This is South Dakota, the "Mount Rushmore State," located in the heart of America's western frontier. Visitors discover a world of unusual landscapes, colorful history, American Indian culture, outdoor adventure, and old-fashioned hospitality. In South Dakota, the possibilities are endless.
South Dakota has four travel regions, each with its own natural resources and unique history.
Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes
Truly a part of, but not exclusively Old West, this region showcases diverse terrain and scenery. The area contains three major landforms; the Black Hills, the Badlands and the high plains, short-grass prairie. The Black Hills are an extension of the Rocky Mountains with thick forests of ponderosa pine, spruce and aspen. Badlands National Park encompasses 244,000 acres of spires, pinnacles, buttes and gorges of multi-colored sandstone blended with mixed-grass prairies. The Cheyenne and other rivers meander through the region, providing water for large-scale cattle and sheep ranching operations.
The history of the region includes legendary figures such as Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and George Armstrong Custer, who led his 1874 expedition into the Black Hills, starting the last great gold rush. Others such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickock shaped the wild frontier town of Deadwood, which lives up to its Old West image with legalized gaming. Ghost towns, nestled quietly in more remote areas of the Hills, may still be explored.
Glacial Lakes and Prairies
Mile-high glaciers of the last Ice Age left their mark on the prairie of northeastern South Dakota. As a result, the land ranges from flat to hilly and is dotted with swamps, marshes and forest-rimmed glacial lakes ranging from a few yards to several miles wide.
One of the most well-preserved frontier forts in the country, Fort Sisseton, has been converted into a state park. An annual historical festival features period military and American Indian life, historical displays and re-enactments. Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the "Little House on the Prairie" books, based six of her books on her life and childhood experiences in De Smet, SD. Today, the area is known for its agricultural and recreational activities.
In the center of the state, the Missouri River with its high, rugged and grassy bluffs forms a topographic and climatic bridge between the gently rolling ranch country of the west and the tabletop flatness of the east. Four huge, rolled-earth dams control flooding and provide hydroelectric power, water recreation and irrigation, as well as wildlife habitat. The Oahe Dam is the largest, backing up the Missouri for more than 200 miles (322 km).
Lewis and Clark explored the area in 1804 during their famous trek to the Pacific Ocean. They opened America's last frontier and were followed by fur traders and steamboat traffic. Remnants of military outposts can still be found in the region. Memorials to Sitting Bull and Sacagawea are found near Mobridge. Native American tribes maintain buffalo herds and hold powwows and expositions to preserve their rich culture and traditions.
The southeastern region of South Dakota is flat-to-rolling agricultural area, densely populated with many grain and livestock farms and small towns featuring various periods of architecture. Sioux Falls, the state's largest city, is the focal point of the area with historical districts anchored by a turn-of-the-century courthouse turned museum. The city is named for the Falls of the Big Sioux River.
The region is dotted with state parks and recreation areas featuring modern campgrounds, peaceful hiking trails and rolling scenery. The city of Yankton is located near one of the Great Lakes of the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark Lake. Yankton's historic downtown and residential districts boast reminders of the heyday of riverboat traffic on the Missouri.
Majestic mountain carvings, rolling prairies, sky-piercing granite needles, glittering lakes, lofty river bluffs and endless wide-open spaces await. Once inhabited by Plains Indians, fur traders, cowboys, miners, and pioneers, it is a place like no other.
Experience a picturesque, untouched outdoor paradise. Explore back country mountains, spacious lakes and thick woodlands. South Dakota's famous Black Hills are home to five national parks, forests, monuments and memorials, as well as one of the nation's largest state parks.
"Paha Sapa" the Lakota call them, "hills that are black" because a thick forest of pine and spruce trees cover the slopes making them appear black from a distance. The 1.2 million acres (480,000 hectares) Black Hills National Forest offers endless opportunities for both expert and novice outdoor enthusiasts. Visitors enjoy rock climbing, hiking, biking, horseback riding and camping amidst stunning scenery. Find mountain meadows, deep canyons, cascading trout streams and clear, clean lakes.
The Black Elk Wilderness, named for the Lakota holy man of the same name, was established in 1980 to protect 9,824 acres (3,930 ha) of rugged mountain country for animals like mountain goats and deer. People can visit the wilderness, but they must travel on foot or horseback. Harney Peak, the highest point in the United States east of the Rockies, stands 7,242 feet (2,207 m) tall in the heart of the wilderness.
The 114-mile (183 kilometer) George S. Mickelson Trail, runs the length of the Black Hills. The gently sloping trail passes through pine forest, grassy meadows, and tunnels blasted through rock. It's a favorite with mountain bikers, hikers and horseback riders.
The majestic 60-foot (18 m) faces of four U.S. presidents gaze out over South Dakota's Black Hills. Recognized worldwide, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, stands as a symbol of American democracy. This national treasure represents critical times in American history. From the Grandview Terrace, visitors get spectacular views of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. For a closer view, visitors can walk the half-mile (.8 km) Presidential Trail, which loops along the base of the mountain. the impressive Lincoln Borglum Museum contains interactive interpretive exhibits. Visitors discover why the four presidents were selected. They see how the mountain was carved, and they learn about sculptor Gutzon Borglum and the workers who brought Mount Rushmore to life. An evening lighting ceremony enthralls visitors.
Area: 77,121 square miles (200,514 square kilometers)
Lowest Point: Big Stone Lake 962 feet (293 meters)
Time Zones: Mountain/Central
Minimum Age for Drivers: 16
Alcoholic Beverage Laws: Liquor sold by package and drink at any store or establishment with a license. Some Sunday sales. Legal age: 21. Interstate import limit:one gallon for persons 21 or older.
Gambling: Minimum age 21. Maximum $100 bet in Deadwood and some tribal casinos.
Sales Tax: State sales tax of 4 percent. Municipal sales tax of 1 to 3 percent applies on sales in most South Dakota communities. State also imposes a 1 percent tourism tax on lodging, concessions, amusement services and other tourism related businesses.
Millions of years of wind and water erosion have carved an eerie sight from the vast prairies of western South Dakota. Steep precipices, saw-edged spires and colorful grassy-topped buttes form a strange and beautiful landscape that tells the story of earth's history. This is Badlands National Park, 244,000 acres (97,600 ha) of primordial terrain. The skeletons of ancient camels, three-toed horses, giant rhinoceros-like creatures and sabre-tooth cats are among the many fossilized species found here. Living creatures abound as well. Buffalo, mule deer, pronghorn, coyotes and prairie dogs have the run of the park and can often be seen by visitors. The entire park is open to hiking.
Jewel Cave National Monument, the third-longest cave system in the world, lies west of Custer has more than 129 miles (208 kilometers) of explored passages, Jewel Cave is a wonderland far removed from the forests and mountains above, but still an integral part of the Black Hills. It takes its name from the glittering calcite crystals that line its walls. Tours for a variety of skill levels are offered.
One of the nation's oldest national parks, Wind Cave National Park actually houses two worlds: the terrain and wildlife of 28,295 acres (11,318 ha) above ground, and the hidden labyrinth beneath the surface, a 110-mile (177 km) maze of rae and unusual boxwork, frostwork and popcorn formations.
One of the largest state parks in the nation, Custer State Park encompasses 71,000 acres (28,400 ha) of spectacular scenery and about as much outdoor fun. A herd of 1,500 buffalo roams freely throughout the park, but they're often found along the 18-mile (29 km) Wildlife Loop Road. Visitors can drive their own vehicles along the Loop or join a buffalo safari excursion that departs from one of the park's lodges. In addition to wildlife viewing, Custer State Park offers hiking, biking, canoeing, fishing and trail riding. Camping and lodging are available within the park.
Prehistoric creatures once dominated the landscape of western South Dakota. Though they're long gone, these unusual creatures left behind a fascinating record of fossils and bones.
The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs is an in-itu (bones left as found) museum containing the remains of more than 50 Columbian and woolly mammoths that died in a sinkhole 26,000 years ago. The beasts, which weighed about 10 tons each, came to the site to drink. Instead, they fell into the slippery-sided pool and never escaped. Excavators have unearthed a complete mammoth skull, a 10-foot (3-meter) tusk and other fossils, all of which are on display. Visitors can tour the now-enclosed site where excavation continues.
Rapid City's Museum of Geology features the world's finest exhibits of Badlands fossils, including the skeleton of a mother oreodont with unborn twins. Also on display are saber-tooth cats and petrified turtles. An extensive collection of Black Hills gems and minerals completes the exhibit.
The Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City houses fossils that date back 350 million years. Visitors will see fossils of ancient sea animals and skeletons of a three-toed horse and a T-Rex.
Long before white settlers arrived, the tribes of the Great Sioux Nation called South Dakota home. This nation traces its roots to the "Oceti Sakowin" or "Seven Council Fires." Each of the allied bands within this nation spoke one of three dialects. The Santee spoke Dakota; the Yankton, Nakota; and the Teton, Lakota.
Bear Butte, a volcanic laccolith near Sturgis, holds great spiritual significance for many American Indians. Even today, it is used for prayer rituals and spiritual quests. A hiking trail leads to the summit of Bear Butte, which stands 1,400 feet (420 meters) above the prairie. Visitors can hike portions of the sacred mountain and stop by the Visitor Center to learn about its history.
The colossal Crazy Horse Memorial mountain carving, now in progress, can be seen just 17 miles from Mount Rushmore. Crazy Horse is the largest sculptural undertaking ever-on a scale with the Egyptian pyramids. When completed, it will tower 563 feet (172 m) high, 641 feet (195 m) long and be carved the round. Visitors can watch history in the making as drilling and blasting continue on the rest of the sculpture. A new laser-light show is presented nightly mountainside. Colorful animations, sound effects and laser beams are choreographed to music, telling of the heritage, culture and contributions of American Indians.
The Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain lives up to its name, which means "to honor the people." This first-rate museum houses one of the finest collections of Lakota art and artifacts in the state. Visitors learn about Lakota culture through exhibits of traditional clothing, tipis and buffalo. The museum also features contemporary Indian art.
The grave of Sitting Bull overlooks Lake Oahe, near Mobridge. A massive granite bust of the respected Lakota leader marks the site. Sitting Bull helped defeat Gen. Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn. He also briefly traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody's "Wild West Show."
The Black Hills Powwow in Rapid City is one of the state's largest powwows. This colorful celebration attracts dancers from across the United States and Canada. They compete in categories such as traditional, fancy and jingle-dress dancing. Dancers are accompanied by drumming and singing groups, who also compete for top honors. This exciting event is held each year in October.
The Wounded Knee Museum in Wall features exhibits following a chronological path through the story of Wounded Knee. More than 250 Lakota men, women and children were killed on Dec. 29, 1890 near Wounded Knee Creek. As army troops attempted to disarm the Lakota, a shot rang out the triggered the intense barrage. The museum's goal is to help people understand what happened at Wounded Knee, the events leading up to it and what resulted from the massacre.
Step into the past at the Buffalo Interpretive Center near Fort Pierre. the bison was the mainstay of Plains Indian life, providing food, clothing and shelter; little of the animal was ever wasted. Visitors get a first-hand look at the importance buffalo played in American Indian culture with interpretive displays and hands-on exhibits.
Settlement of the rugged prairie of South Dakota came slowly. It wasn't until 1878, when the U.S. government promised free land to anyone who could clear 160 acres (64 hectares) and live on it for five years, that folks arrived in numbers. They came to farm the land, to find adventure, and later, to seek their fortune in gold. These brave pioneers left behind a rich legacy that can be found at frontier forts, pioneer villages, and museums across the state.
The famous American explorers Lewis and Clark passed through present-day South Dakota in 1804 and again on their return trip in 1806. The visited Spirit Mound near Vermillion and had their first encounter with the Teton Sioux near present-day Fort Pierre. Sacagawea, the only female member of the party, later died at Fort Manuel, a trading post near present-day Kenel, South Dakota, where you can see a replica of the fort
Historic Fort Sisseton dates back to 1862. The U.S. Army built the outpost to protect settlers heading west. Fourteen of the fort's original 45 buildings still stand. Visitors can tour the soldiers' barracks, officers' quarters, hospital and other buildings to get a taste of frontier life. An annual festival in June features infantry drills, muzzleloader shoots, American Indian dancing, living-history demonstrations, and more. Fort Sisseton is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
De Smet is the "Little Town on the Prairie" made famous by author Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Ingalls family moved to Dakota Territory in 1879, where Pa filed a claim outside De Smet. Five cottonwood trees that he planted-one for Ma and each of the girls-still stand at the Ingalls' homestead site. In town, visitors can tour the surveyor's house where the family spent their first Dakota winter, the house that Pa built, and a dozen other sites.
Rapid City's Journey Museum covers 2.5 billion years of Black Hills history. Interactive exhibits allow visitors to learn about the region's rich history and heritage through sight, sound and touch.
Leaving Rapid City on Highway 16 toward Mt. Rushmore you certainly don't want to miss the two premier animal attractions in the Black Hills: Reptile Gardens, located 6 miles south of Rapid City and Bear Country U.S.A. located 8 miles south of Rapid City.
The High Plains Western Heritage Center in Spearfish features western art and artifacts. Outdoor displays include antique equipment, a sod dugout, a one-room school, live buffalo, and miniature horses.
The Cultural Heritage Center in Pierre provides a sweeping look at South Dakota history. Exhibits include a stagecoach that once ran between Medora and Deadwood, a replica mining operation, and a sod home.
Yankton served as the capital of Dakota Territory when the frontier was still young. A replica of the Dakota Territorial Capitol stands in Yankton's Riverside Park. The two-story structure is located on the banks of the Missouri River.
The Old West begins in South Dakota, where cattle and cowboys still roam the open range.
The Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup offers a thrill of a lifetime. Visitors watch as cowboys on horseback and rangers in pickup trucks corral a herd of 1,500 bison. The ground shakes and the dirt swirls as the awesome creatures go thundering by.
South Dakota's state sport, rodeo, reflects its western heritage. Cowboys and cowgirls compete in daring competitions such as bull-riding, calf-roping, barrel-racing and steer-wrestling. Rodeos are held at various locations throughout the state.
Trail rides and horse-pack trips get visitors in the saddle and out exploring the area. Rides can last anywhere from an hour to several days, and many are led by genuine cowboys.
For a real taste of the Old West, visitors can take in a chuckwagon supper. This hearty meal, traditionally served from the back end of a wagon, usually includes baking powder biscuits, barbecued beef, baked potatoes, baked beans, and cowboy coffee. Many suppers end with a western music show.
Visitors eager to experience ranch life firsthand can stay at working ranches and farms across the state where they can assist with chores, feed the animals, take nature walks, and enjoy the laid-back lifestyle.
No Western adventure trip would be complete without a stop in historic Deadwood. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills in 1874, Deadwood quickly became the center of mining activity. Saloons and brothels sprang up along Main Street. Poker games ran rampant. And colorful characters like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Potato Creek Johnny came to seek their fortunes.
Today, visitors can relive those rowdy days in Deadwood. Historic Main Street features Victorian-style buildings, brick-paved streets and quaint trolleys. More than 35 gaming halls fill the downtown area. The Adams Memorial Museum preserves Old West history, showcasing items such as a replica of Potato Creek Johnny's gold nugget (reportedly the largest found in the Hills). Mount Moriah Cemetery serves as the final resting place for folks like Wild Bill, Poker Alice and Calamity Jane.
Some of America's wildest and most scenic landscapes are found in South Dakota. Visitors can follow designated driving routes to explore these areas.
The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is a 70-mile route through the Black Hills. It encompasses the Needles Highway featuring hairpin curves and slender granite pinnacles that resemble needles. The byway also includes Iron Mountain Road. Its three granite tunnels perfectly frames Mount Rushmore in the distance.
Spearfish Canyon State and National Forest Service Scenic Byway cuts through a gorge of rugged beauty with towering limestone walls that line the highway. A forest of spruce, ponderosa pine, aspen, oak and birch that cover the hillsides make the area especially colorful in the autumn months. Scenic Spearfish Creek flows along the canyon bottom. Bridal Veil and Roughlock Falls are highlights along the route.
The Native American Scenic Byway cuts through the heart of South Dakota's mixed-grass prairie and passes through the lands of the Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes.
Other spectacular scenic drives include Highway 240, the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway through Badlands National Park, and drive through Sica Hollow State Park in northeastern South Dakota.
Winter transforms South Dakota's Black Hills into a snow-white playground. National forests and parks, which stay open year-round, provide the perfect setting for a variety of winter activities.
Snowmobiling offers winter visitors an exciting way to explore the Black Hills. Riders experience a setting of snow-covered granite peaks and meadows. The Black Hills Trail System has 350 miles (563 kilometers) of groomed snowmobile trails and unlimited opportunities for off-trail riding.
The Hills also offer downhill skiing at two ski areas: Deer Mountain and Terry Peak. At 7,076 feet (2,156 meters), Terry Peak is one of the highest points east of the Rocky Mountains. Deer Mountain features 25 runs of varying difficulties, as well as cross-country skiing. Both ski areas average approximately 150 inches (381 centimeters) of snow annually.
Black Hills National Forest has four major cross-country skiing trail systems, all of which provide a challenge as well as a quiet mountain retreat. Together, the Big Hill, Eagle Cliff, Beaver Creek and Bear Mountain trails cover 66 miles (106 kilometers). The elevation of the trails ranges from 5,000 to 6,700 feet (1,524 to 2,042 meters). In addition to the trails, skiers can forge their own paths through the forest. Winter enthusiasts also enjoy ice fishing and snowshoeing.
Wild horses still run free at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary near Hot Springs. Visitors take guided tours of the 11,000 acre (4,400 hectare) sanctuary, where they get close-up views of 350 wild mustangs, living symbols of the American West.
The Big Sioux River tumbles over quartzite cliffs at Falls Park in Sioux Falls. This beautiful piece of nature - featuring pink-colored quartzite and rushing waterfalls - sits in the middle of the state's largest city. Visitors can climb to the top of an observation tower for the birds-eye view of the falls. During the summer, a nightly laser-light show takes place in Falls Park.
The Redlin Art Center in Watertown brings South Dakota's history and heritage to life. The center houses more than 150 of Terry Redlin's original paintings, plus earlier sketches and drawings. Visitors are guided through the gallery by oak railings and lightings approved by the artist himself, to make sure the viewer gets the right impression. Redlin was born and raised in Watertown. Wanting to give something back to the state, he built the art center in his hometown. Outside, visitors can explore a 30 acre conservation park with waling trails and gazebos.
Wessington Springs has one of only 25 thatched-roof buildings in the country. The roof adorns the Anne Hathaway Cottage replica built by a local English teacher in 1917. During the summer, visitors can stroll through the English garden and enjoy a traditional English tea.
The World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell stand as a tribute to South Dakota's agricultural heritage. Each year, workers use thousands of bushels of native corn, grain and grasses to decorate this unusual structure. The murals are redesigned with new scenes every year using nine different kinds of corn and four types of grain.
A bison jump is re-created larger-than-life at Tatanka: The Story of the Bison in Deadwood. Massive bronze sculptures of 14 bison and three mounted hunters portray the dramatic American Indian hunting scene. The interpretative center's living history exhibits reveal the importance of bison in tribal life.