Updated On: November 27, 2023 by Courtney Augello
On the edge of America’s Heartland, South Dakota is home to many world-famous and lesser-known attractions worth seeing. From the iconic Mount Rushmore to natural wonders like the Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota is a perfect holiday destination.
Tourism is South Dakota’s second-largest industry, and there are a lot of things to see and do. To help you plan the perfect itinerary, we’ve compiled a list of the top 12 things to do in South Dakota.
1: Badlands National park
Visiting the Badlands is one of the most beautiful things to do in South Dakota. The park covers nearly 250,000 acres and has stunning geographical features and native wildlife. The park was established in 1978 and attracts visitors from around the world.
The name Badlands originally comes from the Lakota tribe that lives on the lands. They called it the Badlands due to its extremely high temperatures, rugged terrain, and lack of water sources.
Badlands National Park is home to one of the world’s largest and richest fossil beds. Fossils found in the area include camels, rhinoceros, rodents, and horses. The park is also where the black-footed ferret and whooping crane were reintroduced. Both species are extremely endangered.
Although the area can be tough to travel through, that doesn’t stop visitors from hiking through the Badlands. Today there are over 75 different unofficial hiking trails at the park. Camping is allowed anywhere in the park for guests to rest overnight. Although hunting is not permitted in the Badlands, fishing is allowed with a permit.
For experienced hikers and nature lovers, experiencing the Badlands is one of the most stunning things to do in South Dakota.
2: Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore is a massive sculpture carved into the granite face of a mountain. The sculpture took 14 years to complete and features 18-metre-tall heads of 4 former U.S. Presidents: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.
A trip to Mount Rushmore is one of the best things to do in South Dakota for history buffs. The park surrounding the memorial provides insight into its construction and the impact each president had on the country, The park welcomes more than 2 million visitors each year.
The paths up to Mount Rushmore can get crowded, especially during the summer months. To avoid the crowds, it is best to visit during spring or autumn. Another way to have the trail to yourself is to visit during off-times, such as in the morning or late afternoon.
Whether you’re interested in American history or want to see one of the country’s most iconic landmarks, visiting Mount Rushmore is one of the best things to do in South Dakota.
3: Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse was a war leader of the Lakota tribe in South Dakota. He is best known for standing up to the United States government to stop white settlers from taking over their lands. Visiting his memorial is one of the most educational and historical things to do in South Dakota.
Crazy Horse is said to have been killed in 1877 by a U.S. soldier while being imprisoned, although this is contested. Even as he died, Crazy Horse would not be seen by white doctors or lay in their hospital. He was buried in the Black Hills, and the grave has never been located.
Originally, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore wanted to include Crazy Horse on the monument but was overruled by the lead designer. Instead, Lakota chief Henry Standing Bear commissioned one of the sculptors from Mount Rushmore to make Crazy Horse his own monument.
The sculptors began working on the monument in 1948. Unfortunately, it is still incomplete due to a lack of funding. The sculpture was originally planned to take 30 years to complete, but there is currently no timeline for completion.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is completely non-profit and does not accept any government funding. It generates income through donations, the visitor entry fee, and the selling of Native American crafts, such as woven garments and jewellery.
If you’re interested in Native American history or want to help the tribe in their efforts to complete the sculpture, visiting and touring the Crazy Horse Monument is one of the most fascinating things to do in South Dakota.
4: Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park was the 6th national park founded in the United States and the first cave designated as a national park globally. It was founded in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt. Wind Cave is the densest cave in the world. It is also the 7th longest cave globally, spanning nearly 250 kilometres.
The name Wind Cave comes from the openings that help the cave “breathe”. When the pressure outside the cave is lower than inside, air rushes out of the cave and creates wind from its openings.
Wind Cave National Park also extends to the surface. The park features a mixed-grass prairie that is home to animals such as elk, bison, cougars, and bobcats. Throughout the park, 48 kilometres of hiking trails are available to visitors.
Whether you want to see the natural beauty of the surface or deep blow, a trip to Wind Cave National Park is one of the most interesting things to do in South Dakota.
5: South Dakota Air & Space Museum
One of the best free things to do in South Dakota, the Air & Space Museum is dedicated to preserving the history of the U.S. Air Force. The museum was established in 1982, just 35 years after the Air Force was created.
The museum features 4 interior exhibit galleries as well as outside exhibits. In total, over 30 aircraft and missiles are on display at the museum. The exhibits take visitors through the history of the Cold War, both World Wars, aerospace technology over time, and the Ellsworth Air Force Base located in South Dakota.
If you are interested in war history or aviation, visiting this museum is a perfect thing to do in South Dakota.
6: Black Hills Mountain Range & National Forest
Surrounding Mt Rushmore & Crazy Horse Memorial, visiting the Black Hills is one of the most beautiful things to do in South Dakota. Established as a national park in 1897, the forest covers over 1.25 million acres.
The Native Americans that live in South Dakota, such as the Lakota tribe, consider the Black Hills a sacred site. In 1868, the U.S. Government had promised the Lakota tribe that American settlers would never take the Black Hills and that the tribe would control the land. Unfortunately, the government would go back on their word when gold was discovered in the area in 1874.
Today, the park features over 700 kilometres of hiking trails for visitors. Other attractions at the park include 30 campgrounds, 11 fishing reservoirs, and over 8,000 kilometres of roads to travel on. With so much to see and do, exploring the mountain range is one of the best things to do in South Dakota.
7: National Music Museum
Regarded as the Smithsonian of music, visiting the National Music Museum is one of the most fascinating things for music lovers to do in South Dakota. The museum was founded in 1973 and resides on the University of South Dakota campus.
The NMM is known worldwide for its expansive collection of over 15,000 American, European, and Non-Western musical instruments. It is one of the world’s best-preserved and most historic musical collections.
Within the NMM, guests can see two 18th-century grand pianos, the only surviving English cittern from the 16th century, and the second-largest harmonica collection in the world.
The museum’s collection is so expansive that it is one of the best locations in South Dakota and the world for music scholars. Many students from all over the world visit the NMM to learn about music history and advancements throughout time.
If you’re interested in music history, wandering the National Music Museum’s exhibits is one of the most interesting things to do in South Dakota.
8: Wall Drug Shopping Centre
Shopping through Wall Drug is one of the greatest things to do in South Dakota to embrace the Midwestern culture and experience. Wall Drug is a tourist stop in Wall, South Dakota, near the Badlands National Park.
The store first opened in 1931, owned by local pharmacist Ted Hustead. At this time, Wall had a population of just over 200 people. To bring in more business, the owners began advertising free ice water to entice travellers to stop at the store.
20 years later, the owner’s son, Bill, joined the family business. He took Wall Drug from a small pharmacy to a mall with a cowboy theme. He added a Western art gallery, a chapel, and a cafe. Bill also had a 24-metre-tall brontosaurus sculpture outside the store. Bill still owns Wall Drug today.
Today, Wall Drug brings in over 2 million visitors each year, greatly helping to support the remote town. Visitors can still get free ice water at the centre and explore the original pharmacy, gift shop, restaurants, and art gallery.
If you’re looking for a quirky tourist attraction with a deep history, visiting Wall Drug is one of the best things to do in South Dakota.
9: Museum of Geology
Another of the best free things to do in South Dakota, the Museum of Geology is full of interesting exhibits for children and adults. The museum is located at South Dakota Mines, one of the best STEM universities in the United States.
The museum opened in 1885 and features exhibits focused on the ecological and geological history of the Badlands and the Black Hills. Fossils from local species, including dinosaurs, mammals, and fish, are on display.
Geological displays at the museum include minerals from the area, meteorites, and even a room full of fluorescent minerals. The museum also features a research lab where fossils and minerals are studied.
Guided tours are available at the museum to give visitors more information on each exhibit. For children, an interactive kids’ area provides hands-on experiences and activities. The Museum of Geology also hosts seasonal events which change each year.
For a free, family-friendly experience, visiting the Museum of Geology is one of the most fun things to do in South Dakota.
10: Big Thunder Gold Mine
Big Thunder Gold Mine is located near the Black Hills and dates back to 1892. The mine was used during the gold rush and closed in 1914 when mines across America were shut down so the country could focus on World War I. The following year, the mine was opened as a tourist attraction. It remains one of the most interesting things to do in South Dakota today.
Visitors at Big Thunder Gold Mine have the unique opportunity to take a guided tour through the mine and see the work of gold rush-era miners. The mine also features a museum of antique mining equipment salvaged from mines within the Black Hills. On-site gold panning is available and is a great activity for children.
Walking in the footsteps of 1890s miners, seeing the equipment they used, and searching for your own gold rush are some of the best things to do in South Dakota to understand the state’s history.
11: National Presidential Wax Museum
Located just down the road from Mount Rushmore, visiting the National Presidential Wax Museum is one of the most interesting things to do in South Dakota. The museum was founded in 1971 and features over 100 wax figures.
The National Presidential Wax Museum is the only museum to feature wax figures of all U.S. presidents. Each president is shown at an iconic moment from their time in office. One of the most popular presidential exhibits shows George W. Bush at the site of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In addition to the wax figures, the museum also features a replica of the White House briefing room where guests can give a speech from a teleprompter, an oil painting gallery, and the original voting booths from Florida’s 2000 presidential election.
12: Great Plains Zoo
Great Plains Zoo opened in 1963 and covers 45 acres. The zoo also features an on-site museum and has a mission to help conserve and protect endangered species.
At Great Plains Zoo, visitors can see a range of animal exhibits, such as the African Savanna, Asian Cats, and their award-winning snow monkey exhibit. Being one of the only zoos in the United States to house snow monkeys, getting to see these unique animals makes visiting Great Plains Zoo one of the best things to do in South Dakota for families.
At the Delbridge Museum of Natural History, located on the zoo grounds, guests can find a collection of over 150 mounted animals. Although the animals were all hunted legally in the 1940s through the 1960s, many of the species are now endangered. Still, it is incredible to see the exhibits and learn about the animals’ habitats and conservation efforts.
There are Many Great Things to do in South Dakota
From stunning natural scenery to the history of gold mining, there are endless things to do in South Dakota. It is a perfect place for families, music lovers, history buffs, and outdoor enthusiasts to visit.
No matter what your interests are, there are things to do in South Dakota for everyone. Whether it is your destination or you are passing through on a road trip in the USA, South Dakota is a great place to visit.
If you’re planning a trip to the United States, check out these USA travel statistics before you go.