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Visiting South Dakota has been on our families list forever so we were thrilled when South Dakota Tourism invited us to visit. We would spend the 4th of July weekend exploring the Southwest part of the state from Mount Rushmore to the Badlands to Custer State Park and more. We break it all down for you here in our South Dakota road trip itinerary to make planning your own trip easier.
How Many Days Should Your South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Be?
Our South Dakota road trip was focused on the Southwest part of the state and we spent 5 days exploring. If you want to cover the Sioux Falls area as well know that it’s a five hour drive from Rapid City so you should add at least 3 days to your trip. With five days in the SW region we got to do a lot but if you have the time to extend your trip I recommend it so you can move at a slower pace and make a few more off the beaten path stops.
How to Get to South Dakota Affordably
As a family of four we’re always looking for deals when we travel. Coming from Miami, flying into Rapid City was the best way to kick off our South Dakota road trip. Scoring flight deals, like our $209RT flights to Tokyo thanks to Scott’s Cheap Flights has allowed us to travel frequently and these deals are oftentimes how we choose where to go next.
The airlines that fly into Rapid City are Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, and United who have direct flights from Atlanta, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix, Denver, and Salt Lake City. We flew United with a connection in Chicago before arriving in Rapid City, South Dakota.
Renting a Car for Your South Dakota Road Trip
The rental car companies that service Rapid City Airport are Alamo, Avis, Budget, Hertz, Enterprise and National. We rented from Hertz because as a family traveling with two kids in car seats Hertz offers a free car seat if you’re a AAA member which we are. This easily saves us $13-$16/day. Nothing we did on our road trip calls for an off road vehicle so any car you rent will be fine.
Our South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Map
We drove just over 350 miles on this road trip but with most places being only 30-60 minutes from each other it doesn’t feel like you’re driving for that long. I wasn’t able to add every single stop we made since Google Maps limits the amount of entries but it’s a good gist of our route.
Respecting the History of South Dakota
Before we get into our South Dakota road trip itinerary I just want to point out when traveling the US it’s important to remember this country was colonized and the land we live on belonged to other people before wars and disease killed many and they were pushed onto reservations. South Dakota in particular is sacred land of the Lakota people, one of the three prominent subcultures of the Sioux people.
Unfortunately during our visit to South Dakota in July 2021 the Historical Center on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was closed because of the global health crises so we didn’t get to experience it. If it’s open during your visit it’s only 90 minutes from downtown Rapid City, 54 minutes from Badlands National Park, and 80 minutes from Wind Cave National Park. It can easily fit into your itinerary and I highly recommend adding it.
Where to Stay on Your South Dakota Road Trip
Since most of the key points of interest are only 30-90 minutes from Rapid City you technically could use it as your home base, driving back and forth each day. As another option you could drive to the other cities, spend the day exploring and sleep in the same town before moving on to the next destination. It’s really up to you on if you prefer not to worry about driving back tired after a day of exploring or if you rather not have to worry about packing up all your things each morning to move to a different accommodation. If you’d like to stay in local communities, you Vrbo is a great option. If you’d like more traditional accommodations, here are a few recommendations in each city:
The Rushmore Hotel & Suites, BW Premier Collection: If you want to be near all the action in Downtown Rapid City this is the hotel to stay at. We were able to keep our car parked for free at the hotel and walk up and down Mainstreet. It’s perfect as it’s lined with lots of restaurants to choose from, our favorite with ¿Que Pasa? Don’t forget to get dessert at Silver Linings Ice Cream Shop.
Courtyard by Marriott by I-90: If being downtown isn’t that important to you and you’re looking for the newest hotel in town, this is the place for you. Opened in summer 2020 it’s close to the airport and highway you’ll take to most stops on your road trip.
Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort: We love glamping, so much so we’ve done it in Fort White, FL, Kenya, Naples and more. If you too are intrigued by camping but need some luxuries Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort is a great option. Just 20 minutes from Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave, Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park it’s a great place if you plan on spending 1-2 days exploring what this area has to offer.
Under Canvas Mount Rushmore: Just 10 miles from Mount Rushmore Memorial is Under Canvas, another luxury glamping option. This campsite is only open May-September so plan accordingly. They provide luxury tents that sleep anywhere from 2-6 people and have their own private bathroom inside the tent. They’re equipped with beds and mattresses and most also have a deck with chairs.
Spearfish Canyon Lodge: About an hour from Rapid City, Spearfish Canyon is known for its naturalistic activities. Lots of people book ATV rides in this area along with checking out the area’s waterfalls.
South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Day One
Depending on the time you arrive in Rapid City, you’ll want to take it easy. We arrived at 4pm and by time we checked-in to our hotel and got settled it was after 5pm. Since we ate at the Chicago airport we weren’t that hungry and decided to ease our way into our adventures.
With the holiday weekend Downtown Main Street Square had a lot of activities going on. There was live music and lots of vendors on the street you could buy food and trinkets from. We walked around for a bit before having dinner at ¿Que Pasa? Cantina.
Be sure to save room for dessert because around the corner from ¿Que Pasa? Cantina is Silver Linings and you’ll want to stop there. They specialize in premium small batch ice cream so everything is extremely fresh.
South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Day Two
Custer State Park
On our first full day in South Dakota we drove 40 minutes to Custer State Park. There is so much to do in the park and we started in the Visitor’s Center. Here you can find out the programming for the day which varies but includes archery, rock climbing, guided family hikes, educational lectures and more. It’s also a great place to learn more about the animals you may see as you drive or hike the park.
Afterwards we headed to the Peter Norbeck Education Center which is a great stop if you’re on this South Dakota road trip with kids. It’s a very interactive building and they lead family hikes and educational programs here. If your kids are trying to earn a Jr. Ranger badge they can complete some of the required activities here.
Next we drove the Wildlife Loop where you are bound to run into herds of Buffalo. It’s an 18 mile drive but can take up to two hours as once people see a herd they drive very slowly trying to get pictures. Also sometimes the Buffalo are just walking in the street without a car for the cars and you have no choice but to slowly trail them.
Towards the end of the scenic drive you’ll come to an area most known and the Begging Burros. It’s clear why it’s called this when you see all the wild donkey’s begging for food. There are signs that clearly state not to feed them but people come with carrots and apples just to do so. We only watched them and took a few photos.
Be on the lookout for Prairie Dogs throughout the park. While having the name dog they look nothing like dogs, more like guinea pigs or other small rodents. They dig these holes in the ground and poke out of them throughout the day. We’d soon find out we’d see them multiple times throughout this South Dakota road trip.
It was time for lunch and so we headed to Sylvan Lake, a part of Custer State Park but on a completely different side. We ordered a pizza from Pizza Mill, picking it up on the way. At Sylvan Lake there are picnic tables or you can bring a blanket and picnic on the ground.
After stuffing our faces it was time to walk off the food we walked the trail around the lake. It took us about an hour or so to hike the whole thing but we also made multiple stops, climbing up some of the rocks, taking pictures or going to the top of the waterfall.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Besides the monument the site offers several museums, The Indian Museum of North America, Sculptor Home & Studio, The Native American Educational and Cultural Center and the Mountain Carving Gallery. Be sure to save enough time to walk through these as well.
Not far is Crazy Horse Memorial which is a must do. It’s the world’s largest mountain carving. The purpose of the memorials foundation is to protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Natives.
South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Day Three
We got up early on our 3rd day to beat the crowds at Mount Rushmore and I’m so glad we did because we also beat the extreme heat. It’s free to visit, you just have to pay the $10 parking fee. Inside you can purchase a $6 audio tour or just walk around reading the signs.
Besides the amphitheater area where the monument is, there are two museums and a walking trail here. The museums have tons of information on how the monument was funded as well as the materials used to build and maintain it. There is a theater where you can watch videos of the process as well. Depending on how much you read and how much of the trail you walk you can spend as little as 15 minute, just looking at the monuments for as long as 1-3 hours getting the whole experience and eating at the restaurant.
Rush Mountain Adventure Park
After learning some history it was time for fun! Just 20 minutes from Mount Rushmore is Rush Mountain Adventure park. Here they have lots of activities to keep you busy for an afternoon. We got wristbands so we could have unlimited rides but they also sell single ride tickets for each attraction.
Not included in the price is the Rush Mountain Cave, it was an additional $5 per person. This one hour tour goes through the cave located at the park. The cave is 58 degrees year round so be sure to bring a jacket. Inside the cave you’ll learn the history of how it was found, how people used to get through it before it was dug out enough to stand and more. We really enjoyed it and it’s worth the additional $5.
Next we went on rides starting with the Mountain Coaster. We first went on a mountain coaster in Ocho Rios, Jamaica and then again on our fall trip to Gatlinburg/Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and were so happy to have the chance to go on one again. You control the speed so if you don’t necessarily like roller coasters I still recommend going as you can go as slow as you want down the mountain. We went at least 5 times!
My little thrill seekers were very excited about the next attraction here, zip-lining. After I couldn’t finish all 5 lines on our last zip-line adventure at Gatorland in Orlando, FL, shamelessly walking down the tower to quit, I decided to sit this one out but the rest of the family did it. Our 7 year old was able to go alone while my 5 year old rode with her dad.
On the premises is also a ropes course (you need sneakers for this) and a 3D ride. One thing I will say is if you’re particular about food please eat before you come here. They have a small snack shop with pretzels, hot dogs and pizza but you won’t find any healthy or vegan options here and honestly the pizza wasn’t that good if you don’t eat meat like me. We drove through a really cute town on the way from Mount Rushmore and I wish we had stopped to eat at one of the restaurants there instead.
Black Hills Rodeo
Never in my life would I think I’d end up at a rodeo with my family but I guess there is a first time for everything. When in Rome, right? The other guests sitting near us were more than happy, and even excited to share their love of the sport and teach us exactly how it works. Spoiler alert, it was epic and we all agreed we’d go to one again. We even witnessed one of the most epic rides by a Hawaiian teenager who stole the crowd’s hearts.
South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Day Four
Badlands National Park
We absolutely love visiting National Parks and because of that we have an America the Beautiful National Park annual pass. The pass is $80 for a year, granting access to every National Park in the US. The fee covers your entire car (up to 15 passengers). If you don’t have an annual pass not to worry, you can pay at the gate. The cost is $30 and gives you access for 7 days.
The park is filled with various viewpoints on Badlands Loop Road which we made stops at along the main road. Our favorite viewpoints were Pinnacles Overlook, Yellow Mounds Overlook, Conata Basin Overlook, Panorama Point, White River Valley Overlook and Big Badlands Overlook. Click here for tickets to a private tour of the Badlands National Park.
There are also lots of hiking trails but what’s unique about Badlands is you can actually hike anywhere unlike most parks that only allow you on designated paths. Some of the top hikes in the park are:
- Door Trail 0.8 miles
- Window Trail 0.3 miles
- The Notch Trail 1.5 miles
- Saddle Pass Trail 0.7 miles
- Castle Trail 11 miles
- Fossil Exhibit Trail 0.4 miles
Don’t forget to stop at the Visitor’s Center for lots of information on the park. Our favorite section here was the fossils room. Here they have so many fossils found in the park and you can watch the paleontologists working on getting off the packed dirt to the actual fossils. If you’re traveling with kids this is where they get their booklets for the Junior Ranger Program.
Even if everyone we met on our South Dakota Road trip didn’t tell us we couldn’t leave without visiting Wall Drug the signs on the way to Badlands National Park would have for sure sparked our interest. There are literally hundreds of signs on the way in. We personally decided to go there for lunch halfway through our visit to Badlands but you will do a lot of backtracking so if you bring your own lunch you can stop for dinner on the way back to Rapid City.
It’s an old pharmacy, hence the name Wall Drug, that has been turned into king of a whole compound. The pharmacy still exists but there are also loads of souvenir shops, an ice cream parlor, food hall and donuts. Well actually there’s a play area and lots of other things too!
South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Day Five
We drove 10 minutes from our hotel, The Rushmore Hotel & Suites, to Dinosaur Park. This free outdoor park has concrete replicas of prehistoric reptiles. Kids can walk around reading the signs telling them the names of the creatures. They’re also able to climb up on some of the dinosaurs. It’s nothing expansive but a great way to get the kids out, you don’t need more than 30 minutes here.
Another animal centric activity is Reptile Gardens. It’s a huge indoor/outdoor facility with various exhibits. We enjoyed watching the snake show, looking at some of the largest alligators/crocodiles we’ve seen with being able to feed them and getting to pet animals like this tortoise.
Things We Didn’t Have Time to Add to Our South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
As with most trips, unfortunately you just can’t do everything. However, if we had more time or if we ever make it back here are a few activities we wished we’d have time for.
- Bear Place
- Devils Tower
- Gold Mining in Deadwood
We had so much fun on our South Dakota road trip. Since we didn’t get to explore the Sioux Falls area and heard great things about it from friends that have been we’d love to revisit some day. Until then, if you’ve decided to visit South Dakota we hope this itinerary leads you to a great time!
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