The Scoop: South Dakota played an integral role in the western expansion of the United States. Still, some people may not realize how many exciting outdoor and cultural activities the state has to offer. The South Dakota Department of Tourism aims to change that by showcasing the state’s diverse offerings. From larger-than-life sculptures in Sioux Falls to the pristine beauty of the Black Hills, couples looking for an undiscovered vacation spot can be sure to find something unique in the state. That’s why South Dakota has earned our Editors’ Choice Award as a preferred destination for a romantic getaway.
The old Western town of Deadwood, South Dakota, has received a lot of notoriety since the HBO show of the same name premiered more than a decade ago. But the town’s real-life history is just as exciting as its TV counterpart. Near-mythical figures of the Old West, like Calamity Jane and “Wild Bill” Hickok, made their way to the town after gold was discovered there in the 1870s.
History buffs appreciate that Deadwood has been preserved to look much like it did back then, with red brick buildings lining the main thoroughfare. The Bullock Hotel is still purportedly home to the ghost of frontiersman Seth Bullock, Deadwood’s first sheriff who built and owned the hotel. You can visit the former saloon where Hickok was shot while holding a now-famous poker hand. The town has even kept the same motto that it had back then: “No rules. No regrets.”
Like Deadwood, the broader state of South Dakota is full of off-the-beaten-path excursions and notable historic sites, but people often don’t realize just how much the state has to offer.
Katlyn Richter, of the South Dakota Department of Tourism, is helping get the word out by showing visitors that the state is charmingly romantic with unforgettable scenery.
“Our state is unexpected, so we often feel like people are blown away when they come for a visit,” she told us. “They had no idea how beautiful and diverse our landscapes are.”
The South Dakota Department of Tourism emphasizes the many different adventures individuals, couples, and families can have on a visit. Lovers of the outdoors can hike the lush and green Black Hills or the prehistoric rock formations of the Badlands. Alternatively, those who prefer fine restaurants, history, and the arts can check out Deadwood or Sioux Falls, the state’s largest city.
Unique Beauty From The Black Hills to The Badlands
Many South Dakota visitors on road trips pass through from surrounding states, including Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Nebraska. Many of these travelers are families or empty nesters, who are adventuring on their own again. Others are young couples — with or without children.
One of the most popular reasons that couples travel to the state, of course, is to visit Mount Rushmore and see the faces of Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln carved into stone. But while they might plan to just visit the monument, they are often taken in by the state’s beauty.
Near Mount Rushmore is located within the Black Hills National Forest, one of the state’s most beautiful areas. The Sioux tribes called this region the “black hills” because of the dark pine forests that cover them. Perhaps the name “hills” is a bit of a misnomer, too, as the highest peak in the region — Black Elk Peak — climbs to a staggering 7,242 feet.
Vacationers to the Black Hills have many options for activities. Some prefer to camp in the forests because they don’t get a lot of wind, while others prepare for rock climbing.
“For people looking for outdoor adventuring, there are pristine mountain lakes for paddle boarding, canoeing or kayaking,” Katlyn said. “You can also enjoy the water and fish.”
For a vastly different landscape, travelers seek out Badlands National Park. The 244,000-acre park is known for its multicolor rock formations created through ancient geologic formations. It offers tall formations and peaks through which visitors can both drive and hike.
“Our state has six National Parks sites close to one another, and there’s plenty of outdoor adventure to be found in those parks,” Katlyn said.
Visitors can also be sure that locals will be happy to have them. As with the Department of Tourism, residents want to share the incredible sights so often overlooked.
“People are passionate about our state and our amenities, so we have a great amount of kindness we show our visitors,” Katlyn said.
Couples Can Explore Art, Cuisine, and Cultural History
For couples who prefer urban or cultural offerings on their getaways, the state also has plenty of options.
Katlyn recommends the famous Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a 10-night get-together for motorcycle enthusiasts that features food, music, and revelry. It attracts between 400,000 and 800,000 visitors who ride into the city on their bikes.
“That’s a fun one; it’s really quite exciting if people are willing to get adventurous,” she said.
Couples can experience the state’s history at the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup, an annual fall event that appeals to those who want to experience Western history.
“It’s a management practice that the park does to check the herd of bison in the park, but they also have a chuckwagon dinner and an arts event, as well,” Katlyn said. “Anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 people come to watch this true western event.”
History buffs also won’t want to miss seeing the Crazy Horse Memorial, near the Mount Rushmore site. When finished, the monument will be the largest mountain carving in the world, besting even its presidential neighbor in size. The memorial depicts the famous Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse riding a horse and has been in progress since 1948.
“We like to do art big here, if you look at Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse,” Katlyn said with a laugh.
The Tatanka Rez Tour of the Pine Ridge Reservation is also an engaging Native American historical experience in the southwestern part of the state. It offers more details about the Lakota tribe’s history, culture, and region. Without an exploration of the state’s Native American lands, the trip would not be complete for any lover of Western history.
South Dakota is a State of Wonder and Romance
South Dakota is proving that its scenic landscapes are the perfect backdrop for an adventurous vacation or a romantic getaway. One particularly intimate location is Sioux Falls in the winter.
Katlyn recommended that couples book a room at the Hotel Phillips, the city’s first boutique hotel, opening in 2019. For a truly memorable evening, they can visit the Strawbale Winery, just outside of town, for a Twilight Flight — held around Christmas and Valentine’s Day.
“You get in a helicopter and see a beautiful waterfall, and the entire large park is decorated in hundreds of thousands of lights strung up over the city,” she said.
While in Sioux Falls, couples can also check out the Arc of Dreams spanning the Big Sioux River. The 70-foot sculpture “represents the leap of faith it takes to achieve your dreams,” Katlyn said.
Alternately, couples looking for a romantic weekend or week could stay in the Sylvan Lake Lodge at Custer State Park.
“There are individual cabins and traditional lodge establishments. That’s my favorite one for couples,” Katlyn told us.
Whatever they decide to do, couples who come to South Dakota can be sure that they have plenty of options, and that variety is what makes Katlyn and her team so passionate about the work they do to promote state tourism.
“We have a job we’re grateful to have: promoting a place we love,” she said. “We can’t get enough of telling South Dakota’s story.”