The gateway to the American West, South Dakota harbors a range of exciting National Park Service sites within its borders. These are the cradle of ancient histories, myths, and adventures, loaded with spectacular landscapes.
The region annually sees thousands of tourists from across the globe visiting to behold the magnificence of Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Missouri National Recreational River, and many other such marvels.
Here, I’ll be taking you through some of the very famous and gorgeous national parks in South Dakota.
1. Badlands National Park
Situated in southwestern South Dakota, it is nearly 75 miles east of Rapid City. Standing tall against the prairies of South Dakota, it is the result of the accumulation of sediments, minerals, and everlasting erosion leading to layered rock formations in multitudes of colors, making it a landscape of outstanding rugged beauty.
Badlands National Park is open year-round. However, winters sometimes render the place beyond reach and accessibility. The Ben Reifel visitor center, lying on the southeastern edge of the park, is believed to be a famed starting point of the tour.
The national park promises to offer a one-of-a-kind experience to its visitors with impressive scenic drives, hiking trails, and wild caving tours.
The scenic drive takes you through the largest stretch of protected Prairie ecosystems in the Badlands National Park Service sites.
2. Wind Cave National Park
Located in the Black Hills National Forest, it lies south of the Custer State Park. Boasting 140 miles of mapped corridors, it furnishes its title as one of the longest cave systems in the country. It was the first cave to be designated a national park.
The cave’s name is derived from the atmospheric phenomena that frequently occur at the natural entrance to the cave. If visitors wish to explore and learn about these natural occurrences, they must seek the guidance of park rangers staff, who conduct guided cave tours nearly every day of the year.
The guided tours begin with an underground cave via a cement pathway (built in the 1930s). While walking any route, visitors are sure to behold a unique yet special geological system formed of dark spaces & corners, huge ceilings, and umpteen unique cave formations.
The unique box-work formations here make Wind Cave National Park – the world’s largest cave with huge concentrations of box-work formations and an adjacent forest area of approximately thirty-thousand acres encircled by mixed-grass prairie supporting the natural sanctuary of wildlife.
30 miles of hiking trails call you to experience its exalting wildlife comprising prairie dogs, antelope, buffaloes, and black-footed ferrets.
3. Jewel Cave National Monument
This is the world’s third-longest cave, with nearly 200.3 miles of mapped passageways. Established in 1908, it spreads over 2 sq miles (5 sq km) in the Black Hills. Located in southwestern South Dakota, approximately 50 miles southwest of the rapid city, the park is open year-round but limited opening hours during winter.
Words are less likely to capture the natural brilliance of these complex caves and their splendid characteristics. A series of chambers joined together forms the cavern, which is remarkable for its dazzling calcite crystals lining the entire dimension of the cave. In lightning, these incrustations start gleaming, similar to the shimmer of the sunlight on dewdrops.
Since time immemorial, the breathtaking beauty of the limestone’s fragile formations in the cave has created a range of stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstones.
So, hold onto your hats – all tours through the Jewel Cave are conducted by ranger-guided tours. You also get two hiking trails in the cave park and one in the adjacent black hills.
4. Lewis and Clark National Historical Park
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail measures roughly 4900 miles, extending from Pittsburgh to Pennsylvania to present-day Astoria, Oregon, connecting 16 states and traversing 1439 miles of water trails.
The park encompasses the banks of the Columbia River and the Pacific coast. The National Park Service currently administers the Lewis and Clark Expedition Trail.
This expedition was led initially by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in May 1804 and ended in September 1806. The primary reason behind this expedition was President Thomas Jefferson’s quest to find a feasible water route to the Pacific Ocean and collect information about the Missouri River and the natives inhabiting the route.
Presently, visitors follow the trail whilst simultaneously visiting its various landmarks, similar to what Clark and Lewis did 200 years ago.
5. Missouri National Recreational River
The Missouri National Recreational River extends from northeastern Nebraska to southeastern Dakotas. The Missouri River is the largest in the continent of North America.
Renowned for its refreshingly gorgeous landscapes and free-flowing stretches of water bodies, this park comprises 98 miles of the Missouri River plus 20 miles of the lower Niobrara River and 8 miles of Verdigre Creek.
Some of the most sought-after recreational activities here include boating, fishing, bird watching, and sightseeing. The Corp of discovery led by the Lewis and Clark expedition team traversed the river’s entire length.
The presence of plentiful wildlife along the waterways gives an exciting opportunity to view endangered and threatened species of fauna like the American bald eagle, the piping plover, and the least tern.
6. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Located in southwestern Dakotas, mount Rushmore National Memorial is an impressively colossal granite sculpture (60ft) carved (1927-41) into Mount Rushmore in the black hills of South Dakota, along with interactive museums and world-renowned exhibits.
A symbol of patriotism and pride for the Americans, tourists flock in enormous numbers to behold this wonder. Gutzon Borglum is the unequaled craftsman of this masterpiece, and he chose the four figures as he believed they symbolize crucial events in America’s history.
The rocks are craftily etched to form the faces of 4 great American revolutionary leaders – Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.
George Washington- the first president of the United States, is regarded as the Father of the US. He laid the foundation of American democracy after its independence from Great Britain. Thus he was chosen to represent the birth of great America.
Theodore Roosevelt- 26th president of The US. Widely remembered as the trustbuster of America, he played an indispensable role in negotiating the construction of the Panama Canal. He came to represent the development of America in the 20th century.
Thomas Jefferson- 3rd president of the US, represents the growth of America.
Abraham Lincoln – the 16th president of the US, represents the preservation of the United States of America.
7. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Instituted in 1999, this national historic site is one of the many national park service sites in South Dakota. This site is reminiscent of the Cold War period and its significance in history.
It is also symbolic of the nuclear deterrence, arms race that the world was pursuing at one point in history, plus the development of ballistic missiles.
If the Cold War fascinates you, don’t miss this historic site. A huge arsenal of nuclear missiles was hidden in the great plains for thirty years during the Cold War. Approximately 1,000 missiles were kept with intense security and on continuous alert.
The antithetical landscape of the region comprises serene & harmless prairies surrounding nuclear arsenals harboring the power to destroy the whole of human civilization.
8. Along with these 7 National Parks, South Dakota is also home to various beautiful state parks.
So, let’s have a look at them:
8.1 Custer State Park
Located inside Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park covers 71,000 acres, thus ranking as one of the largest state parks in the nation. It also holds the title of being the top tourist attraction in the state.
Packed with diverse wildlife fauna and captivating geological beauty, it offers recreational activities like hiking trails, wildlife viewing, fishing spots, and some of the best campgrounds in South Dakota.
Climbing granite spires with the help of a rope is one of the many exciting activities that tourists engage in large numbers.
Exploring Custer State Park sometimes seems overwhelming because of its outpouring of activities and the numerous sites it holds for tourists to visit.
Some of these are the Sylvan Lake City, Needles Highway, and naturalist programs at the Peter Norbeck outdoor education center and the Wildlife Loop Road.
8.2 Hartford Beach State Park
Situated near the glacial lake region of northeast South Dakota, this alluring segment of the Warren River is named Big Stone Lake. Owing to the presence of this huge expanse of water bodies, it offers numerous water activities like fishing, boating, and swimming near a golden sandy beach.
The 5 astonishing hiking trails and 9-hole disc golf course invite golf enthusiasts and adventurers to this state park.
8.3 Palisades State Park
Situated to the southeast corner of South Dakota, Palisades State Park is a hotbed for umpteen exciting outdoor adventures such as hiking trails, camping, photography, and rock climbing.
The most adventurous of these is Split Rock Creek, which has miraculously recorded its location for all one’s born days.
Coming from any Split Rock Creek banks, Sioux Quartzite pink ruled the area and offered an alluring attraction that makes Palisades very popular among its visitors.
Visitors to the Palisades can walk along the sandy beaches to witness the area’s awe-inspiring beauty. The South Wall Trail is a simple half-mile trek that leads to the spectacular view of Split Rock Creek.
Visitors with the right gear and knowledge also enjoy measuring rock formations. The campground of this historic site features among the top campgrounds of Dakotas.
8.4 Good Earth State Park
Good Earth State Park is a new addition to the South Dakota State Parks system. As part of the larger Blood Run National Historic Landmark, Good Earth State Park seeks to shower tribute to one of the oldest human historic sites in the country.
Since pre-colonial times, the land that includes Good Earth State Park at Blood Run has been a flourishing commercial and trading centre and a congregational site for the people of Oneota, including the tribes of Omaha, Ponca, and Ioway to collect together.
Today, you can understand more about these traditional cultures through the 11,000-square-foot Tourism Center in the park.
This avant-garde Visitor Center features astonishing exhibits featuring historical artifacts and life-like replication of Oneota culture. 6 miles of hiking trails from the Visitor Center, with comprehensive interpretation of information all the way.
Good Earth State Park trails ultimately lead to a charming view of the Big Sioux River.
8.6 Bear Butte State Park
It lies just north of the Black Hills National Forest, outside of the motorcycle town of Sturgis. The Bear Butte State Park continues to hold irreplaceable cultural significance for the indigenous people of South Dakota.
Also referred to as Mato Pahu or “Bear Mountain,” the Bear Butte stands over 1,000 feet above the surrounding area. The 1.85-mile trail presents picturesque & unequaled scenery from the summit of the sacred mountain.
Alongside the wandering herds of nomadic buffaloes, the Bear Butte is home to modern American-Indian festivities and spiritual rituals. Visitors cherish great reverence for these unique settings and all the divine practices carried out by the natives herein.
The state park uses an old campground, with 15 sites located near the shores of Bear Butte Lake, across the 79th highway from the mountain.
8.7 Sica Hollow State Park
In northeastern South Dakota, located 30 minutes from Fort Sisseton Historic State Park, this beautiful country park has a shady reputation attached to it. Locals often tell tales of uncanny and unexplained happenings in the area, though none of the claims are scientific or proven.
Still, the stories intrigue the visitors coming around to tour the region. Visitors can research it on the Trail of spirits- a National recreation trail.
The park is well-known for its total of eight miles of frequently used trails roaming the lush and luxurious countryside of Sica Hollow, and the park continues to expand in popularity.
Enthusiastic horse riders over the years have come from across the country to The horse camp in the park, which has eight available areas and community corals.
Autumn is considered the best time to visit the park when the greenery of the landscape starts to change to different gradients of orange.8.8 Fort Sisseton Historic State Park
Located at the top of the Coteau des Prairies in the northeastern region of South Dakota, 70 miles west of Hartford Beach State Park, Fort Sisseton was initially set up in the 1860s.
Visitors to Fort Sisseton Historic State Park are encouraged to explore different historical sites independently or under guided tour rangers.
Parts of the park are available for special events, including weddings and family reunions. It is worth checking out the annual Fort Sisseton Historic Festival, which occurs every June, bringing together many characters and all kinds of activities that individuals and the whole family can enjoy.
8.9 Newton Hills State Park
In the region’s southeastern corner, 30 miles south of Sioux Falls, Newton Hills State Park covers more than 1,000 acres of forested hills.
The park attracts tourists all year long to explore its impressive forest floor laid with a wide variety of flora & fauna. Hikers, cyclists, and riders can enjoy the many trails in Newton Hills through the six miles of Blue Diamond routes that are frequently found everywhere.
Coming in the winter, the unique plains of Newton Hills become an appealing site to explore skiing and snowshoes.
The fun does not have to be limited to a day trip to Newton Hills State Park, and with more than 100 campuses available, this southeastern South Dakota state park is ideal for camping and relaxing.
There you go, a list of all the national parks in South Dakota and some of the state parks. Choose your next travel destination from this exhaustive list of national parks in South Dakota.
The journey will blend fun, excitement, adventures, and most importantly, knowledge-filled and enlightening. So, plan it either as an educational trip or a family trip.