The Mount Rushmore State, South Dakota is quite a diverse state that is divided into three distinct regions; western South Dakota, eastern South Dakota and the Black Hills. The Missouri River dissects the state in two, separating it geographically east and west. Eastern South Dakota is the most populated region, as it is the flattest area of the state, with the western half of it being hilly and mountainous terrain.
The eastern half of the state is home to numerous lakes, most of which are were formed by the most recent ice age. Some of the lakes are small, while others span for over 120,000 hectare. They are all shapes and sizes, and vary in depth, with some being in the mountains and others at sea level. Regardless, they are all quite beautiful, though these are the 15 best lakes in South Dakota.
1. Lake Oahe; Hughes, Stanley, Sully, Dewey, Potter, Walworth, Corson & Campbell counties
The largest lake in South Dakota, Lake Oahe boasts a surface area of 150,000 hectare and is 62 metres deep. It’s the fourth largest lake in the country and features a 3,620 kilometre shoreline with nine different recreation areas.
Over 1.5 people visit the magnificent lake each year to enjoy its recreational activities, which include boating, fishing, hiking and camping. Plus, Oahe Downstream Recreation Area, Cow Creek Recreation Area and Revheim Bay Recreation Area each have areas for swimming.
Lake Oahe extends all the way into North Dakota, with both US Route 212 and 12 passing over it. The Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Indian Reservations occupy most of the western side of the lake, while the recreation areas sit along the east side of the it.
2. Lake Poinsett; Hamlin & Brookings counties
Lake Poinsett is not only one of the largest lakes in the state, but it is one of the most popular. This is thanks to its fantastic recreation area, which sits on the southeast corner of the lake. The lake is also home to Arlington Beach.
The lake was named after Joel Poinsett, who used to serve as the US Secretary of War and was instrumental in promoting the expedition of the area. In 1838, explorers camped along the shoreline of the lake, and camping is still enjoyed there today.
Lake Poinsett Recreation Area has two camping areas and a total of 112 camp sites. Lake visitors that want a bit more comfort can stay in one of the lakefront cabins at the Arlington Beach Resort.
3. Lake Thompson; Kingsbury & Miner counties
One of the largest natural lakes in the state, Lake Thompson has a surface area of over 16,000 hectares. The lake has a shoreline of over 70 kilometres, making it a popular spot for recreational activities.
Anglers flock to Lake Thompson to fish for walleye, yellow perch, northern pike and sunfish. It also attracts outdoor lovers thanks to its camping facilities and hiking trails.
The Lake Thompson Recreation Area sits on the northeast shoreline of the lake, which is the main draw for most tourists. It is open year-round and features 103 campsites, 5 cabins, a playground and a beach that offers water skiing.
4. Sylvan Lake; Custer County
Sylvan Lake is a stunning lake that sits in the Black Hills at an elevation of 1,873 metres. It is surrounded by a rock wall, making it a great spot for rock climbing, though it’s also a nice place for an afternoon picnic.
The lake is the starting point of two hiking trails; Sunday Gulch Trailhead and Black Elk Peak Hiking Trail. The Sunday Gulch Trailhead leads hikers to the magnificent Needles, while the Black Elk Peak Hiking Trail heads to Black Elk Peak, which is the highest point in all of South Dakota.
Sylvan lake is located in the Custer State Park and accessible by driving along State Route 87. The road is closed in the winter months, when it only accessible by skiing or snowshoeing.
5. Big Stone Lake; Roberts & Grant counties
Big Stone Lake is a narrow freshwater lake that sits along the border of South Dakota and Minnesota. The lake stretches for 42 kilometres, is just 1.6 kilometres wide and at 294 meters is the lowest point in the entire state.
There are three beaches along the shoreline on the South Dakota side of the lake, one of which is part of the Hartford Beach State Park. The park is open throughout the entire year, attracting visitors that want to relax along the lake’s shoreline.
One of the biggest draws of Big Stone Lake is its fantastic fishing, having 12 designated public access areas. There are over 30 species of fish to catch and the lake is stocked every two years with 7,000,000 walleye.
6. Lake Sharpe; Buffalo, Lyman, Hyde, Hughes & Stanley
Stretching across five counties, Lake Sharpe is one of the largest reservoirs in the state, having a surface area of 23,020 hectare. The lake was named after former state Governor Merrill Q. Sharpe who grew up in a town just south of the lake.
There are a total of 17 recreation areas along the lake’s 320 kilometre shoreline, offering an endless amount of activities to enjoy. There are also several boat launch areas for anglers to enter the lake to catch walleye, smallmouth bass, sauger, white bass and channel catfish.
In addition to fishing areas, Lake Sharpe also boasts swimming areas, waterfront trails, picnic shelters and camping grounds. Plus, the western shore of the lake sits within the Lower Brule Indian Reservation, while the east side of it is in the Crow Creek Indian Reservation.
7. Pactola Lake; Pennigton County
At 500 hectare, Pactola Lake is the largest lake in the Black Hills and one of the Black Hills Nation Forests recreation areas. Fishing and boating are particularly popular here, though there is also a picnic area, camping grounds and a swimming beach.
The lake is extremely picturesque, sitting at an elevation of 1,419 metres above sea level and being surrounded by mountains and forest. It is accessible via US Highway 385, which runs along the east side of it.
A big draw of Pactola Lake are its surrounding cliffs that give adrenaline junkies the chance to cliff dive right into the water. It also features 10 diving sites that range from 4.5 to 27 metres.
8. Enemy Swim Lake; Waubay Township, Day & Roberts counties
Enemy Swim Lake is located right on the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation in northeast South Dakota. The lake got its name from the native Sioux name, which came from an incident in which natives had to swim across the lake to escape enemies.
Fishing is the most popular thing about the lake thanks to its abundance of black crappie, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, bluegill, yellow perch and walleye. There are two boat ramps on the southwest shoreline for anglers to access the lake.
On the southwest corner of the lake is a swimming beach and camping grounds. There is very little development along the northeast portion of the lake, with all access points and towns being around the west side of the 870 hectare lake.
9. Lake Alvin; Lincoln County
Lake Alvin sits in the southeast corner of South Dakota near the city of Harrisburg. The 42 hectare lake is surrounded by a 24 hectare recreation area, making it a popular spot for outdoor enthusiasts.
There is excellent fishing on the lake, particularly walleye, crappie, northern pike, perch and sunfish. Lake Alvin is a no-wake lake, so many people fish from a canoe, a row boat or from the fishing pier.
There is an excellent swimming beach on the north shoreline of the lake, though no lifeguard is on site. There is also some great hiking trails within the Lake Alvin Recreation Area.
10. Lake Vermillion; McCook County
This artificial lake was formed in 1958 by the damming of the East Fork of the Vermillion River. Since then, Lake Vermillion has become a popular recreation area.
The entire south end of the 207 hectare lake is surrounded by the Lake Vermillion Recreation Area. Outdoor enthusiasts visit the area to go hiking, bird watching, biking and camping.
Lake Vermillion itself also offers plenty of water activities, though swimming, boating and fishing are the most popular. There is even a fishing cleaning station, a swimming beach and a beach designated for water skiing.
11. Angostura Reservoir; Fall River County
Angostura Reservoir was originally built for irrigation, but today it is a very popular recreation area. It is also stunningly beautiful thanks to the Black Hills towering behind it.
The lake has a 68 kilometre shoreline that boasts some of the best beaches in the state. The Angostura Recreation Area sits along the entire east shoreline of the lake, while the Bailey Recreation Area runs along the south end of it.
The Sheps Canyon Recreation Area is on the west side of the lake and extends into the Black Hills. Combined, the recreation areas offer a plethora of activities, including hiking, swimming, boating, fishing, canoeing and camping.
12. Sheridan Lake; Pennington County
Sheridan Lake is one of the Black Hill Nation Forest’s recreational areas. The 152 hectare lake offers magnificent views of the surrounding hills and forests.
Outdoor and adventure lovers flock to the lake for its fantastic activities, which include boating, swimming, fishing, picnicking and birding. It is also a popular hiking area, what with the Dakota Point Trailhead – which leads to the popular Centennial Trail – being located on the northeast side of the lake.
There is a camping ground on both the north and south side of the lake that have both hook-up and primitive sites. There is also a swimming beach on the south shoreline and a marina on the north shoreline.
13. Pickerel Lake; Day County
Pickerel Lake is a spring fed lake in the northeast corner of South Dakota. The area that the lake sits in was formed by glacial activity thousands of years ago, with Pickerel Lake now being one of the deepest natural lakes in the state.
The lake offers plenty of water activities, like swimming, paddle boarding, boating and fishing. The Pickerel Lake Recreation Area is a great place to go camping on the lake, having two separate campgrounds and a total of 69 campsites.
The 386 hectare lake was named after the American Indian word that means ‘where you spear long fish.’ This is probably one of the reasons why it is a popular fishing destination.
14. Horse Thief Lake; Pennington County
Horse Thief Lake, which sits at an elevation of 1,495 metres above sea level, is the state’s closest lake to Mount Rushmore, which is the most famous site in the Black Hills. The lake used to be where a gang of horse thieves operated, which is how it got its name.
Horse Thief Lake is a beautiful lake in the mountains, boasting a serene setting and backdrop. It’s a nice place to relax and go camping, horseback riding, fishing and hiking, with the George S. Mickelson Trail being close by.
Adrenaline junkies can hike along the Wrinkled Rock Climbers Trailhead and go climbing around Mount Rushmore, although climbing on the sculpture itself is prohibited. The trail also leads hikers to the famous landmark itself.
15. Lewis and Clark Lake; Bon Homme & Yankton counties
This large reservoir is impounded by the Gavins Point Dam on the Missouri River. The 13,000 hectare lake boasts over 140 kilometres of shoreline, with its surrounding area dating back to around 3,000 to 5,000 B.C.
Lewis and Clark Lake sits between South Dakota and Nebraska, with the South Dakota side boasting five recreation areas. This makes it a very popular destination, offering numerous water sports, hiking, bird watching, fishing and biking.
Around one million visitors come to the lake each year to enjoy all that it has to offer. Those that want to stay a night or two will find a number of camping grounds, cabins and rooms along the lake’s shoreline.