South Dakota Road Trip Planner Tips and Tricks
Where to Base Yourself for your South Dakota Road Trip
The first questions when you plan a trip to South Dakota has to be about where to base yourself. For this itinerary you can base yourself out of Rapid City. The city is centrally located to most of South Dakota’s major sites and there are plenty of options for lodgings with good access to the highways. If you are looking for convenient places to stay in Rapid City then the following are in prime positions:
However alternatively you could base yourself out of Rapid City for the most part of the itinerary and then use some lodges near the national and state parks or Spearfish Canyon if you want a lodge experience during your stay.
The Perfect South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
Note about this South Dakota Road Trip Planner and itinerary: The days here are put together to make the most of your time in South Dakota however the days are designed so they can be done in any order.
Day 1 of the perfect South Dakota Itinerary
Today is all about the outdoors and the thing that was top of my SD Road trip bucket list – The Badlands National Park.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is one of the lesser visited parks but it is still worth getting to the Badlands National Park for sunrise. Watching the sun rise over the majestic geological formations of the Badlands is simply breathtaking and well worth the early start. You will also be rewarded with having the park entirely to yourselves. We visited over labour day weekend and we didn’t see people for at least an hour after our arrival.
Depending on which direction you are arriving from, will depend on which entrance you arrive through. We came in via the Pinnacles Entrance as this is the closest (less than an hours drive) from Rapid City.
While I recommend doing the Badlands scenic loop road, I would recommend taking a slight detour at the start of your day to see Roberts Prairie Dog Town. These creatures are great to watch but if travelling with children please make sure they do not get too close.
Once you have visited the Prairie Dog Town you can continue down the road. This is optional but we were glad we did as we saw the most spectacular herd of bison running here. It was a better bison experience than we had even in Yellowstone.
Once you have detoured enough, head back towards the loop road!
We enjoyed driving the loop road and didn’t have a particular plan for which hikes we were going to but picked based on parking space availability! The following are all easy hikes
- The Notch Trail (1.5 miles)
- Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (0.5 miles)
- Fossil Exhibit Trail (0.25) – this was my toddler’s favourite hike and is sure to be a favourite amongst any kids with the bronze wast fossil replicas and is a very easy boardwalk hike.
There are a few more strenuous hikes for those feeling more adventurous.
For more information on the best and easiest hikes in Badlands National Park click here.
I recommend stopping at as many lookouts as possible – even if just for photos.
On your way out (if you came in via entrance closest to Rapid City) do remember to stop at the Ben Reifel Visitors Centre! The Centre is open daily (Christmas and Thanksgiving exceptions), and is a great place to get more information!
Once you have left the park we recommend heading to
There is no way you can miss Wall Drug. Whatever direction you are driving towards Badlands from you will see constant billboards for Wall Drug and really can not be missed! It is a great place to get souvenirs from, stop for refreshments and use have a wander. You simply must try the donuts when you stop.
Depending on your timings and appetite an added stop that could be added to your trip is the
Minuteman Missile Site
From the Ben Reifel Visitor Centre, it is only a 16 minute drive to get to the missile site!
Day Two of the perfect South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
Today is another day of bigger hitter tourist attractions, indeed one of the biggest in the whole of the US
Road Trip to Mount Rushmore Vacation Itinerary
For me no South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary is complete without visiting Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore is one of the most famous and iconic tourist attractions in the US and a must for any USA Bucket list. As you can imagine it is a place that gets crazily busy. When we visited on the Labour Day Weekend we arrived at 5am and literally had the place to ourself. My advice for creating your road trip to Mount Rushmore vacation itinerary is to get to Rushmore early – very early.
I have been asked a few times since we went to Rushmore what are experience was like and how long we actually spent there. I will be honest, I didn’t time our visit but we spent well over an hour at the monument and we could have spent longer if we had done hikes while we were there.
Attractions and things to include on your Mount Rushmore itinerary should include:
- Strolling the Avenue of Flags
- The Sculptors Studio
- Lincoln Borglum Museum
- Presidents Trail – to get a closer look at the sculptures.
- Eat the Famous Memorial Team Ice Cream
Now I wouldn’t plan a Mount Rushmore road trip itinerary as the only activity to do in one day but you could certainly plan to spend half a day there.
For a complete guide to visiting Mount Rushmore including all of our top tips and for a full Mount Rushmore itinerary check out this post.
Crazy Horse Monument
A short 25 minute drive from Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Monument. Crazy Horse was a Lakota Tribe Leader. The Monument has been under construction since the 1940s and is no where near completion however it is worth a visit.
The final stop of the day and your second national park of your trip is the next destination
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave is actually one of the oldest National Parks in the country. It is a great place to view wildlife but on your national park bucket list should be one of the guided tours of the caves! Be sure to check tour timings online here and plan your day accordingly.
Day Three of Your South Dakota Itinerary
Today is all about the beautiful State Park, it’s wildlife and it’s amazing drives because for me Custer State Park is an absolute must for any South Dakota Itinerary.
Custer State Park
The Custer State Park in any other part of the country is likely to be national park. It has some outstanding wildlife viewings and some of the best drives in the US.
While at Custer State Park you should
- Drive the wildlife loop
on this drive you are likely to see deers, bighorn sheep, burros and bison.
- Have a chuck wagon dinner
- Trail Hikes
- Slyvian Lake and Legion Lake
And perhaps most famously drive
The Needles Highway
Now there are two things that are best to do early – drive the wildlife loop as mornings and early evenings are best for seeing wildlife however the needles highway, being only one car wide can get very congested at peak times.
I would personally organise your day to drive the Needles Highway first thing, enjoy the trails and lakes in the afternoon and do an early evening drive of the wildlife loop.
If you have longer available then why not check out our two day Custer State Park Itinerary!
Day Four of your South Dakota vacation itinerary
Today we are heading further out of town. I would categorise today as a Black hills trip planner and Black hills itinerary as you will leave the city behind. The first activity of your day is driving the
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
This is a 22 mile scenic drive is an absolute must for your one day Black Hills vacation itinerary. There are many beautiful waterfalls along the drive and a hydro power plant. The Canyon was also used to shoot much of Dancing with Wolves.
Once you have completed your drive you can visit
This wasn’t my favourite town that we visited while in South Dakota but its history meant I couldn’t not visit! Be sure to check out the cemetery in town where you can visit the graves of Wild Bill Hicock and Calamity Jane.
Black Hills National Forest
For those looking for some more outdoor pursuits I recommend visiting the Black Hills National Forest and enjoy some more hikes!
Day Five of your South Dakota Road Trip
This morning I am advising that you head out of South Dakota and into Wyoming! Having a national monument so close and not visiting would be a travesty if you have time in your itinerary.
Devil’s Tower National Monument
An hour and a half drive from Rapid City is the monument of Devil’s Tower. This striking geological feature is a must if you have a spare morning.
For your last afternoon head back into Rapid City and enjoy some of the town’s attractions, most famously
A visit to Dinosaur Park is a must for your South Dakota vacation itinerary. The Dinosaur Park was created to capitalised on the tourists visiting the area to see Mount Rushmore!
The park contains seven dinosaur statues on a hill overlooking the city and is now on the National Historic Register of Places. Admission to see the dinosaur park is free.While there it is worth completing the Skyline Drive as it offers unrivaled views of the city.
Another must in the centre of Rapid City is to walk the avenue of Presidents. The bronze life size sculptures are a really quirky way to end your visit to south Dakota.
Further information for South Dakota Trip planner
If you are looking for some alternatives to items for your South Dakota trip planner there are some other things you may wish to add to your Black Hills Itinerary. This include.
- Bear Country
A drive through park that will guarantee bear spotting! This is a great addition to a road trip to South Dakota for people who want to see a bear but haven’t had any luck at seeing them in the wild. We tried during our trip but we didn’t see a bear.
- Reptile Gardens
A guiness world record holding collection of reptiles. This was a huge hit with our toddler and I would say is one of the best things to do in Rapid City with toddlers.
- Story book Island – a must for a South Dakota family vacation itinerary
Another quirky thing to do in Rapid City and a must for a South Dakota family vacation itinerary especially if you are travelling with toddlers! Recreation of fairytales in tableau form that children will love!
FAQS about planning a trip to South Dakota
How far out do you need to start planning a trip to South Dakota?
We didn’t have much lead in time when we were planning a trip to South Dakota. WE started planning about two weeks prior to our trip and we were travelling at peak season. However we did find that some of the accommodation we initially considered such as places to stay near Mount Rushmore, Badlands and accommodation in Custer State Park were actually already booked. If you want one of these accommodations I would recommend that you start planning a trip to South Dakota about a year out however we are proof that you can plan last minute road trip to South Dakota.
How far is badlands national park to mount rushmore – can you do it in a one day?
If you only have one day in South Dakota then it is possible to do Badlands and Mount rushmore in the same day. The time between Badlands National Park to Mount Rushmore is about an hour and a half depending on traffic and which Badlands entrance you are at. If you want to travel from Wall south Dakota to Mount Rushmore the driving time is around 1 hour 20 minutes.
If possible however I would visit Badland and Wall on a different day to Rushmore to maximise time in your itinerary.
Have you done a South Dakota Road Trip? What would you add to this itinerary?
Further Reading – Rapid City with Kids