How To Plan A Western South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
Over the past couple years of travel restrictions, I have finally done a better job of exploring my own country…the United States has such a wealth of amazing natural beauty, interesting culture, and cool cities that it’s insane not to. And a South Dakota road trip was high on the list for me, because it’s where my dad grew up.
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We managed to get a family reunion of sorts put together, and spent 4-5 days revisiting some of their old stomping grounds and seeing some of the national and state parks in the area.
It’s an area that sometimes gets overlooked by people in favor of places like Zion or Yosemite, and that’s a shame. It’s a perfect spot to spend a few days (or longer, if you prefer) exploring, as many of the parks and sights are clustered together, making for a compact and efficient itinerary.
And while I’ve done deeper posts (linked below), I wanted to pull together everything from our trip and the research I did ahead of time to help others plan a trip to South Dakota for themselves!
Here are detailed posts to help plan your South Dakota road trip:
Tips to plan a trip to South Dakota (including transportation)
If you’re not driving from your original destination, you’ll want to fly into Rapid City (or Sioux Falls is an option if you’re wanting to see the whole state).
You definitely need a car for this itinerary (it is a South Dakota *road trip* after all), to explore more than just downtown Rapid City itself. Renting cars in the U.S. is usually very easy and quite affordable (though recently with COVID that’s not been the case). Make sure to get unlimited mileage.
The biggest thing to think about is what type of rental car insurance you need. I always use the rental car insurance included with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card (this link is an affiliate link, just FYI), and I’ve always had excellent experiences with it when something goes wrong, and it saves me a ton of money.
The biggest thing is to make sure that your rental car insurance explicitly covers glass and tire…hail storms are very common here, and in fact we got hit with a really bad one on my first day in South Dakota. It cracked my windshield, but the rental car insurance through Chase ended up taking care of everything (it was a little nerve-wracking though).
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How to structure your western South Dakota road trip
I’ve plotted everything mentioned in this post on this map (which you can view live here). Pink markers are things to do or see, green is places to eat, and blue are places I didn’t have a chance to try but were on my list or you might like.
Generally speaking, everything is pretty close and so you can accomplish a lot in any given day. For instance, in just one day you could hit up Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Needles Highway, and a few fun little towns and local breweries or wineries.
But don’t underestimate the extra time needed for the more scenic drives (like Needles Highway or Spearfish Canyon). And I wouldn’t cram each day too full unless you have to, because half of the fun is just stopping wherever catches your fancy to explore.
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Use Rapid City as a base
Rapid is one of those cool little American cities that’s seeing a revitalization. It might not be a destination all on its own, but its location at the center of Badlands, the Black Hills, and Custer make it the perfect base for a western South Dakota road trip.
There are a number of cute indie shops, artists’ collectives, craft breweries, local eateries, and more. I didn’t get to explore quite as much as I would have if I’d been on my own, but still managed to try a handful of coffee shops and diners.
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Find your favorite president immortalized in a bronze statue, as many of them are sprinkled throughout the downtown area. They say they’re life-size, but if so I’m a giant!
Then take a stroll through Art Alley, which has cool street art in many different styles. Make sure to have breakfast or lunch at Tally’s Silver Spoon, a really great diner that’s a local institution.
And one thing that’s quite nostalgic for me is to visit Sioux Pottery, where you can purchase unique and beautiful pottery made by the Sioux people. I remember my parents always bringing home a new mug or vase each time we came to Rapid City when I was a kid. Sadly I think they may have closed recently, but do seek out the pottery elsewhere!
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Where to stay in Rapid City
I stayed at The Rushmore Hotel & Suites in downtown. It was fine, clean enough and I got upgraded to a nicer room. Great location. Overall I’d stay here again if needed, as the pickings were pretty slim.
If you’re staying with friends, a rental house is a great way to go though…there are so many beautiful houses out in the hills that are perfect for experiencing this beautiful area.
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Explore Badlands National Park
There’s really only one main road that weaves throughout the 244,000 acres of Badlands National Park, making it really hard to get lost. There are frequent pullouts and parking areas along the road, with scenic viewpoints and occasionally paths for short hikes. You’ll have to pay a fee to enter, unless you have the America the Beautiful national park pass.
The park boasts an otherworldly landscape, has some of the world’s richest fossil beds, and also has beautiful mixed-grass prairies, wildflowers, and lots of wildlife. Similar to Custer State Park, you might see everything from bison to bighorn sheep to prairie dogs (and also snakes, so be alert!).
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The one part of the park that we didn’t have time for is the optional offshoot Sage Creek Rim Road, a dirt road that is (supposedly) in pretty good shape and tends to have a lot of wildlife.
A historical detail that I loved is that the name “Badlands” came from the local Oglala Lakota people, who called the rocky, harsh landscape mako sica, or “land bad”. When the French arrived, they agreed, calling it “les mauvaises terres a traverser”, or “bad lands to traverse”. Which is…kind of a mouthful, but I can’t say I disagree when thinking about trying to navigate it on horseback or a covered wagon!
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There are two tourist sights near Badlands as well, if you’ve so inclined. You can visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (from the Cold War), or stop at the iconic Wall Drug. We did a quick stop at Wall Drug on our way back to Rapid City and it was…I mean, it was touristy.
The pie, donut, and hot dog were adequate, though. Could be worth a quick stop just for the kitsch and to say you did.
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One of those weird icons of America (with a strong mid-century nostalgia), the Mount Rushmore memorial was begun in the late 1920s, but not finished until 1941. There are a number of different angles from which you can stare at the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt.
I’m not that into manmade monuments as much and had seen it a few times as a little kid, so for me this wasn’t a big draw. But it’s pretty easy to hit and you only need to spend like 15-30 minutes there. Because it’s a national memorial, it’s free to visit, but parking (privately operated) is $10.
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This one is definitely more of an “under the radar” option, and I wouldn’t tell you it’s an absolute must-do. But if you’re looking for something that feels kind of local and chill, this could be a great thing to do.
It’s a hike to swimming hole, and according to my family that made it there, it was really cool. I didn’t make it, because the hike required walking through dense poison ivy (at least when we were there) and that is a HARD NO for me. I am crazy allergic.
They had a blast swimming and jumping off the rocks, and said the hike was pretty too. One thing to note, a 4WD vehicle is strongly recommended here, most cars can’t make it.
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Iron Mountain Highway & local breweries/wineries
After extricating ourselves from the challenging dirt road to Hippie Hole, my mom and I set out on our own for a bit, first driving the Iron Highway.
I’m fairly certain we did it right, though it’s possible we missed a turn somewhere? This arch was cool and I stopped for a quick pic, but otherwise it wasn’t something I’d go out of my way for.
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Along the way we ended up swinging into Prairie Berry Winery and Bistro along this part of the drive to try a flight of their local wines and a snack. If we’d had more time, we would have headed next door to Sick-n-Twisted Brewery and Naughti Winery, and there are several others nearby.
I mentioned Miner Brewing Company earlier (also basically right next door), and I had several more local breweries and wineries on my list. I couldn’t get to them all, but I’m happy we got to experience at least one of these. You could make a fun afternoon just visiting all these clustered together.
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Custer State Park
Part of the reason we could just linger at the local wineries and breweries was that I REALLY wanted to see some of Custer State Park, which is a must on any South Dakota road trip.
Custer is South Dakota’s oldest state park, with many different scenic drives, hikes, fishing, and an abundance of wildlife (including over 1,500 free-roaming bison).
It costs $20 per car to enter, though we never ended up hitting a guard stand. The way that we came in, we hit Sylvan Lake first and stopped for a walk around (though it was absolutely packed and parking was madness, so we didn’t stay long). It’s a manmade lake and full of locals doing some watersports, kids playing, that kind of thing.
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We wanted to do Wildlife Loop Road, which sounds awesome, but it was late in the day at this point and we just couldn’t swing it. You have a good chance of seeing bison, and you might see burros, elk, or bighorn sheep, but you should allow at least 45 minutes for this drive,
Instead, we turned toward the famous Needles Highway to take us back to the main highway. It’s named for the cool granite peaks that come jutting out of the terrain (resembling needles), and is a MUST DO. It covers 14 miles of narrow, winding mountainous roads, so you’ll need to go slow (it takes about an hour), but the views are great.
Plus you get to “thread the Eye of the Needle”…a.k.a. drive through three super short, narrow tunnels (as small as 8 feet, 4 inches wide by 9 feet, 10 inches tall! It is disconcerting, to say the least.
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Exploring Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon flies a little more under-the-radar and doesn’t appear on most people’s South Dakota road trip plans, given everything else there is to do and see. It’s even older than the Grand Canyon, though MUCH more narrow. The 1000-foot-high limestone walls carved by the creek are only accessible by horseback but offer some of the most breathtaking scenery in the state—including a number of waterfalls.
Horseback wasn’t on the agenda for my family, so instead we spent an afternoon driving the beautiful 22-mile Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. It takes you through the canyon and provides plenty of amazing views. The road twists and turns through the gorge, with the towering limestone cliffs on either side.
Plan on at least 2-3 hours for enjoying this (and more if you’re hiking, stopping to eat, etc.).
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We didn’t have time for any real hiking, so looked for scenic stops along the way, and particularly waterfalls. There are 3 waterfalls specifically that are easily accessed within a 5-minute walk (Bridal Veil Falls, Roughlock Falls, and Little Spearfish Falls).
For us, Bridal Veil was underwhelming (maybe because it was midsummer and there was less water). We had trouble finding Little Spearfish Falls Trail and were running short on time at that point, so had to skip. Our favorite was definitely Roughlock, and there you’ll find an easy, paved, but STEEP path down to the main falls viewing platform from the little parking lot.
A couple other things to note if you’re headed out this way…Deadwood and Sturgis are two other towns nearby that you’ll probably drive through anyway, if you have interest in exploring them. Tis is also the direction you’d head to visit Devil’s Tower National Monument, just across the border in Wyoming.
So there you have a ton of options for your South Dakota road trip…whether you’re wanting to cram a lot into a long weekend, or spend a week luxuriating in the amazing scenery and Native American culture here. Hopefully this helps you plan a trip to South Dakota for yourself!
Other scenic road trip itineraries you’ll love:
- An Amazing Southern Utah Roadtrip: Zion & Bryce Canyon National Parks
- Epic Road Trip Itinerary: A Guide To The Oregon Coast
- Everything You Need To See & Do In Devon, England (UK)
- What To See On Iceland’s Golden Circle
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