South Dakota has a special place in my heart. It is where my mom grew up, where I spent most of my summers as a kid, and I even started my college career in South Dakota.
So it’s an easy place for me to highlight some great spots to visit, and some of the amazing things about such a beautiful state.
The thing about South Dakota, is that most people know it for the attractions on the western side of the state, and believe me there is a ton of things to do “west-river”.
However, there are plenty of unique places on the east side, or “east-river” part of the state too.
So as to not overlook the beauty and adventure on the east side of the state, I’m going to start with the west side of the state, and the well-known attractions, and then move to the east in a subsequent article, highlighting the amazing opportunities for adventure there as well.
What You Need to Know When Visiting South Dakota
There are a few things you should know before you travel to western South Dakota.
1. Airfares can be pricey. It’s just not a big tourist destination, so you’ll pay more to fly there.
If you are ok with puddle jumper planes, consider flying into one of the many regional airports.
While arrival and departure times may be more limited, you’ll find that prices are sometimes significantly lower than flying into Rapid City.
2. Lodging is really reasonable. Whether you are into hotels or you’re like us and would rather camp, you aren’t going spend a ton of money on lodging, unless you want to.
It’s easy to find a place to stay for less than $100 per night, which is great if you need a couple of rooms for your family.
This is also awesome if you’re flying. What you spend in airfare, you make up for in lodging.
3. This place is busy during the summers. April to September you’ll enjoy the best weather, but so is everyone else.
Expect big crowds at the popular places, limited availability in lodging and lots of traffic.
I’d suggest visiting in March or October. The weather is still decent, and with school back in session, the crowds are smaller.
4. You’ll want a week at least. The west side of the state, and even into eastern Wyoming has tons of stuff to see and do.
Plan at least a full five days of being a tourist.
5. Be prepared for weather. I’ve seen it snow in the Black Hills in July.
When you’re packing, make sure to bring, at least, a good jacket and a pair of pants. You won’t regret it.
There really is something for everyone in the Black Hills. I’m a museum girl, the hubby is into outdoor activities.
My mother–in-law loves to gamble my dad loves to explore historic sites. The munchkin loves candy stores and swimming pools.
The Black Hills are perfect for all of us. Everyone in your family can find something that interests them here!
What to See in the Western South Dakota
If you ask someone, what there is to see in South Dakota, the easy answer is, “Mount Rushmore!” Of course, this the most famous of the destinations in western South Dakota, but in our opinion, not nearly the most exciting.
Here are some great, not-to-be-missed spots in the Black Hills and the surrounding areas.
- Mount Rushmore – Ok, it’s an obvious one, but it is a pretty amazing sight to see. The faces of four of our most notable presidents carved in granite. This spot has a great visitor center, is handicap accessible, and there is plenty of parking. This is the reason that most people visit the Black Hills, so it can be BUSY. Be prepared for a lot of people, especially in the summer. Don’t miss the ice cream parlor at the main visitor center. Traditional ice cream recipes make this a perfect post visit snack.
- Crazy Horse Monument – Just a short distance from Mount Rushmore, check out another massive carving in the side of a mountain. Crazy Horse was an important warrior of the Ogalala Lakota tribe. He and his horse are in the works at this site. A private monument, your entrance fees help support local tribes. While the views here are awesome, take some time to wander through the exhibits of goods from tribes around the area. You can also experience native culture through demonstrations of dances, art, and storytelling.
- Custer State Park – One of my favorites. This state park has everything from free range American Bison, to wild donkeys that eat Oreo cookies. The wildlife loop in the park will allow you to experience the natural beauty of the tall grass prairie, its wildlife and landscapes from your car. With plenty of camping, lodging and restaurants, this state park is a perfect home base for your time in the Black Hills. Situated near the town of Custer, if you’re looking for a traditional western town full of history, great restaurants and basic supplies, Custer is a great stop.
- Hot Springs, SD – This town is small but has some great places to visit. Start with the Mammoth Dig site. One of the largest finds of fossilized mammoth remains in the world, not to mention a variety of other prehistoric animals, this is a great spot for the kid in your family that LOVES dinosaurs. Hot Springs also has natural hot spring pool and water Park that is a great place for a quiet day of relaxing and water fun.
- Deadwood, SD – Made famous by the HBO series of the same name, this community takes you right back to the old west and days of outlaws, miners and cowboys. Visit the saloon where Wild Bill Hickok was shot, enjoy a live gun fight on Main Street, or a traditional rodeo at the Days of ’76. Not in to old west history? Try your hand at the black jack tables, or find a comfy chair by a slot machine. Deadwood has been home to small stakes gambling since the late 1980s, so it’s perfect for that person that likes to tempt Lady Luck.
- Spearfish Canyon – A scenic drive like none other. A beautiful, windy road with water falls, rock cliffs, lodge pole forest and beautiful Spearfish Creek, if you want to connect with nature, or just want to have a leisurely drive, pick this spot. For a peaceful lunch spot, try the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. Great food, and a really nice spot to stay if you want to get away from the touristy locations.
- Rapid City, SD – If you’re flying in on a major airline, you’ll start your adventure here. A typical mid-size city, you’ll find all of the basics. Home to a variety of colleges, museums and cultural centers, you can spend at least a couple of days sight-seeing here. Check out the mining museum at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. This University is known for its programs on hard rock mining, and the museum has an excellent exhibit on geology, mining and local history.
- Badlands National Park – Filled with interesting rock formations, natural prairie dog towns, bison, big horn sheep and stunning landscapes. This is a spot not to be missed. It is a fascinating intersection between prairie and dessert. This is another good location to visit for the dinosaur enthusiast. Home to Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, this site is filled with unique and in many cases nearly complete fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. Follow the Fossil Exhibit Trail to experience many of the specimens unearthed at the Badlands.
Honestly, there are so many things to do in the Black Hills, I could write a small book on all the experiences you could have.
These are some of the not-to be-missed places and communities, but the area is full of sight-seeing opportunities.
What Outdoor Activities are in Western South Dakota
If you are one of those people that plan vacations based on the available outdoor, physical activities you can enjoy, you’re in luck with the Black Hills.
This is a great location for everything from fly fishing and water sports to mountain biking and horseback riding.
They aren’t quite the Rocky Mountains, but the Black Hills do offer some great winter activities.
Winter Activities – Try your hand at snowshoeing or cross-country skiing. Alpine skiers can get some runs in at Terry Peak Ski Resort.
For the speed lover, rent snow mobiles for a high speed adventure.
The Michelson Trail – Constructed on an old rail line, the Michelson Trail runs from Hot Springs in the south to Deadwood in the north.
There isn’t a ton of hills or steep elevation on this trail, so it’s pretty easy for most bikers.
Many people like to bike the trail as their vacation, stopping to sleep at the numerous towns along the way.
From the trail you’ll get great views of Crazy Horse and some of the beautiful landscapes of the Black Hills
Fishing – There are great fishing locations all over the Black Hills.
Spearfish Creek through Spearfish Canyon is a great place to fly fish.
Pactola Reservoir is a great spot to fish as well. There are great picnic spots here as well.
Food and Lodging in Western South Dakota
It’s hard to pick out just a few spots to dine and stay in the Black Hills, because there are tons of options. But here are a few things to keep in mind.
If you are going to travel in the summer, plan ahead. Lodging can be hard to come by, some weekends during the summer.
The Sturgis Bike rally and the Corvette convention are two big events during the summer that fill up hotels, campgrounds and cabins.
If you travel to the Black Hills during these weekends, make sure you have set reservations.
Food here is pretty “normal”. You won’t find a ton of cultural cuisine spots. Be prepared for typical American fare.
Bison is really popular here, and it is fresh and amazing. If you’ve not tried bison, this is the place to give it a shot.
Just because it’s small doesn’t mean the quality is small. We’ve had some amazing meals in the Black Hills. The small communities that cater to tourists have some really fantastic restaurants.
Is it New York or San Francisco gourmet? No, but you can get pretty darn close.
Beer in Western South Dakota
We can’t be Brews – Food – Travel without talking about beer. That’s why we travel, so this is probably the most important part of this guide.
The craft beer scene is just starting to take off in the Black Hills, so you won’t find a ton of brewery options, but the few we’ve found and tried are pretty damn good.
Crow Peak Brewing Company – Spearfish, SD. One of two craft breweries in Spearfish, this one was our favorite. A large open tap room that looks like a log cabin or old warehouse, it’s a good spot to grab a brew.
This spot is great if you like more typical brews. They have a variety of IPAs, ales, porters and lagers. While not terribly diverse, the beer quality is good.
Sick-N-Twisted Brewery – The brewery and tap room are located in an odd location outside of Hill City. If you go too fast, you’ll miss it.
However, if you don’t zip past it, you’re in for a treat. This spot makes some great beers.
They’ve created some unique spins on traditional styles like Hot Mama, a Chili Red Ale, Sofa-King Good, a Double Red Hoppy ale or The Mule, a traditional ginger beer.
This spot is not to be missed!
Miner Brewing Company – This one was our favorite. Not only does it have great beer, but it also has a great patio and outdoor activities like corn-hole.
They pay tribute the area’s mining history here with lots of photos and relics from days gone by. The beer menu here is more diverse with some of the current popular styles like cream ales and sours.
This spot also has a limited food menu serving sandwiches, flat-bread pizzas, and snacks. This is a family and dog friendly brewery so you won’t have to leave the munchkins or the pups at home.
Firehouse Brewing Company – We’ve not yet made it to Rapid City, but with plenty of friends and family in the area, I can comfortably recommend Firehouse and Hay Camp Brewing.
At Firehouse Brewing Company, you’ll enjoy your brew in Rapid City’s first fire hall. Listed on the National Historic Register, this spot is filled with memorabilia from the city’s past, including gear, photos and the original fire pole.
The beer list is small, but diverse enough to meet your beer needs.
Hay Camp Brewing – This Brewery is doing some unique things with their beer. While their beer menu is filled with normal finds like IPAs, stouts, browns and traditional English and German styles, you’ll also find beers with a unique twist on the menu, as well.
Hay Camp is known for its experimental styles, particularly hoppy beers. If you’re an IPA/APA lover, you’ll love this spot. It’s worth the mention that Hay Camp Brewing is housed in an old Oldsmobile dealership, and has a cool retro vibe.
The building not only houses the brewery, but also a coffee shop, art gallery and concert hall.
A few other places worthy of mention…
Just down the street from Miner Brewing Company is an epic candy store, fittingly named Candyland.
It is huge, and has a wide variety of candies, fudge, caramels, and ice cream. Stop here before you head to Miner Brewing to make the kiddos happy.
In Custer, if you want a killer breakfast, or just a giant cinnamon roll, stop by Bakers Bakery and Café. It’s busy on weekends, but well worth the wait. And you won’t spend an arm and a leg for a great meal here either.
Tatanka. This spot was the brainchild of Kevin Costner and his brother. Originally intended to be a themed resort, the site is now home to sculptures, a restaurant, and a Northern Plains Peoples educational center.
Costner fell in love with the area while filming Dances with Wolves, and has created Tatanka to honor the history of the Black Hills, the Native Americans and the wildlife of the area.
Wrapping up on Western South Dakota
Oh… I could go on and on. There is just so much to see and do in the Black Hills.
These are just some of the highlights, and maybe I’ll have to do a Black Hills part 2, to get in more of the awesome things to see and do in this small corner of South Dakota.
If you want more information on visiting South Dakota or the Black Hills, visit www.travelsouthdakota.com, they’ll be happy to send you a really great vacation guide.
And don’t forget, check back with us again for South Dakota Part 2 – East River, for all of the awesome adventures outside of the Black Hills.
Cheers and Happy Trails!