A part of the Great Plains in the North Central region of the US, South Dakota is most famous for its history, Native American culture, agriculture, landscapes, and both natural and manmade landmarks. A large state with an area of 77,116 square miles, there were only 886,667 people living in South Dakota as of 2020, making it both the 5th least populous and least densely populated of the 50 states.
Featuring rugged, open country and remarkable landscapes, outdoor excursions are the most popular activity for tourists. Famous areas include Mount Rushmore, the Black Hills, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Deadwood, and the Good Earth State Park. With lots to explore, visitors will be constantly in awe during their time in South Dakota.
While the vast wilderness is the main attraction, there are a few urban areas worth checking out too. Major cities that you won’t want to miss include Sioux Falls, Rapid City, and Aberdeen. There are also quite a few smaller communities that are historically significant of which the most well-known is Deadwood.
Livin’ La Vida South Dakota
History of “The Mount Rushmore State”
The earliest known humans that lived in South Dakota date back 17,000 years ago and they were nomadic hunter-gatherers. Coming from the Bering land bridge, traces of these primitive civilizations can still be found today.
From 500 to 800 AD, the people were called the “Mound Builders”. Known for their burial mounds that can still be seen in the earth today, these people lived along the banks of Big Stone Lake and Big Sioux River. It’s believed that these were the ancestors of the Native American tribes.
Beginning in the 16th century, more modern Native American tribes began to move to the area. These included the Arikara, Cheyenne, Gros Ventre, Ioway, and Sioux. Each tribe had their own unique culture and traditions.
By the late 1600s, the first European explorers to contact the natives were the French and Spanish. Building settlements and territories, Europeans established trades and feuded over the land with each other.
The United States claimed the land in 1803 when they purchased the land as part of the Louisiana Territory. Bought from Napoleon for $11,000,000, nearly all of what is now South Dakota was a part of the sale. It was eventually explored during the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition, which began in the area by the early 1800s.
Further American settlement led to the western expansion with South Dakota becoming an important transportation hub for the railroads. During the early 1900s, the economy continued to expand before stalling during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. Continuously changing throughout the decades, the state’s economy now heavily relies on tourism, farming, and agriculture.
Capital City of Pierre
The capital city of South Dakota is Pierre, which with a population of 14,091 people (in 2020), is the second-least populated capital in the US. First founded in 1880, Pierre has been the capital since South Dakota was admitted to the Union. Somewhat isolated from the rest of the state, Pierre is one of only four capitals in the county that is not connected by the Interstate Highway System.
Lined with trees, parks, and historic areas, it’s very picturesque. Of the numerous neighborhoods, the most popular with tourists is Downtown, as well as the Pierre Street Historic District. The large, white State Capitol building is a must-see because of its marble, limestone, and terrazzo tile construction. Within the downtown area, there are plenty of museums, memorials, and historic districts.
Several of the city’s favorite attractions are the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center, SD Discovery Center & Aquarium, Verendrye Museum, the Fighting Stallions Memorial, Flaming Fountain, and the South Dakota National Guard Museum. Just outside of town, outdoor recreational areas include the Oahe Dam, Trail of Governors, La Framboise Island Nature Area, and the Fort Pierre Chouteau Site.
Additionally, Pierre has many shops, restaurants, and bars for people to enjoy in the various neighborhoods. Local restaurants feature gastronomy from around the globe. Alongside the shops, there are plenty of boutique stores in the downtown area, so visitors can take a leisurely stroll through the city.
Sioux Falls, the Largest City in South Dakota
As of the 2020 census, the population in Sioux Falls was 192,517, which makes it the largest city in South Dakota. Together with its greater metro area, Sioux Falls holds more than 30% of the state’s total population. The city was first founded in 1856 and it famously sits beside the Big Sioux River. Filled with rolling hills, beautiful architecture, and a lively waterfront, many people are drawn to the memsmorizing landscapes.
Named after and the best known feature of the city are the Sioux Falls. Located within Falls Park and on the Big Sioux River, the falls are surrounded by stunning rock formations. While not overly grand in size, they are still a pretty sight to see.
Visitors to Falls Park can enjoy walking and biking through 123 acres or visiting the historic Queen Bee Mill. Additional activities include the South Dakota Battleship Memorial, Wild Stuff, Old Courthouse Museum, and the SculptureWalk.
Rapid City, “Gateway to the Black Hills”
Sitting on the edge of the eastern slope of the Black Hills, Rapid City is a major destination in Western South Dakota. Divided west and east by a mountain ridge, tourism is heavily fuelled by outdoor recreation. Rapid City is also renowned for its local art and culture. Founded in 1876, the city is filled with historic sites and landmarks too.
In town, around the downtown area, visitors can learn more about the local history, tour the art, shop in boutiques, or dine in quaint restaurants. Some of the top things to do are the Museum of Geology, Storybook Island, South Dakota Air & Space Museum, Reptile Gardens, Dinosaur Park, and the Journey Museum.
Not too far from Rapid City, major attractions include Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Badlands National Park, and the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Aberdeen, “The Hub City”
To the northeast of the capital is Aberdeen with a smaller population of 28,495 people as of 2020. A college town and tight-knit community, it’s well known for its natural scenery and local parks. Throughout the year there are festivals and special events, as well as seasonal activities. Perfect for families, visitors will find educational activities, entertainment, and all-around good fun.
Specific attractions that are worth checking out include the Dacotah Prairie Museum, Aberdeen Aquatic Center, Wylie Park, the Aberdeen Recreation & Cultural Center, and the Bramble Park Zoo. Some of the awesome parks near the city are the Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Richmond Lake Recreation Area, and the Fort Sisseton Historic State Park.
Deadwood, A Wild West Town
Home to a mere 1,156 people as of 2020, Deadwood is often considered to be the most famous town in South Dakota. Founded by early settlers, it got its name from the dead trees that lined the gulch.
Booming from 1876 to 1879 after gold had been found in the nearby Black Hills, the city was once home to 25,000 people. Much smaller, Deadwood is still infamous for its connections to major figures of the Wild West including Calamity Jane and Wyatt Earp.
Less than an hour to the northwest of Rapid City, Deadwood is a historic destination that is surrounded by magnificent scenery. Many visitors head to the town so that they too can walk in the footsteps of the Old West. The main attraction is the historic Main Street, which still retains its Old West appearance. Other highlights include the Whistler Gulch Campground and George S. Mickelson Trail.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Famous around the world for its carvings of four US presidents, Mount Rushmore is the most popular memorial in South Dakota. Located in the Black Hills in the southwestern area of the state, the manmade landmark was sculpted by Gutzon Borblum.
Construction began in 1927 and was completed by 1941. Featuring US presidents, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincon, each carving is 60 feet tall.
At the base of Mount Rushmore, the memorial park covers 1,278 acres. Most visitors head here, which gives the best view of the mountain and presidential carvings. Often called the “Shrine of Democracy”, an estimated 2 million visitors travel to Mount Rushmore each year. Also featured within the park are the Visitor Center, flag display, and the main viewing platform.
Badlands National Park
First established as a national monument in 1939, the Badlands did not become a national park until 1979. Covering 64,144 other-wordly acres, the park is well reputed for its landscapes that feature eroded buttes, pinnacles, and mixed grass prairie. The scenery is was most famously featured in the 1990 movie, Dances with Wolves, which did film some scenes within the national park.
Beyond the landscapes, the national park is renowned for its fossils, Native American culture, and the black-footed ferret. Fossils dating back to the Oligocene era have been found in the White River Badlands, while Native American culture is present throughout the park. Black-footed ferrets, which are one of the world’s most endangered mammals, were reintroduced to the park from 1996 to 1999.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Still under construction, the Crazy Horse Memorial will feature a massive mountain carving of Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota warrior when completed. Currently carved is the face and eventually, it will become one of the tallest statues in the world. Even though the landmark is far from being finished, people still travel to the memorial to view its progress.
The complete plan of the memorial includes adding an Indian Museum of North America and a Native American Cultural Center. Without a set completion date, it’s believed that most of the upper body from the shoulder will be finished by 2037. For now, visitors can marvel at this major construction project, as well as the surrounding views from the top of the mountain.
Good Earth State Park
To dive into Native American culture and enjoy a premier retreat, the Good Earth State Park is one of the premier destinations in South Dakota. It’s often much less crowded than the more famous national parks, monuments, and memorials. Considered to be one of the oldest sites in America with long-term human habitation, this state park’s history begins as early as 1300 AD.
Primarily on display is the Oneota culture and throughout the park, there are sites where visitors can learn more about how these ancient people lived. For those that want to retreat into the wilderness, this park has plenty to offer. Activities that are permitted within Good Earth include biking, birdwatching, fishing, geocaching, hiking, picnicking, and snowshoeing.
Custer State Park
Another park that is located within the Black Hills is Custer. It was the first and the largest state park in South Dakota. Covering 71,000 acres, the park is famed for its rugged peaks and rolling prairie. The main entrance is closest to Rapid City and it can be accessed by road.
Most people heading to Custer State Park want to hike and camp. Wildlife viewing is also very popular because there is a herd of 1,500 bison, as well as elk, deer, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, river otters, and feral burros.
“Great Faces. Great Places.”
Sometimes overlooked as a vacation destination, South Dakota is filled with iconic tourist attractions, wilderness areas, cities, and towns. For those that want to learn more about Native Americans, experience the Old West, or head out on the open prairies, you won’t want to miss out on this Midwestern state.
Suitable for all ages, South Dakota will amaze you with its diversity, friendliness, and beauty.