Most people who have never been to South Dakota probably only know it for Mount Rushmore. And while Mt. Rushmore is one of the great places to visit on a South Dakota family vacation, it’s history, beautiful whispering prairies, jutting mountains, and crystal clear lakes make it well worth the trek.
Don’t know what to do in South Dakota? This state is full of diverse natural beauty, wild and historical experiences, and some incredible national parks. Here are our picks for the top 10 things to do in South Dakota with kids.
Things to do in South Dakota with Kids on a Family Vacation
10. Visit a Little House on the Prairie
Fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s famous series of books will take great pleasure in getting to see her family home and over 2,000 artifacts from the author’s life at the Ingall’s Homestead in De Smet.
Visit this historic site in the summer for a wider appeal of old-fashioned family fun when you can camp, take covered wagon tours, wear pinafores, bonnets, and straw hats while you are a student at the Little Prairie School or try your hand as a pioneer as you make rope, grind wheat, shell corn and make your own corn-cob doll.
Each July, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant recreates part of the author’s life in theatrical fashion outdoors at the Homestead. A gift shop onsite allows you to take home a small piece of pioneer history.
9. Follow the Signs to Wall Drug
Billboards offering free ice water in 1931 put the only drugstore in Wall, SD on the map. Today, Wall Drug greets almost 20,000 visitors on a summer day, many buying a $.05 cup of coffee or a cute, albeit kitschy, souvenir to take home.
Signs line Interstate-90 for over 500 miles pointing the way to Wall Drug. By the time you reach this massive gift-shop and restaurant in the middle of the prairie, you and your kids will feel as if you have come upon the greatest thing since sliced bread. And really, you have. Wall Drug is a family owned and operated wonderland of touristy wares, interesting photo ops, cheap local food and a fun, imaginative rest stop in the middle of a long car trip!
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8. Explore the Sprawling Badlands
Located on the edge of the Great Plains, Badlands National Park is a beautiful and unique terrain full of 244,000 acres of buttes, spires, and rolling grasslands. Drive the highway 240 Loop for an hour-overview of many of the park’s features. You’ll see the Badlands Wilderness where you might spot bighorn sheep, coyotes, or even American bison. A quick 30-minute detour takes you to Robert’s Prairie Dog Town. Here you can try to catch a glimpse of the cute little mammals.
One thing you are sure to see is an amazing panoramic view of the park’s beautiful landscapes. Eight hiking trails sprawl the lands including two just right for little ones: Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (.5 mile) or Fossil Exhibit Trail (.25 mile). In the summer, Night Sky Programs are an incredible way to end your day under a blanket of stars most urbanites have never imagined.
7. Head Underground into South Dakota’s Caves
South Dakota’s land is full (er… I suppose, surprisingly hollow) of caves ready for exploration. Caves present families with a unique, mysterious, and always interesting look into life underground.
Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument are must stops. The two cave systems together run almost 300 miles underground! Numerous tour options are available and run daily except on holidays.
Rushmore Mountain Adventure Park has the adrenaline junky family covered. Families can tour the cave on a zip line, ride a roller coaster, or take an advanced spelunking tour where you will literally have to crawl on your belly through tight spaces! (Claustrophic folks, take a deep breath now!!)
If you are hoping to find some gold during your trip underground, head to Big Thunder Gold Mine where you are guaranteed to end your tour a small bit richer!
Tips for cave expeditions: Pack a sweater as it gets very chilly down in the earth. Be sure to check out the activity level of the tours because you can’t exactly decide mid-cave that it is too strenuous. You always have to climb the uphill portion of the hike as you exit, so plan accordingly.
6. Dig up Some Bones at Archaeological Sites
Travel 26,000 years back in time at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs where a unique sinkhole created a treasure of fossil remains from the ice age. The Mammoth Site is a must stop for any family with a budding paleontologist in tow. It has enough hands-on activities that even non-scientists will applaud their visit.
Home of the world’s largest Mammoth Research facility, you can take a guided tour through both an active paleontology dig site and see real ice age fossils as they are found. Onsite specimens include over 58 Colombian and Woolly Mammoth fossils, in addition to numerous other animals!
The museum comes alive in summer. Programs for kids include an hour-long Jr. Paleontologist program that gets your kids in the dirt with a simulated excavation held daily. Older kids are invited to participate in a more advanced simulated dig as well.
5. Follow in the Footsteps of Lewis & Clark
Lewis and Clark followed the Missouri River through the state of South Dakota and so can you. There are many interstates and trails following the route. Lots of stops along the way allow for a glimpse into what their travels were like.
Spirit Mound, near Vermillion, SD in the southeast, serves as a great starting point for your trek. Due to changes in the river over time, this is one of the only spots you can be absolutely certain to stand where the explorers once stood.
The nearby Lewis & Clark Visitor’s Center provides an overview of the history of the duo and great views of Lewis & Clark Lake and Recreation Center. The Rec Center is one of South Dakota’s most popular parks. It boasts three campgrounds, a resort, playgrounds, fishing, and swimming areas.
Further north in Pierre, the state capital, take a boat ride on the Sunset Paddle Wheeler to view famous landmarks from the water. Head to Farm Island for another great recreation and camping spot. While there, check out the Lewis and Clark Family Center for hands-on interactive displays focusing on the history of their expeditions.
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4. Visit the Wild Wild West in Deadwood
In 1876, the mining town Deadwood was born almost overnight as miners, outlaws, gunslingers, and gamblers moseyed into town to search for gold during the gold rush. The entire city of Deadwood is a national historic landmark and is ripe for wild west family fun.
Start your day with a walk through Adams House & Museum, Deadwood’s oldest museum full of historical artifacts. Pan for gold at the Broken Boot Mine, or be a part of the daily reenactments. Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok can be found at the #10 Saloon, where the latter was killed. Gunslinger shows on the street in front of the Four Aces or the Celebrity Hotel (now actual gambling casinos, which are legal in Deadwood) are other best bets.
Note: Be sure to check the dates of the annual Sturgis Harley Davidson Rally in early August before planning your trip. Although cool to see, the town is literally overrun with bikers and many of the town’s normal activities are put on hold.
3. Discover Native American Monuments
Nine Native American Indian tribes call South Dakota their home. Your trip wouldn’t be complete without visiting some of the amazing cultural and historical destinations that offer a glimpse into the Native American experience.
The Crazy Horse Memorial near Custer, SD is a cultural work-of-art in-process. It is a massive rock sculpture (not yet finished, but already impressive) of Crazy Horse, the famous Native American leader. Although the mountain is still being carved, don’t miss this stop. The Indian Museum of North America and Native American Education & Cultural Center are located onsite.
Chamberlin, SD is home to the stunning Atka Lakota Museum and Dignity Sculpture (pictured above) that will leave your family breathless. The museum boasts artwork, cultural artifacts, and an annual powwow exploring the Northern Plains Indians.
The South Dakota Art Museum showcases numerous Native American artists and even has a hands-on “Kids Sensation Station” to keep small ones interested.
If your children are mature enough, be sure to take them to the Wounded Knee Museum in Wall and the actual site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Despite the heavy nature of the topic, I believe that a thorough understanding of this event will help our children grow to be respectful and responsible leaders of tomorrow.
2. Stand in Awe at Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore National Memorial, located in the southwestern part of the state in Rapid City, is one of America’s most famous landmarks. I have fond memories of visiting the famous faces of Jefferson, Lincoln, Washington, and Roosevelt as a kid. I remember being especially intrigued by the ingenuity and skill required to complete such a masterpiece so long ago.
Sculptor Gutzon Borglum began this masterpiece in 1927 and it took over 10 years to create. It is truly an amazing work of art and an awesome tribute to our great nation.
Two short trails are worth the investment to get away from the crowds and closer to the Presidents’ 60-foot faces. Pick up a Jr. Ranger guidebook before you set out at the Visitor’s Center to really help bring history alive for your little ones. The Sculptor’s Studio, which is sure to inspire any budding artist, is open daily in the summer months. If you are hungry, Carver’s Café serves up yummy treats or grab some ice cream at Thomas Jefferson Ice Cream, a family favorite.
Just a short drive from Mount Rushmore, don’t miss the 1880 Train. This working vintage steam train takes families on a beautiful historic route through the heart of South Dakota’s gold-panning history.
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1. Take in the Natural Beauty at Custer State Park
South Dakota boasts 54 state parks and recreation areas full of beautiful lakes, breath-taking rocks and waterfalls, flowing prairies and deep, dense woods.
My personal favorite, Custer State Park, happens to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. It is centrally located just minutes from Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse monuments and is less than one hour away from almost every activity in this guide.
Three incredible, scenic 60-minute drives run through the park. Needles Highway, open only in the warmer months, takes its name from the “needle-like granite formations” which seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. Iron Mountain Road is meant to be taken at a leisurely 20mph to fully take in the amazing beauty.
In case the sheer beauty of rock, prairie, and river landscapes doesn’t completely excite your child, never fear. The last major scenic route, Wilderness Loop, almost guarantees that you and your family will have an animal encounter. In addition to deer, sheep, and elk, free-loading burros will most likely approach your car for food. More than likely, you will also find one of the park’s 1300 buffalo!!
Custer State Park boasts numerous campgrounds, cabin rentals, and even the Custer State Park Resort with four different lodges. Explore a variety of activities including horseback riding, a chuck wagon cookout, and off-road Jeep tours that take you to close encounters with the park’s buffalo.
Bonus things to do in South Dakota
We love South Dakota so much that we couldn’t leave out these fun things to do:
- Follow the craze at South Dakota’s World’s Only Corn Palace, located in the southeastern portion of the state near Sioux Falls. Established in 1892, this tourist attraction brings over 500,000 visitors a year.
- Sioux Falls is a city on the rise. Don’t miss their downtown Sculpture Walk and recently added the Arc of Dreams. Live music festivals at Levitt at the Falls and the Washington Pavilion science and discovery museum are kid-friendly favorites.
- Spearfish Canyon, located in the Black Hills, features incredible hiking trails, lakes, a Western Heritage Museum, and some of the most gorgeous scenery in the state.
- The must-visit National Music Museum is affiliated with the University of South Dakota in Sioux Falls. The museum (undergoing renovations through 2021) boasts one of the largest and oldest collections of musical instruments and music.
- The Children’s Museum in Brookings and Storybook Land in Aberdeen are perfect for tiny tots!
- While visiting South Dakota, be sure to check out a rodeo, it’s the state’s official sport!
From coast to coast, we’re determining the Top 10 Things to do with Kids in each state of our great nation.
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