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West River vs East River: Which Side Are You On?

The friendly debate continues over the favorite side of South Dakota

The Mighty Mo' almost perfectly bisects the state into two halves, known in South Dakota as “West River” and “East River.” In the spirit of homegrown pride, each side likes to tout their superiority. We break down some of the top spots on each side of the state. What will you see? Which side calls to you? Read on for some of the best places – and talking points – on both sides of South Dakota.

WILDLIFE

Each side has their own roamers and flyers

Encountering a buffalo on a drive through South Dakota
West River

One of the perks of being such a natural wonder is that South Dakota has plenty of wildlife-spotting opportunities. Custer State Park is home to barking prairie dogs, antelope, and begging burros whose local bloodline was started by some escapees.

 

And the buffalo! (They’re technically bison, but we call them buffalo for the same reason Pierre is pronounced “peer”— no one really knows.) A leisurely cruise on roads like the Wildlife Loop always has the possibility of being slowed by a group of wandering beasts, the only kind of traffic jam you’re likely to encounter in South Dakota. The annual Buffalo Roundup offers folks a chance to see the herd of 1,400 thundering together down a hill. In 2021, 22,500 people turned out to set an attendance record at the event, but you can often spot a buffalo grazing in spots like Badlands National Park. For more on spotting wildlife in the Black Hills, click here.

Eagle flying
East River

While the west side is more mountainous, the open prairie and waters of eastern South Dakota opens a whole new world of wildlife-spotting possibilities. The "Prairie Pothole Region" is home to more than 50% of North American migratory waterfowl, and places like the Lake Andes Wildlife Refuge (home to the annual South Dakota Birding Festival) and Waubay National Wildlife Refuge means there are plenty of birds to spot across eastern South Dakota.  

 

Across the peaceful, wide open prairies, it's not uncommon to see pheasants, deer and antelope celebrating the freedom of nature. As a bonus, eastern SoDak offers options like the Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum of Natural History in Sioux Falls or the Bramble Park Zoo at in Watertown.

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THE SCULPTURES

Presidents to the west, a giant horse to the east…

Crazy Horse
WEST RIVER

Western South Dakota is home to some of the most iconic monuments in the country. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is recognized across the world, and Crazy Horse Memorial – the world’s largest in-progress mountain carving – is only 17 miles away. Both are mighty popular, but there are also surprises like the extensive collection of presidential statues spread out throughout downtown Rapid City, the chainsaw-carved wood pieces made by Dahl's Chainsaw Art (displayed in Keystone, Hill City and Deadwood), and the west-side work of sculptor John Lopez. You can even see where Lopez creates his scrap metal masterpieces at his studio in Lemmon.

 

There are also hidden gems, like statues of the legendary bucking horse Tipperary and the roguish wolf Old Three Toes in Buffalo, SD.

Porter Sculpture Park, near Montrose
EAST RIVER

The expansive prairie of the east seems to have inspired many a South Dakota artist. Travelers often do a double-take near I-90’s Montrose exit when they see a giant horse and bull’s head gazing at them from Porter Sculpture Park, but they’re even more surprised when they visit and discover the sculptures are 60 and 40 feet tall, respectively. The park is home to more than 50 unique sculptures carefully crafted from metal and some scrap. Not far away, downtown Sioux Falls celebrates art with the rotating pieces of their SculptureWalk and permanent creations like the Arc of Dreams and their own statue of Michelangelo’s David.

 

Watertown has its Artwalk, Huron has a giant pheasant, and Pierre honors past governors with its collection of gubernatorial statues. And just on the east side of the Missouri River stands Dignity: of Earth & Sky, a 50-foot-tall statue of a Native woman who looks out over the river.

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THE VIEWS

Perhaps the hottest topic of discussion among rivals is the scenery on each side of South Dakota.

Black Elk Peak
WEST RIVER

Western South Dakota is beloved by residents and visitors alike for Black Hills National Forest. A hike to Black Elk Peak, scenic drives that take you through lush trees and over a pigtail bridge – these things and more have West River folk declaring victory in this rivalry. The otherworldly landscape of Badlands National Park and majesty of Spearfish Canyon only bolster their argument.

Palisades State Park near Garretson, South Dakota
EAST RIVER

While East River folk appreciate the sentiment, they’re also likely to tout the benefits of open land. Seeing the wind softly blow through vast prairies provides an almost-guaranteed peace, and the many lakes in northwest South Dakota are also points of massive pride, beauty and fun. The quartzite cliffs of Palisades State Park and numerous water recreation options at places like Lewis and Clark Lake Recreation Area might be fuel for a confident – but polite – nod from the east side.

THE FOOD

No matter where you go, you're not leaving hungry

Skogen Kitchen in Custer
WEST RIVER

It’s not a common point of this debate, but some certainly brag about their side’s top spots to cure hunger. Spots like Skogen Kitchen in Custer, Antuñez in Spearfish, or the delightful offerings from Blossoms and Brew in Buffalo are just a few of the spots that keep people full and happy. That’s not even counting the many offerings of Rapid City, which include pizza from Independent Ale House, Jamaican delicacies from A&D Jamaican Restaurant or Jambonz Deux, and everything from Tally’s Silver Spoon. Plus, Rapid City now has Bokujō Ramen, a perfect combination of New York restaurant sensibilities and South Dakota ingredients.

Macaroons CH Patisserie
EAST RIVER

While food is hard to argue about, East River folk are likely to reply with their own favorites. From the hidden-gem tacos at Los Paisanos to the award-winning macarons from C.H. Patisserie, Sioux Falls is rich with culinary delights. And those in the know will happily brag about things like the giant sandwiches from Manolis Grocery in Huron, the steak from Cattleman’s Club Steakhouse in both Pierre and Mitchell, and the locally sourced delights from R-Pizza in Vermillion. That’s not counting the food that earned top marks from Guy Fieri, including the nationally recognized tastes-too-good-to-be-healthy-but-still-magically-are dishes from Sanaa’s 8th Street Gourmet.

THE PEOPLE

"Midwestern nice" is real on both sides of the river

Smiling cowboy at rodeo
West River

Cowboy hats get tipped. Strangers are greeted with a smile. 

Woman with butterfly on head
EAST RIVER

Cowboy AND seed corn hats are tipped. Strangers are also greeted with a smile. There's no debate here. Midwestern nice is all over South Dakota.

THE FUN

Work hard, play hard -- it's the SoDak way

Deadwood re-enactors laughing
WEST RIVER

Historic Deadwood has been offering engaging gambling since 1989. (That’s how long it’s been legal, at least.) Any fan of history or the award-winning HBO show knows that Deadwood’s history of recreation goes back to the Gold Rush, whether it be trying to win your fortune or, well, other stuff. See live "shootouts" and explore history in town, but don't think the fun ends there.

On the west side, all ages love the thrills (and views) of Rush Mountain Adventure Park and Rushmore Tramway Adventures as well as Reptile Gardens, the world's largest reptile zoo.

Happy disc golfer
EAST RIVER

Want to experience the World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell? Enter a world of fairy tales at Storybook Island/Wylie Park/Land of Oz in Aberdeen? Test your indoor(ish) golf skills at Great Shots in Sioux Falls? It's all waiting for you in eastern South Dakota.

But both sides of the state have places to throw axes, break pinball records, watch drive-in movies, or shoot some mini or disc golf. There are even free outdoor campuses on the states west and east sides of the state that allow you to explore nature in some very fun ways.

Dang it. I don’t think we solved anything in this rivalry. The friendly debate will continue but, at the end of the day, South Dakotans tend to unite in their celebration of all things beautiful, delicious, and momentous. There’s nothing to do now to see for yourself what each side of South Dakota celebrates as their own.

So, where are we heading?

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