South Dakota Holiday Planning Guide
Famous for the cliffside monuments of Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse memorial, South Dakota is a land of Old West history, American Indian culture, and impressive natural wonders. Get to know the state's diverse and breathtaking landscape with a trip through Custer National Park, with a herd of 1,300 free-roaming bison, or by traversing the dramatic peaks of Badlands National Park near the Black Hills. Allow time in your South Dakota itinerary to visit the state's largest city, Sioux Falls, for shopping, dining, and entertainment options, as well as a number of museums and historical attractions.
Places to Visit in South DakotaRapid City
: Solid access to some of the most popular attractions in South Dakota makes Rapid City a favorite among visitors, and while the state's "second city" acts primarily as a base for exploring the Black Hills, it also features a surprisingly cosmopolitan atmosphere.Custer
: Arguably the oldest town in the Black Hills, laid-back Custer serves as an excellent gateway to the region, and maintains its Wild West heritage with an array of 19th-century buildings.Keystone
: Quirky Keystone makes a fantastic jumping-off point for explorations of Mount Rushmore, and also features some solid dining options and plenty of places to pick up souvenirs.Sioux Falls
: South Dakota's largest city, Sioux Falls also stands as one of the biggest urban agglomerations between Washington state and Minneapolis. This bustling town is home to a range of top-notch museums and galleries along with a stunning city waterfall--its namesake.Deadwood
: Lined with antique wooden storefronts, gambling halls, and shops, 19th-century Deadwood is one of the most quintessentially Wild West towns around, and is a must-see addition to your South Dakota itinerary.Badlands National Park
: A surreal moonscape accentuated by jagged ridges, sheer cliffs, and near-endless buttes, Badlands National Park also awes visitors with its rich ecosystems, abundant wildlife, and massive stretches of untouched prairie.
Wind Cave National Park: Grasslands and forests meet at Wind Cave National Park, and provide some of the state's best hiking opportunities; of course, you won't want to miss the namesake cave itself, full of rare mineral formations.
Things to Do in South Dakota
Popular South Dakota Tourist AttractionsMount Rushmore National Memorial
: One of the most famous places to visit in South Dakota and the nation in general, Mount Rushmore National Memorial features the iconic, 18 m (60 ft) tall visages of Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington carved into the cliffs of the Black Hills.Custer State Park
: Home to needy donkeys, hundreds of bird and mammal species, and one of the planet's largest herds of free-roaming bison, Custer State Park and its vast expanses of pristine prairie landscape rightly stand as a must-see South Dakota attraction.Crazy Horse Memorial
: Though it still lies unfinished, Crazy Horse Memorial is a monolithic tribute to one of the most revered figures in Native American history. The monument stands more than 170 m (560 ft) tall; though only the face is recognizable, it is still an impressive sight.Bear Country USA
: Everybody's favorite honey-guzzling mammals run the show at Bear Country USA, where you can join a 4.8 km (3 mi) long safari to view the playful creatures running freely in their natural habitat.Wall Drug Store
: Famed for its offers of free ice water and 5-cent coffee, an eclectic mix of quirky shops and super-sized displays makes this drug store turned tourist mecca an enduring roadside staple.Falls Park
: Home to the namesake of Sioux Falls, Falls Park offers a relaxing getaway in the heart of the city, complete with numerous walking paths, places to sit, and the rushing cascade itself, viewable from a nearby lookout tower.Reptile Gardens
: The largest zoo of its kind in the world, the Reptile Gardens play host to hundreds of exotic cold-blooded species from across the globe, presented in a series of lush habitats. The complex also offers frequent performances featuring majestic birds of prey.Downtown Rapid City
: Packed full of places to eat and lively bars, and known particularly for its collection of back alleys and trendy shops, downtown Rapid City lies at the heart of a commercial district and is well worth a wander on a pleasant day.Wildlife Loop Road
: Stretching for 29 km (18 mi) through Custer State Park's prairieland and rolling hills, Wildlife Loop Road provides a wonderful opportunity to catch a glimpse of the area's teeming animal populations, including bison, antelope, and prairie dogs.Black Hills Central Railroad
: Hop aboard this authentic 19th-century steam train to make your way between Hill City and Keystone and journey back to South Dakota's days as a prolific frontier mining outpost.
Planning a South Dakota Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in South Dakota with Kids
You'll find during your holiday in South Dakota that the state is simply bursting with family-friendly places to visit. While larger cities like Sioux Falls
and Rapid City
feature tons of amenities on par with what you might expect from decent-sized American cities, they are also full of attractions of their own. They serve as fantastic bases from which you can take off into the Black Hills or Wind Cave. Kids will love Deadwood
for their Wild West vibes and historical charms, while Pierre
is also a solid option thanks to its impressive architecture. Of course, when it comes to the great outdoors, there are plenty of places to visit in South Dakota that fit the bill as well. Badlands National Park
is an obvious top-notch choice, and arguably stands as the state's premier kid-friendly location thanks to its multitude of trails, paths, and rocks to explore.
Things to Do in South Dakota with Kids
Many of South Dakota's most kid-friendly attractions lie out in the state's wild nature. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
makes for an excellent starting point for its sheer iconic value and impressive natural beauty, though a quick visit is probably enough. Countless trails are begging for exploration at Badlands National Park
, with Notch Trail
, Door Trail
, and Sage Creek Wilderness Area
representing just a few favorites. On a wholly different note, take the little ones to Corn Palace
for a real twist--close to 300,000 ears of corn cover the outside of the building, and the quirky sight is sure to get a laugh out of the kids.
The state also features numerous top-notch museums and educational establishments worth adding to your South Dakota itinerary. Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum of Natural History
and Bramble Park Zoo
offer up-close looks at local wildlife, while Roberts Prairie Dog Town
allows the kids to see industrious, cute little critters in action in their natural habitat. Reptile Gardens
and Bear Country USA
, while touristy, are very popular among families for their easy access to wild creatures. Tons of interesting aircraft, large and small, are on display at South Dakota Air and Space Museum
, while Children's Museum of South Dakota
emphasizes hands-on learning through its array of demonstrations and experiments. Kids are sure to get a kick out of Dinosaur Park
above Rapid City, which houses some somewhat dated (but impressively large) dinosaur statues. The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD
might be the most impressive prehistoric place to visit of all. More than 70 woolly mammoths and 80 other Ice Age-era species have been uncovered here, and the world-class facility lets the kids get a firsthand look at a working paleontological site. Alternatively, try Museum of Geology
for something more rock-oriented.
Tips for a Family Vacation in South Dakota
Traveling with your family to South Dakota can be rewarding and tons of fun, but remember that many of the state's attractions involve pristine natural settings and beautifully preserved geological features. Make sure that you talk to your kids about leaving the environment as they found it, staying on trails, and following posted paths, both for their own safety and for the good of the state's incredible natural offerings. Keep in mind that renting a car may be the most economical option for transportation while on your South Dakota trip, as public options are limited and even a few bus rides, particularly when traveling with larger groups, can add up extremely quickly. Be sure to inquire at museums, zoos, galleries, and other paid-entry attractions about family passes and group tickets, as these can sometimes shave significant amounts off of entry fees, making the trip easier on the wallet.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in South Dakota
Cuisine of South Dakota
South Dakota's cuisine has, like its people, thrived by being hearty and reliable. Most local dishes and favorite foods are of the heavier variety, making South Dakota's fare comfort food at its warming best. Salted meats, particularly pork, were a mainstay in the state's 19th-century mining days, and you'll still find smoked and salted cuts on many deli menus statewide. A large Scandinavian immigrant population brought along filling dishes of baked potatoes and rutabagas, often served alongside wild-caught roasted pheasant. Meat in general is never lacking in South Dakotan cuisine, and venison, beef, and game meats are all mainstays of the menu. Bison, a local delicacy, also makes for a real treat when barbecued, grilled, or crafted into a succulent burger. Visitors should try chislic during their South Dakota vacation: Essentially cubes of deep-fried meat stuck on the end of toothpicks and tossed in a simple paper tray, chislic has its origins in Eastern Europe. Generally made with beef, venison, or another type of game meat, it's excellent served up alone or with a few crackers.
Shopping in South Dakota
Shopping malls are thin on the ground in South Dakota, although those that exist stand on par with anything in larger American cities. Rapid City's Rushmore Mall and Sioux Falls' Empire Mall are some of the state's largest malls, and feature huge arrays of big-name, recognizable brands and chains, dining options, and pleasant, sharp-looking public spaces.
If it's a memento of your South Dakota trip you're looking for, you'll find no shortage of souvenir stands and gift shops in the major cities. The many antique stores and independent galleries in Rapid City can serve as an excellent place to start. However, Wall Drug Store
also offers an intriguing option when it comes to picking up something out of the ordinary and delightfully tacky.
Know Before You Go on a Trip to South Dakota
History of South Dakota
Present-day South Dakota had for centuries before the arrival of European settlers played home to a range of Native American tribes, who spoke variations of the Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota languages. From at least the 14th century onward, tribes warred for supremacy over the region. By the end of the 18th century, the newly risen Sioux Nation, a conglomeration of tribes, had asserted its control over much of present-day South Dakota's plains. Made a part of Spanish Louisiana, South Dakota was sold to the United States government by Napoleon's France as a part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. The Lewis and Clark expedition passed by South Dakota's stretch of the Missouri River on their way to and from the Pacific Coast of North America. Growing familiarity with the new American territory lead to the establishment of a number of outposts and forts in the early 19th century, Fort Pierre being among the first. Fort Sisseton, a solid stop on your South Dakota vacation, was established by the U.S. Army in 1864 to assist and provide military protection to the growing settler population building their lives in the territory.
The period after the end of the American Civil War saw huge numbers of settlers continue to arrive in the Dakota territory, creating a land rush that came to be called the "Great Dakota Boom" as everyone tried to get their hands on rich agricultural property. Towns like Sioux Falls
, as well as newer communities like Vermillion
, experienced noticeable population growth due to this newfound pioneering spirit. It was these few decades after 1865 that would later serve as Laura Ingalls Wilder's inspiration for the "Little House on the Prairie" series, thanks in large part to her experiences in the town of De Smet
. Add Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum
to your South Dakota itinerary to learn more about the renowned author and her stories.
On November 2, 1889, South Dakota, then part of Dakota Territory, was granted statehood, and Pierre was established as a temporary, transitional capital. Though there were disputes over its status for two decades, the city eventually managed to hang on to the honor for good.
In 1890, South Dakota bore witness to one of the darker days in American history when the 7th Cavalry unit of the U.S. Army killed more than 250 members of the Lakota tribe in an event that would come to be called the Wounded Knee Massacre. This marked one of the last conflicts between U.S. forces and Native Americans in the state. You can see a small memorial to the killings by visiting Wounded Knee Massacre Monument
. The year 1973 would see a deadly shootout erupt at Wounded Knee between FBI agents and nearly 200 armed followers of the American Indian Movement.
The state's low population and remoteness made South Dakota ideal for 20th-century U.S. military operations, and the beginning of the Cold War saw the region thrust into the middle of the Soviet-American arms race. From the 1960s onward, South Dakota became a launch point for the intercontinental ballistic missiles of the Minuteman series. Stop by Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
to see a retired nuclear silo from this dangerous period in American history.
Landscape of South Dakota
Though perhaps unassuming on a map, South Dakota in reality features a varied landscape home to a huge array of environments and natural features. Firmly a part of the Great Plains, South Dakota is renowned for its wide-open spaces, expansive prairies, and thriving grasslands, as found in Custer State Park. Divided in two by the Missouri River, South Dakota features two distinctive halves, known locally as the "West River" and "East River." The western part of the state boasts primarily the grasslands characteristic of the Great Plains, punctuated by occasional rock formations like Thunder Butte, and has a relatively arid climate. The East River, on the other hand, flattens out into the rich glacial farmland that helped to jumpstart the state's agricultural industry. This region also plays home to many of the state's big cities and around 70 percent of the total population.
The Black Hills in the southwest stand alone as their own geological region, replete with rocky outcroppings and huge deposits of prehistoric limestone, and carpeted by sizeable swathes of trees like Black Hills National Forest
. Harney Peak
, at an elevation of 2,208 m (7,244 ft), checks in as the Hills', and the state's, highest natural point. Surrounding this rugged range is the famed Badlands, a dreamlike landscape that draws many of the state's tourists each year and likely lies on your South Dakota itinerary.
Holidays & Festivals in South Dakota
As is the case with all American states, South Dakota celebrates most major Christian, Western, and American holidays throughout the year. New Year's Day, the Fourth of July, Halloween, Veteran's Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas are generally met with plenty of fanfare and decorations in larger towns.
Perhaps the state's best-known event is the famed Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. One of the largest gatherings of its kind on the planet, this get-together brings motorcycle enthusiasts and onlookers from around the world to the small town of Sturgis
each year in the first full week of August. Try adding this fun-filled festival to your South Dakota itinerary in order to admire some impressive machines, and enjoy a range of races, stunts, and exhibitions. While sightseeing in South Dakota, be sure to also keep an eye out for flyers, signboards, and other ads advertising local gatherings, events, concerts, and celebrations.
South Dakota Travel Tips
Climate of South Dakota
South Dakota boasts four noticeable seasons, and the weather in the state certainly can be challenging. Summer generally stretches from about May to September, bringing plenty of sunshine. However, temperatures breaking 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit) in the hottest months, with occasional thunderstorms, are not uncommon. Humidity in general is not high across the state, and in the northwest in particular the climate is somewhat arid. Winter brings raging storms, massive blizzards, and low temperatures that frequently fall below -12 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit), so keep this in mind and pack appropriately if your trip to South Dakota falls between December and February. The spring and fall months offer pleasantly warm days and cooler nights, with less-extreme temperature and weather swings.
Transportation in South Dakota
Public transportation is relatively limited in South Dakota. While larger cities like Sioux Falls and Rapid City boast decent local bus networks and larger companies offer links between bigger urban centers, the choices are not overwhelming. Cars are undoubtedly king in South Dakota, as they allow you unmatched flexibility for sightseeing and customizing your route on the fly, as well as making your way to more out-of-the-way attractions. Consider renting a vehicle during your South Dakota trip to make the most of your time in the region and take advantage of the transportation infrastructure. Interstate-90 runs east-west across the state, while Interstate-29 runs north-south along the state's eastern border, passing through Sioux Falls and Brookings. The rest of the state is served by a number of smaller state highways laid out in a loose grid pattern.