7 National Parks in South Dakota

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South Dakota, located in the United States centre, is best known for its farming and ranching country. Four million acres of corn is grown here and 3.8 million head of cattle call this state home. Besides huge farming and ranching industries, South Dakota is also home to mountains, forests and prairies.

Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park are the two nationally protected sites to visit in this part of the country. Black Hills National Forest and other natural wonders here are well worth a visit through the Heartlands of America. Here are the national parks in South Dakota to visit.

National Parks in South Dakota

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South Dakota National Parks

1- Badlands National Park

national parks south dakota badlands
Admire the incredible scenery in one of the most unusual national parks in South Dakota.

Badlands National Park is one of the most interesting places in South Dakota, situated on the Western side of the state, less than 1.5 hours by car from Mount Rushmore.

The park is also conveniently located on Interstate 90, so it can easily be visited while driving across the state.

This park was founded in 1929, but it’s just a *bit* older than that: the formation of the rocks and canyons of the Badlands began over 75 million years ago.

An ocean covered this area in prehistoric times, and as the waters flowed over the land, they carved the distinct rock formations that exist today.

The rock in this area continues to erode to this day at a rate of 1 inch (25 mm) per year.

What strikes visitors upon approaching the Badlands is what many locals call the “alien” landscape: it looks like something from out of this world.

The rock formations cut into the sky out of the flat prairie land, with colourful layers of white and red curving through the landscape, creating a stark contrast from the brown and green prairie.

The park’s 379 square miles (982 square km) can be explored from the comfort of your car, but there are hiking trails throughout for those who want a closer look.

Trails range from easy to very difficult, making it a great destination for families or more experienced hikers.

Visitors can take a short walk along a board-walked trail like Door Trail or Window Trail, which lead to vast, open views of the Badlands.

For a more difficult hike, try Saddle Pass or Cliff Shelf, where a small pond can draw wildlife like bighorn sheep to the area.

south dakota national park badlands
If you only have time for one national park in South Dakota, make it Badlands.

This park has an “open hike” policy, meaning you’re free to explore off-trail as long as you can safely. Plus, many guided tours are available, including night sky adventures, winter wonderland tours and private tours to discover the park’s hidden secrets.

Badlands National Park cannot be responsibly understood without discussing the Native American people who lived in this area for thousands of years before the U.S. broke the Second Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1889, stealing the land from them and incorporating it into the U.S. National Parks system.

For 11,00 years, Native Americans – specifically the Lakota tribe – used the Badlands as hunting grounds.

The name “Badlands” is derived from the Lakota name “mako sika,” which translates to “bad lands.”

It was so named because it was challenging to travel across; the tall rocks, steep canyons and extremely rugged landscape offered few paths and almost no water sources.

As with many areas of the U.S., Badlands National Park has a harsh history of land theft and colonization.

When you visit, stop and look up at the towering rock spirals and wide canyons, and remember that many people – pioneers, settlers, Native Americans, and visitors alike – have gazed over this land for thousands of years.

2- Wind Cave National Park

national park in south dakota windcave
The unusual boxwork in Wind Cave, makes it one of two national parks in South Dakota worth visiting.

Just over an hour’s drive (53 miles / 85 km) southeast of the Badlands is Wind Cave National Park.

This site is home to one of the world’s oldest caves, Wind Cave.

It contains 150 miles (241 km) of passages, making it the seventh-longest cave in the world.

Wind Cave was declared a national park in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

The cave has only one natural entrance, a small hole in the ground.

Due to the difference in atmospheric pressures in the cave and outside the cave, a strong breeze is created, and a whistling noise can be heard.

Legend has it that upon approaching the hole, one of the men leaning over it had his hat blown off.

In addition to being extremely old, Wind Cave is very complex.

It is known for a type of rock formation called boxwork, a honeycomb-like structure; 95% of the world’s boxwork formations are found here.

Guided tours of the cave are available throughout the year.

It’s not just the cave that makes this area worth visiting.

Wind Cave National Park contains two worlds: one underground and one above ground. 28,000 acres (11,331 ha) of prairie and forest are protected here.

The forest features Ponderosa pines and both the forest and the prairie host a teeming population of wildlife, including coyotes, prairie dogs, pronghorn, deer and elk.

Most eye-catching are the bison that roam this area of the country.

Bison have existed here for hundreds of thousands of years.

Millions of the animals once lived here until they were almost hunted to extinction in the 1800s.

Conservation efforts were launched in the mid-20th century, and the animals are now thriving.

Wind Cave National Park is an excellent area to spot them. Just be careful – while they’re known to be gentle giants, you don’t want to get too close!

National Memorial

3- Mount Rushmore National Memorial

national parks in sd mount rushmore
Mount Rushmore is an iconic South Dakota national parks site to tick off your bucket list.

While Mount Rushmore is technically designated a national memorial, not a monument, it’s well worth visiting.

It’s the largest tourist attraction in South Dakota, bringing in over two million visitors a year.

It’s within driving distance from many highly visitable towns like Deadwood and Spearfish, and is just 30 minutes (23 miles / 37 km) from Rapid City, the second-largest city in the state.

Mount Rushmore is a huge sculpture carved into the granite of a mountain of the same name and is in the picturesque Black Hills of South Dakota.

The sculpture features the 60-foot-tall faces of four American presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

They tower over the surrounding landscape and have done so since the memorial was completed in 1941.

It may come as no surprise that this land was once Native American territory.

The Lakota Sioux and other tribes consider the Black Hills, where the memorial is located, as a sacred and historically important part of their culture.

The U.S. took the area from the Native American people in the late 1800s.

The government attempted to compensate for this stolen land in 1980 with a settlement offer of over one billion dollars, but the Sioux tribe declined, stating that the only settlement they would accept was the full return of the land.

Today, visitors can view the memorial as they explore the rest of the beautiful Black Hills National Forest, a 1.2-million-acre (486,000 ha) forest known for its woods, wildlife and outdoor recreation.

The on-site Visitor Center features a history of the monument, and visitors can enjoy vanilla ice cream made from President Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe.

Mount Rushmore is highly accessible by car from other beautiful towns and monuments.

In addition to Rapid City, nearby towns include Deadwood, famous for its rough-and-tumble history of gold prospectors and shootouts, as well as the hiking paradise of beautiful, waterfall-rich Spearfish.

Other nearby attractions include Crazy Horse Memorial – the world’s largest mountain carving-in-progress, featuring Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse – and Custer State Park.

Many guided tours of Mount Rushmore and the surrounding area are available: check them out here.

National Monument

4- Jewel Cave National Monument

Just a 45-minute drive (32 miles / 51 km) from Mount Rushmore is Jewel Cave National Monument, the third-longest cave in the world.

Like Wind Cave, Jewel Cave originally had only one natural entrance, a small hole in the ground with wind caused by atmospheric pressure changes blowing out of it.

The entrance had to be enlarged with dynamite for the cave to be explored.

Jewel Cave was declared a national monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

The cave’s interior is lined with crystals made of a material called calcite; these crystals are where Jewel Cave gets its name.

Initially, the cave was inaccessible and, therefore, unexplorable. Dynamite was used to access the cave and digging began in the early 1900s.

Throughout the 20th century, explorers uncovered more of the cave and began mapping its many paths and tunnels; today, 215 miles (346 km) of mapped tunnels make Jewel Cave the third-longest cave in the world.

Hundreds of unexplored “leads” still exist in the cave today, meaning many more paths and tunnels are yet to be discovered.

Like Wind Cave, Jewel Cave is a “breathing cave” – this means that the atmospheric pressure differences between the inside and outside cause air to enter and exit the cave, causing breezes.

Ranger-guided tours of Jewel Cave are available throughout the year but must be booked in advance.

The interior temperature of the cave is cool, remaining 49 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius) throughout the year, so don’t forget your jacket!

Visitors who haven’t booked a cave tour are still in luck: the surface area surrounding Jewel Cave offers plenty of outdoor recreation like hiking and snowshoeing.

National Historic Site

5- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is one of the most unique South Dakota national parks sites to explore.

The history of the minuteman missile in South Dakota is an interesting one.

During the Cold War, a huge depository of nuclear weapons was hidden underground in the Great Plains, of which South Dakota is part.

This isn’t just ancient history; many of these weapons remain here today.

The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site was constructed in 1999 near Wall, South Dakota, as a memorial to the Cold War and ballistic missiles.

The specific family of missiles that the Minuteman Missile belongs to is called an intercontinental ballistic missile, and that’s what can be found at this historic site.

You can see the last of the Minuteman Missiles II here – but don’t worry, nothing is armed.

Visitors can also explore a missile launch control centre and missile launch facility.

This attraction should be number one on your list if you’re a history buff.

National Recreational River

6- Missouri National Recreational River

If you think there are no natural water features in this landlocked U.S. state, you’d be wrong – the Missouri River divides the state neatly in two.

Along with a multitude of lakes and waterfalls in South Dakota, the Missouri River offers plenty of water-based adventures for anyone wanting to cool off during the hot Midwestern summers.

The Missouri National Recreational River is a 100-mile-long stretch (160 km) of America’s longest river, the Missouri River, and is segmented into two portions.

The first runs from Gavin’s Point Dam (near Yankton, South Dakota) to Nebraska’s Ponca State Park, while the second segment flows from Fort Randall Dam at Pickstown, South Dakota, to Running Water, South Dakota.

Along the river, outdoor recreation enthusiasts have their pick of activities.

It’s a premier boating, fishing and hunting area for locals and visitors alike.

If you’re visiting in August and are along the portion of the river near the town of Yankton, check out the hugely popular Riverboat Days Festival, which features live music and other family-friendly entertainment.

Within Yankton itself, 40 miles (64 km) of hiking trails are available for walking, hiking or biking.

Stop for a rest and a beer at 6th Meridian Brewery. Or if you’d like to experience being in two places at once, cross the Meridian Bridge, Yankton’s signature landmark.

Crossing the bridge will bring you into nearby Nebraska, so there’s a point along the bridge where you can have one foot in South Dakota and one in Nebraska.

National Historic Trail

7- Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail isn’t just in South Dakota: it covers ground in 16 U.S. states and over 4,900 miles (7,886 km).

For those unfamiliar with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, these famous American explorers led an expedition across the western portion of America from 1803 to 1806, following the United States’ acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from the French government.

These explorers are largely why American pioneers started the great expansion out to the middle and west coast of America.

The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows this expedition’s route so modern-day adventurers can follow in their footsteps.

To experience the South Dakota portion of this trail, start at the state’s southeast corner, along the Nebraska border.

Heading north, you’ll travel through many South Dakota towns, including Vermillion, Yankton, the state capital of Pierre, and more before the trail picks up in North Dakota.

The sheer length of this trail means there are endless attractions worth visiting as you follow the ghosts of Lewis and Clark.

Some of the many worth mentioning include the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area, where you can kayak or canoe along the Missouri River past the giant, 50-foot tall (15 meters) Dignity statue depicting a Native American woman high above the prairie outside of Chamberlain or the State Capitol building in Pierre.

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Olivia Larson is a detail-oriented, podcast-loving bibliophile with a bachelor’s degree in English Literature and a background in marketing. She’s a freelance content writer and editor who loves to travel. She currently calls the American Midwest her home, where she dreams about the trips she’s taken to Greece, Italy, Switzerland and Mexico. Her favorite city in the U.S. is New York City (duh) and her favorite city abroad is Florence, Italy. In her spare time you can find her reading – probably Steinbeck or Sally Rooney – or running after her toddler.