When you hear “South Dakota”, the places that come to mind are Sioux Falls for being the capital. Rapid City for being the gateway to the Black Hills. And Wall for being the quirky pharmacy store that has turned into an entire strip mall. However, what surprised me most about South Dakota weren’t the towns that are commonly referred to, but instead, the quaint, western-style towns that are scattered throughout the state. Towns with stories of gold rushes and famous gunmen coming to town, where you’re likely to find a saloon on the main street, eat a buffalo burger at a burger joint, and learn key pieces of history telling the story of how South Dakota came to be. So, if you’re visiting this incredible state, you don’t want to miss these 5 best towns in South Dakota.
5 of the Best Towns in South Dakota
Area: 2.54 mi²
Population: Approx 1,900
Not to be confused with Custer State Park, the town of Custer is located west of the park in the Black Hills. This mountain town is less about the town and more about its location to major attractions in the Black Hills. Within minutes you can be at Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Jewel Cave National Monument.
With a charming downtown area, grab beers from Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company or food along the downtown strip. Whether you’re staying in Custer or just stopping in, make it a priority to come for breakfast at Baker’s Bakery & Cafe.
Area: 4.93 mi²
Population: Approx 1,300
Of the best small towns in South Dakota, Deadwood has to be one of the most uniquely charming towns in the area. Deadwood has become infamous for its history during the gold rush which brought tons of people to town. Founded in 1876, Deadwood housed miners and was frequently visited by famous gunmen and Wild West figures who would hang out in the legendary saloons drinking moonshine and gambling. Two of the most famous Wild West figures at the time, Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane, are both buried in the Mount Moriah Cemetery.
When you visit Deadwood don’t pass up the chance to pop into Saloon No. 10. It’s where Wild Bill Hickock was killed and where you can find historic pictures of Deadwood’s most famous people. They also have live music entertainment most days and have the biggest whiskey selection in South Dakota.
3. Hill City
Area: 1.32 mi²
Population: Approx 1,000
On U.S. Route 385, Hill City is located between Deadwood and Hot Springs, South Dakota. It’s nestled in a valley with mountains and trees surrounding the area. By far one of my favorite small towns in South Dakota, Hill City has a more expansive downtown area with bars and restaurants for those looking for something to do once night falls.
As you explore downtown Hill City, make sure to eat at Bumpin’ Buffalo if you’re looking for a twist on bar food. Or the wildly popular, very unique, Alpine Inn. The Alpine Inn only serves two different dishes (with a “European” twist), a bacon-wrapped filet mignon, and a spaetzle primavera. They specialize in homemade desserts and offer an expansive dessert menu. Also, make sure to drive a bit away from downtown to try South Dakota wine at Prairie Berry.
Hill City is where I based myself as I explored the Black Hills! For a more extensive guide to the Black Hills, check out Your Guide to the Ultimate Black Hills Vacation.
Area: 3 mi²
Population: Approx 300
Keystone is home to one of the best sites in South Dakota – Mount Rushmore. But that’s not all there is! While I encourage you to visit the famous monument (and walk the Presidential Trail), also head downtown to visit coffee shops, shop in the boutique-style stores, or even stay in one of the log cabins.
When you visit Keystone, I recommend heading to Mount Rushmore early (7 am), before the crowds arrive. Then once you’ve spent adequate time there learning the history and walking around, head downtown for breakfast at Powder House. While Powder House serves an incredible breakfast menu, that’s not all! They also have individual log cabins nestled in the woods if you’re looking for somewhere to stay. And if log cabins aren’t your thing, instead try a glamping experience at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore.
Area: 16.75 mi²
Population: Approx 11,600
The biggest of the towns mentioned, Spearfish is wildly popular for its scenic drive through the canyon. Drive (or bike) the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, Highway 14A, snaking 22-miles through the Black Hills. Along the way make sure to stop at Bridal Veil Falls and if you like to fish, Devil’s Bathtub. Once you reach the end of the road there will be places to eat and grab a drink before continuing to another town.
Roughlock Falls is another popular sight along this drive, however, I don’t recommend it. In my opinion, it was overrated and not worth the time.
While I haven’t gotten the chance to explore South Dakota in its entirety, what I did see impressed me beyond my wildest dreams. If you’re visiting for the first time (or even the 10th!), don’t miss these 5 best towns in South Dakota.
For more South Dakota inspiration make sure to check out my Instagram page/highlight reel by searching #ppinsouthdakota or finding “South Dakota” in my highlights.