Best time to travel
When is the Best Time to Visit South Dakota?
Below is a breakdown of what to expect during each of South Dakota’s four seasons. However, keep in mind that conditions may vary depending on where you are in the state. At higher elevations, temperatures will be cooler, and in the southeastern portion of the state, precipitation will be higher. South Dakota is also one of those unique places where temperatures and conditions can vary throughout the day, so sometimes you may have the pleasure of experiencing two seasons in one day!
- Spring (March – May) – Spring tends to be a milder, transitional season in South Dakota. While rain showers are common (April averages nine days of precipitation and 2.4 inches of rain) so are sunny days and temperatures can even get into the 70°s in May. For the most part, expect daily temperatures to be in the 50°s. Late April and early May are great times to visit if you want to see the wildflowers bloom and perhaps, a baby animal or two!
- Summer (Memorial Day – Labor Day) – This would be considered peak tourist season in South Dakota. School is out for summer and South Dakota – especially Mount Rushmore – is a popular destination for vacationing families as well as international tour groups. You can expect around 15 hours of daylight, so there is plenty of time to squeeze in sightseeing and outdoor recreational activities. In late May, the average temperature is 70°, in June it reaches the 80°s and by July and August, daily averages in most South Dakota cities are in the mid-80°s. The thermometer will hit 90° here and there, but it’s rare and 100° days are even rarer. At night, temperatures often dip down to a comfortable 60°F. Humidity is seldom a problem, but it’s not uncommon to have short, afternoon thunderstorms during the summer months. I.e. it never hurts to pack a light rain jacket or umbrella (see How to Prepare!) Keep in mind that every August, one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world takes place in Sturgis, so there will be a lot going on in and around the Black Hills.
- Autumn (September – November) – After Labor Day, temperatures begin to drop and for the months of September and October, you can plan on highs in the 70°s and 60°s, respectively. By November, the temperatures drop another 20° and at night, it can get below freezing. Still, fall is a fantastic time to visit South Dakota – especially if you want to catch the fall foliage in the Black Hills.
- Winter (December – February) – Average annual snowfall for the state of South Dakota is 37 inches, and while it’s higher than the average annual snowfall for the U.S. (24 inches), it’s not much compared to states like Colorado (70 inches) and Vermont (90 inches). Temperatures are low, the average high in January is 27°F, but as long as you dress accordingly and wear boots, you should be able to participate in a variety of snow sports including ice fishing, skiing and snowmobiling. There is an average of 9-10 hours of daylight during the winter months, and it’s worth noting that South Dakota is divided into two time zones – Mountain and Central.
How to Prepare
Wondering What to Pack on Your South Dakota Vacation?
If you’re not interested in exchanging currencies, learning new languages (unless they’re Native American dialects) or researching cultural do’s and don’ts, South Dakota is a great trip for you! Obviously if you plan on riding any Rails to Trails, you’ll probably want to spend some time on a bike prior to your trip. That said, portions of the 109-mile Mickelson Trail can be very beginner-friendly, so you don’t need to do any serious training unless you’re aiming for a record time! The most important way to prepare, is to make sure that you’re a smart packer.
What to Pack for Your South Dakota Vacation
It largely depends on what time of year you’re visiting and the activities you plan on doing, but for the most part, the items below belong in your bag.
1. Camera – South Dakota is home to some pretty spectacular attractions including Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, and the world’s only “corn palace.” It’s also home to some incredible state and national parks including Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, and our personal favorite, the beautiful Black Hills National Forest. You’ll see some pretty amazing things in South Dakota, so bring your camera to capture the moments!
2. Comfortable, and Casual attire – Especially during the winter and summer months when temperatures are most extreme, it’s important to pack comfortable clothing. We recommend packing layers so you’re never caught off guard on those cooler mornings and evenings. Shorts and sandals are musts during July and August, and hats, gloves and boots are musts during January and February. Generally speaking, South Dakotans are laid back, so if you want to blend in with the locals, leave your fanciest duds at home. Plan to visit Sturgis? Pack anything leather and your bandanas!
3. Essentials for the Elements – A light rain jacket and/or umbrella are recommended for spring, summer and even fall vacations. Starting in November and running through March, you’ll probably want to pack your winter jacket as well as winter accessories to keep your feet, hands, and face warm. Before you decide to pack your snow boots, take a look at the forecast because chances are, you may not need them. Sun protection is also important—especially during the summer and at high altitudes and the eastern part of the state. South Dakota is one of the top five windiest states in the U.S., so we also recommend packing a windbreaker.
4. Active wear/gear – South Dakota is an underrated, oft-overlooked paradise for people who love outdoor recreation and activities. Hiking boots are a must if you plan on hiking up Harney Peak, the highest point peak east of the Rockies. If biking the historic 109-mile Mickelson trail is on your list of things to do, you’ll want to pack your cycling gear (Bike rentals are available along the trail.
Travel Tips for Visiting South Dakota
We’ve been leading adventure vacations in South Dakota for many years now, and we’re happy to share what we’ve learned from our experience. See below for a few pointers that you may want to keep in mind as you’re planning your trip.
1. Spend the Night at Mount Rushmore – While you may think that the best time to visit Mount Rushmore is first thing in the morning before the tour buses arrive, the evening lighting ceremony that is held mid-May through the end of September at sunset is a very moving experience—especially if you are a veteran.
2. Fan of Kevin Costner? Eat at Jake’s! – If Dances of Wolves is one of your favorite movies, you need to check out Kevin Costner’s restaurant, Jake’s, in the town of Deadwood. Not only is the food fantastic, but the décor features vintage movie posters and costumes and memorabilia from Costner’s most famous films.
3. Allow Time for Roadside Attractions – Odd and unusual roadside attractions are everywhere in South Dakota! If you have the flexibility, build an extra hour or two into your schedule so you have time to pull over and check out things like the Dinosaur Park, Petrified Wood Park, 1880 Cowboy Town and whatever else you encounter on the side of the road. Don’t worry; there will be plenty of signs pointing the way!
4. Expect Higher Room Rates During Sturgis – Around 500,000 people attend the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally held every August, and hotels usually increase their room rates a few days prior to, during, and after the week-long rally. And don’t expect to find an available room at the last minute. Hotels sell out months in advance and rooms can be very hard to come by, even in Sioux City which is almost 400 miles from Sturgis!