South Dakota is a state known for open spaces and prairie land as far as the eye can see. The state is divided into two – East River and West River, as locals call the two halves – by the Missouri River, which almost perfectly divides the state down the middle. Both East and West River are home to many state parks; it’s especially interesting to experience the way the land changes as you travel from east to west, or vice versa.
East River consists of farmland and open, rolling prairie. As you travel across the Missouri River and get close to Mount Rushmore on the west side of the state, prairies give way to the Black Hills National Forest and the Badlands. Ponderosa pine forests, lakes, waterfalls and spiralling natural granite towers mark the landscape here. During my 10+ years in South Dakota, I’ve visited many state parks across the state, but I have a few favourites. So, here are the state parks in South Dakota to tick off your list.
South Dakota State Parks
- Custer State Park Tour – See Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse in one day.
7 Stunning State Parks in South Dakota
1- Custer State Park
The most well-known of South Dakota’s state parks, Custer State Park is on the west side of the state – or “West River,” as locals call it.
It’s a short car ride (15 miles / 24 km) from the town of Custer.
Spanning 71,000 acres (28,732 ha), this is one of the country’s largest state parks.
It’s situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, an area covered in pine forests, dotted with incredible granite formations and abundant in outdoor recreation opportunities like kayaking, snowmobiling and hiking.
The park is home to a variety of wildlife, including antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, elk and more. But the wildlife stars of the park are the bison.
One of Custer State Park’s most well-known features is the herd of 1,300 free-roaming bison that calls this place home.
These giant animals can easily be spotted from your car and one particular route through the park, Wildlife Loop Road, is known for its bison traffic jams.
Expect to be stopped by herds of bison as they cross over the road, and don’t be surprised if you get a “bison car wash” when they lick your car with their black tongues!
Many private tours of this area are available, including a popular private jeep safari tour that can be booked here.
You don’t have to leave the park to find a comfortable place to stay, as lodges like the State Game Lodge and Blue Bell Lodge are available year-round.
There are also nine developed campgrounds throughout the park for those who want to spend the night under the stars.
If that’s your goal, this park is the place to do it – the lack of lights for miles around means you’ll get treated to some of the best stargazing of your life.
The diversity of the park’s natural landscapes is incredible.
Much of the park features granite spires that jut into the sky: the most notable of these are nicknamed the “Needles” due to their thin shapes that pierce the skyline.
The best way to explore these rocks is to drive along Needles Highway, although there are plenty of hiking trails for those who want to get closer.
The most adventurous athletes can even climb the Needles, though this is recommended only for the most experienced climbers.
Along Needles Highway, you’ll find Sylvan Lake, one of the five lakes within Custer State Park.
Sylvan Lake is amazingly picturesque and offers all the outdoor recreation opportunities a visitor could desire, including swimming, canoeing, kayaking and hiking.
As this is such a popular area for locals and visitors, you’ll find more than your basic attractions, such as this once-in-a-lifetime hot air balloon ride over the park at sunrise. You can also visit Custer, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse on this tour.
2- Sica Hollow State Park
In the northeast corner of South Dakota is Sica Hollow State Park.
Like many areas of the state – check out Rapid City or Deadwood – rumours of haunted happenings abound.
“Sica” (pronounced SHE-cuh) is a Native American word meaning “evil.”
This park is thickly wooded and studded with streams and bogs.
One of the reasons the Native Americans who used to live here believed this area was haunted is because it was practically inhabitable; in fact, they refused to live there.
The dense forest combined with ravines with steep drop-offs of several hundred feet makes this land inhospitable.
Travelling through the park today is a peaceful and even spiritual experience.
Many hikers will walk the Trail of the Spirits, using the silence and seclusion to break away from the bustle of everyday life.
Bogs and streams can be found along this trail; due to the mineral deposits in this area, the water has a red tint.
It’s easy to understand why Native Americans believed this water contained the blood of their ancestors.
There are eight miles (13 km) of marked trails throughout the park, with the Trail of Spirits designated a National Recreational Trail in 1971.
The 900 acres (364 ha) can also be explored on horseback.
Sica Hollow State Park is open throughout the year, you can camp overnight at one of the campgrounds – if you dare!
3- Palisades State Park
23 miles (37 km) from South Dakota’s largest city, Sioux Falls lives one of its most beautiful parks.
Palisades State Park is a prime local getaway and well worth a visit if you’re on the state’s east side.
The geologic formations here are stunning due to their unique colour – they’re pink!
Like much of the rock in this part of the state, Sioux quartzite (a very hard mineral with a pink tint) creates these mineral formations.
If you visit Sioux Falls, you’ll notice that many of the buildings downtown are the same colour, as Sioux quartzite is a common building material.
Many surrounding roads and highways also have a pink tint since the rock is often used in road construction.
The quartzite formations in Palisades State Park are cut into tall, vertical peaks that have been eroded for millions of years by Split Rock Creek, which still flows below the cliffs today.
It’s estimated that these quartzite spires are 1.2 billion years old.
Four hiking trails wind through the park, and campsites by the creek make this an easy overnight destination for locals and visitors living or staying in Sioux Falls.
Fishing is allowed in the river, and the paths along the creek make this a fun place to take kids.
Rock climbing is also common here, so grab your chalk and head over for a great time at one of the most beautiful parks in South Dakota.
4- George S. Mickelson Trail
If you’re visiting Mount Rushmore on the west side of the state, you can easily spend a day or half a day at George S. Mickelson Trail, which is 15 miles (24 km) from Mount Rushmore.
This trail is in the heart of the beautiful Black Hills and was once a train route.
Trains used this path for over 100 years before being abandoned in the 1980s; in 1991, a group of outdoor recreation enthusiasts realized its potential, and by 1998, the new trail was opened to the public.
The trail offers options for any age or interest you can dream of.
Spend the day horseback riding through the stunning foliage of the surrounding Black Hills National Forest or ride a bike along one of the 15 trailheads maintained here.
If you’re visiting in winter, try out cross-country skiing.
Another reason to visit this gorgeous state park is its proximity to an abundance of local towns well worth a visit.
One nearby attraction is Deadwood, the gold prospector-founded town made infamous by its rowdy reputation and the HBO show of the same name.
The town of Spearfish is 66 miles (106 km) from the George S. Mickelson Trail, known for its incredible hiking and scenic waterfalls.
Or visit the nearby world-famous Mount Rushmore, just 36 miles (58 km) from the trail.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the top-visited attraction in South Dakota, seeing around two million visitors each year.
The surrounding landscape is beautiful year-round and offers changing scenes depending on the time of year you visit – wildflowers dot the fields in spring and summer, while the trees burst into colour every autumn.
5- Spirit Mound Historic Prairie
Spirit Mound’s claim to fame is a special one: it’s on top of this hill that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the captains of the intrepid expedition that travelled across the western portion of the Louisiana Purchase territory in the early 1800s, stood and surveyed the land below them.
In August 1804, these famous explorers described standing on top of Spirit Mound and seeing prairieland and bison for miles.
What’s especially interesting about this landmark is that there are few places in the U.S. where you can be sure the expedition actually stood.
As Lewis and Clark wrote about this exact spot in their journals, you can be sure you’re standing in the footsteps of greatness.
Spirit Mound Historic Prairie is one of many sites throughout the state influenced by Native American lore from hundreds and thousands of years ago.
The Sioux, Omaha and Otoe tribes told stories of tiny people with large heads that lived in this area, though Lewis and Clark saw no evidence of this when they journeyed here.
This open prairieland is best observed while standing on top of Spirit Mound.
In 2001, efforts began to reestablish the local flora and grasses that the Lewis and Clark expedition would have witnessed during their travels.
While it will take many years for the same native plants to finish growing, the area is currently covered in beautiful wildflowers and prairie grasses.
This park is excellent for picnicking and easy hiking, and there are no fees for entrance.
It’s open year-round and is a great place to visit if you’re staying in nearby Vermillion, which is just 7 miles (11 km) away by car.
6- Spearfish Canyon State Nature Area
While technically a state nature area and not a state park, Spearfish Canyon State Nature Area will catch the attention of any visitor to the state.
Located in the Black Hills, this area is known primarily as a paradise for waterfall seekers and is one of the state’s most beautiful and picturesque corners.
A great way to explore this nature area is by driving along the Spearfish Canyon State Scenic Byway.
The byway travels along 22 miles (35 km) of forested gorges, with Spearfish Creek twisting along the bottom of the canyon.
Once you make it into Spearfish Canyon State Nature Area, be prepared for some of the most breathtaking locations you’ll see for a long time – namely, Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Falls and Savoy Pond.
However, you’ll want to get out of the car and onto the trails for an up-close look at the true beauty of this area.
Visitors will want to explore one of the many waterfalls that are so sought after: Roughlock Falls is one such multi-tiered waterfall in Spearfish Canyon and one of the most photogenic locations in South Dakota.
Spearfish Falls and the nearby Savoy Pond offer serene water features with 360-degree views of the surrounding hills and forest.
An additional perk of visiting this nature area is the proximity to the town of Spearfish: it’s a quick 15-mile (24 km) drive from this pretty town known for its breweries and outdoor recreation activities.
Take a break from hiking and grab a drink at local favourites Crow Peak Brewing Company or Spearfish Brewing Company.
Spend the night at one of many lodging options and grab a meal at Dough Trader Pizza Company or an ice cream cone at Leones’ Creamery.
Spearfish Canyon State Nature Area is a beautiful place to explore any time of year. However, autumn is when this place really shines.
The Black Hills National Forest that covers Spearfish Canyon provides a mind-blowing display of fall foliage every year.
Driving through the canyon during fall will be an experience you won’t soon forget.
7- Newton Hills State Park
Over on the east side of South Dakota lies Newton Hills State Park, about 30 miles (48 km) from Sioux Falls.
Many locals make Newton Hills a half-day or day trip, especially those with families – the low elevation changes in this park make it a great attraction for young kids.
Spanning over 1,000 acres (407 ha), this state park features a forest that appears to have sprung out of the surrounding flat prairie.
It’s home to many species of wildlife, including over 200 species of birds, turkeys, marmots and other wild animals.
Since it’s such a large park, there are many places to stay – over 138 campsites, some including cabins or group lodges, are available throughout the park.
Many of the park’s trails are accessible for children, and horseback riding is common here.
Head to the Observation Tower for a macro perspective over the woods and prairielands that cover eastern South Dakota, or rent a kayak and float down the Big Sioux River.
It wouldn’t be a South Dakota state park without a long-running history of Native American legends and history.
Artifacts and burial grounds found here have led archaeologists to believe that Native Americans inhabited this area as early as 300 B.C.
The way the forest looms out of the prairie has caused many other local legends to spring up as well, including that this area was once home to bank robbers and horse thieves seeking refuge from law enforcement.
Nowadays, you can safely roam the park without fear of horse robbers.
Bring a tent or book a cabin for a memorable family trip.