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Rapid City, South Dakota
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Rapid City, South Dakota

Welcome to South Dakota

Located at western edge of the Great Plains, South Dakota is home to larger-than-life attractions like Mount Rushmore National Memorial and vast buffalo herds in Custer State Park. However, any travel itinerary to the state should include visits to vibrant small towns like Custer and Deadwood along with large cities like Sioux Falls and Rapid City.

I-90 Cruising

A drive along I-90 through central South Dakota is a quintessential American road trip. Visitors are greeted with an abundance of beautiful landscapes, from the green grasses of the wide-open prairies to the craggy granite peaks of the Black Hills. Across the state, several iconic stops welcome tourists.

If you start your travels from the east along I-90, South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls, is abounding with Midwestern friendliness and family fun. Stay active by exploring the miles of walking and biking trails that traverse the city. Head to Falls Park to check out the namesake waterfall, or visit the compelling SculptureWalk. Animal lovers won’t want to miss the Great Plains Zoo or the Butterfly House and Aquarium.

In nearby Montrose, the Porter Sculpture Park entertains and amuses, with massive outdoor artworks dotting the countryside. Further west along I-90, a visit to Mitchell’s Corn Palace is a must. Located in the charming town of Mitchell, this unique building is covered in murals made from regional corns and grains, emphasizing the state’s agricultural roots.

Discover more history at 1880 Town, a recreated western community of 30 buildings authentically furnished with thousands of relics. Set on rolling terrain near Interstate 90, this virtual time capsule is worth the visit.

Further west, the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers a complete change of pace. A small visitors center provides insight into the history of the nuclear weapons arrayed across the Great Plains. Stop at the missile silo and the launch control facility to absorb this somber piece of America’s past.

Driving through the western part of the state on I-90, motorists will pass several giant billboards advertising the Wall Drug Store. In the 1930s, slow business almost closed this pharmacy, until the owners decided to offer free water to travelers. Soon, the burgeoning store was thriving, and today it remains a bona fide tourist mecca, with shops, restaurants, play areas and, of course, a free cup of water.

Good Times in the Badlands

Some of South Dakota’s most stunning vistas are found in Badlands National Park near the state’s southwest corner, where eerie, sandy pinnacles jut skyward above the surrounding grasslands. Take the Badlands Loop Road for a brief tour of this unique landscape. Better yet, take a hike: Several trails present different views and the chance to spot wildlife.

Photo courtesy of SD Tourism

Also in the state’s southwest, one of the best bicycle trails in the nation attracts two-wheelers. The George S. Mickelson Trail runs over 100 miles from Edgemont to Deadwood. This former railway route takes visitors through charming small towns, under towering ponderosa pines, and over rippling creeks.

Black Hills Beauty

The Black Hills of western South Dakota are a national treasure. In the 1920s, historian Doane Robinson dreamed of attracting visitors to the region with a massive project memorializing famous Americans. Thus, Mount Rushmore was born. Over three million tourists visit this national monument each year to gaze upon the 60-foot-high faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt carved into the towering granite. The monument was designed and overseen by sculptor Gutzon Borglum, and visitors to the memorial can learn about this master of stone at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center. Nearby, the in-progress Crazy Horse Memorial similarly immortalizes the famed Native American leader in a rocky hillside.

Photo courtesy of SD Tourism

Aside from massive monuments, there’s more to explore in the Black Hills. Custer State Park encompasses more than 70,000 acres of natural landscapes. A wide variety of animals call the park home, including bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn and feral burros, making it a top spot for wildlife watching. The picturesque sapphire waters of Sylvan Lake make it a favorite place for canoeing and kayaking. Nearby, the scenic drives along Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road take travelers through eye-popping scenery and jaw-dropping tunnels.

Railroads and Caverns

Travel back to South Dakota’s Old West days with a ride on the 1880 Train in Hill City, or pay a visit to the nearby town of Custer, close to several Black Hills attractions. In Deadwood, visitors can walk the streets where Wild Bill and Calamity Jane once roamed along with the throngs of fortune-seekers who flocked to the town during the 1870s Gold Rush. Several mines remain in the region and offer tours. The Historic Old Town district of Deadwood has a thriving entertainment scene with casinos, restaurants and shops located in brick buildings from bygone eras.

Another world is waiting to be explored underground. Wind Cave National Park preserves one of the largest caves in the world, with a maze of passageways providing views of intricate structures not found in many other caves. Not far away, Jewel Cave National Monument offers a different setting, with larger rooms and colorful formations.

While in the region, a stop in Rapid City is a must. Some museums help tell the stories of South Dakota’s geography and history. A favorite for little kids, Storybook Island brings nursery rhymes to life, while bigger kids will especially enjoy Bear Country USA, which lets visitors get up close and personal with roaming animals. For a peek at the cultural scene, make a stop at the downtown galleries, the Dahl Arts Museum or the quirky Art Alley (where graffiti covers the walls).