Downtown Deadwood, South Dakota.

6 Best Towns In South Dakota to Visit In 2024

South Dakota, ever since its days as a French imperial territory, has attracted adventurers and fortune seekers of every description. The ancestral lands of Sioux and other Native American peoples, European settlement has brought the state to its current, vibrant condition, where plains cultures mix with quaint university towns and an enduring spirit of the pioneering west. The state may have one of the smallest capitals in the Union, but South Dakota's other draws — including Mount Rushmore and western nostalgia zones like Deadwood — offer a wide range of interests for equally diverse kinds of tourists. Come discover all South Dakota has to offer in 2024.


Aerial View of Custer, South Dakota at Sunset
Aerial View of Custer, South Dakota, at sunset.

Custer, population a modest 1,900, has the distinction of being the first European-settled town in the Black Hills region. Historically a land under the dominion of the Oglala Sioux tribe, it was here that gold was later discovered in 1874, triggering a gold rush; some of those settlers are the forebears of the town's residents today. 

These days, the town honors its past with "Gold Discovery Days," a festival held each July. Outside of holiday seasons, the town makes a great base for exploring the region. It lies close to numerous state and national parks, including Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, world-famous Mount Rushmore, and the long-unfinished Crazy Horse Memorial. The latter site is named after Crazy Horse, the Oglala Lakota chief whose army defeated and killed the US lieutenant colonel George Custer, the town's namesake. 


Summer flower-bed leading to South Dakota State Capitol and complex, Pierre, South Dakota,
Summer flower-bed leading to South Dakota State Capitol and complex, Pierre, South Dakota.

South Dakota's capital, Pierre — the local accent sounds more like "pier" — is the second-smallest among US states. Fewer than 14,000 people call the town home. (Only Montpelier, Vermont, is smaller, with 8,000 residents). The town developed around Fort Pierre, so named from the days when the region belonged to France. The South Dakota territory, along with other massive swathes of the western United States, moved from French to American control as a result of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. 

Pierre was made the state capital in 1889, following service by the earlier-developing town of Yankton. South Dakota achieved statehood the same year. Tucked into a bend along the Missouri River, the town is a favorite among history buffs. The Lewis and Clark Family Center gives lessons in regional and national history in a family-friendly environment, making the place an ideal stop for those traveling with children. Lake Oahe, which ranks among the largest man-made lakes in the world, makes for memorable fishing and boating north of this capital city. 


 Storybook Land, Wizard of Oz display in Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Storybook Land, Wizard of Oz display in Aberdeen, South Dakota.

Aberdeen, with 28,200 people, takes its name from the northeast Scottish city. The town, in the state's northeast and incorporated in 1882, hosts Northern State University, giving it a distinct college-town feel and local culture. And culture certainly thrives in Aberdeen, mostly through drama and film. The Aberdeen Community Theatre has held shows since 1979. The South Dakota Film Festival, held every autumn since 2007, has attracted major Hollywood names like Kevin Costner.

Aberdeen's contributions to film reach back even further: it is the onetime home of L. Frank Baum, author of The Wizard of Oz. The town now maintains a small industry of Oz-themed things to see and do. Storybook Land, a local children's amusement park, added a Land of Oz section in recent years. 


Dean Belbas Center at University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
Dean Belbas Center at University of South Dakota in Vermillion.

Vermillion, a college town with 11,900 souls, lies in South Dakota's far southeast corner, near the Iowa and Nebraska state lines. Founded in 1859 by the Missouri River, the town has seen its own share of great historical moments: the town once attracted the Lewis and Clark Expedition and, later, John James Audobon. Vermillion takes its name from a translation of the Lakota word meaning 'red stream.' 

The town's main draws include the National Music Museum, which since 1973 is attached to the University of South Dakota. The university's founding here, in 1862, long precedes that of the state. The school organizes its "Dakota Days" festival — for students, alumni, and ordinary visitors — each fall. 


The Historic Fairmont Hotel Oyster Bay Bar Casino on Main Street in Deadwood, South Dakota. Editorial credit: Nagel Photography /

Deadwood, founded in 1876, may only have 1,200 inhabitants, but its popularity as a travel destination stems from the hit western TV show of recent years. Deadwood today, at the state's western border, makes good on the best (and redeems the worst) parts of that pioneer heritage. Deadwood's early reputation of lawlessness later settled into civic order. Today Deadwood's streets make for an adventurous tourist's ideal visit. The town's casinos, saloons, and historic buildings paint a vivid picture of the bygone frontier days. 

Visitors should seek out the Adams Museum, with its exhibits and displays on Deadwood's sometimes rough history. Bolder, older tourists may opt for a visit to The Brothel Deadwood, which suggests visitors are at least sixteen years of age. For some fresh air, the western gulches and canyons of Black Hills National Forest lie just south of town. 


Aerial View of Spearfish, South Dakota in Summer
Aerial View of Spearfish, South Dakota in summer.

Spearfish, population 12,900, also sits in the state's Black Hills. Called the "Queen City" for the resemblance of local hills to a crown (so the locals said then), the place, founded in 1876 and incorporated in 1888, provides a range of worthwhile sees and dos. Spearfish is, like Vermillion, a university town, as the home of Black Hills State University. The Matthews Opera House is a working performance space with European and global programs.

Middlebrow culture-seekers may prefer the High Plains Western Heritage Center, which remembers the region's times of cattle ranchers, westbound homesteaders, and ne'er-do-wells of every kind. Outdoors fans will not want to miss Spearfish Canyon. The US architect Frank Lloyd Wright — no slouch as a student of beautiful things — called the canyon and surrounding area a "miracle" and "unparalleled elsewhere" in the United States.  

The Soul Of South Dakota Hides In Great Towns Like These 

With so much to see in South Dakota, the question may no be whether, but when to make a visit. Larger cities like Sioux Falls and Rapid City may have their own charms, but the state's smaller towns may just be the best way to see the state. Its national parks, like Mount Rushmore and Wind Cave, rank among visitors' favorites nation-wide. And from the dramatic legends of Custer and Standing Rock, to the pleasant college towns of Aberdeen, Vermillion, and Spearfish, South Dakota's charms, and its small towns, beg for a first or repeat visit in the near future. 

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