South Dakota is the 40th state that has been admitted to the Union of the United States. The National Park Service administers two national parks in this state – Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park. These two allow for the exploration of a vast cave system and the colorful landscape typical of South Dakota. Wind Cave National Park is a must-see for bison lovers as it shelters around 400 of them.
The state comes with a rich history that can’t wait to be discovered. Its first inhabitants were of Paleoindian origin and lived in what is now South Dakota up until around 5000 BC. It can also be a great place to visit because the state has a lot of different areas, geology, and topography.
Naturally, all of the above can be encountered by visiting at least one of the national parks, historic trails, monuments, or state parks. If you happen to be in South Dakota, make sure you get to see some!
1. Badlands National Park
|Badlands National Park|
|Location||Southwestern South Dakota|
|Animals to spot||Badgers, bighorn sheep, bison, black-footed ferrets, coyotes, bobcats, porcupines|
|Attractions to see||Notch Trail, Badlands Wall, Pinnacles Overlook|
Badlands National Park is known as “the land of stone and light.” It features unique, rugged landscapes that are more than just a rare sight. The park is managed by the National Park Service and consists of the Stronghold District and the Badlands Wilderness. This is a 64,144-acre wilderness area that shelters one of the most endangered animals, the black-footed ferret.
The Stronghold District consists of numerous Native-American Ghost Dance sites and has the highest point in the area (3,340 feet).
If you want to discover more of Badlands National Park, two campgrounds are available that allow overnight stays. Head to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center for special programs, including museum exhibits. Camping is permitted anywhere within the park. Most types of vehicles are restricted in the Badlands Wilderness.
2. Wind Cave National Park
|Wind Cave National Park|
|Location||Custer County (nearest city Hot Springs)|
|Animals to spot||Raccoons, elks, bison, coyotes, skunks, badgers, cougars, prairie dogs|
|Attractions to see||Hiking trails, the cave’s natural entrance, birdwatching|
Wind Cave National Park is one of the oldest national parks in America. It is home to incredible wildlife and serene grasslands, hillsides, and the prairie. Under the park itself, you have the chance to explore a complex, lengthy, and dense cave system.
This national park can be found 10 miles north of Hot Springs town and was established by Theodore Roosevelt back in 1903. It is home to a herd of 400 bison that will undoubtedly amaze animal lovers.
Arguably the most popular attraction is the cave system. It features boxwork calcite formations, which are rare in other parts of the world. The cave system is 154.2 miles long, and you can book guided tours on specific lengths/steps. If you’re not interested in the underground, then the largest mixed-grass prairie in the country, Wind Cave National Park, will certainly be an enjoyable experience.
3. Jewel Cave National Monument
|Jewel Cave National Monument|
|Location||Custer County (nearest city Custer)|
|Animals to spot||Bighorn Sheep, mule deer, mountain lions (on the surface of the monument)|
|Attractions to see||Ranger programs, historic areas, wildflowers|
Jewel Cave National Monument is home to the third-longest cave in the world. Jewel Cave is 200.3 miles long and has all of its passageways mapped. The cave was discovered in 1900 and was designated a national monument in 1908. Explorers Herb and Jann Conn are responsible for discovering, naming, and mapping around 64 miles of the cave. Exploration activities are still taking place today.
Open all year round, Jewel Cave allows enthusiasts to gaze upon speleogens, speleothems, spars, stalactites, flowstone, boxworks, frostwork, and many other formations. The cave’s name comes from the spar formations, also known as spar crystals or jewels.
As a visitor to this national monument, you’re not given a chance to get bored. You can go for a scenic tour which is half a mile long. The curious folk can learn more about the cave parts that were first discovered during a historical tour. Lastly, truly adventurous travelers can go on a wild cave tour!
4. Custer State Park
|Custer State Park|
|Location||Black Hills, United States|
|Animals to spot||Bison, elks, coyotes, white-tailed deer, mountain goats, river otters|
|Attractions to see||Needles Highway, Needles Eye Tunnel, Sylvan Lake|
Custer State Park is the largest state park in South Dakota. It is a wildlife reserve dominated by rugged mountains and prairie grasslands, which are common in this state. The park is close to Wind Cave National Park, the Jewel Cave, Mount Rushmore, and Badlands National Park.
A 1,500-bison herd, elks, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, river otters, and many other animal species can be found on the park’s 71,000 acres. It is truly a wildlife reserve and sanctuary. If you want to see the bison herd in all of its glory, you should visit the state park in September. Then, the annual bison roundup takes place. Over 10,000 people attend it every year.
The Peter Norbeck Center provides some insight into the park’s heritage and natural history. There, you can inspect wildlife dioramas and a gold prospecting display.
Custer State Park is perfect for a holiday full of discoveries. Eye-watering scenery is at every turn of the curved roads that web the park. Wildlife is also present on the roadside; you don’t have to hike to see a lovely animal.
5. Bear Butte State Park
|Bear Butte State Park|
|Location||Meade County (nearest city Sturgis)|
|Animals to spot||Garter snakes, spotted sandpipers, black-tailed prairie dogs, western kingbirds|
|Attractions to see||The Summit Trail, ceremonies, recreational activities|
Bear Butte State Park is important to the history and culture of the Plains Indians that lived there in the past. The park is a religious site and an essential landmark of Native American heritage. It is considered sacred and is used by indigenous people as a place for meditation, prayer, and the finding of peace.
The park features two hiking trails. The Summit Trail, reserved for the adventurous, can be walked up to the top of the mountain. Scenic views await you there, mainly of the Black Hills. This trail is riddled with spiritualism. Pilgrims often leave prayer cloths and sage ties on tree branches along the trail.
Those who are not fans of hiking can enjoy the picnic areas, the campground, and the lake located inside Bear Butte State Park. If you’re easily bored, you can go boating, fishing, or even horseback riding.
6. Roughlock Falls State Nature Area
|Roughlock Falls State Nature Area|
|Location||Spearfish Canyon, Black Hills National Forest|
|Spearfish Canyon Size||10,719 acres|
|Animals to spot||Elks, bald eagles, white-tailed deer, beavers, mountain lions, bighorn sheep|
|Attractions to see||Roughlock Falls, Roughlock Falls Trail, Little Spearfish Trail|
Roughlock Falls State Nature Area can be found in Lawrence County, in Spearfish Canyon. The 10,719-acre canyon is a part of the Black Hills National Forest. There aren’t many attractions, and the area doesn’t have a rich historical background. It is, after all, a pristine natural area that any passerby can enjoy.
Visitors usually come here for peace of mind and leisurely outdoor activities. Birdwatchers, anglers, hikers, and snowmobiling enthusiasts are often seen in and around Roughlock Falls State Nature Area.
The introductory area of Roughlock Falls is equipped with a series of information boards that you can use to decide what to do next. The falls feature upper and lower observation points that allow for a better view of the surrounding area. Roughlock Falls is a remarkable experience during both summer and winter.
7. Palisades State Park
|Palisades State Park|
|Animals to spot||Mule deer, bald eagles, elks, great blue herons|
|Attractions to see||The Devil’s Staircase, hiking trails, Sioux Quartzite rock formations|
Palisades State Park is definitely a park worth visiting, thanks to its eroded rock formations made of pink Sioux Quartzite. The formations are 1.2 billion years old, and some go as high as 50 feet. The park can be found in Minnehaha, south of Garretson, and is one of South Dakota’s smallest state parks.
The park has enough room for all of its visitors. It features as many as 37 campground sites, a designated group tenting area, six camper cabins, and a 4-bedroom lodge available for rent. Palisades State Park has four hiking trails – King & Queen, Balance Rock, Split Rock Creek, and South Wall trails.
The Devil’s Staircase is a hidden section of the park that many people want to see. If you’re paying attention to the introductory information boards, you’ll be able to find it. The attraction ends in a building and lets you see the rock formations close.
8. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
|Mount Rushmore National Memorial|
|Location||Black Hills, Keystone|
|Animals to spot||Turkey vultures, bald eagles, red squirrels, raccoons, northern leopard frogs, American bison|
|Attractions to see||Presidential Trail, Horse Thief Lake|
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a famous granite sculpture depicting the heads of four American presidents. The memorial is located in the Black Hills, 5 miles from the Black Hills National Forest. The four presidents stand at a height of 5,725 feet. Mount Rushmore is the state’s main tourist attraction, with millions of people visiting it every year.
Visitors can enjoy areas filled to the brim with flora and fauna native to the Black Hills region. Discover wildflowers such as violets, sunflowers, and snapdragons. While on the Presidential Trail, keep an eye out for golden and bald eagles, elk, mule deer, and raccoons.
The memorial also lets you interact with rangers and even become a junior one. If you want to find out more about the history behind Mount Rushmore, you can visit the sculptor’s studio that designed and worked on the monument.