Let’s admit it upfront — South Dakota might not be the first summer vacation spot that comes to mind for many travelers. Some may not even be able to place it on a map other than the fact that it’s south of North Dakota somewhere in the middle of the country.
But once you drive through the state and take in the wide-open spaces, rolling hills of grassland, dramatic rock formations sculpted by hand and by time, the small-town diners with legit farm-to-table food and the starry night sky — you’ll quickly understand why this Midwestern state is seriously underrated.
Pack friends or family into your car for a road trip or hop on a motorcycle for a more adventurous route. Along the way, don’t miss the state’s Great 8 and quirky side attractions that put South Dakota on the map.
1. As far as national parks go, this one rocks.
Without peeking, can you name the four presidents on Mount Rushmore National Memorial? Like the Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, Rushmore is one of those bucket-list icons of Americana that really needs to be seen in person.
Carved into granite and rising dramatically 60 feet above the Black Hills National Forest, the sculptures of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln were completed 76 years ago. A visit to this free National Park site, about 30 minutes from Rapid City, details the 14-year work on the memorial — and that the heads were only the beginning of the original plan.
Although three million visitors come to the park each year, it rarely seems crowded. Visit in the morning for the smallest crowds and dramatic sunrise shadows — the park opens daily at 5 a.m. Trails around the park offer unique vantage points and photo ops for a presidential selfie or two. Head to the outdoor amphitheater during summer nights to witness a flag-lowering ceremony and lighting of the memorial.
2. This work of art is a work in progress.
Crazy Horse Memorial is 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, making it easy to visit both in a single day. This tribute to the Lakota Sioux leader has been under construction since 1948, and will be the largest mountain carving in the world once complete. Even cooler, you can see the sculpture face to face on special guided tours (for a fee).
Visit during the day when sculptors carve the granite by hand — if you’re lucky, you might even see some dynamite in play. From Memorial Day through September, visitors can interact with Native American artists, attend lectures, visit museums dedicated to Native American culture and heritage, catch the nightly Laser Light Show and witness a Night Blast (this year on June 26 and Sept. 6), where pyrotechnics take center stage.
3. You can celebrate July Fourth with Washington and Lincoln.
It doesn’t get more patriotic than having Mt. Rushmore as your background on July Fourth. Celebrations at the monument spread across two days (July 3-4), and while there are no fireworks there are plenty of festivities from live patriotic and Native American music to presidential re-enactors.
Fireworks are the grand finale at Custer’s Old Time Country Fourth of July Celebration (in the small town of Custer) and at the Annual Black Hills Roundup Rodeo in Belle Fourche, one of the oldest outdoor rodeos in the country. One of South Dakota’s largest fireworks displays is at Lead Golf Camp Jubilee right over an old gold mine.
4. It’s home to the best ad campaign in billboard history.
Back in 1931, the Wall Drug Store decided to hand out free ice water to attract visitors, and the rest is advertising history. Billboards soon popped up all over South Dakota with the slogan “How Many Miles to Wall Drug?” If you’ve driven on I-90 in South Dakota and missed them, you must’ve had your eyes closed.
The famous tourist stop still offers free ice water and five-cent coffee, but it’s now developed into an Old Western Town complete with a donut factory (don’t miss the maple donuts), art gallery, souvenir shop, 80-foot-tall dinosaur and a six-foot-tall Jackalope ready for a photo opp. You can’t miss it. There are signs all over town (and the state … and the world). Plus, it’s right before the exit for Badlands National Park.
5. Take a good look at The Badlands.
Rugged, red-hued rock buttes, spires and canyons fill the landscape of Badlands National Park (and will soon fill your camera’s memory card). Seriously, your vacation Instagram feed will be the envy of all your friends after a day of hiking or a night of camping here.
The Wall formation is the most famous, stretching for 60 miles and revealing sedimentary rock layers the whole way. Choose a trail, from beginner to advanced, and hike to the Wall or along the boardwalk trail to see fossils of saber-toothed cats and other one-time residents. Or drive along the 30-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway with nearly 30 scenic overlooks. Keep an eye out for buffalo, antelopes, prairie dogs and the ever elusive black-footed ferret.
Plan to spend the day here — the Badlands change color in the shifting sunlight, so you’ll rarely see the same view twice — then stay to stargaze; thousands of stars are visible in the night sky.
6. Go back when WWW stood for Wild, Wild West.
The Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870s spawned the town of Deadwood, and while the gold is long gone, the vestiges of the Wild West remain here. Regular shoot-outs (using blanks) on Main Street keep things lively in this former home to characters such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.
If you’re visiting this summer, the fun doesn’t stop at Buffalo Bodega (the oldest bar in South Dakota). There are free concerts during Wild Bill Days (June 16-17) and five days of rodeos over Days of ’76 Rodeo (July 25-29).
7. Some of the best views in the state are underground.
Follow the glow of the lantern as a park ranger leads the way through the cavernous underground of Jewel Cave National Monument, about 45 minutes from Mount Rushmore. Brilliant yellow, red and pink colors bounce off calcite crystals as light hits the otherwise-darkened walls of the world’s third-longest cave. The more adventurous can don a hardhat and headlamp on the Wild Caving Tour, and crawl and squeeze their way through the winding tunnels.
Honeycomb-patterned calcite known as boxwork covers the cave walls at Wind Cave National Park, also less than an hour from Mount Rushmore. This is one of the world’s longest caves at 140 miles and is revered as a sacred place for the Lakota Sioux tribe, whose tradition says this is where humans first emerged to live on Earth. Embark on a special Candlelight Cave Tour, offered only in summer. Each visitor gets a candle bucket to explore the less-developed cave sections. There are no fees to visit the park (above ground). Plus, it’s open all day, every day.
8. This is where the buffalo roam.
The 71,000-acre Custer State Park, a 30-minute drive south of Rapid City, is a haven for outdoor adventure — hiking, fly-fishing, rock climbing, boating, camping, wildlife, you name it. Skywalk Trail is an easy introduction with a half-mile hike through the woods up Big Rock for panoramic views of the park, including the striking Cathedral Spires rock formation. For a longer hike, Trail No. 9 is a 6-mile trek to Harney Peak, the tallest point east of the Rockies at 7,242 feet.
Perhaps the coolest experience is Wildlife Loop Road, where buffalo, antelope, bighorn sheep and burros roam. They might even walk up to your car window. Visit in the early or late hours for the best chance to see animals in action, and you’ll enjoy South Dakota’s version of rush-hour traffic.
9. You’ll find the wildest week on two wheels.
It wouldn’t be summer in South Dakota without the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (Aug. 4-13), now in its 77th year. For a week in August, thousands of motorcyclists take over the small town of Sturgis, about a half hour north of Rapid City. Not for the faint of heart, this rally turns quiet-town life in South Dakota into a weeklong party with free motorcycle shows, concerts, pub crawls and celebrity-led rides with the likes of Carey Hart and Ben Bostrom. Sturgis even sells its own branded beer just for the rally.
10. It’s home to one of the biggest lakes you’ve never heard of.
Lake Oahe is one of four reservoirs on the Missouri River and with more than 2,200 miles of shoreline, it’s bigger than three of the Great Lakes. Formed by the Oahe Dam near the capital of Pierre (pronounced “peer”), the lake is a massive water playground that cuts the prairie in two and is home to some of the best walleye fishing in the U.S.
The Missouri — aka “Mighty Mo’” — weaves its way through the state and served as a guiding path for the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. Travelers can follow their historic trail (and the river) through the state, enjoying boating, hiking and camping along the way.
11. You’re in the heart of America’s heartland.
Picture the best-case scenario for a summer family vacation: fun on the water, outdoor adventure, bucket-list stops, a backdrop that’s always ready for a family photo or two (get that Christmas card shot now), good food, friendly people and affordable accommodations (camping, hotels or otherwise).
The Great 8 are all in the lower left quadrant of the state, an easy drive from Rapid City; Mount Rushmore is only 25 miles away. And along the way, be sure to hop out for selfies at some quirky roadside attractions. (The hashtag #HiFromSD has more than 66,000 posts on Instagram.) There’s a six-ton prairie dog, a hilltop dinosaur sculpture park, the world’s only Corn Palace (made entirely of South Dakota-grown corn kernels) and the world’s largest log chair, which stands 34 feet tall.