This one-week South Dakota Road Trip itinerary covers all the major South Dakota attractions.
Visit Badlands National Park and Mount Rushmore. Drive incredible scenic routes. Find hundreds of miles of hiking trails, from beginner level to expert. Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest give the outdoor enthusiast lots of different options.
South Dakota has something for everyone!
Table of Contents
South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
Our 1-week South Dakota road trip itinerary hits all the best places to visit.
- Day 1: Badlands National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
- Day 2: Rapid City
- Day 3: Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- Day 4: Custer State Park
- Day 5: Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument
- Day 6: Black Hills Scenic Drives
- Day 7: Towns of Deadwood, Lead and Spearfish
South Dakota Attractions Map
Must-Sees in South Dakota
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park, with an area over 200,000 acres, showcases a colorful landscape of eroded buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires. The White River Badlands contain some of the richest fossil beds in the world and the larger beds are exposed in the park boundaries. The park includes the largest protected prairie in the US National Park system supporting a wide variety of wildlife. Bison, deer, coyotes, turtles, butterflies, and eagles are just a few. This is one of the best places to visit in South Dakota.
Traveling the Badlands Loop Road the beauty of the badlands is everywhere. There are pull-offs and parking lots along the way so stop, stretch and explore the countryside. Visit Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Learn more about the Badlands, its wildlife, fossils and geology.
Badlands Loop Road provides access to the trailheads of the park’s established hiking trails. Notch Trail is 1.5 miles (2.4 miles) round trip and recommended for an overview of the valley. 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 (0.8 km) loop which has boardwalks and lots of stairs. The view was worth it.
The park entrance is about 8 miles south of the city of Wall on US 240, an hour east of Rapid City. The park is open year-round and an entrance fee applies which provides access for 7 days. Campground and lodge accommodations are available in the park.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Visit the immense 60-foot tall wall of carved faces. Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln look out over the valley from the top of Mount Rushmore. This is a “bucket-list” destination for many people.
The information center, the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and Guzton Boglum’s studio provide information about the creation of the memorial. The sculptor worked from the studio and it displays his 1/12th scale model of Mount Rushmore. The 0.6 mile Presidential Trail starts nearby and allows a closer view of the memorial. There are plaques along the trail highlighting each president as his face becomes visible on the mountain. On the Avenue of Flags, see flags from all US states (50), districts (1), territories (3) and commonwealths (2).
The best time of day to visit Mount Rushmore is the morning. Crowds are thinner. More importantly, the presidents’ faces are free of shadows in the morning light, perfect for photos. In the evening, the memorial is illuminated. A special lighting ceremony is held nightly from Memorial Day weekend through September 30th.
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 parking fee is charged.
In addition to visiting Mount Rushmore there are many things to do in the Black Hills.
Black Hills Attractions
The Black Hills are an eroded mountain range in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. The highest peak in the range is Black Elk Peak at 7240 feet (2,200 metres). The peak is about 4 miles (6.3 kilometres) west of Mount Rushmore as the crow flies. Much of the range is protected and open for recreation as Black Hills National Forest. Rapid City, in the foothills is the gateway to the Black Hills.
The Black Hills best attractions are:
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial,
- Custer State Park,
- Wind Cave National Park,
- Jewel Cave National Monument,
- Black Hills National Forest.
Custer State Park
South Dakota’s oldest state park, and largest at 71,000 acres, offers lots of recreation options in a stunning setting. See abundant wildlife, enjoy 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 for a small park fee.
Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road
The 18-mile, wildlife loop passes through grasslands and hills covered in pine where much of the park’s wildlife is found. Bison, pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, elk, coyotes, burros, prairie dogs, eagles, hawks, and a variety of other birds share the grasslands. The landscape is incredible. Guided tours are available.
The park’s bison herd is one of the world’s largest publicly-owned herds, about 1,300 strong. The annual roundup occurs on the last Friday of each September 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, rated a strenuous hike, it was about 1¼ miles one-way. The scenery is outstanding.
Custer State Park Lakes
Boating, fishing (with a valid license) and swimming are popular in the park. Restrictions exist on the types of boats allowed on some lakes so check before launching.
Wind Cave National Park
The park protects one of the most complex underground mazes in the world. 95% of the world’s boxwork is in Wind Cave National Park. Boxwork, a rare calcite formation, looks like honeycomb and is between 60 to 100 million years ago. The park is open year-round. There is no fee to enter the park itself but a fee is charged for cave tours.
The only way to visit the cave is on a ranger-led tour. A number of tour options exist of varying lengths and difficulties. Fewer tours are offered in the winter months. All tours start from the visitor center which has exhibits about the park’s history and wildlife. For detailed information about the tours, tour times and reservations, visit the Wind Cave National Park’s Guided Tours webpage.
The park has more than 30 miles of hiking trails which cut through grasslands and pine forests. We enjoyed hiking the short Rankin Ridge Nature Trail. The trail leads to the highest point in the park rewarding hikers with spectacular views, including bison in the valley below. The park is about 1.25 hours south of Rapid City.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave is the 3rd longest cave in the world. About 200 miles have been mapped so far. 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. There is no fee to enter the monument itself but a fee is charged for cave tours. For detailed information about the tours, tour times and reservations, visit the Jewel Cave National Monument’s Guided Tours webpage.
Wildlife is often seen on the monument’s two hiking trails. The monument is open year-round and is located about an hour southwest of Rapid City (13 miles west Custer).
Black Hills National Forest
Hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, camping and much more are all available in the 1.2 million acres of the Black Hills National Forest.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The 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. About 45 minutes southwest of Rapid City (10 miles south of Hill City), it is open year-round with an entrance fee. Native Americans are divided in their views on the appropriateness of the memorial.
Hiking in Black Hills National Forest
Hiking options abound in the national forest. In the northern section, Roughlock Falls is worth the 2-mile (3.2 km) round-trip hike. The trail parallels Roughlock Falls Road hugging the Little Spearfish Creek with beautiful views, wildlife and trout fishing. Spearfish Falls are close by. They are visible from the main road or, for a closer view, take the easy 1-mile (1.6 km) round-trip trail.
Black Hills Central Railroad
See the beauty of the Black Hills riding a vintage steam train. The 1880 carries passengers between Hill City and Keystone from early May until early October. Travel round-trip (2¼ hours) or one-way from either city. The South Dakota State Railroad Museum at the depot in Hill City displays memorabilia from former South Dakota railroads.
Black Hills Scenic Drives
Almost all the roads in the Black Hills are “scenic drives” but there are a couple routes that are stellar. It’s the perfect way to link places on the itinerary together.
The Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway connects many of the highlights of the Black Hills. A national scenic byway, its 70 miles (110 km) 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 is an 18-mile (28-km) section of the Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway. It winds between Mount Rushmore and the intersection of US16A and SD36. Its tunnels frame Mount Rushmore. This section takes about an hour to travel depending on the number of photo stops.
The 14-mile (22-km) Needles Highway is another section of the Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway. It travels through pine and spruce forests with meadows surrounded by birch and aspen. Rugged mountains of the Black Hills make an incredible backdrop. It takes between 45 minutes and an hour to travel the highway and it is closed in winter.
Travel the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, through Spearfish Canyon’s 20 miles of beautiful scenery. Waterfalls and hiking options are throughout the canyon. At a minimum, the drive is 30 minutes long, but allow longer 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
The 2nd largest city in South Dakota, Rapid City is the gateway to the Black Hills and a great base for a road trip. Enjoy its family-friendly things to do. In the summer, Main Street Square has bubbling water jets for the kids to play in which are lit at night. The square has a small concert stage. It’s a good starting point for the City of Presidents Walk.
Twelve intersections along Main and St. Joseph Streets (between 4th and 9th Streets) display life-size bronze statues of 43 former presidents of the United States. Walk these streets and see many beautiful buildings. Plaques explain both city and building history.
The circa 1930 Dinosaur Park is on the register of National Historic Places. The kids can climb on life-sized dinosaurs while the adults get a panoramic view of the Rapid City skyline.
This is the home of the infamous Wall Drug. It opened in the 1930’s as a drug store. During the depression, they erected 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! Wall Drug is much more than a drug store today.
Today, the wild west-themed shopping mall consists of a drug store (where it all began), gift shops, restaurant, chapel and various other stores. There are 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! It’s fun place to spend an hour or two.
In downtown Custer, several intersections have colorful painted bison. Created between 2007 and 2016, they were an art project showcasing original bison artwork. Contributions came from artists around the US. Many were auctioned off. These are the beautiful remainders. The downtown has unique shops and cafes to explore.
The Homestake Gold Mine removed copious quantities of gold and silver from beneath Lead over 126 years. Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center explains the mine’s operations before it closed in 2001 and the science behind the lab. The lab occupies some of the 370 miles (595 km) of tunnels which go as deep as 1.5 miles (2.4 km) below ground. The Sanford Underground Research Facility carries out research to help further our knowledge of the universe including the role of neutrinos. Take the great trolley tour offered in the summer for a small fee. It tours the town and some of the surface buildings at the research facility. The free visitor center is open year-round.
Deadwood, a National Historic Landmark, began as a gold mining town in the 1870’s. This was the wild frontier. Infamous gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok was shot here in 1876. Many of the buildings were built in that era. Using a portion of the state taxes collected from gambling, Deadwood restores its early buildings and preserves its past. Take a very informative walking tour of town or a trolley tour is available.
Mount Moriah Cemetery, high on a hill, offers a beautiful view of the city within Deadwood Gulch. This is the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. People have been visiting these famous residents since Wild Bill’s death. The cemetery’s last burial was in 1949. The cemetery is open year-round and the visitor center opens from Memorial Day to mid-October.
Spearfish thrives as an access point to the Black Hills and a center for arts and culture. Another town built due to mining, its picturesque downtown includes some buildings as old as Spearfish itself. There are plenty of options for shopping enthusiasts, from clothing to antiques, with coffee shops, cafes and more. The beautiful clock tower is topped by a Termesphere painted by Spearfish’s own Dick Termes.
The Termesphere Gallery is an absolute must-see. We were spellbound. Dick Termes uses six-point perspective to paint entire worlds on a sphere. Many of the spheres are suspended and attached to small quiet motors. The motor turns the sphere to showcase the whole work of art. The gallery is free and open daily in the summer or by appointment.
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. Flags of the 50 US states surround a 21-foot-diameter monument constructed of South Dakota granite. The visitor center and Tri-State Museum are close by. For purists, the actual geographic center is about 20 miles northwest of Belle Fourche.
Places to See in Eastern South Dakota
Driving from the east? These are a few things to do in eastern South Dakota.
Porter Sculpture Park
Porter Sculpture Park is a quirky collection of metal artwork by Wayne Porter set in an 18-acre grassy field. He is self-taught. He adapted the blacksmithing skills his father taught him creating larger-than-life art. One of his largest pieces, a 60 foot bull head, needed to be brought to the site in 2 pieces. The park is open daily mid-May to mid-September for a small entrance fee. It is just off I90 about 30 miles west of Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Mitchell Corn Palace
Murals made of corn and other grains decorate this multi-purpose facility’s exterior. There’s a new theme each year. New murals, designed by local artists, replace the previous year’s art. In 1892, the first murals showcased the riches of South Dakota agriculture and encouraged settlement in the area. They have been created annually ever since. Inside displays describe the history of the palace, how the murals are created and show photos of many of the past murals. It’s free to visit. They open daily, except for Sundays from 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
The 50-foot high stainless steel sculpture of an Indigenous woman in plains-style dress holds a star quilt. She stands high on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Dale Lamphere, a South Dakota artist, created the statue to honor the indigenous people of the Great Plains. For a great place to stop and stretch along the I90, stop and see Dignity of Earth and Sky at the Chamberlain Interstate Welcome Center (I90 mile post 264). The overlook of the Missouri River is impressive also.
Pierre, the South Dakota State Capital
Pierre, a small city of about 14,000 people, is the 2nd smallest state capital in the US. South Dakota became a US state in 1889 but it wasn’t until between 1905 and 1910 that the State Capitol building was constructed. The Capitol features a copper dome, columns and walls of granite and limestone. The building has a central rotunda similar to the famous US Capitol building.
Bronze statues of some of the South Dakota governors are found around the State Capitol. Follow the trail of these life-sized statues from the State Capitol grounds to downtown Pierre to the Missouri River.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
The national historic site preserves two areas that were part of a Minuteman missile field in southwestern South Dakota. The field was created during the Cold War and dismantled as a result of the 1991 START treaty.
There are three separate areas included in the site:
1) Visitor Center, offering a film and exhibits providing 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.
Start 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 – Devils Tower National Monument
With a couple more days, Devils Tower National Monument in neighboring Wyoming is worth adding to your road trip. It is about 100 miles west of Rapid City and unforgettable. The +1200-foot monolith is visible for miles. Its short hikes are a great way to experience this unique park.
Be sure to check out our article How to Visit and Hike Devils Tower National Monument to plan your visit to the Tower.
Side Trip – Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
Theodore Roosevelt National Park, established in 1947, protects about 70,000 acres. It is split into 3 units. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit is tiny and preserves the Roosevelt “home ranch”. A 4-wheel drive vehicle is often needed 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. Spend a day or many relaxing and rejuvenating, just as Roosevelt did.
The park honors President Theodore Roosevelt who came to what was the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison. Returning in 1884 to grieve the loss of both his mother and his wife, he became a cattle rancher. The ranch eventually failed. Roosevelt credited his experiences in these badlands, part of what became North Dakota in 1889, with his need to preserve nature for future generations. During his 8-year presidency he protected over 230 million acres of land in the US.
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, is now a 48-mile (77 kilometre) out-and-back drive. It is about a 1.5 to 2 hour journey without stops, which is unlikely. The views are too beautiful.
There are lots of hiking options, from short and paved to a strenuous backcountry trail. We did the short Wind Canyon Trail (0.4-mile/0.6-km loop) which follows a cliff edge overlooking the Little Missouri River. It is rated easy with gravel and dirt surfaces along with stairs. Photographers favor this spot at sunset. Wind Canyon was eroded by wind rather than by water erosion more typical in the badlands. Bison and wild horses frequent the valley visible from the viewpoint.
The park is open year-round. An entrance fee is charged. The South Unit Visitor Center in Medora opens daily with extended hours in the summer. The Painted Canyon Visitor Center (on I94 about 8 miles east of Medora) operates May through October. The North Unit has a Visitor Contact Station. Rangers here assist with trip planning and back country permits. The Contact Station is open daily June through October and closed 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 coming from Bismarck on I94, stretch your legs along the way. Stop at New Salem and see Salem Sue, the Holstein cow. She’s 38-feet high and 50-feet long and made of fibreglass. Exit at Gladstone to experience the Enchanted Highway. From I94 travel 32 miles south to Regent through scenic farm country. At intervals along the way find large scrap metal sculptures. The first is the I94 exit.
South Dakota Accommodations
Looking for a place to stay in South Dakota?
Rapid City Hotels
Make Rapid City your home base while exploring the Badlands, Mount Rushmore and all points south. Check out these great options.
- Staybridge Suites Rapid City / Rushmore – Exceptional
- Howard Johnson by Wyndham Rapid City – Where We Stayed
- Holiday Inn Rapid City – Great Value
Make Spearfish your home base while exploring the northern Black Hills area and surrounding cities. These are some options.
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