The wide-open spaces of South Dakota

The wide-open Spaces of South Dakota. Godfrey Hall explores

The USA is full of wide-open spaces but one of the most spectacular must surely be the State of South Dakota. Full of amazing sights from the famous town of Deadwood to the incredible Crazy Horse Memorial it’s somewhere well worth considering next time you are thinking about a trip to the USA. Located in the northern part of the States, the roads are empty and the scenery quite spectacular.

If you are visiting for the first time, then I would recommend arriving at Rapid City which is linked via several domestic services to a number of international hubs and is an ideal base.

Lyndon B. Johnson statue in Rapid City
Lyndon B. Johnson statue in Rapid City

The airport is quite small but there are opportunities to rent a car, which is really the only way to get the most out of this state. Rapid City has a number of hotels including the Radisson and is full of fascinating shops and several excellent malls where you can buy a range of locally produced goods.   

There is one shop in particular that I can recommend and that is Prairie Edge. A Native American store it has a wide range of genuine items many of which are produced locally on the several Native American reservations found around the state.  

Once you have your bearings then you might like to try out some of the open roads and interstate highways as you go in search of the real South Dakota.

Mammoth Site

Ice Age remains
Ice Age remains

One of my first choices must be the Mammoth site at Hot Springs which is around 57 miles south on the SD79. This amazing location contains the remains of over sixty Columbian mammoths. One of the world’s most comprehensive mammoth sites it was discovered in 1974 by a local landowner.   

Do allow yourself at least half a day to see these amazing remains. It is one of the top sites in North America where you will also get to see a range of other Ice Age remains. I have visited several times and have been really impressed. Definitely one for your wish list.  

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

Just over 30 minutes’ drive from Rapid City I can certainly recommend a chance to see some of the USA most famous presidents carved in stone. The National Monument is extremely well run with excellent roads in and out of the site. An impressive car park, great shop and eating facilities. Definitely a whole day trip. Considered by many as America’s shrine to democracy, it features Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. Carved into the mountain these sixty-foot images are surrounded by a well-run and beautifully maintained park. September and October are excellent months to visit. Whilst there you might also like to consider a trip to the Gold Mine at Hill City which is on the way back to Rapid City. Another possible route is to take the Iron Mountain Road from Keystone next to Hill City and onto Custer State Park. There are some incredible viewing points on this road and several places where you can make a possible pit stop. Also look out for the chipmunks and various other wildlife that might appear from the undergrowth!  

1880 Railway

1880 Railway
1880 Railway

This two-hour ride between Hill City and Keystone takes you through the Black Hills of Dakota as sung about by Doris Day. On a slow-paced trip, when I was last onboard, we took part in a mock battle, were attacked and then boarded. A great way to spend a few hours steeped in the past. A really fun experience, I am sure you will be impressed.

Custer State Park

About an hour’s drive from Rapid City is Custer State Park.  The film ‘Dances with Wolves’ starring Kevin Costner used film locations in this area including Badlands National Park, the Black Hills, the Sage Creek Wilderness Area and the Belle Fourche River region. The park is full of wildlife and in particular buffalo. The best way to see these is to take one of the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours which start from Creekside Lodge. These trips take you off road and out into the park where you will get a chance to photograph and experience these incredible creatures. If you are lucky to be around at the end of September, try to get to the Annual Buffalo Roundup which is a real spectacle. I have attended this four times and can say it has provided some of the most memorable moments of my life.  The park has a number of lodges where you can stay. I would suggest a couple of days in the park so that you can experience the buffalo and get to see some of the other wildlife and sights such as Sylvan Lake. The Wildlife Loop Road is worth considering. The Visitors Center should be one of your main stops and I can thoroughly recommend staying at the State Game Lodge if you want to be in the midst of the action.

Badlands National Park

About an hour’s ride from Rapid City this is a must-see destination… The rock formations are quite incredible and best seen in the early morning or as the sun is setting. A visit here could also be combined with a trip or even an overnight stay in Wall, a small town, just eight miles from the Badlands. It’s famous for the Wall Drug Store and also its amazing doughnuts, it is well worth exploring. Accommodation can be found at the Super Eight or Frontier Cabins Motel.  An overnight stay plus breakfast at Wall Drug Store is a must. Again, I know the town and store which is signposted on the main I95.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial

This unique memorial is all the work of one family. An impressive entrance takes you onto an excellent visitor’s center and viewing area. I met the mother several years ago and some of the family who are working on the mountain side high above the center. Again, this should not be missed and is around an hour from Rapid City.  


 Anther gem in South Dakota  is the town of Deadwood  and  the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane which can be found in Mount Moriah Cemetery. The town has a large number of casinos lining the main street with some interesting hotels. The Social Club and Saloon 10 are excellent if you are looking for something to eat. Kevin Costner also has a center here called Tatanka Story of the Bison which is worth visiting.   

Pine Ridge Reservation and Red Cloud School

Red Cloud School
Red Cloud School

It is possible to arrange a Pine Ridge Reservation Tour to learn more about the Lakota tribe and  a wonderful way of finding out more about Native American culture . Unique tours start at the Heritage Center, Red Cloud School where you may also get the chance to visit Red Cloud’s Grave .Red Cloud died in 1909 and is buried on a hill overlooking the Red Cloud Indian School.

Taking this tour is a unique way of finding out about life on the reservation.   

South Dakota has an incredible number of attractions all within a very small area however should you want to explore further then there are some great opportunities to get out to the edge of the state. One place I could recommend for the more intrepid is Eagle Butte which is about 165 miles from the city and a drive of around two and half hours. For something to eat try Sparky’s Grill at Isabel, about 70-minute drive. Isabel has a population of under 200 and Eagle Butte just over 1000. The drive from Rapid City is quite spectacular. However, be prepared as Eagle Butte is quite remote so make sure you have a good supply of water and fuel!     

Find out more

Our Silver Travel Advisors can help you create an itinerary in South Dakota (and the whole of America). For information and to book, call 0800 412 5678.


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Godfrey Hall

Award-winning travel writer

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