What Is South Dakota Known For?

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Sparsely populated and home to impressive landscapes, South Dakota is a magical state to explore for anyone seeking to swap busy city living for a slower pace exploring national monuments, Wild West towns and cultural attractions in the Midwest. Home to Mount Rushmore, the aptly nicknamed “Mount Rushmore State” knows how to put on a show, with the world’s largest motorcycle rally, round-the-clock rodeos and live entertainment in a corn palace just a few of the many uniquely South Dakotan things to enjoy.

Home to the Badlands, tall peaks and dense forests that inspired author L. Frank Baum to write critically acclaimed novels such as “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, South Dakota has a good mix of indoor-outdoor attractions, with a couple of mid-sized urban areas to discover as well. Nestled near what is one of the last frontiers of the Continental United States, South Dakota is rich in history, Native American and European culture, and promises a lifetime’s worth of memories to those daring to travel its quiet corners and lonesome roads. Here’s what South Dakota is famous for.

What Is South Dakota Known For?

1- Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore Monument In South Dakota
Mount Rushmore is what South Dakota is famous for.

No doubt the thing most people associate with the state of South Dakota is Mount Rushmore, which is a truly iconic American monument that helped South Dakota earn the nickname of the Mount Rushmore State.

Mount Rushmore is in South Dakota’s Black Hills region about three miles (5 km) outside the popular town of Keystone and was officially commissioned during the 1920s by Doane Robinson as a way to boost tourism in the newly established state.

Designed and carved into the mountain under the guidance of sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the 60-foot-tall (18 m) presidential monument depicting George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson wasn’t completed until 1941, some 14 years after construction began.

Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, Mount Rushmore remains the most popular attraction in the Dakotas and one of the top monuments and memorials to visit in the United States.


2- Badlands National Park

Ben Reifel Visitor Center Sign In Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is what South Dakota is best known for.

With dramatic spires, deep canyons and layered rock formations, Badlands National Park near South Dakota’s southwest corner is a unique part of the Dakotas.

It treats adventurous travellers to more than 240,000 acres (97,124 ha) of rugged and inhospitable landscapes that capture the raw beauty of the Dakotas.

Established by the National Park Service in 1978, the park is home to several species of wildlife, including bison, prairie dogs and bighorn sheep, with a selection of hiking trails and scenic lookouts dotted throughout Badlands which makes it easy to take in the park’s captivating scenes and inhabitants.

Complete with the state-of-the-art Ben Reifel Visitor Center and the Fossil Exhibit Trail, Badlands National Park promises a truly unforgettable South Dakota travel experience where the park’s one million annual visitors get to enjoy some of the best outdoor experiences the Mount Rushmore State.

3- The Corn Palace

The Corn Palace in the city of Mitchell is among the most recognisable landmarks in South Dakota, boasting an eye-catching exterior adorned with murals made from corn and various other grains.

First built during the 1890s and rebuilt several times during the early 1900s, this Moorish-Revival style arena hosts everything from music concerts to rodeos, turning it into Mitchell’s entertainment epicentre whenever major live events come barrelling into town.

Regarded as a symbol of South Dakota’s rich agricultural traditions, the Corn Palace is just over an hour’s drive from nearby Sioux Falls and is consistently ranked as one of South Dakota’s most popular tourist attractions.

4- Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

Custom Motorcyles
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is what Sturgiss, South Dakota is known for.

Near Black Hills National Forest, about an hour’s drive from Mount Rushmore, is the city of Sturgis.

This low-key Midwest destination is famous for hosting the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which is the largest motorcycle rally in the world.

Sturgis has served as the homecoming for motorcyclists in the United States and the world over since the first rally took place here in 1938, with more than 500,000 riders rolling through the city throughout the 10-day-long annual gathering.

A great place to stop on your way to Mount Rushmore, Sturgis and its annual motorcycle showpiece is usually accompanied by events such as motocross and drag races, as well as plenty of food and live entertainment options.

5- Black Elk Peak

The tallest point in both South Dakota and the entire Midwest region, Black Elk Peak is a soaring mountain needing no introduction to regular outdoor-loving travellers exploring the western edge of the Mount Rushmore State.

Rising to about 7,242 feet (2,207 m), Black Elk Peak offers hikers sweeping views across the Black Hills National Forest, with popular South Dakota destinations such as Custer, Rapid City, Sturgis and Mount Rushmore no more than 90 minutes drive from the peak.

Incredibly popular among hikers, the peak is fairly easy to ascend and boasts a seven-mile-long (11 km) out-and-back trail leading hikers from Black Elk’s base right to its summit.

6- Deadwood

Deadwood is what South Dakota is known for.

Seemingly trapped in time, the fascinating city of Deadwood near the many attractions of South Dakota’s southwest corner is arguably the closest thing to an authentic Wild West town you can find in the Midwestern United States.

Deadwood was established in 1876 during the height of the Black Hills Gold Rush and was once upon a time home to infamous figures of the Wild West such as Wild Bill Hickok, Wyatt Earp and Calamity Jane to name but a few.

Long gone are the days of lawlessness on the frontier, with modern-day Deadwood boasting a thriving tourism scene led by attractions such as the Broken Boot Gold Mine, the Adams Museum, its lively Main Street and the nearby marvels of Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.

7- The Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse 2014
The Crazy Horse Memorial is what Deadwood, South Dakota is known for.

Located near the once lawless streets of Deadwood lies arguably one of the most interesting monuments in the Midwest, the Crazy Horse Memorial, which, once completed, will measure a staggering 563 feet tall (172 m) and 641 feet long (195 m).

The memorial was commissioned by former Oglala Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear to pay tribute to the tribe’s legendary former leader, Crazy Horse, who led the Lakota in battle against US forces during the 1800s.

Polish-American Korczak Ziolkowski was chosen to sculpt the monument and construction finally began in 1948, yet there appears to be no timeline for when the massive landmark would ultimately be completed.

Already the largest mountain carving in the world, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a major tourist attraction despite not being fully completed yet, with Crazy Horse’s face starting to resemble that of the once popular Lakota war leader.

8- Sioux Falls

The Falls Of The Big Sioux River
Sioux Falls is what South Dakota is known for.

In the southeast corner of the Mount Rushmore State, the city of Sioux Falls is the most populated urban hub in South Dakota and just a quick hop from fellow Midwest states Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

The city is a launchpad from which to explore the many attractions around eastern and southern South Dakota, with Sioux Falls generally regarded as the cultural and historic hub of the Mount Rushmore State.

What started as little more than a military reservation in 1865 has since flourished into what is one of the fastest-growing cities in the Midwest region, with exciting places to visit such as SculptureWalk, the Butterfly House & Aquarium, and the city’s Old Courthouse Museum.

9- Dinosaur Fossils

Black Hills South Dakota
Dinosaur fossils are discoveries that South Dakota is known for.

Apart from gold, oil and its sheer natural beauty, South Dakota’s biggest claim to fame is the Mount Rushmore State’s large beds of prehistoric fossils, which have attracted many scientists and archaeologists to this sparsely populated part of the Midwest.

Dinosaur fossils of all shapes and sizes have been discovered in virtually every corner of the state, but it’s the fossil beds near places such as the Mammoth Site and the Black Hills National Forest which have produced some of the finds of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Among the many fossilised remains found at the Black Hills and Mammoth Site include species such as triceratops, mammoth, cephalopod, pterosaurs and many more extinct prehistoric creatures which once roamed the plains and Badlands of the Dakotas.

10- Rodeo Culture

Calf Roping At Country Rodeo
Rodeo culture is what South Dakota is known for.

Hand in hand with the cowboy culture of the Old West, the art of the rodeo was born out of the skills required to do ranching on the Mount Rushmore State’s vast open plains.

South Dakota hosts dozens of rodeos every year ranging from high school-level rodeos to 4-H and PRCA events.

Rodeos entertain crowds with fast-paced bull riding, barrel racing, goat tying and bareback riding spectacles in towns and cities across South Dakota.

11- The Missouri River

Missouri River
Missouri River is what South Dakota known for.

Needing no introduction in the Midwest, the mighty Missouri River is the longest in the United States, stretching from its point of origin in the Rocky Mountains’ Bitterroot Range up in Montana to its confluence with the Mississippi River just north of downtown St. Louis.

The lifeblood of countless cities, towns and farming communities dotted along its banks, the Missouri measures in at about 2,341 miles (3,767 km) long as was once all that separated the United States from the lawless territories and regions of the American West.

Effectively splitting South Dakota into east and west as it carves its way right through the middle of the state, the Missouri River is a truly awe-inspiring sight to behold and is as much fun to look at as it is to explore its surface.

12- Custer State Park

Custer State Park Trail
Custer State Park is what South Dakota is known for.

Covering an area of about 71,000 acres (28,733 ha), Custer State Park is a popular destination for outdoor recreational activities, with fishing, swimming, hiking, biking, camping and wildlife watching available to visitors within this iconic South Dakota destination.

Nestled in the southwest, the state park was initially created in 1912 and enjoys the honour of being both the first and largest state park in South Dakota.

Named after Civil War and Indian War veteran Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, the park is great for spotting bison, bighorn sheep, cougars, white-tailed deer and even river otters.

It’s just a short drive from spots such as Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park and Crazy Horse Memorial.

13- L. Frank Baum

Internationally renowned for his literary works which include “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, renowned American author L. Frank Baum was born and raised in upstate New York before moving with his wife to South Dakota to open a store.

Baum tried his luck in South Dakota following a failed stint as a playwright and theatre producer in his home state, before moving on from the Mount Rushmore State to Illinois, where he would eventually pen many of his most famous novels.

Despite the author not spending much time in the Mount Rushmore State, his three years living in Aberdeen, South Dakota, no doubt inspired many of his future masterpieces.

14- The Wind Cave

Boxwork In Wind Cave
Wind Cave is what South Dakota is known for.

One of the longest and most intricate cave systems on the planet, Wind Cave sits beneath a remnant island of preserved prairie in the Mount Rushmore State’s southwest corner.

Wind Cave is famous for its stunning examples of honeycomb-like thin calcite fins, better known as ‘boxwork’, which is easily experienced within Wind Cave’s vast chambers, most notably “Elks Room” and the “Post Office”.

Located within the Wind Cave National Park, the cave system measures in at a whopping 154 miles (248 km) long, with the park’s population of elk, antelope and bison seen roaming near the cave’s entrance.

15- Native American Day

Celebrated in South Dakota on the second Monday in October every year, Native American Day is a unique annual holiday paying homage to the unique Native American tribes which once roamed the plains and prairies of the Mount Rushmore State.

Several states celebrate the holiday, most doing so on the last Friday in September, with Wisconsin and South Dakota being the only states to celebrate it in early October.

The holiday replaced Columbus Day in the Mount Rushmore State and showcases the unique cultures and traditions of South Dakota natives and the state’s nine recognised tribal governments.

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Jessica Shaw
Jessica Shaw is a storyteller who has lived in four U.S. states - Missouri, Georgia, Ohio and Illinois - and has visited many others. She loves history and nature and is a big fan of road tripping.