South Dakota gained its name from the Dakota Sioux Tribe that once inhabited the pine-filled Black Hills in the southwest corner. There, bison roamed, and gold prospectors established the infamous Deadwood in the 1870s. The Missouri River curves through the center of the state, dividing the land into distinct geographic regions: the rolling hills and fertile soil to the east, and the Black Hills and rugged Great Plains to the west. Across the landscape, visitors can gaze at the sculpted faces of great American presidents at Mount Rushmore or the likeness of Native American hero Crazy Horse and his mount at Crazy Horse Memorial.
The land and history meet in the southwestern region of the state, where the desolate Badlands creep toward the verdant Black Hills on the Wyoming border. Wind Cave National Park encompasses 132 miles of underground passageways and limestone formations. Only 5 percent mapped, experts still rank the cave as the fourth largest in the world. About an hour’s drive north, buffalo roam free in the grasslands of Custer State Park, where mountain peaks and spiral granite formations called “Needles” punctuate 71,000 acres of foothills. The Iron Mountain Road winds 17 miles through the park to the town of Keystone and the state’s top attraction: In 1927, a Danish-American carved 60-foot sculptures of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt into Mount Rushmore, which draws almost three million visitors a year. About 17 miles away, the stone carving continues on the massive Crazy Horse Memorial on Thunderhead Mountain.
The frontier town of Deadwood, a National Historic Landmark in the northern Black Hills, features refurbished gaming halls, bars and restaurants. Travelers can walk the same dirt paths as famous gunslingers, visit the graves of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane at Mount Moriah Cemetery, or pan for gold at 100-year-old Broken Boot Gold Mine.
Author Laura Ingalls Wilder drew inspiration for her famed “Little Prairie” series while growing up in De Smet in Eastern South Dakota. Her 160-acre homestead is open to the public, and visitors can enjoy covered wagon rides or hikes through the tall prairie grass.