If your travelers enjoy beautiful scenery, classic Americana and the delights of an old-fashioned road trip, it’s time to take them to South Dakota.
From the faces of Mount Rushmore to the world’s only Corn Palace and the urban cascades of Sioux Falls, South Dakota has more than its share of distinctive destinations. Bring your group to explore the Black Hills and beyond, and it might be one of the most memorable domestic trips you’ll ever take.
Iconic Rapid City
There’s no better place to begin a South Dakota adventure than Rapid City, a buzzing small city in the beautiful Black Hills.
Rapid City is the jumping-off point for travelers who come to see South Dakota’s two most-iconic attractions: the Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Mount Rushmore famously features the faces of four American presidents carved in granite. In addition to admiring the monument, visitors can look through an on-site museum and hike a short trail down to the sculptor’s workshop at the foot of the mountain.
About 15 miles away, the Crazy Horse Memorial is another mountain carving that pays homage to the most famous Native American leader in South Dakota history. Carving continues at the site, which is privately funded, and is expected to take many more years to finish. But groups visiting today can see the relief of Crazy Horse’s face in the mountain, learn about the carving of the sculpture and explore the complex’s museum and Native American art market.
Visit Rapid City, the local convention and visitors bureau, encourages groups to plan daytime and evening visits at both sites.
“We really try to get them to go to the lighting ceremonies at Mount Rushmore,” said director of tourism sales Lindsey Beasley. “And Crazy Horse has a laser light show. They’re both roughly an hour and a half to two hours.”
There’s sculpture of a different kind to explore downtown, where the City of Presidents project gives travelers the opportunity to encounter influential figures from American history.
“We have life-sized bronze presidential statues placed downtown on our street corners,” Beasley said. “It’s one of the largest public art displays in the country. There’s a self-guided walking tour people can do to see them. You can go get your photo taken with your favorite president.”
Art lovers should also plan to visit Main Street Square to see “Passage of Wind and Water,” a large-scale, ongoing public sculpture project. Other popular group activities include visits to the Prairie Edge Trading Company, which features the region’s largest collection of Native American art, craft and music. And the Journey Museum showcases the history and traditions of Native American groups and pioneers who called South Dakota home.
About 40 miles from Rapid City in the heart of the Black Hills, Deadwood is a small town with an outsized tourism industry. Legalized gaming came to Deadwood in 1989, but the city’s rough and wild past included plenty of illegal gambling, as well as shootouts and other misadventures featuring some of the most infamous characters of the Old West.
Today, Deadwood’s success as a gaming destination helps locals preserve its history and tell its stories to visitors in a variety of compelling ways.
“From Memorial Day weekend to the third weekend in September, we have historic re-enactors downtown,” said Amanda Kille, marketing and sponsorship director for the Deadwood Chamber and Visitors Bureau. “The most popular part of their schedule are the shootouts on Main Street, when they re-enact a real shootout from Deadwood’s history at 2, 4 and 6 o’clock. Each one is a different script. And we re-enact the death of Wild Bill Hickok four times a day.”
In addition to the shootouts and the gaming, groups visiting Deadwood enjoy visiting the town’s trio of historic museums. The Adams Museum is the oldest museum in the Black Hills and has exhibits on Wild Bill, Calamity Jane and the discovery of gold in the area. The Adams House, another museum, is a restored Victorian house with original furnishings. And the newest attraction, the Days of ’76 Museum, houses the area’s largest collection of horse-drawn vehicles, including an 1876 stagecoach.
About 75 miles west of Sioux Falls, the town of Mitchell might not garner much tourist attention were it not for its unique and iconic attraction: the Corn Palace.
Since 1892, the city’s large civic building has been decorated with corn. There have been several Corn Palaces in downtown Mitchell over the years. The current one is a permanent structure whose exterior is adorned with murals made entirely of local corn. The murals are designed by local artists and change every year.
“It takes about 325,000 ears of corn to make the murals,” said Emily Hennagir, marketing coordinator at Visit Mitchell. “In the summer months, we give free guided tours. There’s a timeline that goes throughout the building that talks about why we have this crazy Corn Palace in town and what it means to our community.”
Groups that spend time in Mitchell should also plan to visit the Dakota Discovery Museum, which features historic buildings from throughout the prairie, including an old schoolhouse, a train depot, a church and the home of one of the Corn Palace founders. Another popular stop, the Prehistoric Indian Village, preserves the site of a 1,000-year-old Native American settlement.
“They do excavations during the summer, but you can actually view the dig site all year round,” Hennagir said. “The people would come and build mud huts to live in, so the village has reconstructed what they believe those would have looked like. You can walk through them and see how they were set up for multiple families to live there.”
Mitchell’s newest attraction, the Guns of History Museum, features displays of numerous Native American firearms.
Scenic Sioux Falls
Near the eastern edge of the state, Sioux Falls is South Dakota’s largest and most cosmopolitan city. Groups will find many natural and cultural attractions on the banks of the Big Sioux River, as well as many other interesting stops on the outskirts of town.
“The Big Sioux River runs through the heart of Sioux Falls, and it’s a real benefit to our town,” said Jackie Wentworth, group tour sales manager for the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have a big Riverfest and many other events that happen right on the riverfront.”
Falls Park is the city’s most famous site. This 123-acre park in the center of town features a series of waterfalls that send more than 7,400 gallons of water down a 100-foot-high cascade every second. The park has an information center, a cafe and an observation tower, which offers great views of the waterfalls and surrounding Sioux Falls.
Groups visiting Falls Park may also want to explore the Sculpture Walk, which connects the park to nearby Washington Pavilion. The Sculpture Walk features a series of public art each year created by area sculptors. The sculptures are on display for a year before being sold to private individuals and being replaced by new artwork.
This fall, the city is celebrating the completion of the Arc of Dreams by South Dakota sculptor laureate Dale Lamphere. This permanent installation will be the capstone of the Sculpture Walk.
“It’s a massive steel structure that’s going to span the Big Sioux River,” Wentworth said. “It’s seven stories high and the length of a football field. At the center is going to be a 15-foot gap representing the leap of faith that dreamers take to see their dreams come true.”