Downtown Deadwood, South Dakota. Image credit Michael Kaercher via

8 Most Vibrant Towns in South Dakota

Home to Mount Rushmore, South Dakota is in the Midwestern region of the United States. It officially became a state in 1889, along with North Dakota. The state got its name from the two native tribes that live in the region - Dakota Sioux and Lakota.

South Dakota has only a few big cities but consists of extensive grasslands. It is a state with fewer than one million people. However, despite this, it is a popular spot to visit, with tourism now being an important industry within the state.

Apart from Mount Rushmore, the state has several beautiful attractions, such as the Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, and a Mammoth Site where visitors can see real dinosaur fossils. 9% of the state’s population are Native Americans, and tourism significantly contributes to the indigenous businesses in South Dakota.

The state is home to several charming small towns that are equally noteworthy. The Midwestern hospitality of each of these towns beckons to visitors from across the globe. With their history, culture, food, and more, let’s explore eight of the most vibrant small towns in South Dakota.


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

Deadwood, built in the 1870s, has been a historic landmark since 1961. This former gold rush town has seen the likes of Wild West legends such as Calamity Jane, Seth Bullock, and Bill Hickok. Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood is where these legends are buried along with other notable Wild West characters such as Potato Creek Johnny and Preacher Smith.

People who love history, nature, and the Wild West flock to Deadwood. One of the town’s main attractions is Broken Boot Gold Mine. Established in 1879, the mine attracted people from all walks of life looking for gold. Today, the mine is very well preserved and visitors can enter it for a guided, underground tour.

For a glimpse into the town’s Wild West past, most visitors head to the Adams House and Adams Museum. It is one of the oldest museums in South Dakota. It houses a Bill Hickok collection, and artifacts linked to Calamity Jane. The museum structure is also fascinating. It features stained glass windows, canvas walls, and a plumbing system built in the 19th century.

Deadwood is nestled within the Black Hills National Forest. Most nature-loving visitors hike along George S. Mickelson Trail to experience the tranquility of the forest. The trail is over 100 miles long and can be explored by foot or bike. The Black Hills Forest is a pinewood forest with mountain views, wondrous rock formations, and caves to explore such as the Black Hills Caverns, Wonderland Cave, and Rushmore Cave.


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

Another small town situated in the northern part of the Black Hills, Spearfish has a population of 29,366. Spearfish is teeming with natural wonders. Some of the most vibrant attractions include Roughlock Falls and Bridal Veil Falls. Both waterfalls are located in the Spearfish Canyon.

Roughlock is a multi-tiered waterfall and the surrounding area has several trails that allow visitors to explore the region. Apart from viewing the falls, there are ample opportunities to fly fish, picnic, or bird watch.

Bridal Veil is a 60-foot waterfall with a parking lot conveniently adjacent to it. There is an observation deck for viewing and photography. Bridal Veil Falls are easily accessible. In summer and fall the waterfall is calmer, and it flows more rapidly in spring.

Alternatively, hikers make their way to Crow Peak. Located just outside Spearfish, Crow Peak is a 3.5-mile-long uphill hike. The trail begins at 4,200 feet and peaks at 5,600 feet. While the hike is difficult and better suited for experienced people, the views of the Western Black Hills, Wyoming, and Montana are spectacular.

Main Street in the heart of Downtown Spearfish is a bustling tourist spot. With an outdoor fireplace, and famous clock tower, the aesthetic appeal and welcoming atmosphere makes visitors feel at home. Also located downtown, is the Matthews Opera House and Art Gallery which is worth a visit. Every week, Main Street comes alive to host Downtown Friday Nights which features live bands, delicious food and lots of shopping. 


Historic downtown of Yankton, South Dakota.
Historic downtown of Yankton, South Dakota. Editorial credit: Nagel Photography /

Hailed as the birthplace of South Dakota’s most delicious pizza (grab a slice at Charlie’s Pizza House), by the Food Network, Yankton is a quaint small town, located on the banks of the Missouri River.

Yanton’s signature landmark is the Meridian Bridge. It was built as the first river crossing in the Yankton area which greatly contributed to the town's economic and social growth.

Another noteworthy tourist attraction is the Lewis Clark Recreation Area. It is situated on Lewis and Clark Lake. It has a marina, beaches, archery range and trails for biking and hiking. Sailing, boating, swimming and fishing are popular activities. The recreation area is ideal for camping and overnight stays with its 417 campsites and 17 cabins.

The Meridian District in downtown Yankton is a worthwhile visit to photograph hand-painted, vibrant murals by local artists. Many of the murals are dedicated to the town’s history.

For more Yankton history, head to Third Street. It houses the town’s red-stone, art deco courthouse. It was in this courthouse that Jack McCall was convicted for the murder of Bill Hickok or “Wild Bill” of the Wild West.


Mt Rushmore, Custer, South Dakota
Mt Rushmore, Custer, South Dakota, via Sea Salt /

Custer is Black Hill’s oldest town and has welcomed visitors with open arms for more than a century. Once a mining town, it is now the adventure seekers haven. The Chief Motel, Chalet Motel, Bavarian Inn and Best Western Buffalo Ridge Inn, are just a few of the places visitors can enjoy their stay at.

Minutes away from this small South Dakota town lies an abundance of tourist attractions. Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park and Mount Rushmore National Memorial are must-see stops when visiting Custer.

The Custer State Park stretches across 71,000 acres and offers visitors swimming, hiking, biking, fishing, and camping. Bison, elk and many other wild animals can be seen roaming the park. Mount Rushmore is only a 37 minute drive away, and with over two million visitors a year, it’s not a monument you want to miss seeing.

Located just 13 miles outside of Custer, Jewel Cave is yet another popular natural wonder. It is the world’s fifth longest cave system with over 215 miles of passages. In 1908, Jewel Cave was declared a national monument.


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

Home to the World’s Only Corn Palace, Mitchell is a town steeped in history with an abundance of attractions. Built in 1892, the Corn Palace is over 100 years old. It was constructed to showcase South Dakota’s healthy agricultural climate.

To immerse oneself in the history of Mitchell, Dakota Discovery Museum is the best place to visit. The museum exhibits artifacts and art which detail the town's past and influential people.

The town is also famous for the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village, which is over 1000 years old and located on the banks of Lake Mitchell. It is an archaeological site open to public viewing. Lake Mitchell is a man-made lake constructed in 1928. Visitors can camp, hike or bike at the lake. There are 13 miles of trails around the lake.

After visiting the town’s various sites, there is no shortage of great food. Mitchell boasts several excellent restaurants such as Godfather’s Pizza Express, Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse and Blarney’s Sports Bar and Grill.


Aerial view of Vermillion's University of Dakota campus.
Aerial view of Vermillion's University of Dakota campus. Image credit Jacob Boomsma via Shutterstock.

With a vibrant art scene, Vermillion, which is located on the shores of the Missouri River, is a town of history and culture. Downtown Vermillion is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

To learn about the town’s history, a visit to Austin-Whittemore House is a must. It is an Italian Villa located atop a bluff and was constructed in 1881. The museum is filled with historical documents and records as well as Victorian furnishings.

The W.H. Over Museum is another attraction that showcases Vermillion’s cultural and natural history. It stores and exhibits fossils, botanical specimens, and Indigenous artificers, among other things.

Visitors can grab a bite at Dakota Brick House or Hartford Steakhouse. The town is also famous for its annual South Dakota Shakespeare Festival - a reenactment of Shakespearean plays. The 2024 production is The Merchant of Venice and will be held at Vermillion’s Prentis Park from June 6 to 9.

To get out into nature, visitors can explore Spirit Mound Historic Prairie. It is a state park just 5 miles outside Vermillion. Interestingly, Native Americans in the region believed the Mound to be home to evil spirits. It is also historically significant, as members of the Lewis and Clark expedition climbed the mound in 1804.

Hill City

Main Street in Hill City, South Dakota.
Main Street in Hill City, South Dakota. Editorial credit: Paul R. Jones /

Hill City is a small town with only 1006 residents as of 2023. Like Custer, Hill City is also close to Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park and the Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Crazy Horse Memorial is a 13 minute drive from Hill City. It is the biggest mountain carving in South Dakota, done by Korczak Ziolkowski in 1948 as a tribute to a Native American Lakota leader.

Visitors can explore the Black Hills by hiking or biking along the 109 miles of Mickelson Trail which runs through the town. The South Dakota State Regional Museum is a great way to learn about Hill City’s history. 

Dahl’s Chainsaw Art offers visitors a unique take on art. Jordan and Jarrett Dahl are chainsaw internationally acclaimed artists who create wood carvings using chainsaws.

The town is very welcoming to visitors and hosts several annual events worth attending. For example, the Black Hills Film Festival held in September. The festival promotes filmmaking through movie showings, guest appearances, and filmmaking insights.

Also held in September, is the annual Hill City Quilt Show and Sale. It is a celebration of fabric art that showcases over 200 handmade quilts, and features special events, prizes, and a vendor hall.


The Capitol Building of Pierre, South Dakota.
The Capitol Building of Pierre, South Dakota.

Pierre is located in the heart of South Dakota. It is the state capital. Therefore, the State Capitol Building is the perfect first stop. The building was completed in 1910 and houses the South Dakota Supreme Court. 

The Capitol Building features stained glass windows and scagliola columns and has many statues inside and on the grounds. Also located on the grounds is the Capitol Lake, which makes for a picturesque walk.

To experience Pierre’s history, visitors should go to the South Dakota State Historical Society. Alternatively, you could visit the South Dakota National Guard Museum. The museum is home to historical documents and memorabilia pertaining to the National Guard of South Dakota.

Nature enthusiasts and outdoorsmen should add LaFramboise Island Nature Area to their itinerary. It is a unique area with beautiful meadows and trees, along with several species of birds and wildlife. The island offers visitors opportunities to picnic, hike, bike, boat, and fish.

A trip to the south would not be complete without a show - so head to the Casey Tibbs South Dakota Rodeo Center to catch the rodeo and check out the horse wagons, murals, and bronze statues on display.

These small South Dakota towns ooze southern hospitality and offer interesting sites worth visiting, such as Mount Rushmore, Spirit Mound Historic Prairie, and Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village.

Each one is unique and beautiful in its own right and would be a great destination to add to your bucket list for 2024. Take in American and Native history, enjoy great food, spectacular accommodations, and a fulfilling vacation when you visit any of these eight vibrant towns of South Dakota.

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