Herd of buffalo in Custer State Park

Discover the Fantastic South Dakota National Parks

South Dakota is renowned for its beautiful landscapes, rich American history, and iconic destinations. Its most famous attraction, Mount Rushmore, often gets all the attention. You may be surprised to hear the state houses seven national park sites. We will outline the fantastic South Dakota national parks so you can plan your adventure.

Badlands National Park

Looking out at the Badlands
Badlands National Park. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Located in southwestern South Dakota, Badlands National Park features vast mixed-grass prairies between otherworldly striated canyons, pinnacles, and buttes. It is a land of extremes where summer temperatures can surpass 100 degrees Fahrenheit, yet winters get bitter cold. The terrain is rugged and lacks usable water sources. Accordingly, the Lakota people called the area “mako sica,” meaning “bad lands.”

The Badlands is home to one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Paleontologists have discovered fossils of ancestors to the modern horse and rhino within the park grounds.

Many visitors come to see the striated rock formations and bison. The rugged terrain with striped layers feels like another planet. Due to their mammoth size, bison draw your attention. The giants can reach 6.5 feet in height and weigh up to 2,000 pounds. 

Many guests overlook the prairies. However, tiny creatures digging beneath those sprawling grasslands are the key to the entire Badlands ecosystem. 

Look closer between the tall blades of grass, and you will discover prairie dogs scurrying about and digging. Without them, the entire ecosystem could collapse. The extremes and contradictions are what make the park unique.

Top Things To Do

Badlands National Park is excellent whether you desire a leisurely drive or an intense hiking adventure. Remember, it is a land of extremes.

Scenic Drives

Badlands National Park is easy to navigate, comprising two primary roads. Badlands Loop Road spans 30 miles across the park. The road offers many overlooks and excellent views of the grasslands and surreal rock formations.

Sage Creek Rim Road spans 25 miles, delivering more rugged views of the park’s grasslands. Although the road is gravel, it is well-maintained and suitable for standard cars.

Hiking

The park offers everything from boardwalk strolls to challenging hikes along rugged canyons and mounds. Its boardwalk strolls offer informational signs and grand views, while the longer walks take you through the heart of the badlands.

Wildlife Watching

Badlands National Park offers an opportunity to see unique wildlife whether you explore by car or on foot. Visitors regularly spot bison, prairie dogs, and bighorn sheep.

Stargazing

Due to its remote location, the park has little light pollution. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Badlands National Park has a ranger-guided sky viewing program in its Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Nestled underground, 13 miles west of Custer in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Jewel Cave National Monument is one of the world’s longest caves. It has more than 215 miles of mapped passages. 

Jewel Cave features many beautiful structures, including:

  • Calcite crystals
  • Flowstones
  • Draperies
  • Frostwork
  • Cave popcorn

Many guests are mesmerized by the contrasting delicate formations within the massive cavern.

Top Things To Do

It is likely not a surprise, but cave tours are the most popular activity at the park site. Jewel Cave offers various tours and hiking on the surface.

Cave Tours

Ranger-guided tours are required to explore the cave. Tours operate on a schedule that varies by season. Rangers suggest you make reservations to secure a spot. Please visit the Jewel Cave National Monument site to verify times and availability.

The Discovery Tour is a 20-minute excursion where visitors view the Target Room and learn about the cave’s natural and cultural history. Those wanting to see more chambers can take the 1-hour and 20-minute Scenic Tour. You will climb up and down 734 steps in a half-mile loop. It is rated moderately strenuous.

If you desire something more adventurous, try the Historic Lantern Trail. Guests carry lanterns while exploring the cave along unpaved trails for 1 hour and 45 minutes. The cave hike is rated strenuous.

Lastly, Jewel Cave offers a Wild Caving Tour for the daredevils. The extremely strenuous adventure requires crawling through cramped spaces, rock scrambling, and rope-assisted climbs. Guests must wear a hard hat with a headlamp for this experience.

Hiking

Jewel Cave National Monument offers hiking for those who prefer to stay above the surface. The Roof Trail is an easy 0.25-mile loop through a ponderosa pine forest. Canyons Trail is an easy to moderate 3.5-mile loop through two canyons and open meadows surrounded by rugged cliffs.

Hell Canyon Trail sits in the nearby Black Hills National Forest for those who want a longer trek. It is a moderate 5.3-mile loop.

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

The Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail spans nearly 4,900 miles through 16 states and over 60 Tribal nations. It follows the historic Corps of Discovery, also known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, in the early 1800s from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to the Pacific Ocean.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark experienced several critical events in South Dakota. They also discovered and documented various new South Dakota plants, animals, birds, and fish. 

Travelers can experience significant sites and events of the journey through a South Dakota Road trip. The National Park Service and state parks offer various opportunities to learn about the expedition and explore portions of the historic trail by car, bicycle, or boat. 

Top Things To Do

Here are a few popular activities related to the famous journey.

Bad River Encounter

Lewis and Clark entered the Lakota homelands near the Bad River. Tensions ran high, nearly escalating into a severe conflict. Visitors can learn more about the event and how relationships between settlers and the Lakota people evolved. 

Spirit Mound

The Spirit Mound sits in the Great Plains, a prominent hill surrounded by an open prairie. At the time, the region’s Plains Indians believed the mound housed evil spirits or little people. It is a place where you can confidently follow in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trail

Visitors can experience part of the expedition by bicycling on the Lewis & Clark Bicycle Trail. The trail takes you through rural and urban areas on mixed surfaces, including paved roads, bike paths, unpaved rail trails, and gravel.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

For over thirty years, South Dakota’s Great Plains hid an arsenal of more than 1,000 missiles in plain sight. Hundreds of rockets remain today, a nuclear deterrent to prevent war. The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site protects two launch control facilities that were initially part of the massive arsenal.

Visitors can learn about the Cold War and the Minuteman Missile system. The park has a restored missile silo, museum, visitor center, and guided tours. It is an opportunity to learn more about an essential chapter of American history and the importance of international cooperation.

Top Things To Do

The park’s two most popular activities are exploring the visitor center and taking a guided tour.

Visitor Center

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center contains exhibits and films where you can learn about the intercontinental ballistic missiles and their role in the Cold War.

Guided Tour

Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to have the ability to launch a nuclear missile by pressing a button? The park offers ranger-guided tours of a launch control facility. Please note all excursions require a reservation.

Missouri National Recreational River

The Missouri National Recreational River protects a 100-mile stretch of North America’s longest river in South Dakota and Nebraska. Explore the history of people, places, and events along the Missouri River that influenced American history. 

Top Things To Do

Experience the wild and untamed river as Lewis and Clark did on their expedition.

Water Trail

The Missouri National Recreational River Water Trail offers various access points. Paddle through some of the last remaining natural stretches of the Missouri River. Learn about the river’s history while you savor lovely woods and water views. 

Hiking and Biking

The Missouri National Recreational River has partnered with various federal, state, and local parks and communities to provide hiking and biking opportunities along the river. Yankton Trails, Clay County Park, Ponca State Park, and Niobrara State Park are popular spots for rewarding hikes and bike rides.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Avenue of Flags at Mount Rushmore
Avenue of Flags at Mount Rushmore. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

South Dakota’s nickname is the Mount Rushmore State for a reason. The iconic landmark is the state’s most popular attraction, drawing over 2 million visitors annually.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial portrays the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. The beautiful granite sculpture is a tribute to the four legendary presidents and a reminder of our history.

Top Things To Do

Some visitors quickly snap a selfie in front of the memorial and leave. However, the park offers plenty of things to do.

Presidential Trail

After strolling the patriotic Avenue of Flags and taking a picture from the Grand View Terrace, hike the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail to learn more about the monument’s history and gain a closer perspective.

Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center

Watch a 14-minute film about the construction of the memorial. Then, explore the artifacts and exhibits in the visitor center. It gives you a greater appreciation of the efforts behind the masterpiece. Nearly 400 people worked on the project, carving over 90% of the sculpture using dynamite.

Evening Lighting Ceremony

One of the most uplifting experiences in any national park site, Mount Rushmore has a lighting ceremony each night from late May through September. The event includes a ranger talk, a short film, and the monument illumination. Military veterans come up on stage, and everyone sings the national anthem. It is a moving tribute that stirs patriotic emotions. 

Wind Cave National Park

Hiding underground in southwestern South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park showcases honeycomb-shaped calcite formations or boxwork. It contains more boxwork than that found in all other caves combined. 

Scientists believe sections of the cave are more than 300 million years old, making it one of the world’s oldest. While taking a ranger-guided tour, you can admire the:

  • Boxwork
  • Stalactites
  • Stalagmites

Top Things To Do

Cave tours are the main attraction. However, the park offers unique opportunities above ground as well.

Cave Tours

The park offers various tour options. All excursions are ranger-guided, with reservations recommended. Wind Cave has a half-hour wheelchair-accessible tour, where guests can see a cavern with boxwork.

Most cave tours last an hour or longer and are somewhat strenuous. During summer, the park has unique options, including the popular Candlelight and Wild Cave tours. The latter requires crawling through tight spaces and climbing steep grades.

Hiking

Wind Cave comprises over 30 miles of hiking trails through grasslands and forests. Rather than viewing the picturesque Black Hills scenery from afar, you can walk through it.

Wildlife Watching

While exploring the surface, keep a watchful eye for wildlife. Wind Cave harbors bison, elk, prairie dogs, burrowing owls, badgers, and more.

Stargazing

Wind Cave is in the process of becoming an International Dark Sky Park. With a remote location and little light pollution, the black sky is a canvas for the Milky Way to reveal its treasures.

Custer State Park

A Custer State Park burro begs for food
A begging burro greets us. Photo credit: Miles with McConkey

Although not a national park, Custer State Park offers an experience on par with any national park site. It has state-of-the-art visitor centers, excellent scenic drives, fun hikes, and exotic wildlife. You will discover alluring landscapes of pine forests, sprawling prairies, rugged mountains, and granite spires. The park also contains four lodges, each with a restaurant.

Top Things To Do

With its varied landscapes and wildlife, Custer State Park offers many recreational activities.

Scenic Drives

Custer State Park boasts some of the country’s best scenic drives. Three primary roads take you through the park. Each is outstanding and offers unique scenery. 

Iron Mountain Road takes you through tunnels that outline the Mount Rushmore presidents like a picture frame. Needles Highway showcases towering granite spires and fragrant pines, while Wildlife Loop Road feels like a safari with the potential to spot wildlife around every turn.

Wildlife Watching

Custer State Park is legendary for its wildlife. Visitors regularly spot animals, including bison, prairie dogs, burros, deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and mountain goats.

Hiking

Like its varied landscapes, the park delivers a myriad of hikes, from strolls to challenging treks. Sylvan Lake Shore Trail is a 1-mile loop around the namesake lake surrounded by giant granite boulders. Cathedral Spires Trail guides you through a lush pine forest to an area featuring towering granite spires. 

Other popular hikes include Little Devils Tower and Black Elk Peak. Each yields breathtaking panoramic views.

Swimming, Fishing, and Boating

Custer State Park houses four tranquil lakes and a pond. Accordingly, water sports like swimming, fishing, and boating are popular. Guests can rent canoes, kayaks, and stand-up paddle boards at Legion and Sylvan Lakes. Swimming is permitted anywhere in the park.

Buffalo Roundup

Each year in late September, the park holds a unique event called the Buffalo Roundup. The park can support about 1,400 bison. Annually, they corral the bison, check them for diseases, and administer vaccinations—the park auctions off any surplus. Custer State Park’s Buffalo Roundup lasts three days and includes entertainment, food, and arts and crafts booths.

Plan Your Adventure in the South Dakota National Parks

South Dakota is much more than one iconic landmark. The state has a rich American history, alluring landscapes, and many outdoor recreational opportunities. Plan your trip and discover firsthand why the South Dakota National Parks are so fantastic.

This article originally appeared on Savoteur.

Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey

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Scott And Julie McConkey

After 30 years, Scott and Julie McConkey left the corporate world for a life of travel and adventure. What started as a gap year became a second act, and they are now full-time travel bloggers!
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