If you think South Dakota is not worth exploring, you do not know much concerning what could arguably be the most underrated state in the country. And make no mistake. While Mount Rushmore defines the state — at least in the public consciousness — South Dakota is much more than the colossal faces of four outstanding presidents. Whether you want to gasp at honeycombed badlands, razor-thin ridges, or spectacular cliffs, South Dakota checks every box. And to sweeten things, almost every town in South Dakota is small, just the way vacationers like it. If you want to check out South Dakota’s small towns, the following are some that have consistently been ranked among U.S. favorites.
Dell Rapids sits immediately east of Interstate 29 along the Big Sioux River and is an easy 20-minute drive from Sioux Falls. Scenic bike trails await a first-time visitor to Dell Rapids and historic buildings such as the Carnegie Public Library. While the design of Dell Rapids’s Carnegie Public Library is anything but extravagant and may disappoint a lover of architectural flamboyance, its gorgeous facade, constructed from Sioux quartzite, sets it apart from other Carnegie libraries and is its most iconic attribute. If you want to pitch a tent and wander in the woods, Dell Rapids Campgrounds, which maintains a fee of $30 per night, will be handy. Then again, if you are looking for one of the prettiest trails in South Dakota, check out Sioux River Red Rock Trail.
Secreted in the Southwest corner of South Dakota, about 20 miles south of Rapid City, Custer is another South Dakota small town that is consistently ranked among U.S. favorites. Because of Custer’s strategic location, it often serves as a base camp for famous tourist attractions nearby. These include Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park (home to one of the largest American bison herds in the world), and Mount Rushmore National Memorial— located about 12, 19, 11, and 20 miles away, respectively. Aside from the rustic scenery that encircles Custer, the town itself is beautiful and quaint— and will not fail to plant a smile across the face of a first-time visitor.
Forget about the name of this South Dakota town; Deadwood is anything but dead. This is especially true concerning the town’s pulsating charm and picturesque setting. If you want to cast your vote on an authentic Wild West town, Deadwood will be your pick. Nearly 150 years ago, Deadwood was notorious across the country for its saloon girls, gun-slinging reputation, and round-the-clock gambling. These — among other features — would place the town as the birthplace of the real Wild West. Today, Deadwood’s Wild West heritage still flickers on in its dated saloons — even if it has undergone a transformation and is among the favorite South Dakota vacation destinations. Once the epicenter of the Black Hills Gold Rush, first-time visitors who want to get a whiff of Deadwood’s mining heritage can check out the Broken Boot Gold Mine — where fortune-seeking miners pursued gold ore veins with black powder and candlelight.
Boasting a population of about 12,000, which is a decent feat for a South Dakota town, Vermillion is another stunner Americans rank among the favorite South Dakota towns. Perched atop a bluff near the Missouri River in the Southeast corner of the state, close to where Interstate 29 and South Dakota Highway 50 meet — Vermillion boasts a charming downtown area and a cool, heart-tickling atmosphere. Whether you will want to hike to the top of Spirit Mound Historic Prairie just as Lewis and Clark did — or sample the more than 15,000 musical instruments at the National Music Museum, sometimes called “America’s Shrine to Music,” Vermillion has you covered. Then again, since Vermillion plays host to the University of South Dakota, expect a vibrant college town that will make you feel young at heart.
While Keystone is a small town of about 240 residents — and one you can pass through in a blink — you will be the poorer for it. Nearly hidden in the Black Hills region of South Dakota’s Pennington County, this South Dakota treasure is encircled by the quiet majesty of the Black Hills. The town’s downtown area plays host to a delightful array of unique shops, up to 32 locally-owned restaurants, and several art galleries. But this could just be the most exciting part. Keystone is the Black Hills’ closest city to the state-defining Mount Rushmore National Memorial. They are only three miles apart. Then again, on your first trip to Keystone, do not forget to check out Crazy Horse Memorial, the world’s largest mountain carving — located an easy 20 miles away.
“The Heart of the Hills” — as Hill City is known, is another South Dakota favorite that is as beautiful as it gets. Nestled about 26 miles southwest of Rapid City, Hill City sits right in the middle of the 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail, a popular carriageway that features more than 100 converted railroad bridges and four rock tunnels — and which meanders through the heart of South Dakota’s Black Hills region, offering a sneak peek into the area’s heart-melting scenery. While downtown Hill City plays host to Western-themed art galleries and delicious local wineries you will want to sample, Hill City’s outskirts could be the real deal, especially if you are a nature lover who likes wandering through scented pines and woody swathes. Besides, Crazy Horse Memorial is just a few minutes away — as is Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Once both a territorial and state capital and known as the “Mother City of the Dakotas,” Yankton could just be the most historic town in South Dakota. Being a territorial capital was particularly consequential because the territory was vast and included both Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. The town’s name is a Native American word translated as “people of the end village” in English. The town credits its birth to the Missouri River — and to the economic life the river caused. But the town also boasts many other firsts. These include the first drive-in movie theater in South Dakota — as well as the first college in Dakota territory and the first high school. If you want to enjoy some ice-cold beer and then crash the bottle on a wall of a building for tradition’s sake, the Iconic Ice House in Yankton, arguably the most fun dive bar in the country — is worth checking out.
Hot Springs is another U.S. favorite South Dakota small town that looks plucked out straight from a storybook. This South Dakota stunner sits in a sandstone canyon at the southern edge of South Dakota’s Black Hills. Boasting a population of about 3,700, Hot Springs strikes the sweet spot between the classy, elegant look of a well-planned city — as well as the laid-back appeal of a small town. Whether you will want to admire the town’s turn-of-the-century architecture — or experience the delights of water in its many forms at the Evans Plunge Mineral Springs, the oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills, Hot Springs is your answer. Still, one of the town’s greatest crowd-pullers is the Main Street Arts and Crafts Festival, a 3-day art jamboree that features both local and out-of-state artisans.
If you want to escape the hassle and bustle of Rapid City or the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds at Mount Rushmore, you should consider lacing up for Lead, a South Dakota favorite hidden in the northern Black Hills about 40 miles northwest of Rapid City. The town traces its birth to the discovery of gold within its environs in 1876. While the once-busy mines have since gone quiet, first-time visitors can still relive the town’s mining heritage, especially at the Homestake Mine, once the largest and deepest gold mine in North America. If you want a more curated experience, however, the Black Hills Mining Museum often captivates visitors with fascinating factoids about Lead’s mining heritage. But if you want to just be out in nature and fill your lungs with fresh, crisp air, the Roughlock Falls State Nature should be on your bucket list.
Famous for its Native American culture and a heart-melting scenery that is not appreciated as it should, South Dakota is arguably the most underrated state in the nation. Of course, there is the Mount Rushmore Monument and the carved-out faces of four outstanding presidents. However, there is more to South Dakota than its most hyped feature. Punctuated by a landscape that can be wild and whimsical, South Dakota is also home to an amazing cornucopia of towns that will blow you away. U.S. favorite South Dakota towns include Dell Rapids, Custer, and Deadwood.