6 Reasons You Should Definitely Visit South Dakota

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When it comes to the United States, there are definitely certain states that get all the love. Everyone wants to visit California and New York. Florida and Texas are recognizable around the world. Hawaii and Alaska are on many a bucket list.

And I get it – those famous states are definitely cool and have lots to offer. But what about all the other states? (There are 50 of them, after all!)

In the past few years, I've made it a point to travel more within the US, both to the popular hotspots AND to the states that people tend to look over.

I've gone to amusement parks in Florida, explored the famous Mighty 5 in Utah, and eaten my way through New Orleans. But I've also explored the deserts of New Mexicodriven across Montana, and highlighted some cool parts of my home state of Ohio.

And on a recent road trip with my sister, I discovered a new state that swiftly became one of my favorites: South Dakota!

Amanda at Badlands National Park
At Badlands National Park
Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore
Falls Park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Falls Park in Sioux Falls

An introduction to South Dakota

South Dakota – just south of North Dakota in the Midwestern region of the US – is probably not the first state that comes to mind when you think about “states I definitely have to visit.” But the state is surprisingly interesting!

South Dakota became a state in 1889 simultaneously with North Dakota, which together had formerly been the “Dakota Territory.” The state's name comes from the Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes, which traditionally called (and still call) the area home.

The state is very sparsely populated, being home to less than one million people. You'll find lots of grasslands (South Dakota is considered part of the Great Plains region), and not very many large cities.

But, believe it or not, tourism has become a key industry in South Dakota. And that's because there's actually a lot to see in this oft-overlooked state!

Amanda in South Dakota

A word on South Dakota's native population

As mentioned above, the Dakotas were named after indigenous peoples, and many of them still reside there. Roughly 71,800 Native Americans still live in South Dakota, accounting for more than 9% of the state's population.

There are 9 tribal governments within the state, including the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe, Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, Oglala Sioux Tribe, Rosebud Sioux Tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and Yankton Sioux Tribe.

Native American populations in America have long been repressed and underserved, so it's worth considering how your trip can affect (and hopefully contribute to) indigenous-owned businesses in tourism.

If you're interested in getting to know South Dakota's Native American culture, this list from Travel South Dakota is a good place to start.

6+ Reasons to visit South Dakota

My sister Melissa and I spent a couple of days driving across South Dakota this past summer (here's our full road trip itinerary), and here are just a few of the reasons I think you should dedicate some time to this state:

1. Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

In my humble opinion, Badlands National Park on its own is reason enough to visit South Dakota. It was the #1 place I wanted to visit in the state, and it did not disappoint.

The national park is filled with “badlands,” which describes a dry, crumbly terrain where softer sedimentary rocks and soils have been heavily eroded by wind and water. This unique type of erosion often causes interesting rock formations and patterns – and you'll find plenty in Badlands National Park.

Yellow Mounds at Badlands National Park
Yellow Mounds at Badlands NP

My sister and I spent half a day here doing a couple short walks and watching fossils being uncovered at the visitor center, but you could easily spend a full day in this park!

RELATED: Badlands National Park: Underrated and Awesome

2. Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore at dusk
Mount Rushmore at dusk

South Dakota's Black Hills region is probably most famous for Mount Rushmore, the sculpture of the busts of 4 US presidents that were carved into the Black Hills granite in Keystone, South Dakota.

Even though I knew the heads were going to be smaller than expected and that we'd have to pay to park our car (even though the monument itself is free), Melissa and I wanted to see it anyway. And you know what? I'm glad we did!

Mount Rushmore after dark

We went around dusk, when they play a video about the four presidents memorialized and then light the faces up after a little ceremony.

3. Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park
The popular Sylvan Lake

If you ask me, though, Custer State Park is the true gem of the Black Hills. It's one of the largest state parks in the United States, covering 71,000 acres. It's known for its wildlife (especially its bison herds), its fishing lakes and resorts, and its scenic drives – including the famous Needles Highway.

Needles Highway in Custer State Park, South Dakota
The “Needles”

The Needles Highway is the highlight if you only have enough time to pass quickly through the park like we did. The scenic drive takes you up close and straight through several really cool rock formations.

Needles Highway in Custer State Park
Driving the Needles Highway

If you have time, though, I would recommend allowing more than just a couple hours here to really enjoy the scenery.

4. Mammoth Site

Hands up if “Jurassic Park” made you want to be a paleontologist when you were a kid. I know it was certainly on my list of potential grown-up careers! And the cool news is that South Dakota is chock full of fossils. You'll find dinosaur skeletons and replicas all across the state.

But one of my favorite spots that we visited doesn't date back to the dinosaurs – it dates back to the days of the mammoths.

Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota
Look at all the mammoth bones!!

Simply called Mammoth Site, this spot in Hot Springs, South Dakota, is literally one of the coolest things I've seen with my own two eyes. 26,000 years ago, there was a sink hole in this spot that claimed the lives of dozens of mammoths – and then preserved their remains.

Today, Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig site. It contains the world's largest concentration of mammoth bones (actual bones, not fossils!), and you can see what they've uncovered up close.

At Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota
So excited to see mammoths!

5. Cool cities

South Dakota doesn't have very large cities, but the cities it does have are cool in their own right. Melissa and I enjoyed checking out Falls Park in Sioux Falls, and Rapid City is somewhere I'd like to fully explore sometime (we more or less only stayed overnight and didn't really have time to see much!).

Falls Park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Falls Park in Sioux Falls

Since I haven't written about these cities, here are a couple posts by fellow bloggers that can help prove my point on this one:

6. Roadside attractions

South Dakota also does its roadside attractions quite well. The most famous is of course Wall Drug, which started out as a small-town drug store and now covers an entire city block with all sorts of kitsch and craziness. Visit later in the day to beat the tourist crowds who flock from all over to wander the shops and get their free cup of ice water or 5-cent cup of coffee.

Wall Drug in South Dakota
Inside Wall Drug

Another (similar) roadside attraction is Al's Oasis, a rest stop along I-90. It looks like an Old West town outside, and has everything from a grocery store to souvenir shops inside.

Amanda in South Dakota
At Al's Oasis

And more!

Crazy as it might seem, Melissa and I didn't have enough time to do/see everything we wanted to in South Dakota! Still on my “must-do” list are:

  • Deadwood – Want to live out your Wild West fantasies? You can in Deadwood, the town made famous during the gold rush days by the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Today, the entire town is a National Historic Landmark and is popular for its gaming and Wild West-re-enactments. (Think “Westworld,” but without the rape and murder.)
  • Crazy Horse Memorial – It's still a work in progress, but you can visit the massive carving of Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse in South Dakota's Black Hills. Only his face is carved out of the mountain so far, but it's still impressive.
  • Wind Cave National Park – The other national park in South Dakota, Wind Cave is one of the longest and most complex caves in the world.
  • Jewel Cave National Monument – Located near Custer, Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave in the world and has all sorts of cool formations inside, including calcite crystals. (Tours often sell out, though, so it's a good idea to book ahead.)

READ NEXT: The Perfect 12-Day Northern USA Road Trip Itinerary for Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas

Who's ready to plan a trip to South Dakota now?

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"It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and, if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might get swept off to." - JRR Tolkien

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48 Comments on “6 Reasons You Should Definitely Visit South Dakota

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  1. Hi Amanda,

    I really liked your blog post on South Dakota. I’ve been there and to all the places you mentioned. It really is a neat state to visit.

    Hey! I have to do some homework about South Dakota and your post helped me so much! I’m very thankful! I have had no idea how interesting South Dakota is! Now I just want to visit it as soon as possible! Thxxx!

      Happy to be able to help, and very glad to hear you learned something about South Dakota!

    I love that this post gives some love to the unloved states! South Dakota is definitely on my “must visit list” along with Oregon and Wyoming. Wyoming seems to be the butt of a few jokes but I’m sure it has plenty to offer.

      I think every state has something to offer if you give it a chance! I really liked Wyoming – it has some really stunning landscapes!

      From a strictly Australian point of view, we LOVED Wyoming! We spent a couple of weeks between Yellowstone, Jackson and Devils Tower before we got to South Dakota.

        Devils Tower is AWESOME! And Grand Teton National Park is one of my new favorites!

      Wyoming was wonderful!! We like to day hike so this area is great. Go to Cody!! I this the coolest little town. We stayed at the Hotel Irma in one of the restored rooms. They have a gunfight each night, so fun! Wild Bill Coty museum was so interesting. The food was awesome… you’ll love this town.

    Amanda, my bucket list keeps growing thanks to your posts. I never knew South Dakota was so awesome. I had planned to go to England this summer but now that we live in Arizona I really want to see the Badlands, Yellowstone, Crater Lake in Oregon, The Redwoods, and a few other places.

      You really can’t go wrong with a US road trip! There’s so much to see in every single state!

        Don’t forget Glacier National Park, the most beautiful place on earth!

    South Dakota is easily one of my favorite states! It definitely does not get the love it deserves. The Crazy Horse Volksmarch was one of my most memorable South Dakota experiences!

      I totally agree that it doesn’t get nearly the amount of love that it deserves!

      When it gets the love it deserves we will probably stop going there. We HATE crowds and would rather find someplace else that is “unloved”. We’re probably the only people in the world to have been within an hour of New York City, and gone to Vermont instead.

    Mammoths and heads of former presidents, what’s not to love? I would certainly like to drive through the state if I’m ever in the neighbourhood!

      I can’t stop telling people how COOL the Mammoth Site was! Like, seriously. Both my sister and I loved it!

    Thanks for the mention!

      Of course! That post convinced me I definitely have to go back and really spend some time in Rapid City!

    Wow! I really wasn’t aware that South Dakota is so astonishing, Amanda! I fell in love with it after reading your post and seeing your pictures. When would be the best time of the year to go there?

      I’d say probably spring or autumn, though summer is the most popular time to visit. I would suggest the shoulder season only because it can be very hot during the summer months!

    I too hail from a state that gets little travel love… Alabama. This post definitely has me wanting to go back to South Dakota – can’t believe it’s been over a decade since I was there… now I feel old.

      Alabama is one of the few states I have left to visit/explore! But I promise I’ll make it there eventually!

    Isn’t it nice promoting our own country.

    Most travellers, including myself, are so used to travelling and salivating over destinations elsewhere, that we forget the very lovely places that we actually originally come from! Mind you, as a British expat based in Berlin, I do my very best to promote both Germany and the UK!

    p.s. Funnily enough, I don’t know anything about Dakota, but I know all about Mount Rushmore. It’s a legend!

      I think you would find you will prefer Crazy Horse, it’s really amazing. But Rushmore is great too, and the Mammoth Site, and and and . . . .

      It’s so true – so often we ignore the places that are really cool right in our own country. It’s one major reason why I travel so much in the US every year!

    These 6 reason’s are so good that they make me want to book my trip right away, lol.. definitely added south dakota on my bucket list. 🙂 Thanks for this!

      Happy to hear it! It’s a pretty cool state, and I love that it’s still got a bit of an “undiscovered” feel to it.

    Sign me up for the Badlands!

      It’s incredible! One of my favorite national parks now. 🙂

      Just don’t visit the Badlands when we did, in August. It was so hot that we weren’t able to stay outside the car for more than ten minutes. Coming from Australia we make sure to be home with our pets during the fire season (December to March where we live) so only April to August departures are practicable. We generally spend between six and ten weeks, so end up with HUGE amounts of luggage ranging from swimsuits for Hawaii to long warm underwear for the cold parts in October. Maybe more and shorter trips is the go?

        That’s definitely something to keep in mind, though of course the weather can always change! I was in the Badlands this past August, and we hit a day that was only around 80 degrees (F), which was pretty bearable!

      Do NOT do what we did and go in August! It was 105 degrees and we spent all our time either in the rental car or diving into air conditioned tourist traps!. I felt so sorry for the poor animals in Bear Country USA, they were so hot.

        Much of the US gets miserably hot in August! My sister and I lucked out on our August visit to South Dakota – it never got hotter than 80 degrees!

    We spent an all too short week in SD and loved every minute. Our favourite was Crazy Horse but we even enjoyed Wall Drug’s monument to tacky. Wanted to ride the 1880’s train but ran out of time. Like most Australians, big doesn’t scare us, we’re used to it. The USA doesn’t feel that big – we got to about halfway (Seattle to Minneapolis) in only five weeks.

      I also loved Wall Drug’s monument to all things tacky – I wish we would have allowed more time to really explore all the weird and crazy there! Glad to hear you enjoyed South Dakota too!

        We sure did! Also Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Then Alberta and BC, then Washington again. I try to form our trips so that they’re circular, no excess to pay for flying out of a different airport to where you landed. Loved Seattle in particular, but we only spent a day in the city. LOTS of drives to North Cascades, Mt Rainier etc. We have only managed to see nine states in two trips, 6 and 9 weeks respectively. I think my use by date will come up before I see them all.

    I’m so glad you fell in love with it just like we did! On our first trip, we did Custer, Rapid City and tried to do the Badlands but they were closed for flooding (boo). On our second trip, we did Sioux Falls and Vermillion and couldn’t have loved it more!

      Knowing how much you loved it (and reading your SD posts) made me even more excited to go! I have no doubt I’ll be back sometime, too – there’s still more to see!

    I would love to visit South Dakota! It first pinged my radar back when I was researching places to do seasonal work, and ever since then it has sounded like such a cool place to go sometime! There are indeed many places in the US that get totally overlooked by the international travel circuit simply because it’s such a huge country. I love how you visit those places and write about them. Without your posts I would never have had a desire to visit Ohio but now I do xD

      South Dakota is definitely a state I will happily go back to!

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