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If you’re looking to enjoy some of the most breathtaking scenery the United States has to offer, then a South Dakota vacation is a great way to go. Western South Dakota, in particular, has all the stuff that an epic road trip is made of, including some of the most awe-inspiring national parks in the country.
Whether you’re looking for camping or culture, we’ll explore several great places to add to your trip itinerary. We’ll also look at some of the best lodging in the region and give you some helpful tips for designing the perfect South Dakota vacation.
It may come as no surprise that many of South Dakota’s best destinations involve outdoor adventure. Throughout our South Dakota vacation guide, we’ll mostly zero in on areas west of the Missouri River, as that’s where you’ll find many of the state’s most famous attractions.
It’s there that the Black Hills mountains begin their rise from the Great Plains, transforming the landscape into unspoiled forests, glittering lakes, and majestic canyons. Let’s check out some of the best things to do during your next adventure.
Best Things to Do in South Dakota
1. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
No South Dakota vacation guide would be complete without mentioning the great faces of Mount Rushmore. One of America’s most famous landmarks, Mount Rushmore, features 60-foot-tall sculptures of the faces of four of America’s greatest presidents.
Completed in 1941, the Mount Rushmore National monument forever etched the portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln into the heart of the Black Hills.
While in the area, be sure to explore the trails of Black Hills National Forest, where you’ll find plenty of cozy cabins and vacation rentals that offer a peaceful escape from modern life.
When you’re ready to hit the road, opt for a trip down Iron Mountain Road, aka 16A. The stunning 17-mile road has become an attraction with its wooden pigtail bridges, tunnels, and spectacular scenery.
Don’t expect to go over 35 mph, as the road has many twists and turns. You may even come across wildlife like herds of buffalo, deer, or big-horned sheep who couldn’t care less that they are holding up oncoming traffic!
See Related: Best National Parks in the Midwest (+ NPS Sites)
2. Custer State Park
At the end of Iron Mountain Road, you’ll find yourself at Custer State Park, which sprawls across 71,000 majestic acres of the Black Hills. Custer is a great place to enjoy everything from camping and fishing to biking and wildlife spotting.
You can even experience the beauty of the Black Hills from above with an unforgettable hot air balloon ride. Set up camp in one of the park’s campgrounds, at the Custer State Park Resort, or in a highly-rated local motel like the Bavarian Inn Black Hills.
Custer State Park is also home to the Crazy Horse Memorial, which, once finished, will be the world’s largest mountain carving. First begun in 1948, the massive sculpture of Crazy Horse, the famed Lakota Sioux warrior, will someday be 563 tall and 641 feet long.
During your trip to the Crazy Horse Memorial, be sure to visit the on-site Indian Museum of North America and the adjoining Native American Educational and Cultural Center. The museums feature thousands of artifacts and offer live cultural presentations and hands-on activities.
If you’re up for one of the most beautiful drives in South Dakota, then look no further than Needles Highway. The scenic road also includes trailheads to Black Elk Peak (previously known as Harney Peak), the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the midwestern United States.
See Related: Best State and National Parks in Wyoming
3. Explore Wind Cave National Park
The southern portion of Custer State Park also has a great road known as the Wildlife Loop, which certainly lives up to its name. Along the road, you’ll see herds of bison, pronghorn antelope, elk, prairie dogs, eagles, and more.
Be sure to drive slowly and use common sense, as many animals are not shy about approaching visitor vehicles! Take a detour when you reach Csp Rd 6/Red Valley Rd and follow it down to Wind Cave National Park.
Wind Cave offers an incredibly unique experience, including plenty of great trails, nearby campsites, log cabins, and vacation rentals on the surface. But the real magic is under the earth in Wind Cave, one of the longest caves in the world.
Book tickets for guided cave tours well in advance, as the stunning underground formations draw plenty of visitors every year. After your caving adventure, it’s worth making the short drive to Hot Springs to visit the Mammoth Site.
The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological site and museum where archeologists have unearthed the remains of over 85 animals from the Late Ice Age. Explore the incredible museum using the self-guided tour and gaming app, or set off on a Private VIP tour of the Mammoth Site, complete with an open-air jeep safari through the park.
See Related: Best National Parks to Visit in November
Where to stay in South Dakota
As you may have noticed, there are plenty of ways to approach the perfect South Dakota vacation. Some travelers prefer to stick to their favorite destination, while others make up their travel guide for South Dakota and visit multiple locations.
No matter which strategy you choose, you’ll find plenty of great hotels, cabins, and vacation rentals along your journey. Here are some of the best South Dakota lodging staples to help get you started:
- Spearfish Canyon Lodge – Spearfish
- Summer Creek Inn & Spa – Rapid City
- Roosevelt Inn Mount Rushmore – Keystone
- The Historic Bullock Hotel – Deadwood
- The Lodge at Deadwood – Deadwood
- Bavarian Inn Black Hills – Custer
- Allen Ranch – Hot Springs
- The Hotel Sturgis – Sturgis
- Badlands Frontier Cabins – Wall
How to Get Around in South Dakota
When in South Dakota, you’ll definitely want to have a vehicle so that you can visit the many national parks and attractions in the region. That said if it’s your first time in the area, looking into area tours is definitely not a bad way to go.
This is particularly true given that many of South Dakota’s attractions have low or no entrance fees. Putting your money into guided tours is a great way to see more places, all while getting an in-depth overview of the history and culture associated with each.
Many area tours include the opportunity to see several of the most popular attractions in the region in a single day. Here are some of the best South Dakota tours west of the Missouri River:
- Experience three of South Dakota’s most famous attractions in a single day with a private tour of Mt Rushmore, Custer State Park & Crazy Horse.
- Travel to Mount Rushmore aboard a Black Hills bus tour with live commentary.
- Take the beauty of Devils Tower, Spearfish Canyon, and other stunning landscapes on a Northern Black Hills Adventure.
- See the best of Badlands National Park, complete with a visit to Wall Drug on a Badlands National Park Adventure.
Travel Tips South Dakota
If it’s your first visit to South Dakota, then there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind while traveling through the region. Here are some helpful tips to remember when planning your next adventure.
Avoid the Winter Months
Winters in this part of the country can be very snowy, making it much more difficult to navigate the winding terrain of the Black Hills and Badlands. Additionally, it’s worth noting that some attractions close after the summer, so be sure to look into the schedules of any attractions you definitely want to visit.
Take Your Time When Driving
Don’t be fooled by how close your next destination looks on a map. In South Dakota, one mile doesn’t always equal one minute.
Many roads include plenty of twists and turns, so expect to travel at slower speeds, especially in the hills. The good news is that once you feast your eyes on the incredible scenery, you’re unlikely to feel the urge to speed through it anyway.
Familiarize Yourself With Camping Rules
South Dakota boasts a wide array of campgrounds and also welcomes RVs and camper trailers. If you plan to spend a few nights sleeping out under the stars, then be sure to check out the great resources available from the South Dakota Department of Tourism.
There, you’ll find advice on everything from what to bring to important tips for adventuring responsibly. We hope you’ve enjoyed our South Dakota travel guide and wish you safe travels on your next vacation!
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- About the Author
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Kyle Kroeger is the Founder and Owner of ViaTravelers.com. He is a full-time traveler and entrepreneur. Kyle started ViaTravelers.com to help travelers experience a fully immersive cultural experience as he did initially living in Italy. He’s a converted finance nerd and Excel jockey turned world wanderer (and may try to get lost on purpose). After visiting 12 countries and 13 national parks in a year, he was devoted to creating and telling stories like he’d heard.
Plus, after spending more time on airplanes and packing, he’s learned some incredible travel hacks over time as he earned over 1 million Chase Ultimate Rewards points in under a year, helping him maximize experiences as much as possible to discover the true meaning of travel.
He loves listening to local stories from around the world and sharing his experiences traveling the globe. He loves travel so much that he moved from his hometown of Minneapolis to Amsterdam with his small family to travel Europe full-time.