Historic downtown on Lower Main Street in Deadwood, South Dakota, via Nagel Photography / Shutterstock.com

10 Must-Visit Small Towns in South Dakota

When people think of South Dakota, they often associate it with its famous landmark, Mt. Rushmore. However, this High Plains state offers much more than a few famous faces carved into a granite cliff. The state has breathtaking natural scenery, diverse wildlife, and a fascinating historical background. The state is located south of North Dakota and is bordered by five other states: Nebraska to the south, Iowa and Minnesota to the east, and Wyoming and Montana to the west. Visitors can explore six national parks, including the Badlands and Wind Cave. The small towns scattered throughout the state began as frontier communities supporting the early pioneers who moved west toward new beginnings and grew into the unique places they are today. Whether hiking through an underground cavern, fishing for largemouth bass, or dining at many farm-to-table restaurants, these must-see towns provide many treasures for travelers willing to explore them.  


Downtown Deadwood, South Dakota.
Downtown Deadwood, South Dakota.

The race for gold in the northern Black Hills created this frontier town and marked its place as one of the icons of the American West. Prospectors flocked to the region as Deadwood grew to a population of over 25,000 at its height. The city became the home of many famous figures of the Wild West, including Wyatt Earp, Calamity Jane, and Wild Bill Hickok, who met his demise in Deadwood. Today, visitors to the historic downtown district can enjoy an Old West experience with daily reenactments of shootouts during the summer and fall. Take an old stagecoach ride or visit the Adams Museum to learn about the area's past. The downtown area has plenty of casinos and a vibrant nightlife. Try the Deadwood Legends Steakhouse at the Franklin Hotel for an incredible bone-in steak. The George S. Michelson trail is a scenic rails-to-trails route offering breathtaking views of the Black Hills surrounding this historic small town.


Downtown Custer, South Dakota.
Downtown Custer, South Dakota. Image credit EQRoy via Shutterstock

This small town in South Dakota is the oldest European settlement in the Black Hills. As the site of the first gold discovery, the town is named for General George Custer, who led the initial expedition of the 7th Calvary into the region. The Custer State Park is nearby, with over 71,000 acres of lush forests, granite bluffs, and crystal-clear lakes. For a relatively strenuous 4-mile hike, try the Little Devil's Tower Trailhead off the Needles highway or drop a line in nearby Sylvan Lake for a nice rainbow trout. The best time to visit is when most camping sites and trails are open in the summer. For a fun family activity, go horseback riding at Blue Bell Stables or view the Custer County 1881 Court House Museum exhibits. The Skogen Kitchen is a James Beard semi-finalist that offers a delicious, fresh-sourced menu bursting with flavor. 


Aerial view of Wall, South Dakota
Aerial view of Wall, South Dakota

Wall, South Dakota, has become a must-see attraction for anyone venturing to the Black Hills. Known as the home of Wall Drugs, the store began as a small pharmacy offering free water to weary travelers. From its humble beginnings, Wall Drug Store grew into a 76,000 sq. foot complex, housing a cafe, western apparel store, the cheapest coffee (5 cents), and the best donuts anywhere. Visitors can spend hours touring the many shops and galleries, but families wiso love the backyard, with a roaring T-Rex perfect for a memorable photo. The Badlands National Park is nearby and offers many hiking, wildlife, and exceptional star-gazing opportunities. The unique geological formations offer a unique perspective of the fortitude of early pioneers as they made their way across the barren landscape of the American frontier. The Red Rock Restaurant and Lounge is an excellent place for a burger if you get hungry after a day of exploring.  


Aerial view of Spearfish, South Dakota.
Aerial view of Spearfish, South Dakota.

Spearfish is a charming small town located in the Northern Black Hills region that provides plenty of opportunities for outdoor activities. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Drive is a 19-mile route that winds through the area and offers breathtaking views of waterfalls, cliffs, and cold mountain streams. If you're in the mood for a short hike, check out Roughlock Falls. The trail takes you along a shaded forest path to streams filled with rainbow trout, leading up to two picturesque waterfalls. On the other hand, if you're looking for a more challenging hike, the '76 trail is a short uphill climb that takes you to the top rim of Spearfish Canyon, where you can enjoy several perfect postcard vistas. Like many communities in the Black Hills, Spearfish has a rich Western legacy and started as a frontier town. The High Plains Western Heritage Center is a must-visit spot that showcases the history of early pioneers in the region through its interactive exhibits and displays. Killian's is a great place to grab a bite if you stay in the town. Their menu offers locally sourced entrees, a wide selection of craft beers, and excellent burgers.


Pierre, the State Capitol of South Dakota, on a stormy day
Pierre, the State Capitol of South Dakota, on a stormy day

Even though the capital city of South Dakota has a small population of just over 14,000 residents, this community has abundant history and sights to explore. The town is located on the banks of the Missouri River in the middle of the state and enjoys the distinction of where Lewis and Clark first encountered the Lakota Indians. Fort Pierre sits across the river and offers several historic sites. Tour the Capitol Building or the South Dakota National Guard Museum, or bring the family to the South Dakota Discovery Center for a fun afternoon. The LaFramboise Island Nature Area is a unique area sitting along the river, offering pleasant hikes through the native meadows and trees. The nature area is a beautiful place to bird-watch as many different species reside there. Eat at the Cattleman's Club Steakhouse for an excellent prime rib meal. 


The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.
The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota.

Mitchell is a quaint small town in southeast South Dakota whose claim to fame is the Corn Palace. The quirky attraction attracts over half a million tourists annually and offers murals, art, and crafts made from, you guessed it, corn. During the summer, free tours are available with informative guides who can answer all your pressing corn questions. Nearby, the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village is a fascinating archaeological site open to the public and features displays of the region's earliest inhabitants. If you need a place for outdoor activity, mountain bike the Kiwanis Trail at nearby Lake Mitchell or fish for Walleye, Crappie, and some of the largest Bluegill anywhere. The Back 40 Taphouse Grill has a wide selection of craft beers and large portions for hungry travelers.


Keystone boutiques and shops - the gateway to Mount Rushmore.
Keystone boutiques and shops - the gateway to Mount Rushmore. Image credit GagliardiPhotography via Shutterstock.

Most visitors experience the rustic ambiance of Keystone as they arrive to view Mt. Rushmore. The National Park is well worth visiting, but the Presidential Trail offers many unique perspectives of the iconic landmark. There is a definite Western appeal to the downtown district that will enthrall families with many summer attractions. The Big Thunder Gold Mine, The Presidential Wax Museum, and Dahl's Chainsaw Art are unique tourist spots. The kids will love the Rush Mountain Adventure Park with the Rushmore Cave. (The theme park has a wild mountain roller coaster that is worth riding). Tour the Gutzon Borglum Historical Center for a historical perspective to learn about the man who sculpted Mt. Rushmore. The best time to visit this area is from March through October when most local sights are open to welcome the influx of tourists. 

Hot Springs

Aerial view of Hot Springs, South Dakota.
Aerial view of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Hot Springs is a quaint small town near one of the crown jewels of the Black Hills, the Wind Cave National Park. The Park allows visitors to explore one of the nation's longest and most complex cave systems. Walk into large caverns filled with interesting underground formations as you explore the subterranean world. The cave is an excellent attraction for families, with tours happening daily. The Park also has a variety of wildlife, with bison, elk, and pronghorn deer freely roaming and grazing the grasslands. Families can kill some time at Evan's Plunge, a pool complex fed by mineral hot springs (the water is a toasty 87 degrees year-round). The Mammoth Site is an extensive excavation of over 60 Mammoth fossils and will delight the young paleontologist in your midst. When you finish admiring the perfectly preserved bones of these giants, stop by Buffalo Dreamer for some iconic buffalo tacos and a cold brew. 


Madison, South Dakota: An old radio station building on the downtown strip.
Madison, South Dakota, United States - October 24, 2020: An old radio station building on the downtown strip. Editorial Credit: Sabrina Janelle Gordon via Shutterstock.

The small town of Madison sits in Lake County in the east-central part of the state. Prairie Village is a beautiful history complex open during the summer just two miles east of the town. It houses over 40 buildings bursting with antiques, re-creating turn-of-the-century main street, a steam-powered carousel, and even a frontier church with Sunday morning services. The Village sits on the edge of Lake Herman, and many visitors enjoy the pretty views of the water. The state park has abundant camping, fishing, and hiking opportunities for those seeking an outdoor experience. The Lake County Historical Museum is a part of South Dakota University but is well worth the time to tour. This small college town boasts several restaurants and sports bars, but many visitors love the Second Street Diner, a 50's style dinner with some delicious milkshakes. 


Aerial view of Sturgis, South Dakota.
Aerial view of Sturgis, South Dakota.

Even though Sturgis is known for the vast motorcycle rally every August, the town enjoys a wealth of other attractions and outdoor experiences.  The town's free-style spirit is evident (especially during Bike Week), but its location in the scenic Black Hills makes it a nice destination during the rest of the season. If you need a place to hike, the Bear Butte State Park is nearby and offers incredible views from the top of the butte. The area has several camping venues suitable for both RVs and tents. The Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame attract numerous visitors with its excellent examples of early bikes. Try Bullwhackers, The Knuckle Saloon, or Uncle Louie's Diner for an excellent bite to eat. Be sure to stop by the Black Hills National Cemetary to pay respects to the fallen soldiers who have sacrificed for our freedoms before you head home. 

In conclusion, South Dakota's small towns are hidden gems, each offering unique attractions and rich history. From the enchanting landscapes of Spearfish to the historic charm of Deadwood, these destinations provide unforgettable experiences. Don't miss exploring these top 10 must-visit small towns for a true taste of South Dakota's beauty and culture.

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