The Great 8: Famous South Dakota Landmarks
Have you ever traveled somewhere and fallen way more in love with it than you expected? That was my experience with South Dakota last fall.
I suspect it’s not just me, though (right?) — South Dakota is unequivocally, if not largely unexpected, a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts and adventurous souls. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but prior to visiting, when I thought of South Dakota, I pictured bison and the Badlands. Lots of brown and flat.
I’d never even heard of The Great 8 and I certainly didn’t know the famous South Dakota landmarks would absolutely knock my socks off.
Of course, being highly underrated has many benefits. South Dakota is pristine, affordable, and not nearly as crowded as other busier places.
For some perspective, Zion Nation Park had 3.6 million visitors in 2020. Badlands National Park had less than one million. No timed-entry reservations, lottery system permits, or insane traffic in SoDak…unless you count bison traffic jams.
There are bison, yes. Side note, did you know the American Bison is the United States national mammal? And yeah, there’s lots of brown. But there are also tons of spectacular colors, unique and dramatic landscapes, wide-open spaces with horizons that seem to stretch on forever, and breathtaking sunsets. South Dakota truly has something for everyone and honestly, five full days weren’t enough.
Give yourself plenty of time here and seriously consider road-tripping, because you’re going to want to explore it all.
This post contains affiliate links. I may receive a small commission — at no cost to you — if you click or make a purchase through any of them. For more information, read my disclosure statement. I appreciate you!
The Great 8 South Dakota
Whether you plan to visit just one or two of these famous South Dakota landmarks or you want to see every one of The Great 8, here’s a guide to all of them.
1. Badlands National Park
Its name alone sounds intimidating: Badlands National Park. The Lakota people dubbed the area “bad lands” because of the difficult-to-navigate terrain, utter lack of water, and extreme temperatures — notably, wind.
That wind (along with water) formed the badlands themselves, battering them for millions of years into their distinct and surprisingly colorful formations. I don’t know what exactly I expected from Badlands National Park, but whatever it was, this wasn’t it. The harsh environment is eerily, and almost shockingly, beautiful.
Once you get to the park, start your exploration by driving Badlands Loop Road. This 39-mile scenic byway has 16 scenic overlooks and direct access to many of the park’s most popular hiking trails.
I highly recommend driving straight to the far end, then making all your stops on the way back. This method lets you get the lay of the land, plus decide which overlooks and trails you definitely want to set time aside for.
If you can manage it, the best time to visit Badlands National Park is sunrise or sunset. The golden hour glow the sky casts on the badlands is absolutely spectacular, so try to be at one of the overlooks during these times.
Speaking of trails, hiking in Badlands National Park is unique. The park has an Open Hike Policy, meaning visitors can hike anywhere in the park — even off-trail. Badlands is also one of the most accessible national parks, with several short trails that have boardwalk paths.
If you only have a short time in Badlands, hike the Door or Notch Trails (Door takes you through a fossil bed and Notch has a unique wooden ladder!). If you have more time, the Castle Trail lets you really explore the park’s terrain.
Another one of the best things to do in Badlands National Park is check out the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. You won’t find this off-the-beaten path section of the park along Badlands Loop Road, which means you very well may have it to yourself.
Sage Creek is an excellent area to spot bison, bighorn sheep, antelope, and other wildlife. Don’t miss Roberts Prairie Dog Town, where you can watch thousands of the social creatures in their natural habitat.
Note that you may see wildlife anywhere in Badlands National Park; I encountered a bighorn on a trail and several antelope crossing a road. However, your odds of spotting wildlife are much higher in the Sage Creek Wilderness Area. It’s also a fantastic sunset spot!
Finally, no trip to Badlands National Park is complete without a visit to Wall Drug. While it’s not part of the Great 8, Wall Drug is one of the most famous South Dakota landmarks. What started as a drug store advertising free water in Wall, South Dakota, in the 1930s has become one of the world’s most famous quirky roadside attractions. Stop to eat and do some shopping, plus take photos with the storied Jackalope and 80-foot dinosaur. Oh and yes, you can still get free ice water.
Don’t forget your “America the Beautiful” 2022 annual national park pass for your visit to Badlands National Park!
2. Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is not only one of the most famous South Dakota landmarks, but one of the most well-known landmarks in the world.
Depicting Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota warrior who defeated General Custer in the Battle of Little Bighorn, the memorial is enormous. Once completed — more on that in a minute — it will be the world’s largest sculpture, measuring 563 feet tall by 641 feet long. To put that into perspective, all the presidents’ 60-foot-tall heads at Mount Rushmore fit neatly inside just Crazy Horse’s head!
The Crazy Horse Memorial is massive, yes, but what really makes it stand out is its unusual history. Despite starting construction in 1948, today, only Crazy Horse’s head and face are complete. Sculptor Korczak Ziółkowski, who also worked on Mount Rushmore, initiated the project with the goal of having it built entirely “by the people.” In other words, he didn’t have any government funding whatsoever.
After serving in World War II, Ziółkowski very literally dedicated his life to building the memorial. He died in 1982, but several of his children and grandchildren carry on his legacy. To this day, the Crazy Horse Memorial has never received a dime of government funding. Instead, admission fees and private donations fund construction.
On that note, visiting this memorial is unique because it’s an active construction site. General admission allows you to view the sculpture from a veranda, plus gets you into three onsite museums.
If you want to get a little closer to Crazy Horse, you can take an additional $4 bus ride to the base. Finally, you can take a Guided Van Ride to the top of the mountain and come face-to-face with Crazy Horse for a one-time charitable donation of $125.
Want to see live-time progress on the Crazy Horse Memorial? Check out the live webcams! As of early 2022, the Mountain Crew is actively working on carving the horse’s mane and details in Crazy Horse’s left hand.
3. Custer State Park
If ever there was a state park that deserved to be a national park, it’s Custer. Few places in the world today are truly wild; no wonder it’s one of the most famous Great 8 destinations.
The massive park is home to vast prairie lands where wildlife roams, gorgeous lakes, dramatic spire-like rock formations (including America’s highest peak east of the Rockies, 7,242-foot Black Elk Peak), and the famed Needles Highway — one of the most spectacular scenic drives in the world.
Wildlife in Custer State Park is an experience all in itself. A herd of approximately 1,300 bison lives here, and the park offers visitors different ways to get (relatively) up close and personal with them.
You very well may end up in a bison traffic jam, but if you don’t want to chance it, take a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. If you happen to be visiting Custer State Park in September, the Annual Buffalo Roundup is an absolute must! I had the incredible honor of going in 2021 and it was one of my favorite travel experiences — ever.
Finally, no visit to Custer State Park is complete without driving the Needles Highway. This 14-mile road is nothing short of spectacular, winding through colorful forests, narrow tunnels, and namesake granite “needle” rock formations.
4. Historic Deadwood
People often use the words “grit” and “determination” to describe Deadwood. This famous South Dakota landmark is exactly that: a gritty 1870s Gold Rush town that successfully plays up its — let’s call it colorful — history.
The entire town is a National Historic Landmark, containing picturesque streets lined with century-plus-old buildings. Year-round, you’ll find everything from antique stores to casinos, plus dozens of restaurants and bars. In the summer, don’t miss the free daily shootouts on Main Street!
If you’re looking for a fun bar with live music, head to Saloon No. 10. You can see the chair Wild Bill Hickok died in, along with tons of historical Deadwood memorabilia. And for the best food in Deadwood, check out Jacobs Brewhouse.
While Deadwood has tourist attractions and nightlife-a-plenty, there’s also a ton of outdoor recreation. The incredible Black Hills National Forest surrounds Deadwood, offering hiking, biking, fishing, horseback riding, off-roading, snowmobiling, and even skiing and snowboarding at the Terry Peak Ski Area.
We rented a side-by-side from UTV Rentals of the Black Hills to explore for a day, and I can’t recommend the experience enough!
Fun fact about Deadwood: Famous Western outlaws Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are buried in Deadwood’s Mount Moriah Cemetery.
5. Jewel Cave National Monument
Although it’s the world’s third-longest cave system, Jewel Cave National Monument is among the most little-known of the Great 8.
Jewel Cave’s interior shimmers with crystals (calcite, which sparkles like diamonds), making it one of the most unique famous South Dakota landmarks. The best way to experience it, of course, is by going inside — and the only way to do that is on a tour.
You have several tour options at Jewel Cave. The most popular are the one-hour Scenic Tour and two-hour Historic Lantern Tour, which requires participants to carry vintage lanterns.
For adventurous visitors, there’s the Wild Caving Tour. NPS calls this 3-4 hour excursion extremely strenuous and says, “Anyone having a fear of closed spaces or heights should not attempt this tour.” Before being allowed on the tour, participants must crawl through a space measuring 8.5″ x 24.” Eight-and-a-half inches!
Tours typically sell out for the day by mid-morning, so plan accordingly. Visitors can only make advance reservations for the Scenic and Wild Caving Tours; the others are available in person on a first-come, first-served basis.
Fun fact about Jewel Cave National Monument: Volunteer cavers survey the cave. Some scientists believe less than 5% of it has been discovered!
6. Missouri River
Did you know that the longest river in North America also just happens to be another of The Great 8 South Dakota landmarks? That’s right — the “Mighty Mo” flows from north to south, almost perfectly bisecting the state.
Along the river, there are four lakes: Oahe, Sharpe, Francis Case, and Lewis & Clark. Together, these areas offer every type of recreation imaginable year-round, including fishing, boating, kayaking, hiking, biking, camping, hunting, birding, and more.
South Dakota’s stretch of the Missouri River was also a major part of Lewis & Clark’s expedition in the early 1800s. When you visit, be sure to spend time in some of the charming, historically significant riverfront towns including Pierre, Yankton, and Chamberlain.
7. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
History buffs and lovers of all things Americana, this Great 8 South Dakota site is for you! Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the most iconic landmarks in the world, drawing over two million visitors a year. Keep in mind, that’s more than double Badlands National Park!
Mount Rushmore is one of those places you have to see for yourself in order to understand the hype. The four 60-foot-tall faces of former U.S. presidents — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln — are so much bigger and more majestic than you probably imagine.
Then there’s the fact that Mount Rushmore was chiseled into the Black Hills granite back in 1927 — well before modern technology and machines! Considering that, it’s truly a marvel that the entire memorial was completed in 14 years.
This iconic national treasure represents early American history and democracy itself. As the National Park Service puts it, Mount Rushmore is “a symbol of freedom and hope for people from all cultures and backgrounds.”
When you visit Mount Rushmore, take your time walking through the Avenue of the Flags to Grand View Terrace, the memorial’s main viewing platform. I also highly recommend walking the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail, which gets you closer to the mountain and offers up tons of information about the memorial.
While it’s open 365 days a year, the best time to visit Mount Rushmore is in the summer. Ranger talks are offered during this time and the Memorial Team Ice Cream Station is open. To this day, it serves vanilla ice cream based on Thomas Jefferson’s original 1780 recipe — the very first in the US!
There’s also a phenomenal 45-minute evening lighting ceremony nightly from mid-May through the end of September. I honestly caught it by complete accident, and it ended up being one of my most memorable travel experiences ever. It’s very well-executed, educational, and incredibly moving.
Finally, on your way in or out of Mount Rushmore, stop to check out the George Washington profile view. This quick roadside stop is just off Highway 244, less than five minutes from the memorial entrance.
Want to explore Custer State Park, Crazy Horse, and Mount Rushmore? This full-day tour lets you experience all three in a small group setting!
8. Wind Cave National Park
Despite several claims to fame — it’s the sixth-longest cave system on Earth, home to the planet’s largest concentration of boxwork formations, and was the world’s first-ever cave to be officially designated a national park — Wind Cave National Park is actually one of the less-famous South Dakota landmarks.
While it does have some stalagmites and stalactites, Wind Cave’s star attraction is its boxwork, spectacular honeycomb-like calcite formations. The only way to see them up close and personal, though, is via a ranger-led tour.
You cannot buy tickets online or over the phone; the only way to get them is in person, the day of your visit. Note that tours typically sell out a couple of hours in advance.
I highly recommend purchasing tickets as soon as you arrive, for a tour a few hours later. Spend those few hours hiking or watching wildlife in the park’s 33,000-plus acres above ground, where elk, bison, deer, antelope, and prairie dogs live.
Fun fact about Wind Cave National Park: The park has two dog-friendly hiking trails, a rarity in the National Park System!
Best Time to Visit South Dakota
Wondering about the best time to visit South Dakota? Good news: there’s no bad time. South Dakota enjoys four distinct seasons, meaning there’s a reason to visit The Great 8 during any month.
Summer and fall are by far the most popular, thanks to warm, dry days with plenty of daylight hours. Many areas in western South Dakota also come alive with gorgeous fall color in October and November. Of course, you’ll encounter the highest number of tourists in the summer and fall.
Winter and spring in SoDak can be cold and snowy, sure, but the climate here is milder than many people realize. For example, winter weather in Badlands National Park typically brings daytime temperatures in the 30s. At night, it rarely dips below the teens. That’s very different than neighboring North Dakota and Minnesota, where winter temps are frequently negative!
If you can brave the cold, winter and spring are ideal seasons for visiting — particularly if you’re planning to hit some of the more famous South Dakota landmarks. You’ll likely have them almost entirely to yourself!
Where to Stay to Visit the Great 8 South Dakota
With so much to see in South Dakota, you’ll definitely want at least a few days. Literally ALL of the Great 8 South Dakota attractions are within about an hour of Rapid City (even Rapid City to Badlands National Park!), so that’s the obvious choice for your basecamp. However, I also highly recommend staying a night or two in either Deadwood or Custer.
Spending a night in Deadwood allows you to enjoy the town’s vibrant nightlife, plus puts you close to excursions like off-roading or historic mine tours.
Staying in Custer gives you quick access to Custer State Park, Crazy Horse, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Wind Cave National Park. These famous South Dakota landmarks are somewhat spread out, so exploring them makes for looonnnng days — you’ll appreciate being close by!
Where to Stay in Rapid City
There are a ton of options for Rapid City hotels, so I have several suggestions to suit different tastes and budgets.
- Best budget hotels in Rapid City: La Quinta Inn & Suites by Wyndham Rapid City and Howard Johnson by Wyndham Downtown Rapid City
- Best mid-range traditional Rapid City hotels: The Rushmore Hotel & Suites and Cambria Hotel Rapid City
- Best upscale hotel in Rapid City: Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City, Curio Collection by Hilton
- Best Rapid City hotel for families: Grand Gateway Hotel (indoor waterpark, need I say more?!)
Where to stay in Deadwood
I absolutely LOVED my stay at the 1899 Inn in Deadwood. It’s tucked into a picturesque neighborhood just off the main drag, an easy 5-8 minute walk to just about everything.
The 1899 Inn is a bed and breakfast situated in a gorgeous building from 1899. Guests are treated to an elaborate made-from-scratch brunch each morning and the hosts, Nyla and Tom, are amazing. Grab a cup of coffee and settle in for what I promise will be some of the most memorable conversation you’ll ever have!
Where to stay in Custer
I’m a sucker for unique places to stay, so I was sold on Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort as soon as I saw that they have luxury glamping teepees, tents, and treehouses. There are also more traditional cabins and even RV hookups, and it’s within a half-hour of Custer State Park and Crazy Horse.
Another option for where to stay in Custer is Custer State Park Resort. Comprised of five lodges and several cabins, these accommodations put you inside the park and offer varying levels of luxury. Choose everything from rustic lakeside cabins to “cowboy bunks” in historic lodges to upscale hotel rooms.
Note that these Custer accommodations options are open seasonally from mid-May through mid-October.
So, do you feel inspired to visit South Dakota’s The Great 8? Let me know in the comments which landmarks you’re most interested in, or which ones you’ve already seen. Safe travels, friends!
Oh and pssst! — don’t forget to Pin this post for planning your South Dakota road trip later!