9 Unique Ways to Explore the Outdoors in South Dakota

Cascade Falls features warm water that’s perfect for swimming.
Cascade Falls features warm water that’s perfect for swimming. South Dakota Department of Tourism
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Like much of the Midwest, South Dakota doesn’t usually top most people’s travel destination bucket list. But that’s precisely what makes it a surprisingly fun place to explore. Take a spin through the state and you’ll find so much more than Mount Rushmore—you’ll encounter unexpectedly art-filled alleyways to hikes so beautiful, they’ll blow your mind. Hot springs that have been around for over 100 years await as well. If you’re looking for a unique outdoor adventure, South Dakota definitely won’t disappoint.

1. Discover Graffiti Alleys in Rapid City

Art Alley in Rapid City is one of the state’s urban attractions.
Art Alley in Rapid City is one of the state’s urban attractions. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Tucked away in a small area of Rapid City’s downtown is an alleyway full of graffiti art called Art Alley . Strolling through these graffiti and postered streets is one of the artsiest and most unique ways to explore a city that is usually only driven through en route to Mount Rushmore. If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across offerings from the residents of the alley, like a cooler full of sage labeled “Free! Help Yourself!” and you’ll instantly understand what makes this place so special.

2. Swim, Hike, and Camp at Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is a great place for summer dip.
Sylvan Lake is a great place for summer dip. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota you’ll find Sylvan Lake , a beautiful body of water surrounded by glorious rock formations and tall, sweeping trees. You can rent paddleboats and kayaks from the lodge just up the hill or you can spend your days hiking, camping, or rock climbing—there’s something for everyone. Sylvan is a short drive from a couple of small towns surrounding it, so there are plenty of options for day trips.

3. Hike Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon features a wide variety of hiking trails with plenty of scenic views.
Spearfish Canyon features a wide variety of hiking trails with plenty of scenic views. South Dakota Department of Tourism

Just outside of Spearfish, South Dakota, you’ll find Spearfish Canyon, proclaimed by Frank Lloyd Wright as “the most magnificent canyon in the west.” Carved by Spearfish Creek, there are eight hikes to choose from in the canyon, from the handicap accessible Botanical Gardens Trail to the Upper Loop of the Rimrock Trail that consists of a 4.5 mile trek up a steep slope. Spearfish Canyon has a pretty stellar scenic byway, too, that you should definitely drive along on your way in or out.

4. Pan for Gold in Historic Deadwood

Try your luck prospecting in historic Deadwood.
Try your luck prospecting in historic Deadwood. South Dakota Department of Tourism

While Deadwood is a hot spot on the tourist trail, panning for gold is certainly a unique reason to visit. Take in the outdoors underground with a tour of the Broken Boot Gold Mine and spring for a panning session afterwards. You can pan for just a few hours or organize a week-long excursion and get really serious about it—bring your own camping equipment if you don’t want to rent.

5. Swim in Cascade Falls

The hot springs in Cascade Falls have created some of the state’s best swimming holes.
The hot springs in Cascade Falls have created some of the state’s best swimming holes. South Dakota Department of Tourism

South Dakota is not the first place most people think of when hot springs are mentioned, but don’t be fooled, the state has some serious bubbly outdoor adventures to offer. Whether you’re all hiked-out or want to take a different approach to experiencing the Black Hills, a little spot just outside (aptly named) Hot Springs, South Dakota, is where it’s at. Cascade Falls is a public swimming hole that boasts 67 degree water and has been around for about 100 years. It’s easy to miss from the road, but if you follow these directions you’ll get there.

6. Stroll Through a Corn Palace

A visit to South Dakota wouldn’t be complete without stopping at the  Mitchell Corn Palace.
A visit to South Dakota wouldn’t be complete without stopping at the Mitchell Corn Palace. South Dakota Department of Tourism

If you’re looking for out-of-the-ordinary experience, look no further than South Dakota’s Mitchell Corn Palace. In the summer you can score a free tour and in late August you can experience the palace’s annual festival that includes carnival rides, fair food, and local produce. If you visit during basketball season you can even take in a game, since the palace includes an arena that hosts high school and college games and tournaments.

7. Experience the Annual Buffalo Roundup

The buffalo roundup at Custer State Park each September is a sight to behold.
The buffalo roundup at Custer State Park each September is a sight to behold. South Dakota Department of Tourism

This once-a-year experience in Custer State Park is not to be missed if you’re coming through the state for any other reason and is a sight so breathtaking that it’s worth coming for all by itself. In order to properly maintain the park, each year in late September, all 1,300 buffalo in the park are rounded up and moved in one magical swoop. Definitely opt into the pancake feed in the morning for the full western experience.

8. Go Windsurfing on Lake Okabena

Whether you’re a seasoned professional or a beginner, Lake Okabena features consistent windsurfing conditions for all. Located in the southeast corner of the state, Lake Okabena offers an equal amount of thrill for non-surfers, too.

9. Balloon Instead of Hike Through the Black Hills

Some of the best views of the Black Hills can be found in a hot air balloon.
Some of the best views of the Black Hills can be found in a hot air balloon. South Dakota Department of Tourism

If you can’t decide which hike to take and want to see as much of the Black Hills as you can in a limited time frame (or you’re just an adrenaline junkie), taking a hot air balloon ride through the Black Hills is for you. It’s not the cheapest adventure but it’s certainly one of the most memorable. Weather permitting, you can hop on a ride anytime between May and October.

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