The Badlands of South Dakota

Most people come to South Dakota to visit Mount Rushmore National Monument and to view the stark beauty of the Badlands or the towering Black Hills, where the South Dakota Gold Rush took place. But there is so much more to see there. The state has excellent museums, interesting historic sites and pioneer villages, and many attractions that focus on South Dakota’s Native American heritage.

Fans of Little House on the Prairie will delight at a visit to her homestead, families can relax and enjoy zoos and a reptile park, and lovers of pre-history will be thrilled at the various paleontological sites in the state that have uncovered mammoth fossils and the remains of a pre-Columbian Native American village. Winter visitors can ski and snowboard in the Black Hills, and those who seek out oddities will find all that is unusual at the world’s only corn palace.

»Mammoth Site

Mammoth Site

Mammoth Site is a museum and an ongoing paleontological dig outside Hot Springs, North Dakota. In the Pleistocene Era, commonly known as the Ice Age, some 26,000 years ago, woolly and Columbian mammoths stopped to drink at the spring-fed waters here, and fell into a sinkhole. Not until 1974 were their remains found by an eagle-eyed construction worker.

Also found at the site were remains of American camels, llamas, coyotes, birds, wolves, and shrub oxen, and more fossils are discovered regularly. The museum has an impressive collection of mammoth fossils and is both fun and educational. This is a fascinating place to bring children, and there are knowledgeable docents and a gift shop.

1800 U.S. Highway Bypass, Hot Springs, SD 57747, Phone: 605-745-6017

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»Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial was established in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski as a 501 c3 non profit foundation to honor the Indians of North America. Crazy Horse (c. 1842-1877) was a war leader of the Oglala Lakota people who is perhaps best known for his role in the Battle of Little Bighorn in June of 1876. The mountain monument in the Black Hills of South Dakota is immense and has been under construction since the 1940s; visitors can watch as the work continues.

The site includes the monument on Thunderhead Mountain, a museum that tells the story of the Native American tribes, the Indian University of North America, and a gift shop. Bus tours to the sculpture face are available for visitors.

12151 Avenue of the Chiefs, Crazy Horse, SD 57730 website, Phone: 605-673-4681

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»Storybook Island

Storybook Island

Storybook Island is an admission-free children’s theme park with a mission to inspire imagination and provide fun and education for children and families. All through the park there are sets, statues, playhouses, and rides based on beloved characters from fables, nursery rhymes, and fairy tales. It is an ideal place to bring children and young teens; even the under-five set can play in the area dedicated to the very young.

There is a lovely carousel, a beautifully maintained miniature railroad to ride on, and benches and shade for weary park-goers. Storybook Island has a small snack bar, although picnickers are welcome, and there is also a gift shop selling souvenirs. The park is open from Memorial Day weekend until Labor Day, and there are daily shows in its theater.

1301 Sheridan Lake Road, Rapid City, SD 57702, website, Phone: 605-342-6357

Next read: 20 Best Things to Do in Pierre, South Dakota

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»Bear Country USA

Bear Country USA

Bear Country USA is a family-owned and operated animal park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. From the safety of their car, visitors may drive along a 3-mile trail set among towering pine trees and rolling meadows that brings them face-to-face with many of North America’s mammals, including buffalo, black bear, lynx, bobcats, mountain goats, cougars, reindeer, arctic wolves, bighorn sheep, elk, and pronghorns.

There is a walk-through area of the park where visitors can watch the delightful antics of bear cubs. The park has a café, a grill, a picnic area, a large gift shop, and offers free stroller rentals.

13820 S. Highway 16, Rapid City, SD 57702, website, Phone: 605-343-2290

Next read: Mount Rushmore National Monument

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»McCrory Gardens

McCrory Gardens

McCrory Gardens is on the campus of South Dakota State University in Brookings; the gardens are run and tended by the horticultural department of the university. There are 25 acres of formal gardens, including gardens dedicated to irises, lilies, peonies, perennials, herbs, and pharmaceutical plants.

The arboretum covers 45 acres and has a wide variety of shrubs, trees, and ornamental grasses. Much of what is planted is adapted to the harsh plains winters, but staff scientists also use the gardens to test new plant cultivars for hardiness. The gardens place a focus on public education and offer lectures and workshops.

631 22nd Avenue, Brookings, SD 57007, website, Phone: 605-688-6707

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»Ingalls Homestead

Ingalls Homestead

The Ingalls Homestead was the family home of author Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie books, which are American classics and inspired a television show of the same name. The Ingalls moved to the De Smet area in 1879, lured by the promise of free land, and built a home on a 157-acre plot in 1880. Laura herself lived here until her marriage in 1885.

The Ingalls Homestead is a wonderful place to learn about pioneer life and is geared towards educating children, who can participate in a variety of activities. Children and adults can drive a covered wagon or pony cart, wash clothes on a washboard, twist hay into sticks for fuel, and make a jump rope and a corn cob doll to take home. There is also a one-room schoolhouse where everybody can join in a typical 19th-century pioneer classroom in period clothing.

20812 Homestead Road, De Smet, SD 57231, website, Phone: 800-776-3594

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»Prairie Homestead Historic Site

Prairie Homestead Historic Site

The Prairie Homestead Historic Site is a house built by homesteader Ed Brown and his wife in 1909. It is made of sod bricks and has a grass roof; many pioneers lived this way, but the majority of such houses have since sunk into the earth, and this is one of the few remaining.

Self-guided tours take visitors through the sod house and to the outbuildings, which include a barn, an outhouse, a cave, and a chicken coop. Barnyard animals are on hand, as are countless prairie dogs. The site has a small museum with a video presentation and early farm implements, and there is a very nice gift shop. Visitors may opt to dress in pioneer clothing while they tour the property.

21070 SD Highway 240, Philip, SD 57567, website, Phone: 605-433-5400

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»Reptile Gardens

Reptile Gardens

The Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, South Dakota, is the world’s largest reptile zoo. Founded in 1937, the Reptile Gardens are brimming with animals – crocodiles, alligators, lizards, snakes, prairie dogs, tropical birds, and giant tortoises. The gardens promise enjoyment and environmental education and take excellent care of their animals.

They also have an indoor jungle containing tropical plants, including orchids, and a replica of the largest tortoise fossil ever found. Every day there are snake shows, bird shows, and the opportunity to watch the keepers feed the crocodiles and alligators. Everyone can pet a giant tortoise. Family-friendly, the Reptile Gardens are an excellent place to bring children.

8955 S. Highway 16, Rapid City, SD 57702, website, Phone: 605-342-5873

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»South Dakota Air and Space Museum

South Dakota Air and Space Museum

The South Dakota Air and Space Museum is a free attraction just outside the gates of the Ellsworth Air Force Base near Rapid City, South Dakota. Both educational and entertaining, there are over 30 planes kept both outdoors and inside hangars, dating from World War II to the present, including a B-52 Bomber and a B-1B Lancer.

The museum is full of interactive displays and presents a history of aviation in the United States. There are exhibits on the Cold War, on aerospace technology, on aviation pioneers, and another focusing on the history of Ellsworth AFB. The exhibits include a flight simulator and an interactive aircraft cockpit. Museumgoers may also take a short bus tour around the air force base, which includes a stop at a Minuteman missile training facility. The museum has a small gift shop.

2890 Davis Drive, Rapid City, SD 57706, website, Phone: 605-385-5189

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»1880 Town

1880 Town

1880 Town is a family-owned and operated heritage village that allows visitors to step back in time and learn about what life was like for South Dakota pioneers. The town has more than 30 original buildings from the years 1880-1920, including a farm, a blacksmith shop, a saloon, a one-room schoolhouse, a church, a jail, a post office, and a bank. There is a museum about Casey Tibbs, an area man who was World Champion Rodeo Cowboy nine times.

In the main building are dozens of props from the Academy Award winning film, Dances with Wolves, which was shot in the town and the surrounding countryside. Hungry visitors will appreciate the 1950s railway dining car, a former Santa Fe train turned into a diner serving breakfast, lunch, and dessert, and decorated with 1950s memorabilia.

Interstate 90, Exit 170, Murdo, SD 57559, website, Phone: 605-344-2236

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»Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village

The Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is a working archeological dig of the only reliably dated remains of the Woodland and Mississippian cultures from 1,100 years ago. The first structures were uncovered by a university student in 1910 and since then the site has become a prominent summer archeological field school that is attended and worked by students from all over the world.

The people who inhabited this site hunted bison and were skilled farmers, tending fields of sunflowers, tobacco, beans, squash, amaranth, and corn. They lived in earthen lodges on a bluff overlooking a creek, and over 80 of these lodges have been uncovered. Visitors can watch the dig in progress, ask questions of a docent, view life-sized replicas of the people and their dwellings, and shop at the small gift store.

3200 Indian Village Road, Mitchell, SD 57301, website, Phone: 605-996-5473

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»Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

During the Cold War era, intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) were hidden in missile silos across the United States, armed and ready to defend the country against Soviet attacks. In 1991, Presidents George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and the missiles were disarmed and decommissioned.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site gives visitors the unique opportunity of viewing a missile silo and a launch control site. Inside the Delta-09 missile silo is a disarmed weapon. The visitor center has excellent historical displays on the arms race, the Cold War, and the development of ICBMs.

24545 Cottonwood Road, Philip, SD 57567, Phone: 605-433-5552

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»Petrified Wood Park

Petrified Wood Park

Petrified Wood Park is a tourist attraction in Lemmon, South Dakota, built entirely out of petrified wood, fossils, and stones, and is creative, interesting, and definitely worth visiting. Petrified wood is the fossilized remains of vegetation. This attraction was built in the early 1930s and contains more than a hundred objects, including statues, a wishing well, a waterfall, and a 300-ton castle with turrets and spires made entirely out of petrified wood.

The park has two museums, one of which has a petrified wood floor, in which dinosaur footprints, bird tracks, and fossilized snakes can be clearly seen. The museums contain antiques and artifacts from the Lemmon area. Even the well-stocked gift shop is made of petrified wood.

500 Main Avenue, Lemmon, SD 57638, Phone: 605-374-3964

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»Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center

Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center

Akta Lakota means “to honor the people”, and this is exactly that which the museum and cultural center strive to do. An outreach program of the St. Joseph’s Indian School, the museum presents artifacts and exhibits relevant to the lives of the northern Plains Indians, past and present.

Opened in 1991, the museum uses art, movies, exhibits, and educational displays to examine Plains Indians’ lives before European contact, the first contacts between Indians and Europeans, the U.S. Government’s breaking of treaties and removal of land, and the way in which modern Plains Indians are conserving their heritage. The excellent gift shop is stocked with locally made items.

1301 N. Main Street, Chamberlain, SD 57325

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»Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum of Natural History

Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum of Natural History

The Great Plains Zoo in Sioux Falls is a medium-sized institution dedicated to education and conservation. Of particular note are its breeding projects with the critically endangered Amur tiger and the eastern black rhinoceros. Its 45 acres feature displays that all families will enjoy, with animals including snow monkeys, reticulated giraffes, Grevy’s zebra, Galapagos tortoises, colobus monkeys, lemurs, and gibbons.

There is a petting zoo that offers face-to-face encounters with sheep and goats in addition to a camel ride and a carousel. The Delbridge Museum houses 150 mounted specimens hunted by Henry Brockhouse from the 1940s to the 1960s, when hunting these now-endangered animals was quite legal.

805 S. Kiwanis Avenue, Sioux Falls, SD 57104, Phone: 605-367-7003

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»National Music Museum

National Music Museum

The National Music Museum is on the campus of the University of South Dakota and housed in a former Carnegie Library. The museum’s extensive holdings are among the most pre-eminent in the world, and comprise some 15,000 instruments from the United States, Europe, and from non-Western sources.

Some of the jewels of the collection are five Stradivarius stringed instruments, 17th and 18th-century Dutch woodwinds, 17th and 18th-century German wind instruments, three 17th-century Flemish harpsichords, and two 18th-century grand pianos. Johnny Cash’s guitar is also in the museum, along with musical instruments belonging to Bob Dylan. The second largest harmonica collection in the world is in this museum, as is the world’s oldest cello. The museum has a small gift shop.

University of South Dakota, 414 East Clark Street, Vermilion, SD 57069, Phone: 605-677-5306

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»Prairie Edge Trading Company & Galleries

Prairie Edge Trading Company & Galleries

Prairie Edge Trading Company & Galleries is a must-see in Rapid City, South Dakota. A cut above traditional gift shops, this store has a strong Native American theme and deals in fine art. Just walking through the shop will make any visitor more knowledgeable about Native American history.

In gallery after gallery and up and down the Escher-like staircases, shoppers will find a wide variety of items for sale, including native art, books, music, clothing, jewelry, medicinal herbs, jams and jellies, and home furnishings. There is a particularly fine selection of beading supplies, both locally crafted and sourced from Italy. The friendly and well-informed staff add to the appeal of this popular store.

606 Main Street, Rapid City, SD 57701, Phone: 800-541-2388

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»Butterfly House & Marine Cove

Butterfly House & Marine Cove

Butterfly House & Marine Cove is an attraction designed to educate visitors about the diversity of butterfly and sea life around the world. The Butterfly House is a 3,600-square-foot indoor tropical garden where more than 800 species of butterflies from Australia, Africa, and Central and South America fly freely.

Chrysalises hang from walls and ceilings, and eagle-eyed visitors may have the opportunity to see butterflies emerging. Marine Cove has hundreds of species of fish and coral from around the world, including clownfish, tangs, eels, seahorses, sea stars, and sharks. A shark and stingray touch pool is a great hands-on learning area for adults and children, and visitors delight in the southern stingrays, which swim eagerly to greet visitors. The complex has a gift shop and welcomes school groups.

4320 Oxbow Avenue, Sioux Falls, SD 57106, Phone: 605-334-9466

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»Adams Museum

Adams Museum

The Adams Museum is set in an elegant Queen Anne-style home in Deadwood that was built in 1892. The former Deadwood mayor and businessman bought the house in 1920 to turn it into a museum honoring Black Hills pioneers. The three floors of exhibits, all of which are wheelchair accessible, pay tribute to the gold miners and the Lakota Indians whose land was stolen by the miners.

It also contains curiosities like Potato Creek Johnny’s gold nugget and a priceless pencil sketch of Wild Bill Hickok by N.C. Wyeth. The family-friendly museum features displays about Wild Bill, Calamity Jane, and Deadwood Dick as well as the rough-and-tumble lifestyle of 19th-century Deadwood. The museum contains an old steam engine that was once used to haul ore in the Black Hills mines. An excellent bookstore focusing on the American West is located on the first floor.

54 Sherman Street, Deadwood, SD 57732, Phone: 605-578-1714

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»Terry Peak Ski Area

Terry Peak Ski Area

The Terry Peak Ski Area is a skiing and snowboarding destination on the highest peak of the Northern Black Hills and is also open to snowmobilers. The area was first used as a ski hill in 1936, and the first chair lifts were added in 1954. Now, the mountain has three high-speed chair lifts and one traditional lift.

The ski hill has 30 runs, offers ski and snowboard rentals, and has skiing lessons for every age group, adults included. Stewart Lodge offers a café and bar, and the Nevada Gulch Lodge is famous for its Dark Horse Saloon, which serves alcoholic beverages and delicious meals in a nostalgic setting warmed by open fireplaces.

21120 Stewart Slope Road, Lead, SD 57754, Phone: 605-584-2165

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»Dinosaur Park

Dinosaur Park

Dinosaur Park is a free attraction on a hill overlooking Rapid City, South Dakota, which features five dinosaur sculptures made in the 1930s from black iron pipe, with wire mesh frames and concrete skin, all painted bright green with white undersides. The dinosaurs are a period piece and represent what people of the time thought dinosaurs looked like.

There is an apatosaurus, a Tyrannosaurus rex, a triceratops, a stegosaurus, and an edmontosaurus. The park is family friendly and children love climbing on the dinosaurs; adults come for the dazzling view of Rapid City and the Black Hills. The park is reached by climbing steep flagstone steps and is not wheelchair accessible.

940 Skyline Drive, Rapid City, SD 57701, Phone: 605-343-8687

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»Corn Palace

Corn Palace

In Mitchell, South Dakota, stands the world’s only corn palace. It is a Moorish Revival building topped with Moorish minarets and Russian-style onion domes, decorated inside and out entirely and impressively with murals and mosaics of crop art, using corn and other grains.

The original Corn Palace was built in 1892 to show off South Dakota’s fine soil in an attempt to attract settlers; the current palace was built in 1921. It is used as a venue for concerts, community events, and sports, but free guided tours are available from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day. The Corn Palace has a children’s activity area, a corn-themed gift shop, and a concession selling popcorn balls, corn on the cob, burgers, hot dogs, and soft drinks.

601 North Main Street, Mitchell, SD 57301, Phone: 605-995-8427

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»Rushmore Cave

Rushmore Cave

Rushmore Cave is a subterranean cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota. To access it, one must gain admission to Rush Mountain Adventure Park, a theme park featuring roller coasters and other rides. The cave tour takes one hour and requires the ability to climb up and down stairs and to stoop under low ceilings.

The limestone caves have beautiful natural formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and flowstone, and there are many rooms to be explored during the tour. The cave was discovered in 1876, when a chute carrying water to a mine overflowed into a small hole. The miners explored it and an entrance was formed.

13662 Highway 40, Keystone, SD 57751, Phone: 605-255-4384

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»Black Hills Central Railroad (1880s Train)

Black Hills Central Railroad (1880s Train)

The Black Hills Central Railroad is a heritage railroad and the oldest continuously operating tourist train. Two-hour, 20-mile train rides are offered on the 1880 Train; the ride is a slow one due to the steep grades and the sharp curves in the line. The ride is a round trip between Keystone and Hill City, South Dakota, and is run along the Keystone Branch of the Burlington Northern Railroad, which was a mining railroad during the 1880s and was later used to deliver supplies during the carving of Mount Rushmore.

The train journeys through forests, meadows, and wooded canyons, and animal life is often spotted; there are many white-tailed deer, mule deer, cottontail rabbits, and wild turkeys along the way. The train runs from May to early October and is wheelchair accessible.

222 Railroad Avenue, Hill City, SD 57745, Phone: 605-574-2222

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25 Best Things to Do in South Dakota