What are the Best and Worst Tourist Attractions in South Dakota?
When you are on a road trip vacation you see lots of signs trying to coax you into checking out a local tourist attraction or trap. If it isn't for something really neat or awe-inspiring, it might be for great food or clean bathrooms.
In South Dakota, particularly along I-90 from the beginnings of the Badlands all the way to the Black Hills, there are a lot of attractions and traps.
For an urban-dwelling family from the east coast making their way across the state, it might be really enticing to stop and see the cute little prairie dogs scurrying around. Meanwhile, the locals consider the tunneling rodents to be a bigger nuisance than mosquitos.
With so many choices of places to visit and spend money, aside from the help of hot or cold Google reviews, how are you supposed to find out what is going to be great and what is going to be lame? I'm going to narrow down one you must see and one you can skip, but I won't mention anything I haven't personally been to.
As a lifelong resident of South Dakota, who has lived both east and west of the Missouri River, I've been to a lot of all of the places people like to go and have felt like a visitor and a local on both ends of the state.
Websites have posted multiple opinions on what the best and worst attractions in every state are. While one will say that Wall Drug is the worst and another that Mount Rushmore is the best, I don't think either of those is the best or worst. I think they are both in the middle.
Best Tourist Attraction in South Dakota - The Badlands
The Badlands of South Dakota are not just an interesting geological phenomenon, it is like visiting another planet altogether. If you have only seen the Badlands from I-90 on your way to the Black Hills, you have never seen the whole picture.
I know this because I visited the Badlands when I was 7 years old, thought they were cool but didn't really remember, and then only saw them from I-90 as I traveled between college in Spearfish and my hometown of Beresford. When you drive into the National Park and pull off to walk around, it is like getting out of your car on Mars.
Your idea of natural beauty is shattered by what you see. Sharp-shaped hills with colors that look as if they were painted on perfectly get contrasted with shadows and make you wonder how in one state you can stand in a bean field on flat ground and drive a few hours and be in a place like the Badlands.
Honorable mention for best tourist attractions: the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, Deadwood, Spearfish Canyon, Lewis & Clark Lake and Recreation Area, the Cosmos, Falls Park after massive rains or snowmelt, and the Glacial Lakes of northeastern South Dakota (I couldn't pick just one).
Worst Tourist Attraction in South Dakota - Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore is without question the most famous thing in the Mount Rushmore State. It's also the worst tourist attraction to visit. Before you flame me with emails and comments (which were most likely written without reading this first), just know that I am glad it is in our state and think it is a marvel of artistry and engineering.
But visiting the memorial is also like driving across the state to see a photograph surrounded by hundreds of other people taking the exact same photograph they looked at on the Internet at home before they left.
The carving is not shockingly large like the Crazy Horse Memorial, nor does it have the breathtaking beauty of Badlands. The attached museum is just a museum of itself. I will admit that seeing it for the first time is interesting. You get the feeling of "well we saw it, now it's a long drive back to Deadwood."
Honorable mentions for worst tourist attractions: Lake Oahe (no beaches, no fun without a boat), Buffalo Gap National Grassland (it's a lot of grass), and Falls Park during a drought (it becomes Trickle Park).
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