South Dakota is home to iconic attractions such as Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, so it experiences a regular influx of tourists year-round. Many visitors simply stop at the big attractions and drive through the Badlands before moving on from the state, passing by hidden gems located just off of the beaten path. Simply a short drive from most South Dakota vacation rentals are breathtaking secret spots that can be experienced without the crowds. Check them out below.
1. Black Elk Peak
While you’re exploring the Black Hills, book a rental property in Keystone as a home base for a hike up Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota. Often passed up by tourists visiting nearby Custer State Park, this trail gives you the opportunity to experience the beauty of the Black Hills in absolute peace. At the top, a stone tower holds the ashes of Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, who famously befriended Crazy Horse, a Native American war chief. Find the trailhead off of Highway 87; since the road is closed in winter, the peak is only accessible from late spring through fall.
2. Rushmore Cave, Keystone
Descend deep into the earth near Keystone to discover Rushmore Cave, a huge cavern covered in stalactites and stalagmites. Walkways and steep staircases bring you up close and personal with each part of the cave, and careful lighting highlights the magnificent geological features. The main cave is great for families; if you’re feeling brave, take the Adventure Tour, which brings you away from the main route, through tight cracks, and under low-slung passages. Make a weekend of it by staying in Keystone or Hermosa.
3. Devil’s Gulch Park, Garretson
Gather your courage to walk across a narrow footbridge high above a river in Devil’s Gulch Park. This lovely canyon, which makes an excellent stop on a road trip, has a rich history – as legend has it, the famous outlaw Jesse James once leaped across the gulch on his horse to avoid a posse that was chasing him after he robbed a bank in Minnesota. Today, you can hike around the river and enjoy the views across the sheer rock walls year round. Devil’s Gulch is easy to reach by car from vacation rentals in nearby Sioux Falls.
4. Mammoth Site, Hot Springs
See the largest concentration of mammoth fossils in the world at the Mammoth Site. This archaeological site and museum, which is open all year, offers a unique opportunity to watch a dig in action. As you stroll on boardwalks above, you can watch as specialists work with the ancient bones below. Learn about local history in the museum, and let your kids loose in the hands-on activity area. Stay in Hot Springs, or look for vacation rentals in the nearby Black Hills.
5. Delta-01 Launch Control Facility, Philip
Get underground to one of the Cold War missile launch control centers at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. The Delta-01 Launch Control Facility is only accessible on a tour, which you can reserve as early as 90 days in advance online. In the bunker, you can examine the 1960s-era control panels, as well as the missileers’ living and sleeping areas. Later, check out a real Minuteman II missile. Tours are available year round and come with a small fee. The site is remote, but you can search for vacation rentals in Wall, Interior, or Cottonwood.
6. Cascade Falls, Hot Springs
Enjoy a soothing dip on a hot or cool day at Cascade Falls, a hidden swimming hole located south of Hot Springs. Fed by an underground spring, the water is a consistently warm temperature, and the isolated location means you rarely see other swimmers. Follow signs for the J.H. Keith Cascade Falls Picnic Area, and take the trail to find the hidden spot. For safety, it’s a good idea to stick around the deeper pool by the waterfall. The park is best visited from spring through fall, and you can stay 15 minutes away in Hot Springs.
7. Spearfish Canyon, Spearfish
Marvel as sheer stone cliffs and brilliantly colored forests rise high above in Spearfish Canyon. Impossibly picturesque, this canyon is the perfect spot to slow down and enjoy the scenery year-round. It’s so beautiful, in fact, that it was used as a filming location for the movie “Dances With Wolves.” Along the way, stop at Bridal Veil Falls, and use the many pullouts to stop and explore the wilderness. From your vacation rental in Spearfish, drive south along the Spearfish Canyon Highway, and turn around when you reach Savoy or Cheyenne Crossing.
8. Nicollet Tower, Sisseton
Far from Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills lies the Nicollet Tower, a fascinating observation tower tucked in South Dakota’s northeastern corner. Visit during any month to climb the tower – from the top, you can see South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota. In the onsite Interpretive Center, you can learn about the history of this lightly visited area. Lake City and Waubay are an easy drive away, and Watertown lies about an hour to the south.
9. Porter Sculpture Park, Montrose
As you’re driving through southeastern South Dakota on Interstate 90, look out for signs to the Porter Sculpture Park. More than 50 larger-than-life sculptures are scattered around the prairie in a charming roadside art display. Stop to stretch your legs; the owners encourage visitors to touch and photograph the sculptures. The park is open from Memorial Day through mid-September, and if you want to stay nearby, look for rentals in Sioux Falls to the east.
10. Petrified Wood Park and Museum, Lemmon
Explore a full city block of petrified wood art at the Petrified Wood Park and Museum in Lemmon, a tiny town on the North Dakota/South Dakota border. A stroll through the park takes you past towering trees, sculptures, and even a miniature mountain. A small onsite museum – also crafted from petrified wood – provides an interesting look at local geology. The park is outdoors, so you can visit year-round from vacation rentals in Lemmon; be sure to bundle up against the wind during the frigid winter months.
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