Despite what much of the U.S. thinks, there’s more to South Dakota than snow and ice. Mind you, there’s a lot of that too, but this state is honestly just fantastic. Mt. Rushmore calls this place home, as did Wild Bill Hickok, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse. It’s the site of some of the most amazing fossil beds for mammoths and dinosaurs in the world, and honestly does have some very beautiful summers. South Dakota is full of history, majesty, and some seriously friendly people.
This begs the question: Which place in South Dakota is the best?
Well, strap on your snowshoes, because Movoto Real Estate is here to find out. We collected data, compiled some scores, and looked at some honestly breathtaking/adorable pictures of this state. After all that, we got one mammoth list of places, and ten very best locations.Those locations are:
1. City of Brookings
2. City of Aberdeen
3. City of Pierre
4. City of Watertown
5. City of Huron
6. City of Sioux Falls
7. City of Rapid City
8. City Mitchell
9. City of Milbank
10. City of Lead
If you’re surprised or dismayed by this list and wondering what we were thinking, don’t worry, we’ll tell you.
How We Created This Ranking
If you haven’t had time to look at one of our other Big Deal Lists before now, such as our recent Best Places in Mississippi piece, let us fill you in on how exactly we did this. First, we made a list of the most populated places in the state that had at least 3,000 residents, which left us 24 places. We then collected numbers in specific criteria for each of them from the U.S. Census and American Community Survey. These criteria were:
- Total amenities
- Quality of life (cost of living, median home price, median rent, median household income, and student-to-teacher ratio)
- Total crimes
- Tax rates (sales tax and income tax)
- Commute time
- Weather (temperature and air quality)
Once we had that information, we ranked each location’s stats from 1 to 24, with one being the best. Then we simply compiled those rankings into one Big Deal Score, and there you have it: the best places in South Dakota.
If you’re in a rush to learn more (hah), you can find out how all the placed we studied scored in the table at the bottom of this article. If your locale didn’t make the top 10, it still might have scored very well, so take a look before you get too worried. Now that you know how we did it, why don’t we take an in-depth look at why each of these best places makes our top 10. Let’s start with our big winner.
Brookings beats out all the other places on our list at the No. 1 spot, and with good reason. Most residents are employed, the weather is very livable, the commute time is a short 12 minutes, and like the rest of the state, there’s no income tax (lucky South Dakotans).
With 22,149 residents, you might think crime could be a problem, but that couldn’t be any farther from the truth. The city ranks No. 1 in crime rate with only 179 crimes per 100,000 people, which is worlds better than any other place we looked at. Because Brookings is a slightly larger location, there are also the perks here that some bigger cities garner. The city ranked seventh-best in amenities and ninth in quality of life, which is almost as good as much bigger Rapid City. We’ll talk about them later.
It’s not like this larger place doesn’t have some small-town spirit, though. Every December, the city puts on a festival of lights parade and trolley rides to celebrate the holiday season.
Slightly bigger than first-ranked Brookings at 26,178 people, this city is a pretty magical place. Why magical, you ask? Well, this place is home to Storybook Land, a theme park that has castles, a yellow brick road and Wizard of Oz exhibits, train, a few rides, and a whole works of creativity. Enough gushing about the power of imagination; let’s get to the stats. (Though we should mention the free admission.)
Aberdeen makes a fine showing in multiple categories, coming in third in weather, commute time, and total amenities. It slips a little in the crime rate area, at No. 13, but compared to our first-place winner, it’s really difficult to compete. The employment rate here is also surprisingly low. Only 3 percent of residents are unemployed, and would you believe that’s only No. 5 on our list? We’ll get to some of the even safer cities late in our top 10.
You can bet that residents really do feel like there’s no place like home.
Though not the biggest city in the state, No. 3 ranked Pierre is in fact the state capital of South Dakota. It is, in fact, the second least-populated capital right after Mont Pilere, VA. Still, there are a ton of reasons why this little city scored so high on our list. One is the amazing commute time, at an average of only 11 minutes, which is first for that category. The employment rate is also stellar with 97.1 percent of residents having a job. Basically, this place is a worker’s paradise.
It’s not to bad for shoppers either, and ranks ninth for that criterion. It’s not just quantity here, but quality too. If you get the chance, stop by Mad Mary’s Steakhouse & Saloon for some delicious prime rib if you don’t take our word for it.
Coming in at No. 4 is Watertown, which is incidentally not a town, and its 21,515 residents. The city is home to the fourth-most ranked amenities on our list and home to the second-best weather overall. It’s also home to the over 100-year-old Bramble Park Zoo, which is the proud residence of tigers, monkeys, wolves, kangaroos and so much more.
This sort of place is a real breath of fresh air, literally. The city was tied for No. 1 ranked air quality on our list with much lower placing Milbank, which we’ll examine later. All that excellence definitely comes with a price. The median home price in Watertown is $127,800, which is the ninth most expensive for that ranking. Well, at least you can take a deep breath of clean air for free.
Huron, not related to the great lake, stands tall at No. 5 on our overall list. Everyone here is working hard, with breezy commutes of 14 minutes on average and an unemployment rate of only 2.9 percent. They’re also willing to play hard considering they are home to the 10th-most amenities on our list as well.
Even though the place is small—only 12,605 people—its population skyrockets around every labor day. Why? Because the city is home to the South Dakota State Fair, which boasts BBQ, competitions, livestock, music, and more. It’s an event not to be missed if you’re in the nearby area.
6. Sioux Falls
Here we have the really big dog on our list, with a staggering 154,512 residents and (easily) first-place ranked amenities. One such amenity is Coffea Roasterie which is all about the small details in its high-quality coffee. They’ll even draw a leaf or heart in the foam of your latte. With such delicious drinkage and such interesting things to do, it’s not surprising that the city ranks No. 3 in the quality of life category. People want to live there too, and Rapid City comes in fifth in median income, home price, and rent rank.
To be honest, the only poor ranking the place received was in crime rate. There are 3,305 crimes per 100,000 people, which ranks in the bottom four for that criterion. This city also has one other odd little quirk. While the rest of the state has a flat 6 percent sales tax, Sioux Falls has a slightly lower 5.92 percent sales tax. Not the biggest perk, but we’d be willing to bet it’s still something the city is willing to brag about.
7. Rapid City
Another of our bigger locations, but still much smaller than Sioux Falls at 68,230 population, Rapid City takes our No. 7 spot. The number of amenities is decisively No. 2 on our list for that category, including restaurants, clothing stores, and gift shops. Perhaps its most major attraction is nearby Mount Rushmore, which probably contributes to the number of gift shops that have sprung up in the city over the years.
Still, with all the tourism, the quality is not bad at all. Really great in fact, and it ranks No. 2 on our list in that category. The air quality is decent too, as is the student teacher ratio. However, the crime rate is a definite problem, and ranks at the bottom of our list with 4939 crimes per 100,000 people.
Mitchell makes a pretty strong showing for its 15,274 residents. It may have many perks, but you can’t really mention Mitchell without mentioning the world famous Corn Palace. Really, you have to see this place, it’s kind of amazing. It’s fun, quirky, informative, and there’s no other place like it on Earth. Every year there’s even a festival there celebrating—what else—corn.
You might also mention Mitchell’s absolutely wonderful employment rate. A very tiny 2.7 percent of residents are jobless, and those who are employed enjoy a mere 13 minute commute on average.
Would you believe that little Huron isn’t the smallest in our top 10? Not even the second-smallest? Well, be prepared for a surprise. Milbank has only 3,349 residents, and it’s not the itty-bittiest city on here. Let’s be clear: A small place like this means fewer amenities in general, and Milbank only rates 18th in that category. However, a small place also means less traffic, and residents enjoy a very low 11 minute commute on average.
There’s also a decently low crime rate and the cost of living ranking is tied for No. 4. Really not too bad for such a cozy place. They employment rank is a little high at 3.9 percent, but it’s still worlds better than many others on our list and sits at No. 15 for that criterion. Also, it’s not like there’s nothing at all to do in this place. Every year there’s a Farley Festival, which has a chilli cook off, parade, fireworks, and other attractions.
Leading off the list for smallest cities in the top 10 is the 3,125 person city of Lead. It may be small, but make no mistake, this city is not to be overlooked. The crime is low at No. 3, the quality of life is high at No. 7, and the weather here is ranked No. 1 with some of the most tolerable summers on our list, and the cost of living is tied with Milbank and Aberdeen at No. 4. Sure, it’s little, but it’s packing some big rankings.
Don’t be overwhelmed by this place;s historic absolute cuteness. In reality, it’s a place meant for rough and tumble folks. There’s hiking trails everywhere, biking, swimming, and rock climbing all close by. In the winter, of course, there’s skiing. That’s all complimented by the No. 5 air quality ranking this place carries. Sure, you won’t find much shopping here, and its amenities are ranked in the bottom five for that category, but if you want a homey feeling place with lots of heart and adventure, then this is definitely the place in South Dakota for you.
Hardly a Black Mark Among the Black Hills
A safe, homey little city, No. 1 Brookings kicks crime’s behind and lets workers find and get to jobs with ease. That being said, South Dakota was once home to Calamity Jane, and some of the cities that scored at the bottom of our list are indeed calamitous.
Hot Springs is hardly a hot spot for job seekers, and has the highest unemployment rate anywhere on our list. Harrisburg had a terrible weather score and crime rate, which brought it to second-to-last, just above Hot Springs. Finishing up our bottom bracket is the whimsically named Box Elder. There’s nothing whimsical about these scores, however: third-worst weather, second-worst amenities, and fifth-worst quality of life keep the small city firmly in the bottom three.
Besides these less-than-desirables, South Dakota makes a very strong showing. Some of the best unemployment rates in the nation and some amazing scenery make this a place to stay.