South Dakota is special among states in the Great Plains. It is home to not one national park – such as North Dakota, New Mexico, or Texas – but two: Badlands National Park and Wind Cave National Park. Oh, and it’s where white Americans of European descent carved Mount Rushmore into the ancestral sacred mountain of Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, now called Mount Rushmore. Needless to say, the national parks in South Dakota are fascinating and still inspire travelers and discussion to this day.
There are a lot of natural and cultural wonders in South Dakota, which is why it’s the state that draws the largest number of national park visitors of any in the Great Plains. But there are more national park units in South Dakota than just these three.
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.
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.
The 7 national parks in South Dakota are:
- Badlands National Park
- Jewel Cave National Monument
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
- Missouri National Recreation River
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- Wind Cave National Park
Above, you’ll see a map I made of the national park units (including the trails in blue). It’s worth noting that the trails aren’t exactly accurate on the map. Many of these original trails and the stops and landmarks have been somewhat lost to the sands of time.
Now let’s dive into each of the national parks in South Dakota. Then, you can decide which one(s) you want to visit!
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is the most-visited national park in the Great Plains states. This is partly because of its proximity to Mount Rushmore, which receives 3 million visitors annually!
Badlands National Park, unlike Mount Rushmore, 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.
Jewel Cave National Monument
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:
- Jewel Cave National Monument is open year-round but hours vary by season.
- Cave tours cost $4-$12 per person depending on the tour; the America the Beautiful Pass cannot be used.
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Jewel Cave National Monument.
Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
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 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
If the Cold War fascinates you, be sure to plan a trip to Minuteman Missle National Historic site. 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. To me, this is one of the most fascinating national parks in South Dakota.
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 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 a huge site but my tips will help you plan your trip.
Details of Mount Rushmore National Memorial:
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial is open year-round, but hours vary by season.
- Admission to Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free but parking is $10 per car. (The America the Beautiful Pass cannot be used here.)
- Click here to visit the NPS page for Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
- Check out other things to do near Mount Rushmore too.
Wind Cave National Park
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!).
The best thing to do at Wind Cave National Park is taking 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 the range from natural wonders to cultural relics. The only question is: which one(s) do you want to visit?
If you have questions about these national parks in South Dakota, let me know in the comments!