South Dakota National Parks Guide


Last Updated on September 5, 2023 by Grant

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 might not think it is a super interesting state.

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. Five of the six South Dakota national park sites are 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. Finally, over on the eastern side of the state is the Missouri National Recreational River.

A sunrise in Badlands National Park is a must-see.
Sunrise in Badlands National Park.

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! 

Updated August 2023

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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. 

Mount Rushmore is one of six South Dakota national parks.
Avenue of Flags

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. 

Mt. Rushmore from the Presidential Trail.
Mt. Rushmore from the Presidential Trail.

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 the natives 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. 

Read our full guide of Things to Do at Mount Rushmore NM.

The Sculptor's Studio is just one of many things to do at Mount Rushmore.
The Sculptor’s Studio has some pretty amazing views of the mountain.

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.

Bison herd in Wind Cave National Park.
Bison herd in Wind Cave National Park.

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.

Wind Cave NP is one of six South Dakota national parks.
The Natural Entrance to Wind Cave actually breathes! Depending on the air pressure, air will either rush out or in.

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. 

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. 

The view from Rankin Ridge in Wind Cave National 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. 

Read our full article on visiting Wind Cave National Park.

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!

The Natural Entrance to the cave is still used for lantern tours. It has a grate to keep random folks out and to allow the bats that roost in the cave to fly out.
The Natural Entrance to the cave is still used for lantern tours. It has a grate to keep random folks out and to allow the bats that roost in the cave to fly out.

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! 

Cave Bacon in Jewel Cave National Monument.
Cave Bacon in Jewel Cave National Monument.

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!

Bonnie Sinclair squeezing through the concrete test at Jewel Cave National Monument.
Anyone going on the Wild Cave Tour has to be able to squeeze through this box. While Bonnie could with difficulty, Grant said, “Nope!”

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. 

Check out our full article on Jewel Cave here. 

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. 

Devils Tower NM is one of many things to do near Custer State Park.
Devils Tower

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.

Read our article on scenic drives in the Black Hills.

Driving through mud puddles on an ATV is tons of fun!
Grant driving through one of many mudholes along our trip.

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. 

Check out our full guide to hiking in the Black Hills.

There are many trail hiking trails and scenic views in the Black Hills.
A selfie atop Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills.

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!

Check out our complete guide to visiting the Black Hills.

There are many great breweries and wineries near Custer State Park.
A couple of flights at Mount Rushmore Brewing Company in Custer.

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.

Badlands National Park is one of our favorite South Dakota national parks.
The view from the Pinnacles Overlook in 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.

Read our guide to hiking in Badlands National Park.

A hike in Badlands NP is a great way to see the formations up close.
Grant hiking the Notch Trail.

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 park 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. 

Read our full guide to visiting Badlands National Park.

The South Unit of Badlands NP is worth the drive.
View from Sheep Mountain Road in the South Unit of Badlands NP.

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.

Minuteman Missle NHS is a close stop when visiting Badlands National Park.
When we first visited this national historic site back in 2012, the visitor center was a double-wide trailer. They have since built a wonderful visitor center with extensive exhibits. It is well worth the stop even if you don’t plan on doing a tour.

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.

A visit to Minuteman Missile NHS is a must when visiting the South Dakota national parks.
The blast door leading into the control room for one of the missile silos.

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.

The missle control console at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
The missile control console at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

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.

Main Street in Wall, SD
Main Street in Wall, SD. Don’t worry, there is plenty of additional parking nearby.

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.

Read more about Wall Drug and Minuteman Missile NHS here.

The Cowboy Orchestra at Wall Drug
The Cowboy Orchestra, one of the many hopelessly cheesy but awesome tourist attractions in Wall Drug.

Missouri National Recreational River

South Dakota’s sixth national park site, Missouri National Recreational River, is in Yankton, which is in the southeast corner of the state right on the Nebraska border. It took a few tries to get there, but we finally visited this site in the summer of 2023.

This park preserves two separate stretches of the Missouri River, on either side of Lewis and Clark Lake, and a small portion of the Niobrara River. To the west is the 39-mile district. To the east is the 59-mile district. State Parks, Recreation Areas and Wildlife Areas mix with the national park, offering several opportunities for hiking, fishing and paddling. 

Sunset on the Missouri River
Gavin’s Point Dam on the Missouri River at sunset

These two stretches of the Missouri River are the least developed. Thus, this part of the river is the most similar to what Lewis and Clark would have seen during their expedition in the early 1800s.

We spent three days camping at the Chief White Crane Recreation Area and exploring the park. Of course, one of the most popular things to do here is to get out on the river and do some boating and fishing. There are also a few historic sites and hiking trails. We were also able to join in on a ranger-led kayak class on Lake Yankton, which was formed from an old channel of the Missouri River.

Paddling on Lake Yankton
Bonnie and Ranger Anne kayaking on Lake Yankton.

Visiting rivers and other water-based parks can be difficult without your own boat. Still, we had a great time and found plenty of things to do in the area.

Read more about visiting the Missouri River Recreational Area.

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.

Custer State Park is a must see in the Black Hills.
A bison jam on our last night in Custer.

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. 

Main Street in Rapid City
Main Street in Rapid City

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 four 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?”

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. You can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

We recently partnered with Stay22 to add interactive maps to each of our destination posts. This will allow you to see a plethora of hotels and vacation rentals all in one responsive map of the area.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices for booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viator first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.
We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
Click here to get a AAA membership.

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