South Dakota is a road tripper’s delight.
The state is highly scenic with dramatic landscapes, interesting roadside attractions, and quirky towns spread across the area.
The state offers quintessential open roads – often you won’t see anybody else for hours and a variety of diverse breathtaking views line up at frequent intervals.
We fell in love with the Mount Rushmore State and the beautiful Badlands during our week-long South Dakota Road Trip and had fun cruising on the beautiful South Dakota scenic drives.
South Dakota’s scenic drives travel through diverse landscapes, are marvelously engineered and just made for ‘just pack and go’ kind of travel.
You need not be going anywhere, just driving aimlessly along the scenic byways will allow you to experience the state’s nature and wildlife at its finest.
Here are the absolute best of state’s many scenic drives along with a detailed guide to road tripping them:
Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway
Named after the South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck, this South Dakota scenic drive is our absolute favorite of the lot.
The name is a bit misleading, it is not a single byway but actually a system of 3 scenic byways, all extraordinarily different from one another.
Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Road, Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway together constitute the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway.
This route has been historically included among America’s Top 10 Byways and credit definitely goes to Senator Peter Norbeck for his vision that leads to the construction of this byway.
The Senator personally rode on horseback and chose the route for this scenic byway and persisted in getting it built even after engineers said it was impossible.
The result is a 70-mile long scenic drive artistically engineered with pigtail bridges, looping hairpin turns, tight tunnels carved through the granite mountains, and single lane roads that pass through beautiful geological formations called the Needles.
The scenic byway passes through majestic vistas and offers plenty of Black Hills wildlife viewing opportunities including deer, mountain goat, bighorn sheep, and chipmunks.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is an added attraction of this road trip extraordinaire.
If you want to know more about the 3 roads constituting this famous South Dakota scenic drive: viz. The Wildlife Loop Road, Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway read Day 3 and 4 of our South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary.
Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway
As the only paved, two-lane route that passes through the heart of Badlands National Park; the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway has a special place in our hearts.
So-called because they are ‘bad lands to travel through’, the Badlands are unearthly beautiful and utterly remote.
Some have likened them to the lunar or alien landscape; others have called them treacherous and mysterious.
Whatever you call them, there is no denying the fact that the Badlands are desolate and eerily beautiful; in fact, they are one of our favorite places on planet earth.
If you drive the Badlands Loop Road in the peak season (summer) and on holiday weekends, you will have cars tailgating you as you wait for a herd of bison to cross the road.
However, if you chose to travel on this scenic drive in the shoulder season on a weekday, early in the morning, you will have the road entirely to yourself.
The still air will be broken only by the shrill cries of watching prairie dogs and whistling meadowlarks.
Hawks will soar in the sky and flat prairies will suddenly give way for the mysterious mounds, buttes, pinnacles, and spires as the Badlands Wall stretches next to you.
Driving the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway is a visual delight; we highly recommend traversing this route at sunrise or sunset: the magical hours to view and explore Badlands National Park and its abundant wildlife.
Driving the Badlands Loop Road is an amazing experience. Dramatic landscapes and abundant wildlife surround you at every turn.
Spearfish Canyon State And National Forest Service Scenic Byway
This 19 mile stretch of US Highway 14 A is known as Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.
Starting from the town of Spearfish near the Wyoming – South Dakota border in the western part of the state, the byway follows the rushing mountain stream of Spearfish Creek.
Located in the Black Hills of South Dakota, this scenic byway passes through towering limestone cliffs and dense forests of spruce, pine, oak, birch, and aspen.
The byway is so named because it follows the natural route of the Spearfish Canyon, a deep but narrow gorge, carved by the Spearfish Creek.
A popular stop along the road is the Bridal Veil Falls – 60-foot tall cascading waterfalls that drop from the cliffside along the scenic route.
A small viewing platform built right next to the falls makes for a great viewing platform and is always crowded during peak season.
The creek is very pretty with shallow scenic pools and fast dropping rapids breaking up the gentle gurgle of the stream.
The road follows the natural contours of the canyon and twists and turns at regular intervals to reveal beautiful views.
A good place to stay along the route is the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. This scenic byway is especially popular in Fall when the leaves change color and the entire area looks more beautiful.
The route is also popular with bicyclists and it has been named as one of the top 50 scenic biking routes in the country.
This South Dakota scenic drive may seem short but it packs a punch and we recommend allowing 2-3 hrs for regular stops along the route for scenic overlooks, bird, and wildlife watching and picnicking.
Native American National And State Scenic Byway
The Native American Scenic Byway runs from north to south in central South Dakota and after Crazy Horse Memorial, it is probably the second-best place to learn about Native American history and culture.
The scenic byway also promises a lot of natural and wildlife attractions along with great views of the Missouri River and the diverse landscapes of South Dakota.
The byway follows the natural route of the river and passes through grassy prairies, rolling hills and limestone cliffs carved by the river.
Many museums and cultural centers along the route explain the history and culture of the Native American tribes that have lived in the lands around there for generations.
The best of these include the Akta Lakota Museum in Chamberlain and South Dakota Cultural Heritage Center at Pierre.
Visiting the Akta Lakota Museum, in particular, makes you appreciate the rich Lakota Culture and understand the Native American way of life.
They have a vast collection of historic artifacts and artistic works detailing the Lakota heritage.
They also feature many contemporary works of art by Indian artists and artisans to understand the Lakota culture in the current context.
The artifacts are informative, beautifully arranged, and very well preserved; providing an excellent experience for visitors.
The center gift shop has a vast collection of genuine Sioux Lakota handicrafts.
I-90 W Through South Dakota
While not a typical scenic byway, I simply had to include the stretch of I-90 W passing through South Dakota.
Most of South Dakota’s tourist attractions including the Badlands National Park, the tourist town of Deadwood, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and the Corn Palace at Mitchell lie along the I-90.
All of the above South Dakota scenic drives are also easily accessible from the I-90 and hence driving the Interstate is another way of exploring all that South Dakota has to offer.
This corridor of the Interstate is highly scenic with a straight road that stretches on for miles amidst green flat prairies and wildflowers if you go in the right season.
Hay bales and grazing cattle line up the roadside and very few vehicles can be seen on the empty road.
The speed limit is 80 miles per hour and rushing through the grassy fields at those speeds is a sheer delight.
The road is made for long family road trips and spending quality time together.
It is a great way to see parts of rural America, where urban landscapes are far and few in between, and tiny towns and villages dot the map.
It was simply one of the most rewarding road trips we had taken in recent times.
Also Read: Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: When to Go and What to See to plan your Mt. Rushmore State vacation