Of all the Plains states, South Dakota has the most to offer visitors, principally in the pine-covered Black Hills mountain range. A sacred site to the Sioux, to white settlers it represented something very different – a rich source of gold. Deadwood is the most famous of the gold rush towns that sprang up illegally. Once home to the hell-raising Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp and Wild Bill Hickok, it’s now a perfectly preserved National Historic Landmark.
Southeast of here stands the iconic Mount Rushmore, where the faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln stare out sternly, oblivious to the crowds of snap-happy tourists. Worth seeing, too, are the crystal-lined Jewel Cave, the lunar landscape of the Badlands National Park, and the wildlife haven that is Custer State Park, with its 1,500-strong herd of wild buffalo and “begging burros” – hungry donkeys that hustle tourists for food shamelessly.
Some 80km away in Wounded Knee, where the Sioux were massacred, the Wounded Knee Museum in Wall recounts the sad story.
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As a Great Plains state, South Dakota has an interior continental climate with hot summers and cold winters. Summer temperatures can reach the high-20s (Celsius) and winter can be well below zero. Sioux Falls averages 104cm (41 inches) of snowfall annually, but there is less snow further north, and the northwest can get less than one foot of snow.On the northern fringe of tornado alley, South Dakota’s twisters are mostly in the eastern part of the state, sometimes in the central region, and rarely in the western part of the state. Spring is the peak tornado season.
Summer is the peak season for visiting. This is when most visitors step off their flights to South Dakota. The attractions and outdoor activities are in full swing; visitors flock to the Badlands and to the Black Hills with Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial. Summer is also busy with Native American powwows, historical celebrations, volksmarches, and rodeos.
The fishing season lasts year-round, with some exceptions.
If you want to see the attractions but not the crowds, try the spring and autumn. However, off-season traffic is on the rise, so make reservations in advance.
The winters are generally too harsh for most of the outdoor attractions and activities.
You will need a car to get around South Dakota, or, if you are going to the more popular destinations, consider joining a tour group. There is limited bus service in the state, and the historic trains just run short routes. Driving is also your best bet even in Sioux Falls, and parking is plentiful.
Hiking, biking, and horseback riding are other ways of getting around, along with boating on the Missouri River, and motorcycles.