16 Fun Activities To Experience Autumn In South Dakota

Updated September 2023

Post Summary: Fun Places To Experience Autumn In South Dakota and Where To Find Them

The Wild West, beautiful Native American culture, golden prairies, presidential mountains…spark your interest yet?

Berty and I love exploring new places and being fueled by new adventures, so we ventured off to discover a new state – South Dakota!

Chock-full of unique landscapes and lively western towns, we were on a mission to find the best places to experience autumn in South Dakota.

Berty in the Badlands, South Dakota during sunset

We knew we just had to check out the aspen trees of Custer State Park, the winding road of the Needles Highway, and the stunning vistas of the Badlands. And that’s just the beginning of it all!

To help you plan your own all-American fall adventure this year, Berty and I wrote a complete guide to South Dakota in Autumn.

We’re sharing maps to the most fun South Dakota fall locations, the best times to visit each, what to expect, and so much more!

Fall Activities in South Dakota - The Mandagies Pinterest Pin 1

10 Fun Activities To Experience Autumn In South Dakota

This post is sponsored by Travel South Dakota. All opinions, photography, and writing are completely our own. Feel free to reach out with any questions about our sponsored content!

When Is The Best Time To Visit And See Fall Colors In South Dakota?

The best time to vist the fall colors in South Dakota is between the months of September and October.

Becuase of the high elevation of this area, South Dakota often receives fall colors earlier than most states, so plan a trip early in the fall season so you don’t miss a second of the action!

  • Peak time: Plan your autumn activities in South Dakota in early to mid-October to see the leaves at their peak.
  • South Dakota Foliage hotline: 800-732-5682​
View of Badlands National Park

1. Take A Hike In Badlands National Park

The Badlands National Park in southwest South Dakota is a cluster of eroding buttes and pinnacles surrounded by beautiful prairies on all sides.

Here, history is right in front of your eyes as you spot the different colors in the sediment!

You can easily see the Badlands in one day by driving through and stopping at the main lookouts.

However, if you have a little bit more time, we recommend camping nearby! This way, you can enjoy the park during sunrise and sunset too!

Thinking about spending a few days exploring the Badlands in the fall? Stay at Circle View Guest Ranch for the coziest sleep and most delicious homemade breakfast!

Berty on boardwalk Badlands National Park

To experience autumn in South Dakota all the way out here in the prairie, take an early morning hike to catch the weather doing interesting things.

The seasonal days may not bring some sunshine, but you can get a moody morning among the clouds at the Badlands instead.

Hike Suggestion: The Notch Trail is a 1.5-mile out-and-back trek. It takes you through a dry river bed and among towering buttes.

You will get some sweeping views of the valley and get up close and personal with the landscape.

Make sure to come prepared to climb, or consider another hike if you are scared of heights!

Discover A Similar National Park In Utah: Capitol Reef National Park

Ranger flashlight tour Wind Cave National Park

2. Explore Wind Caves National Park

Autumn in South Dakota can change quickly – there was actually a record-breaking temperature change here!

To get yourself out of the elements for an afternoon, explore the inside of Wind Caves National Park.

Wind Cave National Park works together with the Lakota tribe to showcase 140+ miles of discovered cave.

It’s called Wind Cave because as the temperature changes, the cave will “breathe” to match the atmospheric pressure of the outside air.

We took the “Garden of Eden” tour, which is a ranger-led walk of 150 stairs deep in the heart of the cave. Cave tours run $14 per adult ticket, and are sold on a first-come first-serve basis.

Note: As of Fall 2023 the cave elevators are being repaired, so cave tours are cancelled until further notice. They will update the public with reopenings mid-October or later!

On this tour, we saw examples of boxwork, frostwork, and popcorn cave formations. The ranger even turned out the lights to experience what the early cave explorers did when their candles got snuffed out! (Hint: it’s VERY dark)

Would you consider exploring more of this cave?

They are always looking for volunteers to uncover more of this underground maze. You just can’t be claustrophobic or scared of the dark!

Photographers Tip: Bring a lens with a low aperture (see our travel photography gear list!) to better capture the cave in low light!

Wind Cave National Park by candlight

Emily autumn in South Dakota

3. Discover Custer State Park

Consisting of 71,000 acres in the Black Hills, this park encompasses rolling hills, granite peaks, and beautiful lakes and wildlife around every corner.

Custer State Park is accessible from many areas of the state. It’s 30 minutes from Rapid City, 10 from Custer, and is also nearby big attractions like Mount Rushmore and Wind Caves National Park.

View of Custer State Park, South Dakota

During autumn in South Dakota, there are so many amazing opportunities and things to do in Custer State Park!

There are so many awesome places to go fly-fishing in South Dakota, but Custer State Park is an exceptional location! You will find mainly rainbow trout here, as well as other types of trout too.

Sit and watch the sunrise or sunset at Sylvan Lake, drive the twists and turns of Iron Mountain Road, or even spot a bison or two on the Wildlife Loop.

Whatever you choose, make sure to plan an entire day here to experience it to its fullest!

Love Wildlife? Try Exploring Yellowstone National Park! 

Needles highway tunnel, South Dakota

4. Take A Drive On The Needles Highway (The Best Fall Foliage Drive In South Dakota)

One of the most quintessential activities to do in autumn in South Dakota is to take a fall drive on the Needles Highway.

This 14-mile road in Custer State Park explodes with gorgeous fall colors around every twist and turn of the road.

The mix between green pine trees, orange aspens, and jutting granite peaks is guaranteed to make you pull over more than once for a picture!

It is said that this road was purposely designed to be narrow. This way, you have no choice but to slow down and enjoy the scenery. (We’re not complaining)

Plan a little bit of extra time here to soak in all that this scenic drive has to offer.

The fall foliage in South Dakota is on another level! We promise you won’t be disappointed.

Tunnel on the Needles Highway, South Dakota
autumn in South Dakota, Fall Foliage

Granite views from Black Elk Peak, South Dakota

5. Climb Up To Black Elk Peak

If you’re looking for a gorgeous fall hike in South Dakota, consider hiking Black Elk Peak during sunset.

This 6.8-mile out-and-back trail (or it can be a loop!) is a long but gradual uphill climb with a stone fire lookout at the end.

At the top, you can see views of the back of Mount Rushmore and the granite mountains of the Black Hills.

Black Elk Peak is the tallest point east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States.

Formerly known as Harney Peak, it has been renamed to the original Native American title (Black Elk Peak).

Here at the top, try and spot the Lakota prayer flags carefully draped over the pine trees.

If you are coming for sunset, make sure to bring a headlamp for the return trip back. It gets dark quickly!

Read More: Hike The Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

Emily at sunset on Black Elk Peak, South Dakota

beer at Oktoberfest, Deadwood, South Dakota

6. Attend Oktoberfest In Deadwood, South Dakota

2023 Oktoberfest Dates in Deadwood, SD: October 6-7, 2023

Deadwood, South Dakota is famous for being a gold rush town that attracted gunslingers, outlaws, and gamblers.

It got its name from the gulch of dead trees discovered in the area. As the town came to fruition from the get-rich-quick seekers looking for the precious metal in the nearby caves.

Now, while the days of gunfights in saloons are gone, Deadwood still keeps its loud and fun reputation.

It’s considered the local party town for modern-day thrill-seekers. You’ll find lots of bachelorette parties and group trips here!

Along Main Street, there is a plentiful selection of bars and casinos to choose from!

Beer barrel games, Deadwood, South Dakota
weiner dog raves, Oktoberfest in Deadwood, South Dakota

Every autumn in South Dakota, the town of Deadwood celebrates its western version of Oktoberfest.

Here, you can find Weiner dog races, beer barrel races, street drinking, and fun gatherings on every street corner.

Berty and I spent the day watching these events, and even getting old western photos of ourselves!

Want to stretch your legs? Try and bike or walk a portion of the George S. Mickelson trail. This 108.8-mile long route boasts railroad bridges, rock tunnels, and tons of beautiful fall foliage during this time of year.

7. See Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial is a one-of-a-kind statue that is CURRENTLY being carved out of the South Dakota granite mountains.

It will eventually be a statue of the Oglala Lakota Warrior, riding a house and extending his arm and pointer finger forward.

You can find this memorial in Custer County, South Dakota – pretty close to Mount Rushmore.

You can easily make the time to see both in one day, and even explore a little bit of the park too!

Admission Prices for Crazy Horse Memorial are $12.00 for 1 person in a vehicle, $24 for 2 people, or $30 for 3 or more people in a vehicle.

Each ticket includes admission to three museums on-site, The Orientation Film, cultural programs on the schedule, Mountain Carvings view from the Wall of Windows and the Outdoor Viewing Veranda, and the Laser Light Show at Dark in Season.

You can also receive re-admission passes if you’d like to return later in the day, say, to see the light show.

Mount Rushmore National Monument

8. Explore Mount Rushmore National Monument

If you’re coming to South Dakota, there’s a strong chance you’ll be stopping by Mount Rushmore National Monument.

If you’re unfamiliar, this is one of the most iconic places to visit in the United States.

The display includes four US presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln) carved on the side of a granite cliff.

After viewing this amazing sculpture, make sure to visit the Lincoln Borglum Museum. It’s located directly under the viewing platform.

Here, you’ll see the entire building process from start to finish in pictures and videos. They are from the perspective of the workers, founders, and artists who came together to create this amazing American monument.

We think autumn in South Dakota is the best time to visit Mount Rushmore. This is because there are fewer crowds, the sun rises a little later, and the weather is very comfortable!

Discover Another United States Favorite: The Grand Canyon

9. Ride A Hot Air Balloon Into The Sunset

What better way to see the fall foliage in South Dakota than by air?

Experiencing the cool, crisp autumn air isn’t just for the lucky! There’s tons of ways to see hot air balloons is South Dakota, and maybe even ride one too!

Black Hills Ballons offers sunrise flights, all inclusive with champagne, snacks, and all the amenities to make your trip incredibly comfortable!

During the weekend of September 13th – 15th, the Stratobowl Historic Hot Air Balloon Event will be going on in the Black Hills. Visitors can participate, ride, or even just watch these historic balloons rise up into the autumn morning.

Make it a family event and start planning your trip to the Black Hills from Rapid City now!

10. Take the 1880 Train Wine Express

Autumn is harvest time! If you like to enjoy this season with culinary experiences, you’ll be fully equipped in South Dakota to do just that!

The 1880 Train takes guests on a 20-mile route between Hill City and Keystone. This route is perfect for viewing the amazing fall leaves and colors right outside the windows.

Every fall in South Dakota, the 1880 Train hosts the “Wine Express”. Along the way, you’ll ride in the almost 100-year old historic train, sipping local wine paired with delicous food!

You’ll also receive a narrated tour of the area with live entertainment on deck too!

Purchase your tickets here and get ready for one of the best activities in South Dakota in autumn.

11. Watch Cowboys And Cowgirls Round Up Buffalos Near Wind Cave National Park

The Upcoming Buffalo Roundup Dates are September 28-30th, 2023 Come early on the 29th to snag a spot in the front!

One of the most exciting things to do in Autumn in South Dakota is watch riders rally up the buffalo for the season.

Not only is this event incredibly fun to watch, but it’s totally necessary for the health of the heard and sustainable management for the area.

The Buffalo Roundup begins at 9:15 am. It’s crucial to come early to get a spot in the front with folding chairs and binoculars. (Parking lots open at 6:30am!)

Not only is there the roundup viewing, but also tons of other activities.

Events like like horse camp, testing and sorting buffalo, and informational sessions are available during the event. Breakfast and lunch are also served for a fee!

12. Go Fall Camping in South Dakota

In the fall, the weather is crisp and cool, perfect for waking up in nature and enjoying a steaming cup of coffee at your campsite! Book your next site at Union Grove State Park near Beresford.

Don’t forget to download our free camping checklist, so you are prepared with

This area has over 180 species of trees and shrubs, perfect for leaf-peeping and nature lovers.

13. Spot Wildlife at Randall Creek Recreation Area

Much of this area is under a major flyway (a flightpath used by birds in a migration pattern) which makes Randall Creek Recreation Area is Pickstown perfect for spotting bald eagles and gulls!

Book a site at their campground along the Missouri River, and enjoy calm mornings watching the wildlife and birds on the shore.

Things To Do In Autumn in South Dakokta - Harvest Festivals

14. Check Out Harvest Festivals in South Dakota

South Dakota has a long history of farming, agriculture, and homesteading life.

This makes is a perfect spot to find harvest festivals, visit regional wineries, or pick local produce!

Here are some upcoming harvest festivals and autumn celebrations in South Dakota:

September Harvest Festivals in South Dakota

  • Delmont Harvest Festival: Think classic western cooking and crafts. Kuchen, craft fair, Twin Rivers Old Iron Show, and the Pumphouse Museum.
  • Adams Homestead and Nature Preserve: A great place for history buffs and recreationalists.
  • Beef N Fun Festival (Mobridge, SD): Hosted at the Klein Museum, Native American artifacts, Car, Motorcycle and Tractor Show, pet parade, and a 5k!
  • Arts In The Park (Gregory, SD): Soup-tasting contest, Storytime in the park, musical entertainment. This festival is PERFECT for kids
  • Homesteader Day (Beaver Creek): Pioneer Life reinactment, Civil War soldiers, historic demonstrations, old-time cooking, candle-dipping and more!
  • Fall in the Park (Lewis & Clark Rec Area): Outdoor activities, obstacle course, archery, games, hayrides, and more!
  • Harvest Fest (Spearfish, SD): Food and craft vendors, antique tractor show, live entertainment, and end-of-summer sales all over town.
  • Chamberlain-Oacoma Fall Festival (Chamberlain, SD): Craft and food vendors, pumpkin chuckin’ contest, and more.
  • Great Downtown Pumpkin Festival (Rapid City, SD): Pumpkins being launched from a catapult, giant pumpkin weight-off, pub crawl, and more!

October Harvest Festivals in South Dakota

15. Soak Away Your Worries at Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa

1890 Hot Springs Hotel and bathhouse

Nothing says fall like crisp cool mornings and chilly evenings! This is the perfect weather for hot spring soaking!

Berty and I have done our fair share of exploring Idaho hot springs in the fall and we can say this is the best time of year to visit them!

Moccasin Springs is a natural spa, located in Hot Springs, South Dakota. It was first built in 1890 as the Hot Springs Hotel and Bathhouse, but has recently been restored as of 2015.

Soaking reservations are $27 for 3 hours. You can choose between 6 pool ranging from 85-105 degrees, all steeped in natural healing minerals.

Love hot springs? Here are some Pacific Northwest hot springs, Oregon hot springs, and Washington hot springs to explore next!

16. Take a Spooky Hiking Trail at Sica Hollow State Park

Located in the far northeast corner of the state, Sica Hollow State Park (pronouced SHE-cha) is known for its spooky aura, mysterious events, and eerie vibe.

Take the Trail of the Spirits in the evening for a thrilling walk. The damp air and bubbling bogs bring back memories for the Sioux people. This is where they recall the flesh and blood of their ancestors.

Follow the streams, waterfalls, wildflowers, and walk across the bridges to immerse yourself in their indigenous lore for a spooky walk!

Get Scared: Discover more spooky hikes in the Pacific Northwest, haunted places in Oregon, haunted places in Washington, and haunted places in Idaho.

Are These All The Best Activities To Do In Autumn in South Dakota?

Nope! On this trip, Berty and I only explored the west side of the state, around Rapid City.

We must come back to search for more fall foliage and autumn activities in South Dakota another time! Here’s what’s next on our list:

Map of Amazing Locations For Autumn In South Dakota

In order to experience the fall season in South Dakota to its fullest, we suggest flying into Rapid City. From here, you can take day trips to the Black Hills, Badlands, and even the Destiny statue in Chamberlain.

Click here for a map of South Dakota fall destinations for easy trip planning!

Thank you South Dakota Tourism for hosting us during the beautiful fall season in South Dakota!

What are some of your favorite places to experience autumn in South Dakota? Let us know in the comments below because we’d love to make a return trip!

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  1. The pictures of the places in South Dakota you posted are so beautiful & breathtaking. When I was young, I never would pay attention to all these places. But as I got older, I begin to appreciate the beauty of nature. Thanks for sharing. By the way, did you encounter bats in those caves? Also, what kind of travel gear did you have to bring ie carry on suitcase, backpacks? I’m sure you have to have some things to protect your cameras, laptop.