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Places to Visit in South Dakota: 8 Fun Weekend Getaways Ideas

South Dakota scenery has a penchant for drama. Its glacial lakes and prairies, forested hills and craggy bluffs transfix even the most jaded travelers

I’m standing on a pink quartzite ledge in Sioux Falls, watching 7,400 gallons of water spill over a series of waterfalls every single second. I drive west through farm fields, undulating grasslands and an ocean of sky to perch on a precipice in Badlands National Park, staring into a colorful gorge chiseled from an arid, wind-battered landscape that first emerged 75 million years ago.

South Dakota scenery has a penchant for drama. With glacial lakes and prairies in the east, the forested hills out west and Missouri River unspooling in between, the state’s landscapes transfix even the most jaded travelers. Look for artful cities, swaggering Wild West towns, thousands of years of indigenous culture and plenty of wide open spaces. The most beautiful and intriguing places to visit in South Dakota are often hiding in plain sight:

A Nature Retreat in the Heart of the Black Hills

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Keystone’s Mount Rushmore is the famous attraction in the Black Hills. But the hills themselves, covered in thick forests of aspen, pine, spruce and oak, are a wonder. This landscape is sacred to the Northern Cheyenne, Omaha and the Lakota, who call the region Paha Sapa, “the heart of all there is.”

This is one of the top places to visit in South Dakota for a reason. Take a slow cruise along The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway to drink it all in. Don’t rush – the 70-mile route’s narrow tunnels, stomach-dropping hairpin turns and hilltop vistas demand every ounce of your attention. Zipline over the pines at Rushmore Tramway Adventures or hike to the top of Black Elk Peak. At 7,242 feet above sea level, it’s the highest elevation in the state. More laid-back travelers can see wildlife and paddle in a mountain lake inside Custer State Park, or chug along on the steam- powered 1880 Train, bound for the artsy enclave of Hill City.

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Step Into Black Hills History in Deadwood

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The scrappy little gold rush town of Deadwood drew prospectors, gamblers, sharpshooters and legends like Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickok. Their exploits are showcased in Deadwood Alive’s Main Street reenactments – live, open air performances set against the wild west shops, saloons and casinos in the walkable downtown entertainment district. The entire town (now immortalized in Deadwood: The Movie and the HBO series) is a National Historic Landmark.

Hop on the horse-drawn Deadwood Stagecoach or step into the past on a self-guided walking tour. Free guides are available at the Deadwood Visitor and Information Center. Several guided tours on foot, in shuttles and on open air buses showcase the town’s checkered history, gambling dens, brothels, ghost stories and local legends. Play a little poker, then raise a whiskey toast to the city’s ghosts at one of the many local watering holes.

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Eerie Landscapes and Stargazing in Badlands National Park

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The desolate, almost alien landscape of Badlands National Park is a mixture of volcanic ash, ancient seabed shale and ancient fossil beds that eroded into jagged peaks, ridges and gorges. The Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway winds between Interior and Wall, home of the delightfully kitschy Wall Drug (which is worth a stop just to count the out-of-state license plates out front, dunk donuts into 5¢ coffee and experience its unique brand of sensory overload). The byway whisks you off to scenic vistas so vast and dramatic, they refuse to be compressed by a camera.

But that’s only the beginning. Watch the sun rise over the buttes, grab something to eat at the seasonal Cedar Pass Lodge, visit the paleontologists at work in the Fossil Preparation Lab or hit the trails to see the rocky pinnacles and painted bluffs up close. The Lakota call this place mako sica (or “bad land”) because of its extreme temperature swings, arid climate and challenging terrain, so pack layers and plenty of water. A canopy of stars sparkles against the inky black sky during daily Night Sky Viewing events.

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Waterfalls, Art and Culture in Sioux Falls

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Public art and hands-on exhibits make Sioux Falls an affordable destination for families, art junkies and anyone craving a low-key city break. The free Downtown Trolley cheerfully cruises between the most popular attractions, including the low-slung quartzite waterfalls in Falls Park and The Washington Pavilion – home to hands-on science exhibits, eight modern art galleries and a four-story tall movie screen. More family-friendly attractions like the Great Plains Zoo, the interactive Butterfly House and Aquarium and Sioux Falls Canaries professional baseball are just a short drive away.

Explore the city on foot to see the ever changing selection of sculptures that make up SculptureWalk Sioux Falls. They’re anchored by the sixty- ton Arc of Dreams, which reaches across the Big Sioux River. Then stretch out on the grass for an outdoor concert at Levitt at the Falls.

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Water, Wildlife and Family Fun in Aberdeen

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Aberdeen is one of the most kid-friendly places to visit in South Dakota, a state that excels at creating novel family travel experiences. Kids have followed the yellow brick road through Storybook Land for generations. The interactive exhibits offer a portal into their favorite nursery rhymes and fairy tales. The complex is part of Wylie Park, which also includes a lake, swimming beach, picnic spots, bumper boats, mini golf, go carts and one-stop family fun. The Aberdeen Aquatic Center boasts waterslides and a lazy river.

This city is a blast for kids, but the region’s glacial lakes and prairie landscapes also offer scenic solitude. Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge bursts with waterfowl, migratory birds and wildlife viewing opportunities. Families flock to Mina Lake Recreation Area and Richmond Lake Recreation Area for fishing, boating, swimming and multi-use trails. The latter also boasts an 18-hole disc golf course.

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Missouri River Hunting, Fishing and Indigenous culture

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Missouri River history, recreation and indigenous art and culture color the tiny towns of Oacoma and Chamberlain, which are located on opposite sides of the river, just off I-90 in the central part of the state. South Dakota is famous worldwide for its excellent pheasant hunting and wide-open grasslands. The rugged Missouri River Valley welcomes hunters, anglers and outdoor enthusiasts in all seasons.

A 50-foot sculpture of an indigenous woman titled “Dignity of Earth and Sky” stands above the nearby Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, where guests climb inside a fifty-five-foot recreation of the keelboats the explorers once sailed down the river just outside. Learn about the significance of the star quilt “Dignity” holds in her hands and study the art, culture, history and language of the Lakota nation at the Atka Lakota Museum and Cultural Center. Both the sculpture and the museum are key stops on the Native American National And State Scenic Byway.

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Lake Days and Missouri River Nights in Yankton

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The Missouri River has been the center of life in Yankton for thousands of years. Modern visitors can walk across its waters (and into Nebraska) on the Meridian Bridge. Check out the waterfront splash pad, an outdoor concert series and summertime farmer’s market. Then shop, snack and stroll through the riverside Meridian District. Grab a cocktail at The Copper Room speakeasy historic 1872 Saloon (a former flour mill) or enjoy dinner and Missouri River views from the patio at River’s Edge.

Active travelers (and locals) love the Meridian Trail System. This network contains 40 miles of paved and lighted mixed-use paths that snake through the city and stretch all the way to the Lewis and Clark Recreation Area, where boating, sandy beaches and plenty of fishing, swimming and paddling opportunities abound. Head to the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center across the water in Nebraska to learn more about the explorers who inspired this place’s name.

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Rapid City's Outdoor Attractions and Handcrafted Charm

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Visit Rapid City, the largest town in the Black Hills, for open air attractions, a vibrant downtown district and beautifully made local art and gifts. Kids clutch ice cream cones and frolic near granite statues in the Main Street Square splash pad. Visitors photograph Art Alley street art and search for the 43 life-sized bronze sculptures of U.S. Presidents dotted throughout the city.

Savor the 100-mile view among the folksy Dinosaur Park statues. You’ll find the world’s largest collection of these creatures’ modern-day descendants on the flowering grounds of Reptile Gardens.

Tour the Mount Rushmore Black Hills Gold Factory to learn how artisans create intricate jewelry from molten gold. Dakota Drum Company and Prairie Edge both sell an impressive variety of indigenous art from Native American artists in the region. The city’s creative energy and DIY spirit is also present in its galleries, boutiques and craft beer breweries.

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Hero Image: Courtesy of Travel South Dakota