What is South Dakota Known For? (15 Things It’s Famous For)

South Dakota is a midwestern US state in the Great Plains region of the mainland. It is renowned for its Badlands, undulating prairies, and plains and is the home of Mount Rushmore. It is considered the land of infinite variety owing to its diversity in scenery, weather, and economic opportunities. The state houses the geographic center of the continental US and also boasts of more shorelines than Florida, thanks to Lake Oahe and the many tributaries of the Missouri River. South Dakota is also renowned as a cowboy country with its rolling plains and agricultural background.

South Dakota is known for its diversity and variety of attractions. While it is primarily agricultural, the state also is home to the Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which draws thousands of visitors from in and out of state. South Dakotans are also widely renowned for their honesty and downhome hospitality.

General Geographic Facts

South Dakota is the 16th largest state, with 77,123 square miles of territory. However, it is also one of the more sparsely populated regions as its population density is about ten people per square mile. Its diverse scenery is rife with farmlands, prairies, and glacial lakes alongside the Badlands and the various mountain ranges that dot the landscape. The highest peak in the area is Black Elk Peak, with an elevation of 7,244 feet, making it the highest summit in the US east of the Rocky Mountains.  

Basic Location Factoids

Located in the upper middle region of the mainland US, the state has Minnesota and Iowa to its east, with Nebraska occupying its southern boundary. North Dakota is to its northern part, with Wyoming and Montana to its western portion. The Missouri River and the James River are the two major river systems in the state. The Black Hills National Forest is also renowned for housing two of the most popular places in the state, Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is a tribute to the revered Native American leader.

Many State Names

Although recognized as Mount Rushmore State, South Dakota has several other state nicknames. It was also known as The Swinged Cat State, owing to the statement uttered by Governor Arthur Mellette about the drought affecting the area. Its first nickname was The Coyote State which was inspired not by the state animal but by a horse owned by two soldiers from the Company A Dakota Cavalry, which beat the horse from the Iowa 6th Cavalry. Spectators said that the Dakotan horse ran like a coyote.

Early South Dakotan History

The state was previously occupied by Native American tribes, specifically the Sioux, Akirara, and Mandan people, which roamed the plains and prairies in the hunt of wild bison and other large animals. The territory was added to the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase alongside North Dakota and other areas. Lewis and Clark established the first settlement in 1804, and the early settlers had several clashes with the Sioux over territory.

The state was accepted into the union on November 2, 1889, with North Dakota as President Benjamin Harrison shuffled the bills and signed one randomly.

Delicious South Dakotan Fare

If you love food, South Dakota has iconic fare that rivals other states. Chislic is one of the most popular dishes in the state. It is made of half-inch cuts of beef or lamb, skewered and grilled or deep-fried to perfection. Walleye and pheasant dishes also are famous as there are several variations available. Fry bread is also a staple and is central to the Indian tacos that South Dakotans love. Kuchen, a sweet pastry of custard poured over your choice of fruit, is also a favorite alongside kolache and homemade fudge.

Alternative Burgers

People love beef burgers, but South Dakota leads the nation in producing bison burgers. The meat is leaner and tastier, and chefs suggest cooking it medium rare to enjoy its sweetness. South Dakota is also renowned for preparing bison steaks and roasts as the state seeks to expand the culinary options available to its countrymen.

Music Festivals Abound  

South Dakotans love their music, and it shows as it stages the annual Black Hills Bluegrass Festival and the Sioux Falls Jazz and Blues Festival. These events are among the more popular music fests that celebrate music and are usually filled with food and beer stalls, exhibitions, and craft stalls to add to the festivities. Top local bands of different genres showcase their wares during these days.  

Wild West Celebrations

Celebrating its colorful wild-west history, South Dakota also holds the yearly Wild Bill Days, the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, and the Days of 76 events. The Wild Bill Days commemorate the life of Wild Bill Hickok with staged gunfights, music, food, and Wild West events. Meanwhile, the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup happens every September and showcases how cowboys would herd and prepare the buffalo for the wintertime. The Days of 76 celebrations commemorate Deadwood’s founding in 1876 with a huge carnival, a rodeo competition, parades, and other Wild West shows.

Diverse Flora and Fauna

Owing to its diverse landscape, South Dakota is home to various flora and fauna species. Wild bison is primary among the species that roam its plains and prairies. However, the state also has deer, elk, antelope, and prairie dogs, alongside porcupine and jackrabbit species. Bald and golden eagles soar in the sky while tiger salamanders and softshell turtles inhabit the streams and rivers.

The flora includes weeping willows, Ponderosa pines, and the Black Hills spruce. Wildflowers also are famous in the state, with thistles, wild roses, geraniums, and blanket flowers teeming with three-foot-tall grass on the plains.

Athletes Galore

While not necessarily considered an athletic powerhouse, South Dakota boasts several notable athletes in different sporting events. Brock Lesnar, renowned wrestling and mixed martial arts practitioner, hails from Webster. Durable NFL linebacker Chad Greenway was born in Mount Vernon, while legendary kicker Adam Vinatieri hails from Yankton. Vinatieri is the leading scorer in NFL history, with 2,673 points in 24 years for the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. WNBA great Becky Hammon is from Rapid City, while NBA sharpshooter Mike Miller hails from Mitchell. Olympic 10,000m gold medalist Billy Mills is from Pine Ridge.   

Visit Mount Rushmore

Carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore are four of the greatest US Presidents in history. Majestic figures of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson were carved by artist Gutzon Burglom and his son Lincoln from 1927 to 1941. The attraction is part of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which attracts more than two million visitors annually. The site is also referred to as the Shrine of Democracy. Don’t forget to enjoy the saltwater taffy, one of the area’s food attractions.

Head to the Wind Cave National Park for Spelunking

The Wind Cave National Park is the first cave in the world designated as a National Park. Located 16 kilometers north of Hot Springs in western South Dakota, it is the seventh national park established by the US Government. It is the seventh longest cave in the world and is renowned for its frostwork and boxwork calcite formations. The cave formation has 154.2 miles of explored passageways and is the third-longest cave on the mainland. Aboveground, the park has the largest natural mixed-grass prairie in the country.

Join the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally

If you’re a motorhead, you might want to drive to Sturgis, South Dakota, to participate in the 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally starting the first Saturday of August. Started in 1938 by a group of Indian Motorcycle riders, the event showcases stunts and races for motorcycle enthusiasts. However, the passage of time saw the event evolve into an endeavor celebrating the riding culture. The event brings about $800 million in annual revenue for the state, and though there are protests and untoward events, these have always been peacefully resolved.

Indulge in Stargazing in the Badlands

If you’re into stargazing and camping, you might want to head to Badlands National Park, as it is one of the best places in the country to indulge in stargazing. You’re bound to see the majestic star formations in the Northern hemisphere with little to no light pollution and the open sky. You can troop to the Big Badlands Overlook, Cedar Pass Campground Amphitheater, Pinnacles Overlook, or Panorama Point. You could also camp out along the Badlands Loop Road or Sage Creek Rim Road or take a hike in the open backcountry for your preferred spot.

Visit the Crazy Horse Memorial

You can also take a detour and visit the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is still under construction. Started in 1948, the memorial is a tribute to the Native American leader Crazy Horse and, if finished, will showcase the leader riding his horse and pointing to his tribal land. Commissioned by Lakotan elder Henry Standing Bear, the memorial is on privately-held land in the Black Hills area in Custer County, South Dakota. If and when completed, the monument will be the second-highest in the world, measuring 642 feet long by 563 feet high, next only to India’s Statue of Unity.