20 Things to Do in South Dakota

South Dakota Air and Space Museum
Mount Rushmore is just the first on a long, diverse list of things to see and do in this state, rich with history and natural beauty.

Top attractions in South Dakota

Natural wonders and spectacular vistas, along with awe-inspiring monuments, bring vacationers to South Dakota, one of the Midwest's least populous states. Plains and glacier-carved lakes make up the state's eastern reaches, eventually giving way in the west to the towering granite spires of the Black Hills and the evocative moonlike landscape of the Badlands.

Click ahead to find out about 20 of our favorite experiences in South Dakota, from Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills (pictured at left) to the sprawling Lewis and Clark Recreation Area in the east. travelsd.com

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

See the iconic 60-foot faces from several viewing platforms or walk to the sculpture's base with a ranger. Free sculpture workshops and sculptor's studio talks also are available, plus a heritage village and kids' exploration area. Stick around in the evening for a patriotic ceremony featuring the lowering of the U.S. flag, recognition of visiting veterans, a patriotic film presentation and the lighting of the monument. Note that although admission to Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free, you do pay to park. (605) 574-2523; nps.gov

The World's Only Corn Palace

This colorful, half-block-long landmark arena in Mitchell (population: 14,700) celebrates the region's agricultural prowess with domes, turrets, minarets and murals, decorated each summer with thousands of bushels of corn, grasses and grains. The original Corn Palace was built in 1892 for early settlers to show the fruits of their harvests; the current structure dates from 1921 and now hosts stage shows and sports events. (866) 273-2676; cornpalace.org

Badlands National Park

Follow any road piercing 244,000-acre Badlands National Park (about 80 miles east of Rapid City) to enter an almost otherworldly landscape of shale and sandstone. Cut by eons of rain and runoff, the soft rock is a maze of knife-edge pyramids, mammoth tortoiseshell mounds and broad, grass-capped mesas. To learn the secrets of this landscape, join park rangers daily (summers) for prairie and geology walks, fossil talks and other programs originating at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. (605) 433-5361; nps.gov

Spearfish Canyon

Architect Frank Lloyd Wright declared the northern Black Hill's Spearfish Canyon the most magnificent he'd seen; and, yes, he'd been to the Grand Canyon. Forest Service roads lead to picnic spots and miles of exploration in the Black Hills National Forest. For unrivaled scenery, take the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, 20 miles of meandering creek beds, craggy cliffs, plunging waterfalls and serene forest. spearfishcanyon.com

Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center

Joe DiMaggio. Joe Montana. Casey Tibbs? He's not a household name, but Tibbs, who died in 1990, is a rodeo legend. So is trick rider Mattie Goff-Newcombe, captured in bronze on one center display at the Casey Tibbs Rodeo Center. This fun new rodeo museum in Fort Pierre features memorabilia and gripping video footage. (605) 494-1094; caseytibbs.com

Lewis and Clark Recreation Area

One of the Midwest's largest state recreation areas—with some 600 campsites, a small motel and cabins—hugs the north shore of Lewis and Clark Lake along the Missouri River (90 miles southwest of Sioux Falls). Amenities at Lewis and Clark Recreation Area include a fun restaurant, pools, visitor center, disc golf, weekend naturalist programs, a well-run marina and picnic areas with Nebraska bluff views. (605) 668-2985; gfp.sd.gov

Crazy Horse Memorial

Ruth Ziolkowski (wife of the late Korczak, who in 1948 began carving the image of Crazy Horse astride a horse) and seven of their 10 children continue the work on this massive sculpture, not accepting any government money to do so. A spacious visitors center tells the story of the carving with a short film and celebrates Native American life and culture with exhibits and displays. A large outdoor deck has great views of Crazy Horse Memorial and a restaurant (try the Native American tacos). (605) 673-4681; crazyhorsememorial.org

Custer State Park

At 71,000 acres, Custer is one of the nation's largest state parks, known for granite spires called Needles and the 1,500 head of bison wandering freely throughout the park. Seeing them shuffle through a campsite never loses its thrill. Iron Mountain Road into the park from Keystone takes lots of switchbacks, offering absolutely stunning views. (605) 255-4515; custerstatepark.com

Jewel Cave National Monument

The second-longest cave in the world features about 150 miles of mapped passageways. Visitors carry lanterns on some tours of Jewel Cave National Monument (55 miles southwest of Rapid City). Rangers also lead arduous spelunking tours through undeveloped passages. (605) 673-8300; nps.gov

Laura Ingalls Wilder's legacy

In 1880, Laura Ingalls Wilder homesteaded with her parents in the country near De Smet (population: 1,000; 90 miles northwest of Sioux Falls). The Ingalls Homestead, on a rural spot, inspired four of the famous author's Little House books. Today, visitors can view several Laura Ingalls Wilder sites.

Explore a dozen historic buildings, many with hands-on activities, at the Ingalls Homestead (left). (800) 776-3594; ingallshomestead.com

Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes offers a guided tour of two of the Ingalls' houses in town as well as of De Smet's first school. (800) 880-3383; discoverlaura.org

The annual Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant is presented in July. (800) 880-3383; desmetpageant.org

Falls Park

Overlooking the triple falls of the Big Sioux River in Sioux Falls, the 121-acre Falls Park features viewing pavilions, walkways and picnic areas. A five-story observation tower provides sweeping views of the falls and city. Nightly talks and sound and light shows (in season) highlight local history. (605) 367-7430; visitsiouxfalls.com

The Outdoor Campus

One-day classes, often free, explore nature, wildlife, photography, and more at The Outdoor Campus in Sioux Falls (metro population: 230,000). Classes cater to all ages, from preschoolers to adults. Or learn about South Dakota's habitats and wetlands in the museum, which includes a 3,000-gallon stream-bank aquarium. The preserve also features a butterfly garden and 2 miles of woodland and prairie walking trails. (605) 362-2777; gfp.sd.gov

Palisades State Park

Flanking Split Rock Creek, gorgeous red cliffs climb up to 50 feet above the water at Palisades State Park (20 miles northeast of Sioux Falls). Swimming isn't allowed, but picturesque picnic spots—perfect for relaxing with a book—are abundant. In fact, one summer ranger program is "Photography at the Palisades." (605) 594-3824; gfp.sd.gov

Native American Scenic Byway

The Native American Scenic Byway twists and dives across a rolling sea of grass for 357 miles from Chamberlain north to Bismarck, North Dakota. You'll pass memorial markers, monuments, museums, and sacred sites commemorating the heritage of the Sioux Nation, as well as plenty of spots to fish and picnic. The immense western landscape captivates travelers, especially along the 100-mile stretch from Chamberlain to Pierre. fhwa.dot.gov

Cultural Heritage Center

The 15,000-square-foot Cultural Heritage Center, run by the South Dakota State Historical Society in Pierre (population: 14,000), is largely hidden under a bluff north of the capitol. Exhibits explore the state's rich Native American, frontier and political history. Among the prized displays are an 1801 peace medal handed out by Lewis and Clark, and the Verendrye Plate, a lead plate that claimed the region for France. It was buried by French explorers at nearby Fort Pierre in 1743 and not found until 1913. (605) 773-3458; history.sd.gov

Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center

In the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center on the grounds of St. Joseph Indian School in Chamberlain (population: 2,300), quilts, beadwork, paintings and sculptures by contemporary Native American artists mingle with trade goods, weapons and other artifacts that help tell the story of the people who once ruled the lands along the Missouri. Free. (800) 798-3452; aktalakota.stjo.org

National Music Museum

A Stradivarius violin, a 16th-century Italian harp and enough vintage brass instruments to equip a parade of marching bands are among nearly 15,000 instruments at the University of South Dakota's National Music Museum in Vermillion (population: 10,000). Check the website for a concert schedule. (605) 677-5306; orgs.usd.edu

Spirit Mound Historic Prairie

Tribes warned Lewis and Clark that little devils infested Spirit Mound, a solitary prairie knob six miles north of Vermillion. But when the explorers reached the crest, they found only a grand Dakota panorama and the first big buffalo herds of their trek. At Spirit Mound Historic Prairie today, a 3/4-mile trail flanked by primroses, sunflowers and wind-rippled grasses leads to the still-glorious high view. (605) 987-2263; gfp.sd.gov

Oyate Trail

Running along South Dakota's southern border from North Sioux City west to the southern Black Hills, the Oyate Trail blends past and present. On the eastern edge of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, a short detour north leads to Wounded Knee, site of the 1890 massacre of 300 Lakota. Pass pine-topped outcroppings and horses grazing in meadows while traveling 115 miles west through the reservation. Hot Springs rewards visitors with spas and Evans Plunge, a gravel-bottom indoor swimming pool with 87-degree water. (605) 775-2903; oyatetrail.com

South Dakota Air and Space Museum

At Ellsworth Air Force Base in Box Elder (just east of Rapid City on I-90), the South Dakota Air and Space Museum's indoor and outdoor displays feature four missiles and 25 historic aircraft, including B-29, B-52 and B-1 bombers as well as fighter jets. Free. (605) 385-5189; sdairandspacemuseum.com

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