Are you planning a road trip from Minneapolis to Mount Rushmore? The road through the cornfields is fun to drive but the awesome things to see on the way to Mount Rushmore are the real attractions here! Read our list of 15 great road stops to visit this summer. This guide is useful also for those planning a family vacation drive from Chicago to Mount Rushmore. You might also like our South Dakota Travel Guide.
Our South Dakota road trip ranks pretty high up among our favorite drives ever.
We started from Chicago on a Friday noon and drove through the night to reach Minneapolis just before sunset.
We enjoyed the city’s nightlife and then started for Mount Rushmore in the morning.
And that’s where our real road trip experience began, the stretch from Minneapolis to Mt Rushmore is beautiful and has many unique roadside attractions.
The way we have structured this post, we have divided the trip into easily manageable sections so you can scroll down to the ones you are most interested in.
Chicago to Minneapolis
We covered this stretch in one go and didn’t stop at the attractions – the main reason being that we had done it twice before!
We had been to Minneapolis at the start of summer and then again as a part of our Midwestern Winter Road Trip.
If you don’t want to see Minneapolis, you can continue straight on the I-90 from Chicago however the little detour makes a great pitstop – to soak in the city that sprung up on the Mississippi and its brilliant cuisine and attractions.
The distance from Chicago to Minneapolis is about 7 hrs on the I90/I94. You can easily drive it in a day and spend the night in Minneapolis, leaving aside the next day to see the city.
If you are starting from Chicago, then here are some of the stops along the road:
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If you are from Chicago then, of course, you don’t need an introduction – but just in case you aren’t, here goes!
Chicago has been our home for more than 4 years and we simply love the Windy City.
Well, not its winters – but apart from them, Chicago is just perfect.
Some of the must-see things in Chicago include the Bean at Millenium Park, Buckingham Fountain at Grant Park (if it’s open), the Museum Campus, shopping at Magnificent Mile, and taking a cruise from Navy Pier in the summer.
We also love going to the Lincoln Park Zoo and seeing the beautiful artwork at the Art Institute of Chicago.
And of course, no visit is complete without seeing the beautiful downtown from above, whether it is from one of the many rooftop bars or from the Willis Tower.
The city just comes alive in the summer and colorful tulips pop up everywhere while patios are filled with music and cheerful people.
Rock Cut State Park
Located adjacent to the Interstate 90, Rock Cut State Park is a great stopover on the way to Minneapolis from Chicago.
It is perfect to stop and stretch your legs for an hour or so, it is also great to stay longer, hike, and camp for the night.
The state park has mountain biking and horse riding trails; it also encompasses two lakes with beach areas for recreation.
Visitors can launch their watercrafts from the ramps and cool off in the lakes.
The park looks beautiful in fall when the trees are yellow-red and the hiking trails shine with dewy, orange leaves.
While we love the vibrant lakeside city of Milwaukee more than Madison, the state capital does have its own charms.
The Wisconsin State Capitol is one of Madison’s prominent attractions – a majestic building with murals and ornate interior.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens, located along the riverfront, are free to visit and look best in spring and summer.
Madison also has great art museums and a lively restaurant scene.
As admirers of Frank Lloyd Wright, we love visiting his winter house, Taliesin East, located in the Wisconsin countryside. It is just half an hour away from Madison and inspiring.
Visitors can see the property on guided tours and see the studio where Wright designed his masterpieces.
Wisconsin Dells makes a great stop on the Chicago to Mount Rushmore road trip or a fun weekend destination in itself.
Wisconsin Dells has everything from lots of water parks including indoor ones to outdoor activities like zip-lining and skiing in the winter.
Ziplining is one of the best ways to see Wisconsin Dells in fall, you will be soaring above the lake and orange-red trees.
The area is scenic with Lake Delton and its eroded sandstone shores, lots of trees, and wildlife.
One of our favorite ways to take in the beauty is by walking along the Wisconsin Riverwalk. A must activity in Wisconsin Dells is the amphibian water/land Duck Tours on the lake.
For a cool wildlife experience, we recommend visiting the Wisconsin Deer Park. Here you can feed the white-tailed deer and see other animals including bison and elks.
St. Paul is the state capital of Minnesota.
We loved the spacious and classy old town with its Victorian mansions and unique character.
To see the Victorian homes at their stately best, visit the sprawling Summit Avenue.
The Cathedral of St Paul is located at one end of Summit Avenue and has panoramic views over downtown. The Cathedral is a scaled replica of St Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City and is beautiful inside out.
Families will love visiting the Como Park Zoo and the adjacent Como Town amusement park. The state capitol building is also very beautiful and a great tourist attraction.
Minneapolis, along with St Paul, is known as the Twin Cities. We love Minneapolis’s vibe – enough to make several hours detour on the Chicago to Badlands drive.
The Twin Cities are the largest cities on the origin of the Mississippi, with New Orleans being the largest city in its mouth. We love both of these extreme cities with their unique culture and vibe which can be in large part attributed to the river.
Minneapolis is also where you can fly in to start the Great River Road trip, alongside small river towns, scenic sandstone buffs, and remote countryside.
Minnehaha Falls, along the Mississippi River, are must visit when in Minneapolis. Culture and art lovers will enjoy a visit to the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Weisman Art Museum, and Guthrie Theatre.
We loved walking along the riverbank and looking at the remains of several big, abandoned flour mills at the Mill Ruins Park.
Another favorite when in Minneapolis is the Sculpture Garden. This green urban oasis has many beautiful sculptures including the famous Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture.
If you don’t want to visit Minneapolis, you can also directly drive from Chicago to Badlands National Park and then onwards to Mount Rushmore.
In that case, you will continue on the I 90 after Wisconsin Dells instead of turning north on the I 94. You will cross the Mississippi River and intersect the Great River Road at La Crosse.
La Crosse, located on the banks of the Mississippi in Western Wisconsin, is a great summer road trip stop.
We stopped in La Crosse on our way back from the Chicago to mt Rushmore road trip and were excited to see so many family-friendly attractions.
If your family or kids love cars, then you will love the Dahl Auto Museum which had a great collection of classic cars.
We strolled through the Riverside Park and saw many cruises on the river.
The free Riverside International Friendship Garden is beautiful in spring and summer. Visitors can also hike along the river and enjoy scenic picnics at the Grandad Bluff Park.
Minneapolis to Mount Rushmore
This is where the trip gets really interesting: there are more than a dozen interesting things on the way to see Mount Rushmore.
After spending a day or two in Minneapolis, you can reconnect to the Interstate 90. This stretch of I 90 cruises over rolling hills and is surrounded by cornfields, sunflower blooms (if you are traveling from summer to fall), cattle, and hay bales – total eye candy!
The road stretches straight ahead for miles and is perfect to put on some great music and take in the scenic views.
We have broken this stretch into two parts: one from Minneapolis to Badlands (about 8 hrs drive time) and the other from Badlands to Mount Rushmore.
The idea is to stop and spend a day or two in Badlands National Park before you visit Mount Rushmore. You also have the option of driving directly to Mount Rushmore and visiting Badlands on the way back.
Minnesota to Badlands, South Dakota road trip stops
Sioux Falls is the first urban stop on the I 90 in South Dakota when traveling westwards from Minnesota.
Sioux Falls has beautiful scenery and lots of urban attractions. We reached Sioux Falls early in the morning and first visited the popular Falls Park.
The falls are created by the water of the Big Sioux River as it tumbles down limestone rock formations. The Falls Park comprises of the falls themselves and the surrounding area and has lots of walking and biking trails.
When we visited over the Labor Day Weekend, the foliage colors were just beginning to change and the park looked colorful.
The unique sculptures on the Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk by local artists were also nice to see.
We found Sioux Falls to be a great family destination with many activities targeted towards kids.
Some of the things to do in Sioux Falls with kids included the Butterfly House which is filled with fluttering butterflies from all around the world, Marine Cove – an aquarium with colorful fishes and corals, a memorial dedicated to the battleship USS South Dakota, and the Great Plains Zoo.
Terrace Park is another great urban park with lots of sports amenities, trails, and picnic areas.
The entire city seemed to be well connected by biking trails.
If you are visiting Sioux Falls in winter, the entire area is a frozen wonderland and skiing is a popular activity.
Mitchell Corn Palace
If you have any doubt that you are in the Corn Belt and forgotten the importance of corn in this part of the country, then your next stop at Mitchell will give you enough Corn 101 to last a lifetime.
The town of Mitchell is located an hour away from Sioux Falls on the I 90 and its main attraction is the World’s Only Corn Palace at Mitchell.
The Corn Palace is exactly what it sounds: a big palace complete with minarets and domes of corn!
It is also the only Corn Palace in the world.
While the Corn Palace is a regular building, every surface of it is covered with corn murals made from different colorful varieties of corn.
Inside you will find a small corn museum: exhibits about the contribution of corn to Midwest economy, the process of creating corn murals, and photos of past corn palaces.
The murals are made anew each year after the harvest. It is fascinating to see so much art made from corn of different colors, sizes, and shapes.
Other things to do in Mitchell include the Dakota Discovery Museum which has a lot of Native American history and the nearby Lake Mitchell, which is great to cool off on a hot summer day.
Long before you reach the Wall Drug, you will see signs on the interstate proclaiming it’s colorful existence along with an offer of free ice water.
Located in the town of Wall, the Wall Drug Store is a major roadside attraction along the freeway.
The Wall Drug has been in operation since the Great Depression Era and has a fascinating history. The little family store didn’t do well with Mt. Rushmore’s initial tourists so the owners put up signs advertising free water and the rest is history.
Today the Wall Drug is a gimmicky, 6 figure business that sees up to 20k visitors every day in the summer.
They do still offer free ice water, 5c coffees, fresh donuts, homemade ice cream, and all the other things advertised on the billboards.
The Wall Drug also has other tourist attractions including an old-fashioned photo studio, a T-Rex, a soda fountain, a restaurant, souvenir shop, band a weird rabbit/deer sculpture, which apparently is the mythical animal, Jackalope!
The Wall Drug is just the sort of thing you expect to run into on a South Dakota road trip and it doesn’t disappoint!
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park, along with Mount Rushmore, is what this trip is all about!
Badlands is a beautiful, otherworldly landscape filled with bizarre geological forms. The Badlands were carved by the waters of the White River more than a million years ago.
Today the area comprised of Badlands National Park is a unique mix of flat prairies and eroded buttes, pinnacles, mounds, and other landforms.
The erosion carried out by the river has revealed long-buried soil layers and the Badlands today is one of the best places to find the fossils of ancient Great Plains animals.
We suggest spending at least 2-3 days in Badlands before starting the Badlands to Custer State Park portion of this trip.
The best way to see the Badlands is by driving along Loop Road, a very scenic drive that goes around the national park.
The Loop Road has many viewpoints from which most of the geological landforms can be seen. We also saw a lot of Badlands wildlife along Loop Road.
Another road to drive within the park is the unpaved Sage Rim Road.
We also recommend hiking inside Badlands to explore the park better. Our favorite hike was the Notch Trail: the hike is short but adventurous and the views of the White River Valley from the trail summit are gorgeous.
Some of the other great hikes in Badlands include the Door and Window Trail and accessible Fossil Trail.
For simple itinerary ideas, we suggest visiting the Wall Drug, Visitor Center, and driving Badlands Loop Road on Day 1.
The next day you can hike in Badlands and take sunrise photos.
We camped in Badlands during our stay; the other option is to stay in the town of Wall. Lots of inns and motels are located in the area near the Wall Drug.
Badlands is also a photographer’s delight, especially at dawn and dusk, and has many great photography spots (read our Badlands photography guide) – so we suggest bringing along a great digital camera.
Badlands National Park to Mount Rushmore
While this drive is just under 2 hours, there are so many great things to do around Mount Rushmore in this area that you can easily spend a week here.
You need to see all of these attractions to truly complete the Minneapolis to Mt Rushmore road trip. Here are the must-visit stops in this region.
Rapid City is located about midway between the Black Hills National Forest and Mount Rushmore and makes the perfect base for exploring all the attractions in this region.
If you are flying in to see Mt Rushmore and the Badlands then Rapid City is where you will land. There are many hotels, motels, and AirBnBs in Rapid City and it has lots of amenities for tourists including car, bike, and motorcycle rentals.
Mount Rushmore is just half an hour away from Rapid City whereas Badlands National Park is about an hour and a half.
Most of Rapid City’s attractions are geared toward families and children. The highlight for kids is, without a doubt, the dinosaur park.
If you have kids who love dinosaurs then you will love our guide on the best dinosaur gifts for kids.
Custer State Park
Custer State Park near Custer in South Dakota is one of the largest state parks in the country. This park is great for outdoor enthusiasts and family vacations.
While you can see Custer in one day and stay for the night in the town of Keystone which is the base for Mount Rushmore, we recommend camping in Custer as we did.
Custer has 9 campgrounds; the one that we stayed in was located close to Lake Sylvan. A total of 4 mountain lakes are located inside Custer and a variety of paddleboards, kayaks, and other equipment is available for rental.
The lakes are great to cool off during summer. There are lots of things to do in Custer State Park including scenic drives, beautiful hikes, and watersports and is the perfect outdoor summer getaway.
Custer also makes the perfect base for seeing Mount Rushmore in a day.
The highlight of any visit to Custer is its buffalo (bison) herd. The best place to see bison and other Custer wildlife is on the wildlife loop road.
We drove the wildlife loop road twice – once at dusk and then again the next day at dawn. We slowly drove along the Wildlife Loop Road for about two hours each time and had memorable encounters with South Dakota and the Great Plains wildlife.
We saw deer walking alongside our car and pronghorns leaping into the distance. We saw bighorn sheep, mountain goat, pheasants, turkeys, Chipmunks, wild horses, and burros.
The burros came to the car window in search of food and we had a great time feeding them.
Note: you should not feed any wildlife other than the begging burros.
We saw bison of all sizes. The calves were very innocent and sweet while the elder bison we’re big enough to knock down a car.
Overall, the Wildlife Loop Road is incredibly scenic and part of the great Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway (see below).
Custer State Park also has historical sites including President Coolidge White House, Badger Trail, and a Native American Historical site.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway ranks among America’s best scenic drives.
The Byway has an interesting history: it comprises of 3 distinct scenic drives and the route was personally planned by South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck on horseback.
The three scenic drives consisting of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway are the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer, Iron Mountain Road, and the Needles Highway.
While we have discussed the Wildlife Loop Road above, the other two roads are of equal importance.
The fantastic Iron Mountain Road is the road that once seemed too difficult to be built.
However, Peter Norbeck clung to his vision and insisted on the exact location of the road and what you see today is one of the most beautiful drives you will ever take.
This road has it all: hairpin turns, curving pigtail bridges, and narrow tunnels carved through the mountains. The surrounding landscape is filled with pine trees and wild animals.
When you exit the last tunnel on Iron Mountain Road, you directly face Mount Rushmore.
Equally spectacular is the Needles Highway.
This is drive passes through the Black Hills National Forest and its peculiar needles formations.
The needles are eroded granite formations that are jagged and point straight towards the sky (resembling a bunch of needles).
The views of the needles along the road are bizarre and dramatic but the highlight is the tunnel at the end and the Needle’s Eye.
The Needles Eye is a geological formation with a hole in the granite needle. Just beyond the Needles Eye are two extremely narrow tunnels.
Bigger RVs and trucks cannot pass through these while bigger cars and vans require a lot of maneuvering.
This area is also great for rock climbing and you will often see families attempting to climb the needles before the tunnel.
If you are like us and enjoy driving along challenging and twisting roads, then you will fall in love with Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.
An ideal itinerary is to see Custer and Wildlife Loop Road, then Crazy Horse Memorial, take the Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore and see the Needles Highway on your way back to Custer if that’s your base for visiting Mt. Rushmore National Park.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial is dedicated to the famous Lakota leader Crazy Horse.
The scale of this sculpture is immense and when completed it will be the largest in the world.
The sculpture is being carved since many years; however, the foundation has refused to take money from the federal government to respect Crazy Horse and Lakota sentiments and the project is funded only through donation and visitor fees which are the major reason for slow progress.
Crazy Horse Visitor Center is a great place to learn more about the Lakota leader Crazy Horse and his bravery.
You will also learn about the Native American culture and have a chance to buy handicrafts made by local Native craftsmen and listen to Native music.
We also enjoyed tasting some of the Native American delicacies like Fry Bread at the Memorial Cafe.
Wind Cave National Park
As one of South Dakota’s less popular national parks, Wind Cave National Park is off the radar of most tourists.
Wind Cave is located just 10 miles from Hot Springs and is the first cave in the world to be established as a national park.
It is also the longest cave in the world.
The cave has beautiful box work and other formations which can be seen in a guided tour.
The park also comprises of hiking trails and is popular for wildlife sighting including pronghorns and deer.
Jewel Cave National Monument is also located near Wind Cave and can be seen on the way to Mount Rushmore.
Black Hills National Forest
The Black Hills of South Dakota loom over the prairies of the Great Plains.
The Black Hills are among the oldest mountains in the world and have long been worshipped by the Lakota Indians.
Black Hills’ history is full of myths and dramatic battles. The area remained uninhabited for long but the discovery of gold changed that.
White settlements followed the Gold Rush and skirmishes with Native Indians became common.
The gold boom was followed by the tourism boom after the completion of Mount Rushmore, and the Black Hills remote, rugged landscape has changed forever.
Today there are established trails, mountain roads and scenic drives, campsites, and lodges in the Black Hills.
In summer, the roads are packed with curious road trippers and motorbike enthusiasts.
Large parts of the Black Hills are protected by the Black Hills National Forest; you can take scenic drives through the area to see spectacular scenery, towering trees, unique geological formations, lots of wildlife and hike popular trails.
Keystone, located in the Black Hills, originated as a mining town during the Gold Rush of the 19th century.
When the miners left the area, Keystone transformed into a tourist town and catered to the needs of millions of visitors visiting Mount Rushmore every day.
Today, Keystone is a little kitschy and run down: tourists vastly outnumber locals, every resort and motel in town advertises ‘view of Mount Rushmore’ from the rooms, all shop feel like Native American trading outposts and the National President Wax Museum has statues of every President ever standing happily along with those of local Lakota warriors.
However, in spite of its tourist trap like setting, Keystone has lots of little gems like the Black Hills Central Railroad and a look into the life of Carrie Ingalls (sister of Laura Ingalls, who wrote ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series) at the Keystone Historical Museum.
Other popular tourist activities include zip lining, panning for gold at the Big Thunder Gold Mine, and the Rush Mountain Amusement/Adventure Park.
And finally, after seeing many interesting destinations on our way, we arrived at Mount Rushmore – the shrine of democracy.
Mount Rushmore is located in the Black Hills National Forest and its face is carved with the sculptures of 4 United States Presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.
The sculptures of their faces are immense, over 60 feet and took almost 14 years to complete. The original plan was to carve full busts of the Presidents but due to lack of funds, only the heads were carved.
There are more things to do at Mt. Rushmore than we had imagined. Visitors to the Memorial can admire the sculpture, visit the artist studio to understand the sculpting process and walk around the Memorial exhibits.
We also hiked the Presidential Trail to get a closer view of the sculptures, along the way we saw deer and mountain goats.
My favorite part though was eating George Washington’s ice-cream.
Mount Rushmore is lit up in the summer evening and the 4th July celebrations are not to be missed.
Bonus! Mount Rushmore to Devils Tower, Wyoming
Did you know that you can see Devil’s Tower National Monument easily from Mount Rushmore?
The drive is just two hours long but again with attractions, you can easily spend a day or two exploring this beautiful area.
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Drive
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway follows the course of the Little Spearfish Creek along a curving road surrounded by tall limestone walls and dense forests.
This area is said to be the most beautiful in the Black Hills, especially for its bright fall foliage colors and viewing opportunities.
Architect Frank L. Wright visited Spearfish Canyon during his South Dakota trip and called it “Unique and unparallled”.
Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls are an essential stop on the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Drive.
The falls can be seen cascading from the road and a viewing platform with lots of parking space provides ample opportunities to see the falls.
The falls look most beautiful in spring when the melting water feeds the creek while in winter, visitors love to climb it.
Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls
Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls are located inside Spearfish Canyon and accessed by driving the scenic byway and hiking inside the area.
The surrounding Roughlock Falls / Spearfish Falls Nature Area has trails, picnic tables, fishing, bird watching, wildlife viewing, and more.
The Roughlock Falls trail connects both the falls and has great views over the falls and of surrounding trees.
Along the trail, you will also find remains of the old Burlington Railroad Line which took visitors to the falls. In winter this area is popular for snowshoeing.
Historic Deadwood is a ghost town on the way from Mt. Rushmore to Devils Tower.
Established as a mining town during the Gold Rush, the town is famous for its Victorian architecture and for attracting some of the most well-known American West heroes.
In the old days, lawlessness, murder, and theft were prevalent in Deadwood, today visitors can see this during enacted shootouts and slayings on Main Street.
Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming is just a short drive across the border from Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.
Devils Tower is a fascinating geological structure that towers high into the sky. It has the honor of being the country’s first national monument.
Devils Tower is sacred to Native Americans and is a great place to understand the indigenous heritage and customs.
The Monument has hiking trails, campsites, and ranger-led activities including night sky observation. Visitors can also climb Devils Tower along established routes.