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Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip: Best of Mt Rushmore & Badlands

Welcome to our ultimate South Dakota road trip planner! Whether you are planning a Mt Rushmore road trip or Black Hills road trip, this is for you!

We created this planner to help you plan a trip to South Dakota and it contains all the essential information you need to plan your trip today including budget and costs, what to eat, where to stay, etc.

In this South Dakota travel planner, we show you how to drive to South Dakota and make the most of your time in the stunning landscapes and splendid isolation of our favorite Midwest US state.

Not many actually make this road 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.

Also read: 35 Amazing & Incredible Things to do in South Dakota

Here you will find recommendations for a variety of South Dakota trip itineraries as well as get more information on South Dakota road trip must-see attractions including Mt. Rushmore, Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, Badlands and surrounding area, Custer State Park, Deadwood, Spearfish Canyon, and Rapid City.

Our mission? To make sure you have a blast in South Dakota!

Mount Rushmore National Monument in Black Hills of South Dakota
Mount Rushmore National Monument in Black Hills of South Dakota

“The road goes up hill and down, and it is rutted and dusty and stony but every turn of the wheels changes our view of the woods and the hills. The sky seems lower here, and it is the softest blue. The distances and the valleys are blue whenever you can see them. It is a drowsy country that makes you feel wide awake and alive but somehow contented.”
― Laura Ingalls Wilder

South Dakota is the ultimate road trip adventure. 

Driving through South Dakota involves Dusty unpaved roads through fascinating landscapes. Awe inspiring monuments and quirky roadside attractions. 

Wild West heroes and abandoned ghost towns. Gigantic underground caverns and stunning scenery. 

Gold Rush legends and Cold War relics. Nuclear missiles, street art, and dinosaur fossils. 

Most who visit South Dakota are surprised by the sheer variety of iconic landmarks and attractions found here.

Our story is also similar. A few years ago while planning our next trip we came across Mt 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 – and yet, 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 South Dakota family vacation trip planning, and now almost half a decade later, Badlands and South Dakota still remain one of our favorite travel destinations in the USA.

South Dakota Road Trip is an amazing experience
South Dakota Road Trip is an amazing experience

Why Visit South Dakota

South Dakota road trip means abundant wildlife, dramatic landscapes, and a feeling of utter isolation.

South Dakota vacation 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.

Some come here for the road trip to Mount Rushmore; others for a Badlands road trip. 

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.

Also Read: 5 Reasons Badlands is better than Grand Canyon (Plus 2 reasons it’s not!)

South Dakota has a rich cultural and natural history which is evident in many of its star attractions including Wind Cave National Monument, the iconic monument of Mt. Rushmore, Custer State Park, Badlands, Spearfish Canyon, 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 and Wild West history can be discovered in places such as Crazy Horse Memorial, the Battle of Wounded Knee, and Deadwood.

The state’s wildlife ranges from extinct dinosaurs and wooly mammoth fossils to giant herds of bison and pronghorn antelopes. You can also see a variety of birds, critters, and even snakes in the state.

Because of the ample attractions, South Dakota vacations remain the ultimate summer family road trip adventure.

Badlands National park geological formations

Where to start South Dakota road trip

The only way to see South Dakota is on a road trip. The state has no public transport of any sort and the few airports are spread far apart and are too expensive to fly in. 

So, exactly how far is South Dakota? And how to get to South Dakota?

Most visitors fly into Rapid City or Sioux Falls and rent a car or RV their way across the state. 

Denver, being just 6 hrs away from Rapid City and western South Dakota, makes an excellent option if you have the extra time.

You can also go on an epic Chicago to South Dakota road trip or Minneapolis to Mt. Rushmore Road Trip if coming from the Midwest. 

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 is sharply juxtaposed against the turns and twists of the Black Hills, narrow passages of Needles Highway, and breathtaking tunnels of Iron Mountain Road.

Vacation in 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 a 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 any kind of vacations in South Dakota. Spring and fall can also be accompanied by sudden temperature drops, wind chills, and snowstorms.

The 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.

If you are planning a trip in the summer, the temperature gets extremely hot in July August. You need to be prepared for the extreme heat, especially if planning to hike. Pack sunscreen, a hat, coolers, and carry lots of water.

If you visit in September, you will be treated to spectacular fall colors, especially in the Spearfish Canyon area.

That said, we know of several people who have planned a winter trip to the state and fallen in love with the winter scenery. However, lots of businesses and attractions are often closed during off peak season. 

So if you do plan a winter trip, we recommend sticking to most popular attractions and places of interest. 

Dates wise, the peak tourist season begins 1st May and ends on 30th September. Most attractions follow these dates. 

Best of South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

In this itinerary, we recommend flying into Sioux Falls and then driving west on the I-90 before ending your trip at Rapid City. You can also complete the trip in reverse direction. 

Alternatively, you can also make a round trip from either Sioux Falls or Rapid City. We have given plenty of options to customize your South Dakota itinerary. 

We recommend at least 4 to 7 days for this road trip to enjoy the many monuments, attractions, scenic drives, and hikes.

Note – Several of the attractions, especially the roadside ones, are operating with changed timings or closed due to the pandemic. We recommend researching before your trip. 

Here are the best things to do on a road trip to Mount Rushmore on a one week in South Dakota vacation.

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“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

Day 1: Sioux Falls & Mitchell

Start your South Dakota itinerary in the city of Sioux Falls. Check out the major attractions of Falls Park, Sculpture Walk, and Old Courthouse Museum. Enjoy the culinary scene of the city before seeing the roadside attractions on your way to Badlands National Park. 

Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls, located in eastern South Dakota is famous for its waterfalls on the Big Sioux River.

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. 

Visitors can watch them from many observation platforms in the park and have a nice meal at the Falls Overlook Cafe.

The area surrounding the falls is beautiful and has many biking and hiking trails. The park also has many historic buildings including the Queen Bee Mill, a horse barn, and the Millrace Dam.

Other attractions in Sioux Falls include the St. Joseph Cathedral, Old Courthouse Museum, and the Pettigrew Home & Museum. And off course, the legendary Sculpture Walk!

The Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk is an amazing outdoor gallery of stunning sculptures lining the road between Falls Park and the Washington Pavilion. 

If you have kids take them to see the Great Plains Zoo or the Butterfly House & Aquarium.

Falls Park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Falls Park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota

Where to stay in Sioux Falls

There are several options to stay in the city of Sioux Falls. You will find hotels, motels, and a variety of home stays. 

If you prefer to stay by the regional airport (FSD), then the Holiday Inn Hotel & Suites Sioux Falls – Airport is a great choice. Alternatively, you can also stay at AeroStay or Fairfield Inn & Suites. 

Downtown, stay near Empire Mall or in the City Center. 

For amazing views and character plus to stay close to the attractions, consider staying at Hotel on Phillips Sioux Falls. This is especially great for couples. 

Families love staying at the large rooms with kitchenette at Staybridge Suites – Sioux Falls Southwest or at Hyatt Place Sioux Falls South. Holiday Inn – City Center is also a convenient option. 

Click here to Book your Sioux Falls hotel now

We recommend spending about half a day in the city, having lunch, and then heading 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. 

If you have more time, you can also check out some of the top attractions near Sioux Falls which we have listed below.

Optional: Palisades State Park

Palisades State Park is located about 23 miles away from Sioux Falls in Garretson. The park can be reached in under 30 minutes by car.

This state park is one of the most beautiful and stunning places in South Dakota. Here you will find stunning Sioux quartzite formations lining the Split Rock Creek. 

The tall quartzite cliffs seem to rise vertically from the water. Scenic overlooks located atop the cliffs can be reached by hiking or mountain biking. 

Canoeing and kayaking or fishing in the creek is also popular along with camping, wildlife watching, and photography. 

Palisades State Park near Garretson, South Dakota
Palisades State Park near Garretson, South Dakota

Optional: Good Earth State Park at Blood Run

Another great option for a day trip from Sioux Falls is the Good Earth State Park at Blood Run. It is located just 10 miles away and can be reached in 20 minutes. 

The park is a great place to visit for history and culture lovers. The park and it’s surrounding area was inhabited by Native Americans for  thousands of years. 

In fact, it is one of the oldest sites to be continuously inhabited by humans in the US. 

At the park visitor center and museum, you can learn more about the Oneota Culture. You will find several interesting exhibits and interpretative signs throughout the park. 

The park is also popular for hiking trails on the open grasslands, views of the Big Sioux River, and wildlife viewing opportunities. 

Optional: De Smet

De Smet is located 100 miles to the Northwest of Sioux Falls and is popular with literary travelers. It was here that Laura Ingalls Wilder lived for many years and half of the Little House on the Prairie series books are set in De Smet. 

The primary attraction of De Smet in South Dakota is Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homes. Visitors can take a tour of the homestead and experience for yourself the prairie life in the books. 

Visitors can also see other historic sites in De Smet including the De Smet cemetery, the Surveyor’s House, and Main Street. 

The Wilder Welcome Center and De Smet Depot Museum are also great places to visit. 

After seeing all the attractions in and around Sioux Falls, head west on I-90 towards Badlands National Park. 

Alternatively, you can also stay the night in Sioux Falls and see the Corn Palace and other roadside attractions the next day.

Here are some of our favorite roadside attractions that make this road trip memorable!

Porter Sculpture Park, Montrose

Located at the Montrose exit off I-90, between Sioux Falls and Mitchell, you will find the Porter Sculpture Garden. You can even see sculptures from the highway. 

This sculpture garden is located on private property of the sculptor and can be seen with tickets (10 for adults, kids under 12 free). You can even meet the sculptor and talk with him. 

The collection includes several amazing sculptures of various sizes and they are accompanied by poems. The sculptures are stunning and the park is one of the best Instagram spots in South Dakota. 

We definitely recommend stopping at this unique roadside attraction and appreciating the artwork. Keep aside an hour or so to see the entire park. 

Mitchell Corn Palace

The Corn Palace at Mitchell – a one of a kind attraction – is a building completely decorated with corn. 

The Corn Palace is created to pay tribute to the efforts of the region’s farmers and to display the products of the harvest each year. 

On the exterior, you will find elaborate corn murals using grains, ears, and husks of different colors. The effect is quite stunning.

Exhibits inside the palace showcase decorations from previous years and tell the history of Mitchell.

A new theme and design adorns the Corn Palace every year. This is one of the popular tourist attractions in the eastern part of South Dakota

The Corn Palace is fun to visit, pretty unique, and photogenic – and also completely free!. 

To know more, read our Visitor’s Guide to the Corn Palace at Mitchell.

Mitchell Corn Palace, South Dakota
Mitchell Corn Palace, South Dakota

Other Things to do in Mitchell

The city of Mitchell has many other attractions besides the Corn Palace. 

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 and 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.

Where to stay in Mitchell 

Mitchell is not very big, and you can easily stay near the Corn Palace and see nearby attractions in a day. 

Some of the best hotels to stay in Mitchell include the Thunderbird Lodge, which is popular with couples for its indoor hot tub or Hampton Inn Mitchell, which is popular with families. 

Other family friendly options include Holiday Inn Mitchell or the Ramada Mitchell. For a budget friendly stay, consider Super 8 Mitchell or Motel 6

Click here to Book your hotel in Mitchell now.

Dignity Statue, Chamberlain

In Chamberlain, on the banks of the Missouri River, you will find South Dakota’s newest tourist attraction. 

The striking Dignity sculpture is an amazing and awe-inspiring work of art. The 50 feet tall statue represents a Native American woman and is created by sculptor Dale Lamphere. 

The traditional dress with the diamond quilt is one of the most beautiful things that you will see. The majestic statue honors the Lakota and Dakota Native American tribes and their culture. 

The statue is located between exit 263 and exit 265 on the Interstate and is definitely one of the best stops on a South Dakota road trip. 

Dignity Statue in Chamberlain, South Dakota
For Illustrative purposes only – Dignity Statue in Chamberlain, South Dakota

Skeleton Man Walking Skeleton Dinosaur

Looking for something truly quirky and unique? Find the skeleton man walking the skeleton dinosaur! 

The sculpture has a skeleton man holding an axe and leading a skeleton T-Rex on a leash. You can’t go near the sculpture, but it can be easily seen and photographed from far. 

Or to get even closer, consider visiting the 1880 Museum! 

This attraction is located before exit 170 on the westbound I-90. 

Original 1880 Town Museum

Just a short distance from the skeleton man sculpture, you will find the 1880 Town Museum. In fact, it’s said that the skeleton man and skeleton dinosaur are walking towards the 1880 Town! 

This attraction is located in Murdo and has several historic buildings belonging to that era. You will also see movie props from the film, Dances with Wolves. 

Other fun things to do include feeding popcorn to a camel named Otis, renting period costumes, and taking a close up photo of the dinosaur sculpture.

Optional: Sitting Bull Monument

3 hours north of Murdo, South Dakota you will find the Sitting Bull Monument. 

The monument is located near Mobridge on the banks of the Missouri. This is said to be the final resting place of the Native American (Sioux) spiritual leader, Chief Sitting Bull. 

At the memorial, you will find a six feet tall bust of Sitting Bull. It is carved by sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski who is also the sculptor of Crazy Horse Memorial. 

The Sakakawea Monument is also located nearby on SD Highway 1806. 

After seeing all the roadside attractions, drive towards Wall, South Dakota. The total distance from Sioux Falls to Wall is roughly 4 hours without stopping at the roadside attractions.

However Custer / Badlands National Park and Wall is in the Mountain Time Zone while Mitchell is in the Central Time Zone, so you will gain an hour on reaching Wall.

You can stay in the town of Wall for the night or camp in Badlands National Park. (See below)

Travel Tip – If you have less time or are starting your road trip from Rapid City, skip this day. Continue straight onto Day 2 and start your trip from Custer / Badlands National Park.

Sitting Bull Monument, South Dakota
For Illustrative purposes only – Sitting Bull Monument, South Dakota

Day 2: Badlands National Park

Your next stop is the famous Badlands National Park of South Dakota. 

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 the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright felt on seeing the Badlands.

On the way, check out the iconic Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Sip on coffee and take a photo with the mythical jackalope at the Wall Drug Store.

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 Great 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 are flat and grassy and give no clue of the unique topography on the other side of the Badlands Wall. 

Badlands National Park rock formations in South Dakota
Eroded rock formations of the badlands in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

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.

The park has two units: North Unit & South Unit. Most amenities and activities are in the North Unit.

There are several things to do in Badlands National Park, many of which we have highlighted below.

Watch the 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 including herds of bison, deer, mountain goat, sheep, pronghorns, elk, coyotes, and prairie dogs.

You can also see a variety of birds including eagles, hawks, pheasants, western meadowlarks, and magpies. 

Mountain lions also live in the area and are seen by few lucky tourists.

Prairie Dogs in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Prairie Dogs in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

See the fossils in the park

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 and preserve these extinct mammals. These fossils attract many paleontologists and biologists to the Badlands.

The area has also yielded fossils of extinct species of turtles, crocodiles, snails, and birds. Visitors can see them at the Visitor Center and on the Fossil Trail. 

Contrary to popular reports, no dinosaur fossils have been discovered in the park.

Mountain goat in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Mountain goat in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Drive the Badlands Loop Road

Driving the Badlands Loop Road is an unforgettable experience. We can never forget the first time we drove the park loop road.

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 never-ending 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 colorful badlands!

We had no inkling, no clue – the abruptness of the transition took our breath away. 

It was the most wonderful introduction to this iconic national 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.

Gorgeous rainbow at sunset in Badlands National park at Panorama Point
Gorgeous rainbow at sunset in Badlands National park at Panorama Point

Go 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.

Visitors can follow many of these roads to see beautiful, unobstructed views of the park.

The Sage Creek Rim Road is a gravel road along the North Rim of the Badlands Wilderness Area.

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.

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.

Hiking on the Notch trail in Badlands National Park
Hiking on the Notch trail in Badlands National Park

Enjoy the hiking trails at Badlands National Park

Hiking the badlands is our 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.

Some of the most popular trails include the Door Trail, Window Trail, Fossil Exhibit Trail, Notch Trail, and the Castle Trail. Most of the trailheads are along the Badlands Loop Road.

Our personal 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 breathtaking.

To read more about hiking in Badlands National Park, see our Guide to Hiking in the Badlands.

Camp At Badlands National Park

If you have the time, we definitely recommend camping at Badlands. 

Camping in Badlands National Park and seeing the starry night sky is an amazing way to experience this dramatic landscape. Plus, you wake up to stunning views of the Badlands Wall.

Also Read: Best Camping in the USA

The most popular place to camp is 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 campground has about 100 campsites with covered picnic tables. All the sites are located on flat ground.

The views at sunset and sunrise from the campsites are gorgeous.

Camping in Badlands National Park is an amazing experience
Camping in Badlands National Park is an amazing experience

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.

Badlands campsites are surrounded by the Badlands Wall and have beautiful views

Best Places to Stay near 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 in advance.

The Cedar Pass Lodge also has dining amenities.

Colors of the Badlands look more vivid after rainfall
Colors of the Badlands look more vivid after rainfall

Where to stay in Wall, South Dakota

Visitors often prefer staying in the town of Wall, which serves as the gateway to the national park. 

There are many hotels and motels located in the town near the Wall Drug. 

Most popular chains including America’s Best Value Inn, Days Inn, and Best Western Plains Motel are located here.

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.

Click here to book your hotel in Wall, South Dakota now

While we have suggested a minimum of one day at Badlands, we ideally recommend 2 to 3 days to explore this extraordinary landscape. 

Plus there are other attractions near Badlands which make excellent reasons for spending more time in the area.

Delta-01 Launch Facility at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota
Delta-01 Launch Facility at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota

Optional: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

If you are a military enthusiast, then you will love visiting the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. 

Minuteman Missiles played a very important role in the Cold War. Several were located in the Great Plains, ready to be deployed at the slightest need. 

After their decommissioning, most of the missiles were removed but the one near Wall, South Dakota was converted into a tourist attraction. 

The national historic site comprises 3 distinct areas located about 10 miles apart near the town of Wall along the Interstate. 

Delta-01 Launch Control Room is located at Exit 127 and can be seen on a ranger guided tour. You can also see the Delta-09 Minuteman Underground missile silo on a self-guided tour at exit 116. 

And lastly, there’s the Visitor Center at exit 131. Here you can understand the history of the Civil war, see exhibits, and learn more about the nuclear missiles. 

Teens and warfare enthusiasts love visiting the site to see the nuclear missile. 

Delta-09 Missile Silo at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota
Delta-09 Missile Silo at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota

Optional: Wall Drug

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. 

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 in the town of Wall and the blizzards and ice-creams feel great on a hot summer day.

Warning – The Wall Drug is rather touristy and always crowded, so if you hate fudge/popcorn/taffy/kids rides/old time photos style typical tourist attractions, then maybe skip a visit!

Wall Drug dinosaur near Badlands, South Dakota
For Illustrative purposes only – Wall Drug dinosaur near Badlands, South Dakota

Day 3: Custer State Park & Crazy Horse Memorial

Next, make way for Custer State Park. Spot the famous bison herds and see a roundup if you are lucky. 

Go hiking in the park, swim in the mountain lakes, and enjoy the scenic views.

Drive the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway which is made of 3 amazing roads: the Wildlife Loop Road, Needles Highway, and the Iron Mountain Road. 

Save time by visiting the famous Crazy Horse Memorial as a day trip from the park on this day.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is the largest state park in the country.

The park is famous for its abundant wildlife sightings. The state park’s Wildlife Loop Road is one of the best places to see wildlife in South Dakota.

The drive from Badlands to Custer State Park is about 1 hrs 15 mins or 70 miles. 

Here are some of our favorite things to do in Custer State Park.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Drive the Wildlife Loop Road

The Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park is an 18 miles long scenic drive which is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.

The best time to drive the road is at sunset and just before sunrise for watching wildlife.

The scenic road 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, visitors often need to stop to let a herd of bison pass at a leisurely pace.

You will also see prairie dogs near the prairie dog town. It is fascinating to watch the prairie dogs stand over their burrows and keep watch for predators. 

Other wildlife that you will see on the road includes mountain goats, deer, and begging burros.

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

Begging burros in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Begging burros in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Camp 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.

Most of the campsites are on a first come first serve basis, so you need to reach early to select a good site.

The most popular campgrounds include the Blue Bell Campground and Center Lake campground which has a same-day reservation policy – hence popular with many. 

All of the campsites in Center Lake are located around the mountain lake and shaded by pine trees. They have grills and picnic tables.

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 Campground is a great place to base your stay in Custer State Park.

The park also has furnished cabins with electricity but you need to book these 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. 

Bison herds in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Bison herds in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Other things to do at Custer State Park

Besides the Wildlife Loop Road and camping, 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. 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. 

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 and plan your trip, read our post on Best Things to do in Custer State Park.

Wild pheasants in Custer State Park
Wild pheasants in Custer State Park

Crazy Horse Memorial

After spending some more time in Custer’s wilderness and driving the Wildlife Loop Road, make a day trip to see 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.

Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota
Crazy Horse Memorial in the Black Hills of South Dakota

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 plan a trip to the memorial, read 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 park’s mountain lakes or hike or put up a hammock against the pine trees and read a book.

Travel Tip – If you are short on time, you can see Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road, other scenic drives, Crazy Horse Memorial, as well as Mt. Rushmore in just one day. It will be hectic but manageable since the attractions are fairly close to one another. 

Custer State Park camping
Custer State Park camping

Optional: Custer

Many visitors often skip the town of custer itself for the many attractions in the Black Hills. 

However, if you have the time then definitely spend some time exploring Custer and its charming streets. 

Custer is the oldest town in the Black Hills. Within the town, you will find fun things to do including the 1881 Courthouse Museum and the Four Mile Old West Town. 

Walk in the town and enjoy local shopping in stores like the Custer Candy Company and the Good Karma Jewelry. 

To get outdoors, rent an ATV or go for a hot air balloon ride over the Black Hills or learn rock climbing among the spires of needles Highway. A variety of outdoor gear and tour operators are located in Custer. 

You can also attend events like the Old Country Fair, Gold Rush Days Festival, and the Tesla Car Rally. 

Where to stay in Custer, South Dakota?

If you don’t want to camp in Custer State Park or stay in one of its pine cabins, then stay in the city of Custer. 

Custer provides an excellent base to see all the attractions in the Black Hills including Mt Rushmore, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse, and even Hot Springs. 

One of our top recommendations for a great place to stay in Custer is the EO Bungalows Black Hills. The 19th century buildings and atmosphere make it a favorite with couples and those looking for a relaxing getaway. 

For families, we recommend the Bavarian Inn in the Black Hills which has a swimming pool or Chalet Motel in Custer, which has really pretty cabins and a very convenient location. 

Another great option is Rock Crest Lodge & Cabins. You will love the pretty cabins and the location on the prairies amidst the Black Hills. 

Other comfortable and convenient options include Holiday Inn Express & Suites – Custer or Best Western Buffalo Ridge

Bison herds on Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Bison herds on Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Day 4: Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway & Mt. Rushmore Itinerary

Next day, get ready to explore the rest of Custer State Park’s scenic drives. This is, by far, our favorite day in the Black Hills.

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.

Then see the iconic monument of Mt. Rushmore. This is one of the most revered attractions in the country and Mt Rushmore family vacation is one the bucket list of most travelers.

Explore 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.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

As road trip lovers, we enjoy driving on twisting and challenging roads. Hence, we particularly looked forward to this 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.

The scenic drives are truly breathtaking and open up to beautiful vistas. They pass through fascinating geological landforms and are constructed in awe-inspiring ways.

This route is consistently placed among America’s Top 10 scenic byways. It has also been named as one of the Most Outstanding Byways in America.

The Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway parts of Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway represent unique driving challenges and are delightful to drive.

Tunnel on Iron Mountain Road in Black Hills, South Dakota
Tunnel on Iron Mountain Road in Black Hills, South Dakota

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. 

Pigtail curves of Iron Mountain Road, South Dakota
Pigtail curves of Iron Mountain Road, South Dakota

The last tunnel in particular symmetrically frames Mount Rushmore and offers an incredible photo opportunity. 

This road is also popular with motorcyclists and bikers – you can easily rent bikes in Rapid City to drive the byway. 

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.  

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.

Needles granite formations on Needles Highway, South Dakota
Needles granite formations on Needles Highway, South Dakota

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.

Driving both the scenic byways of Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway should not take more than 2-3 hrs and once you near Mount Rushmore, the road is pretty much straight.

Tunnel on Needles Highway in Black Hills, South Dakota
Tunnel on Needles Highway in Black Hills, South Dakota

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.

Needles formation on Needles Highway in South Dakota
Needles formation on Needles Highway in South Dakota

Where to Stay in Keystone

There are plenty of places to stay in Keystone, South Dakota for all budgets. 

Our top favorite is Under Canvas Mt. Rushmore. You will be glamping in the gorgeous Black Hills scenery near Mt Rushmore. 

The Luxury tents here are popular with families as well as couples. You can enjoy s’mores by the campfire at night, star gaze, or hike on trails around the property. Book this hotel now

Other great options include the historic building with terrace at Roosevelt Inn Mount Rushmore or the K Bar S Lodge located inside the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. It has great views of the landscape from its terrace.

Powder House Lodge is also an amazing place to stay and enjoy the nearby attractions. 

Another option is to stay in nearby Hill City at the charming Best Western Golden Spike Inn & Suites which has a great atmosphere and swimming pool. If you want a charming pine cabin with a balcony, then consider the Mountain View Lodge & Cabins

Click here to book your hotel near Mt. Rushmore National Memorial now. 

Entrance to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
Entrance to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

Mt Rushmore National Memorial

For most Americans, this is a highlight of the South Dakota road trip. 

One of the iconic images of America, Mount Rushmore is everyone’s travel bucket list.

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 specifically 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. Our other top favorites include Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia.

View of Mount Rushmore from the road
View of Mount Rushmore from the road

Things To Do At Mt. Rushmore

Contrary to what many people think, Mount Rushmore vacation 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. Consider below recommendations while planning a trip to Mount Rushmore.

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. 

Avenue of the Flags at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
Avenue of the Flags at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota

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.

We definitely recommend visiting towards the evening to see the sculpture lit up.

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.

Side view of Mount Rushmore
Side view of Mount Rushmore

Optional – Black Hills Railroad

If you have more time – Consider a trip down a vintage 1880 Train from Keystone to Hill City, South Dakota!

The Black Hills Central Railroad was built back in the day to carry the gold found in the Black Hills. It later also serviced the mills and carried timber. The railroad is the oldest continuously operating railroad in the US. 

On the route, you can see views of Mt. Rushmore, the Black Elk Peak, and lots of wildlife. The trip is 2 hours long roundtrip and has an additional 15 minutes of layover. The depot in Hill City also has an adjacent train museum which is fun for the kids. 

Travel Tip – These scenic drives have many twists and turns and are not popular with those who get car sick. But do not miss out on the spectcaular scenery! You can drive at slow speeds (~10 – 12 mph) and take some Dramamine to make the trip smoother.

Black Hills Railroad Steam engine, South Dakota
Black Hills Railroad Steam engine, South Dakota

Day 5: Black Hills Itinerary

Use this day for planning a trip to the Black Hills.

Wake up to a fresh day in Custer State Park, pack your tents, and enjoy the early morning sun filtering down the pine trees. 

Today, you will be exploring the many things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

There are many attractions in the Black Hills. We recommend picking your favorites and spending a day here to see them.

If you want to see everything in the area, then we recommend spending at least 2 to 3 days in the Black Hills.

Here are some of our favorite things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Also Read: 38 Amazing Things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Wind Cave National Park

South Dakota’s Wind Cave National Park is one of the most underrated national parks in the country. 

Under the flat grassy prairies, lies the beautiful Wind Cave. This geological wonder is one of the largest and longest cave complexes in the world. 

Inside the cave, you can see intricate box work and frostwork calcite formations on a guided tour.  The caves’ complex, interconnected passages cause air to rush out from the openings, leading to its name, the Wind Cave. 

On the grasslands above the cave, you will find a variety of wildlife including elk, deer, and bison. 

Boxwork formations inside Fairgrounds Cave in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota
Boxwork formations inside Fairgrounds Cave in Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs is famous with budding paleontologists for the large number of intact Columbian and woolly mammoth skeletons discovered in the on-site sinkhole. 

Visitors can view the active dig site on a self guided tour. Along with the Mammoth fossils, you can also see fossils and remnants of other Ice Age animals including sloths, camels, llama, and more. 

The Mammoth Site is an amazing interactive educational experience for the kids. 

Closeup of tusks of wooly mammoth at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota
Closeup of tusks of wooly mammoth at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota

Optional: Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave, located in the Black Hills, is also famous for its intricate jewel-like calcite formations. 

Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world. Visitors can see the cave on a guided tour. There are tours of varying difficulty for all skill levels. 

The area around the cave also had many hiking trails and canyons, which are popular with outdoor explorers. You can also spot wildlife in the area. 

Optional: Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak is the tallest peak in South Dakota. It is located in the Black Hills and the trailhead begins in Custer State Park at Sylvan Lake. 

The climb to the top is strenuous but you are rewarded with stunning views of the area. A fire tower built by the CCC on top of the peak still stands. 

Black Elk Peak in Custer State Park, South Dakota
Black Elk Peak in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Optional: Black Hills National Forest

Black Hills National Forest is an amazing wonderland of pine trees, dense trailheads, spectacular wildlife, waterfalls, and recreation activities. 

We definitely recommend stopping at the Black Hills National Forest if you have the time. 

Travel Tip – This day and the attractions are entirely optional if you have only 7 days to see South Dakota. 

Day 6: Rapid City

Rapid City is one of the best cities to visit in South Dakota. We definitely recommend spending a day here to see all the tourist attractions, especially if you have kids. 

The many dinosaur themed attractions in the city make it very popular with families. Here are some of the best things to do in Rapid City. 

Dinosaur Park

Right in the middle of downtown, located on the top of a hill, you will find the Rapid City Dinosaur Park.

This park was built during the Great Depression era and is one of the oldest dinosaur attractions in America. 

Kids can climb the dinosaurs including T-Rex and Triceratops. The views of the city from the park are also pretty. 

Art Alley

If you love street art and murals, consider visiting Art Alley in Rapid City. 

This attraction is located between 6th and 7th Street on Main Street in downtown. It is located close to restaurants and shopping. 

Night sky while camping at Sage Creek in Badlands National Park in South Dakota
Night sky while camping at Sage Creek in Badlands National Park in South Dakota

Here you will find the alley covered with vibrant, beautiful, and thought provoking artwork. The murals cover a variety of subjects and are very interesting. 

This spot is a great hit with those who love taking photos for Instagram. 

Museum of Geology

If you want to see even more dinosaurs, then visit the Museum of Geology. Here you will find a variety of fossils, skeletons, and other remains of the prehistoric beasts. 

Kids love seeing the almost complete skeletons of several dinosaurs. Other museum collections include gems and minerals, historic artifacts, and are fascinating to see. 

Plus the best part is that it is free, making it very popular with those on a budget. 

Reptile Gardens

Reptile Gardens Zoo in Rapid City is home to a variety of snakes, alligators, other reptiles, and animals. 

They have a lot of amazing exhibits and the zoo is a great place to visit for the whole family.  Kids enjoy seeing the prairie dogs, turtles, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, and bald eagles at the zoo. 

We recommend about one and half to two hours to see the zoo. 

Chapel in the Hills

If you like seeing unique buildings, then visit the Chapel in the Hills in Rapid City, South Dakota. 

This chapel is modeled after the famous Borgund stavkirke in Laerdal, an original stave church in the Norwegian style of architecture.  

The exact replica has many beautiful architectural features, rich wood carving, and is a very beautiful building. 

Teepees or tents of the Oglala Lakota and Sioux tribes at Badlands National park
Teepees or tents of the Oglala Lakota and Sioux tribes at Badlands National park

South Dakota Air & Space Museum

The South Dakota Air and Space Museum is located just outside the Ellsworth Air Force Base in the Black Hills. 

The museum has a large collection of aviation exhibits including vintage aircrafts, bombers, nuclear missiles, and more. 

The museum is free and a fun thing to do for aviation and aircraft lovers. 

Where to stay in Rapid City

We recommend staying close to Downtown Rapid City. 

Popular hotel chains in this area include Best Western Rapid City Rushmore or Holiday Inn Rapid City – Rushmore Plaza or Staybridge Suites Rapid City

Courtyard By Marriott or Residence Inn by Mariott is also a great choice for families due to their spacious suites with sofa beds. 

We have also enjoyed our stay at Best Western Ramkota in the past. However, this is one of the most popular budget friendly chains and we definitely recommend advance reservations. 

If you like independent and boutique hotels, then try the Hotel Alex Johnson Rapid City. This historic hotel has charming architecture and an on-site Irish pub! It is especially popular with couples looking for a romantic getaway. 

Grand Gateway Hotel with its indoor pool and a waterslide is great for families. However, it gets sold out pretty fast for popular weekends so book now

If you want to stay near the Rapid City Regional Airport, then good nearby hotels include Baymont By Wyndham and Home2 Suites by Hilton

Sunset at Badlands National park in South Dakota
Sunset at Badlands National park in South Dakota

Day 7: Deadwood & Spearfish Canyon

Today, you will enjoy the many things to do near Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills.

Spend the day in Historic Deadwood. Watch a shootout reenactment on the Main Street, visit the Deadwood cemetery, and see the Tatanka bison sculpture. Then drive down Spearfish Canyon and enjoy the waterfalls. End your day trip at the Motorcycle Museum in Sturgis. 

Deadwood

Historic Deadwood is one of the most fun things to do in South Dakota. This Wild West Town was established in 1876 when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

It attracted many popular Wild West heroes including Calamity Jane and Wild Bill. Violence, gun fights, and bar brawls were common and Deadwood was a dangerous place to be. 

The mining town was abandoned after the Gold Rush and has been converted into a popular tourist attraction. 

Visitors can enjoy a trip to Deadwood and admire the historic buildings, gamble in a casino, visit a museum, see the graves of Wild West heroes in the Deadwood cemetery and watch a reenactment of the shoot out. 

Spending a day in Deadwood is great fun and definitely one of the amazing things to do in South Dakota. 

Main Street of Historic Deadwood, South Dakota
Main Street of Historic Deadwood, South Dakota

Tatanka Bison Sculpture

A few miles away from Downtown Deadwood, you will find the Tatanka Bison Sculpture. Commissioned by Kevin Costner, the sculpture pays tribute to the Native American legacy and culture. 

Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is one of the best scenic drives in South Dakota. 

The road is 22 miles long and takes about 2 hours to drive considering the attractions. You will be driving along the curving Spearfish Creek. 

The route has many scenic vistas, overlooks, picnic areas, trailheads, and waterfalls. Bridalveil Falls, Roughlock Falls, and Spearfish Falls are most popular to visit. 

The road is stunning in fall when trees lining the canyon floor turn color. You can also bike the canyon or drive a motorcycle to enjoy its scenic vistas. 

View along Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway in Black Hills of South Dakota
View along Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway in Black Hills of South Dakota

Optional: Sturgis

If you have more time, consider visiting Sturgis, South Dakota. The city is famous for its annual motorcycle rally. 

Visit the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame to see vintage bikes and memorabilia. History lovers will enjoy the Old Fort Meade Museum and its many interesting exhibits. 

That’s it! Return back to Rapid City for your flight home after the awesome South Dakota road trip. 

Next Step: Book Your Trip

Click here to Book hotels in South Dakota now

If you have less time: Western South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary 4 Days

Visitors can also complete this Great American road trip in less time by focusing on a Mount Rushmore road trip. 

If you are short on time, we would recommend 4 Days in South Dakota road trip itinerary as follows. You will be seeing the top 3 attractions of Mt Rushmore, Badlands, and Black Hills. 

Spearfish Falls in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota
Spearfish Falls in Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota

Rapid City – 1 Day

Rapid City is the closest airport to Mount Rushmore. Use this as your base for visiting South Dakota on a tight timeline. 

Spend a day in the city, pick up your rental car, and visit Rapid City’s top attractions including Dinosaur Park, Art Alley, and Reptile Gardens. 

Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse – 1 Day

The next day, make your way to Keystone to see Mt Rushmore. 

See the carved sculptures and the visitor center, hike the Presidential Trail, and spend some time in downtown Keystone. 

Then visit the Crazy Horse Memorial and understand about the Lakota Culture. Stay the night at Custer. 

Custer State Park Scenic Drives & Minuteman Missile Site – 1 Day

On this day, spend time in Custer State Park. Drive the scenic drives of Wildlife Loop Road, Iron Mountain Road, and the Needles Highway. 

See the state’s amazing wildlife and be enchanted by the tunnels and bridges along the way. Hike inside the state park and go for a swim in the lakes. 

See the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and stay in the town of Wall. 

Badlands National Park & Wall Drug – 1 Day

End your trip at Badlands National Park. Drive the Badlands Loop Road to enjoy the dramatic vistas from the overlooks. Hike the park trails to get closer to the geological formations. 

Also see Wall Drug along the way and drink it’s 5 cent coffee. Head back to Rapid City for your return flight. 

4 Day South Dakota road trip will be hectic but possible. However we do not recommend keeping any less time for this road trip. 

Some other alternatives to shortening your itinerary include skipping the day in Black Hills or seeing the attractions in eastern part of the state on a separate trip if you have 5 to 6 days. 

You can also start your trip in Sioux Falls and drive straight to the Black Hills. The distance from Sioux Falls to Mount Rushmore is 5 hrs 30 mins or 370 miles. 

Views of the Badlands from the Badlands Loop Road
Views of the Badlands from the Badlands Loop Road

If you have more time: South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary 10 Days to 2 Weeks

We have a couple of more South Dakota Vacation Ideas for those who like slow travel and enjoy experiencing more off the beaten path attractions. 

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.

2 Weeks in South Dakota

For this detailed South Dakota itinerary, see all the attractions in the state, including the most underrated ones that we have listed above as optional. 

Experience a shootout in Historic Deadwood and enjoy the underground geological formations at Jewel Cave National Monument. Take the Black Hills Railroad from Keystone to Hill City. 

For more adventure, take the hiking trail to the top of Black Elk Peak, the tallest point in South Dakota. See the Reptile Gardens in Rapid City. 

Road trip through the granite spires of Needles Highway, then spend time camping at Custer. Drive the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway and enjoy the waterfalls along the way. 

Spot wildlife including bighorn sheep in Black Hill National Forest and see the Minuteman Missile near Wall Drug. 

Let the kids experience a day as a paleontologist at Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, then take them to climb the dinosaurs at Dinosaur Park in Downtown Rapid City. 

You can also consider a trip along the southeastern part of the state near Yankton & Vermilion. The major attractions here include the following:

Motorcycle museum and Hall of Fame, Sturgis, South Dakota
For Illustrative purposes only – Motorcycle museum and Hall of Fame, Sturgis, South Dakota

Lewis & Clark National Recreation Area

In Yankton, along the banks of the Missouri, you will find the Lewis and Clark National Recreation Area.

The park has an excellent campground and great scenery.  The lake is also beautiful and the area and its variety of outdoor recreation activities are popular with families. 

National Music Museum, Vermilion

Vermilion’s National Music Museum is one of the hidden treasures in South Dakota. 

This is said to be one of the best music museums in the US and has a variety of musical instruments from different countries and continents. 

The collection spans hundreds of years and you can see vintage musical instruments from many countries. The museum is a must visit attraction for those who love music. 

Or you can see the Petrified Wood Museum in Lemmon near the northern border. 

Petrified Wood Museum, Lemmon

In northern South Dakota, you will find the town of Lemmon. A major attraction here is the Petrified Wood Park and Museum located in the center of the town.

The park was built by the town men during the Great Depression. They used the nearby Petrified Wood fossils to create a beautiful rock garden. 

Visitors can see a variety of sculptures including a castle, wishing well, fountain, and conical trees. Inside the museum, you will find historic artifacts and exhibits from the pioneer era. 

Fossilized skeletons at Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota
Fossilized skeletons at Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota

South Dakota Wyoming Road Trip

Many visitors plan a combined road trip to South Dakota and Wyoming. This is certainly feasible if you have more time. 

You can easily see highlights such as Yellowstone and Devil’s Monument. 

Devil’s Tower National Monument

One of the best ways to spend more time in the region is to combine it with a trip to Wyoming and see Devil’s Tower National Monument. 

Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming is located just a little over 1 hour 30 minutes away from Rapid City, South Dakota. The distance is about 110 miles. 

This iconic butte located in the Black Hills of northeastern Wyoming is a unique granite formation. It rises 1267 feet above the surrounding landscape and looks stunning in pictures. 

This is the very first national monument to be established in America. Visitors can hike the trails around the base of the monument while rock climbers can attempt to reach the very top. 

A lot of Native American legends surround the Devil’s Tower making it a sacred place for the indigenous people.

Yellowstone National Park prismatic spring in Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park prismatic spring in Wyoming

Yellowstone National Park

For even more amazing natural wonders, visit the geothermal playground of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. 

It is 9 hrs away from Rapid City and one of the top visited national parks in the country. There are many things to do in Yellowstone. 

See the Old Faithful geyser erupt or go on the park’s scenic drives. Have amazing wildlife encounters or enjoy hiking in the area. Spot bubbling sulphur pools and take a dip in a hot spring in the park. 

Grand Teton National Park

Also located in Wyoming, south of Yellowtsone you will find the beautiful Grand Tetons. 

This national park has stunning scenery, jaw dropping mountain views, amazing hikes, abundant wildlife, and gorgeous fall colors. 

The panorama of snow capped mountain peaks and lush green valleys are a stark contrast to the mixed grass prairies of South Dakota. 

Reflection lake in Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming
Reflection lake in Grand Tetons National Park in Wyoming

Best of Dakotas Road Trip

For the truly unbeaten path, consider extending your South Dakota vacation itinerary to North Dakota and Medora. 

Medora

This charming mountain town is the gateway to Theodore Roosevelt National Park and the North Dakota Badlands. 

Enjoy your trip to Medora with a quick stroll around the town. Seethe historic buildings, many souvenir shops, and the Western vibe of this place. 

End your day with the amazing Medora musical and steak fondue dinner. This amazing show dedicated to the life and legacy of FDR is absolutely must see. 

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Spend a day hiking in Theodore Roosevelt National park and experience the difference in North Dakota’s badlands and South Dakota’s badlands. 

See the bison and wild horses in the park. Understand Roosevelt’s legacy at the visitor center. 

There are several other things to do in the park including panoramic outlooks and unique geological formations. 

Charming town of Medora, North Dakota
Charming town of Medora, North Dakota

Dickinson

Visit the nearby town of Dickinson and the amazing Badlands Dinosaur museum with kids. 

This is honestly one of the best dinosaur museums in the country and has complete skeletons of many prehistoric beasts. Their gem collection is also great.

Dickinson also has great street art and murals as well as many cool restaurants.

Next Step: Book Your Trip

Click here to Book hotels in South Dakota now

More Destination Guides

Read our South Dakota travel guides below to plan your trip now

Badlands National Park Guide

Mt Rushmore Guide

Custer State Park Guide

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.

View along Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway in Black Hills of South Dakota
35 Unique Things to do in South Dakota
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