South Dakota offers travelers an unforgettable road trip filled with stunning scenery, amazing hikes and the perfect opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors.
If you’re planning where to go on your next US road trip and want to escape the crowds of Utah or California, this in-depth road trip vacation planner will help you decide if South Dakota is the state for you.
We accounted for 2 of the 14,500,000 visitors to South Dakota in 2019 as we were fortunate enough to explore the extraordinarily attractive Black Hills National Forest on our 3 month US Road Trip.
Each state we visited brought its own unique dish to the table. South Dakota brought a blend of natural beauty, diversity and dramatic scenery right out of a fantasy novel to conjure up a perfect road trip destination.
We must admit we were utterly besotted by Western South Dakota, which may in part be down to the fact we visited in peak Fall season. Nevertheless, we are sure it would be equally as stunning in any season.
What can you expect from this guide?
We will show you the 4 unmissable places to visit in South Dakota and walk you through an ultra efficient example 4 day road trip itinerary.
By the end of this article you will be able to plan your South Dakota Road Trip to perfection!
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Get To Know South Dakota
Before we dive into the road trip itinerary, here’s a roundup of what you can expect from your South Dakota adventure. You will find key information, top reasons to visit South Dakota and some fun facts!
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Why You Should Road Trip South Dakota
Let’s take a quick look into what you can expect if you choose this beautiful part of the US Midwest for your next road trip:
- Phenomenal landscapes
- Exhilarating scenic highways
- Exceptional Stargazing
- Family friendly (and awesome) hiking
- Best-in-class wildlife spotting
- A famous granite sculpture called … Mount Rushmore!
South Dakota offers a diverse range of tourist attractions, suitable for families and perfect for nature lovers.
In truth, of all the states we passed through on our road trip, South Dakota would be one of the first we would return visit.
Driving & Flying To South Dakota
Road tripping any region of the US is likely to be done in one of two ways.
Either as part of a wider regional or national road trip over a longer period (such as a 3 month road trip) OR as a shorter trip encompassing just a few areas / National Parks (for example a 4 day vacation).
On a longer trip / driving to South Dakota
Are you driving from point A to point B and South Dakota happens to be somewhere in between? Use this itinerary to plan your days in SD.
That was the case for us as we drove the I-90 West from Chicago towards Yellowstone. Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park were on the way and far too important to pass up.
Read our 10 day road trip itinerary from South Dakota’s Black Hills to Yellowstone National Park.
On a shorter trip / flying into South Dakota
We can tell you from experience that Western South Dakota is worth a visit of its own. It maybe gets overlooked in favor Wyoming, Utah or California but this small region is an awesome alternative for you to consider.
Unmissable Stops On Your South Dakota Road Trip
You’ll be shocked by how much there is to do in South Dakota and your major problem will be finding the time to fit everything in.
To that end, we’ve listed below what we believe are the ‘must visit‘ parts of your road trip.
South Dakota Road Trip Stop #1 – Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park simply can’t be missed if you are visiting South Dakota. This vast open landscape is filled with a deep blue endless sky contrasting against dramatic topography as far as the eye can see.
Badlands is the perfect family friendly National Park, featuring a number of very short and easy hiking trails that allow you to see its most awe inspiring rock formations – such as the Badlands Wall – with very little effort.
A loop road dissects the entire park, which means you could drive the loop and not miss a thing. There are a number of overlooks to stop off along the loop, each offering its own perspective of this remarkable terrain.
Badlands can be visited in around 4-5 hours, but we recommend spending a night at one of the campgrounds. Staying over allows you to stargaze underneath an exceptionally clear night sky and affords you the best opportunities for wildlife spotting, both earlier and later in the day.
Read more in our Badlands travel guides:
South Dakota Road Trip Stop #2 – Mount Rushmore National Memorial
How could you go to South Dakota and not see one of America’s most famous monuments?!
Mount Rushmore is located just 5 minutes drive from Keystone – which is where we would recommend setting up base throughout your South Dakota road trip.
It is, in fact, a National Memorial, carved into a towering granite rock facing directly at the sun in the morning. Which is why our top recommendation is to get up early and arrive BEFORE sunrise.
We were impressed not just by the intricately detailed carving, but the whole memorial complex. It is very well laid out, clean, easy to navigate and offers multiple areas to gaze up at the former presidents.
You can choose to go only as far as the amphitheater, or you can walk around the ‘Presidents Trail’ – a boardwalk with over 200 steps taking you closer to the giant sculpture.
Read more in our Mount Rushmore travel guides:
South Dakota Road Trip Stop #3 – Custer State Park
Custer State Park is renowned as one of the largest and best State Parks in the United States. We won’t argue with that label!
Custer offers a one-way 18 mile wildlife loop through rolling meadows and hills, where it is very likely you will be stopped by herds of Bison crossing the road!
There are Burros, Prairie Dogs, Elk, Pronghorn, Mountain Goats, Bighorn Sheep and 1,500 Bison in Custer State Park. That’s more Bison than anywhere else in the country.
Within the boundary of the park are entrances to 2 incredibly scenic highways. One is Iron Mountain Road (watch our Iron Mountain Road time-lapse) and the other is Needles highway.
Both are exhilarating driving experiences featuring hairpin bends, tunnels and fantastic views over the Black Hills. We can’t recommend driving both roads highly enough!
Our top rated hiking trails are Black Elk Peak (which we will get into below) and Cathedral Spires.
The latter is a lovely 3 mile roundtrip easy/moderate hiking trail through beautiful forest and leading to needle-like granite rock formations. The trailhead to Cathedral Spires can be found on Needles highway, right on a hairpin bend!
Read more in our Custer State Park travel guide:
South Dakota Road Trip Stop #4 – Black Elk Peak Hike
Hiking to the summit of Black Elk Peak was our favorite part of the South Dakota road trip. This is an easy 7 mile roundtrip hike that should take around 4-5 hours depending on how many stops you take.
You will walk through gorgeous forested areas along dry dirt paths and around booming granite rocks. Once you reach the summit (formerly known as Harney Peak), you will notice a stone watchtower.
Harney fire lookout tower was once used as an early warning fire detection overlook.
The trail offers stunning scenery and truly breathtaking views – particularly from the summit at which you can see into South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana. We were blown away by the 360 degree panorama at the top of Black Elk Peak!
If you enjoying hiking, this is the one part of your South Dakota road trip you can’t miss.
Read more in our Black Elk Peak hiking guide:
Other Places In South Dakota To Visit With More Time
Listed above are the absolute must visits on your South Dakota road trip. But there are many more places you can add to your itinerary if you have the time.
Here’s where we would have considered visiting with more time:
Map 4 Days South Dakota Road Trip
Click into this interactive map, zoom in / out, scroll around and click on any icon to see details of attractions on each of the 4 days. You can see exactly where each day takes you!
We always find that spending just a few minutes working out where things are really helps when we arrive.
South Dakota Road Trip 4 Day Itinerary
Now you have the 4 most important pieces of the puzzle, let’s connect it all together with a 4 day example itinerary. This can be extended into 5 days easily if you prefer to go slower. But it would be seriously action packed if condensed into 3 days!
We entered South Dakota from the East after visiting Chicago. Our GPS had I-90 West plugged in for A LONG time, having started out in the finger lakes of Upstate New York!
We weren’t quite done with the 90 just yet as we joined back up towards Buffalo, WY when we left SD.
For the purpose of this South Dakota road trip itinerary, we will assume you enter from the East as we did. Of course, if you are heading the opposite way across country, you can flip this itinerary.
For those heading North-South / South-North or plan to fly into Rapid City and hire a car, you can skip past the very beginning and end of the itinerary.
South Dakota Road Trip Day 1 – Sioux Falls, Mitchell & Badlands
- As you enter South Dakota from the East, your first stop along the I-90 is Sioux Falls. Turn off I-90 and drive 10 minutes to Falls park.
- This is the perfect quick stop off to look upon lovely waterfalls flowing through a park, before quickly hitting the Interstate again.
- Just 1h 15m further West, you will reach your second stop off, in the form of Mitchell and its famous Corn Palace. Yes – corn palace!
- This is a building made entirely out of corn, featuring ornate murals on the exterior. Inside, you can learn about the “sweet” history of the World’s Only Corn Palace.
- About 3 more hours of driving will lead you to the Northeast entrance of Badlands National Park.
- Resist the temptation and take the right to make a quick visit at Minuteman Missile Museum. You will learn all about the Cold War, including US Nuclear Missile locations. You can also visit decommissioned missile silo’s in the area.
Badlands National Park
- Let’s assume you’re arriving at Badlands entrance around 3-4pm. You’ll either pay US$ 25 or use your America the Beautiful Pass to enter.
- Spend the next few hours cruising around Badlands Loop road, stopping off at every overlook along the way. If you’re camping at Cedar Pass campground or Sage Creek Campground (primitive), now is the time to set up before it’s dark!
- After you cook up a storm, when it eventually does get dark, it’s time for some amazing stargazing. Check the ranger programs for stargazing activities or go to your own secluded spot.
- If you are not camping, drive to Wall – just outside the Northwest entrance. Stay at one of four hotels in town (see lodging). Check out Wall Drug Store, which you will have seen advertised on billboards for the last 300 miles!
South Dakota Road Trip Day 2 – Badlands & Keystone
Badlands National Park
- Get an early start on day 2 for the best chance of seeing wildlife at Badlands National Park. Animals are usually more active in the morning and your double bonus is far fewer people will be around.
- Head to the East part of the park (Big Badlands Overlook / Door Trail) to watch the alien landscape illuminate red with the first light of day.
- Spend the morning hiking Door, Window and especially Notch trails. They won’t take long and give you the best views in the park. Our must visit overlook is ‘yellow mounds‘ – just because it is so unique, you’ll see why!
- Exit via Sage Creek Rim Road towards ‘Scenic’. If you stayed at Sage Creek Campground you will have already driven some of it. This is a much quieter dirt track road with excellent wildlife spotting opportunities.
- By leaving this way, it means you can avoid Rapid City on the I-90.
- Take the 44, the 16BYP and 16 into Keystone. It should take just over an hour driving time.
- Check into your hotel in Keystone and grab dinner at ‘Old-West’ Red Garter Saloon.
- You can go to an evening lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore (Jun-Sept), or spend the evening relaxing in Keystone.
South Dakota Road Trip Day 3 – Mount Rushmore, Needles Highway, Cathedral Spires & Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
- The best way to start Day 3 is to get up exceptionally early in order to get inside Mount Rushmore before the sun rises. As awful as that may sound – trust us, it’s worth it.
- You will pass through the gorgeous colorful phases of golden hour (no light or shadows), light and dark pinks, then light and deep oranges as the sun fully rises. Each light phase contrasts wonderfully against the stone colored granite of Mount Rushmore.
- Walk the presidents trail, check out the Sculptor’s Studio and enjoy the Memorial.
Needles Highway Scenic Drive
- Continue on 244 until you hit the main road (16). Turn left onto 16 and take an immediate left onto Needles Highway (87). Needles is an awesome drive, round tons of switchbacks and through narrow tunnels.
- You will pass Sylvan Lake where Black Elk Peak trailhead begins. Drive right by, you will be back here tomorrow.
Cathedral Spires Hike
- Just over 2 miles further along the highway, you will see some cars parked on a hairpin bend. Park here and begin the Cathedral Spires hiking trail.
- This should take around 1h 30m to 2h total but is worth it. Don’t expect a magical viewpoint at the end of the trail – which halts abruptly – but more of a flat plain encircled by needle rock formations.
- Once you’ve finished the hike, continue to the end of Needles highway.
Custer State Park
- Turn left onto 16A and drive 6 miles to Custer State Park Visitor Center. Watch the visitor center movie (narrated by Kevin Costner) and then hit the 18 mile long, one way wildlife loop.
- It should be early evening by this point which means you have arrived at one of the two best times of day for active animals. The loop will take around 1h 30m but may be longer if you get stuck in a wildlife-jam!
- Head back to Keystone via 87 / 753 / 359 / 40. That might look a lot, but it’s just a straight line along different roads!
- Avoid 16A for now, you will drive that first thing tomorrow.
South Dakota Road Trip Day 4 – Iron Mountain Road, Custer State Park Wildlife Loop (Part 2) & Black Elk Peak Hike
Iron Mountain Road
- The early bird gets the worm in Western South Dakota. Don’t give up now! Grab an early start, start the car and hit 16A – also known as Iron Mountain Road.
- This is another fantastic and exhilarating scenic drive consisting of curves, hairpins, narrow tunnels (with Mt. Rushmore views) and even pigtail turns!
- By starting early, you get to drive this road without sun and glare affecting your experience.
Custer State Park
- Another benefit awaits at the end of Iron Mountain Road. You arrive into Custer State Park wildlife loop at the other best time for Round 2!
- The pass you paid US$ 20 for is valid for 7 days – might as well get the use out of it. Plus, you are likely to see different animals in different areas of the loop today.
Black Elk Peak Hike
- Once you complete the loop, turn left onto 16A and take 89 North to Sylvan Lake. Park up at Black Elk Peak trailhead and begin your 5 hour hike.
- This is the perfect way to cap off a fantastic 4 days of touring through South Dakota. Those summit views are something else!
- Are you heading West towards Yellowstone National Park? It’s less than 3 hours drive to Buffalo, WY – where you can take a pit stop before a longer driving day into Cody or Yellowstone park the following day.
What To Pack For Your South Dakota Road Trip
What to pack for your South Dakota road trip will depend on what time of year you decide to visit.
We visited in October and the weather was perfect for hiking in shorts and t-shirts but it was cold in the morning and at night.
Here’s a quick packing list of things not to forget:
For more in depth packing help, our ultimate travel packing list covers every type of travel scenario. Some of the sections might not be useful for this road trip but certain sections definitely will be helpful.
Once you’re all set with clothes and electronics, next take a look through this list of road trip essentials with a specialized focus on road tripping, including automotive and safety equipment.
You can download or print a free checklist with both packing lists to keep handy.
Where To Stay On Your South Dakota Road Trip
You won’t have any issues finding places to stay in South Dakota, with the exception of Badlands National Park if you wish to stay within a few miles of its entrance.
We’ve written a comprehensive guide to the best hotels in South Dakota’s Black Hills, which goes into far greater detail on choosing the perfect place to stay in the region.
You might also want to read our ultimate guide to booking the cheapest hotels to learn about ways you can save money.
Below you can find our recommended hotel/accommodation options for each stop along this South Dakota road trip itinerary:
Badlands Lodging Options
- Campgrounds – There are 2 inside the National Park: Cedar Pass RV Park and Campground has facilities and Sage Creek Campground is primitive (without facilities). More information.
- Lodge – Cedar Pass Lodge is the only accommodation located within the park. More information.
- Hotels – There are only the following 4 hotels in nearby town ‘Wall’.
Mount Rushmore Lodging Options
- Campgrounds – Camping is very popular around the Mount Rushmore area. Black Hills National Forest has around 30 campgrounds to choose between. More information.
- Hotels – Arguably the most convenient place to stay near Mt Rushmore is Keystone. It has a very central location among the best things to do in the area. Here are some of the top rated hotels:
Custer State Park & Black Elk Peak Lodging Options
- Campgrounds – Custer State Park has 10 campground options available, including right at the foothills of Black Elk Peak (Sylvan Lake). More information.
- Hotels – If you’d prefer to set up a home base closer to Custer State Park’s wildlife loop and Black Elk Peak, stay in the town of Custer which is in between the two attractions. Here are the best value hotels in Custer to consider:
Our South Dakota Travel Guides
- Badlands: 4 unmissable things to do on a first visit to Badlands National Park
- Black Elk Peak: Complete hiking guide to the stunning Black Elk Peak trail
- Custer State Park: 5 best things to do on your first visit to Custer State Park
- Mount Rushmore: Complete Mount Rushmore vacation planner with 3 hour itinerary
More Amazing US Road Trips
- Utah: Ultimate guide to Utah’s incredible Mighty 5 national parks road trip
- Zion & Bryce Canyon: Epic 3 day Zion to Bryce Canyon road trip itinerary
- California: 23 unmissable stops on the legendary Pacific Coast Highway
- Wyoming: 7 Day Road Trip Itinerary Salt Lake City to Grand Teton and Yellowstone
We hope this vacation planner helps you plan your South Dakota Road Trip!
Please let us know if you have any questions or need help planning your trip in the comments section below.
South Dakota’s Black Hills are a beautiful part of the country and we want you to make the most of your trip.
-Happy Road Tripping-