15 Amazing Family Things To Do in South Dakota (+ Interactive Map)

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Is your family planning an epic cross-country family road trip this summer? If you’ve never been to South Dakota, this is a fantastic state to visit.

While it’s true that this state and its northern neighbor are known for wide open plains, prairies dogs, a home for where the buffalo roam, and well…nothingness (AKA awesomeness with no strip malls), there’s actually an incredible array of fun things for your family to do in South Dakota. And everything is within just a few hours drive (or less).

National Parks Mom family standing next to the Badlands National Park entrance sign in South DakotaPin

How to Get to South Dakota

If you’re not going to do the cross-country road-trip thing (which I think every family should try at least once), there are a couple of options for flying to this area.

Sioux Falls Airport (FSD) is the largest South Dakota airport. It’s a 4-hour drive from Badlands National Park, and 5 hours from Custer State Park.

If you want to fly on a carrier like Southwest, for instance, the closest international airport to this region outside of South Dakota is Denver International Airport (DEN). From Denver, you’ll be looking at a 6 hour drive north to Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Black Hills area.

To get really close to the South Dakota action via plane, you could look at flights into Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) which is just one hours from the Badlands, but it’s a regional airport with more limited options.

However your family gets to South Dakota, you’ll need a car once there so that you’re easily able to make your way around to all the highlights we’ll show you. Get ready for an unforgettable journey.

woman seen taking picture through side mirror of car in yellowstone national parkPin
No matter how your family gets to South Dakota, you’ll want a car so you can scoot from place to place easily and hit all the state highlights!

For me, it’s one thing to read a nice list of all the best things to do in South Dakota, but it’s better if I can SEE it in order to understand where everything actually is in relation to one another. So I put together this interactive map for you, which I hope will be helpful!

Interactive Map of Best Family Things to do in South Dakota

National Parks Mom presents the top family-friendly hikes, accommodations, points of interest, and things to do in South Dakota on this map.

Using The Map:

Clicking the star next to the name of the map will save the map to your google account. To access it later on a computer or your smartphone, open google maps and select “Your Places”.

For details on any highlighted point on the map, simply click the icon on the map for additional information.

Best Things to do in South Dakota for Families

Alright, let’s dive into some amazing options for your South Dakota family adventure.

1. Badlands National Park

If you’re into breathtaking landscapes, fun (but also educational) experiences, and wildlife wonders? You won’t want to miss Badlands National Park!

children standing next to a Badlands National Park signPin

This South Dakota gem is in my opinion (and my kids) one of the best national parks for kids. The stark, natural beauty here is unparalleled, and the rock formations become a playground of natural wonders…and I MEAN playground! Kids will LOVE rock climbing, sliding, scampering and scurrying throughout this park. The Badlandshas an “open hike” policy, meaning it’s ok for you to venture off-trail.

Badlands National Park is home to a variety of wildlife, with American bison being one of the most iconic residents. Additionally, you may encounter bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and a diverse array of bird species. Remember to observe wildlife from a safe distance and never approach or feed them.

a family's shadows against the Badlands formationsPin
playing with shadows along the Fossil Exhibit Trail in Badlands NP

Check out the thorough article we’ve written which covers all the highlights your family should plan to hit during your Badlands adventure…

This Badlands NP article covers:

  • Badlands Loop Road
  • Yellow Mounds Overlook
  • Big Badlands Overlook
  • Door Trail
  • Window Trail
  • Notch Trail
  • Castle Trail
  • Fossil Exhibit Trail
  • Panorama Point
  • Pinnacles Overlook
  • Sage Creek Rim Road
  • White River Valley Overlook
  • Robert’s Prairie Dog Town
  • Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
  • Hay Butte Overlook
  • Sage Creek Basin Overlook
  • Burns Basin Overlook
  • Ranger Night Sky Program
  • Badlands NP Junior Ranger Program

2. Black Hills & Black Hills National Forest

The “Black Hills of South Dakota” refers to an entire region of South Dakota which is located just about 2 hours due west of Badlands NP. Many of the items on this list are actually located in this region. We’ll talk about where to stay in South Dakota later in the article, but the Black Hills is an area where you should plan on spending a few days.

National Forest Service sign for Black Hills National Forest, South DakotaPin

The Black Hills National Forest is the main attraction/backdrop for this entire region which covers over a million acres of land and spans two states…western South Dakota and the northeast corner of Wyoming.

view of Mt Rushmore in the distance from inside the CC Gideon Tunnel in the Black Hills National Forest, South DakotaPin
View of Mt Rushmore in the distance through the trees from inside the CC Gideon tunnel on one of many scenic drives in South Dakota…this one the Iron Mountain Road (which is technically inside Mt Rushmore National Monument property)

3. Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Located about 1.5 hours west of Badlands NP in Keystone South Dakota, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the United States’ most iconic monuments, and a can’t miss spot.

Get a glimpse of the legendary presidential sculptures, stop in the museum, take the easy 0.6 mile Presidential Trail (loop) that gets you up close and personal with this beautiful sculpture…

family in front of the NPS sign at Mt Rushmore National Memorial, Keystone South DakotaPin

Try and attend one (or several) of the park rangers talks and programs while you visit the memorial. The Lakota hoop dance presentation is outstanding. You can also rent a headset for an awesome self-guided audio tour, which we thought was outstanding.

There’s a junior ranger audio tour included as well. You’ll pay $8 for the headsets, but get your money back when you return them at the end of the tour.

To avoid crowds, head to this park when it first opens in the am, or in the evening. The evening offers a unique and stunning view of the memorial lit with floodlights.

And, of course, ice cream is always a draw…so be sure to grab some at the Memorial Ice Cream Shop and enjoy it outside as Honest Abe (longingly) looks on…

eating ice cream at Mount Rushmore National MemorialPin

4. Crazy Horse Memorial

Still being carved (the original sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski, started the project in 1948) the Crazy Horse Memorial is just 16 miles west of Mount Rushmore, and worth a couple of hours of your time to learn the history, and see the ongoing progress on this tribute to Lakota warrior Crazy Horse.

Crazy Horse Memorial in South DakotaPin
Crazy Horse Memorial

5. Hill City, South Dakota

Ride the 1880 train, and definitely hop aboard one of their Old West Shootouts if they are happening during your trip (these are typically available in the summer). Reservations strongly recommended as they sell out.

1880s train black hills south dakotaPin
1880 Train in Hill City, SD

If you have a budding paleontologist in the family, then you’ll want to spend a bit of time in the Museum of the Black Hills Institute, which boasts a huge private fossil collection (South Dakota is known for its incredible dinosaur discoveries).

1880s train black hills south dakotaPin
1880 train

6. Keystone, South Dakota

If you ride the 1880 Train, it will take you between the town of Hill City and Keystone. In Keystone, don’t miss the opportunity to pan for gold at the Big Thunder Gold Mine.

panning for gold at Big Thunder Gold Mine, South DakotaPin
my boys panning for gold at Big Thunder Gold Mine in Keystone, South Dakota

I did this as a kid, and took my own kids there 20 years later, and they loved it as much as I did in the 1990s.

Keystone is only 2 miles northwest of Mt. Rushmore (and technically, Mount Rushmore’s address is IN Keystone).

panning for gold at Big Thunder Gold Mine, South DakotaPin
the whole family was very intent on striking it rich during our panning adventure in 2020

7. Rapid City, South Dakota

Rapid City is the largest town in proximity to Badlands NP, and the location of the regional airport that your family may decide to fly into.

Here, don’t miss Bear Country USA, a private zoo where you can encounter black bears, elk, reindeer, porcupine and more as you drive through the park.

YouTube video
Black bears at Bear Country USA

8. Deadwood, South Dakota

Known for casinos and lots of activities that may draw an older crowd, Deadwood, located 1.5 hours northwest of Badlands NP, is worth a daytime stop for you and your family, if only to take in one of their summertime Main St shootout re-enactments. It’s a real taste of the wild west!

main street in Deadwood South DakotaPin

Main St Deadwood South Dakota | Bas van Oorschot, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Deadwood also has walking tours, card games for kids, and stagecoach rides.

It’s also less than a mile to drive up to Mount Moriah Cemetery, which sits on a ridge overlooking town and is the burial location for Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.

Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane signs at Deadwood CemeteryPin
Burial Site of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane in Deadwood Cemetery | Louisvillejg, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

9. Custer State Park

In my opinion, Custer State Park, located just one hour west of Badlands NP, is far and away one of the best state parks in the entire US. Your family could easily spend several days here (even a week) and never get bored.

This park boasts three lodges, and cabins as well. So if you take me up on the suggestion to stay in the Black Hills region for a couple of nights before or after your Badlands National Park adventure, this is the spot to do that.

wild donkeys on the wildlife loop road in Custer State ParkPin
wild donkeys are one of the many animals who roam within Custer State Park, here seen on the awesome Wildlife Loop Road

There’s a huge managed herd of 1300 bison in the park, and amazing spots for swimming, boating, horseback riding and more.

If you go in late September, you’ll be able to witness the fall bison roundup where the herd is moved to its winter location. In the summer time, the buffalo safari jeep tour is fabulous.

bison amongst others in Lamar Valley, Yellowstone National ParkPin

The hayride and chuck wagon cookout is also a must-do in the summer months.

If you’re headed to the park at any other time of year, there are some incredible scenic drives through the park that you won’t want to miss…top on the list is the Needles Highway.

YouTube video
OK, you’ll have to endure an EXCEEDINGLY dirty windshield (if it drives you crazy, know that it drove me crazy too as I rewatched this video…I kept wanting to break out the Windex). Anyhow, this will give you a taste of the Needles Highway…one of the best US scenic drives, I think.

10. Wind Cave National Park

South of Custer State Park, and one hour and fifteen minutes west of the Badlands, Wind Cave National Park is another amazing national park where you can spelunk (i.e. take one of the cave tours) and learn more about the over 80 miles of (known) cave passages within this park.

Plus, the grasslands in this park are a great place to spot elk, bison, prairie dogs and many other animals native to this interesting eco-system.

11. Wall Drug

Just 11 miles north of Badlands NP, Wall Drug in the town of Wall offers a quirky road trip tradition with its free ice water and charming shops. For east coasters, think “South of the Border” in South Carolina, only Wall Drug is much cooler.

Is it a tourist trap? You betcha. But in a really fun way. I remember stopping there as a teenager on a family road trip out west. It’s where I got my first pair of cowboy boots…and it was one of my favorite things we did on the entire trip!

entrance to Wall Drug, in Wall South DakotaPin
Coemgenus at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

12. Buffalo Gap National Grassland

Located about an hour southwest of the badlands, Buffalo Gap National Grassland is a vast prairie land which offers additional opportunities for hiking, wildlife viewing, and immersing yourself in the unique ecosystem surrounding the Badlands.

As you traverse the park, take a moment to reflect on the rich heritage of the Lakota people.

Badlands National Park is situated near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, providing an opportunity to learn about the cultural significance of the region to Native Americans. Respect the land and its history as you explore.

Buffalo Gap National Grassland signPin

13. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

There’s fierce competition in South Dakota for the honor of “best scenic drive” and I can’t weigh in on a winner, because they are all fabulous. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is a 19-mile stretch of beautiful road in the northwest area of the Black Hill region.

Take in waterfalls, cascades, flowing creeks and stop for some beautiful hikes if you want to get out of the car.

spearfish canyon scenic byway in south dakotaPin
view along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

14. The World’s Only Corn Palace

Yep. It’s just what it sounds like. A “palace” made of corn (or at least corn is stapled/nailed to the building facade). Don’t go out of your way, but if you drive, or fly into Minneapolis, or Sioux Falls in order to get to the Badlands and Black Hills regions of South Dakota, you’ll be passing right through Mitchell, South Dakota in the eastern part of the state along Interstate 90.

The Corn Palace was originally constructed in 1892. Today, it serves as an event hall and hosts tours in the summer. It’s a great photo opp, place to stretch your legs, and check out a kitschy gift shop.

the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South DakotaPin

15. Jewel Cave National Monument

These caverns can be found about 2 hours southwest of the badlands (but only 20 minutes west of Custer State Park).

entrance sign for Jewel Cave National Monument in South DakotaPin
Yet another gem, or “jewel” in this area of South Dakota…welcome to Jewel Cave National Monument! | Runner1928, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jewel Cave National Monument is known for having over 200 miles of known/mapped cave passages, and its brilliant colors.

Check in at the visitor center for the schedule, or here online, so your family can take part in one of the ranger-guided tours.

inside Jewel Cave National MonumentPin
Inside Jewel Cave National Monument | Murray Foubister, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How Long Should We Stay in South Dakota?

As you can see by now, South Dakota has a lot to offer including 2 national parks, and 5 other locations operated by the National Park Service (national monuments, national memorials, national historic landmarks, historic trails, and even a recreational river). This state also boasts 2 national forests (Custer and Black Hills), and 63 recreation areas and state parks.

In short…you could stay there a while ;).

I’d recommend (if being reasonable) about a week, minimum in South Dakota. And here’s how I’d break that time up geographically:

  • 2-3 nights Badlands National Park
  • 2-4 nights Custer State Park
  • 1 night Spearfish Canyon area
kids climbing sandstone rock formations on the door trail in Badlands National Park, South DakotaPin
climbing in the Badlands, a natural playground

Where Should We Stay in South Dakota?

Whenever possible, I highly recommend people stay inside national parks and state parks whenever possible. While I have nothing against the Marriotts and Hyatts of the world, staying in the lodges and cabins within these parks will give your family the most authentic taste of these places (and they are almost always exceedingly reasonable priced).

Lodging in Badlands National Park

Here’s a more detailed article about Badlands National Park lodging. In short, book early and stay at Cedar Pass “Lodge”. I put lodge in quotes because it’s not actually a lodge. It’s rustic cabins. And they are awesome…in a rustic sense. You’ll be right in the heart of the park, and you cannot beat that.

cabin in Cedar Pass at Badlands National ParkPin
my family at our Cedar Pass Lodge cabin

Lodging in the Black Hills Region

For your time in the Black Hills region, and seeing places like Mount Rushmore, Keystone, Hill City, etc. I’d highly recommend staying in Custer State Park.

Within the park, there are three lodges, including:

  • Sylvan Lake Lodge
  • State Game Lodge
  • Creekside Lodge

Beyond lodges, there are cabins near these lodges, as well as other places in the park. To learn more about these options and book, head here.

I’ve been to Custer State Park three times in my life, and have stayed in the cabins and each of the lodges, and I can’t really say a bad thing about any of them. Sylvan Lake Lodge is the highest-end of the lodging there. It’s beautiful, and the Sylvan Lake area offers boating, swimming, and lots of fun, family-friendly things to do.

Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park, South DakotaPin
Sylvan Lake is a great place for swimming, boating and hiking…and the Sylvan Lodge is a fantastic lodging option | Jennifer L. Sovanski from United States of America. Cropped and color-corrected by Daniel Case, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Game Lodge has more of a historic feel, which it comes by honestly. This wood lodge was built in 1920, and it retains it’s original character and feel.

state game lodge, Custer State Park, South DakotaPin
The State Game Lodge – one of the lodging options in Custer State Park (and they have a fabulous restaurant here as well)

The last option I’d recommend in this area (and certainly it’s last but definitely not least) is Under Canvas Mount Rushmore. It’s located just 11 minutes from Mount Rushmore, it will provide your family with a plush, glamping opportunity set in the beauty of the Black Hills.

Our family LOVES Under Canvas, and though we haven’t yet stayed at this particular location, we’ve been to their Smoky Mountains, Acadia, and both Yellowstone locations and loved every minute of each trip.

Lodging in Spearfish Canyon

For a night in the Spearfish Canyon area, I’d recommend the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. This northern area of the Black Hills is close to Deadwood, so this would be the time to fit that excursion into your itinerary.

Helpful Tips for Your South Dakota Trip

Some dates to keep in mind/information to help you decide when to travel to South Dakota…

  1. Sturgis Motorcycle Rally – this is a HUGE event in South Dakota and it takes place in early-mid August. Lodging will be harder to come by during this time, and many of the attractions will also be more crowded.
  2. Buffalo Roundup and Arts Festival – this takes place each year toward the end of fall in Custer State Park. Bison in the park are herded up and escorted to their winter grazing land. There’s an arts festival that takes place simultaneously making this a fun family-activity with something for everyone to enjoy.
  3. If you’re looking to experience this area of the country at the best time of year, I’d recommend mid-June through end of July, or end of August to early September. That’s when all the activities in Custer State Park will be happening (cowboy cookout, wildlife safari, etc), restaurants and all lodging will be open, and other activities in the area will all be open. In the fall/winter and early spring, many of these activities are unavailable.

I hope that this list of things to to do has helped you hone in on the best South Dakota attractions, options for scenic tours, popular places, scenic views, and other noteworthy tourist attractions that are worth visiting when you head to South Dakota. After all, it’s a popular destination for a reason. This beautiful place is one that your family is sure to love, and you’ll come back home with lasting memories that will be treasured for a lifetime!

Pin this must see “things to do in South Dakota” list for later! And if you found this article helpful, leave a comment on the pin. That helps others decide whether to use this information, too!

BEST 15 family-friendly things to do in South Dakota! From the Badlands to panning for gold & eating ice cream w/ Honest Abe, you'll have an AMAZING vacation! #familytravel #southdakota #usnationalparks #southdakotathingstodo #familytravelideas #nationalparksmomPin
happy trails, heatherPin
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About Heather Thibodeau

Heather Thibodeau is the founder and mom behind nationalparksmom.com.

She and her husband Dave (AKA Tib) are on a mission to travel to as many US national parks with their three kids in tow as they possibly can, doing their best to keep the little ones out in nature and off of screens in an increasingly digital world.

Heather has earned degrees in biology & chemistry from Virginia Tech (Go Hokies), and holds master's and doctorate degrees in physical therapy from Duke University (Go Blue Devils).

Heather is also the creative force behind The Heathered Nest where she shares her love of all things DIY and home decor.

Her work has been featured in Better Homes and Gardens, House Beautiful, Good Housekeeping, This Old House, Today.com, The Washington Post, Boston Globe, and more.

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