Historic Sites In South Dakota. More Than Just Parks has 10 incredible must-see sites for you to visit.
I’ve been to so many of these amazing places since retiring from teaching in 2018. Did I mention that I taught history? I spent a lifetime teaching about the history behind these momentous sites. Then I got to see them firsthand. And now I’m sharing the stories of these incredible places with you. It doesn’t get any better than that!
I’m going to give you my list of the Top 10 Historic Sites In South Dakota that you’ll want to see.
To be clear, this list includes national park sites (as in sites managed by the National Park Service) as opposed to national parks.
One book that you might want to pick up before making your trip to the Mount Rushmore State is: Greater Than a Tourist- South Dakota: 50 Travel Tips from a Local by Max Hunloff.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
Historic Sites In South Dakota
10. USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial
We kick-off our list of the Top 10 Historic Sites In South Dakota with the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial.
As a retired history teacher and lifelong history buff I’m always on the lookout for great stories. And the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial is a great story!
Battleship X USS South Dakota (BB 57), with its combination of Navy Unit Citation and 13 battle stars, was the most decorated battleship of World War Two. For security purposes, she was called “Battleship X” after her first major battles, to prevent the enemy from identifying the top-of-the-line battleship.
Involved In The Guadalcanal Campaign
USS South Dakota, lead ship of a class of 35,000-ton battleships, was built at Camden, New Jersey. She was commissioned in March 1942 and in August was transferred to the Pacific where she was soon involved in the Guadalcanal Campaign.
On 26 October 1942, her anti-aircraft guns played a prominent role in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, during which her forward sixteen-inch gun turret was hit by a Japanese bomb. Shortly thereafter, she collided with USS Mahan (DD-364).
Damage from these incidents was repaired locally, and she was heavily engaged, and damaged again, during the 14-15 November battleship night action off Guadalcanal, a battle that effectively ended Japan’s plans to retake that strategic island.
The Invasions Of Leyte, Iwo Jima & Okinawa
From October 1944 to the end of World War II over ten months later, she screened carrier task forces during strikes in the Western Pacific that ranged from the South China Sea to Japan. The invasions of Leyte, Luzon, Iwo Jima and Okinawa were among these operations.
In March and April 1945, South Dakota’s guns joined in bombarding Okinawa. She shelled targets in the Japanese Home Islands in July and August, during the final acts of the Pacific War, and was present in Tokyo Bay on 2 September 1945 during the Formal Surrender of Japan.
South Dakota returned to the United States soon thereafter and was decommissioned in January 1947. She remained inactive until October 1962, when she was sold for scrapping. (Source: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Things To Do
Admission to the comprehensive memorial to the USS South Dakota is free.
Visitors will see lots of memorabilia from the ship. There’s a wonderful museum which includes wreckage from the USS Arizona.
Outside the museum are some of the guns and the anchor, laid out as if the ship was in the ground.
9. Wind Cave National Park
Coming in at #9 on our list of the best historic sites in South Dakota is Wind Cave National Park.
Wind Cave National Park is another one of South Dakota’s beautiful national parks. This South Dakota National Park is a world-class destination home to not only what could be the longest cave in the world but also beautiful natural scenery.
Here you’ll discover a land where the Black Hills meet the plains complete with bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs.
While you’re there, I recommend the following activities:
- Visit The Natural Entrance To Wind Cave: It’s the largest natural opening into Wind Cave without going on a tour. This small hole is one of the only known natural entrances into the cave. Lakota oral tradition speaks of how the first bison and humans emerged from this deeply spiritual place.
- Take A Hike Along One Of Wind Cave’s Beautiful Trails: Wind Cave National Park has over 30 miles of hiking trails on the surface and provides visitors the opportunity to view pristine Black Hills scenery.
- Watch The Wildlife: View some of North America’s most iconic wildlife while enjoying Black Hills scenery.
Planning a trip to Wind Cave? Check out our article: 10 Epic Things to Do at Wind Cave National Park
8. Crazy Horse Memorial
We continue our countdown of the best historic sites in South Dakota. At #8 we have the Crazy Horse Memorial.
Crazy Horse was a Lakota war leader of the Oglala Band in the 19th century. He took up arms against the United States federal government to fight against encroachment by white American settlers on Native American territory and to preserve the traditional way of life of the Lakota people.
In 1876, Crazy Horse led a band of Lakota warriors against Custer’s Seventh U.S. Cavalry battalion.
They called this the Battle of the Little Bighorn also known as Custer’s Last Stand and the Battle of the Greasy Grass. Custer, 9 officers, and 280 enlisted men, all lay dead after the fighting was over.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is located in the heart of the beautiful Black Hills. The elevation on the mountain is 6,532 feet above sea level.
It is made of pegmatite granite. It was chosen by Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski & Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear for the Crazy Horse Memorial.
To learn more I recommend: Crazy Horse and Custer: The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors by Stephen Ambrose.
Historic Sites In South Dakota
7. Deadwood Historic District
At lucky #7 on our top 10 countdown of the best historic sites in South Dakota is the Deadwood Historic District.
One of my favorite periods of America history is the American West of the 19th century. Deadwood, South Dakota, became known for its lawlessness. Murders were common and justice for murders was not always fair and impartial.
Brothels, saloons and gambling houses were plentiful, and the gold seekers who came to this place were well-entertained.
The town attained further notoriety when gunman Wild Bill Hickok was killed on August 2, 1876.
To learn more I recommend: They Called Him Wild Bill: The Life and Adventures of James Butler Hickok by Joseph G. Rosa.
Things To See & Do In Deadwood
Today, the historic district contains many original buildings dating back to the nineteenth century. Visitors are transported back in time where they can learn about the history of this frontier town.
Among the fun activities that you can do while in Deadwood:
- Take a Walk Along the Deadwood Historic Main Street.
- Go For a Drink to Wild Bill Bar.
- Take a Tour to Broken Boot Gold Mine.
- Visit Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort.
- Visit the Adams Museum and Historic Adams House.
- Visit Days of 76 Museum.
- Visit Mount Moriah Cemetery.
6. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
At #6 on our list of the best historic sites in South Dakota is a place that reminds that freedom isn’t free. It’s the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
This site is an eerie tribute to the Cold War era. It was built at a time of heightened tensions between the U.S. & U.S.S.R. and serves as a time capsule for folks interested in visiting the past.
As part of this era, a vast arsenal of nuclear missiles were placed in the Great Plains. Hidden in plain sight for thirty years, 1,000 missiles were kept on constant alert; hundreds remain today.
As the National Park Service notes, “The Minuteman Missile remains an iconic weapon in the American nuclear arsenal. It holds the power to destroy civilization, but is meant as a nuclear deterrent to maintain peace and prevent war.”
While Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is not one of the more famous South Dakota National Parks, it is still a very popular place to visit that books out fast.
Things To Do At Minuteman Missile
As a retired history teacher, I have immersed myself in the fascinating history of this impactful period. I would recommend the following things to do:
- The Visitor Center: I always recommend that first-timers begin there. Exhibits, films, and a bookstore allow visitors to explore the story of the Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile System and its role in the larger context of the Cold War.
- The Bookstore: They offer books, educational materials, and interpretive items that relate to the themes of Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
- The Mobile Tour: A Mobile Phone guided tour of Delta-09 and Delta-01 is available for visitors to learn the history of Minuteman Missile on the Great Plains and how it was operated for thirty years.
- The Delta 01 Launch Control Facility: Delta- 01 occupies an open, grassy tract of land approximately one-half mile north of Interstate 90. Approaching the site from the Interstate, it looks like a lone ranch house in the open grassland. There’s a thirty-minute guided tour of the control center at Delta-01 which begins with a walk through of the grounds and topside support building.
The Top 5 Historic Sites In South Dakota
5. Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark
We kick off the Top 5 Historic Sites In South Dakota at #5 with the Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark.
As someone who spent almost thirty years teaching history, I am quite familiar with the legacy of Wounded Knee.
Wounded Knee was the site of two conflicts between North American Indians and representatives of the U.S. government.
The first conflict was an 1890 massacre which left some 150 Native Americans dead, in what was the final clash between federal troops and the Sioux.
The massacre at Wounded Knee was a reaction to a religious movement that gave fleeting hope to Plains Indians whose lives had been upended by white settlement.
The Ghost Dance movement swept through Native American tribes in the American West beginning in the 1870s.
The Second Conflict At Wounded Knee
The second conflict was a 71-day occupation, during which time two Sioux men were shot to death by federal agents.
One federal agent was paralyzed after being shot. On May 8, the AIM leaders and their supporters surrendered after White House officials promised to investigate their complaints.
Russell Means and Dennis Banks were arrested, but on September 16, 1973, the charges against them were dismissed by a federal judge because of the U.S. government’s unlawful handling of witnesses and evidence.
Violence continued on the Pine Ridge Reservation throughout the rest of the 1970s, with several more AIM members and supporters losing their lives in confrontations with the U.S. government. In 1975, two FBI agents and a Native man were killed in a shoot-out between federal agents and AIM members and local residents.
In the trial that followed, AIM member Leonard Peltier was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. With many of its leaders in prison, AIM disbanded in 1978. Local AIM groups continued to function, however, and in 1981 one group occupied part of the Black Hills in South Dakota.
What To See At Wounded Knee
The site of the massacre lies in what today is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
There’s a memorial panel and a small cemetery.
In the nearby little town of Wall, South Dakota, USA, there’s a museum about the Wounded Knee Massacre and its historical context, which is well worth visiting when in the area.
To learn more about the Wounded Knee Massacre I recommend: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown.
4. Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
We’re on to the Final Four. At #4 we have the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail follows the historic outbound and inbound routes of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As a retired history teacher, I get goosebumps just thinking about the Corps of Discovery and their incredible trek.
Commemorating the Lewis & Clark Expedition (1804-06), the Lewis & Clark Trail connects 16 states (Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Oregon).
The trail is administered by the National Park Service. It’s not a hiking trail, but does provide opportunities for hiking, boating and horseback riding at many locations along the route.
It’s a great opportunity to see the USA while learning about the brave men (and one woman) who weren’t able to make the journey in an air-conditioned SUV.
Historic Sites In South Dakota
3. Jewel Cave National Monument
Coming in at #3 on our list of the best historic sites in South Dakota is Jewel Cave National Monument.
At Jewel Cave National Monument you can immerse yourself within the third longest cave in the world. With over 210 miles of mapped and surveyed passages, this underground wilderness appeals to human curiosity.
Its splendor is revealed through fragile formations and glimpses of brilliant color. Its maze of passages lure explorers, and its scientific wealth remains a mystery. (Source: NPS)
While you’re there I recommend a Ranger-guided tour. If you’re planning to explore these amazing caves they are required.
The temperature inside Jewel Cave is 49 degrees F / 9 degrees C year-round. Visitors are encouraged to wear long pants and a sweatshirt, sweater, or light jacket.
In 2018, cave explorers mapped the 200th mile in Jewel Cave National Monument. A team of six volunteer cavers entered the cave on Saturday, December 15 and surveyed 3,338.75 feet of passages.
They reached the milestone moment on Sunday, briefly posing for a photo of the accomplishment.
Hiking Trails At Jewel Cave
There are two self-guided trails at the monument, which include the one-quarter-mile (0.4 km) Roof Trail and 3.5 mile (5.6 km) Canyons Trail.
A third trail is nearby on the Black Hills National Forest, which is the 5.5 mile (8.9 km) Hell Canyon Trail.
2. Badlands National Park
In the runner-up position at #2 on our list of the best historic sites in South Dakota is Badlands National Park.
Situated in the heart of the Northern Great Plains, Badlands National Park spans 244,000 acres of spectacular landscapes, diverse wildlife, and the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.
Badlands National Park is one of my favorite parks in the entire country and the best national park in South Dakota. Here you’ll discover a land where bison still roam and towers rise from the prairie in dazzling formations.
This vast unending prairie is draped in a beautiful silence where the only sounds to be heard are the uninterrupted winds of the prairie and the song of the western meadowlark.
Journey With Us To The Badlands
If you’re looking for things to do in the Badlands check out our article: 18+ (INCREDIBLE) Things to Do in Badlands National Park
Things To Do At Badlands National Park
The rugged beauty of the Badlands draws visitors from around the world. These striking geologic deposits contain one of the world’s richest fossil beds.
Ancient horses and rhinos once roamed here. The park’s 244,000 acres protect an expanse of mixed-grass prairie where bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets live today. (Source: NPS)
Among the popular activities awaiting you are the following:
- Night Sky Viewings: There’s no better way to understand and appreciate the beauty of the Badlands than to see its dark skies. Park rangers and astronomy volunteers are available to point out objects in the night sky and help you look through telescopes.
- Wildlife Watching: You can see bison, bighorn sheep and prairie dogs. Check out Sage Creek Rim Road, Pinnacles Overlook and Roberts Prairie Dog Town as some of the places where you will see these amazing creatures.
- Take a Scenic Drive Along the South Unit of the Badlands: There you will enjoy stunning views.
- Drive Badlands Loop Road: You can see beautiful landscapes, informational exhibits, and glimpses of wildlife on this incredible drive.
- Sunrises & Sunsets: If you love to take pictures than get up early to see some spectacular sunrises not to mention the amazing sunsets. For sunrises, try the Big Badlands Overlook, the Door Trail, the Norbeck Pass area, the Dillon Pass area, and Panorama Point, just west of Bigfoot Pass. For sunsets, try Pinnacles Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook, Bigfoot Pass Picnic Area, and the Norbeck Pass area.
The #1 Historic Site In South Dakota
1. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
As the #1 historic site in South Dakota we selected Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
South Dakota features one of the most iconic symbols in America. Of course I’m referring to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Mount Rushmore is located in the heart of the Black Hills which are full of really incredible sites including two national parks, two national monuments, a national forest, a national grassland, state parks, and more. Rushmore is one of the most visited national parks in South Dakota.
Contrary to popular belief, the faces on Mount Rushmore were not chosen by the US Government but rather the chief sculptor, Gutzon Borglum.
The carving of Mount Rushmore National Memorial took 14 years to complete from 1927 to 1941. The original plan called for carving each figure from the waist up but funding ran short and that plan was abandoned.
Now if you’re interesting in learning more about Gutzon Borglum and the building of Mount Rushmore then I recommend: Six Wars at a Time: The Life of Gutzon Borglum, Sculptor of Mt. Rushmore by Howard Shaff.
Top 10 Things To Do At Mount Rushmore
More Than Just Parks has our “Top Ten” list of things to see and do at Mount Rushmore.
10. Walking the Avenue of the Flags. This short stroll frames the faces on the monument beautifully between the flags of every state in the US. How long will it take for you to find your state’s flag?
9. Seeing the faces from the Grand View Terrace. It’s the main viewpoint at Mount Rushmore and best place to see the president’s faces is from the Grand View Terrace. From this point you have clear, unobstructed views of the faces.
8. Hiking the Presidential Trail. The Presidential Trail starts near the visitor center and takes you closer to the carved faces. At just .6 miles this trail is easy taking about 30 minutes to complete at a leisurely pace but does involve 422 stairs to climb.
7. Have a “monumental meal” at Carver’s Cafe. The offerings here are basic including things like pizza, french fries, chili, sausage, eggs, biscuits, and so on.
6. Visiting the Sculptor’s Studio. Located at the end of the Presidential Trail, the Sculptor’s Studio is a great spot to enrich your visit. The studio is a small building where Gutzon Borglum worked for two years while sculpting Mount Rushmore.
Top 5 Things to Do at Mount Rushmore
5. See the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center. There’s no better place to learn about the history and undertaking of Mount Rushmore than the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center.
4. Have some T.J.’s Ice Cream. According to the park concessionaire who manages the ice cream stand, “this extraordinarily rich ice cream gets its sweet vanilla flavor from vanilla beans sourced from where Mr. Jefferson would have gotten them in his day.”
3. Hiking the Blackberry Trail. The Blackberry Trail is one of only two trails located within Mount Rushmore Memorial. It was designated as a National Recreation Trail in 2018 that connects with the Centennial Trail in the Black Elk Wilderness.
2. Watching the sunset across the memorial. One of the most magical times to see Mount Rushmore is at sunset as the crowds begin to die down and the mountain changes colors from grey to sunset hues.
1. Drumroll please. In the top spot we recommend staying for the Evening Lighting Ceremony. At 45 minutes in length the ceremony starts at 9pm from late May to mid August and then 8pm from mid August to October 1.
For more on Mount Rushmore check out our article: 15 HELPFUL Tips for Visiting Mount Rushmore (Things to Do + Photos)
Check Out Our Article On The Top 25 Historic Landmarks In America
As a matter of fact, More Than Just Parks has ranked what we consider to be the Top 25 Historic Landmarks In America.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial comes in at #3.
Which site did we rank as #1. Check out our article to find out.
Map Of Historic Sites In South Dakota
List Of Historic Sites In South Dakota
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- Badlands National Park
- Jewel Cave National Monument
- Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail
- Wounded Knee National Historic Landmark
- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
- Deadwood Historic District
- Crazy Horse Memorial
- Wind Cave National Park
- USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial
About The People Behind More Than Just Parks
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. My sons have spent their entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
As for me, I’m a retired lifelong educator and a proud dad of these two wonderful guys who are hopelessly obsessed with the national parks. I taught history for over a quarter of a century. Now I enjoy researching and writing articles for More Than Just Parks. I’m always on the hunt for topics where nature and history intersect so please feel free to share any ideas that you might have with me.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Meet The Parks Brothers
We’re Jim Pattiz and Will Pattiz, collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
Our goal here at More Than Just Parks is to share the beauty of America’s national parks and public lands through stunning short films in an effort to get Americans and the world to see the true value in land conservation.
We hope you’ll follow our journey through the parks and help us to keep them the incredible places that they are. If you’re interested in joining the adventure then please sign up below!