Exploring the Great Faces: A Guide to South Dakota Tourism

South Dakota, known for its picturesque landscapes and monumental sculptures, is a treasure trove of historical, cultural, and natural attractions. This guide takes you on a journey through the state’s most iconic sites, from the majestic faces of Mount Rushmore to the rugged beauty of the Badlands. Discover the rich heritage of the Lakota people, the thrill of outdoor adventures, and the tranquility of the state’s pristine wilderness under the stars.

Key Takeaways

  • South Dakota offers a blend of cultural history and natural beauty, with iconic landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.
  • Adventure seekers can find excitement through off-roading in the Badlands, roller coaster thrills, and personalized tours of the state’s wonders.
  • The Lakota legacy is deeply woven into the region, with opportunities to engage in traditional storytelling, music, and educational exhibits.
  • Visitors can explore geological grandeur at Badlands National Park, hike in the Black Hills Forest, or embark on a pilgrimage to Devils Tower.
  • Nighttime activities like stargazing and wildlife encounters provide unique ways to experience the awe-inspiring landscapes of South Dakota.

Monumental Marvels: The Icons of South Dakota

Mount Rushmore: The Faces of History

Carved into the granite face of the Black Hills, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial stands as a monumental tribute to four of the United States’ most influential presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. This colossal sculpture, completed in 1941 by Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln, symbolizes the birth, growth, development, and preservation of the nation.

The memorial encompasses 1,278.45 acres and includes a museum with interactive exhibits that delve into the rich narrative of the sculpture’s creation. Over two million visitors are drawn annually to this iconic site, not only to witness the grandeur of the 60-foot-high faces but also to engage with the history they represent. For those seeking a more adventurous approach, the Wrinkled Rock Climbers trailhead offers a unique vantage point and primitive camping facilities.

Visiting Mount Rushmore also provides an opportunity to explore the surrounding Black Hills region, known for its dramatic landscapes and abundant wildlife. Whether you’re marveling at the Night Illumination and Ceremony or embarking on a historical tour, the experience is sure to leave a lasting impression.

Crazy Horse Memorial: A Tribute in Stone

The Crazy Horse Memorial stands as a profound tribute to the Native American heritage and a testament to the resilience of the Lakota people. Envisioned as the world’s largest mountain carving, the memorial is still under construction, with the ultimate goal of depicting the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing into the distance.

The site is not just a colossal sculpture in progress; it’s a cultural hub that includes a visitor center, the Indian Museum of North America, and the Native American Educational & Cultural Center. Here’s a quick glance at what the complex offers:

  • A visitor center with comprehensive exhibits
  • The Indian Museum of North America, showcasing an extensive collection of art and artifacts
  • The Native American Educational & Cultural Center, providing insights into the rich history and traditions of Native Americans

Owned by the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation, the complex aims to promote cultural preservation and education. Visitors can witness the ongoing work on the sculpture and learn about the history and future aspirations of the project. The memorial not only honors the past but also looks to the future, with plans for a university and medical training center for the Native American community.

Custer State Park: Wildlife and Scenery

Nestled within the Black Hills, Custer State Park stands as a testament to the untamed beauty of South Dakota. Spanning over 71,000 acres, this park is not only the largest in the state but also a sanctuary where the American bison roam in their natural habitat. The park’s diverse landscape offers a plethora of recreational activities that cater to nature enthusiasts of all stripes.

From the comfort of your campsite at the Game Lodge Campground or Stockade North Campground, you can immerse yourself in the park’s rustic charm. Each site is equipped with essential amenities such as picnic tables, fire rings, and modern restrooms, ensuring a comfortable stay amidst the wilderness. For those seeking adventure, the park’s extensive trail network beckons. Whether you prefer hiking, horseback riding, or mountain biking, the trails provide an intimate encounter with the region’s flora and fauna.

Custer State Park also offers unique guided experiences, such as private safaris and hiking tours, allowing visitors to delve deeper into the park’s wonders. Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect:

  • PRIVATE CUSTER STATE PARK SAFARI AND HIKING TOUR
  • BIKE ADVENTURE ON THE MICKELSON TRAIL – PRIVATE
  • DAY TRIP OF THE BLACK HILLS: MOUNT RUSHMORE TO CUSTER STATE PARK!

Prices for these tours vary, but they all promise an unforgettable journey through South Dakota’s majestic landscapes. As you plan your visit, remember to Explore South Dakota’s attractions, including the wildlife encounters and scenic beauty that Custer State Park has to offer.

The Wild West Reimagined: Adventure Tours

Jeep Safaris: Off-Roading in the Badlands

Embark on an exhilarating Jeep Safari adventure through the rugged terrain of the Badlands National Park. This off-road escapade offers a unique vantage point to witness the park’s dramatic landscapes and diverse wildlife. In the comfort of an open-air jeep, you’ll traverse paths less traveled, seeking out herds of buffalo, majestic elk, and swift pronghorns.

The tours are designed to cater to various interests and group sizes, with options ranging from private backcountry explorations to full-day historical tours. Here’s a glimpse of what you can expect:

  • Private – JEEP Badlands Backcountry (Sheep Mtn/Sage Creek/Scenic) – from $449 per adult
  • Mt Rushmore “Bundle” – w/Crazy Horse/Needles/Iron Mtn-Public – from $299 per adult
  • Badlands National Park by Bicycle – Private – from $375 per adult
  • Badlands Premium Van Tour – Public – from $299 per adult

For those seeking a more comprehensive experience, the self-guided driving audio tour is available, providing cultural insights and geological wonders at your own pace. As the sun dips below the horizon, cap off your safari with a Chuck Wagon Cookout, a perfect blend of adventure and culinary delight under the South Dakota sky.

Buffalo Hunt Coaster: Thrills in the Heart of South Dakota

For those seeking an adrenaline rush amidst the natural beauty of South Dakota, the Buffalo Hunt Coaster offers a unique experience. With a single ride priced at $12 per adult, this attraction combines the excitement of a roller coaster with the rustic charm of the Black Hills. The coaster is not just a ride; it’s a journey through the region’s history, paying homage to the iconic buffalo hunts that were once a way of life here.

For visitors who can’t get enough, a Multi Ride Wristband is available for $26, allowing for unlimited thrills throughout the day. This is an excellent option for families or groups looking to make the most of their visit to the Black Hills. The coaster is a standout attraction, but it’s just one part of South Dakota’s diverse offerings, which include museums, parks, and cultural sites across Western, Central, and Eastern regions.

Ticket Type Price (Per Adult)
Single Ride $12
Multi Ride Wristband $26

Whether you’re a thrill-seeker or a history enthusiast, the Buffalo Hunt Coaster is a must-visit. It’s a perfect blend of entertainment and education, providing a glimpse into the past while delivering modern-day excitement.

Private Tours: Personalized Exploration

South Dakota’s vast landscapes and rich history offer a unique canvas for personalized exploration. Private tours provide an intimate and tailored experience, allowing visitors to delve into the areas that intrigue them most. Whether it’s a full-day adventure or a specialized half-day excursion, the options are as diverse as the state’s attractions.

From the rugged Badlands to the sacred Black Hills, private tours cater to a variety of interests. History buffs, nature enthusiasts, and cultural explorers can all find a tour that resonates with their passions. Here’s a glimpse of what you might expect:

  • Guided historical tours through the landmarks of the Old West.
  • Cycling tours along scenic routes, for those who prefer an active journey.
  • Food and drink tours to savor local flavors and culinary traditions.
  • Walking tours in the footsteps of the Lakota people, uncovering the layers of South Dakota’s heritage.

To ensure a personalized experience, it’s essential to contact tour providers in advance. This allows for a customized itinerary that aligns with your interests and time constraints. My XO Adventures, for instance, offers a range of Black Hills and Badlands Tours, promising an adventure that’s as unique as the landscapes themselves.

Cultural Crossroads: The Lakota Legacy

Lakota Storytelling and Music: An Evening of Tradition

Immerse yourself in an authentic cultural experience with an evening dedicated to Lakota storytelling and music. This event is a profound way to connect with the rich heritage of the Lakota people, as tales passed down through generations are shared around a crackling fire. The narratives, steeped in tradition, often feature themes of nature, spirituality, and the history of the Lakota tribes.

The melodic strains of the Lakota flute and the rhythmic beat of the drum accompany the stories, creating an ambiance that is both enchanting and educational. Guests are not merely spectators but become part of a living history, gaining insights into the values and beliefs that have shaped the Lakota way of life.

The experience is available for a fee, and the prices are as follows:

Experience Price per Adult (varies by group size)
Lakota Storytelling and Music $179

Reservations are recommended as this popular event tends to fill up quickly. Don’t miss the chance to partake in an evening that promises to be a highlight of your South Dakota visit.

The Fossil Exhibit: Unearthing the Past

The Fossil Exhibit in South Dakota is a testament to the state’s geological and paleontological significance. Visitors to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center can engage with the past in a hands-on environment, where the Fossil Preparation Lab offers a window into the world of the dinosaurs that roamed the area millions of years ago. Engage with park paleontologists as they meticulously uncover the secrets locked within the fossils.

The exhibit is not just about observation; it’s an educational journey that intertwines the Lakota heritage with the ancient geological wonders of the Badlands. As you traverse the region, stops like scenic overlooks and trails enrich the experience, culminating in the awe-inspiring Big Badlands Overlook.

For those with a keen interest in natural history, the Museum of Geology and The Journey Museum and Learning Center are must-visits. These institutions house exceptional displays of South Dakota fossils and offer interactive learning experiences that bring the state’s rich history to life for visitors of all ages.

Big Badlands Overlook: A Panoramic Perspective

The Big Badlands Overlook stands as a testament to the raw beauty and grandeur of South Dakota’s rugged terrain. Visitors are treated to sweeping vistas that stretch across the sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires that define the park’s landscape. This vantage point is not just a feast for the eyes; it’s a gateway to understanding the geological history that sculpted these formations over millions of years.

The Overlook is also a prime spot for those interested in the area’s rich paleontological history. The nearby Big Pig Dig, an active excavation site, allows for a hands-on experience with the park’s ancient past. Here’s a quick guide to what you can expect:

  • Active excavation site: Get a glimpse of paleontology in action.
  • Visitor center: Learn about the park’s history and the significance of the finds.
  • Camping: Stay overnight to fully immerse yourself in the Badlands experience.
  • Proximity to other parks: Explore more of South Dakota’s natural wonders.

Whether you’re a history buff, nature enthusiast, or simply seeking a picturesque spot to reflect, the Big Badlands Overlook offers an unparalleled experience. As you gaze out over the Badlands, take a moment to appreciate the intertwining of natural beauty and historical depth that makes this place truly special.

Nature’s Canvas: The Landscapes of South Dakota

Badlands National Park: Geological Grandeur

Nestled in the rugged heart of southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park offers a stark and beautiful contrast to the typical American landscape. Spanning 242,756 acres, this national treasure is a testament to the power of natural forces, sculpting a terrain of dramatic rock formations, steep canyons, and towering spires over millions of years.

The park is not only a geological wonder but also a haven for wildlife. Visitors may encounter bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs among the sprawling grasslands. For those interested in the rich tapestry of American history, the park provides a window into the Lakota heritage, with trails and overlooks that narrate the story of native tribes and homesteaders.

One of the park’s most accessible attractions is the Fossil Exhibit Trail, a boardwalk that showcases the area’s paleontological history. For a more immersive experience, the self-guided driving audio tour encapsulates the park’s essence, combining stunning vistas with educational content about the Lakota people and the park’s geological significance.

  • Fossil Exhibit Trail: A journey through time
  • Badlands Loop Road: Scenic lookouts and vistas
  • Wildlife Encounters: Bison, pronghorns, and bighorn sheep
  • Lakota Heritage: Insights into the rich cultural past

Whether you’re seeking solitude in the vastness of the Badlands or eager to learn about the area’s history and culture, Badlands National Park is a destination that promises an unforgettable adventure.

Black Hills Forest: A Hiker’s Haven

Nestled in the heart of South Dakota, the Black Hills National Forest is a sanctuary for outdoor enthusiasts and hikers alike. With its lush forests, granite peaks, and clear streams, it’s a place where nature’s beauty is on full display. The forest offers a diverse range of trails, catering to both the casual walker and the seasoned trekker.

For those looking to explore the best hiking trails the Black Hills have to offer, here’s a list that’s sure to enhance your adventure:

  • Little Devils Tower + Black Elk Peak: A challenging yet rewarding hike with panoramic views.
  • Devils Bathtub Trail: A unique hike leading to a natural stone bathtub.
  • Roughlock Falls + Spearfish Falls Loop, Spearfish Canyon: A scenic loop that showcases stunning waterfalls.
  • Crow Peak, Spearfish: A hike that offers a mix of terrain and spectacular vistas.

Whether you’re setting up camp at a site like Echo Valley Park Campground, close to Custer City, or embarking on a half-day tour of the Black Hills, the forest’s trails provide an unforgettable experience. Iron Creek Horse Camp, located 13 miles south of Custer, is a perfect spot for those who prefer to explore on horseback, with equestrian sites and corrals available. Remember to respect the natural habitat and leave no trace as you enjoy the splendor of South Dakota’s treasured wilderness.

Devils Tower: A Climber’s Pilgrimage

Rising majestically above the Wyoming prairie, Devils Tower is not just a geological wonder but also a climber’s sanctuary. Known for its unique columnar basalt formations, this monolith has become a must-visit for avid climbers seeking a challenging ascent amidst breathtaking views. Climbers from around the globe converge here to test their skills and endurance against the tower’s sheer walls.

The climbing routes at Devils Tower cater to various skill levels, ranging from beginner-friendly ascents to expert-only pitches. For those looking to embark on this climbing pilgrimage, here’s a quick guide to what you can expect:

  • Preparation: Ensure you’re well-equipped with the necessary gear and check weather conditions before your climb.
  • Permits: Climbing permits are required and can be obtained at the visitor center.
  • Guided Tours: For those less experienced, guided climbs are available and offer a safer way to enjoy the experience.
  • Wildlife: Be mindful of the local wildlife and respect their habitat during your visit.

While the climb itself is a draw for many, the cultural significance of Devils Tower should not be overlooked. It is a sacred site to many Northern Plains tribes, and climbers are asked to voluntarily refrain from climbing during the month of June out of respect for Native American cultural practices. Whether you’re scaling its heights or simply soaking in its grandeur from the base, Devils Tower promises an unforgettable adventure.

Under the Stars: Nighttime in the Great Faces

Badlands Sunset, Stars and Silhouettes Tour

As the sun dips below the horizon, the Badlands transform into an otherworldly landscape, making the Badlands Sunset, Stars and Silhouettes Tour an unforgettable experience. This tour offers a unique opportunity to witness the stark beauty of the desert as it’s bathed in the warm glow of a setting sun, followed by the emergence of a brilliant night sky.

The tour is not just about the visuals; it’s a sensory and educational journey. As darkness envelops the Badlands, the night comes alive with the sounds of nature and the sky reveals constellations and celestial stories. Local guides, well-versed in astronomy and the natural history of the region, enhance the experience with their knowledge, making this tour a must-do for visitors.

Here’s a quick look at some tour options and their starting prices:

Tour Name Price per Adult (USD)
Badlands Sunset, Stars and Silhouettes Tour $329
Private Tour of the Badlands with Local Experts $400
Badlands Sunset and Wildlife Adventure $239
NEW! Sunrise Tour of the Badlands $289

Prices vary by group size, and it’s worth noting that these tours are likely to sell out. Booking in advance is highly recommended to secure your spot for this magical evening adventure.

Stargazing at Sylvan Lake: A Celestial Experience

Sylvan Lake offers one of the most serene and clear settings for stargazing in South Dakota. Away from the city lights, the night sky reveals a tapestry of stars that captivate both amateur and seasoned astronomers. The lake’s still waters reflect the constellations, adding to the magic of the experience.

Visitors can join ranger-led programs that are available during the peak season, providing insights into the celestial wonders overhead. Telescopes are often provided, allowing for an up-close view of distant galaxies and nebulae. These programs are not only educational but also offer a unique way to connect with the natural world after dark.

For those who prefer a more solitary experience, the surrounding areas of Sylvan Lake provide ample space for setting up personal telescopes or simply lying back on a blanket to take in the vastness of the universe. Remember to check the lunar calendar before planning your visit, as a new moon phase will ensure the darkest skies and the best stargazing conditions.

To enhance your nighttime adventure, consider staying at one of the local campgrounds or lodges. This allows for an extended experience, giving you the chance to witness the night sky’s transformation throughout the evening. For a complete list of accommodations and attractions, including wildlife encounters and historic landmarks, visit the South Dakota tourism website.

Evening Wildlife Encounters: Nature’s Nocturnes

As the sun dips below the horizon, South Dakota’s nocturnal wildlife begins to stir. Evening Wildlife Encounters offer a unique chance to observe animals in their natural settings under the cover of night. This experience is not just about seeing wildlife, but also about understanding the intricate balance of the ecosystem.

The tour is designed to be both educational and engaging, providing insights into the behaviors and habitats of the creatures you’ll encounter. Guests can expect to enjoy animal encounters and activities that are both informative and thrilling. An evening snack is often included, allowing for a comfortable and leisurely experience as you traverse the park after dark.

Here’s what to expect on your nocturnal adventure:

  • A guided tour that takes you through different overlooks, each offering a unique perspective of the park’s wildlife.
  • The opportunity to engage with the rich history of the region, including the Lakota legacy, as you explore.
  • A chance to witness the majestic bald eagle and other bird species, which are particularly active during the evening hours.

Remember to dress warmly and bring a sense of adventure as you embark on this unforgettable journey into the heart of South Dakota’s wilderness at night.

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Great Faces. Great Places.

South Dakota is an incredibly unique state in that each region offers a completely different experience then the others. Check out each of the regions to see what each has to offer!

Badlands

Western South Dakota

Featuring the Black Hills, Badlands, the Sturgis Rally. This region tends to be the most popular.

CENTRAL REGION

This region of South Dakota offers some of the best hunting and fishing in the entire central US. 

Eastern Region

The eastern region is home to the largest city in the state and provides visitors with a true "prairie" experience.