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Guide to South Dakota in the US: The Land of Indians and Cowboys

South Dakota is located in the heart of the Great Plains. This state resembles a separate country, unlike the modern cities on the East Coast. In South Dakota, Martian landscapes of the Badlands Park, and dense pine forests in the Black Hills await you. In this article, I will talk about the most interesting sights that I’ve seen on my 2-month trip, and share useful tips for traveling to this state.

South Dakota on the map

The state of South Dakota is located in the center of the United States. It borders the states of North Dakota, Minnesota, Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, and Nebraska. The capital of South Dakota is Pierre.

Part of the state is located on the Great Plains, while the other part is occupied by the Black Hills. The highest point in the state is Black Elk Mountain (formerly known as Harney Peak) at 2,207 meters above sea level.

7 interesting facts about the state

  1. South Dakota is home to the Lakota Indian people (also known as the Sioux). There are nine Indian reservations in the state, including Pine Ridge – one of the largest in the country, Rosebud, and Standing Rock.
  2. The first discovery of gold in the Black Hills was made by George Armstrong Custer in 1874. This caused a gold rush in the region.
  3. South Dakota is home to one of the largest gold mines in the US. The Homestake Mine, located in Lead, has produced more than 1.25 million kilograms of gold in its history.
  4. The state’s official sport is rodeo.
  5. It is the birthplace of the legendary Wild West heroine Calamity Jane. Her adventurous life has inspired numerous books, films, and TV shows.
  6. In the 1930s, a major dinosaur discovery took place in South Dakota. A team of paleontologists unearthed the remains of a Tyrannosaurus Rex known as “Sue”. It is the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever found.
  7. In early August, the world’s largest motorcycle festival, Sturgis, takes place here.

Main cities in South Dakota

🏘 Sioux Falls is the largest and most beautiful city in the state. It is famous for its waterfall, which cascades over the quartzite rocks in the center of the city. In summer, free concerts are held in the park. Tourists will also be interested in city museums. Be sure to visit the Watecha Bowl restaurant, which serves dishes of the Lakota Indians.

🏘 Mitchell. This small town is known for its Corn Palace. This unique building has been decorated with corn and grain every year for a hundred years.

🏘 Rapid City serves as the gateway to the Black Hills National Forest. This is a fairly large city that has everything a traveler needs. You will most likely spend quite a lot of time in Rapid City. There is a couple of museums, an alley with bronze sculptures of presidents, and hefty dinosaurs on the mountain. I recommend Sahara Nights hookah bar if you are looking for a quiet place to work.

🏘 Deadwood is known for the history of the Wild West and figures such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The city has preserved historical buildings and casinos.

🏘 Wall became famous as a “pharmacy” Walls Drug, which is now a giant mall in the style of the Wild West. During the Great Depression, there was indeed a pharmacy and a small store where travelers were offered free cold water. Wall is worth stopping by for the excellent buffalo burger, 5-cent coffee ☕️, and the endless display of old objects.

🏘 Belle Fourche is the geographical center of the United States. Previously, the middle of the country was located near the city of Lebanon, Kansas. However, after the accession in 1959 of the two new states of Alaska and Hawaii, the center shifted to the small town of Belle Fourche in South Dakota. You can visit the museum and monument “Geographic Center of the Nation.” The real geographical center is located 20 km on private territory, though.

🏘 Mining towns in the Black Hills: Hill City, Lead, Deadwood, Custer. The region has a rich history of mining, and during the gold rush era, several settlements sprang up in the Black Hills. Now these are tourist towns where you can visit old mines and thematic museums. 

🏘 The capital of South Dakota is Pierre. It is far from the main attractions, and I did not visit there yet. I don’t even know if there is anything interesting there besides the Capitol building.

Best things to see in South Dakota

Martian Landscapes of Badlands National Park 

  • Opening hours: 24/7
  • Price: A seven-day ticket for a car with all passengers costs $30. For a motorcycle you will pay $25; a pedestrian or cyclist – $15. If you are going to visit several national parks in a year, then it is better to buy an annual America the Beautiful Pass for $80. It allows you to visit all US parks unlimitedly.
  • Website: https://www.nps.gov/badl/

The Badlands National Park is known for its rugged, otherworldly landscape with deep canyons and parched land. Unique geological formations have been shaped by wind and water over millions of years. Now and then people find ancient fossils of rhinos, horses, and saber-toothed cats.

A tourist road with viewing platforms is laid along the canyons. From there, you can admire not only the Martian landscapes but also wild animals. The Badlands Park is home to bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, coyotes, mule deer, and various bird species.

US great Nuclear weapon at Minuteman missile

  • Opening hours: from 9:00 to 15:00, except Monday and Tuesday. 
  • Price: free

During the Cold War, a huge arsenal of nuclear missiles was stationed on the Great Plains. For thirty years, thousands of missiles were in constant combat readiness; hundreds remain today. The Minuteman missile is an iconic weapon in the US nuclear arsenal. It is capable of destroying civilization but is designed to maintain peace and prevent war.

Now there is a museum on the site of one of the deactivated rockets. I advise you to visit it on the way to the Badlands Park. There you will learn about the Cold War and the relationship between the US and the USSR.

Black Hills National Forest, a Lakota Sacred Site

  • Opening hours: 24/7
  • Price: free 

The Black Hills National Forest is located on the border of South Dakota and Wyoming. It is known for its high rocky spires, mountain lakes, and dense pine forests. The Lakota Indians revered this forest as sacred.

It is allowed to spend the night with a tent or RV free of charge, which makes it an ideal place for boondocking. Riding a motorcycle along the winding serpentine roads and admiring the picturesque rocks is an absolute joy! Moreover, the Black Hills offer a plethora of attractions. Among them, you’ll find the renowned Mount Rushmore with its majestic presidential faces, Custer Park, boasting incredible wildlife and stunning hiking trails, as well as some of the finest climbing routes in the state. And mind you, this is far from a comprehensive list!

Mount Rushmore, four US presidents carved into the rock

  • Opening hours: from 5:00 to 23:00
  • Price: free, but parking costs $10 for an annual pass

Undoubtedly, the most renowned landmark in the state is Mount Rushmore. This monument showcases the carved faces of four esteemed presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. It stands as a powerful symbol of American democracy.

Custer Park, a great place for wildlife watching

  • Opening hours: 24/7
  • Price: pedestrians can enter for free, while for cars, there’s a fee of $20 covering all passengers, and this ticket remains valid for 7 days. If you have plans to explore other state parks like Bear Butte Park or intend to return to Custer Park, I recommend purchasing an annual pass for $36. This pass grants you unlimited access to all parks in South Dakota throughout the entire year. It’s a great value if you plan to visit the parks frequently.

Custer Park is undeniably one of the most exquisite places for wildlife watching in South Dakota. Among its highlights are the bison, or American buffalo, which roam freely across the grasslands. Beyond the bison, the park boasts an impressive variety of wildlife. It includes pronghorn, deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and a multitude of bird species.

For nature enthusiasts, Custer Park offers a myriad of hiking trails. They ranging from easy day hikes to the more adventurous multi-day Centennial Trail, which spans the entire Black Hills region. Additionally, you can unwind along the shores of Sylvan Lake or go on a scenic drive through the majestic Needles Highway.

Crazy Horse Monument, a Museum of the American Indian

  • Hours: 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM (closing times vary by season, so check the website).
  • Price: pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists – $10 per person; a car – $15 for one person, $30 for two people, $35 for three or more people in a car. The website does not say this, but the ticket can be used twice, within three days. Ask to exchange your ticket at the information desk!
  • Website: https://crazyhorsememorial.org/ 

The Crazy Horse Memorial stands as a remarkable rock-cut monument, paying tribute to the renowned Lakota Indian chief, Crazy Horse. Situated in the vicinity of Mount Rushmore within the Black Hills Forest, this monument portrays the Crazy Horse riding a horse and gesturing into the horizon. Chief Crazy Horse is celebrated for his significant role in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. He is respected for his determination to safeguard the land and culture of the Native American people.

The memorial is currently under construction and promises to be the largest sculpture in the world when completed. Work is progressing slowly as funding comes only from donations and ticket sales. The sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski refused state aid. 

In addition to sculpture, the memorial houses a museum of the Indians of North America and a university. 

Spearfish Canyon, a scenic ride

  • Opening hours: 24/7
  • Price: free

Spearfish Canyon is an awe-inspiring gorge nestled in the northern region of the Black Hills Forest. Its towering cliffs serve as a magnet for rock climbers during the summer, while its trout-filled streams beckon local fishermen. Meandering through the forest, trails lead to secluded refreshing pools. In the winter, the waterfalls transform into ice-covered wonders, making the canyon a great destination for ice climbing.

Stretching approximately 40 km from the town of Spearfish, the canyon is accessible through the Scenic Byway Spearfish Canyon (US Route 14A), which proves to be an ideal route for the motorcycle ride.

Wind Cave National park, a geological wonder

  • Opening hours: 24/7
  • Price: Free, but a guided tour is required to visit the cave itself. Depending on the duration of the route, the tour costs from $14 to $45

The Wind Cave National Park derives its name from the distinctive cave entrance, which facilitates the movement of air in or out of the cave, resulting in a noticeable wind at its entrance.

Entrance to the park is free. It spans a vast area where you can encounter large herds of bison as you explore the hiking trails. But the primary allure of the Wind Cave National Park lies in the cave itself. The cave is renowned for its rare honeycomb-like calcite formations, a geological wonder found only in a few caves across the globe. 

Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, one of the largest in the world

  • Opening hours: in summer from 8:00 to 18:00; in autumn and spring – from 9:00 to 17:00, in winter – from 9:00 to 15:30
  • Price: 14$
  • Website: https://mammothsite.org/

This site is currently undergoing active archaeological excavations. There significant discoveries have been made, including the remains of Columbian and woolly mammoths. These ancient animals once inhabited the area during the last ice age. The site came to light in 1974 when construction work was in progress for a new housing development. Since then, it has become a crucial site for uncovering and understanding the prehistoric past.

Historic forts on the Missouri River

In the early days of pioneering in America, the expeditions primarily followed the rivers as the main means of transportation. As settlement and expansion progressed, the construction of railroad tracks facilitated access to new territories.

The Missouri River held a prominent role as the region’s primary transportation artery. It was famously traversed by the renowned Lewis and Clark expedition. Today, a bypass closely follows the natural path of the Missouri River. It provides an opportunity to journey through the lands once inhabited by Native American tribes.

The South Dakota part of the Missouri River is a must-visit destination. Some of the main highlights include:

  • Fort Thompson. This historic site marks the meeting place between the Lewis and Clark expedition and the Native American inhabitants, representing a crucial moment of cultural exchange.
  • Karl E. Mundt Nature Reserve. This reserve offers the chance to witness majestic eagles soaring through the skies.
  • Klein Museum in Mobridge. This remarkable museum houses rare and valuable exhibits that belong to the indigenous peoples.
  • Sitting Bull Monument. A truly imposing sight, the seven-ton granite bust of the esteemed Sioux tribe leader, Sitting Bull, stands as a lasting tribute to his legacy and contributions.

Indian Reservations, a Native American Heritage

South Dakota is home to several Indian reservations. Each of them is offering a glimpse into its distinct culture, history, and traditions. It’s essential to note that these reservations are not designed as tourist attractions. They don’t offer cultural shows, excursions, or hotels. However, visitors can still explore the reservations, especially during the powwows, which take place at various times in each community. Some festivals may be closed to tourists, while others welcome guests to partake in their festivities.

Certain cities in South Dakota house museums dedicated to Indian culture. The “Akta Lakota Cultural Center” in Chamberlain offers a captivating insight into American Indian heritage. Another intriguing museum awaits near the city of Walls, on the way to the Badlands National Park.

While visiting these reservations and museums, it’s essential to show respect for the local culture and traditions, as they represent living communities with a rich history and ongoing significance.

Palisades Park, a Pink Canyon near Sioux Falls

  • Price: 8$

Sioux Falls and the nearby area have some gorgeous pink cliffs and rivers flowing through them. The city’s famous waterfalls are lovely, but if you take a short 30-minute drive, you’ll discover even more beautiful places. Palisades Park is a hidden gem, that I recommend to visit. 

This park is perfect for kayaking. You can also enjoy a brief hike or even camp out for a night (for an additional fee).

Fun and unique things to do in South Dakota

South Dakota offers a wide range of fun and unique activities to make your trip truly memorable. Here’s a checklist to add some excitement to your journey:

🚵 Ride the Mickelson Bike Trail through the Black Hills National Forest. It starts in the town of Deadwood and ends in the town of Pringle. The whole journey takes three days, but you can also drive only a small section. Information about the Mickelson route is available on this website.

🎉 Attend an Indian Pow-Wow Festival. It used to have a purely religious meaning, but now the pow-wow is a combination of prayers, traditional dances and music, and a costume contest. You can check the schedule here, but it’s better to use several sources. Don’t miss the opportunity to experience the vibrant Native American culture, with dance, music, and traditional food.

🦬 Observe the bison at Custer Park! Long before Europeans arrived, vast herds of bison roamed the Great Plains, providing Native Americans with all the essentials for their way of life. Buffalo meat served as their primary food source, while they utilized bison skins to construct tipis and sew clothing. Even dried bison stomachs were cleverly used for storing water. Sadly, when European settlers arrived, over 90% of the bison population in the United States was decimated. However, efforts have been made to restore their numbers in Custer Park.

🏍 Attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the biggest motorcycle festival in the world! It takes place annually in early August and gathers bikers from all over the country. 

🚁 Take a helicopter ride over Mount Rushmore. You will come face to face with the iconic founders of American democracy. Not only is it an unforgettable experience, but it’s also surprisingly affordable, with prices starting at just $60 for a 10-minute flight. You can easily book your flight online or find a travel agency on-site for convenience. If you’ve never had the thrill of flying in a helicopter, this is the perfect opportunity to embrace new emotions.

🎰 Play casino in Deadwood city. While Las Vegas may be home to the oldest US casinos, Deadwood offers a unique and historical gambling experience. You can visit the renowned gambling houses like Gulch Saloon and Bullock Hotel, which have rich histories and add to the charm of this old-west town.

Hike to the Cathedral Spires in Custer Park. This route is not widely advertised, and remains a hidden gem of South Dakota’s Black Hills. I stumbled upon this trail by pure chance when we parked nearby, and it turned out to be an incredible experience. The path leads you through the mesmerizing beauty of the rock formations. As you hike, keep an eye out for the diverse wildlife that thrives in this area. We were fortunate enough to spot deer and mountain goats.

🍲 Make bison meat chili for dinner. Since bison are bred in Custer Park, their meat can often be found in butcher shops.

🚣 Drive, bike or even kayak the historic Lewis and Clark Trail. It runs along the Missouri River, retracing the steps of the legendary explorers, Lewis and Clark, as they ventured westward to chart the uncharted territories of the United States.  

My itinerary for an unforgettable trip to South Dakota

As a bonus, I will share with you my travel itinerary. We slowly explored all South Dakota in our van, while boondocking for free in beautiful places. But of course, you can stay in the campsites or hotels along this route.

Read also: What is like to travel in the RV in the USA [2023]

  1. Sioux Falls. One or two days is enough to explore the city and relax in the famous park with waterfalls. Optionally, you can visit the Palisades Park, stopping by the Wild Prairy winery for a dandelion wine tasting along the way. Don’t forget to try their delicious fruit cider, it’s a must! 🏕 We spent the night at the Loves gas station.
  2. Mitchell. Visit the Corn Palace, and the excavations of the settlement of the American Indians. 🏕 Night on the Mitchell lake.
  3. Chamberlain. The only attraction is the Acta Lakota Indian Museum. 🏕 Wonderful wild camping in the Chamberlain Recreation Area on the Missouri River. You can stay a maximum of 7 days per month. If you want, you can ride the Lewis and Clark Trail along the Missouri River.
  4. Badlands National Park, Wall Pharmacy, and the Minuteman Nuclear Missile. This is a must-see route in South Dakota! 🏕 In front of the entrance to the park there is a wide clearing on the edge of a cliff, a popular place for camping in motorhomes.
  5. Rapid City. You can visit the Geology Museum or the historical Journey Museum, see a rodeo, or go on a small hike in the Petrified Forest. The town has Planet Fitness, and all the shops you need. Get ready for a multi-day trip to the forest! 🏕 We spend the night in the parking lot in front of Planet Fitness.
  6. Black Hills National Forest. You can spend a week or more there! Visit the Rushmore and Crazy Horse Monuments, and hike in Custer Park. I recommend to ride the Wildlife Loop to see bison, or the Needles Highway for postcard rock views. Each of these activities is worth one day spent. 🏕 In the forest, you can put up a tent or stay in a RV almost everywhere. The maximum stay is 14 days out of 60. However, the forest is huge. If you change location for a couple of miles, no one will know.
  7. Spearfish. Ride the scenic route in Spearfish Canyon, visit the nation center in Belle Fourche, play in the casino in Deadwood. 🏕 At the Belle Fouch reservoir, you can camp for 14 days within a 30-day period. This is a fantastic place for boondocking, especially if you have Starlink satellite internet, as mobile internet reception is poor there.
  8. Devil’s Tower National Monument. It is located in the neighboring state of Wyoming, but very close to the Spearfish. This is the first national monument in the United States. 🏕 Not far from the attraction there is BLM public land where it is allowed to spend the night. However, we returned to Belle Fourche for sleeping.
  9. It is logical to continue the journey to Yellowstone National Park, one of the most beautiful in the United States. We returned to the Black Hills, as we planned to attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Festival and the Indian Pow-Wow festival.

Read also: Starlink. My honest review of Elon Musk’s satellite Internet

What dishes should you try while traveling to South Dakota?

  1. Chislic, diced and deep-fried pieces of meat (usually lamb or beef), which is often served on skewers. It is a popular snack in bars, fairs and festivals.
  2. Kuchen pie is a German pastry with a sweet custard filling and fruit.
  3. Bison Burger, my personal Must-Try. Considering the huge number of bison in the state, it is not surprising that the meat of this animal is present in various dishes. Bison meat is lean, a little dry, but very tasty. 
  4. Indian tacos are a popular dish at the Pow Wow Indian Festival. It consists of fried tortillas with beans, meat, lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and other toppings. You can try it in the Laughing Water restaurant at the Crazy Horse memorial.
  5. Wojapi with fried bread is another Native American dish. They are dipped in fruit jam made from cherries or chokeberries.   
  6. Kolaches is a round Czech pastry stuffed with fruit and cream cheese.

Practical information for travelers

How to get to South Dakota

by plane

Airplane is by far the easiest way to get anywhere in the US. The main airports of the state are in the cities of Aberdeen (ABR), Pierre (PIR), Rapid City (RAP), Sioux Falls (FSD) and Watertown (ATY). For travelers, the most convenient airports are in Rapid City and Sioux Falls.

by bus

Greyhound and Jefferson Lines operate routes in the region. For example, a ticket from Rapid City to New York costs between $230 and $300. The journey takes 48 hours. But in this case, you will have to change buses five times!

Which cities to choose as a base

I described the free camping spots above in the South Dakota itinerary section.

In the South Dakota region, there are plenty of free camping spots available, as well as paid camping options that are popular among Americans. If you prefer staying in a hotel, you can choose from Rapid City, small towns in the Black Hills like Hill City, Keystone, Custer, or Deadwood, or Sioux Falls if you’re more interested in the Missouri River. These cities make for great base locations to explore the surrounding areas and attractions.

Check prices for your dates:

What to do if you don’t have a car

Getting around to attractions using public transport in the United States can be quite challenging. Unlike some countries with extensive public transportation systems, the US is more reliant on private vehicles for traveling. While there might be tourist buses available for some popular national parks, these services can be considered exceptions rather than the norm.

Moreover, inexpensive group tours are relatively scarce in the US due to low demand. Instead, most tour operators tend to offer individual excursions at higher prices, catering to travelers who prefer customized experiences. As a result, exploring the country’s attractions through organized group tours can be costly.

In South Dakota, I came across some reasonably priced offers that caught my attention.

You can also fly into one of the state’s airports and rent a car for the duration of your trip.

I hope this article was helpful. As a “thank you” you can buy me a cup of coffee. Your support helps me keep this free blog going and fuels my passion for creating more content ☕️🥰.

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