Main street in Hill City, South Dakota, via Paul R. Jones /

The Best Small Towns in South Dakota for a Weekend Retreat

The 40th State, which was admitted to the Union, South Dakota, is a naturally stunning destination that forms an important part of the North Central United States. Also known as the “Mount Rushmore State,” while it has a very sparse population of just some 910,000 inhabitants, there is indeed never a shortage of wonderful cultural activities, historic places, and geographic splendor to enjoy here. And for those looking for a great weekend getaway where small-town charm, beautiful nature, and intriguing American history come together, then South Dakota is undoubtedly the place to be. Through an exploration of these scenic and inviting towns, not only can some of the very best of South Dakota be seen, but memorable vacation memories await, ready to delight the young and old in any traveling group.


Main Street of Keystone, South Dakota.
Main Street of Keystone, South Dakota.

Though it has only some 240 residents (according to 2020 census numbers), the town of Keystone is surely one of South Dakota’s most popular destinations. Indeed, thousands of guests come here annually, taking advantage of Keystone’s proximity to the beloved Mount Rushmore monument. Located just a short 10-minute drive away, those coming and going to the presidential memorial can enjoy Keystone and its unique cultural and natural allure. Established as a mining town in the 1880s, Keystone is stunningly located within the Black Hills, where a most splendid mountain framing gives the community a charming ambiance. Indeed, even a casual stroll through Main Street will create a very memorable and scenic experience for all, which is ideal for a weekend stopover. Meanwhile, such historic attractions like the Black Hills Central Railroad, the Big Thunder Gold Mine Museum (where one can even pan their own nuggets!), and the National Presidential Wax Museum are great ways to get personally acquainted with the region’s fascinating past.


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

Also situated within South Dakota’s Black Hills region, the historic town of Spearfish was founded in the 1870s, and today, it boasts a population of just over 12,000 inhabitants. A haven for all lovers of the outdoors, Spearfish is a wonderful place to spend a weekend where awesome opportunities for camping, fishing, hiking, and cycling are never in short supply. And with its hot summer and mild winter temperatures, there is really never a bad time to enjoy nature while in Spearfish. Meanwhile, guests can also explore the charming campus of Black Hills State University (1883) for a most pleasant afternoon, while other historic attractions like the DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and the Downtown Clock Tower are fun and interactive ways for the entire family to enjoy themselves. And with cute inns, bed and breakfasts, cottages, and campgrounds available, Spearfish is indeed a most beautiful snapshot of small-town America with a very special South Dakota character!


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

Established by French fur traders in the 1850s, the historic town of Vermillion is now the home of just under 12,000 residents. The seat of Clay County, the town is known for its hot summers and cool winters and is beautifully situated atop a bluff overlooking the mighty Missouri River, the longest in America. Indeed, visitors looking for a weekend escape full of outdoor fun will not want to pass by Vermillion, where opportunities to go swimming, cycling, jogging, camping, and picnicking are perfect adventures for the entire family. Add in the chance to see some local wildlife, and Vermillion and the Missouri River are truly wonderful photographic places to spend a few days in. Meanwhile, the town’s historic charm also cannot be overlooked, and an assortment of buildings from the 19th and early 20th centuries can be appreciated. And with decades of history featuring cowboys, fur traders, ranchers, and Native Americans, Vermillion’s character is entrenched through its welcoming stores, restaurants, museums, and unique small-town charm.


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

Although a relatively small town of just over 14,000 residents, Pierre serves as South Dakota’s State Capital. But despite its size, this charming and beautiful place is a great way to choose spending a weekend in when visiting the “Mount Rushmore State”. Beautifully located on the banks of the Missouri River, Pierre was established in the 1880s and named for a prominent fur trader. A wonderful place to explore late 19th and early 20th-century history, guests can marvel at such attractions as the State Capital Building (1910), the St. Charles Hotel (1920), and Fort Pierre (1832), amongst others listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Meanwhile fun and interactive museums like the Lewis & Clark Family Center and the South Dakota National Guard Museum are awesome places where both the young and old can find something to appreciate. And do not forget about the beautiful LaFramboise Island Nature Area, where quiet nature and local wildlife make for quite a picturesque outing.

Hill City

Main street of Hill City, South Dakota.
Main street of Hill City, South Dakota. Editorial credit: Paul R. Jones /

A great place to discover true small-town America, Hill City is also known as the “Heart of the Hills”, and it is beautifully located right in the Black Hills region. Established in the 1870s, today just under 900 permanent residents call this “City” home, which is indeed a nice community to spend a weekend retreat in. Featuring a splendid mountain ambiance and comfortable year-round temperatures, Hill City is simply a charming place to enjoy the outdoors and take in all the amenities associated with a smaller town. These include locally run businesses, shops, restaurants, galleries, and inns that all give off a very welcoming South Dakotan character. Meanwhile, for those interested in the history of the railroad in America, Hill City is definitely the place to be. Explore both the Black Hills Central Railroad and the South Dakota State Railroad Museum, which are great fun for the entire family. Ride a restored 1880s caboose experience the magic of the steam engine, and take home some unique train memorabilia; these outings are definitely worth more than one visit!


Sturgis town during the annual rally for bikers
Sturgis town during the annual rally for bikers. Image credit Photostravellers via Shutterstock.

The seat of Meade County, Sturgis, is a beautiful town full of fascinating American history. Founded in the 1870s during the Black Hills Gold Rush, today a population of just over 7,000 call this community home. Featuring a scenic, historic downtown that includes an assortment of buildings from the late 1800s, Sturgis also boasts hot summers and cool winters. Indeed, when not admiring the town’s heritage buildings, a visit to the nearby Badlands National Park is an awesome way to spend one’s weekend. Meanwhile, a stop in Sturgis would not be complete without experiencing the Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame, which lovingly commemorates the history of motorcycling in the USA. Adding to the fun is the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which for 86 years has attracted thousands of tourists and riders to this most welcoming South Dakota destination.


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

Custer serves as the seat of the same named county, and it was formally established in the 1870s in South Dakota’s Black Hills Region. A picturesque and beautifully scenic community of just under 2,000 residents, Custer is surrounded by the Custer State Park (1912), which covers some 71,000 acres! A haven for those who love the great outdoors, Custer is indeed a wonderful place to enjoy a most splendid weekend retreat. Indeed, with awesome opportunities to go biking, hiking, mountain climbing, and camping, there is no short supply of outdoor fun to be had for the solo traveler and families alike. As a historic 19th-century town, guests can also appreciate Custer’s assortment of buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. These include the County Courthouse (1881) and the Garlock Building (1890), amongst others listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Finally, with a charming Main Street filled with inviting local businesses, shops, and restaurants, Custer is a fine example of a special Americana framed by truly wondrous natural splendor. This makes it a perfect place to enjoy a weekend getaway in the “Mount Rushmore State.”

Situated in the North Central region of the United States, South Dakota is a sparsely populated destination full of stunning natural beauty, special American history, and inviting small-town charm. Lovingly known as the “Mount Rushmore State”, choosing to spend a weekend retreat in some of South Dakota’s small towns is indeed a great way to create lasting vacation memories for the whole family. From the historic streets of the State capital, Pierre, to the “Heart of the Black Hills” in Hill City, these wonderfully charming smaller towns reflect some of the very best of not only South Dakota but of quintessential Americana. So when in the “Mount Rushmore State” and planning ahead for a fun and memorable weekend getaway, look no further than these awesome small-town gems ready to invite the young and old for a most special holiday experience!

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