The Top Places to Visit in South Dakota

A Gateway to The American West

South Dakota is not only one of my favorite states, it is one of my favorite places on the planet.

Wonderfully desolate and geographically stunning, South Dakota is intriguingly not at the top of most traveler’s list of places to explore.

This is to great benefit for the Explorer and outdoors inclined traveler, as the chance for real solitude in the presence of Native American culture and a distinctly western setting, is an absolute surety. The state is the traditional home of the Lakota and Sioux tribes who have long inhabited the area before the arrival of Western man.

Their presence is heavily felt in South Dakota and today, over 70,000 Native Americans still live in the state on and off reservations.


Most people come to South Dakota to visit Mt. Rushmore within the Black Hills, though the State has so much more to offer than the famous National Monument.

Considered apart of the great plains, and the Midwest, South Dakota is fairly different in both geography and climate from neighboring Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa.

The landscape is best described as rugged and diverse. Epic prairie lands with stunning buttes remind the traveler of much simpler times when industrial amenities had not yet infringed upon the land. The mighty Missouri river that Lewis and Clarke mapped during their epic voyage to the Pacific in 1804, carves its way through eastern South Dakota, while the striking badlands and Black Hills Mountains characterize the western part of the state.

Unlike Iowa and Minnesota, South Dakota largely lacks the humidity that plagues other midwestern states. It has four distinct seasons though despite its northern location, can still become quite hot in the summers. The dry heat is a welcoming experience if one is use to the sticky humid air of the eastern midwest.

South Dakota was the 40th state to join the Union in 1889 and encompasses 77,123 square miles, averaging about 10 people per square mile.

According to, the state boasts more miles of shoreline than Florida.


Matt Gade, Republic

While I90 that crosses the state is the most popular and quickest way to travel South Dakota, the backroads of the state is by far the best to see the real gems of this state. By going south of I90 and taking highway 44, you can experience some stunning prairies and secluded Buttes, while rolling through small town America.

The town of Platte near the Missouri River is one such gem that is hidden on the backroads of South Dakota. If you ever wanted to disappear and cut yourself off from most of civilization, this small town is a pretty good option. While it possess all the basic amenities of grocery stores, gas stations and a hotel, this is a town where things havent changed in a long time.

The main draw of Platte, is the intriguing geography and landscape, along with plentiful hunting and fishing opportunities. The rolling hills that lay just across the bridge of the Missouri, are surprisingly rugged and scenic, and a clear departure from the flat and uninspiring farmlands of Iowa and Minnesota.

There is Guide service for anyone who wants to experience the bountiful fishing and hunting opportunities here.

Highway 44 just beyond Winner, South Dakota (June 2023)

Rapid City

Rapid City at the far western side of South Dakota, is the gateway to Mount Rushmore and Badlands National park. The city has about 70,000 residents and is a great place to stay while exploring this part of the state. Its location at the base of the Black Hills makes it a mountain town of sorts and it certainly has a dry, arid climate similar to that of the Front Range communities of Colorado.

Downtown Rapid City (2021)

Though it is not a Fort Collins, Colorado or a Bozeman, Montana, it does have many good restaurants and breweries but its famous Firehouse Pub at the center of town is enormously overrated.

It’s location and surrounding does give it an off the grid vibe and it is indeed many hours away from any other major cities (six hours to Denver, five to Billings).

Rapid City June 2023

Badlands National Park

Badlands July 2021

The Badlands of South Dakota are truly unlike any other region in the entire United States.

Comprised of jutting rock spires, buttes and other mysterious geological formations, the Badlands are an amazing work of mother nature. They offer spectacular hiking and trekking opportunities, while just biking or driving through the National Park is a spectacular experience by itself.

While exploring the badlands, it is impossible not to wonder on the origins of these mysterious features.

According to the Scientists at the Park, the Badlands were formed by a combined process of deposition and erosion over the course of a million years.

Deposition is defined as the process of rocks gradually building up. Through millions of years, the layered rocks of the Badlands were slowly stacked on top of each other like a layer cake. These rocks were deposited by a number of natural forces which range from shallow inland seas to rivers to wind. Deposition began about 75 million years ago with the formation of the Pierre Shale, the base of the geologic formations in the park. Deposition ended about 28 million years ago with the Sharps Formation, the uppermost unit of Badlands stratigraphy.

Erosion is the process of rocks gradually wearing away. The Badlands began eroding about 500,000 years ago as the Cheyenne and White Rivers carved their way through the landscape. They are the reason for the narrow channels, canyons, and rugged peaks of the Badlands which we see today. And the Badlands are still eroding – it is estimated that the Badlands erode at the rate of one inch per year, which is a rapid rate for rocks. In contrast, the granite of the Black Hills, to the west of Badlands National Park, erodes at the rate of one inch per 10,000 years. Scientists estimate that in the next 500,000 years, the Badlands will have eroded completely.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park June 2023

Within the Badlands, Custer State Park is full of hiking, camping and even rock climbing opportunities.

Nearly 1,300 bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres, which they share with pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain goats and a band of burros. Trail rides, scenic drives, bike rides and safari tours are perfect ways to explore one of the largest State Parks in the country.

Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak is the highest mountain east of the Rockies and stands taller than any mountain of Appalachia.

On a clear day, one can see four states – South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Nebraska. There is an old stone tower that was used as a fire lookout on the summit. It is no longer in use but is open to hikers. Hikers have multiple route options to reach the summit from Custer State Park and various locations in the Black Elk Wilderness. Black Elk Peak is probably the most popular hiking destination in the Black Hills.

The forest on Black Elk Peak has suffered serious damage from pine beetles in recent years, plus Winter Storm Atlas in 2013 felled many more trees. Much of the damage has been cleared away, but some still remain. The forest that remains on the peak consists mostly of Ponderosa pines, spruce, and aspens. Despite the large numbers of hikers on Black Elk Peak every year, wildlife is in abundance there, with deer, elk, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, and pronghorn antelope seen regularly. There are rare sightings of mountain lions and coyotes, but they generally do not like being around large numbers of people.  Bird watchers enjoy the opportunities afforded by the variety of trails to the summit.


The small mountain town of Spearfish, population about 12,000 may be the best kept secret in the American West. The town is a nature lovers paradise.

It boasts some of the best fly-fishing opportunities in all of South Dakota, with multiple pools and rapids along Spearfish Creek. It also has a bounty of hiking and biking trails, providing numerous opportunities to take in the sights and sounds of the Black Hills.

In the wintertime, one can go snowmobiling and cross country skiing with trailheads only five miles from town and skiing 30 minutes away at Terry Peak.

According to Locals, Terry Peak which also stands at over 7,000ft, holds its own as a top Ski mountain in the entire country.

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