It’s no secret that I’m a fan of South Dakota. And I was really looking forward to showing it off to the #AdventurePartner on our Nebraska & Dakotas road trip. I imagine folks who’ve never visited the state would have zero idea exactly how many exceptional things to do in South Dakota there are. But, yeah… it’s a bit like finding things to do in Nebraska—a very pleasant surprise. If you don’t know, you just don’t know.
So, I’ve outlined the most awesome things that we explored. (Or, in the case of the caves, that you need to explore. More on that later.) This is by no means comprehensive, and it has some fairly basic items listed. But I did what I do, and I sprinkled a few lesser-known things to do in there, too. If there’s one thing I can say about South Dakota, it’s that it might be one of the more underrated states to visit in my book.
Visit Some Massive American Monuments At Mount Rushmore & Crazy Horse
I mean… you have to, right? Sights like Mount Rushmore really aren’t for me. I am not a fan of overly commercialized places that are mobbed with tourists. At all. But it is a national park. And, for that, it deserves my support. (It also has my coveted National Park Passport stamp.)
It’s one of those places that… if you’re “out that way,” you should just go check the box. Did you even know there’s a Hall of Records carved in the back of Lincoln’s head? I’ll bet you didn’t.
What excites me far more “out that way” is the Crazy Horse Memorial. Now, there is so much history in this region, it’s impossible to break it all down right here. But long story short, after the Lakota massacre at Fort Robinson, Standing Bear learned that a memorial for his brother, Crazy Horse, was supposedly going to be erected there.
Standing Bear was basically like, “Awe, hell no, White man. He’s getting a memorial in our spiritual lands of the Black Hills. And it needs to be as large in scale as Mount Rushmore. Because “…the Red man has great heroes also.”” And it’s happening. Technically, it’s still in the works, but when completed, will be the largest sculpture in. the. world.
Explore The Underworld At Wind Cave & Jewel Cave National Parks
I cry because we didn’t actually get to see either of these in person. If you can believe it, they were closed not because of a global pandemic, but because both of them, on the same day were getting their elevators fixed. And it was the one day we were slated to visit them. So you’ll just have to go and tell me how it is. Until I get out there myself.
Anyhow, yes, right near Mount Rushmore are two more nationally-renowned sights—Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world (200 mapped miles thus far). And Wind Cave, while also one of the largest, is one of the oldest, too, at over 300 million years old. Not to mention, it boasts a lot of a super rare rock formation type known as “boxwork.”
Get Lost At Badlands National Park
Okay, don’t actually get lost in a national park (or any park, for that matter), but Badlands is a small-ish national park in the overall scheme of national park sizes. This makes it a very easy park to do a couple of different hikes in, in a single day. Or to participate in a really cool hike without having to hike back-country distances. It’s easy to get lost in the awesomeness of this park without actually getting lost in it.
People who know of Badlands love it, but a lot more people are unfamiliar with how cool it is. It just might be one of my favs, folks. It’s this otherworldly landscape with a sort of very severe terrain. Super cool rock formations and explosions of color. And lots of wildlife right out in the open.
We did two easy trails during our visit—the Notch and Door Trails. Notch has a 50-foot wooden ladder you have to climb partway through it. It sounds a little hairy, but it’s really not bad at all. And you can crawl down the rocks on the side of the ladder on the way back down (bring gloves).
The Door Trail was incredible. If I make a recommendation, it’s to do the whole thing and not simply stop at the end of the boardwalk or halfway through. At the end of it, you’re staring into a badlands canyon. And there’s nothing quite like it.
While You’re Out There, Visit Wall Drug & Badlands Ranch Store
If you haven’t heard of it (or seen the bumper stickers), Wall Drug is the western equivalent of South of the Border. You’ll see billboards announcing its presence for hundreds(?) of miles. And it’s quirky and fun and provides a central area to eat and shop and stay right outside of Badlands in Wall, South Dakota. It’s basically a whole bunch of connected Ponderosa-style rooms with tourist tchotchkes, art and crafts, and snacks.
Badlands Ranch Store is at the eastern entrance/exit of the park, right off Highway 90. It has a giant prairie dog statue right out front, so… kind of hard to miss. But, I had the time of my life there because you can buy peanuts to feed the prairie dogs!
Beware, though, because they are greedy and sneaky. And don’t touch them because they carry plague; they will eat right out of your hand if you let them. I’d literally be focused on feeding one to turn around and have another not even a foot away from me.
Drive Needles Eye Tunnel In Black Hills National Forest
Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park. They all kind of merge together in that general vicinity. And, if you’re driving anywhere in that area, you won’t be able to miss the “Needles” everywhere. They’re granite spires jutting out of the ground. Lots of them. Makes for a great drive. But hope you don’t get car sick.
The best part of it is the Needles Eye Tunnel. It’s not the only tunnel you’ll have to wait your turn and drive through on Needles Highway, but it’s definitely the best one. It’ll be a touch white-knuckle if you have a particularly large vehicle, but whole buses have made their way through it, so… you can, too. (You got this.)
Minuteman Missile Historic Site
So… did you know… that at one point in time (not so long ago), the United States had over 150 secret, nuclear, intercontinental ballistic missile sites? Buried in over 13,000 square miles of South Dakota? For 30 years? Well, we did. During the Cold War. Right up until Bush 1 and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991.
They’ve all been dismantled except for two, which have been disarmed and put on display. You can stop by the Visitor’s Center, which has a pretty comprehensive exhibit. Get your National Parks Passport stamp. Then, listen to a self-guided audio tour on your phone as you wander around a legit missile silo with an actual missile in it (again, unarmed).
South Dakota just seems like the kinda state that 150 nuclear missiles would be hiding, right? Like another Area 51, but… not? Nowadays, everybody just openly knows that our 450 other nuclear missiles are in Minot, North Dakota and Warren, Wyoming. The US is pretty transparent about it. Like, newsflash: The United States is heavily armed.
Get Blessed At The Chapel In The Hills…
Another super random sight in South Dakota? A Scandinavian church in the middle of the Black Hills. It’s an exact replica of the famed Borgund Stavkirke in Laerdal, Norway and was built to honor the large Norwegian Lutheran population that settled in the Dakotas.
Supposedly, you can get married there, but it doesn’t look like you can bring much of anything into the chapel or decorate in any standard “wedding kind of way” there. There’s like a laundry list of “no“ on their site, which kind of makes me chuckle. Just say what you need to say and get out.
I’ll be honest, there’s not a whole lot to see. There’s a gift shop, a museum, and a prayer walk. But it’s some really pretty architecture to marvel at for a moment. It’s easily accessible. And certainly not something you see everyday.
…Before Your Spooky Stay In Rapid City’s Hotel Alex Johnson
After a peaceful visit to the Chapel In The Hills, spend the night in the most haunted hotel in South Dakota—Hotel Alex Johnson. And, despite the hotel’s infamous reputation, there are a bagillion reasons it’s a great place to stay.
It’s fairly recently renovated and gorgeous, for one. It has a Starbucks and two bars, including one rooftop bar. It’s incredibly affordable, literally less than $60 per night in December. (I think it was $80 per night when we stayed in September.) It’s centrally located in Rapid City. Even the city’s known art alleyway is the side of the hotel.
Now, you should know this place is reported to be so haunted, it was even featured on the SyFy Channel’s “Ghost Hunters.” And they said… it’s true. People report seeing apparitions of a lady in white, a young girl, and even Alex Johnson himself. If you so dare, you can request an official Ghost Adventure package. It includes stay in one of the well-known haunted rooms, dining and valet credits, and K2 meter (ghost detector!).
Other Things To Do In South Dakota?
What’d I miss, folks? I’ve covered most of western and some of central South Dakota, but northern and eastern are wide open for additions here. Comment away with all the amazing things to do in South Dakota, or email me via my Contact page with more suggestions. I’d love to hear them. I doubt this will be my last visit to this incredible state and I’m always looking for new and interesting things to do. The less well-known, the better.