Gently rolling prairies through shallow fertile valleys mark much of this endlessly attractive state. But head southwest and all hell breaks loose – in the best possible way. The Badlands National Park is the geologic equivalent of fireworks. The Black Hills are like opera: majestic, challenging, intriguing and even frustrating. Mt Rushmore matches the Statue of Liberty for five-star icon status.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout South Dakota.
Visitors can't help but be impressed by the sheer scale and massive physical effort of the team behind Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. Looking like they're either emerging from or being absorbed by the mountain, the stony faces of past presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt – carved 60ft tall in the granite of a Black Hills outcrop – are one of the most famous images in the US. The monument attracts three million visitors each year, making it the top attraction in the state. The Avenue of Flags greets visitors on arrival, and it has 56 flags displayed on pillars that represent the 50 states, one district, three territories and two commonwealths of the US. Those who are able for climbing can take the half-mile Presidential Trail to see the stately bunch up close. History of Mount Rushmore Before it was named Mount Rushmore, the granite formation was known as Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain, by the Lakota Sioux tribe, the original occupants of the area. The US government took ownership after the Great Sioux War of 1876, and it was later named Mount Rushmore after wealthy investor Charles E. Rushmore who visited the area regularly on prospecting and hunting trips. South Dakota historian Doane Robinson is credited with conceiving the idea of carving the presidential figures into the granite of Mount Rushmore mountain in 1923 as a way to draw tourists to the state of South Dakota. The project received congressional approval in 1925, and the National Park Service took Mount Rushmore under its jurisdiction in 1933. The carving started in 1927 and ended in 1941, with dynamite being used to blast the larger sections of rock. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum led the team of several hundred workers behind the project, while the chief carver of the mountain was Luigi del Bianco. George Washington's face was completed and dedicated in 1934, Thomas Jefferson’s in 1936, Abraham Lincoln’s in 1937 and Theodore Roosevelt’s in 1939. The entire project cost US$989,992. Since then, the site has been updated with an austere series of granite pillars holding the flags of each of the 56 US territories and states. At night, the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln are illuminated in a light show. What to do at Mount Rushmore The best way to see the monument is to arrive in the early morning, just before sunrise, when crowds are virtually absent, and the views are aided by the warm sunlight peaking over the horizon. The Avenue of Flags leads to Grand View Terrace, the primary platform for viewing the monument. This is the best place to take photos and there are free telescopes there to get a close-up of the famous figures. If you can tackle 422 stairs, take a walk on the pine-shaded, half-mile Presidential Trail to get a little closer to the the stony fellows, and perhaps glimpse some of the local wildlife. The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center is located beneath the Grand View Terrace, and it has exhibits and a 14-minute film about the carving in Mount Rushmore. Visit the Sculptor's Studio and listen to a ranger talk about Gutzon Borglum, the carving process and the lives of the workers. If you have small people with you, booklets are available at the information desks for the Junior Ranger program. If you fancy a bite to eat, dine in the Carvers' Café, and try the vanilla ice cream based on Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe from the the stand just outside the dining area. Getting there and other practicalities Mount Rushmore National Memorial is located on South Dakota Highway 44, 35 miles from Rapid City Regional Airport. No public transportation options are available. Visitors traveling by car on I-90 should exit at Rapid City and follow US Highway 16 southwest to Keystone and then South Dakota Highway 244 to Mount Rushmore. Visitors coming from the south should follow US Highway 385 north to South Dakota Highway 244. No reservations are needed to visit the memorial and it is free to visit. Parking is readily available in the memorial's parking complex, and costs $10 per vehicle and $5 for seniors aged 62 and older. The busiest months are June, July and August. May, September and October are less busy but are popular months to visit as well. Consider visiting before 9am or after 3.30pm to avoid the crowds. Acessibility Brochures in Braille are available at the Information Center or Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and an also be downloaded in advance. American Sign Language interpretation is available by request, free of charge. Requests must be received 14 days prior to your visit. Vehicles can unload mobility-impaired visitors in front of the main entryway and then park in the parking lot. Manual wheelchairs are available to check out inside the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and are free to use. Elevators are accessible from the Grand View Terrace to the museum lobby and Amphitheater. Depending on security issues, the Sculptor's Studio is wheelchair accessible from the remote parking area. Check with the ranger in the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center. The Presidential Trail is surfaced to accommodate wheelchairs from the Grand View Terrace to viewing areas at the base of the mountain. Carvers' Café and the gift shop are wheelchair accessible.
Mt Rushmore may lure travelers to the Black Hills, but it's nearby Custer State Park that often creates the most lasting memories. Not only does it boast some of the best American wildlife viewing outside of Yellowstone, but also curvaceous mountain drives, serene lakeside retreats and plenty of open range.
The portion of the Badlands west of Hwy 240 along this gravel road is much less visited than the sights of the Badlands Loop Rd. There are scenic overlooks and stops at prairie-dog towns; this is where most backcountry hikers and campers go to escape the crowds. As there is almost no water or shade here, don't strike out into the wilderness unprepared.
The Corn Palace is the king of roadside attractions, enticing more than half a million people to pull off I-90 each year. Close to 300,000 ears of corn are used annually to create a new tableaux of murals on the outside of the building. Ponder the scenes and you may find a kernel of truth or just say, 'aw, shucks.' Head inside to see photos of how the facade has evolved over the years.
Wall Drug is a surprisingly enjoyable tourist attraction of the old school. It really does have 5¢ coffee, free ice water, good donuts and enough diversions and come-ons to warm the heart of schlock-lovers everywhere. But amid the fudge is a superb bookstore with a great selection of regional titles. Out back, ride the mythical jackalope and check out the historical photos.
From a shifty-eyed Nixon in repose to a triumphant Harry Truman, lifelike statues dot corners throughout the center of Rapid City. Collect all 42. Maps are available online and at the friendly info center on Main St (which also sells ice cream). A much-anticipated 43rd statue, for Barack Obama, was due to debut at the corner of St Joseph and Fourth Sts in late 2019.
Stroll along the grass-lined paths to Sioux Falls' star attraction – its rambling namesake waterfall – at this picturesque park. Popular with amorous couples, it has a perfectly placed cafe and plenty of scenic overlooks and picnic tables. Visit between mid-November and mid-January and it becomes a winter wonderland with 355,000 twinkling lights.
Pinnacled rock formations with vivid color bands, sharp-edged cliffs with tiptoeing bighorn sheep, and sprawling colonies of feverish prairie dogs are just a few of the images you'll find in South Dakota's most storied national park. Incredibly user-friendly, nearly all of its top sights lie along the 40-mile Badlands Loop Rd.
Badlands National Park's North Unit gets the most visitors; this stunning road is easily reached from I-90 (exits 110 and 131) and you can drive it in an hour if you're in a hurry (and not stuck behind an RV). It is the main thoroughfare through the park, with lookouts, vistas and animal sightings aplenty.