(UPDATED JULY 2022) The year 2020 marked a year of setbacks for many, but it was one of the epic road trips and fabulous discoveries for me. One great find was traveling through the midwest and west to beautiful National Parks and a few new states. South Dakota was one of them. I loved so many things about this naturally gorgeous part of the country, but these were my favorite. Here are 13 fun things to do in South Dakota that I think you will enjoy, too.
1. Discover Mitchell
One of South Dakota’s most beloved touristy areas is the WORLD’S ONLY Corn Palace in Mitchell. Here, a Mecca to the is displayed with murals around the whimsical building made from corn and husks, popcorn marshmallow balls, and everything corn you can think of.
The town of Mitchell itself is darling, with a few quaint boutiques (Tickled Pink is fantastic!), a fabulous coffee shop, and many cheesy shops and places to buy souvenirs and corn items. Be sure to save room for a gourmet cupcake from Crazy About Cupcakes, an adorable shop with Instagram-worthy decor.
Inside, the “world’s only” Corn Palace is much like a high school gymnasium but with a huge shopping arcade in the center. A few kiosks serve food and sell trinkets, and on the wall, a timeline shows popular events and celebrities who have been to the Corn Palace over the years. Be sure to try a popcorn ball, available in nearly every color of the rainbow, a popular snack item.
Fun Fact: Thirteen colors of corn (325,000 ears) are sliced and nailed into place to create the incredible murals that change annually.
2. Explore Custer State Park
I have to admit that Custer State Park is one of the best state parks I’ve been to. It is truly wild. The views and scenery are fantastic, plus the roads are marked well and in good driving shape. Custer State Park offers 71,000-acre of a wildlife preserve in the Black Hills of South Dakota and four private, historic lodges. I loved the scenic drives and visitor center. You can also fish and camp at this property.
Visitors to Custer State Park may experience donkey (burro) jams like we did, which afforded terrific photo ops. Also, keep your eyes open for the 1,300 bison that reside in the state park and the one-lane rock-walled tunnels.
Pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, deer, elk, and mountain goats are other wildlife offerings in the park. Two of the most scenic drives are Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop Road (19 miles long), and part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Highway.
3. See Mount Rushmore
Yep, I shed tears when I first laid eyes on this slice of Americana that has been on my travel radar for over 40 years. Mount Rushmore Memorial was even more impressive in person than I could ever have imagined. Surprisingly, the world-famous attraction is super easy to get to, and other than a parking pass, it’s absolutely free. Just park in the garage (similar to an airport garage), take the elevator or stairs to the top, and within a few steps, you are front and center to the iconic Presidential mural that is carved into a mountainside.
Presidents Roosevelt, Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson are on display at Mount Rushmore for people to see miles away. They are so incredible in person that it will honestly give you chill bumps.
You can take excellent pictures from nearly anywhere in the park, and if you are there at nightfall, guests can enjoy a light show and musical tribute. It’s a real star-studded affair as you pay homage to four great men who did so much for our United States of America.
Be sure to check out the Mount Rushmore gift shop before leaving.
4. Visit the Full Throttle Saloon
So my girlfriend, Sara, and I were road-tripping through South Dakota and happened upon the Full Throttle Saloon in Sturgis. Our map took us on a cut-through down a dirt road for nearly 30 minutes. Near the end, we saw cool motorcycle statues that I had to stop and take pictures of. As we neared the turn-off, we caught sight of the thousands of bikes parked in front of the Full Throttle Saloon, known as the world’s largest biker bar.
Sara and I threw on our masks and headed out to see this fun attraction and bar, which felt as if we were at a huge outdoor concert. Inside, a gift shop was off to one side, several bars were scattered throughout, and a stage with musicians gave the first bit of normalcy I’d witnessed since COVID.
Outside, hundreds of chairs and tables were bustling with crowds of people enjoying a cold beer, alcoholic beverages, music, and the eclectic statues and landscape. It was a hoot, and even though we were not dressed like everyone else in the establishment, nobody made us feel like we didn’t belong. I appreciated that.
5. Explore the Town of Custer
Custer is such a cute little town, with loads of historical attractions, locally-owned shops, and alluring eateries. It is easy to see why exploring Custer would be one of the great things to do in South Dakota, based on its charm and attractions. Custer is close to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Monument, Wind Cave National Park, and Custer State Park and is nestled in the Southern Black Hills.
While in town, browse the art galleries and boutique shops, or enjoy a bite in a local eatery like Purple Pie Place, Begging Burro Mexican Restaurant, or Calamity Jane’s Coffee Shop. I was intrigued by Pounding Fathers, an adorably named craft brewery (with food), but they were closed on my visit. Be sure to take lots of pictures of the artsy painted bison scattered throughout the town.
6. Go to Badlands National Park
Visiting the state and national parks are some of the best things to do in South Dakota. The first of nine National Parks on our road trip was to Badlands National Park. It is one of South Dakota’s most beautiful sites, with layers of colorful geologic rock formations and a jaw-dropping, dramatic landscape for as far as the eye can see.
The Badlands’ rugged beauty, with spires, buttes, and pinnacles, contains 244,000 acres of mixed-grasses and one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Be on the lookout for bison, prairie dogs, and bighorn sheep. Make sure to stop in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center and check out the souvenirs and exhibits.
Want more National Parks? You can read about Medora, ND for Theodore Roosevelt National Park here.
7. Attend the Sturgis Rally
COVID didn’t keep these devoted party-goers down; the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally was very close to its usual number of visitors, even during a pandemic. Thousands (nearly 500,000 to be specific) of motorcycle enthusiasts gathered in Sturgis, South Dakota, for a ten-day celebration of riding, food, and music.
Sara and I didn’t attend the rally, but we did see people making the trip for days before arriving and while we were in the national parks. I’ve never participated in the motorcycle rally, but seeing how many bars, restaurants, campgrounds, tours, local businesses, and temporary vendors participate and make this event so special, brings a smile to my face. The Sturgis Rally runs like a well-oiled machine.
8. Drink Holy Terror Coffee
On my travels, I always like to visit a local coffee shop that leaves a lasting memory. Holy Terror Coffee was the South Dakota offering for me. This stylish and whimsical coffee in Keystone, SD, offers tasty pastries, fudge (the carrot cake is amazing!), warm, packaged nuts, and very fun souvenirs. But, they also had really cool coffee creations that left a good taste in my mouth. I loved the iced mocha frappe.
Holy Terror Coffee is closed for the season, but will reopen Mother’s Day weekend through Labor Day.
9. See the Crazy Horse Memorial
When our readers and social media followers found out I was headed out west, a handful of them reached out to tell me to put the Crazy Horse Memorial at the top of my list. That is how crazy people are about this enormous and unfinished statue, carved in the side of a mountain you can see for miles away.
Sara and I didn’t have time to drive to the memorial, but we stopped beside the road for pictures and admired the elegant piece.
10. Check Out the Town of Wall
Another place people kept urging me to visit was Wall, a well-known town in South Dakota that is like stepping back in time in the Old West, or that is the best I can describe it. It is easily one of the best things to do in South Dakota, or most recommended roadside attractions. The town of Wall was formed as a railroad station for the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad. Eight hundred people call it home.
Sara and I parked amidst the thousands of cars and motorcycles (remember, the Sturgis Rally was going on), and visited several souvenir shops, the western art gallery at Wall Drug Store, and grabbed tacos from 3 Amigos Cantina. Wall Drug Store, the #1 town attraction, also offers a popular cafe featuring five-cent coffee and delicious, hot beef sandwiches.
Wall Drug Store (now the world’s largest drug store) offered free ice water to travelers back in the 30s, and has since grown into a beloved attraction. I honestly don’t see what all the hype is about Wall, as it reminded me of any other cheesy western town, but we were glad to check it off our bucket list. It does make for fun photo-ops and is considered the “window to the west”.
11. Feast on a Luscious Dip
I was in awe of the tantalizing menu at Dakota Brick House in Vermillion, South Dakota. I ended up with a table full of food, but the dish that really awoke my taste buds and I remember best was the piping hot Artichoke Skillet Dip appetizer with spinach, garlic, and gruyère, that came in a cast iron skillet. OMG, it was delicious.
12. Photograph Dignity of Earth and Sky
When the statue entitled “Dignity of Earth and Sky” appeared in our dashboard window, we were nearly on two wheels as we quickly exited the interstate to see this glistening, unique offering. Dignity is a 50-foot tall stainless steel statue of a Native American woman in native 1850s dress gazing over the Missouri River. The quilt she holds behind her back is made up of 128 blue diamond shapes that flutter in the wind. She is truly breathtaking and so huge!
“Dignity represents the courage, perseverance and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota culture in South Dakota,” sculptor Lamphere said. You’ll find Dignity between exits 263 and 265 on I-90.
13. Tour the University of South Dakota Campus
Another fun thing to do in Vermillion is to take a guided or self-guided tour of the beautiful USD campus. The 274-acre flagship university is home to the Yotes, pronounced like “goats”. With a pristine campus and stately architecture, it is a particularly good spot for photo ops; Old Main is the star of campus.
Pin This Post For Later!
Read more of our Midwest posts: