15 Must-Do Adventures in South Dakota

Climbing Rushmore is an absolute must.
Climbing Rushmore is an absolute must. South Dakota Department of Tourism
Made Possible by
Curated by

If you are looking for some fun outdoor adventure, then South Dakota may be just the spot for you to stop and explore next. You may even be surprised to find out there are bucket-list worthy adventures to be had in South Dakota. Yes, you can visit Mount Rushmore, and the Badlands are a sight to behold, but there is a world of adventure just waiting to be had in addition to these well-known destinations. Did you know you could scuba dive or go caving in two of the longest caves in the world? Well, you can.

Here are 15 excellent adventures to get you started having fun in South Dakota.

1. Ride the Mickelson Trail from Deadwood to Edgemont

The Mickelson Trail covers more than 100 miles through South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest.
The Mickelson Trail covers more than 100 miles through South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest. South Dakota Department of Tourism

The 109-mile Mickelson Trail, which was once a railroad bed, meanders through South Dakota's Black Hills National Forest. Today, cyclists, runners, snowshoers, and in some areas, snowmobilers share the trail. The surface is mostly packed gravel and the trail itself is relatively flat for most of the way, making it a great spot for families and people of all abilities. Important to note: You get major SD bragging rights if you bike the entire trail in a day.

2. Paddle the Mighty Mo’

Kayaking on the Missouri River.
Kayaking on the Missouri River. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Make like Lewis & Clark and paddle your way down the Missouri River, the longest river in the United States. The river divides the state into two regions, affectionately known as west river and east river. There is a lot of fun to be had on an adventure down the big river and there's a nice mix of free-flowing current and reservoirs you can paddle through. You can make this a fun day trip or you can camp, stay on the river all day or stop for a hike, go fishing or just enjoy a historic journey as you paddle through the lands of five Native American tribes.

3. Hike Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak features 100-mile views from its summit.
Black Elk Peak features 100-mile views from its summit. South Dakota Department of Tourism

At 7,242 feet, Black Elk Peak is the highest point east of the Rockies in the United States. Nestled in the Black Hills National Forest, this peak boasts 100-mile views from its summit—be sure to check out the unforgettable views from the old stone fire tower. There are a variety of trails that will bring you to the top, most in the range of 6-8 miles round trip. Find one that suits you, to cross a "can’t miss adventure" off of your list.

4. Scuba Dive in a Landlocked State

South Dakota features several lakes where scuba diving is possible.
South Dakota features several lakes where scuba diving is possible. South Dakota Department of Tourism

This one may sound a little crazy, but just because South Dakota is in the middle of the country doesn't mean there isn't an aquatic adventures or two to be found. In fact Pactola Reservoir, Sheridan Lake, and the Lake Oahe are popular diving spots. You can get up close and personal with South Dakota's freshwater creatures—turtles, frogs, and a variety of fish—or even check out the remnants of a town that was flooded and now sits beneath Pactola's surface. You can rent gear or find guided diving tours at the nearby dive shops.

5. Stargaze in the Badlands

Badlands National Park is an excellent spot for stargazing.
Badlands National Park is an excellent spot for stargazing. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Badlands National Park is an otherworldly landscape surrounded by prairie. At night, watch the Milky Way rise over the southern skies for a truly out of this world experience. Each July, the National Park Service hosts the Badlands Astronomy Festival, where you can view the night skies with high powered telescopes and learn about all kinds of star stuff from astronomers and night sky enthusiasts. During the summer months on Friday through Monday nights, there is a summer sky viewing program offered at the Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater as well.

6. Ride the Dakota Five-O

The popular Dakota Five-O attracts mountain bikers from across the country.
The popular Dakota Five-O attracts mountain bikers from across the country. South Dakota Department of Tourism

The Dakota Five-O is a nationally known mountain bike race held in Spearfish in the northern Black Hills each September. The popular race sells out fast and with aid stations like the Bacon Station, and free food and beer offered at the end, it’s no surprise why this race is so popular. Oh, and the almost 50 miles of single track aren’t bad either. If you can't make it on race day, you can download the race course and experience the trails for yourself.

7. Caving at Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument

Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument feature two of the longest caves in the world.
Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument feature two of the longest caves in the world. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Wind Cave National Park in Hot Springs and Jewel Cave National Monument in the Black Hills are two of the longest caves in the world at 140 miles and 175 miles respectively. Get yourself underground and take a guided rock tour. Each cave offers unique boxwork formations at Wind Cave and the beautiful crystals in Jewel Cave. If you are truly daring (and not claustrophobic) opt for the challenging Wild Cave Tours that give an adventurous and real caving experience.

8. Agate Hunting at Buffalo Gap National Grasslands

The area around Badlands National Park is known for its Fairburn Agate.
The area around Badlands National Park is known for its Fairburn Agate. South Dakota Department of Tourism

The state gemstone is the Fairburn Agate. These banded, multicolored stones can be found in the areas surrounding the Badlands National Park. In Buffalo Gap National Grasslands, you can find designated agate beds. While you are searching for the Fairburn Agate you are guaranteed to come across some other really cool rocks. Grab a collecting bag and get to rock hunting.

9. Climb with the Presidents

The backside of Mount Rushmore is popular for rock climbing.
The backside of Mount Rushmore is popular for rock climbing. South Dakota Department of Tourism

What’s on the backside of Mount Rushmore? It looks nothing like the postcards you will find all over in gas stations in the Black Hills. In fact, you’ll find some of the region’s best sport and trad climbing. And with names like Emancipation Rock Formation and Garfield goes to Washington, you’re bound to want to hum a few bars of the national anthem when you ascend these routes.

10. Reel in Walleye on the Ice

South Dakota hosts several ice fishing tournaments.
South Dakota hosts several ice fishing tournaments. South Dakota Department of Tourism

There are hundreds of little lakes and rivers to keep you occupied during the winter months. See how your skills match up to other anglers in one of the area’s many ice fishing classics. The Mobridge Ice Fishing Tournament, held on the large Lake Oahe, is the largest two-person ice fishing event in the Midwest.

11. Snowmobiling Through the State

You'll find 1,500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in South Dakota.
You'll find 1,500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in South Dakota. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Ice fishing not your thing? There are plenty of other winter activities around the state to calm cabin fever. With more than 1,500 miles of groomed snowmobile trails in the state, South Dakota is one of the premier snowmobiling destinations in the country.

12. Fly Fish in Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon is one of the state's top fly-fishing destinations.
Spearfish Canyon is one of the state's top fly-fishing destinations. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Spearfish Canyon, which is an area of limestone cliffs carved by water erosion, is home to Spearfish Creek. The landscape is spectacular, and the fishing isn’t bad either. Rainbow, brown, and brook trout abound here. This creek can be fished year-round, but make sure you get a fishing license before heading out to cast. You can also find a guide service to take you to the best spots. Alone or with a guide, the atmosphere in the Black Hills, the scenery and all the fish will make for a perfect day.

13. Thread the Needle and Climb the Spires

South Dakotas granite spires are a favorite among climbers.
South Dakotas granite spires are a favorite among climbers. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Ask any climber, and they’ve likely heard of South Dakota's granite spires. The impossibly skinny spires have climbs for all levels, but even pros will find challenging routes here. The Needles Eye area is home to its namesake Needle's Eye spire, an impressive rock formation, as well as a handful of other spires. One of the classic climbs on Needle's Eye spire is the challenging Threading the Needle, a 5.8+/5.9 chimney/stemming route. If that's not up your alley there are plenty of other choices in the Needles.

14. Climb in Palisades State Park

Palisades State Park is known for its crack climbing on its quartz bluffs.
Palisades State Park is known for its crack climbing on its quartz bluffs. South Dakota Department of Tourism

The western side of the state isn’t the only side with rocks to climb. Palisades State Park on the eastern side of South Dakota is home to lots of crack climbing on its quartz bluffs. Sitting right along the water, the crag is only about 50 feet high, but offers trad climbers some great routes, both cracks and face climbs, to play around on.

15. Run one of the Easiest 100-Milers in the Country

The Leanhorse 100 attracts many runners attempting their first ultrarun.
The Leanhorse 100 attracts many runners attempting their first ultrarun. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Easy and 100-miler probably don’t belong in the same sentence, but the Leanhorse 100 is known as one of the easier ultras in the country. This race takes place every August on the Mickelson Trail. The trails gentle inclines and declines and make this a more gentle ultra than most. If 100 miles along a flat course is still daunting, you can try your hand at the race's 50-miler or their 30K or 50K options.

Last Updated:

Next Up