A few years ago, while planning our next road trip, we came across the Mount Rushmore State. Looking at South Dakota’s top 15 tourist attractions, 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 upon 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.
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.
The state was formerly called ‘the Sunshine State’ and it stands up to that name in a much more distinct way than the current sunshine state of Florida. Unlike the beach crowds and jovial atmosphere brought out by the sun in Florida, in South Dakota sun draws out the rich wildlife and paints a spectacular landscape in dramatic colors. We invite you to take this epic road trip and discover your own reasons for falling in love with South Dakota.
First things first, the only way you can see South Dakota 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.
Your options are driving all the way from wherever you are to South Dakota (if that involves a cross-country trip, you have to tell us how it goes), flying into Rapid City and renting a car, or RVing your way across the state – something that’s very much on our bucket list! However, even if you were able to see it any other way – without a road trip – you wouldn’t want to.
The wide-open expanse of prairies and freeways that go on 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, aimless driving and this is one road trip that you will remember above all others; 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. In summer, the months of July and August can be extremely hot, so you need to be prepared with lots of water especially if you are planning to do some hiking – and you must – there is no other better way to explore the state.
As I said before, we planned our week-long road trip for Labor Day and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect.
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 establishment of settlements led to the Black Hills Wars between the Lakota Indians and the American Government. South Dakota’s history can be discovered in places such as Crazy Horse Memorial, the Battle of Wounded Knee and Deadwood.
Our South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
We started our South Dakota Road Trip from our then hometown of Chicago. Those were the days when we didn’t own a car – living in downtown meant we didn’t need one – and simply rented one when we went on road trips. So we rented the car in the evening and drove through the night like crazies on I-90 W – night driving is something we do a lot or at any rate, did before we had kids – and covered the distance from Chicago to Sioux Falls ~ approx 9 hrs / 580 miles at night.
Our main South Dakota Road Trip 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 with a few changes. You can also start the road trip in Sioux Falls and end in Rapid City or the other way around. A roundtrip itinerary from Rapid City can even be completed within 4 days.
Day 1: Sioux Falls & Mitchell Corn Palace
Highlights: Explore Sioux Falls and see the World’s Only Corn Palace at Mitchell
Things To Do At Sioux Falls
We started our day in Sioux Falls at Falls Park. The Big Sioux River tumbles and flows down over a series of quartzite rock formations to create a series of beautiful waterfalls. The surrounding area is beautiful and has many biking and hiking trails. Other attractions in Sioux Falls include the St. Joseph Cathedral, Courthouse Museum, and the Zoo. We spent about half a day in Sioux Falls and had lunch here before heading on to the World’s Only Corn Palace at Mitchell.
Visiting The Corn Palace At Mitchell
The Corn Palace at Mitchell, in addition to being its only kind in the world, is a building completely decorated with corn. A new design is constructed each year for the corn palace and it is one of the popular tourist attractions in the area. We found it a fun place to visit and one of the unique roadside attractions in South Dakota. There were many exhibits inside detailing decorations from previous years and the settler origins of Mitchell. Read our detailed visitor’s guide to the Corn Palace at Mitchell here.
Things To Do At Mitchell
Other things to do in Mitchell include the archeological site of prehistoric Indian Village that is open to the public and the Dakota Discovery Museum. The village archeological site is located next to the shores of Lake Mitchell which also has biking trails and picnic areas. We chose to just relax for the rest of the day – mainly to recoup from driving the night before – and stayed in Mitchell to end the day.
What If You Are Coming From Rapid City?
If you are flying directly into Rapid City or want to start your itinerary from here, 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 & 3: Custer State Park & Crazy Horse Memorial
Highlights: Drive on to Custer State Park and see South Dakota’s abundant wildlife on Wildlife Loop Road. Visit Crazy Horse Memorial as a day trip from Custer State Park
In the morning after having a delicious breakfast in Mitchell, we drove on to Custer State Park, located in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We were camping at Custer for 2 days so we wanted to reach early to select a good campsite. 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 we gained an hour upon reaching Custer.
Camping At Custer State Park
Custer State Park has 9 different campgrounds and all of them are very scenic. We camped at Center Lake campground which has same-day reservation policy. All of the campsites were located around the Center Lake and amidst the large pine trees. The lake had trout fishing, boat dock to launch your own boats, and a swimming beach.
While we couldn’t get a campsite near the water, our site was located by a shady clump of pine trees and was very beautiful. 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 set up camp early in the day and after having a picnic lunch, we set off to explore Custer State Park. While we didn’t book our campsite beforehand, the online reservation system is convenient and easy to use.
To read more about all the campgrounds at Custer State Park, check the official website of the park.
Wildlife At Custer State Park
During the course of 2 days, we spent a lot of time driving on the 18 miles long, aptly-named Wildlife Loop Road and seeing Custer’s abundant wildlife. The most popular animal of the area is the bison. In fact, Custer has a herd of 1300 bison that freely roams inside the park. Many times we had to stop to let a herd of bison cross the road.
We also saw a lot of prairie dogs near the prairie dog town. The prairie dogs stood on their burrows and were keeping watch for predators. We also saw many mountain goats, a variety of deer, and mountain burros on the Wildlife Loop Road. We could also take many pictures of wildlife. In fact, I had recently purchased a new zoom lens for my camera and could put it to great use throughout our South Dakota road trip.
Read our post Wildlife of South Dakota and Northern Great Plains: Where & What to See to know more.
Things To Do At Custer State Park
Custer State Park also has many other activities. We saw many people fishing for trout in the mountain lakes. The park has a total of 4 large mountain lakes with water that sparkles blue in the summer and are stocked with fish.
We also saw many hiking and biking trails – but we didn’t really hike a lot in Custer since we wanted to hike at Badlands. The park also has horse camps and we saw people riding horses. We drove along some backcountry roads to better explore the area and really enjoyed the fresh air and open pastures.
The state park also has many scenic drives, we visited 3 of them including the Wildlife Loop Road. (For information on other scenic drives, see Day 4 of the itinerary.) Custer State Park is one of the best family destinations in the country; we have even written an entire article on it – 15 Best Things to do in Custer State Park for Families – which you can read here.
Crazy Horse Memorial
On Day 3 we visited the popular Crazy Horse Memorial dedicated to the famous Lakota warrior Crazy Horse. The memorial is half an hour’s drive away from Custer State Park Visitor Center and makes a great day trip. We learned a lot about Crazy Horse and the 25 years of battles between Lakota Indians and the US Government. It is also a great opportunity to learn about the Lakota way of life, their rich heritage and culture.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is a colossal monument that is under construction among the Black Hills of South Dakota. Constructed entirely on private land, it will be the world’s largest sculpture upon completion. The memorial is dedicated to the Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, who fought against the white American settlers and US Federal government to preserve the Indian territory. The sculpture has the Lakota warrior astride a horse and pointing in the distance.
Proceeds from visitor tickets are used to fund the completion of the sculpture. Learning more about the Lakota history of the area was a fascinating and poignant experience and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit. The Memorial had a lot of interactive exhibits and a museum with vast Native American artifacts collection; we recommend everyone to visit the Crazy Horse Memorial and pay respects to the great Lakota warrior.
The two days that we spent at Custer were very relaxing and we really enjoyed the time to get away from technology and more in tune with nature. If you are short on time you can visit Custer State Park and Wildlife Loop Road in one day and see the Crazy Horse Memorial on your way.
What If You Don’t Want To Camp At Custer State Park?
Custer State Park also has log-style furnished cabins with electricity, heating/cooling, and a porch. Blue Bell Lodge has over 20 cabins while Legion Lake Lodge, Sylvan Lake Lodge, State Game Lodge also have many pretty cabins that are perfect for visitors who do not want to camp.
Day 4: Iron Mountain Road & Needles Highway
Highlights: Drive through areas of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, through the tunnels on Iron Mountain Road and visit Needles Highway Scenic Overlook before checking in at Keystone, South Dakota
On this day we woke up refreshed, packed our tents and were super excited to explore the rest of Custer State Park’s scenic drives. The scenic drives of Custer are truly breathtaking and open up to beautiful vistas. None of these drives are your usual run-off-the-mill drives. They pass through some of the most interesting 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 Needles Highway are together called the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, a route consistently placed among America’s Top 10 scenic byways. It has also been named as one of the Most Outstanding Byways in America.
Iron Mountain Road
First up on our itinerary was the spectacularly engineered Iron Mountain Road, otherwise known as Scenic Highway 16A. The road connects Custer State Park with Mount Rushmore 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 (spiral bridges that loop continuously) and three precise rock-cut tunnels that are its star attractions. 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 and going that slowly allows you to negotiate the turns and twists as well as take in the beautiful scenery. The lookout points are perfect to get down and enjoy the view.
Driving on the pigtail bridges and multiple switchbacks is gorgeous and the single lane tunnels are just great; Mount Rushmore is in clear sight through the last two tunnels. The last tunnel in particular symmetrically frames Mount Rushmore and is a great photo opportunity.
We also saw many motorcyclists on the road and added that to our bucket list as well. We completed the drive in about an hour and a half 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 you exit the last tunnel on Iron Mountain Road, there is another beautiful scenic drive ahead of you before you reach the Memorial.
Next up was the Needles Highway, a spectacular 14 miles long drive through dense pine and spruce forests and needle-like granite formations. Driving the Needles Highway is not for the faint-hearted.
The entire road along Highway 87 (SD 87) is surrounded by craggy, sharp granite formations that seem to rise towards the sky and jab the clouds. The road makes several sharp hairpin turns and passes through some incredibly tight tunnels along the way. The granite needles are a product of millions of years of erosion by the wind, rain, snow, and sunshine.
Closed in winter, 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. The Needles Eye tunnel is not easy for larger vehicles to pass through and needs extra care while driving.
The area near the Needles Eye has big sharp rock formations and is a haven for rock climbers. The Needles Highway drive takes about an hour to complete and is a great opportunity to see wildlife along the way. We saw many whitetail deer and mountain goats while driving the Needles Highway.
Also Read: Top 5 South Dakota Scenic Drives: Road tripping with a view to read all about the state’s different scenic byways
What To Do If You Get Carsick?
The many twists and turns on Custer State Park’s scenic drives will only worsen your car sickness. However, the scenery is too spectacular to miss out if you are visiting the area. We recommend driving very slowly – not more than 12-15 mph (keep it under 10 if possible) and loading up on Dramamine for the trip. Driving both the scenic byway should not take more than 2-3 hrs and once you reach Mount Rushmore, the road is pretty much straight.
While we could have seen Mount Rushmore National Memorial the same day, we chose to stay the night in Keystone and explore the local attractions. Keystone is the base for Mount Rushmore and a unique touristy town with many charming attractions. The town has many lodges and hotels along with local eateries and restaurants and mainly caters to the tourists visiting Mount Rushmore. Keystone is a great place on your South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary to learn more about American history is a natural setting.
While Mount Rushmore is Keystone’s premier attraction, the town also has many other historical attractions including Big Thunder Gold Mine where kids can pan for gold, National Presidential Wax Museum which has lifelike figures of all US Presidents, Gutzon Borglum Historical Center which has information about the sculptor of Mount Rushmore, and Keystone Historical Museum which is dedicated to local Keystone history.
The Keystone Historical Museum is also a great place to learn about the Ingalls family and the life of Carrie Ingalls, who was the younger sister of Laura Ingalls who wrote the Little House series of books.
What If You Have Less Time?
If you are rushed, you can drive the Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway, then directly visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial. If you don’t hike around Mt. Rushmore, you can see the Memorial in an hour and then directly go to Badlands National Park.
Day 5: Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Highlights: Visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial, check out Badlands Wall and drive on to Badlands National Park
On this Day after an early breakfast, we set off from our hotel to visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial. One of the iconic images of America, Mount Rushmore is on most visitors to-do list. However many cancel their plans on learning that it is located in faraway South Dakota. Those that do venture into this part of the world are rewarded by a primeval beauty of the Badlands, Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
As you probably know, Mount Rushmore is a behemoth sculpture of 4 President heads carved into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, located among the Black Hills of South Dakota. Completed in 1941, the Memorial was planned and executed with the express purpose of bringing visitors to South Dakota.
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 is carved by sculptor Gutzon Borglum with the help of his son Lincoln Borglum from 1927 to 1941.
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.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the greatest places to learn about the birth and growth of the country (my other top favorite places are Washington DC, New York, and Philadelphia). To read detailed Mount Rushmore Visitor Guide, check our article here.
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 of information about the Memorial and the many things to do around the sculpture.
The Memorial itself is a beautifully designed with the Avenue of Flags containing all state and territories flags and the dates they were admitted to the Union. The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center has interactive exhibits and a short video detailing the methods used to carve on the granite mountain face.
The Presidential Trail is by far the most popular thing to do when visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The trail goes around the base of the monument, is about half a mile long and has 422 stairs. Hiking this trail takes you closer to the sculpture and offers unique views and opportunities to see different aspects of the carvings. It is also a good way to come across some of the mountain goats, deer and other wildlife that call the Black Hills home. The Memorial also has Junior Ranger programs and Evening Sculpture Lighting Ceremony.
Also Read: Visitor’s Guide to Mount Rushmore National Memorial to know everything about visiting the National Park
Check Out Wall
While the Badlands Wall is a geological formation that stretches for about 60 miles, I’m not talking about the eroded escarpment here. What I’m talking about is the town of Wall, located near the entrance to Badlands National Park, which is famous for the Wall Drug Store – one of the area’s major tourist attractions.
You will see large billboards advertising the Wall Drug throughout your South Dakota Road Trip, especially on I-90. For days before we had wondered, whatever is the Wall and upon visiting – we finally we had our answer! The cowboy-themed sprawling shopping mall started out as a pharmacy store and is now annually visited by over two million tourists.
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 and has gift shops, restaurants, photo booths, a western art museum, and a dinosaur! And oh yes, free cups of ice water and free bumper stickers – which is advertised liberally on all billboards.
This is absolutely the best place to buy your South Dakota souvenirs and eat delicious food. There is also a Dairy Queen near the Wall and we came here every day to eat yummy ice-cream. No doubt about it, Wall Drug is a big tourist trap, but it is one of the most fun ones I have come across.
Camping At Badlands National Park
We continued our recent tent camping spree on this trip by camping at Badland’s Cedar Pass Campground. Camping at Badlands, seeing the stars come out is truly a spectacular way to experience this dramatic landscape. The campsites at this campground are located smack dab in the middle of the prairies and surrounded by the Badlands landforms. Sunset and sunrise views from our campsite were knock out gorgeous. I especially loved waking up to the views of the sharp peaks of the Badlands wall.
The Cedar Pass Campground has about 100 campsites with beautifully covered picnic tables, all located on flat ground. When we went there was a total fire ban in effect and we just ate some cold cuts sandwiches while camping. The other popular campsites are located in the Sage Creek Campground near Badlands Wilderness Area. The campsites are primitive and can be accessed via an unpaved road and wildlife including bison frequently wander near the area.
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 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. The cabins are limited in number and we recommend booking them far in advance to be assured of availability. The lodge also has dining services.
Other options include staying at the hotels and motels located near the Badlands Wall Drug area. Most popular chains including Travelodge, Days Inn, Super 8, and Econo Lodge 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 in the area.
While we did not have enough time on this day to explore the Badlands, we were feeling quite overwhelmed by our campsite, the gorgeous sunset and what we saw of the Badlands Wall and looked forward to our next two days in the National Park.
Day 6 & 7: Badlands National Park
Highlights: Fall in love with the Badlands AKA Drive along Badlands Loop Road to explore the area, hike some of the best hikes in Badlands National Park, and explore the connection between Frank Lloyd Wright and the Badlands to end your trip on a high note.
Understanding The Badlands
Located in the northern Great Plains, the Badlands are one of the major landmarks of the area. The process of formation of the Badlands began ages ago when the White River started carving its way on the flat surface of the plains. The process continued as layer after layer of rock was exposed in a variety of otherworldly formations as the river kept changing its course.
Over time the area was covered by a unique terrain of spires, pinnacles, gullies, buttes, mounds, valleys, and plains. This process of erosion continues even today as the Badlands continue to be sculpted by water, wind, and sun. This fascinating topography is called the Badlands because of their unpassable nature (literally meaning bad lands to cross or travel through). The Lakota Indians called the area “mako sica” or “land bad”.
A major area of the millions of years old Badlands is protected as the Badlands National Park and it’s 244,000 acres. 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 give absolutely no indication of the wonderful and weird world of Badlands on the other side of the Wall. Many hikes of Badlands National Park lead up the Wall and offer beautiful panoramic views of the eroded landforms.
Wildlife At Badlands National Park
The Badlands are covered by sparse vegetation and yet contain abundant wildlife. Most of the wildlife survives on the stretches of prairie habitats enclosed within the park. Visitors to the park can see a variety of Great Plains wildlife.
During our visit, 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 pose the most threat to tourists and other wildlife today magnificent beasts of the past roamed around the Badlands eons ago.
The area is a source of rich fossil beds of diverse and well-preserved extinct mammals including Titanothere and Brontothere (belonging to the family of horses and rhinos), Archaeotherium (belonging to the family of pigs and hippos) and a variety of hippo ancestors, dog ancestors, rabbit ancestors, and camel ancestors.
The area has also yielded fossils of extinct species of turtles, crocodiles, snails, and birds. Badlands continues to draw the interest of paleontologists and biologists.
Badlands National Park has incredible wildlife viewing opportunities. We saw bison, prairie dogs, and mountain goats among other animals.
Badlands Loop Road
When we drove on the Badlands Loop Road for the first time, the view was beautiful – it had been raining and a rainbow rose majestically over the neverending prairie grasslands of the Upper Plains. And then the prairies around us suddenly turned into a spellbinding landscape of the remote Badlands.
We had no inkling whatsoever, and the panorama simply took our breath away. A much better way to explain – it was a total WTF moment of pure pleasure – except that it doesn’t sound much poetic!
The Badlands Loop Road is officially known as Highway 240 and 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 at least an hour to drive through without stopping. However, the road has many scenic overlooks, most visitors stop at least a few of them to get down and explore the park and view its highlights.
We strongly recommend stopping at each and every scenic overlook as each one provides an incredibly diverse view of the Badlands. We drove around the Badlands Loop Road for about 3 to 3.5 hrs and enjoyed every minute of it.
Driving the Badlands Loop Road is exciting and amazing. The road has spectacular landscapes and many overlooks to explore the Badlands.
Off Roading At Badlands National Park
Along with the Badlands Loop Road, there are many other opportunities for off-roading and traveling along gravel and unpaved roads inside Badlands National Park. We followed some of these roads as far as we could go and the beautiful, unobstructed views of the Badlands were amazing.
The Sage Creek Rim Road is a gravel road that follows the North Rim of the Badlands Wilderness Area. This road provides additional opportunities to see Badlands Wildlife and landscape views. The time to travel this road is about an hour depending on how often you stop.
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
Hiking At Badlands National Park
Hiking the Badlands is my favorite way of exploring this National Park. While the Badlands Loop Road does take you around many beautiful vistas, the hikes let you explore Badlands from the inside. I mean, would you rather admire the pinnacles and buttes from a distance or climb around them and appreciate their beauty and barrenness?
Badlands has many miles of varied designated hiking trails to satisfy even the most adventurous of explorers. Some of them pass over the flat ground while others take you uphill through Badlands formations. During our two days in Badlands National Park, we hiked a variety of different trails including the Door Trail, Window Trail, Fossil Exhibit Trail, and parts of the Castle Trail.
However, my favorite trail by far was the Notch Trail and its exceptional views. The trail was strenuous, followed crumbling cliff edges at times, and to top it all had a vertical ladder to ascend the Badlands Wall. The view from the top of this trail was simply superb.
The trailheads for all trails inside Badlands are along the Badlands Loop Road and we loved the excuse to drive along the loop once again. If you are interested in hiking in Badlands National Park, you will love 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 agenda item – if you spend any time in the area, this is bound to happen. The Badlands have inspired artists, poets, and travelers since generations. I was delighted to know that Frank Lloyd Wright visited Badlands in 1935 and loved them. (If you follow Dotted Globe; you probably know how much we love Frank Lloyd Wright.) In fact, he penned some of the most beautiful words I have ever read 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 very 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 encountered rains and clouds and were prepared for the day to end when the sun burst out again – and everything remained brilliantly lit for another hour. 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, I 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 momentous South Dakota Road Trip. After taking many panoramic shots 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 full moon rising as big as a football – unfortunately, I couldn’t take a good photograph of it due to the traffic. However, we can’t wait to go back to Badlands and South Dakota again – maybe next summer?!