Are you debating where to go on your next USA road trip? The likes of Utah and California are immensely popular road trip states but if you’re looking for something a little more off the beaten path (for now!) yet no less spectacular – we highly recommend an epic South Dakota Road Trip.
The Mount Rushmore State is in demand, tourism is on the rise.
Did you know that 14.5 million tourists visited South Dakota in 2019?
We made up 2 of those 14,500,000 as we were fortunate enough to explore this incredibly scenic US Midwestern State on our 3 month US Road Trip.
Each state we visited brought its own unique dish to the table. South Dakota brought a blend of natural beauty, diversity and dramatic scenery right out of fantasy novel to create the perfect road trip destination.
We must admit, we were utterly besotted by Western South Dakota. That may in part be down to the fact we visited in peak Fall season. Nevertheless, we are sure it would be equally as stunning in any season.
What can you expect from this guide?
We will show you the 4 must visit stop offs and walk you through a (very efficient!) example 4 day itinerary to help you plan your South Dakota Road Trip to perfection!
This short video (just using our older GoPro!) will give you an idea of what you can expect on your South Dakota road trip.
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Why You Should Road Trip South Dakota
Well, other than because it’s stunning … let’s take a quick look into what you can expect if you choose this part of the US Midwest for your road trip:
South Dakota offers a diverse range of tourist attractions, suitable for families and perfect for nature lovers.
In truth, of all the states we passed through on our road trip, South Dakota would be one of the first we would return visit.
What about the logistics of getting there?
Good question because it is a little isolated.
Road tripping any region of the US is likely to be done in one of two ways.
- As part of a wider regional or national road trip over a longer period (such as a 3 month road trip).
- A shorter trip encompassing just a few areas / National Parks (for example a 1 week vacation).
On a longer trip – If you’re driving from point A to point B and South Dakota happens to be somewhere in between those points, definitely consider sticking around the area for a few days.
That was the case for us as we drove the I-90 West from Chicago towards Yellowstone. Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park were on the way and far too important to pass up!
On a shorter trip – Equipped with first hand knowledge of the area, we strongly believe that Western South Dakota is worth a visit of its own. It maybe gets overlooked by Wyoming, Utah or California but Western South Dakota is an awesome alternative for you to consider.
Unmissable Stops On Your South Dakota Road Trip
You’ll be shocked by how much there is to do in South Dakota. The problem is finding the time to fit everything in. To that end, we’ve listed below what we believe are the ‘must visit‘ parts of your road trip.
South Dakota Road Trip Stop #1 – Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park simply can’t be missed if you are visiting South Dakota. This vast open landscape is filled with a deep blue endless sky contrasting against dramatic topography as far as the eye can see.
Badlands is the perfect family friendly National Park, featuring a number of very short and easy hiking trails that allow you to see its most awe inspiring rock formations – such as the Badlands Wall – with very little effort.
A loop road dissects the entire park, which means you could drive the loop and not miss a thing. There are a number of overlooks to stop off along the loop, each offering its own perspective of this remarkable terrain.
Badlands can be visited in around 4-5 hours, but we recommend spending a night at one of the campgrounds. Staying over allows you to stargaze underneath an exceptionally clear night sky and affords you the best opportunities for wildlife spotting, both earlier and later in the day.
South Dakota Road Trip Stop #2 – Mount Rushmore National Memorial
How could you go to South Dakota and not see one of America’s most famous monuments?!
Mount Rushmore is located just 5 minutes drive from Keystone – which is where we would recommend setting up base throughout your South Dakota road trip.
It is, in fact, a National Memorial, carved into a towering granite rock facing directly at the sun in the morning. Which is why our top recommendation is to get up early and arrive BEFORE sunrise.
We were impressed not just by the intricately detailed carving, but the whole memorial complex. It is very well laid out, clean, easy to navigate and offers multiple areas to gaze up at the former presidents.
You can choose to go only as far as the amphitheater, or you can walk around the ‘Presidents Trail’ – a boardwalk with over 200 steps taking you closer to the giant sculpture.
For an in depth walkthrough of visiting at sunrise (and how to save money), read our Mount Rushmore vacation planning guide!
South Dakota Road Trip Stop #3 – Custer State Park
Custer State Park is renowned as one of the largest and best State Parks in the United States. We won’t argue with that label!
Custer offers a one-way 18 mile wildlife loop through rolling meadows and hills, where it is very likely you will be stopped by herds of Bison crossing the road!
There are Burros, Prairie Dogs, Elk, Pronghorn, Mountain Goats, Bighorn Sheep and 1,500 Bison in Custer State Park. That’s more Bison than anywhere else in the country.
Within the boundary of the park are entrances to 2 incredibly scenic highways. One is Iron Mountain Road (watch our Iron Mountain Road time-lapse) and the other is Needles highway.
Both are exhilarating driving experiences featuring hairpin bends, tunnels and fantastic views over the Black Hills. We can’t recommend driving both roads highly enough!
Our top rated hiking trails are Black Elk Peak (which we will get into below) and Cathedral Spires.
The latter is a lovely 3 mile roundtrip easy/moderate hiking trail through beautiful forest and leading to needle-like granite rock formations. The trailhead to Cathedral Spires can be found on Needles highway, right on a hairpin bend!
Get all the information you need in our Top 5 things to do in Custer State Park guide.
South Dakota Road Trip Stop #4 – Black Elk Peak Hike
Hiking to the summit of Black Elk Peak was our favorite part of the South Dakota road trip. This is an easy 7 mile roundtrip hike that should take around 4-5 hours depending on how many stops you take.
You will walk through gorgeous forested areas along dry dirt paths and around booming granite rocks. Once you reach the summit (formerly known as Harney Peak), you will notice a stone watchtower.
Harney fire lookout tower was once used as an early warning fire detection overlook.
The trail offers stunning scenery and truly breathtaking views – particularly from the summit at which you can see into South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana. We were blown away by the 360 degree panorama at the top of Black Elk Peak!
If you enjoying hiking, this is the one part of your South Dakota road trip you can’t miss.
Read our Black Elk Peak Hike guide for all the details!
Other Places In South Dakota To Visit With More Time
Listed above are the absolute must visits on your South Dakota road trip, but there are many more places you can add to your itinerary if you have the time. Personally, we didn’t have the time, but if we had, here’s where we would have considered visiting:
South Dakota Road Trip 4 Day Itinerary
Now you have the 4 most important pieces of the puzzle, let’s connect it all together with a 4 day example itinerary. This can be extended into 5 days easily if you prefer to go slower – but it would be seriously action packed if condensed into 3 days!
We entered South Dakota from the East after visiting Chicago. Our GPS had I-90 West plugged in for A LONG time, having started out in the finger lakes of Upstate New York!
We weren’t quite done with the 90 just yet as we joined back up towards Buffalo, WY when we left SD.
For the purpose of this South Dakota road trip itinerary, we will assume you enter from the East as we did. Of course, if you are heading the opposite way across country, you can flip this itinerary.
For those heading North-South / South-North or plan to fly into Rapid City and hire a car, you can skip past the very beginning and end of the itinerary.
Day 1 – Sioux Falls, Mitchell & Badlands
- As you enter South Dakota from the East, your first stop along the I-90 is Sioux Falls. Turn off I-90 and drive 10 minutes to Falls park.
- This is the perfect quick stop off to look upon lovely waterfalls flowing through a park, before quickly hitting the Interstate again.
- Just 1h 15m further West, you will reach your second stop off, in the form of Mitchell and its famous Corn Palace. Yes – corn palace! This is a building made entirely out of corn, featuring ornate murals on the exterior. Inside, you can learn about the “sweet” history of the World’s Only Corn Palace.
- About 3 more hours of driving will lead you to the Northeast entrance of Badlands National Park.
- Resist the temptation and take the right to make a quick visit at Minuteman Missile Museum. You will learn all about the Cold War, including US Nuclear Missile locations. You can also visit decommissioned missile silo’s in the area.
- Let’s assume you’re arriving at Badlands entrance around 3-4pm. You’ll either pay US$ 25 or use your America the Beautiful Pass to enter.
- Spend the next few hours cruising around Badlands Loop road, stopping off at every overlook along the way. If you’re camping at Cedar Pass campground or Sage Creek Campground (primitive), now is the time to set up before it’s dark!
- After you cook up a storm, when it eventually does get dark, it’s time for some amazing stargazing. Check the ranger programs for stargazing activities or go to your own secluded spot.
- If you are not camping, drive to Wall – just outside the Northwest entrance – and stay at one of four hotels in town (see lodging). Check out Wall Drug Store, which you will have seen advertised on billboards for the last 300 miles!
Day 2 – Badlands & Keystone
- Get an early start on day 2 for the best chance of seeing wildlife at Badlands National Park. Animals are usually more active in the morning and your double bonus is far fewer people will be around.
- Head to the East part of the park (Big Badlands Overlook / Door Trail) to watch the alien landscape illuminate red with the first light of day.
- Spend the morning hiking Door, Window and especially Notch trails. They won’t take long and give you the best views in the park. Our must visit overlook is ‘yellow mounds‘ – just because it is so unique, you’ll see why!
- Exit via Sage Creek Rim Road towards ‘Scenic’ – if you stayed at Sage Creek Campground you will have already driven some of it. This is a much quieter dirt track road with excellent wildlife spotting opportunities.
- By leaving this way, it means you can avoid Rapid City on the I-90.
- Take the 44, the 16BYP and 16 into Keystone. It should take just over an hour driving time.
- Check into your hotel in Keystone and grab dinner at ‘Old-West’ Red Garter Saloon.
- You can go to an evening lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore (Jun-Sept), or spend the evening relaxing in Keystone.
Day 3 – Mount Rushmore, Needles Highway, Cathedral Spires & Custer Wildlife Loop
- The best way to start Day 3 is to get up exceptionally early in order to get inside Mount Rushmore before the sun rises. As awful as that may sound – trust us, it’s worth it.
- You will pass through the gorgeous colorful phases of golden hour (no light or shadows), light and dark pinks, then light and deep oranges as the sun fully rises. Each light phase contrasts wonderfully against the stone colored granite of Mount Rushmore.
- Walk the presidents trail, check out the Sculptor’s Studio and enjoy the Memorial.
- Continue on 244 until you hit the main road (16). Turn left onto 16 and take an immediate left onto Needles Highway (87). Needles is an awesome drive, round tons of switchbacks and through narrow tunnels.
- You will pass Sylvan Lake where Black Elk Peak trailhead begins, but drive right by, you will be back here tomorrow.
- Just over 2 miles further along the highway, you will see some cars parked on a hairpin bend. Park here and begin the Cathedral Spires hiking trail. This should take around 1h 30m to 2h total but is worth it. Don’t expect a viewpoint at the end of the trail – which halts abruptly – but more of a flat plain encircled by needle rock formations.
- Once you’ve finished the hike, continue to the end of Needles highway, turn left onto 16A and drive 6 miles to Custer State Park Visitor Center. Watch the visitor center movie (narrated by Kevin Costner) and then hit the 18 mile long, one way wildlife loop.
- It should be early evening by this point which means you have arrived at one of the two best times of day for active animals. The loop will take around 1h 30m but may be longer if you get stuck in a wildlife-jam!
- Head back to Keystone via 87 / 753 / 359 / 40. That might look a lot, but it’s just a straight line along different roads!
- Avoid 16A for now, you will drive that first thing tomorrow.
Day 4 – Iron Mountain Road, Custer Wildlife Loop (Part 2) & Black Elk Peak
- The early bird gets the worm in Western South Dakota. Don’t give up now! Grab an early start, start the car and hit 16A – also known as Iron Mountain Road.
- This is another fantastic and exhilarating scenic drive consisting of curves, hairpins, narrow tunnels (with Mt. Rushmore views) and even pigtail turns! By starting early, you get to drive this road without sun and glare affecting your experience.
- Another benefit awaits at the end of Iron Mountain Road – you arrive into Custer State Park wildlife loop at the other best time for Round 2! The pass you paid US$ 20 for is valid for 7 days – might as well get the use out of it. Plus, you are likely to see different animals in different areas of the loop today.
- Once you complete the loop, turn left onto 16A and take 89 North to Sylvan Lake. Park up at Black Elk Peak trailhead and begin your 5 hour hike.
- This is the perfect way to cap off a fantastic 4 days of touring through South Dakota. Those summit views are something else!
- Are you heading West towards Yellowstone? It’s less than 3 hours drive to Buffalo, WY – where you can take a pit stop before a longer driving day into Cody or Yellowstone park the following day.
What To Pack For Your South Dakota Road Trip
Car Emergency Kit
Garmin Drive Smart
Yeti Tundra Cooler
Your South Dakota Road Trip packing list will depend entirely on what time of year you decide to visit. Listed above are just a few of the many items we bring when we are on the road.
If you need help with packing, check out our complete travel packing list and you will be ultimately prepared.
With more of a specialized focus on road tripping (including automotive and safety), make sure to pack these road trip essentials.
There are free downloadable checklists included with both options!
Where To Stay On Your South Dakota Road Trip
You won’t have any issues finding places to stay in South Dakota, with the exception of Badlands National Park if you wish to stay within a few miles of its entrance. Below you can find our recommended hotel/accommodation options for each stop along this South Dakota road trip itinerary:
Badlands Lodging Options
- Campgrounds – There are 2 inside the National Park: Cedar Pass RV Park and Campground has facilities and Sage Creek Campground is primitive (without facilities). More information.
- Lodge – Cedar Pass Lodge is the only accommodation located within the park. More information.
- Hotels – There are 4 hotels in nearby town ‘Wall’. Check availability and prices for America’s Best Value Inn | Best Western | Days Inn | Travelodge
Mount Rushmore Lodging Options
- Campgrounds – Camping is very popular around the Mount Rushmore area. Black Hills National Forest has around 30 campgrounds to choose between. More information.
- Hotels – The best town to set up base for Mount Rushmore (and the entire area) is Keystone. It is perfectly located for this itinerary and offers all the amenities you will need. There are a lot of hotels to choose between but be aware that Summer is extremely busy so it’s a good idea to book in advance. Check prices and availability for Ramada | K and S Lodge | Roosevelt Inn | Holiday Inn.
Custer State Park & Black Elk Peak Lodging Options
- Campgrounds – Custer State Park has 10 campground options available, including right at the foothills of Black Elk Peak (Sylvan Lake). More information.
- Hotels – If you’d prefer to set up a home base closer to Custer State Park’s wildlife loop and Black Elk Peak, stay in the town of Custer which is in between the two attractions. Check prices and availability for Bavarian Inn | Holiday Inn | Rock Crest Lodge | Comfort Inn.
We hope this helps you plan your South Dakota Road Trip!
Please let us know if you have any questions or need help planning your trip in the comments section below.
-Happy Road Tripping-
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