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South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary – The Best Places to Visit

by Valerie Vanr

Here’s an Epic One Week South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary covering all the major attractions.

Visit Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore and drive some incredible roads. There are hundreds of miles of hiking trails for the beginner to the expert. Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest give the outdoor enthusiast lots of different options. South Dakota has something for everyone!

South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

This one week South Dakota road trip itinerary hits all the best places to visit.

  • Day 1: Badlands National Park and Minuteman Missile National Monument
  • Day 2: Rapid City
  • Day 3: Mount Rushmore
  • Day 4: Custer State Park
  • Day 5: Wind Cave Nation Park and Jewel Cave National Monument
  • Day 6: Black Hills Scenic Byways
  • Day 7: Deadwood, Lead and Spearfish

South Dakota Road Trip Map

South Dakota One Week Road Trip Attractions
Click on map to enlarge

Must-See Places in South Dakota

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park showcases a colorful landscape of eroded buttes, canyons, pinnacles and spires. One of the richest fossil beds in the world is here. The park’s over 200,000 acres includes the largest protected prairie in the US National Park system. It supports a diverse variety of wildlife. Bison, deer, coyotes, turtles, butterflies, and eagles are just a few. We think this is one of the best places to visit in South Dakota.

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

View from White River Valley Overlook
View from White River Valley Overlook
On Cliff Shelf Trail Badlands National Park
Cliff Shelf Trail Badlands National Park

Badlands Loop Road provides access to the trailheads of 8 of the park’s established hiking trails. Notch Trail is 1.5 miles round trip and recommended to give you an overview of the valley. Cimb 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

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.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The information center, the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and Guzton Boglum’s studio provide you with information on the creation of the memorial. The sculptor worked from the studio and you will see 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 more visible on the mountain in front of you.

The best time of day to visit Mount Rushmore is the morning.  Crowds are thinner.  More importantly, the presidents’ faces are all unshadowed in the morning light, making it better for photographs. In the evening, the memorial is illuminated during 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. With so many things to do in the surrounding Black Hills, everyone’s trip can be unforgettable.

The Black Hills Attractions

The Black Hills region is in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. Rapid City is 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 the best places to visit in the Black Hills.

Custer State Park

South Dakota’s oldest and largest state park (71,000 acres) offers lots of recreational options in a stunning setting. 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 things to do, you can spend days here. 

Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road

On the 18-mile wildlife loop drive through grasslands and hills of 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 stunning in its own right. Guided tours are offered should you decide not to drive the road yourself.

Bison Custer State Park
Bison in Custer State Park

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 about 1¼ miles one way. The scenery is stunning.

Cathedral Spires in Custer State Park
Cathedral Spires in Custer State Park
Hiking on Cathedral Spires Trail
Hiking Cathedral Spires Trail

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.  

Stockade Lake Custer State Park
Stockade Lake Custer State Park

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 dates from 60 to 100 million years ago. You must be on a ranger-led tour to visit the cave. 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.  The park is open year-round. There is no fee to enter the park itself but a fee is charged for cave tours.

Demonstration of wind blowing out of cave entrance
Demonstration of wind blowing out of cave entrance
Sample Boxwork Wind Cave National Park
Sample of Boxwork from Wind Cave National Park

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 where you are rewarded with spectacular views, including bison in the valley below. The park is about 1.25 hours south of Rapid City. 

On Rankin Ridge Nature Trail
Rankin Ridge Nature Trail

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. 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.

Crazy Horse Memorial sculpture
Crazy Horse Memorial

Hiking

Hiking options abound 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 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 round-trip trail.

Roughlock Falls
Roughlock Falls

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.

Steam Engine Rail Cars Hill City Black Hills Central Railway
Steam Engine and Rail Cars at Hill City, Black Hills Central Railroad

Scenic Drives

Almost everywhere you drive in the Black Hills is a “scenic drive” but here are a couple routes that are stellar. It’s the perfect way to like places on your itinerary together.

Looking out of Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway Tunnel
Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway Tunnel

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.

Map of Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway
Map of the Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway

Iron Mountain Road

It is a part of the Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway. The 18-mile road winds between Mount Rushmore and the intersection of US 16A and SD36.  Its tunnels frame Mount Rushmore. The Byway will take about an hour to travel depending how often you stop.

Iron Mountain Road Tunnel
Iron Mountain Road Tunnel
Bridge over Iron Mountain Road
Bridge over Iron Mountain Road

Needles Highway

Another part of the Peter Norbreck Scenic Byway, the 14 miles of stunning road travel through pine and spruce forests. There are meadows surrounded by birch and aspen and rugged mountains make an incredible backdrop.  It takes between 45 minutes and an hour to travel and is closed in winter.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

Travel through Spearfish Canyon’s 20 miles of beautiful scenery. Waterfalls and hiking options are throughout the canyon. While the drive can be 30 minutes, 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.  

Bridal Veil Falls Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
Bridal Veil Falls Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

Best Cities to Visit in South Dakota

Rapid City

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

Firehouse Brewing Co. in former Rapid City Firehall built in 1915
Firehouse Brewing Co. in the former Rapid City Firehall built in 1915

Main Street Square

In the summer, Main Street Square has bubbling water jets for the kids to play in. They become a light show at night. The square has a small concert stage as well. It’s a good starting point for the City of Presidents Walk.

City of Presidents Walk

President Obama and daughter statue on the Presidents Walk in Rapid City
President Obama’s statue on the Presidents Walk in Rapid City

Twelve intersections along Main and St. Joseph Streets (between 4th and 9th Streets) 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.

Dinosaur Park
Dinosaur Park

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!

Wall Drug Store
Wall Drug Store

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! A fun place to spend an hour or two.

Custer

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 for you to explore.

Painted Bison art downtown Custer
Bison Artwork in downtown Custer

Lead

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 its lab. This lab occupies some of the 370 miles of tunnels between the surface to as deep as 1.5 miles below. 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.

Open Pit at Homestake Gold Mine
Open Pit at Homestake Gold Mine
Inside Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center
Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center

Deadwood

Deadwood, a National Historic Landmark, began as a gold mining town in the 1870’s.  This was the wild frontier including gunfighter Wild Bill Hickok’s shooting 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 restores its early buildings and preserves its past.  Take a very informative walking tour of town or a trolley tour is available.

Downtown streetscape Deadwood
Downtown Deadwood

Mount Moriah Cemetery

Mount Moriah Cemetery, high on a hill, offers a beautiful view of the city within Deadwood Gulch. Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane are buried here. People have been coming to visit these famous residents since Wild Bill’s death. The last burial was in 1949. The visitor center opens 7 days a week from Memorial Day to mid-October.  Visit the cemetery year-round with a small admission fee.

Wild Bill Hickok's Tombstone
Wild Bill Hickok’s Tombstone

Spearfish

Another town which began as a mining town, Spearfish thrives as an access point to the Black Hills and as a center for arts and culture. The picturesque downtown includes some buildings as old as Spearfish itself. It 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.

Spearfish Clock Tower with Termesphere
Spearfish Clock Tower with Termesphere

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. 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 and weekends during the winter or by appointment.

Inside Termesphere Gallery Spearfish
Termesphere Gallery, Spearfish

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. Flags of the 50 US states surround the 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.

Monument USA Geographic Center Belle Fourche
Geographic Center of the Nation Monument in Belle Fourche
Standing at the actual Geographic center of the USA, 20 miles NW of Belle Fourche
Actual Geographic Center of the Nation, 20 miles northwest of Belle Fourche

More Places to See in South Dakota

If 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 metal artwork by Wayne Porter set in a 10-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.

Egyption Apis Bull's Head
Egyptian Apis Bull’s Head

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.

Outside of Corn Palace at Mitchell
Corn Palace at Mitchell

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.  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).

50-foot sculpture Dignity of Earth and Sky
50-foot sculpture Dignity of Earth and Sky

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.

South Dakota State Capitol
South Dakota State Capitol

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) The 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.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center and Missile Silo
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center and Missile Silo

South Dakota Attractions Map

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 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 and get the most out of your visit to the Tower.

Green field with Devils Tower in background

Side Trip # 2 – 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”. 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. Spend a day or many here 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.

Littel Missouri River from Wind Canyon Trail viewpoint
Little Missouri River from Wind Canyon Trail viewpoint

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, now dead-ends at a landslide location 24 miles in. You must turn around and return the same way.  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 rated moderate with gravel and dirt surfaces along with stairs. Photographers favor this spot at sunset. Wind Canyon was eroded by wind rather than by water which erodes typical badlands. Bison and wild horses frequent the valley which you can see 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 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 coming from Bismarck on I94, you may need to 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.

Salem Sue World's Largest Holstein Cow
Salem Sue – The World’s Largest Holstein Cow
Scrap metal sculpture along Enchanted Highway
Scrap metal sculpture along the Enchanted Highway

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.


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