Exploring the Great 8 South Dakota

Exploring the Great 8 South Dakota

South Dakota’s nickname is The Mount Rushmore State. However, it truly should be The Hidden Gem State, because holy smokes there’s a ton to discover here.

Along with having a whopping six National Park Service units, one of the most iconic national memorials in the world, and numerous state parks, South Dakota is spectacularly beautiful, has a rich and storied history, and is the home to diverse wildlife. 

It can be overwhelming deciding what to see and do first, but the Great 8 South Dakota sites are an excellent starting point. 

These include the state’s best destinations and interestingly, they’re all close enough to visit in one epic road trip. Don’t hurry through them, though — trust us, you’ll want plenty of time here.

Badlands National Park

Badland formations in South Dakota's Badlands National Park

“Badlands” — it sounds barren and unforgiving, right? 

Yet, the Badlands is incredibly beautiful. The colorful, richly-textured landscape is unlike any other, formed by water and wind erosion over millions of years. 

Today, there are numerous ways for visitors to explore the park up close and personal. Start on Badlands Loop Road, which features dozens of scenic overlooks and many of the most popular trailheads. 

Keep your eyes open for wildlife (bighorns, bison, and antelope, oh my!) — they’re just as much a part of the view as the landscape!

Set aside at least one full day for exploring Badlands, ideally two. And no matter how much time you have, a stop at the famous Wall Drug on your way home is a must!

Best way to experience Badlands National Park: Take a hike! The park has a unique “open hike policy,” which means visitors can hike off-trail. If you only have time for one, do the Notch Trail.

Crazy Horse Memorial

A view looking up at Crazy Horse Memorial, one of the Great 8 South Dakota sites

The Crazy Horse Memorial has a long, fascinating history. To sum it up, revered sculptor Korczak Ziółkowski, who helped craft Mount Rushmore, accepted a proposal from Sioux Indian Chief Henry Standing Bear to carve a memorial of “the red man’s hero.”

Indeed a hero, Crazy Horse was a famous Lakota Indian who successfully fought against the U.S. government for years. His story is a crucial part of American history. 

Ziółkowski began work on Crazy Horse and ultimately dedicated his life to it. More impressive, he did so without funding from the government. He wanted it to be built “by the people.”

Although it’s still unfinished — Ziółkowski died in 1982 and his family carries on the legacy of constructing the memorial without government funding — Crazy Horse is a sight to behold. One of the most unique of the Great 8 South Dakota, it’s the largest sculpture in the entire world.

When finished, the memorial will be 641 feet long and 563 feet tall. To put that into context, Crazy Horse will be about 10 times bigger than Mount Rushmore

Best way to experience Crazy Horse: Because the memorial is an active construction site, options are limited. You can take a bus ride to the base of the mountain or, for a $125 charitable donation, you can go up the mountain and stand face-to-face with Crazy Horse. 

Twice a year, you can also participate in Volksmarch, an organized hike that allows visitors to actually hike up the mountain.

Custer State Park

Bison grazing on a prairie in front of a rolling hillside in Custer State Park, one of the Great 8 South Dakota

Many people believe Custer State Park should actually be a national park. Within minutes of arriving, it’s easy to understand why. 

The park is more like a vast wilderness area, with picturesque and varied scenery. In the span of just a few miles, you’ll pass panoramic wide-open prairie land and soaring granite rock formations. 

You may not picture big mountains when you think of South Dakota, but in fact, the highest peak east of the Rockies is here in the park. Black Elk Peak sits at an impressive elevation of 7,242 feet. 

Aside from the scenery, wildlife is a star attraction in Custer State Park. A herd of about 1,500 wild bison live here, roaming freely across the park’s 71,000+ acres. You’re also likely to spot bighorn sheep, pronghorns, antelope, and mountain lions.

Best way to experience Custer State Park: Go on a buffalo safari in an open-air Jeep and drive the scenic Needles Highway. And if you visit in September, don't miss the annual Buffalo Roundup!

Deadwood

Historic Main Street in Deadwood, South Dakota, one of the Great 8

Nestled into the storied Black Hills, historic Deadwood is a must-see on your Great 8 South Dakota trip. 

Deadwood was developed during the Gold Rush of the 1870s and was the original Wild Wild West. Unlike many Old West tourist towns that have been built to honor their reputation, Deadwood is authentic. 

Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane are both buried here, and many buildings are reportedly haunted. 

The streets of Deadwood are lined with old saloons and casinos, and there’s a refreshing lack of high rise buildings, chain restaurants, or big-box stores. Many of the hotels have been standing since the late 1800s and contain all-original fixtures such as windows and doors. 

Best way to experience Deadwood: Rent UTVs (they’re street-legal here and you’ll see tons in town!) to explore the surrounding Black Hills National Forest. UTV Rentals of the Black Hills is just outside of town and will set you up for the day with maps and a cooler — BYO snacks. 

Fun fact: Black Hills National Forest has one of the most extensive networks of off-road trails in the U.S!

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave is arguably the least-known of the Great 8 South Dakota attractions. And yet, it’s actually the third-longest cave system in the entire world. Okay South Dakota, we see you!

Sitting deep below the Black Hills, Jewel Cave contains over 208 miles of surveyed passages — so far. Cave explorers continue to map and survey, so there’s no telling how long Jewel Cave may actually be!

Inside, you’ll find a fascinating mixture of tight passages you have to crawl through and giant rooms. Although it’s dark, you’ll spot glimpses of brilliant color (perhaps how Jewel Cave got its name?) that seems to drip from the hanging calcite and gypsum. 

Best way to experience Jewel Cave National Monument: The only way to experience Jewel Cave underground is on a guided cave tour. The tours vary with the seasons and are offered at set times. They often sell out early in the day, so we highly recommend getting tickets in advance.

Missouri River

A rock and sand bar at Lewis & Clark State Recreation Area along the Missouri River in South Dakota

Forming a line that divides the state almost perfectly in two, the Missouri River — the Mighty Mo, as it’s affectionately known — is another can’t-miss Great 8 South Dakota stop. 

While the Mississippi River is perhaps more famous, the Missouri is actually the longest river in North America!

Here on the Mighty Mo, you have the rare opportunity to get away from crowds and far off the beaten path. It’s just you and Mother Nature. 

Along the river are four lakes, plus their associated recreation areas: Francis Case, Lewis & Clark, Oahe, and Sharpe. 

As you might expect, boating and fishing are popular activities along the Missouri, but they’re far from the only ways to enjoy it. Wildlife watching, hunting, and camping are popular activities here, too, offering year-round recreation. 

Best way to experience the Missouri River: Rent a boat or kayaks and explore any one of the lakes at your leisure. Don’t forget fishing gear!

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

A close-up of Mount Rushmore, one of the main attractions making up the Great 8 South Dakota

Widely considered a national treasure, Mount Rushmore attracts over two million visitors a year. 

The national memorial, which the South Dakota Department of Tourism calls a “shrine of democracy,” truly exemplifies the American spirit. 

Consisting of four 60-foot-tall faces of U.S. presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) carved out of granite, Mount Rushmore is physical proof of the hard work and determination America was built on.

As you gaze up at the granite faces far above you, keep in mind that the memorial was completed in 1941 — long before we had modern machinery and technology!

Important note: even if you have an annual America the Beautiful Pass, you’ll have to pay for parking at Mount Rushmore. 

Best way to experience Mount Rushmore National Memorial: If you’re visiting from May through September, attend an evening lighting ceremony, offered nightly. It’s an educational, moving, and memorable event everyone should experience.

Wind Cave National Park

Boxwork formations in Wind Cave National Park, one of the sites on Great 8 South Dakota

Tucked way down into the southern portion of the Black Hills, Wind Cave National Park is the first cave in the entire world to be designated a national park. That fact alone makes it a worthy Great 8 South Dakota stop!

Wind Cave is unique in several ways, offering something for just about everyone. Its main draw is that it’s home to the Earth's largest concentration of boxwork formations, a rare occurrence where calcite grows sideways (rather than down) and forms a honeycomb-like structure. 

While “cave” is in its name, the national park also has plenty to see above ground. Nearly 34,000 acres of prairie land and forest serve as a wildlife sanctuary, home to bison, elk, deer, antelope, and prairie dogs. 

Best way to experience Wind Cave National Park: Book (in advance!) a ranger-guided tour to experience the caves and hike on the 30+ miles of trails on the surface (including two that are dog-friendly — a rarity in the National Park System!).

Where to Stay to Explore the Great 8 South Dakota

In order to get the most out of your experience visiting the Great 8 South Dakota, we highly recommend splitting your stay into two areas: Rapid City and Deadwood. 

Rapid City is the area’s major metropolis, and also where you’ll fly into. It’s a great central location for visiting many attractions including Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Badlands National Park (which is still just an hour away). 

Rushmore Shadows Resort is conveniently situated on the outskirts of Rapid City, less than 20 minutes from Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, but within minutes of major shopping and dining. The resort has cabins, lodges, covered wagons, and RV sites. 

Staying in Deadwood is the perfect choice for exploring the Black Hills and experiencing an authentic historic western town. Deadwood is extremely walkable and the town also has a free trolley, so park your car and forget it until it’s time to leave!

There are no big chain hotels in Deadwood (yay!), so opt for one of the small, family-owned boutique inns. The 1899 Inn is a 5-minute walk from downtown and includes a lavish made-from-scratch breakfast each morning.  

Have you visited any of the Great 8 South Dakota destinations? Whether you have or they’re on your future bucket list, commemorate the trip with The Wander Club!

Our Travel Tokens include options for U.S. States, National Parks, Landmarks, and even custom options. Collect them for yourself or consider giving them as guaranteed-hit gifts!

Travel safe, and enjoy exploring The Mount Rushmore State!