South Dakota’s 16 Most Underrated Tourist Attractions

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When most people think of South Dakota they either think ‘flyover country’ or ‘the Mount Rushmore State’. However, both these nicknames sell the state short – South Dakota has much more than Mount Rushmore or the Badlands. (Not to say that the Badlands isn’t extraordinary; in fact, we loved them more than the Grand Canyon itself! Don’t believe us? Read our Badlands vs Grand Canyon post right here.) The state has many least known tourist attractions including a sculpture of Buffalo Leap created by Kevin Costner. Read below to see some of the state’s most underrated tourist attractions:

Disclaimer: This post is about underrated and less known tourist attractions and things to do in South Dakota. If you are looking for South Dakota’s most popular tourist attractions, check out our article on Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: When to Go and What to See.

Black Hills National Forest

Black Hills National Forest was once the home of Native Americans and Bisons. Visitors can drive through the vast expanse of land and amidst rolling hills to view wildlife and cattle. The roads pass through diverse landscapes and variety of geological formations. If you go at the right time during spring and summer, wildflowers bloom in the area and enhance the beauty of the Black Hills. There are also a lot of hiking trails in the area. We recommend filling up the gas before you drive inside the forest.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave in South Dakota is one of the longest caves in the world. The cave formations like calcite crystals, popcorns, draperies etc are spectacular and tourists can view the underground marvel by booking different kinds of cave tours. It gets cold in the cave so long sleeved shirt/jacket and closed toe shoes are a must. We strongly recommend advance tour reservations (minimum of 2-3 weeks in advance during peak season) and spending a minimum of 3 hours at the national monument to truly experience Jewel Cave.

Inside Jewel Cave National Monument Credit: Murray Foubister

Wind Cave National Park

Very few people realize that South Dakota has another national park beside Badlands – the Wind Cave National Park. Just like Jewel Cave, Wind Cave is another of South Dakota’s cave systems and visitors can choose cave tours depending on their fitness level. The cave has many beautiful and unique geological formations including boxwork and popcorn formations. Just like Jewel Cave, we recommend advance booking, cool weather clothes, and close-toed shoes to get the best out of your visit.

The Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary

The wild horse sanctuary in Black Hills of South Dakota is a must for anyone who loves horses. The herd of wild mustangs has grown to over 500 horses over time and they are free to roam and run wild over an area of 11,000 acres. Visitors can take a 2-hour tour and even go off-road to view the different herds of beautiful horses. The tour also includes information about Native American and Wild West history.

Harney Peak / Black Elk Peak

Previously known as Harney Peak, Black Elk Peak is the tallest peak in South Dakota. There is a long uphill hike to the top of this peak offering gorgeous 360-degree views from the top. There is also a fire tower lookout at the top. The hike is of moderate difficulty and we recommend starting early in the morning to reach the peak before noon. The entire hike takes 4-6 hours round trip, is about 7 miles long and you need to carry sufficient water and food for the day.

View from the top of Harney Peak Credit: blucolt

Petrified Wood Park

Petrified Wood Park is a great, free roadside attraction and features a variety of structures made from petrified wood. The park also has a historical museum with a lot of information of petrified wood and local history. The park has spires, fountains, jail, buildings and other objects made from petrified wood. The park has a play area for kids and clean restrooms, making it a perfect stop on South Dakota Road Trip.

Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs is must visit for anyone with an interest in natural history. Mammoth Site is one of the attractions for natural history and paleontology lovers throughout the world and is a working paleontology museum. Remains of a variety of ice age mammals including mammoths have been discovered at the site. They have complete preserved specimens including intact skeletons and tusks. The museum has many interactive activities for children and is a great attraction for families.

Skeletons of mammoths discovered at the Mammoth Site, Hot Springs Credit: Jeff the quiet

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

Among South Dakota’s top 5 scenic drives, Spearfish Canyon is a beautiful winding road that follows the natural route of the canyon carved by Spearfish Creek. The scenic byway passes along a few natural waterfalls: the Bridal Veils Falls and Roughneck Falls. The views in the canyon are especially spectacular during fall when leaves change color.

Disclaimer: This post is about underrated and less known tourist attractions and things to do in South Dakota. If you are looking for South Dakota’s most popular tourist attractions, check out our article on 15 Reasons to put South Dakota on your bucket list

Corn Palace at Mitchell

Famously advertised as the ‘World’s Only Corn Palace’, the Mitchell Corn Palace is a truly unique roadside attraction. Located an hours drive from Sioux Falls, it is a building with its exterior completely decorated with corn and corn stalks. The inside of the corn palace is like a small museum with murals completed in corn, photos of prior corn decorations, and exhibits detailing the history of the Corn Palace. Best part? The Corn Palace is completely free to visit! Read our guide to visiting the Corn Palace here.

The Corn Palace at Mitchell is a unique roadside attraction

Black Hills Central Railroad

This is a scenic railroad amongst the Black Hills and takes you on a historic route between Hill City and Keystone in an 1880 steam engine train. The route was originally built to support gold mines in the Black Hills and the railroad is the longest continually operating railroad in the country. The round trip takes 2 hours and is 20 miles long. We strongly recommend this for train aficionados and I hope to take S-Boy here one day.

Tatanka: Story of the Bison

Since South Dakota has many impressive sculptures including Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse; the sculpture of the Bison Leap at Tatanka is usually not on many tourists radar. We recommend visiting the sculpture and its museum to know more about the significance of bison in the life of the Lakota Indians. The bronze sculpture is third largest in the world and is a short drive away from Deadwood and the information is narrated by a Lakota guide. The Memorial is built by Kevin Costner as a tribute to the bison and Lakota Indians after understanding their story during the filming of ‘Dancing with Wolves’ and is a must for Kevin Costner fans.

Deadwood

Deadwood, an old abandoned mining town, is a fun attraction in this part of South Dakota. Gold was discovered in the Black Hills during the Gold Rush and the mining town of Deadwood was established to support the operations. The town is associated with many figures of the American West including Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill. Walking through Dead Wood is like stepping back into an era of adventure and intrigue. Live shows depicting the American West and reenactments of shootouts are regularly held in Deadwood and while most of the old buildings are now either bars and casinos, many of the old shops selling fun souvenirs still exist. The town cemetery houses legends of the Wild West.

Main Street of Deadwood Credit: Richie Diesterheft

Chapel in the Hills

Chapel in the Hills in Rapid City is an exact replica of an 850-year-old Borgund Church in Norway. It is one of the hidden gems of the area and visited by very few people. However, if you visit the chapel you will fall in love with it and won’t be disappointed. The chapel is free to visit and has unique and interesting wooden architecture with shingles, bell tower, and other intricate details.

Falls Park

Falls Park is located in downtown Sioux Falls and is one of the most beautiful waterfall parks in the world. The Sioux River falls over many tiers of red Sioux quartzite rock resulting in a majestic series of waterfalls. The park has hiking and biking trails and visitors can climb over the surrounding rocks as well. If you are visiting through Sioux Falls, the park is a must-visit attraction.

Depression-Era Dinosaur Park

Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, built during the times of the Great Depression, is free and one of the best stops for families. The park has 5 of the earliest identified dinosaurs: Brontosaurus, Apatosaurus, Triceratops, Stegosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus Rex in life-size concrete forms. Climbing on the dinos is allowed and even encouraged, much to children’s delight. This park was built around 1937 and the giant beasts look great even today. The park is located on a hill and seeing the dinosaurs involves some climbing but the views of Rapid City from the top are magnificent. When we completed our South Dakota Road Trip, it was just the two of us but on our next trip to South Dakota with our son, we will definitely stop here on our way, especially since he is pretty dinosaur crazy right now.

Triceratops Credit: Minnesota Jones

Porter Sculpture Park

Porter Sculpture Park in Montrose is filled with unique, quirky, and whimsical sculptures. Most of the sculptures are intricate, detailed, and accompanied by poetry or stories to give some context. The sculptor lives on site and owns the property on which the park is located. It takes about an hour to wander around the area and see all the sculptures. The park is located just west of Sioux Falls on I-90 and makes an interesting road trip stop.

Disclaimer: This post is about underrated and less known tourist attractions and things to do in South Dakota. If you are looking for South Dakota’s most popular tourist attractions, check out our article on Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: When to Go and What to See.

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