Mount Rushmore
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10 Best Things To Do In South Dakota For First Time Visitors

If Mount Rushmore isn’t on your bucket list, add it because of all the South Dakota attractions it is the best to see! South Dakota is a trip I kept putting off because I didn’t think there was much to see there. Boy, was I wrong! I was amazed at the beauty of this state and the many things to do in South Dakota!

I only wish I had taken this trip much earlier as there are numerous places to visit in South Dakota especially if you are a nature lover.

Let’s just say this won’t be my last trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota and one I am sure you will enjoy. Get ready for an adventure and explore the best places to stay in Keystone!

Seeing Mount Rushmore is one of the best things to do in South Dakota
Entrance to the iconic Mount Rushmore

Where Is South Dakota?

South Dakota is a state in the United States in the Western half but officially considered in the Midwest region. South Dakota is a landlocked state with North Dakota to the north of it and only North Dakota as the barrier to Canada.

In total, South Dakota is surrounded by 6 states which are North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota. The state was named after the Dakota Native American tribes who made up the majority of the population at the time.

The area where many of the South Dakota attractions mentioned here are located is in the region called the Black Hills of South Dakota. Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Park are a few sights in the Black Hills.

Tip: If you plan to visit several of the U.S. National Parks during the year, consider purchasing the America Is Beautiful Pass. It gives you access to 2,000 National Parks and Monuments including the Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park!

The America Is Beautiful Pass is good for one year from purchase and also includes 3 other adults that are in your car. If you just visit 3 or more national parks or monuments it is worth buying and pure savings after that!

How to Get There

The closest airport is in Rapid City (RAP) which is about a 45-minute drive to Keystone (Mount Rushmore). I flew into Denver International Airport (DEN) in Colorado as I wanted to use reward points via Southwest Airlines.

Start planning for your trip to South Dakota and explore the best flight deals today!

Other cities to consider when looking for the best fare would be Cheyenne, WY and Billings, MT. From Denver, it is easy to rent a car and drive about 6 hours with some stops closer to 8 hours.

But overall it wasn’t bad as it is a beautiful drive the whole way! Whichever airport you fly into, search and book the best deals on a rental car here!

To book your airfare to South Dakota, go to Skyscanner to compare the best flight deals available!

Best Time To Visit South Dakota

South Dakota has four distinct seasons and for that reason, I recommend visiting during the spring, summer, and fall months. May through the beginning of November is ideal as you have excellent weather to explore the many trails, camping, and many natural wonders.

To avoid the crowds then stick to spring and fall to enjoy the tranquility of this beautiful land. There are chances of rain in the spring and early summer, so make sure to bring a rain jacket just in case.

During the winter months, it can get very cold with freezing temperatures, snow, and many attractions not open.

Note: Mount Rushmore is open year-round if you want to photograph it in winter but beware you won’t be able to see or do much else at that time.

Cell Service Tip

At the time of my visit, my cell service did not function the entire time in South Dakota and I have Sprint service. After asking locals, Verizon is the best carrier for the area followed by AT&T. So, if you don’t have one of those carriers, make sure you have directions and a physical map to navigate around.

The Mount Rushmore Presidents

So who exactly are the faces of the four guys up on Mount Rushmore? They are the founding fathers of the United States and were thought to represent major events in America’s start. The choice was that of the sculptor and his vision of their importance.

Close up view of George Washington
Close up view of George Washington

In going from left to right, George Washington is the first head you will see and he was the very first president of the United States in the late 1770s. The second head belongs to Thomas Jefferson who was the third president of the United States and the main author of the Declaration of Independence.

The third face you see is that of Theodore Roosevelt who was the 26th president of the U.S. and he was instrumental in the significant growth of the country and was passionate about the natural lands of America. It was he who established the first national parks, monuments, and preserves in the United States.

The founding fathers of the U.S.
The founding fathers of the U.S.

Lastly, the fourth face is that of Abraham Lincoln who was the 16th president of America and is a national hero for his fight against slavery during the Civil War. It was under his leadership that slavery was abolished.

South Dakota Attractions

1. Mount Rushmore (Keystone)

Mount Rushmore should be on every person’s USA bucket list and is the most popular place to visit in South Dakota. The making of Mount Rushmore took 14 years to complete by the sculptor Gutzon Borglum with completion in 1941.

It is such an iconic symbol of the founding fathers of America and truly an impressive sight. It is located about 10 mins from the town of Keystone, South Dakota and $11 per car to park. There is no entrance fee other than parking.

Mount Rushmore presidents up close and personal!
Mount Rushmore presidents up close and personal!

I highly recommend seeing Mount Rushmore both in the early morning and evening if you can. If you happen to be short on time, make sure to see Mount Rushmore presidents in the morning. The sun is shining on the president’s faces making for great photos.

At sunset, the faces are in the shadows. For up to date info, check the website for hours. From spring through fall, you can get in as early as 5:00 am which is a great way to beat the crowds.

View of Mount Rushmore from the Presidential Loop path in Keystone, South Dakota.
View of Mount Rushmore from the Presidential Loop

There is a movie in the visitor center that has an overview of the making and history of the carving. To get a close-up view of the president’s faces, take a stroll on the ½ mile Presidential Loop.

The first part of the loop is paved making it great for strollers or wheelchairs. Recommend spending 2-3 hours at Mount Rushmore to take it all in!

Looking at Mount Rushmore through the tunnel on Iron Mountain Road.
Mount Rushmore peeping through a tunnel on Iron Mt. Road

Tip:  After leaving Mount Rushmore, turn right out of the park and after a ½ mile, there is a turnout. From here you can get a great shot of Washington’s profile.

For a different view of Mount Rushmore, you can get a glimpse through the tunnels on Iron Mountain Road. You can’t miss these spots as there will likely be many others stopped as well!

2. Custer State Park (Needles Highway)

Custer State Park is minutes away from Mount Rushmore and something you can easily do on the same day. The park is quite stunning and will grab your attention with its towers of rock spires jutting up to create quite an unusual landscape.

Beautiful rock spires along the Needles Highway in Custer State Park.
Beautiful rock spires along the scenic Needles Highway

Give yourself plenty of time to drive the scenic roads in the park, as there is so much to see. The main routes to wander are Iron Mountain Road, Wildlife Loop Road, and the Needles Highway.

From different points along Iron Mountain Road, there are perfect photo opportunities to view Mount Rushmore framed through the tunnels.

There are many chances for you to see deer, buffalo, wild turkeys, and goats while driving on the Wildlife Loop. Above all, be especially careful around dusk as the deer tend to be active and on the roads then!

Driving the winding Needles Highway in Custer State Park in South Dakota.
Driving the winding Needles Highway in Custer State Park

The Needles Highway is a 14-mile stretch of curving road that offers a non-stop photo opportunity. You will get the chance to capture the spires and tunnels throughout.

The highlight is driving through the tunnel to see the Needle’s Eye on the other side which like its name, looks like the eye of a needle!

As far as natural formations and landscapes go, Custer State Park is the most beautiful region in the Black Hills.

If you have worked up an appetite, grab a buffalo burger at Black Hills Burger and Bun Co., as the burgers are excellent. Both beef and buffalo are available.

Entering the tunnel on the Needles Highway to see the famous rock spire, The Needle's Eye.
Entering the tunnel on the Needles Highway to see the famous rock spire, The Needle’s Eye

Tip: Go early, as there is only one lane each way. And if you want to be able to pull over every 5 ft as I did, then I suggest going early to beat the crowds! Oh, and fold in your side mirrors when going through the Needle Eye Tunnel just in case…

3. Crazy Horse Memorial

About 30 minutes from Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial and is considered the world’s largest mountain carving in progress.

Close-up view of Crazy Horse's face
Close-up view of Crazy Horse’s face

The sculpture began in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski who had previously worked on Mount Rushmore prior to starting this challenge. Today the task of carving is being carried out by his family here in South Dakota.

View of Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota. The largest mountain carving in progress.
Crazy Horse Memorial

Once completed, the statue will showcase “Crazy Horse”, the leader of the Lakota Indians riding his horse. Since there is no actual photo of Crazy Horse, the statue represents a tribute to him and all Native Americans, not just the Lakota.

Today, only the head of Crazy Horse is complete, taking about 100 years to fully complete.

The Crazy Horse Memorial in progress.
Crazy Horse Memorial up close while on the bus ride

Although it is privately funded I don’t quite get why it will take beyond my lifetime to complete. I won’t say more but judge for yourself after visiting and see what you think.

After visiting, you will notice quite a rivalry with Mount Rushmore. This seems silly as they are both spectacular in their own way and are both worth seeing.

Looking at the Crazy Horse Memorial from the visitors center.
Getting a glimpse of the Crazy Horse Memorial from the visitors center

It’s a bit on the pricey side at $10 per person to get in and an additional $4 to take the old school bus ride up near the base of the mountain carving to get a closer view.

However, I recommend taking the bus especially if you want to get some good close-up photos of Crazy Horse.

If you have time check out the cultural center with a short movie on the making of the memorial. And there is also a restaurant with outdoor seating offering great views of the statue.

4. Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument is a 20-minute drive from the town of Custer, South Dakota and is the third-longest cave in the world. It is close to moving back to the number two spot with about 200 miles explored so far.

The cave gets its name Jewel Cave because the cave is lined with calcite crystals that resemble jewels and is quite beautiful to see.

Inside the underground caves at the Jewel Cave National Monument near Custer, South Dakota.
Inside the underground caves at the Jewel Cave National Monument

The most popular tour to take in the caves is the Scenic Tour, that is close to 90 minutes. It is a fairly easy walk, but there are a number of stairs and low lighting, so keep that in mind.

In total, you will walk a ½ mile loop with your tour guide seeing different areas of the cave system.

If you happen to be there during the summer, take the Historic Lantern Tour. It is said to be a very cool tour and takes you to the area near the original opening.

A close up of calcite crystal formation inside the underground caves at the Jewel Cave National Monument near Custer, South Dakota.
A close up of calcite crystal formation inside the underground caves

Most importantly, tickets can sell out during the summer so if you are set on a particular day, book ahead for the Scenic Tour at 10 am or 2 pm ($12 adults). All other times you can purchase onsite.

Tip: There are no bags of any kind allowed, so leave everything but your camera in the car. Plan on bringing an extra jacket or layer to keep warm as it can be much cooler underground.

5. Badlands National Park

Driving east from Keystone, the landscape completely changes drastically over the hour and 45 minutes on the way to the Badlands Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It literally felt like I was on another planet, with such odd and beautiful rock formations.

Start out at the visitor center, to get a map and info on the park. There are no gas stations along the way, so gas up before leaving the Keystone/ Rapid City area!

Striated rock formations in the Badlands National Park.
Striated rock formations in the Badlands National Park

After leaving the visitor center turn right and head up to Notch Trail, Door Trail, and the Badlands Overlook before venturing through the rest of the park. There are many hiking opportunities in the area but don’t miss Notch Trail which is rated as moderate/difficult.

Mainly due to uneven terrain and a log ladder that you climb to a “notch” with a view of the Badlands below. I asked people on the way if it was worth it and they all said, “keep going” and I am glad that I did! On the other hand, Door Trail is short, easy, and still has great views of the rock formations.

Hiking Notch Trail in the Badlands National Park.
Hiking Notch Trail in the Badlands National Park

Before heading to the Badlands Loop Road, stop at the Cedar Pass Lodge for some lunch which has the best Indian fry bread or what they call a Sioux Indian taco! They are huge so I recommend splitting…

After enjoying an Indian taco, get ready to appreciate the changing landscape while driving on the 30 mile Badlands Loop Road to the town of Wall.

Although there are a ton of places to stop and take photos, don’t miss stopping at Yellow Mounds Overlook and Pinnacles Overlook!

The colorful yellow mounds at Yellow Mounds Overlook in the Badlands National Park.
Colorful yellow mounds at Yellow Mounds Overlook

A trip to the Badlands wouldn’t be complete without stopping at Wall Drug in the town of Wall. It is one of those odd but fun roadside attractions in the middle of nowhere that is worth visiting at least once.

It started out as a pharmacy and evolved into the addition of a restaurant, gift shops, stores, and quite the strange attractions such as a huge jackalope and T-rex just to name a few…

A giant jackelope at the Wall Drug Store in Wall, South Dakota.
The giant jackalope you can ride at the wacky Wall Drug!

Tips: Along the Badlands Loop Road keep your eyes open for tons of Prairie Dogs (near the mounds they create), goats and buffalo. There is a great chance of seeing many Buffalo out near Sage Creek off Rim Road before going on to Wall.

If you plan to visit several of the U.S. National Parks during the year, consider purchasing the America Is Beautiful Pass.

It gives you access to 2,000 National Parks and Monuments including the Badlands National Park!

Badland National Park rock formations.
Beautiful view of striated rock formations of the Badlands…

Location: The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is located at 25216 SD-240, Interior, SD 57750

6. Spearfish, Deadwood & Sturgis

These three towns create a large loop that you can easily visit in one day or stay longer to camp and explore the smaller towns in between. Plenty of hiking, fishing and camping in the region to keep you busy for days.

Bridal Veil Falls near Spearfish, South Dakota.
Bridal Veil Falls near Spearfish

Other than the two-week motorcycle rally in August, there isn’t much to see or do in Sturgis. I had always heard so much hype over the rally, so I was a little disappointed to see it was pretty dead. Maybe one day I will go back to participate in the rally!  😊

Beautiful river near Bridal Falls
Beautiful river near Bridal Falls

After leaving Sturgis, head to the town of Spearfish taking the scenic drive loop towards Savoy, Lead and finally up to Deadwood. Don’t forget to stop to see some waterfalls along the way such as Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls.

The town of Deadwood is famous for its history of the gold rush days and famous wild west characters such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Today it’s like stepping back in time and has many casinos for entertainment!

7. Devils Tower

Ok, so I know what you’re thinking, Devils Tower is in Wyoming and not South Dakota… True, but its right across the border into Wyoming about an hour west from Spearfish and shouldn’t be missed!

If you have ever seen the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), the tower might seem familiar.

Devils Tower rock formation with spring flowers.
Devils Tower in the spring!

Devils Tower can be seen from miles away giving a perspective of how large it is. After entering the park, it is $20 per car before driving up to where the visitor center is located.

Looking up at the rock columns that make up Devils Tower.
Looking up at the rock columns that make up Devils Tower

There are multiple stories behind the creation of Devils Tower. The most likely is that millions of years ago molten magma was forced up into the rocks and as it cooled, fractured into many columns that make up the tower.

After years of erosion, the tower was exposed to what we see today. Tower Trail is the most popular trail making a 1.3-mile loop around Devils Tower showcasing awesome views from different angles. If you are lucky, you will get to see climbers scaling the tower!

Rock climbers climbing Devils Tower in Wyoming.
Rock climbers climbing Devils Tower in Wyoming

Fun Fact:  Devils Tower was the first national monument in the United States, established by President Roosevelt in 1906.

8. Prairie Berry Winery

If you like wines and wine tasting, then look no further than the Prairie Berry Winery. Who knew South Dakota had good wine? I couldn’t pass up a winery especially one that has a wine called, Red Ass Rhubarb!

Much of my wine tasting has been in Oregon and California, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that the tasting was free.

Wine tasting at Prairie Berry Winery. They offer the Red Ass Rhubarb wine which is sweet and delicious.
Wine anyone?

The winery is located in Hill City about 15 mins from Keystone or Mount Rushmore. And it is a great way to end a day of site seeing especially as they have a restaurant on site.

And for those that are not fans of wine, next door is the Mining Brewing Company. This was not one of the things to do in South Dakota that I had expected but loved!

Front of the Prairie Berry Winery.
Prairie Berry Winery and home of the Red Ass Rhubarb wine!

I’m partial to red wines, so my favorites were Pheasant Reserve, 3Rednecks and of course the Red Ass Rhubarb. The Red Ass Rhubarb wine is actually made from rhubarb and has received several awards for its yummy taste!

9. Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave is located south of Custer State Park and is one of the longest caves in the world, currently in 6th place. Guided tours are available to see the network of caves below. Above ground, visitors can get the opportunity to see buffalo, elk, and deer roaming throughout the park.

There are several tours available but unless you are in a large group, tickets are purchased onsite the day of your visit.

The only tours that can be booked in advance are the Candlelight and Wild Cave Tours which are both considered to be strenuous. All tours range between $10 – $30 for adults.

Tip: If you plan to visit several of the U.S. National Parks during the year, consider purchasing the America Is Beautiful Pass. It gives you access to 2,000 National Parks and Monuments including the Wind Cave National Park!

10. Mammoth Site

The Mammoth Site is located in Hot Springs, SD and is both a museum and an excavation site revealing bones of woolly mammoths. It is the largest site of its kind in the world.

There is a high concentration of mammoth remains here because the area is thought to have been a large sinkhole formed 26,000 years ago and sadly many mammoths got stuck in it. So far there are 61 mammoths that have been discovered.

If time allows, take a soak in the nearby hot spring mineral waters of Evan Plunge Mineral Springs, which is open year-round.

Where to Stay In South Dakota

The best area to stay in this part of South Dakota is in or near Keystone, SD as it is central to many attractions. If you want to camp, there are several camping spots to choose from such as Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, KOA Mt. Rushmore, and the Badlands.

Buffalo Rock Lodge

In most of my travels, I have mostly stayed in hotels, but the Buffalo Rock Lodge B&B surpassed my expectations. It is located perfectly a few minute’s drive from downtown Keystone, SD, and Mount Rushmore. In fact, you can directly see Mount Rushmore while lounging on the back deck of the lodge.

Front porch of the Buffalo Rock Lodge B&B in Keystone, South Dakota.
Buffalo Rock Lodge B&B in Keystone

The lodge itself is beautifully built and especially enjoyed the company of owner Marilyn Oakes who offers such great info on the history of the area. If you’re in need of suggestions on where to go or eat, Marilyn has you covered!

Inside the cozy living room of the Buffalo Rock Lodge B&B.
The cozy living room of the Buffalo Rock Lodge B&B

If the Buffalo Rock Lodge B&B is booked then I recommend staying at:

Elk Ridge Bed & Breakfast

K Bar S Lodge

Holiday Inn Express & Suites Keystone

Ramada by Wyndham Keystone

Tip: If you are going during the summer months, book in advance!

Enjoy your road trip exploring the best things to do in South Dakota!

Got Travel Insurance?

I had always heard that it was wise to get travel insurance before going on a vacation. But I always thought that would be extra money to spend and not needed as my medical coverage would be enough. Well, I am here to tell you that I was wrong to ignore those recommendations! Granted for most trips, nothing goes wrong but it just takes one bad accident or hospital visit to change your perspective.

On a trip to Panama, I traveled with both of my parents. Long story short, my dad got severe pneumonia, could barely walk, and struggled to breathe. He was hospitalized for four days and it was the scariest few days. In the end, he was treated and we were on our way again but we lost out on a lot.

Because we had to cancel excursions and activities, we were out that money. For treatment, my dad had to pay out of pocket and he never got reimbursed by his health insurance! Since this trip, let’s just say I will always purchase World Nomads travel insurance for all those normal and random things that can go wrong. I have since used World Nomads and have been very happy with their service. It is worth the peace of mind knowing that myself and my loved ones will be covered!

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Have you always wanted to visit the iconic Mount Rushmore in South Dakota? Nothing better than taking a road trip in South Dakota’s Black Hills, the Badlands and Keystone to name a few. Follow this guide to find out the best things to do and see in South Dakota!

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10 Comments

  1. South Dakota is absolutely one of our favorite states! You’ve really covered some of the best things in South Dakota. Agreed on Devils Tower, its a must! I think people forget there is so much more than Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota. Love your pictures of Needles Highway!

    1. Thank you Nicole! 🙂 Yes, South Dakota is definitely underrated. I only wish I had decided to go earlier and plan to go back. So glad you agree on including Devils Tower as a must too!

  2. I loved this post! I want to visit Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, but we always put it off because there aren’t as many “other” things to do. You’ve inspired me with your list! The state is so under-rated, but there is so much beauty there!

    1. Thank you so much! I’m so happy to hear that you are excited to visit South Dakota now! There really is so much to do especially if you like the outdoors. Both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are quite impressive to see at least once! 🙂

  3. Omg, there is sooooo much to see!

    I have always wanted to see the Devils Tower (even more than Mount Rushmore) but for some reason I didn’t know that they were so close! South Dakota looks like a fantastic place to hike and really experience the wilderness (I mean, as well as driving to see all the sights you mentioned!) 😉

    1. I was just as surprised as you were as to how much there is to see in South Dakota. Devils Tower is so close to all the sights in South Dakota that it works out well to include it! I hope you get to see Devils Tower soon. 🙂

  4. I loved Living in South Dakota! It was only for three months during my summer away from uni but it was a pretty cool place. The black hills are just stunning

    1. Oh wow! That would be an amazing experience to live there for a few months. Yes, the Black Hills and South Dakota have a lot to offer for all their outdoor beauty! I would like to go back and do some hiking there next time.:)

  5. I like the valuable info you provide in your articles.

    I will bookmark your blog and check again here regularly.

    I am quite certain I will learn a lot of new stuff right here!

    Best of luck for the next!

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