If it’s natural beauty you’re after, South Dakota will spoil you. From the Black Hills’ rocky spires to the flowing waters of the mighty Missouri River glacial lakes of the east, this state is a nature lover’s dream.
But it’s not all hiking and fishing. You’ll find family-friendly museums and historic sites in this sprawling Plains state. Whether you’re traveling with small tots, school-age children, or teens, there’s a South Dakota vacation for your crew. Find yours below.
An monumental history lesson for the whole family, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a 60-foot shrine to the U.S. carved into the Black Hills. As you probably remember from middle school geography class, the sculpture features the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Visit the sculptor’s studio, take a ranger tour, and reflect on the birth, growth, development, and preservation of the nation. Don’t miss the nightly lighting ceremony from May to September when the famous faces are lit from below.
Where to eat: Powder House may specialize in prime rib, buffalo steaks, and wild game, but it also has plenty of other options, like pasta, salads, and an extensive gluten-free menu.
Where to stay: Split the difference between sleeping under the stars and staying at a hotel at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore. This glamping resort on the grounds of an old gold mining settlement offers upscale accommodations under the big South Dakota sky from early May through late September.
Don’t forget to check out: Crazy Horse Memorial, a carving of the Lakota warrior that’s been in progress since 1948, and its onsite Native American Educational and Cultural Center.
A National Historic Landmark since 1961, this Gold Rush town is almost as exciting today as it was in its 1870s heyday. Its Wild West roots are alive and well on its historic Main Street where you can watch shootout reenactments. While you’re there, be sure to visit a gold mine. If you can slip away from the kids, check out one of the 80-plus gaming halls and casinos to play the slots, roulette, and more.
Where to Stay: Deadwood Mountain Grand, a Holiday Inn Resort, is a hub of entertainment within the city, complete with a concert venue, 24-hour-casino, and spa.
Where to Eat: Grab coffee, snacks, and sandwiches at Pump House, a deli located in a gas station that was turned into a glass-blowing studio. Don’t miss the brisket, craft beers, and other pub fare at Jacobs Brewhouse & Grocer.
Don’t forget to check out: Tatanka: Story of the Bison, an ode to the 30-60 million bison that once roamed the area. Just a short hike away is Mount Roosevelt Memorial/The Friendship Tower, where you’ll enjoy panoramic views of the Black Hills.
Next up: Sioux Falls, a growing city with a mix of history, culture, and nature. Head to the Butterfly House & Aquarium to meet 800 free-flying butterflies, plus sharks and stingrays you can pet, followed by a stop at the famous pink quartzite waterfalls in Falls Park. History buffs should go directly to the Pettigrew Home and Museum. The late 19th century home belonged to South Dakota’s first U.S. Senator, Richard Pettigrew.
Where to stay: Located in the old Sioux Falls National Bank, Hotel on Phillips is a boutique hotel with a prime location in the city’s historic downtown. It’s right off the Big Sioux River and close to shops, restaurants, and Falls Park.
What to eat: Head to Phillips Avenue Diner for all-American comfort food and all-day breakfast with a retro vibe. Monks Ale House serves flatbread pizzas (try the Cheeseburger Pizza) and sandwiches. For a nice dinner, head to R Wine Bar. It’s known for its standout pasta, curated wine list, and local craft beers.
Don’t forget to check out: Rock-climbing at Palisades State Park, which is filled with pink Sioux quartzite formations. Stop by the Missouri National Recreational River to take in a pristine stretch of the Missouri, America’s longest river.
This 244,000-acre protected land encompasses mixed-grass prairie and rugged badlands, a type of colorful terrain made of dry clay soil that has eroded into a stark landscape. The park is also dotted with rock-colored hills, ravines, and striking geometric formations. Traverse the Badlands Loop Road, a 30-mile stretch that you can drive or bike for awesome park views via numerous overlooks and trailheads. The Notch Trail is a particular favorite that winds past juniper and traces a cliff’s edge.
Where to eat: Wall Drug Store Cafe is a kid-friendly restaurant famous for homemade doughnuts and other baked goods, as well as sandwiches and ice cream. Head to Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill for an adult beverage and post-hike burger.
Where to stay: Cedar Pass Lodge offers eco-friendly cabins and campgrounds less than a mile from the park. The cabins are big enough for a family of six and feature porches with Adirondack chairs where you can take in stunning views of the Badlands.
Don’t forget to check out: The 12-foot, 6-ton concrete prairie dog on Highway 240, a unique advertisement for the nearby Ranch Store. Stop by and you can purchase unsalted peanuts to feed a pack of real prairie dogs.
Explore the world’s largest network of boxwork formations at this national park (the first cave to earn the title). With nearly 34,000 acres of forest and prairie, the park is a sanctuary for surrounding wildlife, including buffalo, elk, and antelope. You can take a ranger-guided tour of the cave (there’s even one by candlelight) and hike its 30-plus miles of trails.
Where to stay: There’s a 62-site campground in the park available on a first-come, first-serve basis. If you prefer something a little less outdoorsy, try Blue Bell Lodge six miles north from Wind Cave, made up of 29 four-person cabins that surround the main building.
Where to eat: The Blue Bell Lodge’s restaurant has a ranch-inspired, homestyle menu for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Try the rattlesnake if you’re feeling brave. South of the park in Hot Springs, you can feast on wings, burgers, and steaks at Wooly’s Grill and Cellar.
Don’t forget to check out: The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, a natural history museum that lets guests view Ice Age fossils and tour its active indoor dig site.
Located on the northern shore of the Lewis and Clark Lake, this state-run recreation area near the Nebraska border is a watersport lover’s dream. Your family can check out everything from kayaking and jet-skiing to fishing and tubing. There are also plenty of trails for hiking and biking as well as an archery range, disc golf course, and horse camp.
Where to stay: Within the recreation area, there are 400 campsites, 17 camping cabins, and four boat ramps as well as the Lewis & Clark Resort.
Where to eat: There are picnic sites at the recreation center, but if you venture about seven miles east, you’ll be in Yankton. Try Willa B’s for everything from homemade pasta to freshly baked sweets. Grab a slice at Charlie’s Pizza House, voted the best pizza in South Dakota.
Don’t forget to check out: The Huether Family Aquatics Center in Yankton. It opened in 2021 and has a 344-foot lazy river pool, tube and body slides, that are fun for kids of all ages.
A 71,000-acre park featuring bison, antelope, mountain goats, and other wildlife, Custer State Park is filled with lakes and grassy prairies for hiking, biking (on roads and trails), swimming, fishing, birdwatching, and horseback riding. Take a guided safari tour by Jeep or a self-guided tour using the Custer State Park app (free in Google Play and the App Store).
Where to stay: If you don’t want to camp, consider the State Game Lodge, a resort within the park. The historic residence was built in 1920 and served as former U.S. President Calvin Coolidge’s “Summer White House.” Its main hotel rooms were renovated in 2016, but there are also plenty of untouched historic spaces and cabins on the property.
Don’t forget to check out: Jewel Cave National Monument, just a half-hour west of the park. The 200-mile cave is the world’s third-longest and named for the calcite crystals that line its walls. Take a tour, hike the surrounding trails, or learn about the monument’s history at the visitor center.
More than just the home of South Dakota State University, Brookings offers a charming, historic downtown full of boutiques and restaurants. Highlights at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota include a four-acre prairie for outdoor educational fun and a full-size animatronic T. rex. For a dose of perfectly manicured nature, visit the McCrory Gardens at SDSU, where hundreds of flower, tree, and shrub species live side by side.
Where to stay: Close to downtown and steps from the Dakota Nature Trail, the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson is a hit with families. Its amenities include cookies at check-in, an indoor pool & hot tub, and a fire pit on the patio.
Where to eat: Grab a quick cheeseburger, fries, and shake at Nick’s Hamburger Shop, an old-school burger counter and local institution. For a little more atmosphere that’s still quite casual, snag a table on the rooftop patio at Cubby’s Sports Bar & Grill and feast on pub staples like nachos, wings, and sandwiches.
Don’t forget to check out: Splash Zone Waterpark, part of the Brookings Inn, is an indoor waterpark that has a lazy river, water slides, and more.
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