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When we planned our week-long road trip to South Dakota, the state definitely wasn’t leading our bucket list.
Neither was it anywhere near the top 10 dream destinations nor was it even a teeny tiny speck on our radar.
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We had just a week to plan our spontaneous Labor Day road trip and just happened to visit the South Dakota state tourism website. We knew only of Mount Rushmore and the rest of the attractions were a mystery to us.
Firmly entrenched in the Midwest, South Dakota is not often a part of tourist’s travel plans. However, after our amazing time in South Dakota, we fell absolutely in love with it – enough to plan repeat visits!
In this post, we aim to woo you with breathtaking photos from our South Dakota road trip.
For more information about the particular attraction, see the ‘Read More’ articles under the photo.
Here are 15 best reasons that will make you want to visit South Dakota and add the state to your bucket list.
1. Dramatic Landscapes Of The Badlands
Badlands National Park is the #1 reason to visit South Dakota.
You could spend a week to 10 days in Badlands alone and still want to return.
Badlands unique, otherworldly landscapes are a product of millions of years of erosion and deposition by the White River waters.
Bizarre geological forms, long and wide escarpments, vibrant-hued layered mounds, and utter desolation make the Badlands spectacular and dramatic!
2. The Needles Of Black Hills
The Needles of Black Hills, South Dakota are a unique geological formation of needle-like granite rocks pointing straight up at the sky.
Formed by weathering and erosion, the Needles Highway is a spectacular road with great views of the Needles, sharp turns, and incredibly tight tunnels.
The highlight of the road is the Needles Eye, a unique rock formation shaped like an actual needle.
3. ‘Buffalo Jam’ At Custer State Park
Custer State Park has the largest herd of free-roaming bison and you will encounter them everywhere.
Most famous are Custer’s buffalo jams, where a big herd slowly crosses the Wildlife Loop Road blocking the cars for upwards of an hour.
The only thing to do if you are caught in a buffalo jam is to relax and use it as a wildlife photo opportunity.
4. Tight Tunnels And Pigtail Bridges Of Iron Mountain Road
Iron Mountain Road is the road that engineers once said ‘couldn’t be built’.
The road with its 3 pig-tail bridges and 3 rock-cut tunnels is the result of South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck’s vision.
This road needs careful and cautious driving at slow speeds and is not for timid or nervous drivers.
The view from the last tunnel is breathtaking – Mount Rushmore is directly opposite you, perfectly framed by the tunnel.
5. Begging Burros That Come To Your Car In Search Of Food
While feeding wildlife in Custer State Park is not at all recommended, the begging burros or wild donkeys will come to you for food.
These are the only animals that you can safely touch and feed during your South Dakota road trip.
Look for clusters of cars stopping along the road and visitors getting out and you have found the ‘Begging Burros’.
Also Read: Week-long South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
6. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore is the most famous attraction of South Dakota and receives over a million visitors annually.
The sculpture of 4 US Presidents carved on the Black Hills is ambitious and is one of the most patriotic places in the country.
The Presidential Trail is a great way to get near the sculpture and appreciate it from multiple angles.
The carving is lit up every evening and the lighting ceremony is attended by many visitors.
7. Breathtaking Scenic Drives
South Dakota has many scenic drives with some like the Peter Norbeck Scenic Highway ranked among top 10 in the country.
The Badlands Loop Road offers great views of the landscape and has excellent pull-over spots.
Driving South Dakota’s scenic drives is a delight and one of the best ways to appreciate the natural attractions and wildlife of the state.
8. The Story Of Crazy Horse At Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial is the ‘other face in the Black Hills’.
The carving of Sioux leader Crazy Horse will be the largest sculpture in the world upon its completion.
The Memorial is a great place to learn the story of Crazy Horse and understand the Native American history of South Dakota.
Read More: Visitor’s Guide to Crazy Horse Memorial
9. Incredible Wildlife Encounters
South Dakota is blessed with a rich and abundant wildlife including bison, deer, elks, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, eagles, meadowlarks, magpies, and pheasants.
On your road trip, you will encounter most of these animals at the most unexpected of times and have the most memorable wildlife encounters.
We recommend bringing along a DSLR with a zoom lens to capture all the sightings.
10. Serene Mountain Lakes
Custer State Park alone has 4 beautiful mountain lakes that are perfect for a swimming or kayaking when the temperatures soar above 90 degrees in the summer.
The state park also rents paddle-boards, canoes, kayaks, and other watercraft to visitors.
Besides the 4 lakes at Custer, there are several other lakes located in the Black Hills and surrounding area.
Also Read: South Dakota 7 Day Itinerary
11. Unique Roadside Attractions Including The World’s Only Corn Palace At Mitchell
The Mount Rushmore state is full of unique and worthwhile roadside attractions.
Some of the famous ones include the Corn Palace at Mitchell, Petrified Wood Park, Dino Park at Rapid City, abandoned mining town of Deadwood, and the Tatanka sculpture built by Kevin Costner.
There is something to stop at frequent interval, adding to the fun of the road trip.
12. Stunning Hiking Trails
Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Wind Cave and Jewel Cave and other nature areas have excellent hiking and biking trails that will delight those seeking outdoor activities.
We especially loved exploring Badlands unique landscape on foot and getting up close with the unique geological landscape of buttes, spires, and mounds.
13. Jaw-Dropping Camping Locations
One of the best ways to experience South Dakota and its natural beauty is by camping at Custer State Park and in Badlands National Park.
There couldn’t be more different camping locations; our campsite at Custer was by the lake and shaded by tall pine trees while the Badlands campsite was in an open prairie with beautiful views of the Badlands Wall.
14. Understand Native American Culture
South Dakota derives its name from the Dakota and Lakota Indians.
The state was once Native American territory and today has 7 reservations spread throughout the state.
Native Americans also live outside the reservation in big cities like Rapid City, Sioux Falls, and Pierre.
The Native American reservations and places like Crazy Horse and Tatanka bison sculpture and great places to learn about and appreciate the rich Native American culture and heritage.
15. Memorable Sunrises And Sunsets
The wide open landscapes of Badlands and Custer are great for seeing beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
These are also the times when the wildlife is most active, we recommend driving along the park loop roads to experience incredible scenery and view the wildlife in its natural setting.
16. Bonus! Spiritual Travel Experiences
Badlands National Park is a great place to travel to if you are looking for a spiritual travel experience.
The utter remoteness and alien landscapes of the Badlands affect most visitors and offer cathartic experiences.
Badlands is the best place to come for soul-searching and solace seeking in testing times.
Are you looking to ‘find yourself’ through travel? Visit the Badlands and South Dakota!
Also Read: South Dakota Ultimate Travel Guide