Plan a family vacation through Badlands National Park, Mt. Rushmore, & the Black Hills using our Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip itinerary. Explore South Dakota’s must-see tourist attractions including the tunnels of Iron Mountain Road, the Needles Highway, Custer State Park, and Crazy Horse Memorial this summer on an amazing road trip to Mount Rushmore. Also read our post on Best Things to do in South Dakota.
Welcome to our South Dakota road trip planner where we show you how to make the most of your time in the stunning landscapes and splendid isolation of our favorite US state.
Not many actually make this trip due to its faraway location in South Dakota but those who do are rewarded by the stillness of the Badlands, the beauty of the Black Hills, and the magnificence of Mount Rushmore.
Our story is also similar. A few years ago while planning our next trip we came across Mount Rushmore State. After researching the best road trip stops in South Dakota, we were stunned by what we discovered.
Unofficially nicknamed the Flyover State, South Dakota was supposed to be not that touristy but everything that we laid our eyes on indicated that a South Dakota Road Trip was the best thing that could happen to us.
And so we began our trip planning, and now almost half a decade later, Badlands and South Dakota still remain one of our favorite travel destinations in the USA.
Dotted Globe contains affiliate links. If you click one of them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you. Read my full Disclosure here. Thank you!
“The beauty and charm of the wilderness are his for the asking, for the edges of the wilderness lie close beside the beaten roads of the present travel.”
– Theodore Roosevelt
South Dakota road trip means abundant wildlife, dramatic landscapes, and a feeling of utter isolation.
It also means travel deep within the American heartlands and through small rural communities where life is hard but simple and the people are down-to-earth but friendly.
The Lakota flag flies strongly over South Dakota and the rich Native American heritage and culture are as tangible here as the wind among the prairies.
South Dakota was formerly called ‘the Sunshine State’. We always feel that the name suits the state so much better than the current Sunshine State of Florida.
While the winter sun inspires crowded beaches and fun vibes in Florida, the summer draws out the rich wildlife in South Dakota. And paints the spectacular landscape in vivid colors.
We invite you to take this epic road trip through South Dakota and discover your own reasons for falling in love with this amazing state.
History Of South Dakota
South Dakota has a rich history which is evident in many of its star attractions including Crazy Horse Memorial, Badlands National Park, and the Black Hills.
South Dakota was purchased as part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Formerly an Indian land, the Lewis and Clark expedition explored the area and the first American settlers came here afterward.
South Dakota was part of the Gold Rush of the 1800s and mining towns and local gold mines were established in the area. Today the abandoned mines and villages act as tourist attractions of the American West.
The discovery of gold in the Black Hills and the establishment of settlements led to the Black Hills Wars between the Lakota Indians and the American Government.
South Dakota’s Native American history can be discovered in places such as Crazy Horse Memorial, the Battle of Wounded Knee, and Deadwood.
Planning a trip to South Dakota
First things first, the only way you can see the state is by taking a road trip. There is no public transport of any sort in the state and the few airports are spread far apart and are too expensive to fly in.
Most visitors fly into Rapid City or Sioux Falls and rent a car or RV their way across the state – something that’s very much on our bucket list! However, even if you were able to explore South Dakota without a road trip, you wouldn’t want to.
South Dakota road trip stops are connected to each other via scenic byways which are a destination in themselves.
The wide-open expanse of the prairies and freeways that go straight for miles are sharply juxtaposed against the turns and twists of the Black Hills, narrow passages of Needles Highway, and breathtaking tunnels of Iron Mountain Road.
South Dakota is made for relaxed and aimless driving. This is one road trip that you will remember above all others and the many attractions of South Dakota will call you back year after year.
When To Go On South Dakota Road Trip?
Another unofficial nickname for South Dakota is ‘the Blizzard State’.
If that isn’t self-explanatory; the winter weather in the state is too severe to consider a trip of any kind. Spring and fall can also be accompanied by sudden temperature drops, wind chills, and snowstorms.
The absolute best time to plan your South Dakota Road Trip is from a week or two before Memorial Day to a couple of weeks after Labor Day.
We planned our week-long road trip around the Labor Day weekend and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. We also saw fall colors in many places.
If you are planning a trip in the summer, the months of July and August can get extremely hot. You need to be prepared for the outdoors.
Pack sunscreen, hat, coolers, carry lots of water – especially if you are planning to hike – and you must because there is no better way to explore the state.
Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
Instead of flying, we went on a Chicago to South Dakota Road Trip from our then home city of Chicago. Those were the days when we didn’t have a car – living downtown meant we didn’t need one – and rented one as needed.
We drove through the night on I-90 W – night driving was something we did a lot before we had kids – and covered the distance from Chicago to Sioux Falls ~ approx 9 hrs / 580 miles at night.
Our actual sightseeing on the road trip to South Dakota started from Sioux Falls, and that’s what we consider Day 1 of this itinerary. If you are planning to fly in from Rapid City, you can still use this itinerary in the reverse order.
You can also begin the South Dakota trip by flying in into Sioux Falls and end in Rapid City or vice versa. We took about 7 days for our trip but a roundtrip itinerary from Rapid City to the main attractions can also be completed within 4 days if you have lesser time.
Here is our South Dakota Family Vacation Itinerary with plenty of options and ideas to customize your trip.
Day 1: Sioux Falls & Mitchell
Welcome to South Dakota. If you are driving from Wisconsin to South Dakota or planning a Minnesota to South Dakota road trip, then Sioux Falls is the first major city you will come across.
While not a major attraction, the city makes a great road trip stop. Also, another unique attraction is the Corn Palace located in the city of Mitchell. Here’s a little information about both the attractions.
Stop #1: Explore Sioux Falls
Start your day in Sioux Falls at the Falls Park. At the park, the Big Sioux River tumbles down quartzite rock formations to create a series of beautiful waterfalls. The area surrounding the falls is beautiful and has many biking and hiking trails.
Other attractions in Sioux Falls include the St. Joseph Cathedral, Courthouse Museum, and the Zoo. Spend about half a day in the city, have lunch, and then head out to see the World’s Only Corn Palace at Mitchell.
The distance from Sioux Falls to Mitchell is about 75 miles and takes about 1 hour 15 minutes to drive along I-90. Alternatively, you can also stay the night in Sioux Falls and see the Corn Palace the next day.
Stop #2: See the World’s Only Corn Palace at Mitchell
The Corn Palace at Mitchell – a one of a kind attraction – is a building completely decorated with corn. A new design is planned and elaborately constructed each year for the Corn Palace and it is one of the popular tourist attractions in the eastern part of the state.
The Corn Palace is fun to visit, pretty unique, and photogenic. Exhibits inside the palace showcase decorations from previous years and tell the history of Mitchell.
To know what all there is to see and do inside the Corn Palace including how it is made, read our detailed visitor’s guide to the Corn Palace at Mitchell.
If you want to spend more time in the city, Mitchell has many other attractions. Visitors can explore the Mitchell archeological site. It is a national historic landmark and you can see remains of a prehistoric Indian Village.
This is a great place to visit with the kids as they can understand the archeological process at a live site. The Mitchell site is located next to the shores of Lake Mitchell which is a great location to spend time outdoors. The lake has biking trails and picnic areas.
You can also visit the Dakota Discovery Museum to understand life on the prairies and the state’s history. If you plan to drive the night before, then use the rest of the day to relax at your hotel in Mitchell.
Travel Tip – If you are flying or driving from the Western States to Rapid City, you can skip Day 1 or keep it for the end of the road trip. Continue straight onto Day 2 and start your trip from Custer State Park.
Day 2: Custer State Park
The next day – preferably early in the morning – have a delicious breakfast in Mitchell and then drive to Custer State Park. It is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
This is the largest state park in the country and is famous for its abundant wildlife. The state park’s Wildlife Loop Road is one of the best places to see wildlife in South Dakota.
The drive from Mitchell to Custer State Park is about 4 hrs 30 mins or 300 miles along I-90W. However Custer State Park is in Mountain Time Zone while Mitchell is in the Central Time Zone, so you will gain an hour on reaching Custer.
We recommend camping in Custer State Park to fully enjoy its attractions. We tent camped here for 2 days and enjoyed our stay. Most of the campsites are on a first come first serve basis, so you need to reach early to select a good site.
You should also visit the famous Crazy Horse Memorial as a day trip from the park.
Camping At Custer State Park
One of the best ways to experience Custer State Park is by camping. The park has 9 different campgrounds and all have scenic campsites.
You can read more about the most popular campgrounds including Blue Bell Campground here. The site will also give information about any reservations available.
We set up our tent at Center Lake campground which has a same-day reservation policy. All of the campsites in Center Lake are located around the mountain lake.
The ones nearest to the lake are taken first but even the ones farther away are nice and quiet. We couldn’t get a campsite near the water but our tent and the picnic table was located by a shady clump of pine trees. The lake was a short distance away and we were far enough to not be disturbed by the boats.
Our campsite had a gravel camping area, space to park our car, a grate, and a picnic table. We also had the electric hook-up facility but didn’t use it.
We were also pretty far from our neighbors and loved our stay. While we didn’t book our campsite beforehand, the online reservation system at Custer is convenient and easy to use. Most other sites at Center Lake are also under the pine trees and have plenty of shade.
There are lots of water activities available on the lake including trout fishing, kayaking, and canoeing. The lake also has a boat dock to launch boats and a swimming beach.
Overall, Center Lake is a great place to base your stay in Custer State Park.
Stop #3: Wildlife Loop Road
We set up camp early in the day and after having a picnic lunch, we set off to explore Custer State Park. Over the next two days, we spent a lot of time driving the 18 miles long, aptly-named Wildlife Loop Road.
We drove it at sunset and just before sunrise; two of the best times to make the drive. We saw more animals than we can count. Whether you plan to camp in Custer or are visiting for half a day, a drive along this road is a must.
On the Wildlife Loop Road, you will come across Custer’s abundant wildlife. In fact, this is one of our favorite places to spot wildlife in the USA. This is also the best place to watch American bison.
In fact, Custer has a herd of 1300 bison that freely roams inside the park and they will cross your path! While driving the Wildlife Loop Road, we had to often stop to let a herd of bison pass at a leisurely pace.
We also saw a lot of prairie dogs near the prairie dog town. The prairie dogs stood over their burrows and kept watch for predators. It was fascinating to watch them jump up and down and cry shrill.
We also saw many mountain goats, deer, and mountain burros on the Wildlife Loop Road.
The road has many opportunities to photograph the wildlife and we recommend carrying a good camera as well as a quality new zoom lens on your road trip – you will definitely put it to great use throughout the South Dakota road trip.
The Wildlife Loop Road is also popular with wildlife photographers and nature lovers.
To see incredible pictures of the wildlife in Custer State Park, read our post Wildlife of South Dakota and Northern Great Plains: Where & What to See.
Stop #4: Custer State Park
Besides the Wildlife Loop Road, Custer State Park has many other things to do for couples, families, and kids.
Fishing for trout in the mountain lakes is a popular activity. The park has a total of 4 large mountain lakes that are stocked with fish in the summer.
There are also many hiking and biking trails in Custer State Park. We didn’t hike in Custer since we wanted to hike at Badlands, but all the trails looked inviting. The park also has equestrian trails and horse camps and is great for those who love horse riding.
You can also drive along the backcountry roads to explore the park and enjoy the fresh mountain air and open pastures. The state park also has many scenic drives including the Wildlife Loop Road.
Custer State Park is one of the best family destinations in the country. If you have more time, you can easily spend 3 to 4 days in the park.
To see an epic bucket list of all the activities that you can do in the park, read our post on Best Things to do in Custer State Park now.
Day 3: Crazy Horse Memorial
The next day, spend some more time in Custer’s wilderness. Drive the Wildlife Loop Road at dawn and then make a day trip to see Crazy Horse Memorial. That will be the highlight of the day.
Stop #5: Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is dedicated to the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. The carving is still a work in progress, but when complete it will be the largest mountain carving in the world.
The memorial is located in the Black Hills of South Dakota and half an hour’s drive away from Custer State Park Visitor Center. It makes a great day trip from the park.
The memorial is being built in honor of the Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, who fought against the American settlers and US Federal government in the 19th century to preserve the Indian territory.
The sculpture has the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, sitting on a horse and pointing towards the Black Hills.
The memorial is constructed entirely on private land using private funds. Proceeds from visitor tickets go towards the completion of the sculpture.
The memorial also has a visitor’s center, where you can read exhibits about Crazy Horse and the 25 years’ worth of battles between Lakota Indians and the US Government.
The visitor center also offers many opportunities to learn about the Lakota way of life, heritage, and culture.
Seeing the memorial up close is amazing. The sculpture is colossal and immense. Learning about the Lakota history of the area is a poignant experience.
The memorial also has an on-site museum with a vast collection of Native American artifacts and artwork.
This is a unique roadside attraction and a must while visiting the Black Hills of South Dakota. We would recommend everyone to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial as a tribute to the great Lakota warrior.
To read everything you need to know about visiting the memorial, check out our post Visitor’s Guide to Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota
After seeing the memorial, return to your campsite in the park or lodging in Custer. If you have more time, go swimming in the lakes or hike or put up a hammock against the pine trees and read a book.
The time that we spent in Custer State Park was very relaxing and the perfect antidote to our hectic life. We enjoyed being away from technology and getting more in tune with nature.
It was also our first full-fledged camping experience in the US and will always remain a memorable one.
Travel Tip – If you are short on time, you can visit Custer State Park and drive the Wildlife Loop Road in just one day plus see Crazy Horse Memorial while heading towards the next tourist attraction of Mt. Rushmore.
What If You Don’t Want To Camp At Custer State Park?
Even if you don’t want to camp in Custer State Park, you have plenty of options. The park has many log-style furnished cabins with electricity, heating/cooling, and a porch but these get booked far in advance.
Blue Bell Lodge has over 20 cabins while Legion Lake Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, State Game Lodge also have many rustic cabins that are perfect for a relaxing stay. Outside the state park, your best bet is to stay in the city of Custer or the Black Hills.
Day 4: Iron Mountain Road & Needles Highway
Waking up to a fresh day in Custer State Park, we packed our tents and chewed some protein bars while the early morning sun filtered down the pine trees. We were super excited to explore the rest of Custer State Park’s scenic drives.
This is, by far, our favorite day in the Black Hills.
As road trip lovers, we enjoy driving on twisting and challenging roads. The Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway represent unique driving challenges and are a delight for road trippers.
You will be driving on the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, through the granite tunnels on Iron Mountain Road, and see the incredible Needles from Needles Highway Scenic Overlook before arriving at Keystone, South Dakota.
The scenic drives of Custer State Park / Peter Norbeck Byway are truly breathtaking and open up to beautiful vistas.
None of these drives are your usual run-off-the-mill routes. They pass through fascinating geological landforms and are constructed in awe-inspiring ways.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
The three scenic drives of Wildlife Loop Road, Iron Mountain Road, and the Needles Highway are together called the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.
This route consistently placed among America’s Top 10 scenic byways. It has also been named as one of the Most Outstanding Byways in America.
Stop #6: Iron Mountain Road
First up on your itinerary is the spectacularly engineered Iron Mountain Road, otherwise known as Scenic Highway 16A. The road connects Custer State Park with Mount Rushmore National Memorial and is a highlight of the trip.
“Legend says that engineers once declared the road unbuildable – and then the Iron Mountain Road as it is today took shape and form.”
The road has three pigtail bridges – which are spiral bridges that loop continuously over themselves – and three precise rock-cut granite tunnels. The tunnels are by far the star attractions of the byway. The magnificent Black Hills scenery is always in view.
Driving the Iron Mountain Road is a delight. The recommended speed limit is about 20 mph.
This is a road to be savored. Driving slowly allows drivers to negotiate the turns and twists in the road safely plus appreciate the beautiful mountain landscape. The lookout points are ideal to get down and enjoy the view.
The pigtail bridges and multiple switchbacks are gorgeous while the single-lane narrow tunnels are thrilling.
Mount Rushmore is in clear sight through the last two tunnels. The last tunnel in particular symmetrically frames Mount Rushmore and offers an incredible photo opportunity.
This road is also popular with motorcyclists and bikers – in fact, it is on our bucket list for the next time we visit South Dakota.
You will need about an hour and a half to complete the drive at a leisurely pace. We recommend driving this route in the morning when the sun is behind you to enjoy the beautiful views.
While Mount Rushmore National Memorial is directly in front of you after exiting the last tunnel on Iron Mountain Road, there is another scenic drive to look forward to before reaching the Memorial.
Stop #7: Needles Highway
Next up is the Needles Highway – a spectacular 14 miles long drive through dense pine and spruce forests and needle-like granite formations. The Needles Highway drive takes about an hour to complete and is closed in winter.
The Needles Highway is officially Highway 87 (SD 87). Driving the Needles Highway is not for the faint-hearted. The road makes several sharp hairpin-turns and passes through incredibly tight tunnels.
For most of its length, the road is surrounded by craggy, sharp granite formations that seem to rise towards the sky and jab the clouds. Hence their name, the needles.
The granite needles are a product of millions of years of erosion by the wind, rain, snow, and sunshine.
The highlight of Needles Highway is the Needles Eye – a fantastic rock formation just southeast of Sylvan Lake end of the drive.
The formation is visible only on walking out of the car. There are parking spaces near the side of the road before the Needle’s Eye. The area near the Needles Eye has big sharp rock formations and is a haven for rock climbers.
The Needles Eye tunnel is not easy for larger vehicles to pass through and needs extra care while driving. It is suitable only for smaller cars and not for RVs or trailers.
The scenic byway has many opportunities to see wildlife along the route. We saw whitetail deer and mountain goats while driving the Needles Highway.
Also Read: Top 5 South Dakota Scenic Drives to read all about the state’s different scenic byways
I get car sick. Can I still drive the byway?
Custer State Park’s scenic drives have many twists and turns. If you get car sick, then the drives are not really for you. However, the scenery is too spectacular to miss out on.
An option that many take is driving with precautions and taking medication.
For those who have a tendency to be car sick, we would recommend driving at a slow speed of around 12-15 mph. Keep it under 10 if possible.
Carry some Dramamine for the trip and take it before you drive the byways.
Driving both the scenic byways of Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway should not take more than 2-3 hrs and once you reach Mount Rushmore, the road is pretty much straight.
After driving the scenic byways, take some time to go hiking in the Black Hills or explore the area’s attractions. End the day in Keystone.
Stay the night and sleep in anticipation of seeing Mt. Rushmore the next day.
Day 5: Keystone & Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Today is such a fascinating day. You will be seeing one of the most revered attractions in the country.
You will also be exploring the charming town of Keystone that has sprung up beside the memorial and have fun at its many attractions.
You will also have one of the best meals at our favorite restaurant in Keystone.
Stop #8: Keystone
Keystone, South Dakota is the gateway to exploring Mount Rushmore National Memorial. It is a charming but touristy town with many other attractions apart from the memorial.
Keystone is also the perfect place to base your stay near Mount Rushmore Memorial. The town has many lodges and hotels that cater to visitors. It also has eateries and restaurants.
Keystone is a great place on your South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary to learn more about American history in a natural setting.
While Mount Rushmore is Keystone’s premier attraction, the town’s other beloved activities include Big Thunder Gold Mine where kids can pan for gold and the National Presidential Wax Museum which has lifelike figures of all US Presidents.
The Gutzon Borglum Historical Center in Keystone is dedicated to the life and work of the sculptor of Mount Rushmore.
The Keystone Historical Museum is dedicated to local Keystone history. The museum is also a great place to learn about the Ingalls family and the life of Carrie Ingalls, one of South Dakota’s pioneer women.
Carrie Ingalls was the younger sister of Laura Ingalls, who wrote the celebrated Little House on the Prairie series of children’s books. If you love literary trivia, then the museum is a must-visit.
To try some of the Midwest’s famous home cooking, visit Peggy’s Place. This is a great spot to enjoy breakfast or lunch in Keystone.
You can order comfort food like chicken fried steak and a buffalo burger. The prices are high considering it’s near a tourist attraction, but we really enjoyed our meal here.
Where to Stay – Powder House Lodge
Travel Tip – We chose to stay the night in Keystone and explore the local attractions, leaving Mt. Rushmore for the next day.
If you have less time, you can drive both the scenic byways as well as visit the memorial on the same day.
Spend an hour to see Mt. Rushmore and then stay in Keystone or drive to Badlands National Park to save time.
Stop #9: Mount Rushmore National Memorial
For most visitors and especially Americans, this is a highlight of the South Dakota road trip. One of the iconic images of America, Mount Rushmore is on the bucket list of most visitors.
Mount Rushmore is a behemoth sculpture of 4 US President heads carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore. It is located among the Black Hills of South Dakota and is fantastic to explore.
Completed in 1941, the Memorial was planned and executed to bring visitors to South Dakota. Well, it has succeeded and how!
Today Mount Rushmore receives over two million visitors annually and is South Dakota’s top tourist attraction. The Memorial has also been featured in many movies, books, and other works of fiction.
The 60-foot sculptures of heads of US Presidents who are carved on the mountain include George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
The monument was carved by sculptor Gutzon Borglum with the help of his son Lincoln Borglum from 1927 to 1941.
Visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial is an amazing experience.
It is one of the best places to learn about the birth and growth of the USA. My other top favorites are Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia.
Things To Do At Mt. Rushmore
Contrary to what many people think, Mount Rushmore is not just about seeing the sculpture from a distance, taking a few photos, and rushing off.
Sure, you could do that but you will be missing out on a lot. The on-site museum has interesting information about the Memorial and there are many things to do around the sculpture.
The memorial is beautifully designed and planned. The Avenue of Flags contains all state and territories flags and the dates they were admitted to the Union.
The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center has many interactive exhibits and videos. Visitors can watch on film the methods used to carve the hard granite rock.
Of course, you must hike the Presidential Trail. This is by far the #1 thing to do when visiting Mount Rushmore. The 0.5-mile-long trail goes around the base of the monument and has 422 stairs. Hiking the trail takes you up close to the sculpture.
On the trail, you can see the carvings from different vantage points. You can also spot wildlife on the trail including mountain goats and deer.
The memorial also has Junior Ranger programs and Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony.
To explore other attractions at the memorial including George Washington’s favorite ice-cream, read our post Visitor’s Guide to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Day 6 & 7: Badlands National Park
Either on Day 5 after seeing Mt. Rushmore or early morning on Day 6, leave Mt. Rushmore & Keystone for Badlands National Park.
On the way, check out the famous Wall Drug Store.
In the national park, hike up to the beautiful Badlands Wall to see the panoramic view and drive the Badlands Loop Road to see wildlife.
Fall in love with the alien landscape and experience what Frank Lloyd Wright felt on seeing the Badlands.
Stop #10: Badlands Wall Drug
The Badlands Wall is a geological formation that stretches for about 60 miles, however, we’re not talking about the eroded escarpment here.
The town of Wall, located near the entrance to Badlands National Park, is home to the Wall Drug Store, one of the area’s major tourist attractions.
The Wild West-themed sprawling shopping mall had humble beginnings as a pharmacy store and now attracts over two million tourists every year.
You will see large billboards advertising the Wall Drug throughout your South Dakota Road Trip, especially on I-90. Seeing all those ads had made us curious about Wall Drug and so we were looking forward to the visit.
Visiting the ‘Wall Drug’ is a fun and fascinating experience. The whole Cowboys / American West theme is attractive and elaborately executed.
The mall is really huge. It has gift shops, restaurants, photo booths, a western art museum, and even a dinosaur! Talk about being a hit with families.
And yes, it offers free cups of ice water and bumper stickers, as promised in the many ads.
This is a good place to buy South Dakota souvenirs and get food. There is also a Dairy Queen near the Wall and we went there quite a lot for ice-cream, during our stay in Badlands.
However, many visitors think of Wall Drug as a big tourist trap and it is not everyone’s cup of tea.
Camping At Badlands National Park
Camping in Badlands National Park and seeing the stars lighting up the sky is a spectacular way to experience this dramatic landscape.
And you wake up to stunning views of the Badlands Wall.
While visiting Badlands, we stayed at the Cedar Pass Campground. The campsites at Cedar Pass are located smack dab in the middle of the prairies and surrounded by the unique Badlands formations.
The views at sunset and sunrise views from the campsites are knock out gorgeous.
The Cedar Pass Campground has about 100 campsites with covered picnic tables. All the sites are located on flat ground.
When we visited, a total fire ban was in place and we survived primarily on cold cuts and bread. The nearby Wall town has many restaurants and eateries if needed.
The other campsites are located in the Sage Creek Campground near Badlands Wilderness Area.
These campsites are primitive and can be accessed via an unpaved road. The Badlands wildlife, including bison, frequently wander near the campground.
Apart from the designated campsites, Badlands also offers backcountry camping. Backcountry camping offers best-uninterrupted views of the Badlands and complete solitude from other visitors.
This is a popular option for backpackers. While a permit is not required, informing park rangers of your camping plans is highly recommended.
What If You Don’t Want To Camp At Badlands National Park?
If you prefer not to camp, the only option to stay inside Badlands National Park is the Cedar Pass Lodge.
The lodge has beautiful Black Hills pine cabins which are tastefully furnished with handcrafted furniture and have relaxing deck chairs to enjoy beautiful Badlands views.
However, the cabins are limited in number and we recommend booking them far in advance to be assured of availability.
The Cedar Pass Lodge also has dining services and you can get lunch here even if you don’t stay.
Other options include staying at the hotels and motels located in the town of Wall near the Wall Drug. Most popular chains including America’s Best Value Inn, Days Inn, and Best Western Plains Motel are located in the area.
These hotels also fill up fast during the peak summer season and advance reservations are highly recommended. Not many AirBnBs and vacation rentals are located near Badlands.
We left Mt. Rushmore for Badlands at the end of Day 5.
After spending some time at the Wall Drug store, we reached the Cedar Pass campground quite late and it was almost nearing sunset.
So we set up our tent, had dinner while enjoying a beautiful sunset, and marveled at the imposing Badlands Wall.
We looked forward to our next two days in the National Park and its landscape.
Stop #11: Badlands National Park
Located in the northern Great Plains, the Badlands are one of the major landmarks of the Midwest.
The formation of the Badlands began millions of years ago when the White River carved its way on the flat surface of the plains.
Layer after layer of rock was exposed in a variety of geological formations as the river kept changing its course.
Over time, a maze of spires, pinnacles, gullies, buttes, mounds, and valleys covered this part of the great plains. This unique terrain was almost inaccessible and unpassable to man, hence the name ‘badlands’.
The Lakota Indians were the first to call the area ‘mako sica’ literally meaning ‘land bad’.
The Badlands National Park protects over 244,000 acres of these badlands. One of the best places to understand the park geology and see fossil specimens is the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
The Badlands Wall, a 50-mile long escarpment of erosion, lies between the uneroded Upper Prairies and the completely eroded Lower Prairies.
The Upper Prairies is flat and grassy. It gives no clue of the unique topography on the other side of the Badlands Wall.
Many hikes in Badlands National Park take visitors up to the Wall and offer beautiful panoramic views of the eroded landforms.
The Badlands Loop Road also takes you up the mountain passes where the Upper prairies transition to lower prairies.
The process of erosion continues even today. The Badlands continue to be sculpted by water, wind, and sun.
Wildlife At Badlands National Park
The Badlands are covered by sparse vegetation but are home to abundant wildlife. Most of these animals survive on the stretches of prairie within the park. Visitors to the park can spot a lot of the Great Plains wildlife.
While hiking and driving in the park, we saw herds of bison, deer, mountain goat, sheep, pronghorns, elk, coyotes, and prairie dogs.
We also saw a variety of birds including eagles, hawks, pheasants, western meadowlarks, and magpies. Mountain lions also live in the area and are seen by many tourists.
While the bison, coyotes, and mountain lion are most dangerous to tourists today, many more dangerous and magnificent beasts lived on the Great Plains in prehistoric times.
Some of these include Titanothere and Brontothere, belonging to the family of horses and rhinos.
Archaeotherium, belonging to the family of pigs and hippos, also lived here as did a variety of hippo ancestors, dog ancestors, rabbit ancestors, and camel ancestors.
Many rich fossil beds are hidden in the Badlands. They preserve these extinct mammals.
The area has also yielded fossils of extinct species of turtles, crocodiles, snails, and birds. Badlands attracts many paleontologists and biologists.
Badlands National Park has incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. We saw bison, prairie dogs, and mountain goats among other animals.
Stop #12: Badlands Loop Road
Driving the Badlands Loop Road is an unforgettable experience. The views from the road are beautiful. And if you happen to drive during a rain shower in the summer, you may be able to see a rainbow!
We did – it rose majestically, before our eyes, over the neverending prairies of the Upper Plains. And then the road dipped over a pass and the green grasslands suddenly gave way to the desolate awe-inspiring badlands.
We had no inkling, no clue. The abruptness took our breath away. Here we were enjoying a rainbow over the swaying grasses and next moment were thrust into the midst of a colorful eroded terrain.
I have no way of putting in words the entire experience. A moment of pure pleasure. A wonderful introduction to the park.
The Badlands Loop Road, officially known as Highway 240, is among the top 5 Scenic drives in the state. It is a two-lane paved road that takes visitors through the Northern Unit of the Park.
The road is 40 miles long and needs an hour to drive through without stops. The road has many scenic overlooks and trailheads, so we would recommend keeping aside half a day to a day for this road.
Most visitors stop every now and then to explore the park and view its highlights. Each scenic overlook provides a unique view over the Badlands.
Driving the Badlands Loop Road is exciting and amazing. The road has spectacular landscapes and many overlooks to explore the Badlands.
Stop #13: Off-Roading At Badlands National Park
Along with the Badlands Loop Road, there are many other opportunities for off-roading and driving along gravel and unpaved roads inside the park.
We followed many of these roads to beautiful, unobstructed views of the park.
The Sage Creek Rim Road is a gravel road along the North Rim of the Badlands Wilderness Area.
It provides many opportunities to see wildlife, landscape, and geological formations up close. Keep aside an hour or two to drive this road.
To explore the Sheep Mountain Table area, visitors need to take the Sheep Mountain Table Road.
This road is recommended for high clearance 4WD vehicles only but it is in great condition for a gravel road and we could easily drive it with a 2WD vehicle.
Sage Creek Rim Road is an unpaved road with dramatic views and is great for wildlife spotting
Stop #14: Hiking At Badlands National Park
Hiking the badlands is my favorite way of exploring this National Park.
While the Badlands Loop Road takes you around the beautiful vistas, hiking lets you explore the badlands from within.
You can climb around the pinnacles and buttes and appreciate their beauty and barrenness up close.
The national park has many miles of designated trails to satisfy everyone from preschoolers to the most adventurous explorers. Some of them are accessible and family-friendly while others take you uphill to the Badlands Wall.
During our two days in Badlands National Park, we hiked many of the park’s trails including the Door Trail, Window Trail, Fossil Exhibit Trail, and parts of the Castle Trail.
However, my favorite by far is the Notch Trail. It is famous for its exceptional views.
The trail is strenuous, along cliff edges, and has a vertical log ladder to ascend the Badlands Wall. The view from the top is simply superb.
Most of the trailheads are along the Badlands Loop Road and you gotta love the excuse to drive the road again.
To read more about hiking in Badlands National Park, see our detailed Guide on Hiking in the Badlands.
Hiking in Badlands National Park is the best way to see unique views and spectacular vistas
Falling In Love With Badlands
While this is not strictly an itinerary agenda item – if you spend any time in the area, this is bound to happen.
The Badlands have inspired artists, poets, and travelers for generations.
Architecture lovers would be delighted to know that Frank Lloyd Wright visited Badlands in 1935 and was captivated by the area.
If you follow us, you probably know how much we love Frank Lloyd Wright. He saw the park, fell in love, and wrote awe-inspiring things about the Badlands and Black Hills of South Dakota.
“I’ve been about the world a lot, and pretty much over our own country, but I was totally unprepared for that revelation called the Dakota Badlands…
What I saw gave me an indescribable sense of mysterious elsewhere — a distant architecture, ethereal, touched, only touched with a sense of Egyptian, Mayan drift, and silhouette.
As we rode, or seemed to be floating upon a splendid winding road that seemed to understand it all and just where to go, we rose and fell between its delicate parallels of rose and cream and sublime shapes, chalk white, fretted against a blue sky with high floating clouds; the sky itself seemed only there to cleanse and light the vast harmonious building scheme… an endless supernatural world more spiritual than earth but created out of it.”
“Let sculptors come to the Badlands. Let painters come. But first of all the true architect should come. He who could interpret this vast gift of nature in terms of human habitation so that Americans on their own continent might glimpse a new and higher civilization certainly, and touch it and feel it as they lived in it and deserved to call it their own.
Yes, I say the aspects of the Dakota Badlands have more spiritual quality to impart to the mind of America than anything else in it made by man’s God.”
– Frank Lloyd Wright, 1935
It is difficult to not fall in love with the Badlands. The surreal landscape and its utter loneliness have healing powers.
Sunsets in Badlands are splendid treats. Unlike sunsets in other places which last for a few minutes, the sunsets in Badlands can last up to an hour.
On Badlands Loop Road, we saw rains and black stormy clouds and were prepared to head back and call it a day when the sun burst out again and shone brightly for 2 more hours.
Badlands is a place you want to return to, if not for the glorious sunsets then for the utter loneliness and raw beauty.
Badlands is a truly stirring and rousing landscape. The untouched, remote beauty of Badlands transcends the magnificence of more popular travel destinations and the splendor of urban landscapes.
If you ever wish to travel to find yourself, we would recommend the Badlands. Spending time in the Badlands is good for your soul; the moments of utter loneliness are therapeutic and have vast potential for spiritual transformation.
Sunsets in Badlands are ethereal and make you fall in love with the Badlands even more
What If You Have Less Time?
And on that spiritual travel note, we have to return to practicalities.
While we strongly recommend at least 2 days to explore the Badlands, I completely understand if you have less time.
By combining the Badlands Loop Road and hiking one of the short half-mile trails, the highlights of Badlands including the Wall can be seen in a day.
However, I would strongly urge you to revisit this extraordinary landscape at a more leisurely pace.
What If You Have More Time?
In our books, this is the best kind of problem to have.
While we spent a week in South Dakota, the state has enough attractions to keep you busy for months.
Custer State Park alone is worth a week-long trip for the entire family.
If you have more time, we recommend checking out the less popular but equally stunning South Dakota attractions like Deadwood, Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, and a Depression-era Dinosaur Park.
You can read about these and other places of interest in our article on South Dakota’s 16 Most underrated tourist attractions.
And as for us, another brilliant sunset was the perfect end to our memorable South Dakota Road Trip.
After taking many pictures of the wonderful panorama at dusk, we were soon on our way back to Chicago.
On our way back on the I-90, we were treated to another splendid sight – a super moon rising as big as the sun.
We can’t wait to go back to Badlands and South Dakota again, maybe next summer?!
We hope you liked our guide to the ultimate road trip to South Dakota. Do you need any more information for trip planning? Let us know in the comments.