1. Custer State Park, Custer
General George Custer has gone from hero to scoundrel in the history books, but his namesake park is a top conservation and wildlife destination. One of the country’s largest American Bison herds roams here. Stop by any time and watch bighorn sheep, pronghorn antelope, wild turkeys, elk and burros.
2. Bear Butte State Park, Sturgis
This is a sacred place to many Native American people, particularly the Lakota. As you climb the trail up the mountain, (Mato Paha, in Lakota), don’t disturb the strips of cloth and other prayer offerings tied to the trees. For the full story, start at the Education Center, which can teach even the totally ignorant about the area’s native cultures and histories.
3. Oahe Downstream Recreation Area, Fort Pierre
Stretching from Pierre, South Dakota to Bismark, North Dakota, Oahe is one of America’s largest reservoirs. TV fishing personalities come for the massive walleye, but the lake’s more aloof stars are Bald Eagles. In winter, spot these magnificent birds roosting in branches just a few feet from shore.
4. Sica Hollow State Park, Sisseton
According to tribal lore, that reddish water is ancestral flesh and blood. Other people will tell you a ghost story or two about the forest — and the Bigfoot creature who lives there. Put on a brave face and come out in autumn, when the trees are too gloriously colored to be scary.
5. Fort Sisseton Historic State Park, Lake City
Grab your musket, pack your saddle bags and trip back in time each June at the Fort Sisseton Historic Festival. For three days, costumed pioneers and cavalrymen turn the park into a frontier outpost from 1864. If bearded men in beaver hats don’t appeal, come snowshoe during the quieter winter months.
6. Oakwood Lakes State Park, Bruce
Oakwood’s actually surrounded by eight lakes. This is the sort of place where family memories are made, then built upon year after year. Summer is for boating and camping; autumn for hiking and horseback riding; winter for ice fishing; and spring for kayaking and picnicking.
7. Palisades State Park, Garretson
If you believe the locals, here’s where infamous outlaw, Jesse James, evaded capture by leaping his horse over Devil’s Gulch. These quartzite cliffs look even more intimidating from down on Split Rock Creek, where you can tube during summer months – or white water raft, after a big prairie rainfall.
8. Good Earth State Park, Sioux Falls
Some 450 years ago, the land spanning the Big Sioux River was a seasonal gathering and trading place for indigenous peoples. Now an archeological site, Good Earth teaches you from the ground up, with self-guided and guided walks that explore the area’s historical importance.
9. Lewis & Clark Recreation Area, Yankton
Retrace the footsteps of the intrepid exploring duo, who, guided by Sacajawea, a Lemhi Shoshone woman, pioneered a route along the Missouri River and nearby Yankton. Because it’s a prime watersport and camping spot for “East River” Dakotans, the recreation area’s three campgrounds book out early – so make a reservation if you plan on staying a few nights.