South Dakota is a land of outdoor adventures set in wide-open spaces that were once roamed by great Indian warriors like the mighty Sioux, French fur traders, gold prospectors, and prairie settlers like Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairies, and her family. Today, South Dakota remains vast, yet sparsely populated and its towns are nothing more than meeting places for distant farmers and cowboys. Even the once-thriving herds of buffalo are gone and much of the state’s grassland has been replaced by agricultural crops. Despite the taming of this once wild land, South Dakota remains cherished as “America’s Outback”.
South Dakota’s landscape is much as you would expect – spacious plains, prairies, and open skies for hundreds of miles. But there are also the intermittent river breaks, forests, rugged badlands, fertile farmland, and emerald oases like the Black Hills. The best way to experience South Dakota is by visiting the small towns and numerous lakes and parklands you’ll find in the northern and southern portions of the state, away from the I-90 and the I-29.
South Dakotans, you’ll find, are very proud of their heritage and history as pioneers of these unknown lands. Not only has the state gave the world such colorful Old West characters like Calamity Jane, Sitting Bull, and Wild Bill Hickok, but it is also home to the most generous, hospitable, and industrious people in the country. Agriculture and farming is the way of life of South Dakotans, with half of its 750,000 residents living on the farms and ranches that make up 90% of the state.
The best time to visit is perhaps the fall, when tourists and urban dwellers come to participate in the festivals and fairs hosted by rural South Dakotans to celebrate the state’s heritage. South Dakota’s history is also celebrated in the buffalo roundups, colorful powwows, Native American museums and shops, and historical markers that keep alive the traditional celebrations, arts, and history of the Sioux Nation.
South Dakota was once dominated by the mighty Sioux Indians, joined later by fur traders and trappers of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Missouri Fur Company, and the American Fur Company. The Homestead Act of 1862, which offered free land, gave way to white settlers who came to the prairies and set up sod houses. Many of the early immigrants were Germans and Scandinavians who brought their traditional European customs and culture to South Dakota. Unfortunately, the discovery of gold in Black Hills in 1874 ushered in a sudden wave of white prospectors, whom the Sioux did not welcome. The natives would not allow their lands to be mined by prospectors. In the end, U.S. troops pushed the Sioux tribes aside, massacring many of them, including women and children, in the 1890 battle of Wounded Knee. Today, a stone monument has been erected to mark this tragic event. And most Sioux descendants now live on nine reservations designated in South Dakota.
Some notable sights and attractions in South Dakota include the Badlands National Park, a well-preserved stretch of grass prairies that are home to millions-of-year-old fossils of mammals and the richest Oligocene epoch fossil beds.
Black Hills is also a worthwhile visit to retrace the gold rush days of the 1870s and also to see the world’s largest sculpture, the Crazy Horse Memorial.
For outdoor adventurers, the eastern and central plains of South Dakota are great for pheasant hunting; the Missouri River region and its four great lakes are popular among tourists who enjoy water sports and recreation; and Lake Oahe is a great fishing destination, especially for catching large northern pikes.