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The landscape shocks and awes in Mount Rushmore State, nicknamed for one of the country’s most iconic monuments. Bighorn sheep inch among brightly banded rock pinnacles in Badlands National Park. Some 70 miles west sprawls Custer State Park, offering twisty drives, cool mountain lakes, and some of the best wildlife viewing on the continent. Long to experience the prairie? Turn to Wind Cave National Park, one of America’s oldest preserves. Bison and elk roam the ancient grasslands blanketing one of the most complex cavern systems in the world.
Most visitors fly into South Dakota’s two major hubs: Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), near the Black Hills, and Sioux Falls Regional Airport (FSD), close to Iowa and Minnesota. Road-trippers tend to motor in via Interstate 90 (east-west) or Interstate 29 (north-south). It helps to have wheels in the 16th-largest state, which sprawls over 70,000 square miles and includes five scenic byways. But rideshares do operate across South Dakota.
Prefer to downshift? The state is laced with bike trails in nature and cycle paths in urban areas. The most famous remains the gentle George S. Mickelson Trail, which runs 109 miles between Edgemont and historic Deadwood.
Heat-seekers should aim for a summer visit, when daytime highs reach 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with night temperatures dropping abruptly to the 50s and 60s. Fall gets chillier before the severely cold winter conditions set in. Think substantial snow and average lows of 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Brrr! For shoulder-season deals and sparser crowds, opt for fall over spring, which serves up more thunderstorms. However, February does bring the quirky Nemo 500 Outhouse Race, where fundraising contestants rally in human-powered shacks with at least one seat hole.
Late June kicks off with the FinnFest in Frederick, celebrating Nordic traditions including a wife-carrying championship in which the prize is the rider’s weight in beer! Also notable: the Fourth of July celebrations at patriotic Mount Rushmore, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August, and September’s Buffalo Roundup (part of the state park’s herd management). For Indigenous history and culture, there’s October’s three-day He Sapa Wacipi Na Oskate (Black Hills Pow Wow), which includes grass dancing.
Around 75 million years ago, a shallow inland sea covered what is now Badlands National Park. After this salty basin drained into the Arctic Ocean, erosion helped sculpt the terrain into an otherworldly riot of pinnacles, buttes, and gorges. One of the world’s richest fossil beds remains, capturing traces of the ancient horses, rhinos, and catlike animals with saber teeth who once roamed the grasslands. Today visitors are more likely to spot bison, bighorn sheep, and black-footed ferrets. If you need a little extra animal excitement, stop just outside the park. A 12-foot-tall concrete prairie dog looms there, near an enclosure with a colony of its live cousins.
The family behind 1880 Town inexplicably built this landmark nearby. A human figure leads his bony T-Rex buddy on a leash: a sight best viewed (carefully) from the roadside. Stretch your legs in earnest 16 miles east at Okaton, a prairie ghost town originally settled by railroad workers. Today you’ll see ramshackle houses, rickety fences, and rusting farm equipment, alongside traces of a failed attempt to monetize the haunting, picturesque spot.
Eight miles north of Badlands National Park stands a humble 1931 pharmacy that transformed modern tourism. The Hustead family erected signs offering free ice water to drivers on Route 16. Soon their kitschy hand-painted billboards marched across the prairie and even further afield, cropping up in London, Morocco, and even Easter Island. Stop in to see the jackalopes and giant dinosaurs.