When it comes to national parks, South Dakota is one of our favorite states. Actually, it’s just one of our favorite states period. When most folks think about South Dakota, endless miles of the Plains immediately come to mind. Indeed, if all you have ever seen of South Dakota is what you see on I-90, I can completely understand why you would think stopping here is a waste of time.
But once you get to the western part of the state, you will find what we consider one of the prettiest areas in the world. You’ll find five of the six South Dakota national park sites within just a couple of hours of each other. You will find the rugged beauty of the Badlands, with breathtaking views at every bend, and the granite spires of the Black Hills, with the tallest mountain east of the Rocky Mountains.
In the Black Hills, you’ll find South Dakota’s most popular site, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Nearby are two great cave sites: Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. Just an hour or two east is Badlands National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Over on the eastern side of the state is the Missouri National Recreation River.
Of course, we’d be remiss to pretend that South Dakota is only home to amazing national parks. It’s also home to one of the largest and most popular state parks plus millions of acres of National Forest. While national parks are the focus of much of our travels, we know there are plenty of other sites that are just as worthy of a visit.
We have visited most of these parks two or three times and fall more in love with them on every visit. If you’ve yet to check out the South Dakota national parks, we urge you to get there now!
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Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Perhaps the most well-known park in South Dakota is Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Of course, at Mount Rushmore you’ll see the grand carving of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. The artist, Gutzon Borglum, selected these four men for their importance in American History, representing the birth, growth, development and preservation of the United States.
Any visit to Mount Rushmore should include a walk through the Avenue of Flags and a stop at the Grand View Terrace. Here, you’ll get one of the best views of the sculpture. To learn more about the artist and the carving process, stop by the Visitor Center and walk the short Nature Trail to the Sculptor’s Studio.
For a different perspective of Mount Rushmore, walk the Presidential Trail. This 0.6-mile trail takes you down to the base of the mountain for a closer viewpoint. While there are quite a few stairs along the trail, there are also several benches and places to rest.
We also encourage you to learn a bit about the controversy of Mount Rushmore. Basically, the US Government promised land in the Black Hills to the Lakota Sioux in the 1860s. Just a few years later, government officials pushed them out of the region after gold was discovered. So, while most Americans simply focus on the artistry of the sculpture, to Native Americans (especially the Sioux), it is a reminder of the land stolen from them.
You can see the sculpture and snap a few pictures in just 10-15 minutes. For a more complete visit, you’ll need an hour or two. In that time, you can learn more about the carving process and history of the area.
Wind Cave National Park
Located about an hour from Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave National Park is one of the most underrated national parks. In fact, we include it as one of our five hidden gems of the National Park Service. What we love most about Wind Cave NP is that you can enjoy both the underground cave and the above-ground plains and rolling hills.
The cave is one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the world. It is also home to 95% of the world’s boxwork formations, a unique cave formation. The cave gets its name from the winds at its natural entrance. At this small opening, the wind blows either in or out, depending on the atmospheric pressure. Please forgive our lack of cave pictures; the park does not allow visitors to take pictures inside the cave.
Be sure to check out the park’s website and schedule a cave tour in advance of your visit. The park typically offers six different tours. We particularly enjoyed the Candlelight Tour. While that tour is a bit strenuous, experiencing the cave by candlelight was absolutely amazing.
As of November 2020, cave tours are currently suspended due to a broken elevator and COVID. Check the park website for updates.
Above ground, there are a couple of major roads running through the park with turnouts and exhibits. You’ll also find several hiking trails of varying lengths and difficulty. For great views, check out the relatively short Rankin Ridge Trail. Finally, be sure to look for wildlife, especially bison and prairie dogs, as you drive through the park.
We suggest spending at least one day at Wind Cave National Park. You can easily check out the visitor center and enjoy some hiking and scenic drives in the morning and do a cave tour in the afternoon.
Jewel Cave National Monument
About 45 minutes west of both Mount Rushmore NM and Wind Cave NP is the third park in the Black Hills, Jewel Cave National Monument. Despite the proximity of the two caves, there is no evidence that they are part of the same cave system. Additionally, Jewel Cave and Wind Cave contain very different types of formations.
Basically, it is definitely worth your time to visit both parks!
While Jewel Cave is a larger cave (the third-longest in the world), the park itself is smaller. You can choose from four different cave tours. Two of the tours are relatively easy and two are a bit more strenuous.
We did the Scenic Tour back in 2012 and really enjoyed this 90-minute tour. On this tour, you’ll see some of the bright formations that give Jewel Cave its name. Also, be on the lookout for Grant’s favorite: Cave Bacon!
If you’re really a cave fanatic and want to explore the smallest nooks and crannies of the cave, consider the strenuous Wild Caving Tour. To qualify for this three to four-hour tour, you must prove that you can fit through some tight squeezes before heading out. I have to be honest, this is NOT a tour that we will ever do!
For those looking to explore above ground at Jewel Cave, we suggest a visit to the Historic Area. Here, you’ll find the original visitor center and the natural entrance to the cave.
You’ll need about half a day for a visit to Jewel Cave. Plan about an hour to explore the visitor center and historic area, in addition to your cave tour. Add additional time if you want to do a hike.
Other Things to Do in the Black Hills
While this article focuses on visiting the South Dakota national parks, we would be remiss to not recognize the other fabulous sights in the Black Hills. In particular, we recommend spending at least a day at Custer State Park, visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial and at least a couple of hours driving through Spearfish Canyon. Also nearby, in northeast Wyoming, is Devils Tower National Monument, which makes for a good day trip from South Dakota.
The surrounding towns of Rapid City, Custer, Hill City, Sturgis, Spearfish and Hot Springs (among others) each offer opportunities for museums, lodging and dining. Scenic drives connect many of these towns and just driving the highways can be an enjoyable afternoon.
If you’re looking for adventure, consider renting an ATV and exploring some more remote areas. You’ll also find plenty of opportunities for hiking in Custer State Park and within the Black Hills National Forest.
For the foodies, there are plenty of places to eat and drink in the Black Hills. We enjoyed visiting the numerous breweries and wineries in the area. There are also plenty of restaurants, from casual food trucks to fine dining.
We’ve visited the Black Hills several times and fall more and more in love with the area on every visit. Our biggest advice: schedule more time than you think you need. I promise, you’ll find plenty of things to do and enjoy!
Badlands National Park
Just east of the Black Hills, you’ll find South Dakota’s other “famous” region, the Badlands. At Badlands National Park, you’ll find a large concentration of these colorful, rugged geological formations formed by the opposing processes of deposition and erosion. While you will find badlands formations in other states and even other national parks, there’s something magical about the landscape at Badlands National Park.
Any visit to Badlands NP should start with a scenic drive. You’ll find plenty of turnouts and viewpoints and you absolutely should stop at all of them. Each formation is a little different and each turnout offers a unique view.
While a drive through the park is satisfying, I encourage you to spend at least a little time hiking and seeing the formations up close. For those with limited time, a quick stop at the Door and Window Trails offers a chance for up-close viewing of the badlands that are easy enough for all visitors. At the same parking lot, the Notch Trail is short (just over a mile) but includes a steep ladder-climb.
The North Unit is the main area of the park and is easy to access, right off I-90, south of Wall. Visiting the remote South Unit offers opportunities to see a different version of the badlands. A drive down Sheep Mountain Road is fun and rewarding. You’ll need a high-clearance vehicle (and we’d suggest four-wheel drive) to make the full drive to the end but the views just get better and better the farther you go.
You can see the highlights of the part with just a 1/2-day visit. A full day or even longer offers more opportunities for hiking, wildlife watching and checking out the South Unit.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Located just north of the east end of Badlands National Park is one of the most unique national park sites: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. This site protects two facilities that were vital to the United State’s nuclear arsenal during the Cold War. These Minuteman Missiles held the power to destroy while also maintaining peace and preventing war.
At the Minuteman Missile NHS visitor center, you can view exhibits on the Cold War and learn about the technology involved. You’ll also learn about the folks who controlled these weapons and everything it took to keep them ready to fire 24 hours a day, 365 days a year for 30 years. While this may sound a little too historical or educational for some people, we both found the site fascinating and informative.
While the visitor center is great, the real fun comes from a visit to the Delta-09 missile silo and the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility. At one time, the silo at Delta-09 held a fully operational missile, with a 1.2 megaton nuclear warhead. Today, the silo has been welded closed and houses an unarmed missile. Still, it’s interesting to see just what these missiles look like.
Our favorite part of the visit, though was the Delta-01 Launch Control Center, located 31 feet underground. Here, you’ll actually get to tour the small space where the launch of a nuclear missile could occur. Tours are limited to six participants and required advance reservations.
Check the park website for information and reservations.
Allow about an hour for the visitor center and 45 minutes for a tour of Delta-01, plus driving time to the site. You’ll need another 30-minutes to an hour to drive to and visit Delta-09.
Where to Stay in the Badlands Region
The western entrance to Badlands National Park is just south of Wall, SD. If you’ve never heard of Wall, I promise you will as you approach the park. You’ll see signs for the infamous Wall Drug, on the side of the interstate and nearly every highway in the area.
While Wall isn’t a big town by any means, it does make a good base for visiting Badlands NP and Minuteman Missile NHS. In Wall, you’ll find a few hotels, restaurants, a small grocery store and, of course, Wall Drug.
At Wall Drug, you’ll find plenty of practical goods, including pharmacy items, clothing, souvenirs and snacks. You’ll also find plenty of tacky and wacky decor. Just take it all in and enjoy it. Wall Drug really is much more than just a store.
Missouri National Recreation River
South Dakota’s six national park site, Missouri National Recreation River, is farther east, on the Nebraska border. We planned to visit this site in the summer of 2020 but had to cancel after unexpected truck repairs forced us to alter our itinerary.
The park preserves two separate stretches of the Missouri River, on either side of Lewis and Clark Lake. State Parks, Recreation Areas and Wildlife Areas surround the national park, offering several opportunities for hiking, fishing and paddling.
We had planned to camp at the Chief White Crane Recreation Area in Yankton, SD and spend a few days hiking and exploring the area. Hopefully, we’ll get to reschedule our visit soon and will update this article with more information at that time.
Final Thoughts on the South Dakota National Parks
South Dakota may not be home to any of the iconic parks such as Yellowstone, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Still, the South Dakota national parks offer scenic drives, interesting landscapes, artistic wonders, historic lessons and plenty of wildlife viewing. And, while the national park sites in the state are some of our favorites, the surrounding state parks, national forest, museums and other sightseeing opportunities only add to the fun.
Another plus of the South Dakota national parks is their proximity to each other. Five of the six parks are within about two hours of each other.
Rapid City is the “big city” in the area and is conveniently located right in the middle of the Black Hills and Badlands region. Here, you’ll find all the usual chain restaurants, lodging and shopping.
You’ll also find several small towns across the area, each with their own charm. In Wall, just outside Badlands NP, be sure to visit Wall Drug for all things practical and quirky. In the Black Hills, our favorite town is Custer, due to its central location and proximity to Custer State Park. Any of these towns, though, offer a great base to explore.
After three visits to South Dakota, we have seen a done a lot. We spent nearly a month there in the summer of 2020 and never ran out of things to do or scenery to enjoy. Whether you’re a national park fan or not, there are plenty of great things to see and do at the South Dakota national parks. If you haven’t visited yet, all I can say is, “What are you waiting for?”
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