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What to do in South Dakota: Adventure, Culture & Wildlife

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I am a photographer and writer passionate about the outdoors, meaningful travel, and living deliberately. I hope to use my platform online to show the beauty and complexity of the world we live in, and to encourage genuine connection to the outdoors, culture, people and wildlife.

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This post is sponsored by Travel South Dakota. As always, all thoughts & opinions are my own.

When you hear South Dakota, what comes to mind? I have to say that before my visit, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. South Dakota just doesn’t get the same attention as other states. Despite being one of the lesser-known spots in the USA, South Dakota has a ton to offer. I recently had the opportunity to spend 5 days traveling through the state, and learned so much. There is a lot to see and experience in South Dakota. Here are my top highlights and recommendations.

6. THE MAMMOTH SITE

Just South of Wind Cave National Park in a small town called Hot Springs, lies the largest known concentration of mammoth remains in the world. Here! In South Dakota! This active archeological dig, simply called The Mammoth Site, has uncovered 61 mammoths along with 85+ other species. The animals became trapped in a sinkhole over the course of at least 150,000 years. If you’re into science or natural history in the least, you will find this site fascinating.

5. MINUTEMAN MISSILE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE

This was possibly the most surprising and interesting place I visited on my trip. The country’s youngest National Historic Site, Minuteman Missile Historic Site is spread out across several locations, all lying unassumingly beside the highway. If you didn’t know what to look for, you’d miss it completely! The Visitor’s Center is well done and tells the story of the Cold War from a human perspective. But in my opinion, the most interesting part requires a private tour. The Delta 1 Control Center once controlled 10 nuclear missiles, and I found it extremely compelling and surprisingly emotional. If you’ve got the privilege of planning, book a private tour through this piece of American history. Regardless of where you stand on the topic of war, the stories here are presented in an objective way, allowing you room to think and feel.

In the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility with Eric, the Superintendent

4. CUSTER STATE PARK

One of the biggest State Parks in the country at 71,000 acres, Custer State Park is a treat for a wildlife enthusiast like myself. But it’s not just for wildlife–– Custer is a great place for camping, hiking, biking, and swimming. Wildlife Loop Road is the place to be for Bison. The Needles Highway is a nice drive featuring some interesting rock formations and views of the forest.

3. BLACK ELK PEAK

It’s in Custer State Park, but this hike is special enough to get its own point. This is a beautiful and heart-pumping way to spend an afternoon. I’d recommend heading up to the lookout for sunset, allowing 3-4 hours for the round-trip hike so you have time to take in the views. Remember your headlamps as it’ll surely be dark by the time you get back to your car. If you’re looking for a place to stay nearby, the cabins at Sylvan Lake Lodge are cozy and the food is excellent. (PS – I recommend using the AllTrails app for hiking. Here’s a link to the Black Elk Peak maps.)

Layers from the summit of Black Elk Peak.

2. CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL

Much of South Dakota is traditionally Lakota land, and it is definitely possible to learn about their culture & traditions throughout the state. Crazy Horse was a famous Lakota warrior, and his memorial has been in progress since 1948. Interestingly, there are actually no photos of Crazy Horse, so the carving is based on descriptions and not photographic evidence of his appearance. Opinions differ on the memorial, even among local Lakota people. In any case, the carving itself is giant and imposing, and in my opinion, worth a visit to take it in for yourself. The museum is also full of interesting information, art, and history. Our last morning coincided with Volksmarch, a group hike that happens twice a year at Crazy Horse Memorial. It was great to hike up to the face and get a closer look. If you’ve got time after your visit, stop by Black Hills Burger & Bun for lunch–– apparently the best burger in the world.

1. BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Badlands was the place I was most excited about visiting, and I was not disappointed! With a name like Badlands, it has to be interesting, right? This place is so unique and spectacular–– there is so much texture and color. If you want to get creative with photography, this is such a good place to do it as the light is constantly changing. If you are lucky, you may come across Bighorn Sheep. Check out the Door trail for sunrise and Pinnacles Overlook at sunset. There are so many walks and overlooks to explore… bring a picnic lunch and enjoy at least a day here!

OTHER WORTHWHILE CONSIDERATIONS

  • Pine Ridge Reservation (Wazí Aháŋhaŋ Oyáŋke): Unfortunately, I was not able to visit Pine Ridge Reservation on this trip, but it’s number one on my list for next time. I would be interested in visiting the Reservation with a local guide, especially from a cultural and landscape perspective.
  • Buzzard’s Roost: This is a fairly quick hike just outside Rapid City. We didn’t make it all the way to the lookout, but it’s a good option for a morning workout and a reason to get outside.
  • Deadwood: I wouldn’t have said the Wild West stuff was my favorite thing, but once I got to Deadwood, I definitely got into the spirit of it. If you want to step into a Westworld-esque era of the gold rush, cowboy feeling, Deadwood is the perfect place to do it.
  • Jewel Cave National Monument: This looks like an interesting caving experience… I just didn’t have time!
  • Wind Cave National Park: Wind Cave is a huge cave system probably best experienced underground. I’m a big fan of caving, so although this didn’t make it onto my itinerary this time, I think it would be a fun way to spend a day–– especially if you’re traveling in the summer and looking for a way to cool down.
  • Wall Drug: The famous bumper sticker asks, Where the Heck is Wall Drug? Maybe a better question is WHAT the Heck is Wall Drug? Wall Drug is a super kooky (and big) roadside attraction featuring 5 cent coffee, delicious donuts, and plenty of quirky things. It takes up a whole block and is so big you can get lost inside it! If you enjoy the kookier things in life, allow yourself some time here. For me, the most interesting part of Wall Drug was the old photo walls.

Treats at Wall Drug.

 

Overall, South Dakota is such an underrated state. For adventurers, outdoor lovers, and photographers, this is a playground. Check out flights to/from Rapid City–– you may be surprised to find direct (or cheap) flights from your city. In terms of cost while traveling, it’s a relatively cheap place to eat & stay, especially if you are camping and have an Annual National Parks Pass.

One question I got from my audience on Instagram is: did I see Black travelers/folks of color? The answer is yes. The majority of travelers I saw seemed to be white, but there were definitely people of color traveling as well, particularly in Badlands National Park and at Crazy Horse Memorial. I recognize that traveling while Black/BIPOC can be a very different experience than traveling while white, so I felt it was important to mention this, especially because y’all asked!

In terms of photography, the two lenses I reached for the most were my 16-35mm f2.8 for landscape shots, and my 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 for wildlife photography, plus those compressed layers you know I love so much. If you’re visiting South Dakota for photography, I would recommend bringing both a wide-angle and a telephoto lens. Don’t forget your tripod for sunrise & sunset stuff, and maybe even astrophotography if you’ve got clear skies.

As with all outdoor adventures, be sure to plan ahead, stay safe, and follow Leave No Trace principles. I hope you have the chance to enjoy the beauty that lies in South Dakota. I know I am looking forward to my next visit.


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  1. Clarence says:

    There’s plenty to see in eastern south Dakota also

  2. Ron says:

    Eastern South Dakota offers walleye, perch and Catfish fishing, Pheasant Hunting, the mighty Missouri River and many lakes for outdoor entertainment, the World’s only Corn Palace in Mitchell and the Largest Pheasant in the World in Huron, and the friendly people, you betcha!

  3. Wow. I do a ton of backpacking around the world. I have become a bit of an Amateur Photographer and I have to tell you these photos are amazing in the Blog. Really impressed. I definitely need to check out Eastern South Dakota now it looks amazing.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You missed an incredibel treat in SD .. The Mickelson Trail. For people who like the outdoors / cycling, this was a wonderful experience. I hope to go back in the next few years and do the entire trail.

  5. Rogene Brown says:

    Thank you for the great boost for South Dakota! Living here all my life, I am still enthralled with the beauty of the entire state! I live in Sioux Falls, on the eastern side of the state. Of course, it has a lot to offer as well! The namesake Falls, a wonderful bike trail, several local breweries, a vibrant downtown shopping experience, and some of the most varied eateries; from Pho to burgers, sushi to Philly cheesesteaks, local diners to lavish restaurants, just to name a few! The great Plains of eastern South Dakota also offer some of the most spectacular sunrises and sunsets for your photography needs! Please come check us out when you’re in South Dakota again!

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