South Dakota is known as the ‘Mount Rushmore State’ for obvious reasons. It is a landlocked state bounded by different states on all sides. However, a stretch of Missouri River flows through it, among several other rivers. There are so many interesting South Dakota Road Trip Destinations that there can be multiple week long trips.
The state has a rich history, such as it being purchased from Napoleon in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase and Gold being found in the Black hills in 1874, leading to the Gold Rush period. The state slogan is ‘Great Faces. Great Places’ so let’s hit the road and explore the top road trip destinations of South Dakota!
In a rush to head to Mount Rushmore? Check out the slides below and plan your South Dakota road trip now!
- 1 Western South Dakota Road Trip Destinations
- 2 Eastern South Dakota Road Trip Destinations: Badlands & More
Western South Dakota Road Trip Destinations
Curated in and around the Black Hills, this is the most exciting road trip possible in the state. There are several attractions on this route. It can take you at least a week to cover all of these properly, so plan your trip accordingly and have the time of your life! Wind Cave National Park and the Custer State Park are the first two destinations on our map. Both of these provide exciting camping, hiking, and horse riding opportunities and are rich in flora and fauna.
Custer State Park & Road Trip Destinations
The top most of all South Dakota Road trip Destinations is Custer is spread over a massive expanse with miles and miles of scenic drives, the longest one being a 14-mile stretch known as the Needles highway. Along this route, you will see massive, awe-inspiring rock formations and narrow tunnels. You have to drive slowly, for enjoying the view and for your safety.
How exciting is it when you are able to pass the thread through the eye of the needle? Well, that’s exactly how it feels when you pass through the Needle’s Eye Tunnel on this route! The tunnel is so narrow that only smaller vehicles can pass through. You may even enjoy the freely moving animals such as the bison, prairie dogs, eagles, deer, and hawks, if you drive around the Wildlife Loop Road.
You may end your visit to Custer State Park by taking a picture at the Harney Peak Fire Tower or the placid Sylvan Lake carved by men amid the rock formations. There is so much more, we can’t sum it up. Keep a whole day for Custer State Park.
Major Attractions at Wind Cave National Park
Wind cave National Park, on the other hand, is known for its Cave tours. These caves have come into existence due to the work of nature for over 300 million years. As of present, there is a 149-mile cave area that is open for visitors. It is known for its geological formations, boxwork being the most significant one, and found in great abundance here, in fact, maximum boxwork is found in these caves. On your way to Custer, you can make a quick stop here and take a tour.
Crazy Horse Memorial & Mount Rushmore
Next, we move on to the Crazy Horse Memorial and the crown jewel of this trip, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Crazy Horse is a work in progress since 1948 and is supposed to be the world’s largest mountain carving project. As of today, it is 563 feet high with just the face of the statue. It is supposed to be in the memory of a famous Lakota warrior who rode a horse and pointed ahead. Till now only the face has been constructed and it still invites close to 1 million tourists annually. Imagine what will be the turnout when the statue is completed! This presents a great photo opportunity.
Moving on to the ‘Shrine of Democracy’, Mount Rushmore. It depicts the faces of four great Democratic Presidents of the US, Washington, Roosevelt, Lincoln & Jefferson. Each face is approximately 60ft high and is made of granite. On average, around 2 million visitors come to this place annually. You can take a guided tour or complete a ranger program or just take pictures, but it is a unique experience and you can’t miss this while visiting South Dakota!
Road trip to Deadwood & Spearfish Canyon
The 1.5-hour drive from Mount Rushmore will take you to Deadwood and Spearfish Canyon. You may enjoy the city life in Deadwood by visiting breweries, wineries, casinos or enjoy a tale or two of the Goldrush era by visiting one of the nearest museums. You may even enjoy a re-enactment of various historic events, live in front of your eyes at the Main Street or take a ride in one of the stagecoaches. It is a blast from the past kind of experience.
A little ahead of Deadwood is the Spearfish canyon known for spruce pine trees, which are particularly scenic in the fall when the red, golden, and green hues of the leaves intermingle to present the most picturesque sight you have ever seen.
Rapid City Attractions: Reptile Gardens & More!
Another 1-hour drive from Spearfish towards the south will take you to Rapid City and a whole bunch of attractions situated close to one another. Chapel in the Hills is our first stop. It is a small wooden church supported on staves of wood in typical Norwegian style. It is a quick photo opportunity.
Next and a longer stop is the Reptile Gardens, Rapid City. It can boast of an incredible collection of reptiles, amphibians, and other creatures. You will encounter snakes that you have never seen anywhere else, and giant tortoises that can weigh up to 600 pounds. This is a great learning experience for children and adults alike.
After the reptile gardens, take a visit to the Journey Museum And Learning Center and experience a historic adventure. Journey Museum shows several events of the history of the earth and displays various eras gone by. This includes the Dinosaur park, Storybook Island, and the City View Trolley among other attractions. The interactive exhibits here make learning a lot of fun. There are scenic cruises, botanical gardens and various kinds of wildlife to cater to your curiosity buds.
South Dakota sure has its shares of museums. A visit to the Rapid City is incomplete without visiting The Air and Space Museum. In contrast to the Journey Museum, the Space Museum, takes you through the aviation history of the US. There are over 30 vintage aircrafts some from the WWII era also. There are war missile displays as well. A visit to this historic place is educational and inspirational at the same time.
This ends South Dakota’s most sought after a road trip around the Black Hills, there are a few more attractions in the other parts of the state, so let’s explore them too!
Eastern South Dakota Road Trip Destinations: Badlands & More
Starting the road trip from Sioux Falls, also known as the Gateway to Plains, is one of the most populous cities of South Dakota. The place offers gorgeous scenery and therefore is the center of our next set of road trip destinations. Sioux Falls visits can’t be completed if you don’t visit the ‘falls.’ You may take a soothing nature walk around the 123-acre expanse of the Falls Park or try to find where the Queen Bee Mill used to be in the 1800s.
You may even want to visit the Sertoma butterfly house and experience the entire life cycle of the creature. Or you may just take a lot of pictures of about 800 colorful butterflies. You can enjoy the city by taking a sculpture walk as there are as many as 56 sculptures here.
Lastly, you can have your dinner at the Falls Overlook Cafe, which used to be a hydroelectric power plant. Because of this it is situated at a certain height and is surrounded by rocks. The altitude gives a breath-taking view of the surrounding area.
A 1-hour drive south of Sioux Falls will take you to the National Music Museum, while heading towards the west will take you to The World’s Only Corn Palace. The Museum has come to be known as a ‘Landmark of American Music’. It has collections of instruments from even before the 1800s including pianos, woodwinds, violins, and stringed instruments, and also percussion instruments. There are a whopping 15,000 instruments in the museum, including the ‘Amati King’ known to be the world’s oldest Cello.
On a much lighter note, the Corn Palace attracts half a million tourists annually. It hosts an annual festival at the harvest time. This is a carnival event full of fun and entertainment for families. Historically, these palaces were created to market the rich agriculture capabilities of the states. The place is decorated with 600,000 cobs of corn and hosts several attractive murals, all made of corn! These are changed each year suiting the theme of the year. Don’t forget to enjoy a corn dog or some popcorn on your visit to the palace.
Next, you can take a 3-hour drive from the palace towards the west to the Badlands National Park and stop at the Wall Drug Store on your way. Don’t get confused by the name, it is no ordinary drug store, visit the place to know why it is called so. You can have a unique cowboy-themed shopping experience at the mall or have the famous buffalo burger or even pose on the giant rabbit statue or at the mini Mount Rushmore, for some nice clicks. It is like living in a western movie.
If you still have a tinge of an explorer left in you, then head along to the National park and grasp the dramatic landscape full of hills formed by sand erosion over millions of year, camp overnight, hike the amazing trails or just drive through to witness the beautiful sunset, with romantic music playing in the background.
However, if you have time, then Badlands is an exciting place to explore. There are so many things to do depending on your interests. If you are with family or young children, you can take a junior ranger tour. This involves looking at the fossils and exploring their historic evolution. There is a fossils lab too where a lot of research is conducted by paleontologists. At nights, they have Astronomy tours, which is an enriching experience too. The Sage creek road in the North Unit of the Badlands is known for wildlife watching and could be a great attraction on the trip.
So this was it, South Dakota beckons you, come and have a wonderful experience and create pictures and memories for the lifetime! These were the two 7 -day road trips. If you have time to spare you can try both but the most frequented one is the Black hills one for obvious reasons. However, eastern South Dakota has more to offer than that meets the eye. Some of these are unique such as the Corn palace, National Music museum & Badlands National Park. So extend your trip by 3-4 days and have a wholesome experience.
Besides road trips, there are other things that you can do free in South Dakota.
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