A Perfect Guide to South Dakota

south dakota bison

Nova Travel is based in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. If you, the reader, are anything like us, your early memories of summertime travel include road trips to Grand Forks or Fargo, North Dakota. A stay at the Holiday Inn and shopping at West Acres and Target. Been there: Done that!

Just a little further down I-29 lies “The Mount Rushmore State”, South Dakota. This vast and scenic state promises a road trip full of history, natural wonders, top-notch dining, and memorable events. Consider driving another 250 miles (about another four hours), and open up a new world. In South Dakota, you will find a land of sculpted rock formations, incredible festivals and a proud Indigenous culture. A land where the Buffalo roam and the skies are not cloudy all day.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

south dakota's mount rushmore

Mount Rushmore is undoubtedly one of the United States’ most iconic landmarks. Carved into the granite face of the Black Hills, it features the enormous likenesses of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Each face stands about 60 feet tall, a testament to the ambition and creativity of the sculptor, Gutzon Borglum. Visitors can walk the Presidential Trail to get a closer look and gain insights through informative ranger talks and interactive exhibits at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center. The evening lighting ceremony is a particularly moving experience, as the monument is illuminated against the night sky.

Apart from its historical significance, Mount Rushmore serves as a hub for family-friendly activities. Just below the memorial, you’ll find the Avenue of Flags, representing all 50 U.S. states, D.C., and U.S. territories—a great photo opportunity! The Sculptor’s Studio offers a glimpse into Borglum’s vision and the technical challenges of creating such a massive sculpture. The surrounding Black Hills area also offers excellent hiking trails, picnic spots, and the chance to view a variety of wildlife, from mule deer to mountain goats.

Badlands National Park

badlands

Badlands National Park is a sprawling landscape of sharply eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires blended with the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States. This dramatic scenery captures the imagination of all who visit. The park’s Loop Road is a must-drive, winding through some of the most breathtaking parts and offering numerous scenic overlooks and opportunities for photography. Hiking trails of varying difficulty levels make it accessible for all, from families with young children to seasoned hikers. The Badlands Wilderness Area, in particular, offers a sense of untamed beauty, home to bison, bighorn sheep, and a wide range of bird species.

One of the unique aspects of Badlands National Park is its rich fossil beds. The park offers hands-on experiences for amateur paleontologists with ranger-led fossil preparation demonstrations. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the park’s main educational hub, providing displays of the prehistoric animals that once roamed the area. The Badlands are also known for their incredible night skies, free from urban light pollution, making it a haven for stargazing and night photography. The annual Badlands Astronomy Festival, held in the summer, is a great event for those interested in learning more about the stars and our universe.

Custer State Park

custer park

Custer State Park is a paradise for wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers. Covering over 71,000 acres, the park is famous for its massive bison herd, which freely roams the landscape. The park’s 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road is a fantastic way to spot these majestic creatures, along with pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and wild burros. Don’t miss the annual Buffalo Roundup in September, an exciting event where cowboys and cowgirls round up the herd for health checks—an experience both thrilling and educational.

The park also features a variety of recreational activities, from hiking and camping to fishing and swimming. The scenic Needles Highway, with its narrow tunnels and granite spires, is another park highlight, providing striking views and photography opportunities.

Crazy Horse Memorial

crazyhorse

Nestled in the heart of the Black Hills, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a colossal mountain carving that, once completed, will be the largest sculpture in the world. Conceived by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski and Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear, it honours the famed Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, who bravely resisted the U.S. government’s efforts to relocate the Native American tribes forcibly (not to be confused with Neil Young’s hard rocking band). Unlike other towering monuments, the finished sculpture will depict Crazy Horse riding a horse and pointing into the distance, symbolizing his statement, “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”

The Crazy Horse Memorial is more than just a massive rock carving; it’s a poignant cultural and educational center. Visitors can explore the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, which feature a vast collection of Native American artifacts and art. The site frequently hosts cultural events, including traditional dances and storytelling sessions, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in the rich heritage of the Native American tribes. While the monument’s completion is still years away, the ongoing progress and the vision behind it offer a compelling glimpse into a deeply significant chapter of American history.

Reptile Gardens

Reptile Gardens has one of the largest collections of reptile species and subspecies of any zoo or wild animal park in the world! Reptile Gardens is a premier South Dakota destination that houses some of the world’s deadliest snakes and has been in the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Largest Reptile Zoo.

Reptile Gardens is a unique animal park set in beautiful botanical gardens. Acres of lush flowers and foliage create a wonderful setting for you to enjoy the shows and experience the exhibits and attractions. From Tortuga Falls to our Living Wall, the botanical gardens across the grounds at Reptile Gardens are a truly beautiful sight you won’t find at other South Dakota attractions.

The Mammoth Site

mammoth

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs is the world’s largest mammoth research facility and one of the top fossil interpretive sites in North America. Over 60 mammoths (58 Columbian, 3 woolly) have been unearthed, along with at least 87 other Late Ice Age animals.

In June 1974, George Hanson, a heavy equipment operator, was working on levelling ground for a housing development in Hot Springs. While grading a small hill, Hanson’s equipment struck something that gleamed white in the sunlight. Upon closer inspection, Hanson found a severed tusk, about seven feet long, along with other large bones.

Determined to find out more, Hanson took the bones to his son, Dan, who had a background in geology and archaeology. Recognizing the significance of the find, Dan contacted his former college professor from Chadron State College in Nebraska. Dr. Agenbroad quickly identified the presence of at least four to six mammoths based on the bones exposed.

By summer 1975, Dr. Agenbroad aided by volunteer students, commenced a more extensive dig. Interest in the site surged when a complete mammoth skull, with tusks intact, was discovered. The team would excavate during the summer months and carefully rebury the bones in winter to protect them.

Black Hills Central Railroad

locomotive

The 1880 Train is a steam-powered locomotive running along the Black Hills Central Railroad. It is a two-hour, narrated 20-mile round trip between Hill City and Keystone. Passengers view vistas of Harney Peak, mining encampments and participate in good old-fashioned fun. Trains follow the original route of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad laid down in the late 1880s to service the mines and mills between Hill City and Keystone. The Black Hills Central Railroad is the oldest continuously operating tour railroad in the United States and operates three steam and two diesel engines throughout the season. One of their locomotives is more than 100 years old!

Wind Cave National Park

wind cave

The first cave to be designated a national park, Wind Cave National Park features the world’s largest concentration of rare boxwork formations along with 33,970 acres of forest and prairie on the surface that act as a natural sanctuary for wildlife.

Wind Cave National Park is home to the world’s seventh-longest cave and one of the world’s most complex maze-cave systems. Most cave rooms are small, connected by narrow passages with low ceilings. Boxwork, a rare and delicate cave formation, emerges from the cave walls and ceilings throughout. The park’s surface is one of the last remaining islands of mixed-grass prairie in North America. Rare wildlife including bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs roam over 30,000 acres. Several roads and 30 miles of trails are available to explore the rolling prairie and ponderosa pine forests. There is no fee to enter the park or hike the surface trails.

Guided tours are the only way to experience Wind Cave. Advanced tickets may be purchased through their website. Additional tours and times are available for same-day ticket sales at the park visitor center. Visit the Guided Tours page of the park website for a current schedule. Tours often sell out prior to tour times. See Seasons & Booking for details.

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

sturgis

If you’re a motorcycle enthusiast or simply love the thrill of vibrant events, then the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is a bucket-list destination you won’t want to miss. Held annually in early August, this legendary rally attracts hundreds of thousands of bikers, music lovers, and adventure seekers from around the globe. Nestled in the picturesque Black Hills, Sturgis transforms into a bustling hub of camaraderie, thrill, and sheer excitement, offering an unparalleled experience for everyone.

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is more than just a gathering of bikes; it’s a week-long celebration of motorcycle culture, freedom, and friendship. From thrilling motorcycle races and stunning scenic rides through the Black Hills to lively concerts featuring top-notch performers, there’s something for everyone. You can stroll through the bustling vendor markets, showcasing the latest in motorcycle gear and custom parts, or enjoy the array of delectable food offerings that cater to every taste. The sense of community and shared passion for riding make Sturgis a unique and unforgettable event.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Nestled in the Black Hills, Deadwood, South Dakota, is a town steeped in history and legendary tales. Originally founded during the Black Hills Gold Rush in 1876, Deadwood quickly became known for its lawlessness, infamous characters, and vibrant frontier spirit. Today, the town effortlessly blends its rich past with a dynamic present, offering visitors a unique experience that feels like stepping back in time while enjoying modern-day amenities.

Deadwood’s historic Main Street is the heart of the action, where you can wander through beautifully preserved 19th-century buildings and imagine the days when Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane roamed these very streets. A visit to Mount Moriah Cemetery is a must; as the final resting place of these famous figures, it offers a poignant glimpse into the town’s colourful past. For history buffs, the Adams Museum provides a treasure trove of artifacts and exhibits that tell the fascinating story of Deadwood’s rise and fall.

But Deadwood isn’t just about looking back. The town is also a hub of entertainment and excitement. If you’re feeling lucky, try your hand at one of the many casinos that line the streets—Deadwood is one of the few places in South Dakota where you can legally gamble. For outdoor enthusiasts, the surrounding Black Hills offers endless hiking, biking, and exploring opportunities. The annual Deadwood Jam music festival brings the town to life with eclectic sounds and energetic performances every September, making it a great time to visit.

Wall Drug


Proof positive of the inherent value of a South Dakota road trip was the ever-present bumper sticker that adorned the shiny chrome of our high school friends’ Ford Country Squire Station Wagons.

wall drug

Wall Drug has a rich history in the state of South Dakota. Nestled in the city of Wall in the western part of the state, Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travellers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed, just like they did more than 80 years ago. 

But it wasn’t always a thriving business, attracting 2 million visitors each year to the small town of Wall. Ted and Dorothy Hustead struggled to make Wall Drug successful in the early days. The city of Wall was somewhat affectionately known as “the geographical center of nowhere” back then and, to compound the challenges, the Great Depression was taking hold across the United States. But the story of Wall Drug was a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering road-weary travellers free ice water. Soon travelers would make a point to stop at Wall Drug to enjoy a refreshing break and they haven’t stopped coming to Wall Drug since.

Today, Wall Drug continues to offer the same amenities that made it a must-stop destination all those years ago, and visitors still stop to stretch their legs, eat a delicious home-style meal and drink some free, rejuvenating ice-cold water.

The city of Wall, South Dakota is home to 800 year-round residents and, thanks to Wall Drug, one of the most popular attractions in the state, drawing in more than 2 million visitors each year. Stop at Wall Drug and see what the excitement is all about.

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