Going on a South Dakota Road Trip? In this guide we’re sharing a 7 day South Dakota itinerary that takes you from the Black Hills to the Badlands, with some of the best stops along the way.
This past summer we took an incredible 7 day South Dakota road trip in partnership with South Dakota Tourism. We drove across the entire state, from Spearfish Canyon to Sioux Falls, stopping along the way at many of the popular sights.
We weren’t totally sure what to expect beforehand, but it was an absolute BLAST! South Dakota has been one of the best surprises since hitting the road in our self-converted Sprinter van. Growing up, we didn’t know much about South Dakota and to be honest, didn’t have much of a desire to visit. But as we planned our road trip route for 2020, we started to look into things to do in South Dakota and were blown away by all of the options!
Our original plan to spend 2 days in the state quickly turned into 7 days and even then, we still have so much left to explore. We went on some of the most unique hikes we have ever been on, drove on some crazy scenic roads, slid down a natural waterslide, ate one of the best burgers of our lives, saw iconic sights that we grew up seeing photos of, visited quirky roadside attractions, learned Native American history, and checked a couple more National Parks off of our list.
The state has incredibly diverse scenery and every day of our trip was full of gems and “holy cow!” moments. And we’re so excited to share a 7 day South Dakota road trip itinerary, focusing solely on the Black Hills and Badlands, so you can recreate the trip for yourself!
While we did partner with South Dakota tourism for our vlog series, this guide, as well as our vlogs, reflect our honest feelings about our experience in the state.
Check out more of our South Dakota guides!
Reminder: Leave No Trace
Before starting your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave the places you explore even better than you found them.
- Plan ahead and prepare: Know the regulations, prepare for different weather conditions, and pack the 10 essentials.
- Travel and camp on durable surfaces: Travel on designated trails and camp at designated sites at least 200 ft away from water sources.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack it in, pack it out. Carry ALL trash with you and dig a 6-8″ cat hole for human waste, 200 ft away from water.
- Leave what you find: Take only pictures, leave only footprints.
- Minimize campfire impacts: If fires are allowed, use established fire rings. Keep fires small and put out fires completely.
- Respect wildlife: Do not approach or feed wildlife, keep pets under control, and store your food properly.
- Be considerate of others: Yield to hikers going uphill and keep noises down.
Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!
South Dakota Road Trip Route
During our South Dakota Road Trip we went from Spearfish, in the Black Hills, to Sioux Falls, but in this guide we’re focusing solely on the Black Hills and Badlands, so you can explore things at a slightly slower pace than we did.
About the Black Hills
The Black Hills are located in Western and Southwestern South Dakota, as well as Northeastern Wyoming, and encompass more than 8,426 square miles. This area is full of forests, canyons, cool rock formations, lakes, caves, and so much more!
And similar to the rest of South Dakota, this area has deep Native American history and the name “Black Hills” comes from the Lakota phrase “Paha Sapa,” which means “hills that are black.” This is because from a distance, the forest, against the valleys and prairies, appears black.
And we can totally see what they mean! One of our favorite views in the Black Hills was seeing the dark forest contrasted against the light green valleys. It is so stunning!
For more information about the Black Hills, including more about its Native American history, check out our Black Hills guide.
About Badlands National Park
As the name implies, Badlands National Park is home to a geologic formation called badlands, which is a type of dry terrain with soft sedimentary rocks and clay-rich soils that have been extensively eroded by wind and water.
However, there is also another reason the park is named Badlands. The Lakota, who lived in this area and used it as a hunting ground for 11,000 years, called it “Mako Sica” which translates to “bad lands.”
And when the French fur trappers traveled through, they called it “les mauvaises terres a traveser,” which is the French equivalent of ‘bad lands to travel across,’ since it is difficult to travel in all seasons. When it rains it becomes slick and sticky, the winters are cold, and the summers are hot.
But the scenery here is crazy and is unlike anywhere we have ever been. In fact, it felt like we had landed on another planet!
For more information about the Badlands National Park, check out our Badlands National Park guide.
Destinations in this itinerary
This guide includes the following major destinations (plus a lot more!) in the Black Hills and Badlands National Park, which we have pinned on the map above:
- Spearfish and Spearfish Canyon
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- Crazy Horse Memorial
- Custer State Park, including the 3 scenic drives
- Wind Caves National Park
- Rapid City
- Badlands National Park
But we will also include some additional stops if you continue east like we did. Want to see our exact trip? Watch our road trip here.
We’re also sharing information about where to stay, when to visit South Dakota, and more. Whether you have 7 days to explore South Dakota, or less, we hope this guide helps you plan an epic South Dakota road trip!
When to visit South Dakota
For this South Dakota road trip we’d suggest visiting in either April, May, September, or October to not only have the best weather, but to also avoid crowds. However, the summer is another doable alternative, but it may be hotter and busier.
Here’s a little bit of insight into both the Black Hills and Badlands when it comes to weather and crowds.
In the Black Hills, most of the main attractions are open year round, but to be able to experience all that the Black Hills have to offer, you will want to visit in the warmer months, typically between May and early October. This is when all facilities will be open, trails will be more accessible, and any tours you want to go on will be operating. However, it’s also when the crowds will be a bit higher, especially in early August for the Sturgis Rally.
If you plan to visit the park in the colder months, you may run into a light dusting or a blanket of snow (which sounds beautiful!), but you also may run into some closed roads and other attractions being closed. This list is super helpful to see when specific attractions close in the Black Hills!
Badlands National Park
The weather in Badlands National Park can be pretty extreme. The National Park website states that “weather in Badlands National Park is variable and unpredictable with temperature extremes ranging from 116° F to -40° F.” 😱
The summers are very hot and dry, with rainfall and sometimes a crazy thunderstorm, while the winters are very cold with typically 12-24” of snowfall. June is the wettest month in the park (hiking on the Badlands when they’re wet will be very slick and you’ll get clay stuck to your shoes) and December and January are the driest. But even with crazy weather, Badlands National Park is typically open 365 days a year, except for weather closures.
Getting to South Dakota
For this South Dakota road trip, your journey will start in Spearfish, located in the Northwestern part of the Black Hills, close to the Wyoming border.
If you’re visiting from out of state and flying to South Dakota, your best airport to fly into would probably be Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP).
Major airlines that fly into this airport include Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, and United, with direct flights from Atlanta, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix, Denver, and Salt Lake City, with some additional seasonal flights.
Southwestern South Dakota and Custer State Park are pretty isolated from any other major cities in the US, but depending on how much time you have, where you’re coming from, and going after South Dakota, you could start your road trip elsewhere. Here’s how far Spearfish, the starting point of this South Dakota road trip, is from some nearby destinations!
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park: 3 hours 20 minutes, 204 miles
- Sioux Falls, South Dakota: 5.5 hours, 391 miles
- Denver, Colorado: 6 hours, 395 miles
- Yellowstone National Park: 6.5 hours, 383 miles
- Jackson, Wyoming: 7 hours 45 minutes, 494 miles
- Minneapolis, Minnesota: 9 hours, 620 miles
Getting around South Dakota
Since this is a South Dakota road trip, you’ll definitely need a car! Not only is it really the only option to get around the state, but road trips are a lot more fun when you’re behind the wheel (vs. a tour bus). Driving in South Dakota, especially the stops on this South Dakota road trip itinerary, is super scenic!
If you’re flying into South Dakota, you can rent a car at either the airport or from somewhere in Rapid City. Any type of car will work for this South Dakota road trip. Our RWD Sprinter van handled the roads just fine! However, keep in mind that some of the tunnels on these roads have height limits, so make sure to check the clearance requirements beforehand!
Where to Stay in South Dakota
For this South Dakota road trip you have a few options of where to stay. You could either hop around every couple days to be close to whatever you’re doing next or you could stay in one spot the entire time and drive everyday.
We’d suggest having one home base the entire time so you can relax after a long day vs. worrying about packing up and moving. The nice thing is, the spots on this itinerary are between 30 minutes-1.5 hours of driving (one way), with some days being even less!
Below are some of the best areas to stay for this South Dakota road trip if you want to be central to most activities.
We LOVE Airbnb and it’s always our go-to if we want a bit more space, a kitchen to cook meals, and some modern amenities, like WiFi, laundry, etc. There are several cool towns in the Black Hills with a variety of rental options and close to other activities.
The Woodsley: A 2 bedroom, 1.5 bathroom with some cool design features, a great patio, a grill, and views!
The Notch Cabin: Owned by the same folks as the Woodsley, this cabin is equally as cute and has 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom.
Hugo Cabin: A large studio cabin, with a twin bed in a sunroom as well!
Backroads Inn and Cabins: A super cute cabin with a king bed, kitchenette, grill, and fire pit.
Custer Pine Palace: A gorgeous 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom cabin. We love the design of this place!
Black Hills Rambler Tiny House: A 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom tiny home!
EO Bungalows: A modern, studio bungalow with lots of high end touches and walking distance to town.
Cozy Apartment: A studio apartment near downtown Rapid City
Clark Street House: A beautiful 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom house
Modern Luxury Guest Suite: A super nice 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment
Urban Loft Style Apartment: A cool, industrial 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom loft
PS: If it is your first time staying at an Airbnb, click this link to get $40 off your first stay!
Want something a little simpler than a full on Airbnb? There are a lot of different hotels in or near the Black Hills. Here are some options to look into!
Residence Inn (we stayed here one night due to very hot temperatures and it was really nice!)
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Rapid City
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Rushmore Plaza
Hilton Garden Inn
Comfort Inn & Suites
Hotel Alex Johnson
Custer State Park is home to lodges that will give you the amenities of a hotel, but with more of a rustic feel. For convenience, Custer State Park would be the better choice, but the Spearfish Canyon’s lodge would be convenient for the first two days of your South Dakota road trip.
Blue Bell Lodge (Custer State Park)
These log cabins in the Blue Bell area are some of the nicest cabins in the park. All cabins are climate controlled, include a kitchen or kitchenette, are fully furnished, come with many modern amenities, and include daily housekeeping service.
There are 29 cabins to choose from when you reserve, ranging from rustic to more luxurious with fireplaces with open-beamed ceilings.
State Game Lodge (Custer State Park)
The State Game Lodge is the largest resort in the park and offers a variety of unique stays including historical rooms, hotel rooms, cabins, and a creekside lodge.
In the main lodge and the Creekside Lodge you’ll have hotel-like rooms available. But if you’re looking for something more luxurious, check out the Creekside Cabin & Bunkhouse, Gamekeeper’s Cabin, Custer Ranch House, or the Reunion Cabin.
Adam would love to stay in the Coolidge room or the Eisenhower room, which are rooms named after the former Presidents who stayed here during their time visiting the park…how cool!
Sylvan Lake Lodge (Custer State Park)
Known as the Crown Jewel of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake and the lodge are not only beautiful, but rich in history. Several popular trails leave from this area, as this has long been a popular spot for adventures and the lodge was suggested to be built here by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
There are 31 cabins ranging from rooms in the lodge, to a honeymoon lodge and housekeeping lodges. Not only are there accommodations here, but there is also a restaurant and water sport rentals.
Legion Lake Lodge (Custer State Park)
This lodge was recently rebuilt and has a modern feel combined with a classic lakeside vibe. There is a restaurant, water sport rentals, and tours available, along with the 26 cabins to choose from.
Creekside Lodge (Custer State Park)
The Creekside Lodge is the newest resort lodge in the park built in 2008. These more spacious rooms have a modern and woodsy vibe to them.
Spearfish Canyon Lodge
Spearfish Canyon Lodge is located close to the waterfalls of Spearfish Canyon, making it super convenient if you’re looking for a homebase when exploring the Spearfish and Deadwood areas!
Want a unique, luxurious camping experience? Check out Under Canvas by Mount Rushmore! We have always wanted to stay at one of their locations. The glamping tents can either have shared or private bathrooms and they even have some with kids tents!
Love to camp? There are tons of campgrounds to choose from when visiting the Black Hills! Here’s a handy map of all the campgrounds both in Custer State Park (green) and in the Black Hills National Forest (blue). These campgrounds are convenient to all of the activities on this guide!
You can reserve the following campgrounds, find need to know information, and see all the campgrounds in the Black Hills National Forest here. Something to keep in mind for all Black Hills National Forest campgrounds, there is a $2 fee per pet and they must be leashed and attended at all times.
During our visit, we stayed at these two campgrounds and would recommend them, especially Bismarck Lake!
Bismarck Lake Campground
We stayed here for one night and LOVED it! We had site #4 and it was incredible! We were on the lake (with some trees and a bit of a trek to get down to it), the spot was huge, and we had a lot of privacy with no one really next to us or behind us.
Open: Mid-May-December 31
# of sites: 21
RV spots: Yes, but no hookups
Make reservations (it is first-come, first-served from the end of September until December 31)
Grizzly Creek Primitive
We stayed here one night and it was really nice! It’s more for tents vs. RVs, but we managed to squeeze our van in.
# of sites: 20
RV spots: Maximum vehicle length is 24 feet, no trailers allowed
Tips for your South Dakota Road Trip
Before embarking on your South Dakota road trip, here are a few of our top tips to ensure you have a fun and safe time:
- Make sure to pack the 10 essentials. Although many of the trails are well trafficked and well marked, always have the 10 essentials with you just in case things do not go according to plan.
- Stay away from wildlife. Lots of wildlife call South Dakota home, including bison, whitetail and mule deer, antelope, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, burros, bighorn sheep, birds, wild turkeys, prairie dogs, and rarely seen mountain lions. Make sure to never approach wildlife or feed wildlife (minus the begging burros) when exploring.
- Check the rules for dogs! Dogs are allowed on some of the trails on this itinerary, such as the trails in Spearfish Canyon, Custer State Park, and the Black Hills National Forest, but they are not allowed on trails in Badlands National Park. Make sure to check the rules beforehand if you’re traveling with your pup!
- Download maps beforehand. Some of the trails and parks on this itinerary do not have cell service, so we highly recommend downloading AllTrails maps before you go. You will need an AllTrails Pro membership to do so, which is $30 a year and so worth it! We also recommend downloading Google Maps so you can navigate around easier too.
- Leave time for “traffic jams.” We got stuck in some bison jams for quite some time in Custer State Park, which was honestly the best traffic jam EVER! Make sure you aren’t in a hurry when driving around and have extra time because rush hour in South Dakota is pretty wild. 😉
Pack lunches! We’re including places to eat for most meals on this itinerary, but we highly suggest bringing packed lunches on big hiking days so you can enjoy food on the trail vs. spending time driving farther away to get food. If you need more food ideas, check out our Black Hills guide!
7 Day South Dakota Road Trip itinerary
If you have less than 7 days, we hope this guide still gives you a good starting point as to what to see and how to structure your days when exploring the Black Hills and Badlands.
We did most of these activities in just 5 days, so it is doable to do it quicker if you don’t mind earlier mornings and fitting a lot in one day. But this 7 day South Dakota road trip itinerary will help you see as much, if not more, than we saw on a more relaxed schedule. See our exact South Dakota itinerary in our YouTube series.
Day 1: Spearfish
Day 1 of your South Dakota road trip will kick off just like ours…in Spearfish Canyon! This area was a lot of fun to explore, with waterfalls, a natural slide, and more!
Looking for a more detailed guide of the Black Hills, including Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, Mount Rushmore, and more? Check out our Black Hills guide to learn about more things to do!
- Begin your adventure with some coffee and breakfast at Blackbird Espresso! This spot is located in downtown Spearfish and opens nice and early if you’re like us and want to start exploring at the crack of dawn.
- Start your drive along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a 19 mile scenic drive that takes you through Spearfish Canyon. We have many suggested stops along the way and first up is Bridal Veil Falls. This 60 ft tall waterfall is located just off the Scenic Byway road and is a very accessible stop, with an observation deck just across from it.
- After snapping some quick photos of Bridal Veil Falls, head to Devil’s Bathtub, which is a natural waterslide! After parking in this lot, you’ll go to the left (towards the way you drove in) and follow a trail and cross a bridge before reaching the official trailhead.
From there, it’s a 1.1 mile round trip hike through a canyon and across streams (you’ll cross the stream many times!) to get to the final destination, a smooth, but narrow passageway through rocks, acting as a slide, and a swimming hole at the bottom.
You’ll climb up to the top of the slide and then slide down into the ice cold water. It is a BLAST! We giggled SO much and couldn’t stop smiling, even though we were a bit frozen afterwards.
This was our favorite activity in Spearfish and we highly recommend going early so you can enjoy it without crowds. It gets very busy in the summer. We went at sunrise and had it all to ourselves!
- Continue down the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway to Spearfish Falls. Park at the Latchstring restaurant and take the lovely 0.8 mile round trip stroll to the bottom of the powerfall falls. There is a nice viewing deck that gets you pretty close to them!
- Hike the ‘76 Trail, which is only 1.2 miles round trip and has great views of Spearfish Canyon!
- Next up, Roughlock Falls! You can either access the falls by hiking this trail for 2.2 miles round trip or you can park here and take a short walk along the boardwalks to the falls!
There are a few different viewpoints for the falls, so make sure to keep exploring the boardwalk to see them all!
Note: Want to visit Spearfish Falls, the ‘76 Trail, and Roughlock Falls all in one hike? The newly developed Savoy-Waterfalls Trail is about 7 miles long and incorporates all 3 attractions, making it a perfect hike if you want a mix of scenery and want to use your legs instead of a car to get around.
- If you’re not too tired, on your way back to Spearfish, check out the Community Caves Trail, a short (0.6 miles round trip), but steep hidden gem along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.
This is an unmarked and unofficial trail and the hunt for the entrance to the trail is half the battle, but if you park here and use the AllTrails map you should be able to find your way.
But the effort will be worth it, as you’ll be rewarded with a beautiful view of the road and canyon below, as well as caves and a waterfall. While the waterfall may just be a trickle in the summer, in the winter it can be iced over with massive ice columns descending from the top of the falls all the way below the caves!
Enjoy the caves and waterfall for a bit then climb up to the top of the caves on the right hand side to see the views of the road and canyon.
- Head back to Spearfish and grab dinner at Dough Trader Pizza (closed on Tuesdays) or Spearfish Brewing Company, which has lots of beer options and you can order food from the restaurant next door.
- End the day with ice cream at Leones’ Creamery! This place makes amazing ice cream and the flavors change constantly, but every one we tried was delicious.
Day 2: Deadwood
For your second day in South Dakota, you’ll explore the historic town of Deadwood! This town was established after General Custer announced the discovery of gold in 1876, leading to the Black Hills Gold Rush.
Tons of people flooded to Deadwood and it became known for its lawlessness where murders were common. But now it’s a fun place to explore with a cool, western vibe.
- Grab coffee and breakfast at Pump House Coffee & Deli. This coffee shop is in an old gas station, which functions as a glass blowing studio, and serves some breakfast sandwiches and other light options!
- Walk around downtown Deadwood. There is so much to see here! With cool architecture, casinos, shops, and even Wild West shootout reenactments, there is something for everyone!
- Take a tour of the Broken Boot Gold Mine or visit one of the many museums (or do both)! You can see a list of the museums here, which mostly focus on the history of Deadwood and the surrounding area.
- Grab lunch downtown at the Saloon No. 10. Fun fact: this is the saloon where Wild Bill was shot, so you can enjoy some history with your food!
- Visit the Mount Moriah Cemetery, which is the final home of some of Deadwood’s famous residents including Wild Bill Hickok, Seth Bullock, and Calamity Jane. It costs $2 to visit the cemetery, but it is worth it for the history, beautiful grounds, and nice views.
- Need a sweet treat? Visit Chubby Chipmunk, a local chocolate shop with delicious chocolate truffles in a variety of flavors, including the Chipmunk Treasure (with toffee, praline, and coconut) and the Hot Mama (with habanero, jalapeno, and chipotle peppers).
- Head a little bit out of town (about 15 minutes) to the Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower, a quick 0.8 mile hike that takes you to a tower that was built by Seth Bullock, Deadwood’s first sheriff, to commemorate his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt and has amazing views of the Black Hills.
- Have dinner at Jacobs Brewhouse & Grocer (closed on Tuesdays). This spot has a variety of food options, from Texas Twinkies (bacon wrapped, smoked jalapenos filled with brisket and cream cheese…WOAH!), bbq, burgers, salads, and more!
Day 3: Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, & more
During your 3rd day of your South Dakota road trip you’ll visit some iconic monuments in the park, drive a scenic road, and eat one of the BEST burgers ever!
- Get up bright and early to visit Mount Rushmore!
If you’re not familiar with the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, it is a sculpture of 4 US presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, carved into Mount Rushmore.
The profiles of the presidents are 60 ft tall and it took 400 workers 14 years to complete. And despite the intense work to create it, including blasting the rock with dynamite and hanging from steel cables with jack hammers, there were no deaths during construction.
We highly recommend visiting early in the morning. We visited at sunrise and not only did we feel like we had the whole place to ourselves, it’s really cool to see Mount Rushmore in the partial dark and as the sun starts to rise.
After grabbing the iconic photo from the viewing deck, walk on the Presidential Trail Loop Trail, which is only 0.9 miles, although it does have 422 stairs! This trail gets you more up close and personal with the four Presidents enshrined in the rock face of the Black Hills.
Along the way, you also walk by the Sculptor’s Studio. Unfortunately when we visited, the Sculptor’s Studio was not open, but this studio has a smaller sculpture of other Presidents and information about the park. You can attend a ranger program here, as well as in other areas of the park.
Note: it does cost $10 to park at the memorial. The America the Beautiful Pass does not cover this.
- After visiting Mount Rushmore, head to another iconic monument in the area, the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Memorial’s mission is to “protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians.”
The mountain is a carving of Crazy Horse, who was an Oglala Lakota warrior and leader. We highly recommend listening to the History on Fire podcast before you go to learn more about Crazy Horse!
If you think Mount Rushmore is massive and remarkable, just wait until you see this place! Once it’s completed it’ll be the world’s largest mountain carving at 563 ft tall and 641ft long and will be absolutely incredible! They have been working on it since 1948, so it will very likely not be finished in our lifetime. We so wish we could see it completed! But even only partially done, it was incredible!
It costs $12 per person or $30 for a car with more than 2 people to visit Crazy Horse, but the cool thing is that this goes directly to help them continue to work on the memorial. They do not have any government assistance to complete this sculpture.
General admission gets you into the museum and to the viewing deck to view Crazy Horse from afar, but you can also pay $4 to take a bus to the base of the mountain. And for a $125 donation, you can go to the top!
There are also other events that take place here that are worth looking into!
- Drive down to Custer to grab a burger at Black Hills Burger and Bun Co (Open from 11 AM-2 PM and 5- 7:30 PM, Closed Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays). This spot was named TripAdvisor’s #1 burger in America in 2014 and we can totally see why! Their ground fresh daily homemade burgers with in-house baked and toasted buns are AMAZING!
We got the “Hot Granny” and “Black Hills Blues” and swapped for bison patties. They were so juicy and flavorful and you can tell the quality is top notch!
- While in Custer, visit the Custer Skywalk, which is a 0.5 mile hike with a bunch of stairs, but the views at the top are worth it!
- End the day driving Iron Mountain Road! This highway goes through some of the most gorgeous scenery in the Black Hills and is also home to three tunnels, including the Doane Robinson Tunnel which frames Mount Rushmore in the distance. Make sure to drive this road south to north to see the famous view!
The road is also home to some “pigtail bridges,” which allow drivers to drop and gain altitude quickly. They look SO cool!
Make sure you check the clearance requirements before tackling this road, as the tunnels are not ideal for large RVs.
Day 4: Wildlife Loop + Wind Cave National Park
For day 4 of your South Dakota road trip, you’ll see lots of wildlife, like bison and possibly burros, as well as explore Wind Cave National Park.
Note: as of writing this guide (December 2020), you cannot access the cave at Wind Cave due to elevator work. We are writing this itinerary based on the cave being open. Make sure to check the cave status before you go!
- Start the morning by driving the Wildlife Loop! This 18 mile road is one of the best spots to see wildlife in the park and we can attest that this is true! There are 1,400 bison (one of the nation’s largest free roaming herds!) in this area and we swear we saw 100-200!
Besides bison, you also have the chance to see white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and the famous begging burros. The burros are not native to the area. They used to be used to take visitors up to Black Elk Peak from Sylvan Lake and once they stopped that service, they were released into the wild.
While we’d normally say to not feed wildlife, it’s actually encouraged to feed the burros! These buddies are VERY friendly and are used to being fed. In fact, they’ll stick their head in your car to get food from you, hence the name “begging” burros. And we hear they will eat almost anything!
We unfortunately didn’t see any during our drive (we were SO bummed!), but most people have better luck with them than us, so hopefully you will too!
We highly suggest starting this drive just after sunset for the best chance to see wildlife!
- Visit Wind Cave National Park! This is the 7th US National Park, is the first cave system to be designated a National Park anywhere in the world, is one of the densest caves in the world, with four new miles of caves being discovered every year, and also has calcite formations called boxwork and is home to 95% of the world’s boxwork!
While in the park, we recommend going on a cave tour. These tours range from 1-1.5 hours and are between $10-$12. Make sure you buy tickets in advance, as spots are limited!
Besides the cave, there are also trails to explore in the park. We suggest hiking the Rankin Ridge Trail, which is 1 mile and takes you to a super cool fire lookout (currently closed) and amazing views of the Black Hills.
Looking for a longer trail? Check out the Lookout Point Trail and Centennial Loop. This trail is 5.2 miles and takes you on a portion of the Centennial Trail, which runs for 113 miles from Bear Butte to Wind Cave National Park. On this trail you’ll go through prairies and up rocky inclines, with a good chance to see bison!
PS: If the cave tours are still closed or you just want to visit more caves, visit Jewel Cave National Monument. They also have a variety of cave tours!
- Finish your 4th day of adventures by hiking the Lovers’ Leap Trail, which is a 4.2 mile trail that takes you through the forest and across some creeks to a pretty awesome view of the Black Hills! Reviewers on AllTrails recommend going left at the fork and doing the trail clockwise. Quite a few also reported seeing bison and other wildlife!
Day 5: Custer State Park
Day 5 of your South Dakota road trip will take you through our favorite area of the Black Hills, Custer State Park! Prepare yourself to be in awe of the incredible views and unique hikes! This is a pretty jam packed day with lots of miles, so we suggest getting a very early start.
Looking for a more detailed guide of Custer State Park? Check out our Custer State Park guide to learn more about the park and even more things to do!
- Kick off your morning by driving the Needles Highway up to the Cathedral Spires.
The Needles Highway is a 14 mile stretch of road that is named after needlelike granite formations (like the Cathedral Spires) that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. As you wind through this road, you have incredible views of these spires and go through some cool tunnels!
Make sure you check the clearance requirements before tackling the Needles Highway, especially if you’re in a van or RV! Our van ended up fitting fine, but we were worried beforehand and measured the van many times.
- Hike the Cathedral Spires Trail, which is 1.6 miles and takes you to this incredible open valley, surrounded by the cathedral spires, which are needle-like rock formations. It is INSANE and honestly one of the most unique and crazy views we have ever seen!
This open area full of spires isn’t the end of the trail, but it’s the best part in our opinion. The end of the trail is very anti-climatic. It just ends. There isn’t a viewpoint, but just a sign on a tree that says “end of trail.” However, we hear people love to scramble up in some of the spires. We didn’t try this, but if you’re feeling adventurous, it’s worth a shot!
- Continue driving the Needles Highway and go through the Needle’s Eye Tunnel on your way to Sylvan Lake.
The Needles Eye Tunnel is one of, if not the most, famous tunnels in the area. The tunnel is named after a rock that looks like a needle’s eye that is right after you exit the tunnel (going north) or right before you enter the tunnel (going south). Make sure to keep an eye out for it! (Get it?! 😜)
- Hike the Sunday Gulch Trail, which starts at Sylvan Lake, the “crown jewel” of the park. This 3.9 mile loop trail takes you up and down rock slabs, using handrails to assist you, up and down metal stairs, through a gulch, and across streams. It’s very different than any hike we have ever done!
- You can either hike clockwise or counterclockwise and the direction you choose determines if you go up the steep and slick rocks, or down them. We ended up doing the hike clockwise, which had us starting on the left side of the lake, and going up the rocks. We preferred this, as we saved the fun part for the end of the trail!
- End the day with a sunset hike up Black Elk Peak! Sitting at 7,242 feet it is not only the highest peak in South Dakota, but it’s also the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyranese…which is CRAZY!
There are multiple ways to do this hike. We went up trail 9 and down trail 4. Both trailheads start by Sylvan Lake, so your car will be close to whichever trail you start and end at. You can go up and down the same way, but we had read this was the best combo and gives you the chance to see different scenery each way!
But the best part about this hike is the stone lookout tower at the top! This tower, which is called the Harney Peak Lookout, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 and the coolest thing about it is that you can explore the inside! In our experience with fire lookouts, you can never actually go inside, but not here! You’re able to explore three different levels of the tower.
We did this hike at sunset (HIGHLY recommend!) on a Saturday in August and had the entire lookout to ourselves! We couldn’t believe it! We hung out at the top for about 45 minutes or so until the sun tucked behind some wildfire smoke.
But if you are nervous about hiking back in the dark, you could do this hike a little earlier in the day as well. The views will be amazing any time of the day!
Day 6: Rapid City
For day 6, explore the largest city in the Black Hills, Rapid City! This city is home to some very unique attractions, making it a fun place to spend a day!
We’re sharing our top Rapid City picks in this itinerary, but if you want more ideas of things to do and places to eat, check out our Black Hills guide!
PS: While normally we suggest starting early, we suggest using this day to sleep in a bit after 5 busy days of adventuring.
- Kickoff the morning with coffee at Pure Bean, which has great coffee, including some more unique drinks.
- Have brunch at Tally’s Silver Spoon, which is a popular spot in the heart of downtown Rapid City. They have a great menu with a little something for everyone!
- Walk around downtown and complete The City of Presidents Walk. Rapid City is nicknamed the “City of Presidents” and they have life sized, bronze statues of every past US president all over downtown. It’s fun to walk around and see which ones you can recognize from afar. We got maybe 75% right! But if you’re looking for a specific president, they have a map to help you out!
- Wander through Art Alley, which is an alley downtown that has tons of murals to check out!
- Drive a little bit out of downtown to visit the Chapel in the Hills, which is an exact replica of the Borgund Stave church in Norway and the property is also home to an authentic grass roofed stabbur (or storehouse), which was built in Norway and then shipped to Rapid City and reassembled.
It’s free to visit, but they do take donations!
- Another unique, international thing to see in Rapid City is a part of the Berlin Wall! When a traveling exhibit of the wall came to town, a local businessman thought it would be cool to have a couple pieces of the Berlin Wall here in Rapid City, so he purchased the pieces and 2 tank traps for a few thousand dollars. It’s pretty cool!
- For dinner, you have a few options depending on what you’re craving. Kathmandu Bistro has amazing Indian and Nepalese food, Jambonz Deux has great Cajun food, and Independent Ale House is known for pizza and beer!
- If you still have room for dessert, swing by The Silver Lining Creamery!
Day 7: Badlands National Park
On the final day of your South Dakota road trip you’ll leave the Black Hills to explore Badlands National Park.
Looking for a more detailed guide of Badlands National Park? Check out our Badlands National Park guide to learn more about the park and even more things to do!
- Watch the sunrise from Big Badlands Overlook, which is one of the best spots to see the sunrise in the park, as it faces east.
- Hike the Notch Trail, which was our favorite trail in the park! This 1.3 mile trail takes you through the Badlands, but what makes it extra unique is that you get to climb up a super cool wooden ladder!
In pictures, this ladder looks pretty steep and a tad intimidating, but once you see it in person it is not nearly as daunting. However, it can be a bit wobbly, so be sure to use all of your limbs to stabilize yourself if need be. Climbing up this ladder was the highlight of our time at Badlands. It was so much fun and we have never experienced anything like it!
Once at the top of the ladder you will continue to the left on the trail and hike along some ledges and then back into a Badland “valley” before reaching a gorgeous viewpoint at the end. If you look to the far left at the viewpoint, you’ll see some crazy, jagged looking Badlands that took our breath away!
You hike back the same way you came, which means you will take the ladder back down. We recommend doing this trail first thing so you can avoid waiting in a line for the ladder (and can snap more photos climbing it!), as it’s safest for one person to go at a time.
- After hiking the Notch Trail, hike the Window and Door Trails, which start at the same parking lot as the Notch Trail. These are both super short trails, the Window Trail is 0.3 miles, while the Door Trail is 0.8 miles.
Both of these trails have wooden boardwalks and the Window Trail leads you to an overlook you can look out of, like a window, while the Door Trail boardwalk ends with an overlook, as well as an opening to walk into the badlands, kind of like a doorway.
After entering into the Badlands, there is no real “trail” to explore, but there are numbered poles along the way to help you know how much further you can go and to help you find your way back. The scenery out here is wild…you’ll feel like you’re on Mars!
- Drive the Badlands Loop Road and stop at the visitor center and different overlooks along the way. Our favorite overlooks were the White River Valley Overlook, Yellow Mounds Overlook, and the Pinnacles Overlook (we’d suggest saving this one for sunset though!).
- Take a midday break and grab a coffee and donut at Wall Drug, which is a famous roadside stop on I-90. Wall Drug became popular in the 1930s for offering free ice water to travelers and now attracts over 2 million people per year!
We highly recommend grabbing some donuts while you’re there, especially the maple donut. The donuts are of the cake variety (our favorite!) and we thought they would be just average, but they were incredible! They were so cakey, fluffy, and moist, with incredible flavor (it tasted like there was a hint of lemon).
We also got the famous 5 cent coffee, which was about what you’d expect for gas station coffee, but for 5 cents it’s worth grabbing for the novelty. We didn’t try any other food, but we hear their hot beef sandwiches are good!
It’s also fun to wander around the shops here and snap a photo with the giant jackrabbit in the backyard.
- Head back into the park and drive Sage Creek Rim Road, which is another scenic drive in the park, but it isn’t paved, so be prepared for a few bumps. While on the drive, make sure to see the prairie dogs at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town!
This is a pull off that is home to tons of prairie dogs (town = the habitat prairie dogs live in) and you can watch them wrestle and run around. They are friendly little buddies and will likely try to come up to you, but despite what you may see others do and what you may hear others say, do not feed or pet the prairie dogs! We know it’s tempting, but it’s against National Park rules.
- End the day with sunset at Pinnacles Overlook, which has a good sized parking lot and views from either the parking area, or you can walk down some stairs to a large area with multiple spots to watch the sunset. This would also be a great picnic spot!
- If you’re up for it, do some night photography or join the Night Sky Viewing program.
As we mentioned above, we continued our South Dakota road trip east by going all the way to Sioux Falls, which is about 4 hours from Badlands National Park. We had a blast road tripping and stopping at cool roadside stops along the way, as well as spending a day in Sioux Falls. Here are some of our top suggestions if you continue east!
Stops to make on your way to Sioux Falls
We had a blast road tripping from the Badlands to Sioux Falls and made a bunch of fun stops along the way! Want to break up the drive a bit? We suggest stopping at:
Skeleton Man Walking Skeleton Dinosaur
This is more of something to just be aware of as you drive down I-90. Located at the 1880 Town is this super cool statue of a skeleton walking a dinosaur. It’s hard to get a good photo from the road, but we flew up the drone from across the highway to snag a photo!
See the sunflowers!
South Dakota is one of the world’s top sunflower producers and if you visit in the month of August, sunflower fields pop up around South Dakota and it’s incredible to see endless rows of yellow as you drive around.
We stopped here to see the sunflowers, but there were tons of other field options! You’ll have the best luck taking some back roads to find them.
This is a 50-foot-tall, stainless steel statue that honors and represents the courage, perseverance and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota culture in South Dakota. The statue wears a dress patterned after a two-hide Native dress and she is holding a quilt with 128 stainless steel blue diamonds that flutter in the wind and glisten in the sun. And at night, there are LED lights that make the diamond shapes glow in the sky!
The World’s Only Corn Palace
The name says it all! This is the world’s only corn palace! But really, it’s an elaborate, palatial building that is decorated every year with naturally colored corn and other grains and native grasses to make it “the agricultural show-place of the world.”
The palace gets 500,000 visitors a year and inside there is a gift shop and concessions and it also holds events, like banquets, proms, and graduations.
Need a bite to eat in Mitchell? We stopped at El Columpio and had some great tacos!
We wanted to stop here for coffee, but it was closed. So we headed to Hot Shots Espresso instead, but we’d still recommend checking out Elixir!
Porter Sculpture Park
This sculpture park is home to over 50 sculptures, all designed by Wayne Porter, who builds them on instinct vs. diagrams and equations, which is wild! The sculptures vary in size, with the largest being a huge horse and a massive 60ft bull head that you can walk into.
It costs between $0-$10 to visit depending on your age and is worth it to see the art and support the artist! And if you’re in a van like us, you can even sleep here through Harvest Hosts!
Things to do in Sioux Falls
We spent one day in Sioux Falls and had a great time exploring the largest city in South Dakota, which still has a smaller town feel. Here is what we got up to during our time in the city!
The Source Roastery + Taproom
This is a great spot for coffee (and beer)! They have super unique seasonal drinks and a really nice interior.
The “falls” of Sioux Falls! This park is right by downtown and is SO cool! It covers 123 acres and every second an average of 7,400 gallons of water drops 100 feet down the falls. Make sure to check out the remains of some of the first buildings in Sioux Falls and go to the top of the observation tower (opens at 10 AM). We hear they have a gorgeous light display in the winter too!
Bread & Circus Sandwich Kitchen
This restaurant is a MUST for a killer meal! We loved the Vietnamese fried chicken sandwich and naughty fries!
Downtown Sioux Falls
We loved walking around S Phillips Ave! This part of downtown is super cute and has tons of shops. They also have something called SculptureWalk, which are 55 sculptures all over downtown, which change every year.
Sioux Falls is home to an award winning pastry chef and if you want to try some french pastries, like macarons, CH Patisserie will not disappoint! We LOVED their macarons!
David Replica Statue
Want to see Michelangelo’s David without going to Italy? There is a replica statue right by downtown! A local inventor named Thomas Fawick donated the statue to the city in the 1970s. It’s pretty random, but cool!
Arc of Dreams
This sculpture was designed by the same person who created the Dignity Statue and it represents the leap of faith dreamers take to see their dreams come true. It lights up at night, so we highly recommend visiting then!
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