Overlooking Yankton, South Dakota on the Missouri River.

South Dakota's Best Small Towns for a Weekend Escape

South Dakota is a sprawling Great Plains state full of untouched scenic vistas and unparalleled natural beauty. However, even though South Dakota may be known for famous attractions like Mount Rushmore and large cities like Sioux Falls, the Northern US state's vibrant small towns make it a wonderful place to visit. From Dakota Plains communities like Dell Rapids to Missouri River locales like Yankton, each of these picturesque places has the perfect combination of natural beauty, storied heritage, and plenty of activities and attractions that highlight the beauty of South Dakota. Bustling with charm and welcoming hospitality, discover the best small towns in South Dakota for a weekend escape.


Chamberlain on the shore of the Missouri River in South Dakota.
Chamberlain on the shore of the Missouri River in South Dakota.

Located on the banks of the Missouri River, Chamberlain is a picturesque small town in central South Dakota. With just 2,500 residents, Chamberlain is the definition of cozy. However, despite its size, the riverside community has plenty to see and do. Outdoor recreation is plentiful, with many places to enjoy hiking, biking, and the beautiful Missouri River scenery, including Barger Centennial Park and Roam Free Park. Outdoor enthusiasts will also love Chamberlain’s world-class fishing, and kayaking, tubing, and canoeing opportunities. Chamberlain’s sister city, Oacoma, also offers access to river recreation and activities like the Roland L. Dolly Memorial Recreational Trail.

More than just a beautiful backdrop, the Missouri River is rich in cultural and historical significance. From walking in the footsteps of explorers at the Lewis and Clark Information Center, discover Native American history and heritage at the Aktá Lakota Museum & Cultural Center, and don’t miss one of the area’s most striking sights, Dignity: Of Earth & Sky, a 50-foot tall stainless steel sculpture created to honor the Lakota and Dakota people. Chamberlain is also home to the South Dakota Hall of Fame, a testament to the achievements of South Dakotans both past and present. Finally, the best way to spend the weekend in the Chamberlain area is to stay at the pretty Missouri River accommodation Arrowwood Resort & Conference Center at Cedar Shore, located in nearby Oacoma.

De Smet

Downtown in De Smet, South Dakota
Downtown in De Smet, South Dakota.

De Smet is a quaint small town in east-central South Dakota with just over 1,000 residents. However, despite its size, the Kingsbury County gem has its fair share of history, natural beauty, and bustling small-town charm. Sometimes referred to as the “Little Town on the Prairie,” De Smet is the home of Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of De Smet’s earliest residents and famous chronicler of the town’s early days. Many De Smet attractions celebrate this storybook heritage, including the Wilder Welcome Center, the Ingalls Homestead, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society, and the nearby Silver Lake & Walking Trail. Additionally, every summer the town hosts the popular Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, a theatrical event reenacting Laura’s most cherished writings.

Though De Smet is known for its famous author, there is more local history to discover throughout the lovely prairie town. Popular attractions like the Depot Museum and the De Smet Cemetery are cornerstones of area history, while downtown landmarks like the Loftus Store link its past with its promising present-day downtown area.

Visitors looking to explore De Smet’s natural beauty will enjoy the peace and tranquility of the town’s green spaces, Rose Vincent Memorial Park, and Washington Park. Those looking for recreation will find Lake Thompson and Spirit Lake popular fishing spots. After a busy day of outdoor activities, unwind with a stay at the Prairie House Bed & Breakfast, the perfect place to spend a busy De Smet weekend.

Dell Rapids

Aerial view of Dell Rapids, South Dakota.
Aerial view of Dell Rapids, South Dakota.

Nicknamed the “Little City With Big Attractions,” Dell Rapids is an idyllic small town in the Dakota Plains. But there is more to Dell Rapids than its riverside beauty; there is plenty of history here, too. Dating back to 1859, Dells Rapids was accurately named for the dells and rapids of the nearby Big Sioux River. Visitors can learn more about the quaint community’s storied history—including its red quartzite mining past—with a Downtown Walking Tour. Featuring three commercial blocks listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the downtown boasts many 19th and 20th-century buildings, including The Grand Opera House, The First National Bank Building, and the Dieson Department Store building, now home to the Dell Rapids Museum.

Popular natural attractions include Dell Rapids City Park, home to the scenic Sioux River Red Rock Trail and a great place for walking, biking, and picnicking, and Palisades State Park, featuring dramatic Sioux quartzite formations, less than 30 minutes away. Dell Rapids also hosts many annual celebrations and events like the annual Quarry Days and Christmas in the Dells. One of the best ways to enjoy Dell Rapids is to stay at Dell Rapids Campground, a scenic spot nestled in the heart of town. Don't feel like roughing it? Then take a road trip to nearby Sioux Falls for a stay at the historic Hotel on Philips, less than 30 minutes away.


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

Pierre may be the capital city of South Dakota, but at just under 15,000 residents, it still has those cozy small-town vibes that make the Mount Rushmore State such a welcoming place to visit. Historic and cultural attractions abound throughout Pierre and the surrounding area, with the State Capitol and the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society acting as landmarks to the state and city’s storied past. Additionally, Fort Pierre, Pierre’s sister city across the Missouri River, also has its share of must-visit sites, including Fischers Lilly Park and LaFramboise Island.

Pierre’s Missouri River location also makes it a great spot for outdoor recreation, especially watersports like kayaking, canoeing, and fishing. Diving is also a popular pastime at Lake Oahe. LaFramboise Island Nature Area is another Pierre outdoor destination for hiking, biking, bird and wildlife watching, and spectacular natural scenery. It also has a historic side, too, as it is mentioned in the journals of the famed explorers Lewis and Clark. Other picturesque Pierre hiking spots include the nearby Fort Pierre National Grassland with breathtaking prairie land vistas. Relax after a long day of hiking with a stay at the Ramkota Hotel, conveniently located near the State Capitol.


O'Malley's Irish Pub in historic downtown Yankton, South Dakota.
O'Malley's Irish Pub in historic downtown Yankton, South Dakota. Image credit Nagel Photography via Shutterstock

The Southern South Dakota town of Yankton is the perfect combination of welcoming hospitality, historic charm, and bustling activity. The Lewis and Clark Recreation Area and the Missouri National Recreational River are just two of the most visited spots for hiking, boating, biking, nature trails, and stunning river views.

Yankton also has many diverse attractions that celebrate its rich heritage. In addition to historical markers that offer a glimpse into local history, sites like the Cramer-Kenyon Heritage Home, and the Mead Museum, help visitors learn about Yankton’s storied past. Additionally, the historic downtown area—the Meridian District—is bursting with eclectic energy, art and architecture, and scenic beauty. It is also home to the 100-year-old, double-decker Meridian Bridge. Spanning the Missouri River and connecting South Dakota with Nebraska, the historic bridge is also a breathtakingly beautiful backdrop for outdoor activities and photo ops. Weekend Yankton visitors will love the convenience of the Yankton Inn, a comfortable hotel close to all the best Missouri National Recreational River attractions.


Overlooking downtown Brookings, South Dakota.
Overlooking downtown Brookings, South Dakota.

Brookings is a small-town gem located in eastern South Dakota. Known for its spectacular natural beauty, Brookings is also home to an eclectic line-up of outdoor activities. From strolling the colorful McCrory Gardens to biking, fishing, kayaking, and canoeing at Dakota Nature Park; mountain biking and cycling at Single Track & Pump Park to swimming, camping, and boating at Lake Cochrane Recreation Area, there is something for every outdoor enthusiast in Brookings. Nearby, Oakwood Lakes State Park (20 miles away) is also a popular year-round outdoor destination, with activities like swimming and hiking in the summer, ice fishing, and cross-country skiing in the winter. Additionally, staying in Brookings could not be easier than booking the weekend at the Brookings Inn, a family-friendly stay complete with its own waterpark and restaurant.

The home of South Dakota State University, Brookings is a bustling hub of art, architecture, and history—and at the center of it all is the Brookings Commercial Historic District. Here, visitors can visit an eclectic array of attractions, including the Brookings Arts Council, the Coughlin Campanile (complete with a panoramic view of the town), the Children’s Museum of South Dakota, and the South Dakota Art Museum. Brookings also has its share of history: with Veterans Memorial Park, and the South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum, offering a glimpse into the South Dakota town’s distinguished past.


Historic building in Watertown, South Dakota.
Historic building in Watertown, South Dakota. Image credit Sabrina Janelle Gordon via Shutterstock

Located in Codington County, Watertown is a Northeastern South Dakota town with plenty of history: from pioneer days to Prohibition-era, Americana lore, the picturesque community has something for everyone. In addition to its Historic Downtown, there is the Codington County Heritage Museum, Mellette House, Redlin Art Center, and the Watertown Artwalk. One of Watertown’s most storied landmarks, The Goss Opera House is another must-see historic site. Add excitement to a Watertown weekend with a stay at Dakota Sioux Casino & Hotel, a luxe location with entertainment, restaurants, and plenty of amenities.

Situated along the banks of the Big Sioux River, Watertown is also known for its outdoor recreation. Located in western Watertown, beautiful Lake Kampeska is the perfect place to appreciate the small town’s natural beauty. Complete with miles of trails linking the lake to the city, the lake is also home to swimming, boating, waterskiing, fishing, and several parks and golf courses. For those looking to get up close and personal with nature, The Bramble Park Zoo is another popular Watertown attraction. The nearby Pelican Lake Recreation area is also an ideal spot for watersports, birdwatching, hiking, and camping, and is also home to an observation tower where visitors can scope out some of the area’s most spectacular panoramic views.

South Dakota's best small towns have something for every traveler looking for a weekend escape. Breathtaking scenery, rich history, and diverse attractions come together throughout these cozy Mount Rushmore State communities, from Missouri River getaways to Great Plains vacations—and everything in between. The perfect addition to any travel itinerary, these lovely small towns are the best way to experience South Dakota's unique blend of natural beauty and historic, welcoming charm.

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