South Dakota
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Discover South Dakota’s Great 8 in the Heart of the Plains

All U.S. states have their can’t-miss spots — sights of sheer beauty or world renown — and in the Great Plains, South Dakota’s Great 8 are all sights travelers don’t want to miss.

From dramatic landscapes to iconic landmarks to underground wonders, South Dakota’s Great 8 are all exceptional in their own way and showcase the best of the Midwest’s Plains region.

Mount Rushmore-South Dakota
Mount Rushmore | photo via triggerfishadventures

Mount Rushmore

The gigantic granite carvings of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt overlooking the Black Hills at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial are among the nation’s most iconic monuments.

DID YOU KNOW: George Washington’s head is 60 feet tall and Abe Lincoln’s head is slightly taller. Also, a text panel of each of the presidents sits behind the monument in a repository.

Carved in South Dakota’s Black Hills between 1927 and 1941, the project was designed by Gutzon Borglum. The carving involved using dynamite and a drilling process known as honeycombing — where workers could drill small holes and remove small pieces of rock by hand.

NOTE: You can see Mount Rushmore from the road, but we recommend visiting the Memorial to see a unique piece of history up close.

Mount Rushmore averages more than 2 million visitors each year and continues to stand as a shrine of democracy. Visitors can take tours, stop for scenic photo ops, and learn about the work that went into creating Mount Rushmore.

Sunset at Badlands National Park in South Dakota
Badlands National Park, South Dakota | Photo Credit: Wick Smith / Shutterstock

Badlands National Park

South Dakota’s natural landscape is a thing of beauty, and Badlands National Park showcases it all. Visitors of all ages can be mesmerized by the park’s seemingly endless maze of canyons, buttes, spires, and pinnacles.

Spanning more than 200,000 acres, the park offers opportunities for camping, hiking, wildlife viewing, and much more. The park is also home to skeletons of several fossilized species, giving visitors a fascinating glimpse into the past as they gaze upon the remains of saber-toothed cats and three-toed horses.

TRAVEL TIP: If exploring Badlands National Park on foot isn’t your cup of tea, you can pile in your vehicle and drive the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway. The drive only takes about an hour, but you’ll likely take longer as you pull off to take pictures and enjoy incredible views.

The sheer size of the park means travelers will likely encounter crowds no matter when they visit, but visiting during the shoulder seasons is recommended to avoid the summer heat and the biggest crowds.

South Dakota
Crazy Horse Memorial | photo via peter.schaich

Crazy Horse Memorial

Mount Rushmore may be the most famous mountain in South Dakota, but this “masterpiece in progress” which honors Lakota leader Crazy Horse and the heritage of Native Americans will eventually be the state’s largest mountain carving — as it stands, the carving rises more than 6,000 feet above sea level.

DID YOU KNOW: When completed, the depiction of Crazy Horse will be 563 feet high and 641 feet long. The massive work was started in 1948 by Korczak Ziolkowski.

The memorial also includes an on-site visitor center, where guests can view one-of-a-kind artifacts, visit with local artists and youngsters can enjoy kids’ activities.

Historic Deadwood

From the outside, Deadwood is a historic Wild West town with connections to the gold rush — so famous it inspired the Deadwood HBO series. But a closer look reveals numerous places that preserve the town’s colorful history — places where visitors can walk in the footsteps of legends like Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane.

Start your visit on Main Street, which takes on the look and feel of an Old West town. Visitors can shop, eat, or hop aboard a trolley or stagecoach in the summer. Continue your trip with visits to the Days of 76 Museum and Adams Museum, which detail the rich history of the Black Hills and Deadwood itself.

Everywhere you look, there’s fun for the whole family and visitors can enjoy a visit that beautifully merges modern entertainment with Wild West history.

Custer State Park-South Dakota
Custer State Park | photo via damienchev

Custer State Park

Custer State Park is one of few places in the country that maintains the spirit of the frontier. It’s a wondrous place where more than 1,000 bison roam along with elk, goats, and antelope. It’s a place where visitors can enjoy leisurely drives, bike rides, and even safari tours to enjoy the SoDak scenery.

Visitors can view a variety of wildlife along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road or traverse the 14-mile Needles Highway to enjoy spectacular sunset views as well as narrow tunnels and spires.

Hikers can indulge in the challenges of the Cathedral Spires Trail, traveling a 1.6-mile round-trip route to enjoy views of rock formations and towering spires. The park also offers buffalo safari Jeep tours where visitors can see the bison herd up close.

Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave National Monument | photo via heidyarellano

Jewel Cave National Monument

Grab a good pair of hiking shoes and a flashlight and prepare to explore the third-longest cave in the world. This SoDak treasure offers plenty of room for adventure above and below ground.

Below ground, visitors can explore the passages of a vast underground expanse and admire the vibrant colors and formations formed there on a variety of cave tours. Above ground, a 1,279-acre park offers multiple trails to explore, including the Canyons Trail, which passes through the Hell and Lithograph canyons.

Wind Cave National Park

Nestled under hillside forests and tall grasses, Wind Cave National Park beckons travelers of all ages to explore its wonders above and below ground — call it two parks in one.

Below prairie lands, visitors can explore Wind Cave — a maze of passages and one of the world’s longest caves. Visitors are advised to layer up before going on a tour and those who want to skip the tour can still visit the opening — a spiritual place the Lakota say the bison and humans emerged from.

Above ground, the park offers opportunities for pet-friendly hikes (on two different trails), more challenging hikes with over 30 miles of trails, wildlife viewing, and scenic overlooks (including the Black Hills).

Missouri River-South Dakota
Missouri River | photo via travis.volz

Missouri River

The central part of South Dakota is home to more than 400 miles of the Missouri River, which flows from the top of the state down to its Nebraska border. The Mighty Missouri cuts the state in half, creating space for fishing, water recreation, and much more.

Residents and visitors alike can go with the flow and discover the many towns on the river banks, including the state capital, Pierre, Vermillion, and Yankton. It’s the perfect way to explore small towns, and hidden gems, and soak up all of what makes South Dakota special.

Explore All of South Dakota’s Great 8 for Yourself

Whether you’re looking for the next great American road trip, or you love national landmarks and scenic views, South Dakota’s Great 8 are all unique. Visiting one or two will leave a lasting impression, but visiting all eight will turn into an unforgettable trip that may have you coming back to experience more of what makes the Great Plains exceptional.