South Dakota is a vast state with many natural wonders and a small population – making it a great destination for outdoor lovers looking to escape the crowds!
This three-day itinerary is designed to be driven east to west, but can easily be completed in reverse order. It is ideal for a long weekend, or as an addition to a longer trip on your way to the western or southwestern United States.
With this South Dakota road trip itinerary, you’ll see the best destinations the state has to offer:
Day 1: Sioux Falls
Start your road trip with a stop in Sioux Falls, the most populated city in South Dakota. This city has a cute downtown with an Americana vibe and plenty of shops and restaurants to choose from.
Falls Park: Start exploring Sioux Falls in Falls Park, an expansive park that is home to the city’s namesake waterfall. It was quite striking to see all of the rapids and jagged rocks after being surrounded by so much flat land on the drive into town! Near the falls there is a cafe, observation tower, and bridge overlook, as well as ruins of an old wheat mill from the late 1800s. It’s a nice place to stretch your legs and get some fresh air after being in the car.
Big Sioux Riverwalk: Walk south down the Big Sioux River to downtown Sioux Falls. The river snakes through downtown, offering peaceful walking paths and popup music performances in the evenings! Stop and eat dinner at Ode to Food and Drinks, a modern American restaurant with a patio overlooking the river.
Spot the Street Art: After dinner, take one last walk around town to spot some of Sioux Falls’ many murals! You’ll find a beautiful cluster in the parking lot of 101 E. Sixth Street (which is not too far from the riverwalk!).
If you’ve been driving from the Midwest, this makes a great stopover for night one of your trip. Book your stay in Sioux Falls here.
Day 2: Badlands + 5-cent Coffee
Start your next day early and drive west four hours to the eastern entrance of Badlands National Park. (You will also cross into Mountain Time halfway through this drive.) Enter the park by turning left onto SD-240 (also known as Badlands Loop Road).
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park (also known simply as The Badlands) is home to some seriously unique landscapes! There are numerous colorful rock formations that have been eroded by wind and water (forming buttes and pinnacles) spattering the landscape before dropping off into the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the country. With so much unique terrain, the Badlands makes for a packed day full of hiking and exploration!
You can pay entrance fees to the park at the park entrance for $30 per car for 7 days. If you are planning to go to multiple National Parks in the next 12 months, consider purchasing the America the Beautiful Pass for $80, which covers entrance fees to all national parks for one year (and is also available at park entrances). More specific park and fee information can be found on the Badlands National Park Services website.
Ben Reifel Visitor Center: Start by stopping at the Visitor Center to get maps of the park, fill up on free water (in the summer, temperatures can easily reach 100°F, so you’ll need it!), and use the restroom.
Hike: Hiking is one of the best ways to get out there and enjoy nature one on one, and the Badlands has several great options to choose from. In the summer, bring lots of water and take your time to avoid heat exhaustion. Trails and rocks can also become very slippery after rain. Finally, this is rattlesnake country, so watch your step!
One of the reasons outdoors enthusiasts love the Badlands is their Open Hike Policy. This policy means that hikers can explore almost any part of the park they want, whether or not there is an established trail, as long as they can safely get there. An easy place to take advantage of this is off of Door Trail (more below), as well as at any of the overlooks along the Badlands Loop Road.
If you’d prefer to start with maintained trails, try some of the below! All of these hikes conveniently start from one parking lot, making them easy to knock out with one stop:
- Window trail: This is an easy 0.25 mile hike to a natural ‘window’ in the cliffs overlooking a gorgeous canyon.
- Door trail: Another easy hike along a boardwalk to a natural ‘door’ in the cliffs that lets you walk directly into the canyon. While the official trail ends at 0.75 miles, you can easily continue to explore the Badlands from here. In fact, exploring past the main trail is encouraged! There are number markers every so often out in the rocks helping hikers find their way back to the trailhead. Exploring this area is a great way to absorb the natural beauty and rugged isolation of the landscape.
- Notch trail: A moderate 1.5 mile hike that includes climbing up a wooden log ladder. Once up the ladder, you will find yourself on the edge of a cliff for some stunning views of the canyon.
- Castle trail: A moderate out and back hike and the longest in the park at 10 miles. This hike will take you through the middle of the park past various rock formations.
Overlooks: As you continue to drive west on Badlands Loop Road, there will be plenty of overlooks for you to stop, explore, and take pictures! These well-marked overlooks are just off the side of the main road. Without stopping, the drive on this road would take about an hour, but it’s worth it to take your time and absorb all the sights of the park. Picturesque stops include Panorama Point, Yellow Mounds Overlook, and Sage Creek Basin Overlook.
Prairie Dog Town: Towards the western end of your drive in the park, you will come to a dirt road on your left called Sage Creek Rim Road. Take a little detour on this road to really experience the contrasts of natural landscapes in the park. The prairies will endlessly stretch out on your right, and the rocky buttes and pinnacles will litter the landscape on your left. There is a stop a few miles in called Prairie Dog Town, which is home to – you guessed it – lots of cute prairie dogs! You can explore into the plains here but be mindful to stay on the paths and not disturb their natural habitats.
Take one last look at the Badlands before heading north towards I-90. Before getting back on the highway, stop at the infamous Wall Drug in the tiny city of Wall, SD.
Wall Drug is, in all honesty, a tourist trap. However, there are billboards for this place on the side of I-90 for 300 miles in either direction, so you will be hard pressed not to stop and see what all the fuss is about!
Essentially, Wall Drug is a large western themed strip-mall complex. It includes various shops, a pharmacy, an art gallery, and a cafeteria. Wall Drug is especially famous for its free ice water, 5-cent coffee, and homemade donuts. It’s a good place to stop for a snack after a day of hiking.
Once you’re completely exhausted from your day exploring the Badlands, choose where you want to rest for the night. You can camp or stay in a cabin at the Badlands or drive an hour to Rapid City and stay in a hotel there.
Day 3: Rapid City + Mt. Rushmore
Day three is all about exploring southwestern South Dakota! Start early to pack as many sites into the last day of your road trip as possible.
Rapid City is the perfect hub for today’s road trip itinerary. As the second largest city in South Dakota, it has plenty of hotel, restaurant, and gas options. Visitors can complete the City of Presidents Walk near the intersection of Main Street and Mt. Rushmore Road that contains life-size bronze statues of former US Presidents. Nearby, the city of Deadwood offers one of the most well preserved main streets from the historic gold rush.
Black Hills National Forest
A few miles after leaving Rapid City and driving west, you will enter the Black Hills. The Black Hills National Forest is a small mountain range covered in pine trees (giving it a ‘black’ appearance from afar). It is also home to many popular attractions in western South Dakota such as Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Wind Cave National Park. There are numerous campgrounds and hundreds of miles of hiking trails waiting to be explored! More specific forest information can be found on the Black Hills National Forest website.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a short 30 minute drive southwest from Rapid City. The memorial showcases the busts of U.S. presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
To be honest, you won’t need much time here. It’s a quick bucket list stop to see the carvings near the main visitor center. You can also take a quick 0.6 mile hike up 422 stairs to get an up close view of the president’s faces!
While there is no entrance fee to the memorial, there is a $10 parking fee. More specific memorial information can be found on the Mount Rushmore National Park Service website.
As you leave the memorial on SD-244, you will see an overlook on your left. Stop here to see Washington’s profile, a much less popular view of the memorial!
Crazy Horse Memorial:
Crazy Horse Memorial is another 30 minute drive southwest from Mount Rushmore. The memorial is in honor of Crazy Horse, a famed member of the Sioux tribe. He was killed for fighting the encroachment of the U.S. government onto Sioux land in the 19th century. At this stop, you’ll get great views of the memorial. You can also visit the museum to learn more about the history of indigenous people in America.
Entrance fees to the memorial are a little steep at $12 per person. However, they support the continuation of the project, which began in 1948 and is still incomplete. More specific memorial information can be found on the Crazy Horse Memorial website.
Wind Cave National Park:
Continue south for about 40 minutes to Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave is a unique national park because the best part is underground! It is both the densest and one of the longest cave systems in the world.
Stop first at the visitor center for maps and park information. You can then complete various hikes around the park. Start with an easy 0.25 mile hike from the visitor center parking lot to see the cave’s largest natural entrance. It’s only about the size of a basketball! At the entrance, you’ll be able to feel the cave ‘breathe’ as the wind blows in or out of the cave.
Adventurous travelers can make a reservation and enter the caves to see their unique rock formations first hand. Recently, cave entrance elevators have been subject to maintenance work, restricting the ability for visitors to enter the cave system, so be sure to check the Wind Cave National Park System website before you go!
There are no fees to enter or hike the park, but cave tours range from $10 – $30 per person.
You can end your day by camping at Wind Cave or heading back to Rapid City to stay in a hotel. By now, your road trip itinerary has covered some of the best outdoor sights that South Dakota has to offer!
Here’s a map with all of these plotted out:
Know Before You Go
It takes approximately 5 hours to drive from Sioux Falls on the east side of the state to Rapid City on the west side. Much of that drive will occur on Interstate 90. Rest stops with gas, food, and bathrooms are few and far between, so be sure to stop when you can! There are also frequent cell phone dead zones, so consider downloading your favorite songs or podcasts to entertain yourself on the drive!
COVID-19 Travel Considerations
A road trip to a remote area like South Dakota is a great way to get your travel fix during the pandemic! However, it is important to exercise some safety precautions to stay healthy and prevent the spread of the disease to the communities you visit.
South Dakota has not imposed significant social distancing or mask-wearing restrictions.
Be safe, and have fun!
Are there any other destinations you would add to your South Dakota road trip itinerary? Let me know in the comments below!
About the author: Jen is a queer female travel blogger whose goal is to help you discover how travel can be an empowering, safe, and fulfilling experience – no matter how you identify. For more, visit her blog at Glasses and Boarding Passes.