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The 20 Best Things to do in South Dakota for First Timers

Mount Rushmore

Home to the the famous, massive monuments of Mount Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Memorial, make South Dakota one of the "must see" states for those of you interested in experiencing American History at its finest. Here, you can immerse yourself in the Old West on one tour, and learn about Native American culture in another. Not only that, but South Dakota is a paleontologists dream, as Hot Springs has one of the largest, active digs in the country. Attractions here are rich and varied, from the adrenaline rush of ziplining, to taking a calm, relaxing dip in one of their famous mineral springs. Indeed, there's something for everyone in South Dakota, and if you're just planning a trip, we've included some of the more interesting and entertaining things to do, ones we believe newbies to the state will find both exciting and informative.

Wall Drug Store

20. Wall Drug Store

Souvenirs, you can't visit a state like South Dakota and not make a special pit stop to pick up a few . So, it stands to reason that the best place to purchase a memento would be the famed, Wall Drug Store. Wall Drug started out as an establishment which handed out free ice water to thirsty travelers, hence it's early and well-deserved fame. Since then, its developed into a thriving tourist stop, with a shopping mall, complete with eateries, cozy gift shops, and various retail stores. They even have an 80 foot Brontosaurus sculpture! While it looks quaint and quiet in photos, in reality the Wall Drug Store can fetch over 22,000 visitors in one day.

Black Hills Scoutours

19. Black Hills Scoutours

So far, we've covered everything from hot air balloon rides, ziplining, scenic road tours to hiking, so what's next? How about a scooter trip through the Black Hills? Indeed, one of the coolest things to do in South Dakota for first-timers with the highly favored Black Hills Scootours. Located in Keystone, South Dakota, the Black Hills Scootours is offered by a scooter rental establishment who provides tourists with a 49cc scooter. These are self-guided tours, so you'll be pretty much on your own as you tour the region. However, you are provided with the most interesting routes to take. Since they are self-guided tours, you can visit their website for a look at their recommend routes and accompanying rates.

Scavenger Hunts and Escape Rooms

18. Scavenger Hunts and Escape Rooms

Whether you're looking for something to do to wind down from an exciting day of touring, or simply looking to toss an axe at a wall, you'll find that Escape 305 has just the thing. Escape 605 is where people go to have a relaxing drink with a friend, and fling an axe or two. That's right, Escape 605 is South Dakota's first axe tossing bar. if that's not enough, know that they're also known for their 6 high quality escape rooms: Bank Heist, Lockbuster Video, Area 51, Aunt Edna's Condo, and Amnesia. If escape rooms and axe tossing aren't your bag, then enjoy a scavenger hunt or two. These are an inexpensive and fabulous way for first time visitors to South Dakota to get to know the people, culture and layout of each region where they're held. They are very popular, each with different themes from zombie scavenger hunts to town tours, so do a comprehensive search to find out which one is best for you.

Storybook Island

17. Storybook Island

Traveling with kids who need a break from the national parks and monuments? Then get yourselves to Storybook Island, in Rapid City for some good, old fashioned family entertainment. After all, this is where your child's favorite fairytale characters come to vacation, and eagerly await your families visit on their over 100 character sets. Admission is free, but individual attractions within Storybook Island carry a small fee. For instance, the train, Bippity Boppity Bounce and merry-go-round are $2.00 per person, per ride. Geared for younger kids, know that almost everything in the park is designed to be played with, sat on or climbed, so you and your kids will most certainly be creating some rich, family memories

Black Hills Playhouse

16. Black Hills Playhouse

So you've spent all day on a Jeep Tour of Custer State Park, how can you unwind, relax for a new day of South Dakota discovers tomorrow? Easy, with a trip to the famed Black Hills Playhouse. You'll find this most pleasant tourist destination nestled near both the Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse memorials. Established in 1946, the Black Hills Playhouse has been entertaining both young and old alike for 75 years. Tourists heartily recommend this destination, and have referred to this as a most magical theater, and quite a surprising find.

Aerial Adventure Park

15. Aerial Adventure Park

First time in South Dakota, and in need of a superior adrenaline rush? If so, Aerial Adventure Park will definitely satisfy those cravings. In fact, it's one of the most popular stops for visitors who are searching for something a bit more adventurous than your average trek. Here, you'll find yourself on a beautifully designed obstacle course, one that is suspended, in the trees. The course includes log ladders, suspension foot bridges, and of course, ziplines! Their newest attraction is called Rushmore Tramway Adventures, which consists of eight Aerial Adventure Park courses, covering over two acres.

Indoor water park

14. WaTiki Indoor Waterpark and Resort

Winner of the 2019 Travelers Choice award, WaTiki Indoor Waterpark Resort, is a great way to break up a series of tours and trails. This waterpark resort contains a whopping 30,000 plus square feet of waterpark fun, from pools to water slides. Other tourist amenities include a Starbucks, large gaming arcade, Sliders Bar and Grill, as well as Perkin's Restaurant. The waterpark is part of an entire resort which boasts 4 excellent hotels: The Residence Inn, The Fairfield, LaQuinta, Home 2, and the Courtyard. The WaTiki Resort is also placed strategically near attractions such as Reptile Gardens, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, the Crazy Horse memorial, and Mount Rushmore and Rushmore Cave.

1880's Town

13. 1880's Town

1880's Town is the one place to visit for those who feel a connection to the Old West. This is no small, deserted ghost town. 1880's Town consists of over 30 structures whose architectural style is based on building's from the 1880's right up to the 1920's. Every effort has been made to be as authentic as possible, right down to the photographs hanging on the walls. Fans of the Kevin Costner blockbuster film, Dances with Wolves, will be greeted by a plethora of props from the movie. This attraction also provides tourists with costume rentals if you'd really like to feel the vibe on a more personal level. The Town also hosts wagon rides, rope tricks, a 1950's dining car, a herd of authentic Longhorn cattle, and the original horse that played Cisco in Dances with Wolves. Oh, and there's also Otis the Camel!

Sioux Falls Food Tours

12. Sioux Falls Food Tours

What better way for newcomers feel welcome, learn about the local culture, and meet the friendly people of South Dakota first hand, than to attend one of the many Sioux Falls Food Tours. These tours last a lengthy 3 hours, during which you'll visit local pubs, breweries, cafes, and restaurants. Wherever the tour stops, you get a taste. Those who put the tours together, were careful to keep the offerings well balanced, and promise that you'll never leave hungry. As such, you'll get a taste of both the sweet and spicy. As for beverages, be prepared to experience the best craft beer they each have to offer!

Cosmos Mystery Area

11. Cosmos Mystery Area

Nestled deep inside the Black Hills, you'll find one of America's most mysterious places, the Cosmos Mystery Area, where the strange and unexplained happen. To give you a better take on what you'll experience when you arrive, observe what happens to a Valley News Reporter, Kristy Larson as she illustrates how standing on two level blocks seems to alter height. But that's not all, they also have areas where water runs uphill, and tennis balls flip in mid air. Some visitors feel quite surprised when they enter a gift shop from one door, and when they exit, it is via the bathroom! Before you leave, grab a pair of comfy shoes, as the tour lasts around 40 minutes and is more exhausting than people realize. After the tour you can visit their Geode mine, have some snacks and visit their gift shop.

South Dakota Air and Space Museum

10. South Dakota Air and Space Museum

The Black Hills of South Dakota are famous for many things, and one of those things you'll find sitting right outside Ellsworth Air Force Base, and that's the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. Packed with exhibits that not only celebrate our significant advancements in the field of aerospace, but also with exhibits which honor those who' contributed to those advancements, plus those who've lost their lives in air borne conflicts. When you arrive, you'll find that the museum has two main areas which display artifacts. The first is the outdoor air park. This is where you can get up close and personal with authentic military aircraft from WWII to present day. Next, you'll visit four hangars which hold informative and interactive exhibits which blend military history with aerospace science. Other attractions include a tour of an Minuteman II silo, and various bus tours.

Akta Lakota Museum

9. Akta Lakota Museum

Located on the campus of the St. Joseph Indian School, the Akta Lakota Museum celebrates the past and present history of the Lakota people. In fact, it is referred to as a "Living Museum" because of just that. Living museums are those places where both the historical eras and contemporary receive equal attention. For instance, at the Akta Lakota Museum, art from years past is placed side by side with art produced by present day Lakota artists. The initial purpose of the museum was to educate, and reach out to serve both Native American and non-Native American students. The museum also offers support to Native American artists, and are proud to showcase and sell their crafts, such as jewelry, ceramics, quilting, and much more.

Black Hills Hot Air Balloon Tours

8. Black Hills Hot Air Balloon Tours

Warning to all first timers who wish to view the grandeur of the Black Hills from a colorful, hot air balloon--these Black Hills Hot Air Balloon Tours are known to sell out fast. So, best thing is to check your favorite weather site for the best days to fly, and book your spot well in advance. Once you get your spot, pack your camera and head on over there, for a 360 degree view of the Hills. This tour comes complete with a complimentary glass of champagne, a flight certificate and postcard. Departure is 5 am from Mount Rushmore Rd, in Custer, with the entire tour lasting about 1 hour, leaving you with plenty of time for additional tours and activities.

Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

7. Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

Welcome to the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, where close to 70 Columbian and Woolly mammoths have been unearthed. Mammoth Site of Hot Springs is said to be the most expansive paleontological site in America. When you arrive, you're treated to an informative, 30 minute tour, then a visit to Ice Age Exhibit Hall. You can even take a look into the active paleontology lab and watch paleontologists perform their daily duties. While in Hot Springs, take some time to take advantage of their hot springs, such as Evans Plunge Mineral Springs, and Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa.

Jewel Cave National Monument

6. Jewel Cave National Monument

If exploring caves is on your bucket list, then consider visiting the Jewel Cave National Monument. Considered to be the third longest cave in the world, it has over 208 miles of known and mapped passages. Guided cave tours will take you through the maze of passages, while guides teach you everything you'll need to know about the cave. Tours include the Scenic Tour, Discovery Talk, Historic Lantern Tour and the Wild Caving Tour. Expect lines, so get there early as the tours for the day are usually full by late morning.

Badlands National Park

5. Badlands National Park

To enjoy the wilds of South Dakota, many tourists agree that there's no better place than to visit than the historic Badlands. Located in the southwestern area of South Dakota, the Badlands National Park has over 200,000 acres of fresh, raw and undeveloped land for you to explore. When there, make sure to capture images of their vast assortment of wildlife, and of course, visit the Red Shirt Table if you'd like to take in some stellar views of the park. What makes this park so unique, is the combination of mixed grasslands and lofty, rocky spires, and chunks of eroded fossil beds.

Custer State Park

4. Custer State Park

Custer State Park is the destination for those first time visitors who wish to see the rich array of wildlife which populates South Dakota, especially the 1300 plus bison herd. Tours involving the Wildlife Loop Road are best taken in early morning or early evening if one is to have the best chance of seeing the most variety of wildlife. Though wildlife is the main reason most come to the park, that's certainly not all it offers visitors. There are plenty of trails to hike, 9 campgrounds, lodges for guests, and enjoy water sports at one of their four pristine lakes. Custer State Park also has some relaxing, scenic drives such as the Iron Mountain Road, and Needle Highway.

Crazy Horse National Monument

3. Crazy Horse National Monument

17 miles from Mount Rushmore, in the Black Hills, you'll come across what just may be the largest sculpture in existence: The Crazy Horse Memorial. Commissioned in 1948 by Chief Henry Standing Bear, this sculpture measures around 641 feed wide and 563 feet high, and still remains incomplete due to funding issues. This amazing tribute to Crazy Horse and the Native American tribes was started by Korczak Ziolkowski. Crazy Horse was the brave leader of the Lakota, fighting intense battles in order to protect Lakota land. There is no firm date for completion of this amazing monument, the family does not accept state of federal funding, so if you visit, kindly purchase a memento or two, or leave a donation.

Rush Mountain Adventure Park and Rushmore Cave

2. Rush Mountain Adventure Park and Rushmore Cave

Rush Mountain Adventure Park and Rushmore Cave is a definite must see if this is your first trip to South Dakota. One of most perfectly designed attractions in South Dakota, means that there's fun times to be had for all ages. The Rushmore Cave is the perfect place to learn about the geology of the Black Hills region, while the Rushmore Coaster is the perfect way for speed junkies to enjoy slashing their way through the trees at speeds up to 35 miles per hour! Other attractions at the park include the Soaring Eagle Zipride, Gunslinger 7-D ride and Gemstone Mining. In fact, the Travel Channel voted this park to be one of the most unique in the world!

Mount Rushmore

1. Mount Rushmore

Most Americans are familiar with the image of Mount Rushmore, where massive and majestic images of Jefferson, Washington, Roosevelt and Lincoln cast their protective gaze over the country they helped to forge. This awe inspiring memorial brings chills to the hearts and souls of Americans, as their heart swells with pride in their great country. As grand as the memorial is, if you're new to the region, know that there is so much more here to take in. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is surrounded by fascinating things to do and see, such as Horse Thief Lake, the Black Hills National Forest, Presidential Trail, Black Elk Peak, Rushmore Tramway Adventures, and much, much more. You can even learn basic rock climbing skills at the Sylvan Rocks Climbing School!

Liz Flynn

Written by Liz Flynn

Liz Flynn has worked as a full-time writer since 2010 after leaving a career in education. She finds almost all topics she writes about interesting, but her favorite subjects are travel and food. Liz loves the process of researching information, learning new things, and putting into words what others who share her interests might like to read. Although she spends most of her time writing, she also enjoys spending time with her husband and four children, watching films, cooking, dining out, reading, motorsports, gaming, and walking along the beach next to her house with her dog.

Read more posts by Liz Flynn

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