South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary (4 + 7 Days)



Stunning view over South Dakota from the summit of Black Elk Peak one of the best stops to make a on a road trip through the Black Hills

A South Dakota road trip offers scenic byways, famous attractions and national parks. You can drive Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake and Black Elk Peak, and you can drive Iron Mountain Road from Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore. South Dakota’s Black Hills are beautiful and filled with family friendly activities.

In this guide, we’re going to show you exactly how to plan the perfect South Dakota road trip itinerary for 4 days or 7 days based entirely on our own experiences in the area.

Introducing South Dakota

South Dakota road trip infographic with places to visit fun facts and important information
Our South Dakota fun facts infographic

South Dakota is undoubtably most famous for Mount Rushmore, but there’s so much more to see in the beautiful Black Hills region.

We’re confident you will be left stunned by the awesome hiking and scenic drives on offer. And if you’re the type of traveler who prefers to get away from the crowds, South Dakota’s Black Hills are definitely for you.

Our South Dakota Road Trip Experience

Mark and Kristen Morgan from Where Are Those Morgans sat together on rocks at the end of Notch trail hike in Badlands National Park when driving a road trip through South Dakota
Mark and Kristen at the summit of Notch Trail in Badlands National Park

We’ve explored far and wide throughout South Dakota’s Black Hills on two separate occasions, first in the fall of 2019 and again in the spring of 2021. We love the area and consider the Black Hills as one of the best road trips in the US.

We’ve personally visited every place, attraction, park and scenic road listed in this guide. Our itineraries are tried and tested, so you can rest assured they work. Read more about us.

Here’s a short YouTube video we put together with a GoPro from our first visit to South Dakota.

About This Guide

Planning the perfect South Dakota road trip itinerary begins with creating a priority list of attractions, hikes and scenic drives.

We’re going to start by showing you the 4 most unmissable places to visit in the Black Hills, followed by other places you should visit with more time. Later in the guide we will show you exactly how to plan South Dakota road trip itineraries for 4 days and 7 days.


Unmissable South Dakota Road Trip Stops

Couple standing in front of Mount Rushmore in winter clothes with snow on the ground
Here we are at Mount Rushmore on a cold day in April

So what are the places you simply cannot miss on your visit to South Dakota?

Well, we’ve seen all there is to see in South Dakota’s Black Hills and here are the 4 stops we think all first time visitors should prioritize.

  • Badlands National Park
  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial
  • Custer State Park
  • Black Elk Peak

Let’s take a closer look at each stop.

1. Badlands National Park

Awesome rocks formations at Badlands National Park stop on South Dakota road trip
The unique Badlands landscape

Badlands National Park should be included in every South Dakota road trip itinerary. It’s unique landscape is incredibly photogenic, there’s loads of fun short hikes and it can be accessed in less than one hour from Rapid City.

We think Badlands is one of the best US national parks because it’s so easy to visit, there’s never any crowds and the topography is spectacular. You’ll only need around 4 or 5 hours to fully explore Badlands.

Read more in our Badlands travel guides:

2. Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Mount Rushmore at golden hour before sunrise near Keystone South Dakota
Mount Rushmore in twilight before sunrise

How could you go to South Dakota and not see one of America’s most famous monuments? It would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. Mount Rushmore is located just 5 minutes drive from Keystone, which is one of the most popular places to set up base for a South Dakota road trip.

The iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial is carved into a towering granite rock formation, which faces directly into the sun at dawn. We watched a stunning sunrise at Mt Rushmore when the former presidents faces turned from grey to pink and orange.

You can either look up at Mt Rushmore from a huge amphitheater or you can walk the Presidents Trail which is a boardwalk with over 200 steps taking you closer to the giant sculpture.

Read more in our Mount Rushmore travel guides:

3. Custer State Park

South Dakota road trip needles highway narrow tunnel along road gorgeous greens and yellows trees
Driving Needles Highway in the Black Hills

Custer State Park is one of the largest and best US state parks. We’ve been to dozens of amazing state parks and Custer is definitely up there as one of our favorites. If you’re planning a South Dakota road trip with your family, Custer State Park is one place you definitely can’t miss.

You can drive an 18-mile wildlife loop to see animals, hike several picturesque trails and take on 2 of the most scenic drives in America. Here’s a time-lapse for one of the two drives called Iron Mountain Road.

Read more in our Custer State Park travel guide:

4. Black Elk Peak Hike

Black Elk Peak Summit incredible views over Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska and South Dakota
Summit views from Black Elk Peak

Black Elk Peak is our top hiking recommendation for your visit to South Dakota. If you love to hike in new places, don’t miss the chance to summit this amazing trail. It’s a moderately difficult 7-mile roundtrip hike with magical views from the top.

We hiked Black Elk Peak during our first South Dakota road trip and it blew us away. You’ll find it included in our popular list of the 50 best hikes in the US.

Read more in our Black Elk Peak hiking guide:

Places To Visit With More Time

Hiker stood on rocks looking up at a huge rock tower
Kristen looking up at Devils Tower

We’ve covered the absolute must visits on your South Dakota road trip, but there’s loads more fantastic places you can also explore if you have more time or you like to create action packed itineraries.

We consider South Dakota’s Black Hills to be one of the best US vacation spots for a reason!

Here’s a list of the places you should visit with more time:

1. Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial is a partially carved mountain sculpture, which has been under construction since 1948 but is still a long way from completion.

If it’s completed, Crazy Horse will be much larger than nearby Mount Rushmore. Entry fees are surprisingly steep for Crazy Horse but all proceeds go directly into furthering construction efforts.

2. Deadwood

Deadwood is a popular Wild West gold rush town, which has retained elements of its old western appearance.

You can stop for a hot chocolate in a quaint cafe next to the site where Wild Bill Hickok was assassinated in 1876, walk the historic main street and soak up the unique western architecture.

Further Reading: Where to stay in Deadwood SD

Photo looking up the historic downtown of Deadwood SD on a sunny day
Historic downtown of Deadwood SD

3. Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower is a remarkable and quite literally unmissable rock formation just across the border from South Dakota into Wyoming. The enormous igneous rock formation dominates the skyline and it’s even more impressive from close up.

You can hike an easy and relaxing loop trail around the base of Devils Tower but we also highly recommend the awesome view from Joyner Ridge.

Further Reading: How to visit Devils Tower National Monument

4. Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave National Park is one of the longest and most complex cave systems on the planet. It features unique formations known as boxwork.

You must join a daily ranger-led tour in order to walk through the vast Wind Cave network. Here are tour times throughout the year. Some tours can be reserved in advance but others are first come first served only.

There’s also a handful of nearby hikes with excellent views and you might even see wildlife roaming freely on the surrounding prairie.

Mark and Kristen Morgan at the summit of Black Elk Peak in South Dakota on a sunny but cool day in October
Mark and Kristen at the summit of Black Elk Peak

5. Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave is the third longest cave in the world with 208 miles of mapped and surveyed passages. Similarly to Wind Cave, ranger led tours at 9:00am and 2:45pm are the only way to go inside the Jewel Cave network.

Jewel Cave features more common cave formations like stalagmites and stalactites, whereas Wind Cave features boxwork which is a rare honeycomb-like formation. We think Jewel Cave is the more attractive cave, but there’s more to see and do around Wind Cave.

6. Spearfish Canyon

The 20 mile drive through Spearfish Canyon scenic byway is one of the best hidden gem spots in the Black Hills. It’s a lovely drive within itself, but there’s also loads of great places to stop along the way including waterfalls and hikes.

We stopped to hike Devils Bathtub Trail which turned out to be a really fun unmarked trail running alongside a creek with plenty of crossings.

Now you know the best places to visit on your road trip through South Dakota, let’s get into the itineraries.

4 Days South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

We’re beginning with a 4 days South Dakota road trip itinerary that assumes you are booking a hotel in Keystone for the duration of your trip. Use the map above to see the attractions we recommend for each day.

Days 1, 3 and 4 are full with what we consider the most unmissable attractions. Day 2 has room for you to include your other top priorities, but we’ll also show you how we would spend the second day which you can see in the map above.

Day 1 – Badlands

Bighorn Sheep close up shot at badlands national park
Bighorn sheep in Badlands

Start the day by visiting the fantastic Minuteman Missile National Historic Site where you will learn all about the Cold War, including decommissioned US Nuclear Missile locations in South Dakota.

Next, enter Badlands National Park and spend the day hiking, exploring, wildlife spotting and taking photos of the alien-like landscape.

Later, drive to Wall which is just outside the northwest Badlands entrance to check out Wall Drug Store. Finally, drive to Keystone, grab dinner at old-west themed Red Garter Saloon and check into your hotel.

Day 2 – Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore illuminated by pink sunlight at sunrise Black Hills National Forest South Dakota
Mount Rushmore glowing at sunrise

The major thing to see on day 2 is Mount Rushmore. You can do that any time of day and it really only takes a few hours at the most. Personally, we think sunrise is the best time of day to see the sculpture because it’s really quiet and the colors are amazing. But we know sunrise isn’t for everyone!

Remember, you can go to an evening lighting ceremony at Mount Rushmore between June and September for a unique experience.

You’ll have action packed days 3 and 4, so day 2 in this itinerary is the day to visit other places on your Black Hills wishlist like Deadwood, Wind Cave or even Devils Tower.

Personally we would do Mt Rushmore for sunrise, then drive to either Wind Cave or Jewel Cave (pre-booking a tour in advance), stop at Crazy Horse next on the way up to Deadwood, drive Spearfish Canyon and visit Devils Tower. It would be a long and busy day but it would mean seeing everything.

Day 3 – Custer State Park

Hiking trail in Custer State Park

Start the day by driving the super-scenic Iron Mountain Highway from Keystone to Custer State Park. You’ll love driving Iron Mountain Road which is essentially non-stop curves, hairpins, narrow tunnels with Mount Rushmore views and even pigtail turns.

Go to the Custer State Park visitor center and watch the movie narrated by Kevin Costner. Next, pay the $20 entrance fee for Custer State Park (good for 7 days) and drive the one way wildlife loop for 18 miles, Hopefully you’ll be able to see plenty of animals roaming. They’re most active in the morning and late afternoon.

After the wildlife loop, enter the east entrance to the awesome Needles Highway and drive as far as Cathedral Spires Trail, which is a popular short but moderately difficult hike. Complete the scenic Needles Highway drive, leaving to the west and without stopping at Sylvan Lake.

Day 4 – Black Elk Peak

Kristen at Harney Peak summit Black Elk Peak
Kristen enjoying the views from Black Elk Peak

Start the final day by driving to Sylvan Lake and the trailhead for Black Elk Peak. This amazing hike is the perfect way to finish a short but sweet South Dakota road trip. You already have your 7 day pass for Custer State Park so you won’t have to pay again to enter the Sylvan Lake area.

Hiking the moderately challenging 7-mile roundtrip Black Elk Peak Trail will take up a huge chunk of your day. However, if you’re an experienced hiker you can also take on the tough Sunday Gulch Trail which is located on the opposite side of Sylvan Lake.

Not a hiker? No problem!

You can change day 4 on this itinerary to instead visit the northern parts of the Black Hills. Your day would include Deadwood, Lead, Spearfish Canyon and Devils Tower. In this case, change your day 2 to focus more on the southern areas of the Black Hills.

7 Days South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Let’s move onto our 7 days South Dakota road trip itinerary which covers all points of interest and takes things slowly. This itinerary assumes you are booking different hotels throughout your trip for the most efficiency.

Use the map above to see the most efficient one week South Dakota road trip. We’ve included hotel icons at the end of each day so you know where to stay every night.

Day 1 – Badlands National Park

Woman in Badlands National Park on a South Dakota Road Trip
Kristen alone in Badlands National Park

Pick up your hire car at Rapid City airport and drive east on I-90.

Stop at Wall Drug and visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site before spending the afternoon soaking up extra-terrestrial views from scenic overlooks, hiking and spotting wildlife in Badlands National Park.

Our to hiking picks are Notch Trail and Door Trail. We highly recommend you stop at every overlook but definitely don’t miss Yellow Mounds for something a bit different. Stay in Badlands for sunset.

Either camp in Badlands, stay at Cedar Lodge inside the park or drive to Wall to stay in one of five hotels.

Day 2 – Badlands + Wind Cave

Wind Cave National Park steps lit up yellow
Walking through Wind Cave on a tour

The beauty of having more time is that you can make the most of the best light. We highly recommend heading back into Badlands in the morning for sunrise.

This is also the time to hike any trails you missed yesterday like Castle Trail. If you didn’t arrive into Badlands until later on day 1, hike Notch Trail and Door Trail today. Once you’re done in Badlands, drive all the way down to Wind Cave National Park.

There’s a great little hike you can do near Wind Cave called Rankin Ridge Trail, which leads a wonderful viewpoint overlooking the park. Next, stop in at Wind Cave visitor center to get information about cave tours for the next morning if you haven’t already booked a tour online.

Check into a hotel in nearby Hot Springs.

Day 3 – Wind Cave, Needles Highway + Cathedral Spires

Stunning needle like granite rocks with ponderosa pine trees green and yellow on a south Dakota road trip itinerary
The stunning Cathedral Spires

Get an early start and be at Wind Cave visitor center around 30 minutes before it opens for the day. Cave tours are split between advanced tickets and first come first served which sell out quickly after opening. And you can do more than one tour.

Grab lunch in Custer and then drive the famous Needles Highway scenic byway beginning on the east side. You’ll pay $20 entrance fee for Custer State Park at Needles Highway south entrance and it’s good for 7 days.

Stop at Cathedral Spires trailhead and park on the tight U-bend. The Cathedral Spires trail really showcases the natural beauty of the famous granite rock formations in the Black Hills.

Drive back to a Custer hotel for the night.

Day 4 – Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake + Black Elk Peak

Sylvan Lake reflecting on still water with blowers and snow and ice
Sylvan Lake covered in a layer of snow in April

Arrive at Custer wildlife loop as early as you can to stand the best chance of seeing animals when they’re most active. Drive slowly through the one way park and maybe even get out of your car to walk up a hill for a better view.

Drive Needles Highway again or take SD-89 for a more direct route to Sylvan Lake. There’s loads to do around Sylvan Lake, especially when the weather is warmer. Families can relax and have a picnic, the kids can swim or hike around the lake in a loop, and the adults can even take on Sunday Gulch.

However, our top recommendation for day 4 is to hike Black Elk Peak. You can see into 4 US states from the summit and even the trail itself is picturesque.

Once you are down, drive back to Custer again for the night.

Day 5 – Jewel Cave, Crazy Horse, Iron Mountain + Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore grey on a cloudy day
Snowmelt running down the presidents faces

Arrive to Jewel Cave early to ensure you get onto a cave tour before they sell out. Jewel Cave is just 15 minutes drive from the town of Custer. After your cave tour you could hike the 5.5 mile roundtrip Hell Canyon Trail or you can drive straight to Crazy Horse.

You can actually see Crazy Horse from the main road without having to pay entry, which is helpful to know if you’re trying to balance the budget or you’re short on time.

Next, grab lunch in Custer before driving to the southern entrance for Iron Mountain scenic byway near Custer State Park visitor center. At the other end of the awesome Iron Mountain Road it’s finally time for you to visit Mount Rushmore!

By now it will be getting to the later part of the afternoon or early evening. You might be able to see the sun disappear behind the presidents heads and you also might want to stay for the evening light show.

Check into a Keystone hotel.

Day 6 – Deadwood + Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon hike devils bathtub SD
Hiking Devils Bathtub Trail in Spearfish Canyon

If you’re interested in photography, we highly recommend you wake up early and see Mt Rushmore at sunrise. It is just a few minutes drive from Keystone so you are perfectly located.

Later in the morning you can take US-385 north for 1 hour until you reach the small town of Deadwood. Once you arrive, walk down the historic main street, learn about famous Wild West characters and stop in somewhere for a coffee or a beer.

Spearfish Canyon is one of our favorite parts of the Black Hills. From Deadwood, take US-14 southwest as far as Cheyenne Crossing and Savoy. Stop first at Savoy to see Roughlock Falls. You can also hike Iron Creek or Devils Bathtub, before stopping at Bridal Veil Falls on the roadside.

Check into a hotel in Spearfish.

Day 7 – Devils Tower + Rapid City

Devils Tower National Monument from Joyner Ridge an amazing way to end a south dakota road trip
Devils Tower from Joyner Ridge

Take either I-90 and US-14, or WY-24 to Devils Tower. We took the latter and it was a very peaceful drive. Spend the late morning walking around the base of Devils Tower and enjoying the views over this unique geological feature.

Before leaving, don’t forget to drive up to Joyner Ridge which has the best views of Devils Tower across the meadows.

Finally, you’ll drive I-90 to Rapid City to spend the afternoon relaxing around town. Rapid City is filled with excellent restaurants and it’s the best place to spend the night before flying out of Rapid City airport the next morning.

South Dakota Road Trip Packing

Couple crouched down on rocks pointing to a sign
Mark and Kristen in Badlands

Packing for your South Dakota road trip will depend entirely on what time of year you decide to visit.

We first visited South Dakota in October when the weather was perfect for hiking in shorts and t-shirts but it was cold in the morning and at night.

The second time we visited the Black Hills in April and there was a lot of snow on the ground, which of course meant it was much colder.

If you visit in summer you can expect hot days so your packing list will look very different to a spring or fall trip.

Here’s a quick packing list of items to remember no matter when you visit the area:

Further Reading: Essential road trip packing list

Where To Stay

Close up of a polystyrene coffee cup at Wall Drug Store in South Dakota
Wall is the most convenient place to stay for Badlands

You won’t have any issues finding places to stay on your South Dakota road trip.

We’ve written a comprehensive guide to the best hotels near Mount Rushmore, which goes into far greater detail on choosing the perfect places to stay in the entire region.

You might also want to read our ultimate guide on how to book the cheapest hotels to learn about ways you can save money.

Below you will find our recommended lodging options for each stop along this South Dakota road trip itinerary.

1. Badlands Lodging


There are 2 campgrounds inside the National Park: Cedar Pass RV Park and Campground has facilities but Sage Creek Campground is primitive (without facilities).


Cedar Pass Lodge is the only accommodation located within the park.


There are five hotels in Wall near Badlands National Park:

Further Reading: Where to stay near Badlands National Park

2. Mount Rushmore Lodging


Camping is very popular around the Mount Rushmore area. Black Hills National Forest has around 30 campgrounds to choose between.


Keystone is the most convenient place to stay near Mt Rushmore. It has a very central location among the best things to do in the area.

Here are some of the top rated hotels in Keystone:

Further Reading: The best hotels in Keystone SD

3. Custer State Park Lodging


Custer State Park has 10 campground options available, including in the foothills of Black Elk Peak near Sylvan Lake.


If you’d prefer to set up a 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:

Further Reading: The best hotels in Custer SD

Camping Special

Open grassy field with benches for camping in Badlands National Park
Sage Creek Campground in Badlands

Are you planning to camp during your road trip through South Dakota?

We’ve teamed up with The Dyrt to offer our readers an exclusive no strings attached 30 day free trial with The Dyrt PRO.

This is our favorite camping app because it finds the best campgrounds along any driving route and there are no additional booking fees. You can also use Dyrt Alerts to receive notifications when sold out campgrounds have cancellations.

In Conclusion

South Dakota’s Black Hills region has a wide range of attractions and activities to suit travelers of all ages and preferences. If it’s your first time in South Dakota, you shouldn’t miss Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park and Black Elk Peak.

We’ve enjoyed two fantastic road trips through South Dakota. We think 4 days is easily enough time to see the highlights of South Dakota’s Black Hills but 7 days would allow you to slow down, see fewer attractions each day and have a more relaxing experience.

More From South Dakota

More US Road Trips

Want more South Dakota content? Head over to our South Dakota Travel Guides to explore Mount Rushmore, Badlands, the Black Hills and beyond.

We hope this South Dakota road trip itinerary guide helps with planning your Black Hills vacation!

Please let us know if you have any questions or need help planning your trip in the comments section below.

Happy road tripping,

Mark and Kristen

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4 thoughts on “South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary (4 + 7 Days)”

  1. 6 Seniors going on a South Dakota trip in May, Not many hikers in our group. What would be the best location to stay so we only have 1 location to drive out from each day. Moving each day is not real practical for us. Also, any ideas replacing the hiking parts of the tour.
    Great info, thanks so much.

    • Hi Jim, great to hear you have a trip to SD planned. Rapid City could be the best place for you to stay – it has a greater hotel selection, more places to eat and drink, and it has easy access to I-90 so you can easily reach Badlands, Devils Tower and all other spots in the Black Hills. If you’d rather be right in the Black Hills, you can stay in Keystone near Mt Rushmore, or in Custer which is close to Sylvan Lake and Wind Cave. It depends on how many days you are going for and what you would prefer to see, but there’s plenty to keep you occupied even without the hikes. Have a great trip!


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