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Top 10 Must-See Natural Wonders in South Dakota

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While most people are familiar with the famous natural wonders of the Badlands, the Black Hills and South Dakota’s rolling prairies; here are some natural wonders that deserve more than just a passing glance.
  1. Palisades State Park:Unusual terrain and a colorful past make Palisades State Park one of the most interesting areas in South Dakota. Split Rock Creek, which flows through the park, is lined with Sioux quartzite formations varying from shelves several feet above the water to 50-foot vertical cliffs. The park is popular among campers, sightseers, picnickers, rock climbers and hikers. Jesse James and his gang of outlaws are also believed to have used a cave at the Palisades as a hide-out.
  1. Mammoth Site: More than 26,000 years ago, large Columbian and woolly mammoths were trapped and died in a spring-fed pond near what is now the southwest edge of Hot Springs. Discovered in 1974 while excavating for a housing development the Mammoth Site is the world's largest Columbian mammoth exhibit and research center for Pleistocene studies. It is truly a unique and natural location for the state.
  1. Jewel Cave National Monument: This cave got its name because of the calcite crystals that cover nearly every wall in the cave. When the explorers who discovered the uncharted cave found it they believed the jewels were a valuable resource. Jewel cave stretches 140 miles, making it the second longest cave in the world. New passages are being discovered all the time, and wind flow through the cave suggests that the cave has many more passageways left to be discovered.
  1. Bear Butte: Mato Paha or “Bear Mountain” is the Lakota name given to this spiritual site, so called because it looks like a sleeping bear. This geological formation is one of several intrusions of igneous rock in the Black Hills that formed millions of years ago. The mountain is sacred to many Native American tribes, who go there to hold religious ceremonies. Also, Bear Butte was once used by multiple tribes as a meeting point to discuss the advancement of the white man on to their lands.
  1. Spearfish Canyon: Originally, the land was covered by a great sea. When the waters started to subside, the canyon was carved out by water eroding away the softer rock. The land was also pushed up from underneath by volcanic action. After many years, the water carved out the channel we have come to call Spearfish Canyon. Spearfish Canyon also has many waterfalls; one beautiful waterfall located in the canyon is Roughlock Falls. The water flow of Roughlock Falls usually depends on the time of year, but the scenery around the falls is always a beauty.
  1. Falls Park: This natural wonder is the unique reason that Sioux Falls is the city it is today. Sioux Falls was originally inhabited so residents could tap the power of the falls for mills and electricity. The Pink Quartzite that covers all areas of the falls is special and only located in a few parts of the United States. Falls Park still lies at the heart of downtown Sioux Falls and continues to be one of the most beautiful locations in the state.
  1. Wind Cave National Park: Visitors to Wind Cave National Park enjoy the hike to the cave as well as exploring its passages underground. Leading up to the cave is an extensive ponderosa pine forest that is inhabited by an active bison population. Under the ground is a very rare formation of boxwork, which is a calcite shape similar in appearance to honeycomb. The cave offers five tours that vary in difficulty.
  1. Belle Fourche: After the addition of Hawaii and Alaska to the United States in 1959, a point 20 miles north of Belle Fourche was named the official “Geological Center of the United States.” The site was originally in Smith Center, Kansas, before it was moved to its new home in Butte County, SD.
  1. Last Natural Stretch of the Missouri River: There is one section of the Missouri River in South Dakota, near Yankton, where the river still flows as it did before Lewis & Clark explored the mighty river. Although every other section of the Missouri in South Dakota has been altered by dams, this stretch of river has been left in its natural state. The area is surrounded by massive bluffs that flank the river and provide a distinctive contrast to the twisting and turning river. Here the river has a mind of its own with sandbars changing from day to day and where the natural pull of the river remains unchanged.
  1. Burning Bluffs: The burning bluffs are created by oil-bearing shale. Lightning strikes or chemical reactions ignite the shale, which may then smoke for years. People can see smoke and steam pour out of the earth’s surface and that’s what gives it the appearance of being on fire. The bluffs are a phenomenon found in different parts of the state, but especially in central South Dakota along the Missouri River. This natural wonder was first witnessed by Lewis & Clark on their great expedition and can be viewed occasionally today. 
For more information on these locations, check out the Trip Planner at and visit the 10 Natural Wonders of South Dakota map at Google Maps.