Just beneath the surface of South Dakota lies a rich and storied past – as told by the fossils of ancient creatures that once ruled the land.
Western South Dakota
Millions of years ago, the Black Hills, Badlands, and western prairie was home to countless species of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. Since then, the area has made a name for itself as an enticing and interactive destination, appealing to anyone with a proclivity for paleontology.
North-Central South Dakota
Unearth a world of knowledge about the creatures that once roamed the sprawling prairies of north-central South Dakota. This region is a hot-spot for major fossil finds, whether it's "Sue" — measuring 42 feet long and estimated to be approximately 67 million years old, it's one of the most complete and best-preserved Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons in the world, — or "Shady," a 7-foot-long triceratops skull that was discovered in 2020 at the Grand River National Grassland in northwestern South Dakota. Tour prehistoric exhibits and dig into active excursions in a land teeming with fossils millions of years in the making.
Eastern South Dakota
This region offers quite the education for those interested in prehistoric life. Attractions in the area offer opportunities for children and adults alike to dig into the soil and gain firsthand experience as excavators.
Located in Hill City, this natural history museum houses the world-renowned Black Hills Institute collection – a treasure trove of unique fossils and ancient skeletons. You can even meet “Stan,” a nearly-complete Tyrannosaurus rex that stands impressively at 12 ft. tall and 40 ft. long. These same scientists were among those who discovered "Sue" the T. rex, which was discovered near Faith, South Dakota. This discovery was the largest and most complete Tyrannosaurus rex excavated to date. "Sue" now calls the Field Museum in Chicago home.
Located in Rapid City at the School of Mines and Technology, this museum is a leader in conserving the rich geologic heritage of the Black Hills and provides a vivid impression of Dakota life during ancient times. Get up close and personal with more than 500,000 specimens of fossils, rocks and minerals. Plus, junior geologists can enjoy a hands-on learning experience at the Kids' Zone.
Right outside Hot Springs, tour a 26,000-year-old sink hole that’s now an active paleontological dig site, containing the world’s largest concentration of mammoth remains. In all, 85 species of ice-age animals have been discovered, including camels, llamas, giant short-faced bears, wolves, coyotes and prairie dogs.
Hike the Fossil Exhibit Trail, which features replicas of fossils and extinct creatures that once roamed the area. And check out fossil specimens at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Kids can also enroll in the park’s Junior Ranger program to become a certified member of the National Park Service’s family.
This small-town exhibit is home to South Dakota’s most comprehensive display of Fox Hill Ammonites – the ancient occupants of the state’s glacial northern lakes. The museum also houses the skull of a marine reptile called the Mosasaur that once inhabited the Pierre Seaway and could grow to be over 50 feet long.
A stop at the Grand River Museum in Lemmon will get you acquainted with Garth, the most complete Triceratops skull ever excavated. From the sharp teeth of the T. rex to the dome-shaped skull of the Pachycephalosurus – a hard-headed dino you wouldn’t want to crash craniums with – there are plenty of prehistoric treasures to see and even touch.
Kids can share the awe of discovery as they conduct their own excavations – unearthing dinosaur bones from species found around the state at the Children's Museum in Brookings. The bones all but come to life in the form of a full-scale animatronic T. rex named Mama, who stands 25 feet tall and 60 feet long.
Get a literal feel for history in downtown Sioux Falls as you excavate fossil replicas and touch a genuine dinosaur bone before witnessing a fossilized dinosaur egg up close. Then, learn from the discovery center’s experts during informative daily demonstrations about various species of local dinosaurs.
Although its ancient residents came long after the dinosaurs, this 1,000-year-old village will pique the interest of anyone with a disposition for digging up the past. Get a glimpse of what life was like in prehistoric eastern South Dakota – from the food the villagers ate to the tools they used.