Known for its open plains and world-class monuments, South Dakota is an often overlooked travel destination home to some of the Midwest’s most charming cities and towns. South Dakota’s biggest attraction is, without a doubt, Mount Rushmore, which is in the state’s southwest corner and has earnt it the nickname “The Mount Rushmore” state, but this famous landmark is not the only thing worth seeing in the nation’s 40th state.
Despite being one of the least densely populated US states, cities in South Dakota are intriguing to explore, with large urban centres such as Sioux Falls and Rapid City, while Sturgis, Hill City and Spearfish cater for those looking for a slower pace of life. No matter what you’re into or what you’re looking to do, there’s guaranteed to be a perfect city in South Dakota. Here are 20 to get you started.
Cities in South Dakota
- Mount Rushmore and Black Hills Tour – with Two Meals and a Music Variety Show from Rapid City.
- Hot Air Balloon Flight Over Black Hills – a thrilling experience from Custer.
- Devils Tower, Spearfish Canyon and Northern Black Hills Adventure – discover the best of nature.
20 South Dakota Cities
The official capital city of South Dakota, Pierre is always a must-visit city when travelling through the Mount Rushmore State thanks to its cultural and historical influence.
Pierre was first settled as a trading post along the banks of the Missouri River in 1880 and was named in honour of prominent French-American fur trader Pierre Chouteau Jr.
The city quickly grew in size and prominence thanks to the arrival of the Rapid City, Pierre and Eastern Railroad, culminating in Pierre’s selection as South Dakota’s capital city after the state was admitted to the Union on 2 November 1889.
Despite being one of the smallest state capitals in the United States, Pierre has impressive attractions, such as the South Dakota State Capitol, the Fighting Stallions Memorial and the Oahe Dam.
2- Rapid City
The second-largest city in South Dakota in terms of population, Rapid City in the state’s western region is among the most popular destinations in South Dakota due to its proximity to three of the state’s most-visited landmarks.
Mount Rushmore, the Badlands National Park and the Black Hills National Forest are all within an hour’s drive from downtown Rapid City, making it a one-stop tourism hub in western South Dakota.
Officially settled back in 1876, the city known as the “City of Presidents” and the “Gateway to the Black Hills” is the ideal place for first-time South Dakota travellers, thanks to the city’s location and wealth of attractions.
Some of the top landmarks and venues in Rapid City include Dinosaur Park, the Journey Museum & Learning Center, Art Alley and the Museum of Geology, so be sure to swing by the next time you’re in western South Dakota.
- Mount Rushmore and Black Hills Tour with Two Meals and a Music Variety Show
- Buffalo Hunt Coaster Single Ride
3- Sioux Falls
The largest city in South Dakota by quite a margin, bustling Sioux Falls in the Mount Rushmore State’s southeast corner is unlike any other city in the state due to its sheer size and proximity to neighbouring Iowa and Minnesota.
Sioux Falls is an obvious starting point for first-time visitors to less-travelled South Dakota, thanks to the city’s treasure trove of art galleries, museums, shops and restaurants.
The city began life as a military reservation titled “Fort Dakota” back in 1865, with the newly established city’s population experiencing a boom during the late 1880s when the railroad officially arrived in town.
Sioux Falls is home to all the amenities, entertainment options and cultural attractions you’d expect to find in a large Midwest city.
The Butterfly House & Aquarium, the Old Courthouse Museum and the SculptureWalk are some of Sioux Falls’ most-visited venues.
Recommended tour: Vanderhall Driving Experience
Nestled amid western South Dakota’s scenic Black Hills National Forest, the small city of Sturgis is an internationally-recognised destination, especially among motorcyclists, with Sturgis hosting the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the world’s largest organised motorcycle event.
Sturgis has served as the homecoming for motorcyclists in the United States and the world since the first rally occurred in 1938, with more than 500,000 people visiting tiny Sturgis over the 10-day event every year.
There’s plenty more to Sturgis than just its world-famous motorcycle gathering, though, with the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame and the Black Hills National Park open to all travellers – motorcyclists or not.
The city of Vermillion in the Mount Rushmore State’s southeast region is best known for being the home of the main campus of the University of South Dakota, one of the largest and most prominent educational institutions in the state.
Perched atop a bluff along the banks of the Missouri River, Vermillion started in 1858 with the city’s name derived from the native Lakota, who called the region “red stream”.
Vermillion was a reasonably prominent place even before its settlement, with the Lewis and Clark Expedition known to have passed by Vermillion’s stretch of the Missouri River during their fateful voyage westward in 1804.
There’s no shortage of things to see and places to visit in and around Vermillion, with the National Music Museum, the Spirit Mound State Historic Prairie and the W.H. Over Museum being some of the city’s most-visited.
Another city on the banks of the Missouri River in the state’s southeast corner, Yankton, much like its next-door neighbour Vermillion, is steeped in history and Native American culture.
Yankton served as the newly founded Dakota Territory’s first capital and was the setting of South Dakota’s first mental institution, the Human Services Center, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The city has a healthy mix of historical, cultural and natural landmarks, such as the Yankton Area Arts Association, the Dakota Territorial Capitol Replica Building and the Lewis & Clark State Recreation Area.
The birthplace of several US generals, politicians and artists, Watertown is among the largest cities in South Dakota and is conveniently situated roughly halfway between Sioux Falls and Fargo.
Watertown is the birthplace and where you will find the childhood home of 20th-century wildlife artist Terry Redlin.
Several attractions are worth visiting in and around Watertown, with the Redlin Art Center, the Mellette House and the Sandy Shore State Recreation Area being some of this city’s top spots.
In South Dakota’s northeast corner, roughly 101 miles (162 km) from Watertown, is Aberdeen, the third most populous city in South Dakota.
Aberdeen is home to the main campuses of both Northern State University and Presentation College, providing downtown Aberdeen with a general youthfulness that’s tough to find in any other city of its size in South Dakota.
Before its official settlement, the region was inhabited mainly by the Sioux Native Americans.
Europeans formally settled Aberdeen in 1880 as a fur trading post.
Aberdeen has everything you’d expect to find in a city of its size, with the Wizard of Oz-inspired Storybook Land, the Dacotah Prairie Museum and the Richmond Lake Recreation Area all worthwhile places to visit.
Settled in 1876 as a gold rush town after god was discovered in the nearby Black Hills, Deadwood is a quintessential Wild West outpost with frontier saloons and public shootout re-enactments.
The entire city is a designated National Historic Landmark.
It is perfectly preserved just as it was when outlaws Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane roamed Deadwood’s streets looking for a fight.
Deadwood is among South Dakota’s most-visited cities due to its historic charm and unique architecture, with the Adams Museum, the Crazy Horse Memorial and nearby Mount Rushmore just a few of Deadwood’s many fantastic landmarks to swing by.
Recommended tour: Glass-Top Mercedes Tour
Situated at the mouth of Spearfish Canyon just north of the Black Hills, Spearfish is on South Dakota’s western border and is a Midwest destination teeming with pioneer culture and the great outdoors.
The city is bordered by some of the state’s best hiking trails, rock climbing ascents and public parks and is just 70 miles (112 km) from Mount Rushmore.
Spearfish was first settled in 1878 and was initially titled “Queen City” before being renamed after the nearby Spearfish Canyon, with the newly established town experiencing an early boom when gold was discovered in the nearby Black Hills.
Don’t miss out on the Termesphere Gallery, the High Plains Western Heritage Center and Spearfish Canyon.
Recommended tour: Devils Tower, Spearfish Canyon and Northern Black Hills Adventure
Home to the world’s only corn palace, Mitchell near Sioux Falls is among the quirkiest cities in South Dakota.
Named after prominent Milwaukee banker and president of the Milwaukee Road Alexander Mitchell, the city began life as a humble settlement in 1879 before experiencing an influx of settlers thanks to the region’s fertile farmland.
Mitchell features one-of-a-kind attractions, none more so than the city’s famous Corn Palace, a massive and lavish domed structure adorned with colourful murals made from harvested oats, corn, grass and grains.
More ‘conventional’ places to stop by in Mitchell include the Dakota Discovery Museum, the Carnegie Resource Center and the McGovern Legacy Museum.
The small city of Chamberlain in the Mount Rushmore State’s south-central region is a real breath of fresh air for travellers looking to exchange the hustle and bustle of city life for the rural countryside.
Chamberlain lies perched on the banks of the mighty Missouri River and is home to a large Native American population whose unique cultures and traditions can still be experienced in contemporary Chamberlain today.
Chamberlain might lack the large hotels or shopping centres that are in South Dakota’s larger cities, but it more than makes up for it with landmarks such as the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center and the South Dakota Hall of Fame.
13- Hot Springs
Best known for its collection of intricate box work formations rumoured to be the most intricate in the world, Hot Springs in South Dakota’s southwest is a popular vacation destination for many Midwesterners thanks to the city’s warm natural mineral springs.
Hot Springs and its year-round warm baths were first discovered by the native Sioux and Cheyenne people, who often visited the region for relaxation and medicinal purposes.
Europeans only settled the region during the latter stages of the 1800s.
There’s plenty for visitors to do in and around Hot Springs, with the Pioneer Museum, the World Fossil Finder Museum and the Wind Cave National Park being some of the city’s most popular venues among tourists and locals alike.
Recommended tour: Western Horizons Hot Air Balloon rides
The fourth-largest independent city in South Dakota, Brookings is on the state’s eastern border.
It’s the perfect middle ground between quieter rural living and the hustle and bustle of the large city.
Brookings is home to the sizeable campus of South Dakota State University, the state’s largest public university, which provides the city with an enviable arts and culture scene that’s pretty hard to match anywhere else in South Dakota.
Check out the McCrory Gardens, the South Dakota Art Museum, the Children’s Museum of South Dakota and the Brookings Summer Arts Festival to get the most out of your visit to this youthful Midwest city.
15- Belle Fourche
The city of Belle Fourche is a quintessential Old West frontier town, featuring preserved 19th-century buildings, saloons and a palpable frontier spirit that won’t look out of place as a setting in a Western film.
According to a Coast and Geodetic Survey, Belle Fourche is just 20 miles (32 km) south of the United States geographic centre, making it a pretty unique place to visit in South Dakota.
Hosting the annual Black Hills Roundup, the oldest rodeo in South Dakota, Belle Fourche is one of South Dakota’s fun cities to visit.
Named after celebrated Civil War veteran Lt. Colonel George Armstrong Custer and a stone’s throw away from the largest wildlife park in South Dakota, Custer is very much the gateway to southwest South Dakota’s scenic outdoors.
The city was the first to be settled by Europeans in the Black Hills region and became ground zero during the Black Hills Gold Rush following the Lt.Custer-led expedition of the area.
There are several key attractions and landmarks worth visiting in Custer, including the sprawling Custer State Park, the Jewel Cave National Monument and the 1881 Courthouse Museum.
Recommended tour: Hot Air Balloon Flight Over Black Hills
17- Dell Rapids
Dell Rapids is a small city in South Dakota’s southeast, roughly 20 miles (32 km) from downtown Sioux Falls that shares a unique tie to a Wisconsin city almost 400 miles (644 km) away.
Featuring a series of dells likened to that found near Wisconsin Dells to the east, the settlers of Dell Rapids decided to name their new town after Wisconsin’s popular resort city.
Dell Rapids might lack the large hotels or amusement parks found in its Wisconsin namesake, but it remains a worthy city to explore.
Attractions include the Dell Rapids Museum and Rocky Runs Golf Course.
18- Hill City
Named after the stunning Black Hills, which completely envelop this southwest South Dakota city, Hill City is a dream destination if you’re keen to experience outdoor attractions.
Hill City’s population of just over 800 people, makes it one of the smallest destinations on this list, however, Hill City’s real appeal doesn’t so much lie in its overall size, but rather its complete lack of it.
Low-key attractions such as the South Dakota State Railroad Museum and the Museum at Black Hills Institute make it a destination perfect for unplugging from the city and escaping into the great outdoors.
19- De Smet
The childhood home of celebrated author Laura Ingalls Wilder, famous for her “Little House of the Prairie” series of children’s books, De Smet in South Dakota’s southeast is as charming a city in the Midwest.
De Smet was first settled in 1880 and was named in honour of Pierre De Smet, a Belgian-decent Catholic priest who dedicated most of his life to working with South Dakota’s various Native American tribes.
Much of De Smet’s landmarks and attractions pay homage to Wilder and her family, with the Ingalls Homestead, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes and the Ingalls House all fantastic places to visit if you’re keen to learn more about Wilder’s life.
The eighth-largest city in the Mount Rushmore State in terms of population, Huron is a scenic city perched along the banks of the James River that serves as the gateway to South Dakota’s Glacial Lakes and Prairies Region.
Home to the annual South Dakota State Fair and the “World’s Largest Pheasant” statue, Huron was first established in 1880 following the arrival of the Chicago and Northwestern Railway.
While the state fair is undoubtedly the biggest draw to Huron, there’s plenty more to see and experience in the city, with Splash Central Waterpark and the Dakotaland Museum two excellent attractions in Huron.
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