Historic saloons, bars, and shops in Deadwood, South Dakota. Image credit Kenneth Sponsler via Shutterstock

7 Must-See Historic Towns in South Dakota

Between the legacies surrounding Gold Rush towns and the expansion of America into the Frontier, South Dakota is home to a history unlike any other. Attracting millions of visitors every year to explore attractions such as Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and The Crazy Horse Memorial, it is easy to forget about the hidden histories that rest in the small towns throughout the state. The earliest traces of civilization in South Dakota date back to before 5,000 BCE, meaning that there are over 11,000 years of history that await discovery in the frontier state. So pack your bags and don’t miss the opportunity to explore the must-see historic towns of South Dakota.


Vintage car approaching on main street in Deadwood, South Dakota.
Downtown street in Deadwood, South Dakota. Image credit Michael Kaercher via Shutterstock

Shine up your favorite pair of cowboy boots and two-step your way back in time with a visit to this Wild West town. Start by walking through the historic main street to soak in the Old West atmosphere and maybe even visit the local saloon for a refreshment after your long travels.

Deadwood is packed with historic sites such as the Adams Museum, the Days of '76 Museum, and the Mount Moriah Cemetery where the infamous Wild Bill Hickok is buried. Afterward, book your ticket on the 1880 Train and marvel at the beauty of the surrounding Black Hills while the train chugs its way along the historic route.

For a more interactive experience, schedule one of the many local tours such as the Candlelight Tours at the Broken Boot Gold Mine or Lawman’s Patrol: Guided Walking Tours. Regardless of your choice, the tours are sure to leave you in awe at the amazing history of this small town, founded in 1876.


Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery, Spearfish, South Dakota
Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery, Spearfish, South Dakota. Image credit Bo Shen via Shutterstock

Hidden amongst the Black Hills of South Dakota lies a town with a name as unique as its past. Spearfish’s history dates to the days of the Gold Rush and the Wild West and has managed to capture these cultures through its various attractions within the town.

Explore the town's storied past by visiting iconic landmarks such as the Matthews Opera House & Arts Center which has been a cultural hub since 1906. After, explore the DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery, which aims to help sustain wildlife populations in the region, and learn about past, current, and future conservation efforts.

Be sure to get outside and explore, the area is surrounded by beautiful landscapes waiting to be explored. Lace up your hiking boots and march through Spearfish Canyon. This canyon hike is enhanced with towering limestone cliffs and cascading waterfalls such as Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls.

Check local calendars before visiting, as the town hosts a variety of special events such as the Festival in the Park during summer and the Christmas stroll during the holidays.


Busy town intersection, Custer, South Dakota
Busy town intersection, Custer, South Dakota. Image credit Alex Cimbal via Shutterstock

Adventure awaits in this historic town situated on the doorstep of Custer National Park. Custer has long been known as the gateway to Mount Rushmore National Park, Wind Cave National Park, and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Dubbed the “Center of Adventure,” begin your visit to Custer by taking a scenic drive along the Needles Highway. As it winds towering granite spires and pine forests, don’t forget to pull off at a rest station to truly take in the mesmerizing views. After, explore the underground caves at Jewel Cave National Monument which is one of the biggest cave systems in the world. To stay above ground, wander through the many trails slicing through Custer State Park.

Custer's roots run deep, largely founded due to the Gold Rush and the frontier expansion, the town offers historical attractions unlike any other. Explore landmarks such as the 1881 Courthouse Museum which tells the tale of the town's colorful history through exhibits and artifacts. Delve into the legacy of General George Armstrong Custer at the nearby Custer State Park Visitor Center where you can learn about his expeditions and the area's Native American heritage.


Main street Keystone, South Dakota filled with boutiques, gift shops, fine dining, and lodging
Main street Keystone, South Dakota. Image credit Paul R. Jones via Shutterstock

If you can see the faces of four former American presidents carved into a towering mountain, then you know you have arrived in Keystone. Apart from the obvious attraction of Mount Rushmore, the town has plenty more to offer.

Learn more about the early days of the town at the Keystone Historical Museum, from the earliest of Keystone’s gold mines to the famous characters who once called the town home. To get a firsthand experience of the excitement of striking it rich, visit the Big Thunder Gold Mine where visitors can pan for their own gold and take a tour through an authentic mineshaft.

Trek through the nearby Black Hills National Forest and explore the pristine beauty of the region’s natural landscape. End your day, by enjoying a beverage at the local saloon. The Red Garter Saloon has been operating for over 40 years and offers a variety of entertainment while harnessing the authentic feel of a Wild West saloon.

Hill City

The Main Street in Hill City, South Dakota.
The Main Street in Hill City, South Dakota. Image credit Paul R. Jones via Shutterstock

With a nickname like "Heart of the Hills" and being the oldest city in all of Pennington County, it is no wonder that Hill City is home to its storied past. Settled along the scenic 1880 railway, explore the town’s relation to the rail system by visiting the South Dakota State Railroad Museum. Learn about the role of trains in shaping the region's history and explore vintage locomotives and railroad artifacts. Also, while marching down the beautiful main street, stop in at the Museum at Black Hills Institute where you can explore the prehistoric past of this special town.

Explore the natural wonders that have been attracting those with an adventurous spirit along the Mickelson Trail which offers ideal opportunities for hiking, biking, and maybe even to witness some wildlife if you are lucky. To get a feel for the artistic side of things in true South Dakota style, visit the Dahl’s Chainsaw Art exhibits that showcase one-of-a-kind exhibits.


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

While it may be easy to overlook this treasured town among South Dakota's more famous destinations, Mitchell promises to deliver a memorable experience to those willing to take a chance.

A visit to Mitchell must begin with a stop at the iconic Corn Palace. Labeled "The World's Only Corn Palace" this architectural spectacle is decorated with colorful murals made entirely from corn and other grains which make it an attraction unlike any other. After, learn about the history of the Great Plains and the town itself during your visit to the Dakota Discovery Museum. The museum emphasizes the role of Native American tribes’ contribution to the region’s history.

Surrounded by the desolate South Dakota prairie, it is rare to find an immaculate body of water that compares to Lake Mitchell. So pack a picnic and cool off in the crystal blue water. Following your cooling lake plunge, visit the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village and join a guided tour to learn about the ancient Native American settlement that once thrived along the shores of Lake Mitchell.


Exterior of the South Dakota State Capitol building on a clear, summer day
South Dakota State Capitol building, Pierre, South Dakota.

Despite its small population compared to other State capitals, Pierre has long impacted the past of South Dakota and continues to help shape the future of the state. Founded in 1880, along the eastern shore of the Missouri River, the town is home to one of the greatest architectural structures in the entire state. The state Capitol building is a can’t-miss attraction as its massive columns on the grand entrance dominate the skyline of Pierre.

After, visit the South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center where interactive exhibits and artifacts trace the state's history from prehistoric times to the present day. To truly experience the capital's elegance, explore the beautifully preserved Governor's Mansion that once housed the state's governors and their families. Lastly, tour the expansive trails of Farm Island Recreation Area that wind through forests, and prairies, and border the shores of Hipple Lake.

The appeal of South Dakota extends far beyond its famed attractions like Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park. From the gold rush towns to the expansive frontier, the state's must-see historic towns hold hidden histories dating back over 11,000 years. Each town offers its own spin of heritage, outdoor adventure, and cultural richness that come together to create an unforgettable journey through South Dakota's remarkable past.

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