10 Best South Dakota Parks to See on Vacation
We are sharing the 10 best national and state parks to visit on your next vacation to South Dakota! There is something special about South Dakota you cannot pinpoint until you visit for the first time. Most of the state is beautiful prairie land. But, as you travel further west, you start to see the Black Hills from a distance. The Black Hills are among the oldest mountain ranges in the United States. Continue reading to find out what makes these parks unique, along with all the top things to see and do while visiting. Let’s add South Dakota to your bucket list and plan an adventure!
Incredible National and State Parks to See in South Dakota
The Black Hills National Forest, along with all of the state and national parks, are part of what makes South Dakota unique. It is a relatively rural state with lots of wide-open spaces. It has a rich history full of wild west stories and frontier tales.
Growing up in South Dakota, I spent a lot of time exploring the Black Hills along with all of the national and state parks close to home. This article is near and dear to us. With other travel writers and folks who call South Dakota home, we share the best parks, travel highlights, trip tips, and secrets! We hope to help you plan a wonderful vacation full of adventures you’ll never forget.
How Many National Parks are in South Dakota?
There are six National Park Service sites in South Dakota managed by the National Park Service Department of Interior.
How Many State Parks are in South Dakota?
In addition to the national parks, there are 56 state parks along with additional areas to recreate outdoors!
10 Best Parks to See in South Dakota
Are you ready to hear about the parks you shouldn’t miss whiles visiting South Dakota? Get ready to explore lakes, mountains, rivers, badlands, and prairies!
We also include Devils Tower, though it is in Wyoming, it pairs nicely with a South Dakota road trip, and it is located within the Black Hills.
And we couldn’t forget to include the famous Falls Park in Sioux Falls! It is a great pit stop during a road trip to stretch your legs and take beautiful photos.
10 Best Parks in South Dakota Map
1. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Contribution by Ashlee Fechino of The Happiness Function
One of the most iconic memorials in the United States, Mount Rushmore, symbolizes freedom and democracy in America. It is a national treasure.
Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills near Keystone. It is open seven days a week and costs $10 to park, per car, in the parking area.
Trip tip: The Annual National Park Pass does not cover the parking fee.
It took 14 years to sculpt this national memorial, and cost just under a million dollars to create the iconic images of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. These four presidents were carved out in granite to recognize their influence in helping to shape America.
Visiting Mount Rushmore brings people together. The Memorial has a mission to educate and share the history and diversity of the USA. Along with viewing the famous presidential sculpture, visitors can browse the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, Sculptor’s Studio, and the famous Avenue of Flags.
You can also hike the Blackberry Trail if you’d like to see more of the forest surrounding the sculpture.
Trip tip: If you are road-tripping with your dog, visitors can take their dog on the Blackberry Trail; however, dogs are not allowed anywhere else except where designated near the parking garage.
Plan to spend at least half a day enjoying your first trip to Mount Rushmore. Four to five hours will give you plenty of time to explore the attractions. You might want to set aside more time if you decide to hike.
2. Jewel Cave National Monument
Contribution by Ashlee Fechino of The Happiness Function
Did you know Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-largest cave in the world? That’s right. The third-largest cave in the world is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
As of 2021, over 208 miles of the cave have been mapped and explored. It is considered one of the last frontiers in the world because there is still more of the cave to be explored and mapped.
At Jewel Cave, visitors can experience this underground world through a guided tour. There are four tour options to choose from, including the scenic tours, discovery talk, and a tour with historic lanterns. Visitors are likely to see bats on the historic lantern tour!
Trip tip: Wear good walking shoes and bring a jacket. The cave is 49 degrees Fahrenheit.
In addition to visiting the cave and exploring a secret world underground, Jewel Cave National Memorial has a few trails to hike above ground.
Above Ground Trails:
- Roof Trail – 0.25-mile distance + takes around 30-45 minutes
- Canyons Trail – 3.5-mile loop distance + takes around 2-4 hours to hike
- Hell Canyon Trail – 5.3-mile loop distance + takes around 2-4 hours to hike
Plan a memorial trip to experience one of the largest caves in the world. Add Jewel Cave to your South Dakota bucket list.
3. Wind Cave National Park
Guest post contribution by Megan Johnson of Red Around the World
Wind Cave National Park is often overlooked when choosing from many other national parks, and even Custer State Park next door. Don’t miss Wind Cave – it is pretty impressive!
The main attraction is a tour of the cave itself, but there are plenty of hiking trails for visitors to enjoy. Rankin Ridge is an easy hike to the highest point in the park.
Trip tip: As you drive around the park, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife like bison and prairie dogs. You may even see a coyote if you’re lucky.
The best time to visit this park is during the summer or fall because of the temperatures and park accessibility.
This is a unique park because it has a cave, and it is a great place to see wildlife. Seeing bison and prairie dogs are pretty much a guarantee, especially on the side of the park closest to Custer State Park.
There is no park entrance fee, but there are fees if you want to do a cave tour.
4. Badlands National Park
Guest post contribution by Nikki of She Saves She Travels
One of the best things to do in South Dakota is Badlands National Park. It’s a unique destination within the state and one of the most underrated national parks in all of the United States!
Located in the southwestern portion of the state, it’s a great addition to any vacation or can be a part of a week-long stay seeing sights like Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the greater Black Hills area.
With so many things to do in Badlands National Park, the highlights can be seen in a single day, or visitors can spend multiple days soaking in all the sights in the park. One of the park’s top activities is driving ‘The Loop’ through the park. It’s South Dakota Highway 240, which cuts south from I-90, loops through the park, and reconnects with the interstate.
Be sure to check out these popular park highlights as well:
- Yellow Mounds Overlook
- Panorama Point
- The Window and Door Trails
To get into Badlands National Park, it’s $30 per vehicle, or if you’re planning to visit multiple national parks, the America the Beautiful annual parks pass is $80, which is a great value.
Trip tip: The best times of year to visit the park are spring and fall when the weather is most comfortable. Although if visiting in the summer months, just be sure to bring sunblock and plenty of water.
5. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Guest post contribution by Tiffany Smith of Pennies, Places, and Paws
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site consists of three different areas: The Visitor Center, Delta-09 Missile Silo, and the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility.
There is no fee for visiting, which is fantastic because it provides a unique opportunity to learn about the Cold War at a real deactivated missile site.
Trip tip: If you’d like to see all three locations, set aside about 4 hours due to the distance between sites.
The visitor center is a goldmine for information and is located near Badlands National Park. Here you will find a 30-minute film and numerous interactive displays to walk you through the Cold War history and what it was like working at the site.
There is also a small gift shop. The most amazing part of the visitor center is that several of the men that work and volunteer there used to man the site when it was active. They are a fantastic firsthand source if you are interested in hearing about what it was like working there.
There are cell phone tours available at both Delta -09 and Delta-01 locations. Delta-01 also has a ranger-guided tour for an additional fee that will allow you to enter the Launch Control Facility. For this tour, it is recommended that you book several months in advance.
This national historic site is definitely worth the visit if you are in South Dakota, no matter what time of year you visit!
6. Devils Tower National Monument
Guest post contribution by Michelle Moyer of Moyer Memoirs Empty-Nest Travel Adventures
Devils Tower, located in northeastern Wyoming, was the first-ever United States national monument.
It is a gigantic geological protrusion that shoots straight up nearly 1,300 feet out of the Black Hills prairie. It is home to lots of wildlife, including prairie dogs, white-tailed deer, and bald eagles.
The prairie dogs are the most visible animals at Devils Tower. They live in a small community at the base of the tower. Their 600 residents can be seen and photographed scurrying from holes, peeking out for predators, and evaluating the terrain on their hind legs.
The park and Devils Tower are open 24/7 year-round, except for holidays.
Trip tip: There is no camping permitted, so overnight stays are not allowed.
The entrance fee is $25 for a 1 – 7-day pass per private vehicle. However, there are many fee-free days throughout the year.
The park surged in popularity after the release of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which became a pop culture phenomenon. The movie used the monument as an important key setting in several climactic scenes and thus became more wildly known.
Hundreds of straight cracks in the monument divide it into hexagonal columns. Many visitors use these cracks for an ambitious clamber up the Tower. Climbing Devils Tower is one of the most popular activities at the monument, either as an onlooker or a climber. Hundreds of climbers register for this adventure and scale up the tall monument each summer.
The Tower is regarded as a sacred site by many Native Americans. Annually, June is a designated month with voluntary climbing closures. Climbs are restricted in number out of respect for the Native American culture and the American Indian ceremonies that frequently occur during June.
For those seeking adventures with their feet firmly on the ground, there are 5 trails throughout the park. The trails have great views of the monument and the prominent wildlife that thrives in the surrounding prairie.
7. Crazy Horse Memorial
Guest post contribution by Claire from Claire Pins Travel
The Crazy Horse Memorial is one of the world’s largest statues, which has slowly been carved into a granite mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota since 1948. The statue will eventually depict the Native American historical figure known as ‘Crazy Horse,’ who was a leader of the local Lakota people. However, Native American groups have different perspectives about the project.
It is undoubtedly a unique site to visit due to its enormous size, as it will one day stand 641 feet long and 563 feet tall (195 meters by 172 meters).
Trip tip: While you can observe the statue from the visitor’s center, you can also take a bus ride to the base of the mountain and visit the finished portion of the carving for additional fees.
The site features special events, including nighttime rock blasting, cultural and artistic presentations, and a multimedia laser show. There is also a restaurant, gift shop, and museum with artifacts, paintings, and historical items.
While the site is open all year, the best time to visit is between May and September for longer opening hours and better weather conditions.
Admission pricing during the high season from May to October is $35.00 for 3 or more people in a vehicle, $30.00 for 2 people in a vehicle, $15.00 for 1 person in a vehicle, or $10.00 per person on a motorcycle, bicycle, or walking, and there is no fee for parking. Prices are a few dollars less during the low season.
8. Custer State Park
Guest post contribution by Kris with Nomad by Trade
Custer State Park is an absolute gem located in South Dakota’s Black Hills. It is most famous for its wildlife. A large herd of buffalo is typically visible from the park’s roads. Visitors can also find a herd of friendly donkeys that love to beg for snacks along one of the many scenic drives.
Trip tip: Take a drive along the Wildlife Loop road that winds through the southern portion of the park for the best chance of spotting animals.
In the northern portion of the park, the terrain gets more rugged. Drive the Needles Highway for up-close views of spectacular rock formations. One of the formations even features a hole in the top like a needle’s eye. This area of the park is known for its narrow, one-way tunnels through the rock, some of which have mere inches of clearance for larger vehicles.
Visitors may recognize Sylvan Lake in the northern part of the park from the movie National Treasure. A small dam forms the lake, and the massive boulders and rock outcroppings along the edges make it incredibly picturesque. A short hiking trail circles the water, and boats can be rented at the lodge along its shores.
Entrance to the park costs $20 per car and provides 7 days of access. The park is open year-round, but many facilities close for the winter, so late spring through early fall is the ideal time to visit.
In late September, Custer State Park hosts a huge event called the Buffalo Roundup, when the bison herd is driven into their corrals for the winter. Expect big crowds this weekend, so plan accordingly. This is an event you don’t want to miss!
9. Bear Butte State Park
Guest post contribution by Tranquil Trekker
Bear Butte State Park is located in southwest South Dakota, near the tiny town of Sturgis. It is open throughout the year (weather permitting).
The park consists mainly of the butte—or mountain. American Indians gave the formation its name because they thought the shape reminded them of a sleeping bear. It is a “sister” volcanic plug to Devils Tower in Wyoming.
Legend says the bear who scored the sides of Devils Tower is said to have fallen asleep and formed Bear Butte.
Trip tip: This is a sacred site for many local American Indian tribes. It is common to see prayer bundles tied to trees. Please be respectful and never disturb these.
The park offers a single hiking trail to the butte’s summit that is around three miles in total length. The mountain was once covered by forest, but a fire several years ago left its sides bare. While the hike is only moderately difficult, some portions of it that cross scree slopes can feel a bit daunting to people with a fear of heights.
The park also includes a small visitor’s center and picnic area.
There is a small herd of buffalo on-site, and rattlesnakes are common when the weather is warm. These critters are essential for the local ecosystem, so be watchful for them and give them space!
10. Falls Park
Contribution by Ashlee Fechino
Though not a national park or state park, Falls Park is a beautiful city park located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Falls Park is located on the Big Sioux River. The Park is over 128 acres with unexpected views of beautiful waterfalls. Falls Park is a top outdoor attraction in Sioux Falls!
The Greenway Trail corridor is home to a 29-mile paved bike trail. Whether you live in South Dakota or are just passing through on a road trip, be sure to stop and view Falls Park and stretch your legs along the trails.
Trip tip: If you like chasing waterfalls, this is the perfect pit stop for your South Dakota road trip! You don’t want to miss it!
South Dakota is such a beautiful state full of diverse landscapes. If you love visiting national parks and state parks, you are sure to have a blast hiking and exploring South Dakota. We all hope you have a wonderful trip! South Dakota is an incredible state to explore.
Thanks for reading.
Ashlee + Pablo
Featured image credit: iStock.com/DC_Colombia
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