Home USASouth Dakota One Week South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary – Your guide to the Best Attractions

One Week South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary – Your guide to the Best Attractions

by Valerie Vanr
Parked on Badlands Loop Road

What’s in South Dakota to do for a week? Truly something for everyone! Want to commune with nature? Explore history? See Mount Rushmore? Visit a couple National Parks? Or simply drive some amazing roads? It’s all there for you in South Dakota!

South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Here is our suggestion for a fun one week road trip itinerary to see the Best Attractions in South Dakota.  Our article below will allow you to customize this itinerary to fit your interests. We’ve also included additional side trips and attractions if you have more than one week. Enjoy!

  • Day 1: Rapid City and Mount Rushmore
  • Day 2: Badlands National Park, Minuteman Missile National Monument and Wall
  • Day 3: Custer State Park
  • Day 4: Wind Cave Nation Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Custer
  • Day 5: Crazy Horse Memorial and Black Hills Central Railway
  • Day 6: Deadwood and Lead
  • Day 7: Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway and Termesphere Gallery

Must-Sees in South Dakota

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is a colorful showcase of eroded buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires. One of the richest fossil beds in the world is found here. The park is over 200,000 acres including the largest protected prairie in the US National Park system and supports a diverse variety of wildlife (bison, deer, coyotes, turtles, butterflies, and eagles to name a few). There is something here for everyone and, we think, this is one of the best places to visit in South Dakota.

The best way to see what Badlands has to offer is to travel the Badlands Loop Road. The beauty of the badlands is everywhere as you drive. There are pull-offs and parking lots along the way giving you a chance to stop, stretch and see beautiful countryside. The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is the best way to learn more about Badlands National Park, its wildlife, fossils and geology.

Badlands Loop Road provides access to the trailheads of 8 established hiking trails within Badlands National Park. Notch Trail is 1.5 miles round trip and recommended to give you an overview of the valley. You’ll climb a log ladder and follow a ledge for a dramatic view of the White River Valley. We hiked Cliff Shelf, a quick half mile loop which has boardwalks and lots of stairs. The view was worth it.

The park entrance is about 8 miles south of the Wall on US240, an hour east of Rapid City. The park is open year-round and an entrance fee applies which allows access for 7 days. You can stay overnight in the park with campground and lodge accommodations available.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is an immense 60 foot tall sculpture of the faces of presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved into Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills.

There are lots of things to do at Mount Rushmore.  You can visit the information center, the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and Guzton Boglum’s studio. The sculptor worked from this studio and here you can see the 1/12th scale model of Mount Rushmore. The 0.6 mile Presidential Trail starts nearby and allows a closer view of the memorial with plaques along the trail highlighting each president as his face becomes more visible on the mountain in front of you.

The best time of day to visit Mount Rushmore is the morning.  The crowds are thinner.  More importantly, the presidents’ faces are all unshadowed in the morning light, making it optimal for photographs. In the evening, the memorial is also illuminated with a special lighting ceremony.

The memorial is 30 minutes south of Rapid City via Highways 16 and SR244 and is open year-round except for Christmas Day, though some areas may be inaccessible during the winter months. There is no entrance fee however a nominal parking fee is charged.

Mount Rushmore is a “bucket-list” item for many people but, with so many things to do in the surrounding Black Hills, everyone’s trip can be unforgettable.

The Black Hills region

The Black Hills region is in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming with Rapid City being the nearest major city. The region’s highlights include Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Black Hills National Forest.

Here are just a few things to do in the Black Hills.

Custer State Park

As South Dakota’s oldest and largest state park at 71,000 acres, Custer offers lots of recreational options in a stunning setting. You can see abundant wildlife, go hiking, camping, boating and more all just 30 minutes south of Rapid City. There are several Visitor Centers, museums and historic sites.  The park is open year-round and there is a park fee.  With so many options, you could spend days here. 

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road

The wildlife loop is an 18 mile road through grasslands and hills of pine where much of the park’s wildlife can be found. You might see bison, pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, elk, coyotes, burros, prairie dogs, eagles, hawks, and a variety of other birds. The landscape is also stunning in its own right. There are guided tours offered should you decide not to drive the road yourself.

The park’s bison herd is one of the world’s largest publicly-owned herds, about 1,300 strong. On the last Friday in September, the annual roundup occurs and is open to the public. This roundup helps maintain a healthy balance between the number of bison and available food. Once corralled, the herd is checked, vaccinated and typically about 200 animals are chosen to be sold at auction in November.

Custer State Park Hiking

There are plenty of hiking options in the park. We hiked to Cathedral Spires. It is considered a strenuous hike about 1¼ miles one way. The scenery is stunning.

Custer State Park Lakes

Boating, fishing (with a valid license) and swimming are popular in the park. There are restrictions on the types of boats allowed on some lakes so check before launching.  

Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park protects one of the most complex underground mazes in the world.  You will see boxwork, a rare calcite formation which looks like honeycomb and dates back 60 to 100 million years.  95% of the world’s boxwork is found in the park. The only way to explore the cave is on a ranger-led tour. There are a number of tour options of varying lengths and difficulties. Fewer tours are offered in the winter months. All tours start from the visitor center. The visitor center has exhibits about the history and wildlife of the park.  The park is open year-round. There is no fee to enter the park itself but a fee is charged for cave tours.

Wind Cave National Park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails which cut through grasslands and pine forests. We enjoyed the short Rankin Ridge Nature Trail which leads to the highest point in the park and spectacular views. (We saw bison in the valley below.) The park is about 1.25 hours south of Rapid City. 

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument showcases the 3rd longest cave in the world. About 200 miles have been mapped. The monument gets its name from the jewel-like calcite crystals found in the cave. Ranger-led tours of varying lengths and difficulties leave from the visitor center. The monument is open year-round. There is no fee to enter the monument itself but a fee is charged for cave tours. There are 2 hiking trails in the monument where wildlife can often be seen. It is located about an hour southwest of Rapid City (13 miles west Custer).  We were unable to take a cave tour as the elevator was out of order at the time of our visit.

Black Hills National Forest

Black Hills National Forest is 1.2 million acres of public land and forest where you can enjoy hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, camping and much more.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse Memorial, when complete, will depict the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, mounted and pointing to the horizon. The Visitor complex includes an orientation center, gift shop, restaurant, museums and displays. The memorial is 45 minutes southwest of Rapid City (10 miles south of Hill City). It is open year-round and an entrance fee applies.  Native Americans are divided in their views on the appropriateness of the memorial. While we chose not to visit, the Memorial is visible from outside the grounds (and does make an impressive picture).

Hiking

There are many hiking options for everyone in the Black Hills.  In the northern section, Roughlock Falls is worth the 1.9 mile round trip hike.  The trail parallels Roughlock Falls Road and hugs the Little Spearfish Creek with beautiful views, wildlife and trout fishing. Spearfish Falls are close by as well, visible from the main road or, for a closer view, take the easy 1 mile round trip trail.

Black Hills Central Railroad

This is a unique way to see the beauty of the Black Hills. A vintage steam train, the 1880, carries passengers between Hill City and Keystone from early May until early October. You can travel round-trip (2¼ hours) or one-way from either city. There is also a railroad museum by the station in Hill City.

Scenic Drives

Almost everywhere you drive in the Black Hills you are guaranteed that it will be scenic but here are a couple routes that are stellar and the perfect way to join the places on your itinerary together.

Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway

This is a National Scenic Byway connecting many of the highlights of the Black Hills. Its 68 miles winds over spiral bridges, through rock tunnels and around rocky peaks and forested hills.  Take a day and tour the entire byway.

Iron Mountain Road

It is a part of the Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway and an 18 mile winding road between Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the intersection of US 16A and SD36.  Its tunnels frame Mount Rushmore and will take about an hour to travel.

Needles Highway

This is also a part of the Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway and 14 miles of stunning road through pine and spruce forests with meadows surrounded by birch and aspen and rugged mountains.  It will take between 45 minutes and an hour to travel and is closed in winter.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is 20 miles of beautiful scenery with waterfalls and hiking options throughout Spearfish Canyon. It will take about 30 minutes to travel but expect longer as you’ll want to stop and admire the scenery. Bridal Veil Falls is right at the roadside and definitely worth a stop.  

Best Cities to Visit in South Dakota

Rapid City

Rapid City is the 2nd most populated city in South Dakota. It is known as the gateway to the Black Hills and a great base for your trip. Here are some things to do in Rapid City. 

Main Street Square

In the summer, Main Street Square has bubbling water jets for the kids to play in and that turn into a light show at night. Unfortunately, it was cold and windy the day we were there. There is a small concert stage as well. The square is a good starting point for the City of Presidents Walk.

City of Presidents Walk

There are 12 intersections along Main and St. Joseph Streets (between 4th and 9th Streets) that display life-size bronze statues of the 43 former presidents of the United States. As you walk these streets you will see many of the city’s beautiful buildings. There are plaques which explain some of both the city’s and the buildings’ history and their architecture.

Dinosaur Park

Dinosaur Park is on the register of National Historic Places. The kids can climb on seven life size dinosaurs while the adults get a panoramic view of the Rapid City skyline.

Wall

Wall, South Dakota is home to the infamous Wall Drug.

The site began in the 1930’s as a drug store. The owners were able to expand the site rapidly by erecting lots of billboards advertising “free water” along the interstate. The idea was to capitalize on the increase in traffic from the newly opened Mount Rushmore. It worked!

Today, it is essentially a wild west-themed shopping mall consisting of a drug store (where it all began), gift shops, restaurant, chapel and various other stores.  It has a display of historic photos, an arcade and a panning/mining experience for the kids.

The water is still free and a cup of coffee is only 5 cents! A kitschy, yet fun place to spend an hour or two.

Custer

In downtown Custer, several intersections have colorful painted bison. They were created between 2007 and 2016 as an art project to showcase original bison artwork with contributions from artists around the US. Many were auctioned and these are the beautiful remainders. The downtown is full of shopping, coffee shops and cafes for you to explore.

Lead

Lead is the location of the former Homestake Gold Mine which mined copious quantities of gold and silver over 126 years. Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center explains the mining operations that occurred here before the mine closed in 2001, and the science behind the lab which now occupies some of the 370 miles of tunnels between the surface to as deep as 1.5 miles below. The Sanford Underground Research Facility is now carrying out research to help further our knowledge of the universe including the role of neutrinos. There is a great trolley tour offered in the summer for a small fee. The trolley tours the town and some of the surface buildings at the research facility. The free visitor center is open year-round.

Deadwood

Deadwood, a National Historic Landmark, began as a mining town in the 1870’s with the discovery of gold in the area.  This city was the wild frontier and it was here that Wild Bill Hickok was shot dead in 1876.  Many of the buildings were built in that era. Today, with a portion of the profits from the gaming halls in Deadwood (there are about 80), the city has been able to restore its buildings and preserve its past.  There is a very informative walking tour of town or you can take a trolley, if you want a quicker tour.

Mt. Moriah Cemetery

Mount Moriah Cemetery sits on a hill above Deadwood and offers a beautiful overview of the city within Deadwood Gulch. It is the last resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane and people have been coming to visit these famous residents since Wild Bill’s death. The last burial here was in 1949. There is a visitor center open 7 days a week from Memorial Day to mid-October.  The cemetery is open year-round with a small admission fee.

Spearfish

Another town which began as a mining town, Spearfish thrives as an access point for outdoor recreational and a center for art and culture. The picturesque downtown, with some buildings as old as the city itself, has plenty of options for any shopper (clothing, antiques, coffee shops, cafes and more).  The beautiful clock tower, is topped by a Termesphere painted by Spearfish’s own Dick Termes.

Termesphere Gallery

If you are going to be in Spearfish for any length of time, this is an absolute must-see. We were spellbound.  Dick Termes uses six-point perspective to paint entire worlds on a sphere. The sphere is often suspended and attached to a small quiet motor turning it to showcase the whole work of art. The gallery is free and open daily in the summer and weekends during the winter or by appointment.

Belle Fourche

Belle Fourche, a small city of about 5,500 people, is home to the Center of the Nation monument. The monument sits in a beautiful park by the Belle Fourche River. It is 21 feet across and constructed of South Dakota granite with the flags of the 50 US states surrounding it.  The visitor center and Tri-State Museum are close by. For purists, the actual geographic center is about 20 miles northwest of Belle Fourche.

Other South Dakota Attractions

While we’ve concentrated on the southwest portion of South Dakota, if time permits or you’re driving from the east, here are a few things to do in eastern South Dakota.

Porter Sculpture Park

Porter Sculpture Park is a quirky collection of the metal artwork creations of Wayne Porter set in a 10 acre grassy field.  He is self-taught adapting the blacksmithing skills taught by his father to create larger-than-life art. One of his largest pieces is a 60 foot bull head that had to be brought to the site in 2 pieces.  The park is open daily mid-May to mid-September for a small entrance fee and is just off I90 about 30 miles west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Mitchell Corn Palace

The Corn Palace is a multi-purpose facility whose outside is decorated with murals made of corn and other grains. The murals are designed by local artists and replaced annually with a new theme each year.  The first murals were done in 1892 to showcase the riches of South Dakota agriculture and encourage settlement and have been been created annually since then.  Inside there are displays describing the history of the palace, how the murals are created and photos of many of the past murals. You can visit for free daily except for Sundays December to April and several major holidays. The corn palace is on Main Street in Mitchell, about 70 miles west of Sioux Falls on I90.

Dignity of Earth and Sky Statue

Dignity of Earth and Sky is a 50 foot high stainless steel sculpture of an Indigenous woman in plains-style dress holding a star quilt. She stands high on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. The sculpture is by South Dakota artist Dale Lamphere. He created the statue to honor the indigenous people of the Great Plains.  If you need to stretch your legs on your I90 journey, stop and see Dignity of Earth and Sky at the Chamberlain Interstate Welcome Center (I90 mile post 264).

Pierre, the South Dakota State Capital

Pierre is a small city of about 14,000 people making it the 2nd smallest state capital in the US. South Dakota was admitted as a US state in 1889.  The current State Capitol building was constructed between 1905 and 1910 and features a copper dome, columns and walls of granite and limestone.  The building has a central rotunda making it similar to the US Capitol.

Bronze statues of some of the South Dakota governors are found around the State Capitol.  There is a trail of these life-sized statues from the State Capitol grounds to downtown Pierre to the Missouri River.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site preserves 2 areas that were once part of a Minuteman missile field in southwestern South Dakota created during the Cold War and dismantled as a result of the 1991 START treaty. The historic site consists of: 1) Visitor center where a film and exhibits provide background of the Cold War and nuclear armament, 2) Launch Control Facility Delta-01 and associated underground Launch Control Center, and 3) missile silo Launch Facility Delta-09. The best place to start is at the Visitor Center at I90 exit 131. The site is open daily except for government holidays and Sundays and Mondays in the winter. There is no entrance fee. A tour of the underground Launch Control Center at Delta-01 is offered for a fee and must be booked in advance.

Side Trip # 1 – Devils Tower National Monument

If you have a couple more days, Devils Tower National Monument in neighboring Wyoming is a worthy addition to your trip.  It is about 100 miles west of Rapid City.

Devils Tower National Monument is unforgettable. It is a 1267 foot monolith rising out of relatively flat countryside. Exactly how it formed remains a topic of debate with geologists only agreeing it is an igneous rock. They agree that there has been significant erosion of the Tower by the boulders surrounding it even though no one in recorded history has ever seen one of these boulders fall from the Tower. 

Archaeological sites along the Belle Fourche River within the monument have confirmed that the area has been occupied for over 10,000 years. The Northern Plains Tribes are descendants of them and many tribes of Indigenous Americans consider the Tower sacred and are active stakeholders in the use and management of the Monument. You may see prayer bundles, colorful cloths, attached to trees. These are offerings left representing their prayers.

The most popular hiking trail in the monument is the 1.3 mile Tower Trail. It circles closest to the base of the tower and is paved. A longer route is the Red Beds Trail, 1.8 miles long, which shows more of the different wilderness habitats around the Tower.  For a quieter trail you can try the Joyner Ridge trail, a 1.5 mile loop which does not circle the tower but gives great views of its north face.  There is also the connecting 0.6 mile Valley View Trail, joining the campground and long vehicle parking area to the Red Beds Trail.

Experienced climbers are allowed to scale the monument.  However, due to the popularity of this pastime, climbers must use temporary equipment to minimize the impacts on the natural features.  If you intend to climb during your visit, please note there can be climbing/route closures at various times during the year. You are best to confirm with monument staff before you visit.

The Monument is open daily year-round. The visitor center is open daily except during the winter season (typically December to early March). There is a picnic area and campground (open early May through late October) though there are no food services within the monument. Ranger programs are offered from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Side Trip # 2 – Theodore Roosevelt National Park

North Dakota, while rarely visited due to its small population and remoteness, has a gem worth visiting in the beautiful Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

The park was established in 1947 to honor President Theodore Roosevelt who came to what was the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison.  He returned in 1884 to grieve the loss of both his mother and his wife, becoming a cattle rancher.  Though the ranch eventually failed, he credited his experiences in these badlands of what became North Dakota in 1889, with his need to preserve this nature for future generations. During his 8-year presidency he protected over 230 million acres of land in the US.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park protects about 70,000 acres.  It is split into 3 units. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is tiny and preserves the Roosevelt “home ranch” and you often need a 4-wheel drive to reach it. The entrance to the North Unit is about an hour north of I94 off US85. The South Unit is both the easiest to access and the largest at just over 46,000 acres. Both the North and South Units offer scenic drives, hiking trails and camping. You can spend a day or many here relaxing and rejuvenating just as Roosevelt did.

The entrance to the South Unit is in the city of Medora, on I94 about 2 hours west of Bismarck. The scenic drive, formerly a 36 mile loop road, now dead-ends at a landslide location 24 miles in where you must turn around.  It is about a 1.5 to 2 hour journey if you don’t stop, which is unlikely. The views are too beautiful.

There are lots of hiking options, whether you prefer something short and paved, or a strenuous backcountry trail.  We did the short Wind Canyon Trail (0.4 mile loop) which follows a cliff edge overlooking the Little Missouri River. It is considered of moderate difficulty with gravel and dirt surfaces along with stairs. It is a favorite of photographers at sunset. Wind Canyon itself was eroded primarily by wind rather than by water like the rest of the badland landscape. We saw bison and wild horses from the top. 

The park is open daily year-round. An entrance fee is charged. The South Unit Visitor Center in Medora is open daily with extended hours in the summer. The Painted Canyon Visitor Center (on I94 about 8 miles east of Medora) is open May through October. The North Unit has a Visitor Contact Station where a ranger can assist with trip planning and back country permits.  It is open daily May through October and weekends (Friday to Monday) the rest of the year. Campgrounds are open in both units year-round. There are no utility hookups and only limited services mid-October to mid-May. If winter camping, check ahead for road closures.

If you are travelling along I94 from Bismarck you may want to stretch your legs at New Salem and see Salem Sue, a 38 foot high and 50 foot long fibreglass Holstein cow sculpture.  You can also travel the Enchanted Highway from the Gladstone exit on I94 south to Regent, a 32 mile route through scenic farm country which has a collection of large scrap metal sculptures at intervals along the way.

South Dakota Accommodations

Looking for a place to stay in South Dakota?

Rapid City Hotels

Make Rapid City your home base while you explore the Badlands, Mount Rushmore and all points south. Check out these great options.

Spearfish Hotels

Make Spearfish your home base while you explore the northern Black Hills area and surrounding cities. Here are some options.

South Dakota Attractions Map


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