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AAA World Article

South Dakota’s Halloween Spirit

Find spooky fun in Deadwood, Custer and Sioux Falls.

By MeLinda Schnyder

AAA World Article

Costumed party-goers celebrate at the Deadweird festival in Deadwood.
Photo by Brittany Schoenfelder/

For 51 weekends a year, the true stories of devastating fires and flooding, murder, violence, lawlessness and larger-than-life historical personalities make Deadwood, South Dakota, the perfect city for a haunted history tour. The other weekend? Deadwood becomes Deadweird.

That’s when a throng of elaborately costumed souls spills onto a quarter-mile segment of Historic Main Street, which is limited to pedestrian traffic. Each October, the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau throws a costume contest on a weekend close to Halloween; this year, the event is October 25–26. Far from your run-of-the-mill costume contest, Deadweird offers costumed revelers the chance to win $10,000 in cash and prizes in a variety of categories, from best duo and best group to funniest and spookiest.

Along with the chance to win big cash awards, the festival atmosphere that takes over downtown during Deadweird has made Deadwood a regional Halloween destination. Organizers estimate that at least 5,000 people from across South Dakota and surrounding states visit the Black Hills town of 1,200 residents that weekend. Friday night’s Monster Ball gives attendees a warm-up night of music, dancing and competing in the people’s choice costume contest.

Deadweird event, South Dakota
Costumer contests are held at numerous venues during Deadweird.
Photo by Brittany Schoenfelder/

The intricate costumes come out Saturday. About 700 entries, including solo entrants, duos and groups as large as 15 people, will file through the judging lines from 6 to 9 p.m.

“It is an odd sight to see all those ghosts and goblins, werewolves and zombies, and Pokémon and Mario and Luigi brothers wandering the historic streets of Deadwood,” says Amanda Kille, marketing and sponsorship director for the Deadwood Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau. “Even if you’re not in costume, it’s a great place to hang out and people-watch. You might have someone come in on stilts, standing four times the height of a normal person. Then the next person’s costume could be much smaller in scale but so elaborate—covered in rhinestones, beading, papier-mâché—that you know they spent months making it.”

Deadweird events are free and open only to those ages 21 and older. Beyond the costume contest, there is plenty to do throughout the Deadweird festival area.

Bars and restaurants serve Deadweird-themed drink specials—think green shots called Ghostbusters and moonshine-based cocktails—and most offer live music and dancing. Many of these private businesses sponsor more costume contests.

Deadweird event, South Dakota
is one of Deadwood’s hottest events.
Photo by Brittany Schoenfelder/

Halloween season is also a good time to take a ghost tour. The Historic Bullock Hotel leads ghost tours at 5 p.m. every evening year-round, and adds a second tour time during Deadweird and summers. Guides share the history of the 1895 building and its paranormal activity linked to Seth Bullock, who brought order to the town as the first sheriff. The former Fairmont Hotel, now Oyster Bay Restaurant and Bar, also offers a nightly ghost tour year-round through the 1898 Victorian structure that has a past as a brothel and gambling hall. (Call the properties to make tour reservations.)

Earlier this year, local historian Kim Keehn started Haunted History Walking Tours, and she plans to continue them year-round. Her tours stay streetside and focus on stories of history, hauntings and ghosts that she has researched and verified through newspaper accounts.

“Deadwood history is interesting enough that you don’t have to make up stories,” she says.

An annual October favorite is Deadwood History Inc.’s Paranormal Investigation of the Adams House. The organization teams up on six dates with Black Hills Paranormal Investigations to offer 90-minute guided investigations of the 1892 Victorian home of two of Deadwood’s founding families. Investigators share the darker stories behind the fully restored house museum and then search for paranormal activity using night-vision cameras, full-spectrum cameras, digital audio recorders and other ghost-hunting tools. A limited number of add-on psychic readings with Heart & Soul Healing Arts follow each tour in the turret, normally inaccessible to the public.

Find information about Deadwood at


Custer State Park has organized a Halloween Night Hike for more than 20 years. The two-mile roundtrip hikes leave one of the park’s visitor centers every 15 minutes from 5 to 9 p.m. on Saturday, October 22.

Custer Park Night Hikes, South Dakota
Custer State Park’s Halloween Night Hike features costumed characters and a spooky setting.
Photo Courtesy of Custer State Park

This year’s theme, Night at the Museum, connects to the park’s centennial celebration. Costumed characters will act out a mystery that visitors must solve while learning about the state’s first and largest state park. Expect actors portraying miners, Civilian Conservation Corps workers, and dignitaries such as Governor Peter Norbeck, who helped establish the park in 1919, and President Calvin Coolidge, who turned the Game Lodge into his Summer White House for three months in 1927.

The paved path is lit by carved pumpkins, and the chilly night air means you’ll often see buffalo, bighorn sheep and other wildlife. Warm beverages and cookies are provided.

Custer Park Night Hikes, South Dakota
-o-lanterns decorate Custer State Park for its Halloween Night Hike.
Photo Courtesy of Custer State Park

“[The hikes are] a fun-creepy Halloween experience,” says Lydia Austin, Interpretive Programs manager for South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks at Custer State Park. “The leaves are off the trees, the moon is out, and it’s just a different way to see the park.”

The event draws 1,000 to 2,000 participants, depending on weather. Although it’s a free event, you’ll need to call 605/255-4515 to reserve a time slot to hike. Vehicle entrance fees to the park apply. For further details, visit


Sioux Falls
Now in their 18th year, the Haunted Sioux Falls Tours are as popular as ever. They are expected to sell out within two days of going on sale September 14 and can only be purchased in person at the Old Courthouse Museum.

Sioux Falls Old Courthouse Museum
Old Courthouse Museum, Sioux Falls
Photo Courtesy of Siouxland Heritage Museums

The bus tours are at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, October 8–29. They are organized by the Siouxland Heritage Museums, which includes the restored 1893 native quartzite stone Old Courthouse Museum with three floors of regional history exhibits as well as the Pettigrew Home & Museum, the 1889 Queen Anne-style home of South Dakota’s first senator. These structures are among the 10 you’ll learn about on the 45- to 60-minute tour of the city aboard a 25-seat bus. During the ride (there are no stops), museum staff share mysterious tales from the city’s past.

“This is a believe-it-or-not type of tour,” says Adam Nelson, marketing coordinator for Siouxland Heritage Museums. “These are the stories that have been out there for years, and we don’t make them up or endorse them. What we do at the museum on a daily basis is factual and documented, so with this tour, we’re having fun with it and asking visitors to not take it too seriously.”

For a fact-based tour, the museum will offer lantern-light tours of Woodlawn Cemetery in October.
This is not a haunted event but, rather, a look at colorful characters from Sioux Falls’ past, brought to life by local actors. Find more information at

These South Dakota communities have been hosting these events for decades, making them can’t-miss Halloween traditions for locals and road trip-worthy destinations for the rest of us.


This article originally appeared in the September/October 2019 edition of AAA World.

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