It would be a mistake to overlook South Dakota as a travel destination. Besides being the home of the iconic Mount Rushmore, a location on many Americans’ travel bucket lists, it is simply a beautiful state.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- South Dakota Bucket List Destinations
- Spring and Summer Bucket List Ideas for South Dakota
- Fall and Winter Bucket List Ideas for South Dakota
- Kid-Friendly Bucket List Ideas for South Dakota
- Bucket List Foods and Restaurants in South Dakota
- Rapid City Bucket List Ideas
Even if seeing the four presidents doesn’t appeal to you, there are two National Parks and plenty of state parks that you can explore. And unlike a lot of crowded National Parks throughout the country, the ones in South Dakota provide plenty of opportunities to socially distance.
Here are our South Dakota bucket list suggestions. Make sure you read the whole list because some of our recommendations could fall into several different categories.
South Dakota Bucket List Destinations
Ready to travel to South Dakota? Even though the state ranks 47th by population, it is a great place to visit. Besides, one of the first rules for creating a bucket list is that you should include locations that are off the beaten path.
1. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Often listed as South Dakota’s most popular tourist destination, Mount Rushmore National Memorial receives approximately two million visitors a year. The memorial features the heads of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.
Oddly, the memorial’s name has nothing to do with the person who designed it (Gutzon Borglum) or his son, who finished the monument after his father’s death. Instead, the mountain was thus named when a New York lawyer named Charles E. Rushmore traveled to the Black Hills in 1885 to inspect mining claims.
When Rushmore asked a local man the name of the mountain, the man reportedly replied that it never had a name before—but from now on would be known as Rushmore Peak.
2. Badlands National Park
You may have traveled to South Dakota to check Mount Rushmore off your bucket list. However, there are a lot of family-friendly locations you need to visit while there.
The Badlands is unlike any other national park you may have visited. It has a rugged beauty that needs to be experienced in person to be appreciated. It covers 244,000 acres, which includes jagged buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires, as well as an expanse of mixed-grass prairie. Visitors may see bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets and learn about the fossils of three-toed horses and saber-toothed cats that have been found there.
The South Unit of the National Park is co-managed by the National Park Service and the Oglala Lakota tribe.
3. The Crazy Horse Memorial
The memorial for Crazy Horse has been in progress since 1947. The monument features the head and upper torso of the Lakota leader, who fought against the U.S. government for encouraging white settlers to establish homes on Lakota land.
Besides learning about the progress of the memorial, visitors to the site can also enjoy The Indian Museum of North America and The Native American Educational and Cultural Center. The museums feature American Indian art and artifacts from tribal Nations across North America.
Spring and Summer Bucket List Ideas for South Dakota
It gets hot in South Dakota during the summer, so make sure you bring plenty of water if you choose to hike in the Badlands. There’s not any shade available to keep you out of the blazing sun.
If you prepare for the weather, spring and summer are great times to visit South Dakota. Here are some ideas of what to do.
4. Custer State Park
Custer State Park is located within Black Hills National Forest and is one of the largest state parks in the country. It’s an excellent place for camping, hiking, fishing, and wildlife watching. Also, check out the chuckwagon cookouts hosted by professional guides at the park.
Probably one of the most impressive features of Custer State Park is the herd of approximately 1,300 bison that wander the park’s grounds. You may also see pronghorn antelope, elk, and mountain goats. As you might guess, bison can be aggressive. So visitors are asked to maintain a respectable distance from these giant creatures.
5. Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park is not only beautiful and impressive, but it also provides visitors with the opportunity to escape the grueling summer heat. This National Park is located south of Custer State Park and features more than 140 miles of one of the longest cave systems in the country.
The exploration of this National Park is done by guided tour and starts with an elevator ride that goes 12 stories underground. You’ll see amazing cave formations and large ceilings and may have the opportunity to experience absolute darkness.
Fall and Winter Bucket List Ideas for South Dakota
Fall is a great time to travel to South Dakota. Even though there are only a couple of ski areas in the state, it is a great place to go during the winter for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding, skating, or ice fishing. Plus— South Dakota has more than 1,500 miles of snowmobiling trails statewide.
6. Evans Plunge
Named the “oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills,” Evans Plunge is a mineral water pool that opened for visitors in 1890. The indoor pool features 87-degree mineral water. Your kids will love the water slides and kids’ pools. In addition, you’ll appreciate the two hot tubs, sauna, and steam room.
As we mentioned, South Dakota is a dream location for snowmobile enthusiasts. There are trails all across the state.
Kid-Friendly Bucket List Ideas for South Dakota
South Dakota is the ultimate kid-friendly tourist location because the most popular destinations are outdoors. As a result, there’s no waiting in long lines when visiting South Dakota. In fact, your children will be worn out each night from all of the outdoor exercise and fresh air they receive.
While everything on our list so far is kid-friendly, here are some more options.
8. 1880 Black Hills Train
Take a ride through the Black Hills on an 1880s train. The train departs from both Hill City and Keystone and sometimes features live entertainment. Their “Holiday Express” train ride comes with a special red-clad guest, and passengers receive warm cups of cocoa, cookies, stories, and a gift.
9. Four Mile Old West Town
This family-owned and operated tourist destination gives kids of all ages the chance to imagine what life was like in 1880s South Dakota. You can wander through a general store, chapel, barn, shed, and saloon.
10. Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to participate in a real-life archaeological dig? Then, visit the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village. This kid-friendly facility features storytellers, sky-tellers, and artists. In addition, your family will enjoy some friendly competition as you each learn how to throw a spear.
Bucket List Foods and Restaurants in South Dakota
Naming bucket list foods and restaurants in any state is problematic. South Dakota is no different. Here are some popular restaurants that seem to have a big following. Consider adding these stops to your food bucket list.
11. The Wheel Inn Cafe
Located in Watertown, South Dakota, The Wheel Inn Cafe started 50 years ago as a car-hop. Recently, The Food Network recognized this establishment for offering the ultimate in comfort food—the open face hot beef sandwich.
12. Tyndall Bakery
The Tyndall Bakery has been serving fine baked goods for more than 80 years. One of their specialties is the kolache, a sweet pastry that originated in Czechoslovakia. The Tyndall Bakery is located in Tyndall, South Dakota.
13. Laughing Water Restaurant
Laughing Water Restaurant is located at the Crazy Horse Memorial and features Native American tacos and Tatanka stew, which is made with buffalo. Their specialty is wojapi, which is made from chokecherries and served with hot fry bread.
14. Black Hills Burger and Bun
Are you excited to try buffalo? Then, Black Hills Burger and Bun is the place to do it. The restaurant is located in Custer, South Dakota, and features a wide variety of specialty burgers.
Rapid City Bucket List Ideas
Rapid City is known as the gateway to Mount Rushmore. Besides being located near the state’s most popular tourist attraction, the city is also home to other family-friendly stops. Here are a few to consider.
15. South Dakota Air and Space Museum
We haven’t mentioned any museums on our list of things to do in South Dakota because there are so many outdoor locations to visit. However, those fascinated with the aviation industry would love the South Dakota Air and Space Museum.
Visitors can get up close to aircraft flown in WWII, the Korea War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. Visitors also have the opportunity to tour Ellsworth Air Force Base and the Minuteman II missile training silo.
16. Reptile Gardens
Are you a fan of reptiles? Then Reptile Gardens is your dream zoo. You’ll love seeing the “gentle giant” Aldabra Tortoises who live on the property.
17. Storybook Island
Storybook Island is an ionic Rapid City location. It has been open each summer since 1959. Storybook Island is decorated with characters from fables, nursery rhymes, and children’s stories. In addition, the Storybook Island Children’s Theatre performs children’s theatre productions throughout the summer.
What Is Missing From Our List?
We know that we are missing a lot from our suggestions for your South Dakota bucket list. After all, we didn’t include any of the activities in Deadwood, South Dakota. We also didn’t include Wall Drug or the Corn Palace.
If you have never been to South Dakota, we hope we have inspired you to give it a try. This state has a lot of hidden gems. So it would be a mistake to simply consider it “fly-over country.”