15 Best Small Towns to Visit in South Dakota

Written by Jan Meeuwesen
Updated on
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It’s not a big challenge to find small towns in South Dakota.  It’s one of the least populated states in the US.  In fact, Hillview and White Rock each have only three inhabitants.  The flip side to low populations means that South Dakota is a fantastic place to visit!

Sage coloured prairie land as far as the eye can see and big blue sky in all directions. If you enjoy rural life, you’ll enjoy a tour through these small towns. This is Lakota country, land of Mount Rushmore, and the Missouri River leaves a distinctive mark through the middle of the state.

Take a look at these 15 small towns that will make your trip to South Dakota memorable:

1. Deadwood

DeadwoodSource: flickr

Once the best known frontier town in all the Dakota’s, Deadwood is rich in American history.  The entire town is listed on the National Historic Register. Everything you’ll see has been carefully preserved and curated to keep the glory of the old west alive.  There is a great deal of Victorian architecture in Deadwood – which is a little out of place for a late 19th century gold mining town.  But even so, it’s a big part of what makes the town so unique.  You’ll find over 80 gaming halls which have helped to fund the complete restoration of the town.  If you’re lucky, you’ll catch an historical re-enactment.

2. Brandon

BrandonSource: flickr

For many who are considering a move to South Dakota, Brandon is ranked one of the best towns to live in.  Thanks to having the number once school system in the state, the town enjoys educational and athletic accolades every year. If you’re just visiting, be sure to check out Big Sioux State Park, the nearby American Indian burial mounds, and Lookout Tower. Brandon has two annual festivals of note:  The Hometown Days Festival and the Wilde Prairie Harvest Festival – which has a very messy but very fun grape stomp. The Wilde Prairie Winery offers tastings and tours.

3. Gary

GarySource: flickr

Gary has about 250 residents which makes it the perfect place to escape and rest.  It’s close to the Minnesota border in the glacial lakes region of the Cateau Prairie. To fellow South Dakotans, it’s known for being a relaxing good time. Easy access to several lakes make it a fisherman’s destination, and the rodeos and trail rides make it popular with modern day ‘wannabe’ cowboys.  Be prepared for cattle drives down main street and an adorable atmosphere all around town.

4. Keystone

KeystoneSource: flickr

This is the home of Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Presidential Trail. It’s been built around tourism with plenty of souvenirs to buy and fun to try.  The main strip of New Keystone is about a mile long and features boutiques, restaurant, and family centred activities.  Old Keystone is the original gold mining settlement along the Battle Creek River.  Both are worth a visit.  Many American’s love to camp at Keystone and there’s a well-established camping and RV community there.  Mount Rushmore itself features four beloved American Presidents and a tour guide here is well worth the price – the history is intriguing.  Recently, the Nicholas Cage movie “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” was filmed there.

5. Wall

Wall, South DakotaSource: flickr
Wall, South Dakota

Wall isn’t a name that sparks the imagination. In the middle of the Badlands you’ll find this small town and it’s 800 members.  It’s a great place to use as a basecamp because it’s just a couple of hours from several of South Dakota’s most famous landmarks.  So you’re an easy drive to places like Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, the Badlands National Park, and the Black Hills, but away from the crowds in the evenings.  There are great B&B’s, hiking, and biking trails, and cosy restaurants with great food.

6. Lead

Lead, South DakotaSource: flickr
Lead, South Dakota

Right on the border with Wyoming sits Lead (pronounced ‘leed’).  Leave the prairies behind and head toward rugged mountains and granite spires.  The town was founded after the discovery of the largest gold mine in the Western Hemisphere.  Known as Homestake Mine, the entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Be sure to visit in the summer months, as Leeds is hit particularly hard with infamous South Dakota winters. Close to Deadwood, you can gamble there during the day and return to quiet Lead for a relaxing diner and sleep. Be sure to visit the Dakota Shivers Brewing Company, Roughneck Falls State Park, the historic Homestake opera house, and the Black Hills Mining Museum.

7. Hill City

Hill City, South DakotaSource: flickr
Hill City, South Dakota

In the heart of the great outdoors is Hill City.  All outdoor adventurists and nature lovers will want to move here after a visit.  Known as the “Heart of the Hills,” the landscape is what is most striking about this place.  Surrounded by caves, mountains, and lush forest, there is plenty to keep you busy.  Sip coffee in a log cabin coffee shop and become a regular at the Silver Dollar Saloon.

8. Dell Rapids

Dell Rapids, South DakotaSource: wikipedia
Dell Rapids, South Dakota

There is a vein of red quartzite that runs from the Wisconsin Dells all the way to the eastern part of South Dakota.  The vein is over 2,500 feet deep and hundreds of miles long.  It’s also what gives Dell Rapids its identity.  The unique features of the quartzite inspired the town founders to create some pretty interesting architecture.  Close by to the larger Sioux Falls, the historic downtown dates back to the 19th century.  Visit the restored Dells Theatre, the Dell Rapid Museum, and the quilt store – a place that visitors don’t soon forget thanks to the incredible craftsmanship on display.  If you can, catch a local high school football or basketball game and cheer on the Dell Rapids “Quarriors.”

9. Spearfish

SpearfishSource: flickr

Thanks to its location in the High Plains and the Black Hills, Spearfish experiences some of the craziest temperature fluctuations you’re ever likely to experience.  It’s considered a geographical marvel among outdoor enthusiasts.  According to the Weather Channel, Spearfish has the fastest and greatest temperature change ever recorded.  In just two minutes, the temperature rose from 4F to 45F.  Unbelievable! The view from Spearfish Canyon will leave you awe-struck, and in Black Hills National Forest, you can enjoy rock climbing, hiking, and in the winter months, skiing. Fisherman also enjoy Spearfish Creek. Visit the Water park and Recreation Centre, the Matthews Opera House, and ramble around the Black Hills University campus.

10. Chamberlain

Chamberlain, South Dakota
Chamberlain, South Dakota

A small cultural haven in South Dakota is Chamberlain.  Thanks in large part to the nomadic Plains Indians population in town, the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Centre can be found here.   Located on the campus of St. Joseph’s Indian School, you’ll see artefacts that proudly display Lakota history and tradition.  You’ll also get a front row seat to the beautiful and powerful Missouri River as it runs through town. And if you’re celebrating a special event, check out the Cedar Shore Resort for some pampering and luxury.  Wheeler Bridge is a national historic landmark and locals and visitors both enjoy a stroll to the other side and back. And Al’s Oasis still has 5 cent coffee.

11. Kadoka

Kadoka, South DakotaSource: flickr
Kadoka, South Dakota

The Gateway to the Badlands is Kadoka – which is the Lakota word for “hole in the wall.”  It’s known as one of the friendliest places in the state and the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else.  It sits right on the edge of the Badlands National Park, making it the perfect place to say if you’re exploring the park. The town has a golf course, rodeo grounds, and a city park with a community pool.  It was first founded in the early 20th century when several prominent railroad lines extended service to Kadoka.  You can still get a feel for the old railroad town today.

12. Platte

Farmers State Bank (Platte, South Dakota)Source: Ammodramus / Wikimedia
Farmers State Bank (Platte, South Dakota)

With 1500 or so residents, Platte is one of the most community oriented towns on this list.  When you picture small town America in your mind, what you see is Platte.  This picturesque place is located near Lake Francis Case and three state parks. It has an agricultural history and strong Midwestern values.  Enjoy antique shopping, quaint boutiques, and a great choice of family home-style restaurants.  Follow history’s great march across the country on the Lewis and Clark Trail, visit the Cecil and Phyllis Melcher Museum, and take in a show at the wonderfully restored historic theatre.

13. Aberdeen

Aberdeen, South DakotaSource: flickr
Aberdeen, South Dakota

If Aberdeen where a person, it would be the talented and practically perfect older sibling that shines above the rest.  It’s a town that wins award after award, year after year.  Everything from service, education, public facilities and activities, and a thriving economy gets accolades in Aberdeen.  It’s also one of the larger towns on this list, but at 27,000, the town is still smaller than most US universities. A favourite stop for tourists in the Dacotah Prairie Museum.  The museum itself is about 70 years old and is create solely from the donations of South Dakotans.

14. Madison

Madison, South DakotaSource: flickr
Madison, South Dakota

Madison’s motto is ‘Discover the Unexpected.’  And they hit the nail on the head.  They’ve got hiking, lakes, and state parks, and the scenery is largely unspoiled and the crowds are always low. In the winter try snowmobiling, hunting, or ice fishing.  In warm months, walk through downtown and stop in the local cafes for coffee and pie. Kids especially love the Prairie Village Living Museum.  If you’re looking for a romantic getaway, consider spending your time in the John Green Art Studio, boutique shopping, a hike to Walker’s Point, a stay in a rustic cabin, and an evening of fine dining at the resort restaurant.

15. Pierre

South Dakota State Capitol Building, PierreSource: flickr
South Dakota State Capitol Building, Pierre

The capital of South Dakota is Pierre, and believe it or not, it’s a small town of only 14,000 residents.  There is no major interstate through the town – despite its being a capital city.  In fact, Pierre was the first permanent settlement in the Dakota region and was first explored by the US government when Lewis and Clark took their epic trek across the country. Today there’s a wonderful trail that retraces some of their steps.  There’s also a great deal of American Indian and early settlers’ history here. Don’t miss the Fort Pierre Chouteau site.  It was once the largest trading post for settlers and American Indians in the Great Plains. Today you can enjoy outdoor adventure like kayaking on the Missouri River and boating on Lake Sharpe or Lake Oahe.

15 Best Small Towns to Visit in South Dakota:

  • Deadwood
  • Brandon
  • Gary
  • Keystone
  • Wall
  • Lead
  • Hill City
  • Dell Rapids
  • Spearfish
  • Chamberlain
  • Kadoka
  • Platte
  • Aberdeen
  • Madison
  • Pierre