City, Chamberlain, and Pierre (the capital city). Although it’s one of the least populated states, you’ll find plenty to do in the best small towns in South Dakota!
Best Small Towns in South Dakota
Set against the backdrop of the Black Hills, Deadwood is one of the only towns listed on the National Historic Register. Once a frontier town in the Dakota Territory, Deadwood was also home to the 1876 Gold Rush.
As you drive or walk through the South Dakota town, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped back into the Old West. (Of course, the historical re-enactments make it even more real!) Famous figures Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are buried in the town’s cemetery.
When you visit Deadwood, you can stop by the Adams Museum, which has a plesiosaur fossil on display and a large gold nugget. The Historic Adams House is also worth seeing, with its Victorian architecture and preserved interior.
Lastly, you can’t miss the Tatanka Story of the Bison. This local attraction focuses on the symbiotic relationship between the North American plains bison and the Lakota Nation, with exhibits and sculptures.
One of the cheapest ways to experience this Wild West town is with a self-guided audio tour of historic Deadwood. However, you can also explore the beautiful George S. Mickelson Trail with this private bicycle tour that will take you through a historic railroad bridge and two tunnels.
The local accommodations are budget-friendly with B&Bs like the 1899 Inn, which has views of the Black Hills and offers a delicious breakfast of quiche, coffee, and French toast.
See Related: Best Things to do in Hot Springs, South Dakota
Located just east of Sioux Falls, Brandon is known for its good schools and its good life. But if you’re only planning to visit, you’ll want to put Big Sioux State Recreation Area on your itinerary.
This beautiful park is on the Big Sioux River, offering plenty of water activities like fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. Plenty of campsites are available if you’re looking for rustic accommodation. (Or you can enjoy a heated pool and a comfy bed nearby at Holiday Inn Express & Suites Sioux Falls-Brandon!)
You can also play a round of eighteen at the Brandon Golf Course, a 71-par course. And then stop by the Wilde Prairie Winery for a glass or two of wine made with 100% South Dakota-grown grapes.
Only a 20-minute drive from Sioux Falls, Brandon is close enough for a day trip, but there’s plenty to do in the small town to keep you busy.
In the middle of the Badlands lies this small South Dakota town of fewer than 1,000 residents. Wall is a great place to stay if you plan on heading to one of South Dakota’s famous landmarks, as it’s conveniently located to many of them. So, if you plan on heading to Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, or the Black Hills, it’s a great base camp!
There are many ways to explore Badlands, ranging from a self-guided audio tour to a Private Badlands National Park Day Tour.
The most famous attraction is the Wall Drug Store, in operation since the 1930s. You can’t miss the 80-foot brontosaurus sculpture, which is a roadside attraction. There’s no denying that Wall Drug is an attraction on the inside, too, with multiple restaurants, stores, and an art gallery.
Only a ten-minute drive from Badlands, Wall is the perfect place to rest your head after a day of exploring. The Days Inn by Wyndham Wall is convenient and offers free parking, Wi-Fi, and a continental breakfast. If you prefer a more rustic accommodation, the Badlands Frontier Cabins are perfect.
See Related: Best Things to Do in Aberdeen, South Dakota
Pronounced like “Leed,” this South Dakota border city is full of mountains and granite spires. The entire town is on the National Register of Historic Places after the discovery of the largest gold mine (Homestake Mine) in the Western Hemisphere. Because of its location in the mountains, it’s better to visit in the summer, as South Dakota winters are pretty harsh.
If you’re interested in learning more about the gold mine, head to the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center, where you can look at the large open pit mine! Afterward, you can stop by the Dakota Shivers Brewing Company, where you can enjoy a pint of their Vertical Mile IPA or 5280 Pale Ale.
For a little history, head to the Historic Homestake Opera House, where you can take a historical tour or watch one of the many shows performed throughout the year. Renovation is currently underway after a devastating fire in 1984, but much of the building has been updated thus far.
A stop at Roughlock Falls is a must, as it’s one of the most beautiful areas in the Black Hills. This beautiful waterfall is 50 feet tall and tumbles down a limestone ledge. An Instagrammable spot, for sure! Staying in Lead is affordable with vacation rentals like The Miner’s Getaway or the Cozy Miner’s Cottage.
Keystone is often referred to as the “playground of the Black Hills,” and you’ll understand why once you visit. This small town only has a population of roughly 250, but it draws thousands of tourists from the Midwest and beyond.
This is easily one of the best towns in South Dakota, with its opportunities for outdoor adventure and family-friendly attractions. Nearby you’ll find two awe-inspiring monuments such as the Crazy Horse Memorial and Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
The Presidential Trail also has many souvenirs, restaurants, and family-centered activities. While you can visit the monuments on your own, a guided tour of Mount Rushmore is well worth the price. Also, many scenes from the Nicolas Cage movie National Treasure were filmed here!
For an adrenaline rush, head down Iron Mountain Road, which has seemingly endless switchbacks, narrow granite tunnels, and pigtail bridges. This 17-mile-long road connects Mt. Rushmore and Custer State Park.
Kids and adults will love riding on the 1880 train, which takes visitors around the beautiful hills and forests. The Big Thunder Gold Mine Museum is the other major kid-friendly attraction, where kids can pan for gold and gems (and learn some history, too!)
See Related: Best Road Trips in the USA in 2023
6. Rapid City
Just east of Black Hills National Forest, Rapid City is a gateway to Mt. Rushmore. However, this small town offers much more, including family-friendly attractions like the Reptile Gardens Zoo, Storybook Island, and the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.
If you want to see one of the more unique parts of Mt. Rushmore, take this Mount Rushmore Night Ceremony private tour, where you will go through the Avenue of the Flags and see the ceremony.
You can also try this Rapid City scavenger hunt, which will take you all across the town solving wacky challenges and learning more about Rapid City’s art, culture, and history. Thrill-seekers may want to try the Buffalo Hunt Coaster, which takes you on a ride while you try to “shoot” a herd of buffalo beneath you.
This is easily one of the best small towns in South Dakota, with so much to do for all ages.
7. Hill City
Outdoor enthusiasts, unite! This is one of the best small towns for nature lovers, with mountains, forests, and caves to keep you busy. Hill City is known as the “Heart of the Hills” and has a population of just over 1,000.
Hill City is home to one of the most complete T. rex skeletons at the Museum at Black Hills Institute, a well-preserved 19th-century steam train, railroad museums, and plenty of parks. Whether you’re here for the town’s railroad history, outdoor recreation, or dinosaur fossils, it’s got it all.
Enjoy coffee at Annie Lode Coffee Cabin, a beer at the Silver Dollar Saloon, or try some German food at the Alpine Inn. Whatever you do in Hill City, you’ll have a good time!
See Related: 49 Best Places to Visit in the Midwest
8. Dell Rapids
Known as the “Little City with Big Attractions,” Dell Rapids is also known for its great school system and strong athletic program that has bred some professional sports players. With a population of less than 4,000, Dell Rapids has a fairly long list of attractions for families and couples!
Head to the Dell Rapids Museum or the Garretson Area Historical Society and Museum for local history. You may learn that a large fire destroyed much of downtown Dell Rapids in 1888 and was rebuilt using locally-mined red quartzite.
Outdoor attractions include Devil’s Gulch, where it’s said that Jesse James leapt across the canyon on his horse. Whether that’s true or not, it’s still a beautiful sight to see, and you’ll be happy to know that there’s a footbridge there now, so no leaping is necessary!
You can also head to Split Rock River for fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, and more. This family-friendly park has a dam with a waterfall, a flower garden, and a bathhouse.
This small town has much to do, but finding accommodations here may be difficult. However, the Bilmar Inn & Suites is a comfortable and budget-friendly option for travelers.
Chamberlain is often considered the “Gateway to the Old West” with its location at the crossroads of the Missouri River and I-90. With a population of less than 2,500, this small town is a destination for hunting, fishing, and boating.
The Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center is located here because of the nomadic Plains Indians that live in Chamberlain. This cultural gem is located at St. Joseph’s Indian School and has exhibits displaying Lakota history. You can also see the 50-foot-tall Dignity Sculpture, which honors the culture of the Dakota and Lakota people.
One of the more popular landmarks in Chamberlain is Wheeler Bridge, where visitors can walk to the other side and back. This bridge was built in 1925 but moved from one location in South Dakota to Chamberlain in the 1950s.
On a rainy or cold day, catch a flick at the State Theater and Video or knock some pins down at the Bowling Dome.
If you’re looking for family-friendly accommodations with an indoor pool and access to outdoor recreation, the Arrowwood Resort at Cedar Shore should be on your travel itinerary. This resort is the perfect blend of relaxation and recreation.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Custer is located on the western edge of South Dakota and is close to some of the state’s biggest attractions: Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, and Mt. Rushmore. As one of the best small towns in South Dakota, Custer’s population is less than 2,000.
This little town is home to a quilt store and a coffee house situated in an old bank building. But the real draw of Custer is its proximity to Custer State Park, with bison herds, hiking trails, and historic sites. While you can go camping at the state park, you may decide that “glamping” is more your style at the Custer State Park Resort.
A trip to Wind Cave National Park is also a must, as it’s the third-longest cave in the United States and recognized as the densest cave system in the world. Or, if you want to do something wild, take a hot air balloon ride over Custer at sunrise.
If you’re traveling with family, you’ll appreciate the spaciousness of this family-sized loft in downtown Custer.
Madison is a big city compared to other South Dakota towns, with over 7,000 residents. This town features the best outdoor recreation, including hiking, biking, fishing, boating, swimming, and kayaking. With two state parks, several lakes, and miles of hiking trails, you can do almost anything outdoors.
The small town’s motto is “Discover the Unexpected.” While you may not expect so many great things to do in such a small town, you’ll soon discover how much fun there is.
During the warmer months, you can focus on water or outdoor recreation and walk downtown and go shopping. Winter in South Dakota brings ice fishing, hunting, and snowmobiling. Couples may enjoy staying in one of the many rustic cabins, hiking to Walker’s Point, and dining out.
The Prairie Village Living Museum is the biggest hit for kids, with almost 50 historic buildings onsite, reliving the days of an active Main Street. The museum has a rare operating steam carousel, a school, the Lawrence Welk Opera House, log and sod houses, and a railroad chapel car.
Because Madison is a college town, there are more hotel and vacation rental options than in some other small towns in South Dakota. A stay at the Best Western Plus Lakeview Hotel includes free parking, Wi-Fi, breakfast, and an indoor pool.
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