South Dakota National Parks, Monuments and Memorials

Text "South Dakota's National Park.. The national parks, monuments, memorials and more in South Dakota" overlayed on image of woman jumping with hands in the air and legs out in Badlands National Park, with rock formations in the background, striped and colorful.

South Dakota National Parks range from presidential, US and Native American history, to incredible landscapes and nature, to hiking and biking, to fossils and geology. The six National Parks in South Dakota, plus a National Historic Trail and honorary mention memorial, see about six million visitors annually. This guide has the basics about each to start planning your visit (I definitely recommend road-tripping it!).

Map of South National Parks, Monuments and State Parks

To help you get an idea of where everything is, all of the National Park sites in South Dakota, along with other points of interest and state parks, are pinned in this map.

Visitor stats for National Parks and Monuments in South Dakota

National Park site 2018 visitors
Mount Rushmore National Memorial 2,311,273
Badlands National Park 1,008,942
Crazy Horse Memorial ~1,000,000
Wind Cave National Park 656,397
Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail* 286,349
Jewel Cave National Monument 142,356
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site 139,273
Missouri National Recreational River 128,657

*Note, this trail runs through 16 states; data is for the trail, not just SD visitors.

South Dakota National Parks, Memorials and Monuments

Mount Rushmore National Memorial (Keystone)

Mount Rushmore National Memorial may be the most recognizable national memorial in the US and is one of South Dakota’s biggest attractions. The memorial draws about 2.5 MILLION visitors each year.

Mount Rushmore overview and history

The carving was a huge feat of design and execution as Gutzon Borglum and 400 workers carved the four faces into the Black Hills of South Dakota over 14 years (from 1927-1941). The faces of US Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were chosen to represent the first 150 years of “the great experiment of democracy that is America.”

Visiting Mount Rushmore

  • Official website
  • Time needed to visit: 20 minutes to half a day
  • Accessibility: Parking and unloading available for mobility-impaired visitors; the Grand View Terrace, Sculptor’s Studio, amphitheater, visitor center, café and gift shop are wheelchair accessible.
  • Other attractions nearby: Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Monument, Jewel Cave National Park, Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park

What to do at Mount Rushmore

  • Mount Rushmore Self-Guided Tour: A Living Memorial: This award-winning tour has audio, photos and video offered in 5 languages (English, Spanish, French, German and Lakota). You can rent the tour from the information center.
  • Evening Lighting Ceremony: Nightly May through September, the sculpture is lit. The lighting ceremony includes a ranger-led talk, the National Anthem and a flag retreat.
  • Lakota, Nakota and Dakota Heritage Village: The heritage village is located on the Presidential Trail and gives insight into the indigenous cultures of the Black Hills area.
  • Walk the Presidential Trail: The Presidential Trail is a 0.6-mile trail (with 422 stairs) where you can walk through the woods and fragments from the blasting process on your way to get closer to the faces.
  • Visit the Sculptor’s Studio: You can visit the newly renovated studio that Borglum used and worked in from 1939-1941; there are plaster models, a scale model, and tools on display.
  • Junior Ranger Quest: The Junior Ranger Quest is designed for kids to get involved at the park and is part of the self-guided tour. Complete 12 challenges to earn a Junior Ranger badge!
  • Ranger-led talks: During summer months, you can catch a ranger-led talk, presented in the studio, where you can learn about the workers, tools and methods used to create the monument.
  • Food, drink and souvenirs: In terms of facilities, you can eat at Carver’s Marketplace (they have Thomas Jefferson’s original vanilla ice cream recipe from 1780 – the first known written ice cream recipe in the US) and the Mount Rushmore Gift Shop has souvenirs and other shopping.

Crazy Horse Memorial (Crazy Horse)

Though Crazy Horse Memorial is not part of the national park system, it should absolutely be included in this list and visited. They have a movie explaining the history of the memorial as well as art exhibits, a bison exhibit and in-house artists.

Crazy Horse Memorial overview and history

The Crazy Horse Memorial is an ongoing project and well worth a visit. In addition to seeing the state of the memorial itself, the visitor center is incredibly informative and worth the visit alone.

Henry Standing Bear wanted the Lakota to have a memorial as well, to show that Native Americans had heroes too. The face of the memorial is of Crazy Horse, who actually never had a known photo. So the design was made from descriptions and drawings.

Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski headed up the project, which was nowhere near complete at his death. His family has taken on his mission and continued to carve out the sculpture. It has grown from being a memorial to an education center, large museum, and even home to the Indian University of North America.

Visiting Crazy Horse Memorial

  • Official website
  • Time needed to visit: Two hours to a half-day
  • Accessibility information:
  • Other attractions nearby: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Monument, Jewel Cave National Park, Sylvan Lake, Custer State Park

What to do at Crazy Horse Memorial

  • Start at the Visitor Center, and do not miss the video presentation. From there, you can explore a lot of the complex.
  • The Indian Museum of North America is on-site at Crazy Horse Memorial and houses art and artifacts telling the stories, history, and culture of 300+ Native Nations.
  • Visit the Native American Educational & Cultural Center
  • Visit the Sculptor’s Studio to learn more about Korczak.
  • Hike to the memorial on one of the two days out of the year where it is allowed – Volksmarch in June and September. Volksmarch is the most popular organized hike in the US.
  • Look for the Artists in Residence, to see their work or if you’re lucky, catch them working.
  • See one of two annual Night Blasts, June and September, where fire lights up the mountain.
  • Legends in Light is a laser and light show presented nightly through the summer.

Badlands National Park (Interior)

Badlands National Park, South Dakota is one of the most distinct parks in the US. Located in the middle of the Northern Great Plains, the Badlands’ 244,000 acres of landscapes include interesting rock formations and grasslands, wildlife, fossils and storied human history.

View of bison from a distance at Badlands National Park, near a colorful cliff with green grasslands.

Badlands National Park overview and history

Badlands gets its name from some of the first visitors to the lands. The Lakota called it “Mako Sica,” which translates to “bad lands.” It started formation about 75 million years ago when it was a shallow sea, which is why the park is considered to be one of the world’s richest fossil beds.

Badlands is home to the largest mixed-grass prairie in the park system and an incredible array of wildlife, including coyotes, butterflies, vultures, snakes, bison, ferrets and prairie dogs.

It was initially established as a National Monument in 1939 and in 1978 was redesignated as a National Park. The park sees about one million visitors annually, from all over the world. Badlands is very easily connected to other parks – there are 12 units of the national park system in half a day’s drive of Badlands.

Visiting Badlands National Park

  • Official website
  • Visitor guide
  • Time needed to visit: 4 hours to a full day
  • Accessibility information: The visitor centers, Cedar Pass campground, picnic areas, most overlooks and concession facilities are wheelchair accessible. The Fossil Exhibit and Window Trails, and the first portion of the Door and Cliff Shelf Trails are wheelchair accessible. Ask about accessibility for the ranger programs.
  • Other attractions nearby: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

What to do at Badlands National Park

  • Drive the Highway 240 Loop Road (Badlands Loop Road): There are scenic overlooks dotted all along the two-way, approximately 40-mile loop road. You can spend half a day driving and stopping, with each viewpoint presenting a different look at the landscape.
  • Hikes (no dogs): There are 8 different hikes in the park (though some are short, boardwalk trails. See more detail on the hikes below.
  • Check out one of the ranger programs offered, like the Night Sky Program.
  • Learn about Native American heritage.
  • Visit Wounded Knee.
  • Spend some time at Ben Reifel Visitor Center(and watch the award-winning park video).
READ  Visiting Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Wind Cave National Park (Hot Springs)

Wind Cave National Park overview and history

Wind Cave is one of the longest and most complex caves in the world, and its national park one of the oldest in the country. The cave can be explored on ranger-guided tours (currently unavailable as of fall 2019) and the prairie and hills above ground can be explored by car or hikes. The park is home to bison, elk and other wildlife.

Visiting Wind Cave National Park

  • Official website
  • Time needed to visit: 2 hours to a full day
  • Accessibility information: The visitor center, campgrounds and natural entrance are wheel-chair accessible; the park offers a wheelchair-accessible tour (should be booked in advance).
  • Other attractions nearby: Custer State Park, Jewel Cave National Monument
READ  Visiting Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills

Jewel Cave National Monument (Custer)

Jewel Cave National Monument overview and history

Jewel Cave is the third-longest in the world. There are over 195 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, which is a fraction of its total system. The cave can only be explored on ranger-guided tours (currently unavailable as of fall 2019). Above ground, there are over 30 miles of trails on 11 scenic trails and hikes.

Visiting Jewel Cave National Monument

  • Official website
  • Time needed to visit: 2 hours to a full day
  • Accessibility information: Jewel Cave has a lot of accessible options for visitors, including those with physical/mobility impairments, deafness/hearing loss, blind/low vision, learning disability and service animals.
  • Other attractions nearby: Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (Philip)

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site overview and history

Hundreds of minuteman missiles were hidden underground throughout the Great Plains during the Cold War. These missiles were on constant alert from the 1960s-1990s. Minuteman missiles could destroy civilization but were meant as a deterrent to war (with the concept of mutually assured destruction).

Each facility controlled 10 missiles, 3 miles apart. There were a total of 1000 Minuteman Missiles (six wings of three squadrons and 150 missiles; each “flight” had 10 missiles). The name even has roots in conflict/defense.

  • Minute Man: 1770s colonial militia trained to respond on one minute’s notice.
  • Minuteman: Nuclear missile that a missileer could launch within a minute’s notice.

There are three sites of the national monument:

  • Visitor center: Off the main highway, open daily; exhibits and video
  • Delta-01: Can only be accessed via guided tours
  • Delta-09: Missile silo open daily

Visiting Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

  • Official website
  • Time needed to visit: One hour to a full day
  • Accessibility information: Because a lot of the facilities are underground and complex, only topside attractions at Minuteman (visitor center, etc.) are wheelchair accessible. Find more details here.
  • Other attractions nearby: Badlands National Park, Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

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South Dakota National Parks, Monuments and Memorials

Founder of How Dare She, Jessica is on a mission to visit every country in the world, and bring you along with through photos, video and stories. 6 continents and 104 countries in. She has a BA in journalism and Master's in innovation and change, but her real skill is plugging in a USB in 2 or less tries (most of the time). She believes daring isn't about being fearless, but choosing to opt in, in spite of fear. She dares to see, taste, experience and meet the world as she goes.

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