When folks hear you’re planning a vacation to South Dakota, they tend to assume one of your biggest stops will be Mount Rushmore. And maybe it will! After all, South Dakota didn’t change their nickname to “The Mount Rushmore State” for no reason. But there’s a hidden question under that assumption, especially if you’re traveling with children: what else will you do while you’re there?
Mount Rushmore isn’t the only exciting or awe-inspiring destination in South Dakota! If you choose an Eastern South Dakota trip, you may not even see it. There are so many things to do in South Dakota on vacation— the state is ripe with attractions for the whole family. It’s a good idea to break things up into regions so you can get the most from your trip! The easiest distinction is Western and Eastern South Dakota, but some attractions are off on their own.
Road Trip Prep
The first thing you want to do is get ready for a lot of driving. South Dakota is full of wide open spaces; while most of your destinations can be grouped together, others may be a few hours out. Luckily, South Dakota has pretty good 5G coverage so that the kids can stay entertained. Be sure to pack plenty of snacks, and don’t forget to take pictures— the landscape is stunning!
You can customize your trip for the most efficient route or choose a ‘hub’ landmark or city and spread out in different directions as the fancy takes you.
Visiting Western South Dakota
If Mount Rushmore is your primary destination, then you’ll be heading out to western South Dakota and a city named Keystone. Here you can find the national monument as well as the Big Thunder Gold Mine, where you can mine for real gold; Black Elk Peak; the National Presidential Wax Museum, with over 100 lifelike wax figures including every US President; and Rushmore Tramway Adventures, where you can zipline across the Black Hills or go down the 2000-ft alpine slide for a thrilling vantage point. The grounds also boast the Crazy Horse Memorial, still a work in progress all these decades later; the George S. Mickelson Trail; Custer State Park, featuring Sylvan Lake among other popular landmarks; the Jewel Cave National Monument; Spearfish Canyon and Falls; Bridal Veil Falls; and Needles Highway. On your way through Spearfish, don’t miss the Termesphere Gallery— an art display where every painting is a circle or sphere. The Black Hills National Forest encompasses a large portion of land here, waiting to be explored. East of Keystone is Badlands National Park, and to the Northeast is Rapid City.
Rapid City has a ton of fun activities for kids, such as the WaTiki Waterpark and Storybrook Island. You can visit the wildlife at Reptile Gardens or drive through Bear Country USA. Rapid City also has Dinosaur Park, the Museum of Geology, and several restaurants and places to stay. Just outside the city is Ellsworth Air Force Base, home of the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.
A slight drive away, you can find the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in Philip, SD, or head up to Lead, SD, and Spearfish, SD, for canyons, waterfalls, or a stay at the Terry Peak Ski Area. Nearby Sturgis shows off the best of bikes in the Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame; if you time your visit right, you can attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally! Also in the area is Historic Deadwood, where you can visit the Adams Museum or the historic cemetery.
And don’t miss out on Hot Springs, SD! Learn about the archeological Mammoth Site or walk in the footsteps of the pioneers at the Pioneer Museum. If you’re feeling adventurous, check out Evans Plungs or the Western Horizon Hot Air Balloon tours.
Visiting Eastern South Dakota
If you have your eyes set on South Dakota’s Eastern border, then you’re likely going to start in Sioux Falls. Here you can find Falls Park, with breathtaking vantage points of the falls themselves, and Good Earth State Park. Animals lovers won’t want to miss the Great Plains Zoo and Delbridge Museum of Natural History. Their next stop should be the Sertoma Butterfly House and Marine Cove. After a walk through the Old Courthouse Museum, it’s time to branch out. You could drive to Mitchell and explore the World’s Only Corn Palace or the Dakota Discovery Museum. Art enthusiasts will want to stop by Montrose and check out Porter Sculpture Park. Literature Lovers? Head to De Smet to see one of the Ingalls’ homesteads (the other is in Missouri).
Families with small children will want to go by Brookings for the Children’s Museum. Botanical Garden lovers will be there for the McCrory Gardens. Or you can head to Yankton, home of the Lewis & Clark Recreational Area and Lake. Last but not least, we have Vermillion, home of the National Music Museum and the Spirit Mount Historic Prarie.
Honorable Mentions in the State
If only all the great destination spots could be grouped together. Unfortunately, there are a few places worth a visit that are off on their own. One is the Petrified Wood Park & Museum in Lemmon, just on the border of North Dakota. In the far Southeast, you can find the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. Down I-90 is Chamberlain, home to the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center.
Breathtaking Views, Exciting Thrills, and More
Is your head spinning yet? Have you decided which region to visit first? Or are you having a hard time deciding? The good news is that 90 connects Sioux Falls to Rapid City. You could always take an extended vacation and hit both sides of the state, catching Chamberlain on your way by! Many areas in South Dakota offer horseback riding and rock climbing, so you can find adventure wherever you please. You can even tour one of South Dakota’s nine Native American reservations (by appointment only).
No matter where your journey takes you, you can be sure South Dakota has something for you.