Bound by the graceful lowlands of the east and the sacred Black Hills in the west, South Dakota is an understated treasure of the upper Midwest. One of the last territories to enter the union, South Dakota was acquired from the French as part of the Louisiana Purchase. The state capital, Pierre, was named for the French-descended but St. Louis-born fur trader Pierre Chouteau, Jr. The state itself, however, was named by the Sioux — Dakota means “friend” or “ally.” It still has a significant Native American population today — in fact, nine percent of residents identify as one of the nine tribes living in South Dakota. Reservations and tribal lands comprise a sizable portion of the state’s terrain. Not surprisingly, the culture of South Dakota is greatly influenced by its indigenous residents, from its community events to politics.
South Dakota was the site of some of the nation’s most foundational battles — notably, the Battle of the Little Bighorn, armed engagement between combined forces of the Lakota Sioux, Northern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes and the States Army, resulting in the defeat of U.S. forces. Though their coveted lands were ultimately seized by the government, the legacy of this victory lives on.
Gazing out upon the vast terrain of South Dakota, it’s not hard to understand why this South Dakota would be considered sacred and valuable territory. Its beauty is self-evident and its soil is rich in minerals. Capitalizing on these elements, the Mount Rushmore State has built its economy on agriculture and tourism. With a low cost of living, a business-first economic strategy and a family-friendly culture, South Dakota has attracted tens of thousands of new residents willing to brave some of the harshest weather in the U.S. for a new start in the upper Midwest. If you’re planning on being one of them, check out some of the pros and cons of living in South Dakota below.
Life in South Dakota
Life in the Mount Rushmore State is something that many Americans know little about. As one of the least populous states in one of the least populous regions, it can be hard to get the word out. (Those granite figures don’t talk much, you know?) But as the 909,824 residents can attest, South Dakota and the upper Midwest have much to recommend them.
South Dakota Economy
The economy, for one, is stable and growing. U.S. News & World Report ranks the state #2 for fiscal stability. Meanwhile, the state government prides itself on being defiantly pro-business, levying no state taxes on personal or corporate income or estates. South Dakota also has the seventh lowest cost of living in the country, stretching those hard-earned dollars a little further. On average, South Dakotans earn $63,920 per household — just shy of the national level.
Agriculture and related industries still comprise the state’s largest economic sector, contributing nearly 130,000 jobs and $11.6 billion in household income. South Dakota’s manufacturing sector employs 44,000 residents with an average annual wage of $56,072. 3M maintains a base in the state, and the state’s manufactured goods range from agricultural products (like flour and dairy) to electronics, lumber and machinery.
One of the newest industries in the state, bioscience offers a higher annual wage — $79,945 on average — and now employs 7,400 South Dakotans. Leisure and hospitality has grown by 5% over the last year and now comprises nearly 11% of nonfarm jobs in the state. Unemployment remains incredibly low in South Dakota; the state’s rate fell to 2.1% in early 2023, giving those seeking a career change well-founded hope for job opportunities here.
Outside of work, South Dakotans really know how to be tourists in their own state, taking full advantage of snowy mountain trails in the winter, swimming holes in the summer and festivals, museums and monuments in between.
South Dakota Weather
South Dakota is one of the coldest and hottest places in the country. Thanks to its unusual geographic position, the state feels the brunt of the summer sun and the brutal breath of winter.
South Dakota is no stranger to severe weather — thunderstorms, tornadoes, flooding and hail of biblical proportions have all plagued the Mount Rushmore State. Despite these storms, South Dakota is not a particularly rainy state — residents in the eastern half may see around 28 inches of rain each year, while those in the west may get less than 16 inches.
During the state’s warm summers, temperatures hit 90 F on average, with air that is often unpleasantly humid. Nighttime temperatures usually offer some relief, though, dropping down into the low 60s F.
Fall crisps up early in this northern Midwestern state, meaning you may see the first frosty morn by the start of October. Expect dramatic displays of foliage in the forested regions and elegantly understated landscapes of muted grasslands on the Great Plains.
Winter comes on early and strong and doesn’t quit until the new year. Don’t expect to see temperatures above freezing until March at least, with snow days continuing long into April. The frigid lows will usually be below 10 F. Do expect to find plenty to do here, despite the cold. South Dakotans embrace this wicked cold, especially in the snowy regions of the Black Hills, where snowshoeing, skiing and fat biking will keep your body warm and your spirits high.
May through June and August through September are some of the best times to move to South Dakota. If you’re planning to move during the coldest months, check out our helpful tips for moving in winter.
Growing Cities to Live in South Dakota
South Dakota may be one of the least populous states in the union, but considering its population growth over the last decade, it may not stay that way for long. Since 2010, nearly 100,000 people have moved to the Mount Rushmore State, where they find a prosperous economy, low unemployment rates and easy access to nature. Some new residents have been drawn to smaller towns like Spearfish (pop. 12,358), Yankton (pop. 15,453), and Vermillion (pop. 11,802), where the University of South Dakota is based. But other newcomers are looking for new careers in the mid-sized cities on the state’s eastern and western borders.
A total of 40% of South Dakota’s population growth has been concentrated in the southeastern city of Sioux Falls. Over 40,000 people have moved to this city of 196,528 over the last 10 years, making it the single most popular destination for new residents.
The city has a lively cultural scene and hosts family-friendly community events throughout the year, from the annual downtown egg hunt in April to the annual Sioux Falls Pride Parade in June. The city also has its own indoor football league — the appropriately named Sioux Falls Storm — along with great minor league teams in baseball (the Canaries), hockey (the Stampede) and, especially, basketball — the Skyforce has been a successful feeder team for the NBA for years.
There are also terrific museums, performance venues and great outdoor destinations in Sioux Falls. Falls Park is where the city’s namesake waterfalls are located, but don’t overlook the elegant Japanese Gardens. The best way to see everything Sioux Falls has to offer is on two wheels. The city invested in a 19-mile bike and pedestrian loop around the city and, well, we wish every city in America had something so fun and practical. You can even rent bikes at two shops located near the trail.
Housing in Sioux Falls is modestly priced by national averages but above the state level. The median house value in Sioux Falls is $218,600 and rent averages $892 per month. At $66,761, the median household income is also above the state average, though.
The economy of Sioux Falls is more diverse than in other cities in this agriculturally dominant state — the financial services, distribution/logistics, biomedical, and food processing industries are all major players here. The two biggest employers in Sioux Falls are Sanford Health and Avera Health, both of which employ over 7,000 people a piece, followed by the Sioux Falls School District, Smithfield Foods, Hy-Vee and Wells Fargo. Forbes puts the city at #1 on its list of the Best Small Places for Business and Careers.
Universities also play a critical role in this tri-state area bordering Iowa and Minnesota. The University of Sioux Falls and Augustana University are both located within city limits. Just an hour south of the city are South Dakota State University (in Brookings), and the University of South Dakota (in Vermillion).
On the western side of the state, Rapid City is the second-largest municipality in South Dakota. This diverse city east of the Black Hills is located near some of the state’s most notable sights, including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial.
In and around the city you’ll find lots of interesting diversions, too. The South Dakota Air & Space Museum at nearby Ellsworth Air Force Base has 30 historic aircraft on display, indoors and out. The Museum of Geology’s collection of fossils will inspire the budding paleontologists in your family, while the day-glow mineral room will really get everyone’s attention. The Journey Museum & Learning Center has educational exhibits and activities for visitors of every age, from toddlers to grandparents. Located inside the facility, the Sioux Indian Museum will introduce you to the Native American heritage and living legacy in this area.
Today, 76,184 people call Rapid City home. Nearly 10,000 new residents have moved here in the past decade. Thanks to many nearby landmarks, the economy profile of the area has been boosted considerably by tourism, though the biggest industry sectors are trade/transportation/utilities, education/health services, government, and mining/logging/construction. Housing in Rapid City is comparable with Sioux Falls. The median home value is $208,400 and rent averages $898 per month.
Living Like a South Dakota Local
Places to Go
While most Americans are familiar with South Dakota’s most famous attraction, Mount Rushmore, don’t let the faces of these four former presidents overshadow the state’s other wonders. From hiking to ice fishing to outdoor summer concerts, South Dakota has plenty to keep you and your family engaged and entertained all year long.
Those looking for snowbound adventure will have a blast at Terry Peak in the northern Black Hills region. This mountain resort has a terrain park for daredevils and hills for skiers of all levels.
Bear Butte State Park, located on Mato Paha or Bear Mountain, is a sacred spot in the Black Hills for tribes of the Northern Plains, who often hold religious ceremonies here. The park is also open to the public and has an educational center, where you can learn about the geological and cultural history of the site.
One of the most popular destinations on the western side of the state is Badlands National Park. The exceptional hiking and wildlife-spotting in this rugged landscape is hard to top — among other species, you’re likely to see bison and bighorn sheep roaming the grounds. But it’s the animals of yore that make this park extra special. For viewing older objects, attend one of the nightly sky viewings or the Badlands Astronomy Festival, learning about the more than 7,500 stars you can observe from the park.
For those who want to plumb the depths of the earth, Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument offer underworldly experiences. Both are within 30 minutes of Mount Rushmore and each other. Jewel Cave has over 200 miles of underground passageways that are still being explored by volunteers. Wind Cave’s above-ground features are as spectacular as what’s happening beneath the surface of the land.
Need to cool off? If you find yourself in Hot Springs, you’ll also find one of the best places to take a dip — Cascade Falls. If you’re lucky, you’ll have this swimming hole to yourself. Then again, you may be joined by prairie rattlers. Keep an eye on your root beer.
Fun Things to Do
If you want to learn about Native American history and contemporary culture, there are several important sites and events to get you started. At the Crazy Horse Memorial, located just a short drive from Mount Rushmore, you can see the mountainside monument in progress, honoring the legacy of Crazy Horse. Then, learn about the heritage of Indigenous North Americans at the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center.
On the eastern banks of the Missouri River in central South Dakota, the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center exhibits thousands of objects from its permanent collection of artifacts, most of which date from 1800-1930, the early reservation period.
On the opposite side of the state (and the spectrum), De Smet, South Dakota, is best known as the Little Town on the Prairie. Just replace Sturgis’ choppers with covered wagons, pints of beer with pots of cocoa, and helmets with bonnets, and you’ll be at the one-time home of Laura Ingalls Wilder. On this historic homestead, kids can learn to make a corn cob doll, grind their own wheat and drive a pony cart. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant Society presents performances on site each year that really bring these much-loved stories to life.
Speaking of large communities, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally — back for its 83rd season — draws throngs of visitors each year from around the globe. They descend upon the Black Hills on two wheels and turn the tiny town of 7,100 into a weeklong, studded leather rager, 500,000 strong.
If you’re driving across the state of South Dakota, heed two important pieces of advice: 1. Stop for gas or charging whenever you see a filling station — you never know when the next one will be; and 2. Pull over at Porter Sculpture Park, because if you don’t, you will be the only one of 900,000 residents who has not seen the mighty, 60-foot roadside bull sculpture and the other quirky creations of the self-taught artist Wayne Porter.
For more eccentric excitement, your family can attend dozens of South Dakota’s annual community festivals, like Potato Days in Clark, where you can watch grown people voluntarily wrestle one another in — you guessed it — a big bowl of mashed potatoes. Fair warning, though: There is a 96.3% chance that you will never eat potatoes or meatloaf ever again.
Foods, Drinks and Desserts
The German, Dutch, Czechoslovakian, Scandinavian, French and Native Americans have all had a major influence on South Dakotan cuisine. Much of the hearty food in the state will be familiar to upper Midwesterners. And the stick-to-your-ribs quality will make good sense for newcomers trying to survive their first South Dakota winter. Casseroles, hot dishes, chilis and stews are kitchen table staples. Many feature local meats and fish, sometimes procured by the experienced hunter sitting right across from you.
If you saved room for dessert, you may be rewarded with a slice of German kuchen, a pie-like cake, or a fruit-filled kolache, an Eastern European donut/Danish hybrid that gives the cronut a run for its money.
At breakfast time, Scandinavians tempt you with a plate of lefse — delicate potato-flour pancakes that are buttered and sugared. But the Dutch will see you and raise you with a platter of freshly fried oliebollen, a pastry traditionally made with dried fruit and served around the new year. (We’ll gladly eat them all the time, TYVM.)
If you’re visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, plan to have lunch at the Laughing Water restaurant on site, where the Tatanka stew is made with locally raised bison.
Sanaa’s Gourmet Mediterranean is another local favorite. Its veggie-centric dishes are a bright respite from the heavier, meat-driven fare elsewhere.
Harvester Kitchen, one of the most innovative restaurants in the state, has two inspired tasting menus — a steakhouse for carnivores and a greenhouse for vegetarians. The blood orange bavarois was an unusual after-dinner delight, perked up by a green peppercorn caramel and orange zest ice cream.
In Custer, Skogen Kitchen — a semi-finalist for the 2023 James Beard Awards — offers a taste of the unexpected. King salmon is accented with yuzu butter and squash ravioli is paired with lobster and Thai curry.
Hire a Moving Company to Help You Move to South Dakota
After considering the pros and cons of moving to South Dakota, it’s time to find a national, reputable moving company like Mayflower to assist you with your upcoming move.
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No matter how you plan to move to South Dakota, Mayflower is here to guide you Every Step of the Way®.