South Dakota’s most popular attraction has become part of its state nickname. Make no mistake. The Mount Rushmore State is far more than one popular destination. It offers beautiful landscapes, outdoor recreation, iconic destinations, and unique attractions. We will outline the best things to do in South Dakota for families so you can plan your memorable vacation.
Interesting Facts About South Dakota
- We acquired South Dakota as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803
- South Dakota became our 40th state in 1889
- It is our 16th most extensive state, spanning 77,123 square miles
- Fewer than 1 million people live in South Dakota
- Mount Rushmore typically has more than 2 million visitors annually
- South Dakota harbors more miles of shoreline than Florida
- Black Elk Peak is the highest point in the United States, east of the Rocky Mountains
Fun Things To Do in South Dakota for Families
Whether you seek educational activities, outdoor recreation, iconic destinations, or entertainment, South Dakota has something for your family.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Although the state is more than one patriotic landmark, Mount Rushmore is a must-see destination. The memorial in Keystone, South Dakota, represents a significant part of our history and is a beautiful piece of art.
Mount Rushmore proudly displays the faces of four famous presidents chiseled in granite:
- George Washington
- Thomas Jefferson
- Theodore Roosevelt
- Abraham Lincoln
Gutzon Borglum created the memorial’s design and oversaw the plan. The project spanned 14 years, from 1927 to 1941, involving nearly 400 workers. Surprisingly, the workers completed 90% of the carving using dynamite. The park’s visitor center allows families to learn more about the efforts that went into building the sculpture.
Seeing Mount Rushmore in person brings history to life for many children. Of course, they will be thrilled to take a selfie with the presidents from the Grand View Terrace. While strolling the Avenue of Flags, you can search for your state flag between the park entrance and the viewing platform.
After the American history lesson, you can grab a bite to eat. Mount Rushmore offers excellent food options for kids and adults. Carvers’ Marketplace delivers a fantastic view of the monument while you enjoy your meal. It even includes an ice cream shop.
Finding More Presidents
While Mount Rushmore has four presidents, your family can see all the former presidents in Rapid City. No wonder it is affectionately called the “City of Presidents.”
You can search for the presidential statues scattered throughout downtown. Finding the figures is half the fun. Beyond an engaging activity, your kids will learn about history and enjoy taking selfies.
If you need a break, stop at the hip Harriet & Oak for delicious coffee drinks, pastries, acai bowls, breakfast items, and lunch dishes. The food is excellent, and your kids can play in a vintage Volkswagen van or the Oakswagen.
Wind Cave National Park
Hiding beneath the surface in southwestern South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park has unique honeycomb-shaped calcite formations called boxwork. Your kids can see more boxwork here than in all other caves. Parts of Wind Cave are more than 300 million years old, making it one of the world’s oldest caves.
Exploring a massive underground world can be exciting for many kids. Discovering a surreal world of stalactites, stalagmites, and boxwork should expand their imaginations and foster interests in nature and science.
On the surface, the park contains over 30 miles of hiking trails through forests and grasslands. Wind Cave is in the midst of the application process to become an International Dark Sky Park. If you stay until nightfall, it is an excellent place for stargazing.
Custer State Park
Do your kids love animals? Custer State Park, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, offers a safari-like experience. Visitors can navigate the park with scenic drives along Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and Wildlife Loop Road. Each offers unique landscapes and opportunities to see wildlife.
Iron Mountain Road snakes through meadows and forests, guiding you through three narrow tunnels. Your kids will delightfully squeal as your car barely squeezes through the passageways. If you head north, you can see Mount Rushmore through the underpasses.
Needles Highway weaves through breathtaking scenery of towering pines and granite spires. While it is possible to discover wildlife on these two drives, Wildlife Loop Road earned its name for a reason.
The area has many animals, including bison, prairie dogs, pronghorns, bighorn sheep, deer, burros, and mountain goats. Your kids will get a thrill from observing giant bison and tiny, comical prairie dogs.
Beyond the wildlife and scenic drives, Custer State Park offers rewarding hikes, paddling, swimming, and fishing. Sylvan Lake, one of the park’s most photographed spots, is an excellent area for water sports, hiking, and picnicking. For families with older kids, you can hike Black Elk Peak.
If you have older kids who enjoy waterfalls and hiking, visit Spearfish Canyon in the Black Hills near the Wyoming border. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway leads you through a rugged canyon with soaring limestone cliffs, spruces, birches, and aspens. It is beautiful year-round but shines in autumn when the trees pop with red, orange, and gold shades.
Hiking trails yield close views of alluring spots like Spearfish Falls, Roughlock Falls, Savoy Pond, and Bridal Veil Falls. The fresh air and natural beauty is intoxicating.
Keep your eyes peeled when hiking. Visitors regularly spot wildlife, including deer, squirrels, porcupines, and mountain goats.
Prospectors established Deadwood in 1876 during the famous gold rush. It sits about 15 miles southeast of Spearfish and is renowned as a Wild West town.
Visit the Mount Moriah Cemetery and see the graves of legendary figures like Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. Learn about the region’s history in the Adams Museum.
Adults will enjoy the shops, casinos, breweries, and wineries. Kids will love the daily shootout reenactment, learning about the Wild West, and seeing a gold nugget in the museum.
Badlands National Park
Please do not be fooled into thinking national parks only appeal to adults. Badlands National Park should be on your list when looking for South Dakota attractions for families.
The park has one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Kids can watch park staff clean fossils in the Fossil Preparation Lab.
Badlands National Park is easy to navigate, offering two roads through the park where you can admire striped canyons and buttes between sprawling grasslands. The odd terrain feels like another planet.
Badlands National Park has various trails for families who like hiking, from boardwalk strolls to challenging treks. The famous Notch Trail includes a ladder climb.
Visitors regularly spot wildlife in the park. Your family will have realistic opportunities to observe bison, prairie dogs, and bighorn sheep. It is also an excellent spot for stargazing.
While driving through South Dakota, you will encounter hundreds of signs for Wall Drug. They are hard to ignore, building anticipation, even multiplying as you get closer. You may even make counting the signs a game.
The famous store sits in Wall, South Dakota, about 10 miles from Badlands National Park. Admittedly, it is a tourist attraction. However, it is an experience your kids will remember.
At its core, Wall Drug is a giant shopping area with goods, souvenirs, food, drinks, and family fun. It is renowned for serving free ice water, 5-cent coffee, hot beef sandwiches, and delicious donuts.
As you explore, you will discover many outlandish props. The atmosphere is over the top and feels more like a theme park. You should find something for all ages at Wall Drug.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
South Dakota has many places where your kids can learn about American history. The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is one of the most unique. Older children usually find the destination fascinating.
We hid over 1,000 missiles in South Dakota’s Great Plains for over three decades. Hundreds remain today.
The park site comprises a restored missile silo, museum, and visitor center. You can take a guided tour through a launch control facility to learn about the Cold War and nuclear missiles. The experience sheds more light on an essential chapter of our history and reinforces the importance of international cooperation.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Thirteen miles west of Custer, Jewel Cave National Monument quietly hides beneath the Black Hills. It comprises over 215 miles of mapped passages, one of the world’s longest caves.
Nature’s underground art gallery displays calcite crystals, flowstones, draperies, cave popcorn, and frostwork. Your family will enjoy a day of exploration and admiring delicate formations throughout the massive cavern.
The park offers various tours, so you can select the one that best suits your family. You can also enjoy hiking on the surface.
Mitchell Corn Palace
Are you looking for something different? Take your family to the quirky Mitchell Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. It was established in 1892 and proudly claims to be the world’s only corn palace.
The large building displays corn murals and crop art to honor the state’s agricultural industry. It is widely considered a folk art wonder. Each year, the palace has a different theme and is redecorated with corn, grains, and native grasses, utilizing up to 12 different colors of corn.
National Music Museum
If your kids love music, head to the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. The museum offers exhibits, galleries, and live performances. Exhibitions include permanent displays and special collections.
Learn about musical instruments and their use in different cultures. Expose your kids to unique musical styles and genres. Discover how instruments and musical influences have evolved.
The Mammoth Site
Resting in Hot Springs, The Mammoth Site was discovered in 1974 when a heavy machine operator inadvertently struck a 7-foot-long tusk while leveling the ground for a housing development. Scientists have found various Ice Age fossils at the active excavation site, with the world’s most extensive collection of mammoth remains.
You can take self-guided tours or participate in educational experiences at The Mammoth Site. It is an excellent opportunity for kids to learn about life during the Ice Age and how scientists study fossils.
Nestled six miles south of Rapid City, you will find Reptile Gardens. The lovely park houses lush botanical gardens, venomous snakes, crocodiles, giant tortoises, turtles, lizards, and more. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the world’s largest reptile zoo.
Young children will love Prairie Dog Town and a hands-on experience with the giant tortoises, while older kids will enjoy the poisonous snakes and a 16-foot-long crocodile. Parents will appreciate the beautiful botanical gardens, Tortuga Falls, and the turtle and koi pond.
While many of South Dakota’s tourist attractions feature places of natural beauty or historical significance, Rapid City has an excellent theme park designed to entertain young children. Storybook Island has over 100 storybook environments where kids can play, re-enacting their favorite nursery rhymes. The park has play areas, live theater productions, a carousel, and a train.
Please note it is only open during summer but offers a trick-or-treat night in late October and Christmas Nights of Light in late November and most of December.
For those who love chasing waterfalls, head to Sioux Falls. The Big Sioux River flows down three tiers of pretty rose-colored quartzite within Falls Park.
You will discover several viewing platforms, including a five-story observation tower, for a unique perspective of the cascading waterfalls.
The park offers many trails for hiking and biking for those who want to be more active. It also has a cafe overlooking the falls and a seasonal farmers market.
Butterfly House & Aquarium
While in Sioux Falls, check out the Butterfly House & Aquarium. Kids will delight in walking among over 800 free-flying butterflies. You can purchase a feeding flower and feed them out of your hand.
The aquarium comprises hundreds of species of fish and corals. It is an excellent opportunity for kids to observe aquatic life from different ecosystems. The Butterfly House & Aquarium provides a few hands-on learning exhibits, such as tide pool invertebrates.
Most adults find the experience peaceful, while kids will tell you it is fun.
Porter Sculpture Park
Thirty miles northwest of Sioux Falls, Porter Sculpture Park sits in Montrose. The unique park houses over 50 giant metal sculptures designed by Wayne Porter. It feels like a museum collection of roadside attractions.
Usually, guests must look but not touch when it comes to art. The museum invites you to climb the sculptures, making it a fun experience for kids.
Works of art include a 60-foot-tall bullhead, dragons, a pink rocking horse, flowers, a butterfly, and more. With more than 50 sculptures, your kids will have a blast.
Please note the park is regularly open from mid-May to mid-October.
Children’s Museum of South Dakota
If you have kids, visiting the Children’s Museum of South Dakota is a no-brainer. It offers everything from science experiments to art-making stations.
The museum in Brookings offers many hands-on exhibits and immersive experiences. Kids can build structures, create meals, design vehicles with recycled materials, shop for groceries, deliver mail, route balls of yarn through air tubes, and more. It is engaging and educational.
Crazy Horse Memorial
A trip to South Dakota would not be complete without sharing some Native American history with your children. Throughout the state, you will find many iconic sites where Native Americans are a significant part of our history.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is perhaps the most famous. Although still in progress, the sculpture honors the warrior and the region’s Native American peoples. The memorial site also houses the Indian Museum of North America. Its collection includes historical and cultural artifacts from over 300 Native Nations.
Plan Your South Dakota Family Vacation
Although the state is renowned for its iconic landmark, there are many fantastic things to do in South Dakota for families. Yes, visit Mount Rushmore. Your kids will enjoy the experience. However, please explore more of the state during your vacation. It has much to offer. Plan your South Dakota adventures and carve your family memories in granite!
Featured image credit: Sopotniccy via Deposit Photos
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