National Park Travel

South Dakota National Parks: All You Need to Know to Visit (2024-2025)

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One of my favorite things about the National Park system in the U.S. is how it inspires people to visit places they might never otherwise go; there are national parks spread across the country – and indeed the world –, including in states that many people typically just pass through or fly over. South Dakota is one of those states but is home to some incredible natural wonders protected and preserved by the NPS.

During our road trip honeymoon in 2020, Mr. V and I traveled through South Dakota; we visited both Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore National Monument. While we didn’t have time to stop and explore more, you can bet I’m keen to get back and visit some of the other natural wonders in the state – including South Dakota’s other national park!

National Parks in South Dakota Hero

Whether you’re planning a trip through or to South Dakota or are just researching to understand what might be worth visiting, this guide to South Dakota national parks will help. Below you’ll find basic information about each of the national park units in the “Mount Rushmore State” – including Mount Rushmore, of course. You can then read my additional resources (when I have them) or NPS websites to continue planning to visit any that catch your fancy.

Ready to dig in and learn more about why this ‘flyover’ state is worth exploring on – and under – the ground?

In this post, I promote travel to destinations that are the traditional lands of the Cheyenne, Mnicoujou, Očhéthi Šakówiŋ, Apsaalooké (Crow)  peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

This post was originally published in August 2021 and was last updated in June 2024.

National Parks in South Dakota List & Map

Before jumping into each national park in South Dakota in greater detail, it helps to take a high-level look at the map and list of national park units in South Dakota.

National Parks in South Dakota Map
Click to interact with the map!

The 7 national parks in South Dakota are:

  1. Badlands National Park
  2. Jewel Cave National Monument
  3. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
  4. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
  5. Missouri National Recreation River
  6. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
  7. Wind Cave National Park

The map shows all of the national park units in South Dakota, including the trails; it’s worth noting that the trails aren’t exactly accurate on the map. Many of these original trails and stops and landmarks along the way have been somewhat lost to the sands of time.

Now that you’ve got a high-level sense of the parks and where they are, let’s look at each one in greater detail.

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is the most visited national park in the Great Plains states, receiving an average of one million visitors per year. This is partly because of its proximity to Mount Rushmore, which receives 3 million visitors annually!

Unlike Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park protects unaltered natural stone formations in South Dakota as well as surrounding grasslands and the wildlife that live in this area.

The rock formations in Badlands National Park – called buttes and spires – were formed by deposition and erosion. Rocks in Badlands National Park were deposited in the area as much as 75 million years ago. Through wind and water erosion, they began to wear away just 500,00 years ago. It only took half a million years to create the rocky spires and shapes we see today!

Obviously seeing these fantastic formations is the main attraction for visiting Badlands National Park. You can follow Badlands Loop Road (South Dakota Highway 240) to see fossil beds, try to spot wildlife, and admire the scenery. Be sure to stop at Big Badlands Overlook, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, and the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. If you decide to stay overnight inside the park, stargazing is another popular activity.

Details of Badlands National Park:

  • Badlands National Park is open year-round.
  • Admission is $30 per vehicle and is good for 7 days. (You can also use an America the Beautiful Pass instead.)
  • There are two official campgrounds in Badlands, called Cedar Pass and Sage Creek campgrounds. You can also go backcountry camping.
  • Within the park, there is one hotel: the Cedar Pass Lodge. Just outside the park near Interior, South Dakota, you can also stay at the Badlands Inn or Badlands Motel.
  • Check out my guide to spending one day in Badlands National Park.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota

Y’all know I love caves – they’re one of my favorite things about national parks – and I am definitely keen to get back to South Dakota because of Jewel Cave (and Wind Cave, but more on that one in a moment…).

Home to the third-longest cave in the world, Jewel Cave National Monument features over 208 miles of mapped passages. Immerse yourself in the fragile formations and splendid glimpses of color This jewel is one of the most famous national monuments in the Great Plains and is open to tourists of all ages. 

Explore this national treasure by joining any of its three tours. Also, feel free to walk through any of the three surface trails.

Details of Jewel Cave National Monument:

Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail

Lewis-Clark-National-Historic-Trail-Multi-State

As you might be able to guess, the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail exists to commemorate the 1803 to 1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, which aimed at preserving historical, natural, and cultural resources in the U.S.

This national historic trail is about 4,900 miles long and runs – from east to west – through Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon.

In South Dakota, the trail follows the path of the Missouri River northwest across the state. It would be a lot to try and follow the entire path, but there are points of interest along the way worth visiting if you’re in the area.

Details of Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail:

  • Visitor centers and museums along the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail vary in opening hours and seasons.
  • Admission fees for these sites and museums also vary.
  • Click here to visit the NPS page for Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Minuteman-Missile-National-Historic-Site-South-Dakota

If the Cold War fascinates you, be sure to plan a trip to Minuteman Missle National Historic Site; I am fascinated by this chapter of American history so we tried to stop by but none of the sites were open during our visit due to the pandemic. This historic site houses two facilities that were part of the missile field. This site is preserved to date to tell the story of Minuteman Missiles, the Cold War, and nuclear deterrence.

Immerse yourself in this serene prairie that once held the power to destroy the world. Check out exhibits that feature stories of ancient technologies that made things possible, servicemen and women who did their bit, and leaders who led the world.

Details of Minuteman Missile National Historic Site:

  • Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is open year-round.
  • Admission to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is free; tours cost $12 for adults and $8 for children.
  • Click here to visit the NPS page for Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.

Missouri National Recreational River

The Missouri National Recreational River protects part of the longest river in North America. It stretches over a hundred miles and features two free-flowing stretches of water. Feel free to explore the past through an adventure on this wildly untamed river. You can also walk the historic Meridian Bridge and go on a tour of Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery.

Details of Missouri National Recreation River:

  • Missouri National Recreational River is open year-round; the Visitor Center is open six days a week excluding federal holidays.
  • Admission to Missouri National Recreational River is free; some of the state parks that are along the Missouri River do charge fees though.
  • Click here to visit the NPS page for Missouri National Recreational River site.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

You undoubtedly know about Mount Rushmore – it’s one of the top sites in the National Park system and possibly the most-visited National Memorial. Carved in 1927, Mount Rushmore stands sentinel in South Dakota’s Black Hills and is still a site for controversy due to Indigenous claims to the land and the sacrilege of carving a sacred mountain.

If you want to see the stone faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt for yourself, be sure to read my guide on how to visit Mount Rushmore. It’s not an exhaustive resource, but my tips will help you plan your trip.

Details of Mount Rushmore National Memorial:

Wind Cave National Park

Wind-Cave-National-Park-2

Located in the southwest corner of South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park is one of the oldest national parks in the country. It was originally established in 1903 – before the National Park Service! Above ground, Wind Cave National Park protects rolling grasslands and forested hills, but as the name suggests, it’s what’s underground that draws most visitors.

Wind Cave is home to one of the longest and most complex caves in the world; more interestingly, it has “barometric winds” at the cave entrance, caused by temperature differences between the air above ground and under it. Wind Cave is also home to a special type of crystal formation called boxwork. Wind Cave is a unique, fascinating cave to visit (as caves go!) – I can’t wait to visit someday.

The best thing to do at Wind Cave National Park is to take a cave tour. These are guided by park rangers and teach you how to responsibly visit and appreciate the wonders of the cave.

Details of Wind Cave National Park:

  • Wind Cave National Park is open year-round.
  • It’s free to explore the park above ground; when cave tours are running, they cost $10-$30 for adults and $5-$6 for children, depending on the tour.
  • There is one main campground at Wind Cave, called Elk Mountain Campground. The 62-site campground is first-come, first-served.
  • The two nearest towns are Hot Springs, SD (15 minutes south) and Custer, SD (25 minutes north), where you can find more amenities if you need a hotel or meal.

While there are only seven national parks in South Dakota, they are a surprisingly diverse set covering a range from natural wonders to cultural relics. The only question is: which one(s) do you want to visit?

Do you have other questions about these national parks in South Dakota? Let me know in the comments below!

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