Planning a trip to South Dakota? Well, you’re in for a treat! Home to two national parks (Badlands and Wind Cave) and popular sites like Mount Rushmore and the wild west town of Deadwood, South Dakota has something for everyone. We’ll cover all these attractions and so much more in our below South Dakota Itinerary!
Whether you are looking for history, natural beauty, or a heavy helping of the two, a road trip through South Dakota is a wonderful way to explore! If you are like us, you’ll be completely blown away by things to do in South Dakota. Now, let’s get to it, shall we?
South Dakota Itinerary & Trip Planner
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About This South Dakota Itinerary
For this South Dakota itinerary, we’ll be giving you the route we took when visiting South Dakota in our camper. We drove in from the east side of the state (through Sioux Falls), so our first stop was Badlands National Park & Rapid City.
If you are driving and coming in from the west side of the state, no worries at all! You can just reverse this itinerary so it fits your route better! South Dakota is easy to navigate and drive, so you’ll have no problems getting around!
Flying To South Dakota
If you are not driving to South Dakota, plan to book a flight in and out of Rapid City. Rapid City is not only one of the major airports in the state, but the closest airport to Badlands and the Black Hills, where you’ll be spending all of your time.
Where To Stay in South Dakota
If you’re like us, moving around to a new hotel or place to sleep every night gets hold. We’ll share with you where to make your reservation so you can make the most of your time in South Dakota.
- Day 1-2: Rapid City
- Day 3-5: Custer
- Day 6-7: Deadwood or Lead
If you are looking to stay in Rapid City proper, below are some top-rated accommodation choices that will make a perfect place to call home for a few nights. From cozy homes with balconies to comfortable hotels, all of these locations are located centrally within Rapid City making them all great options to consider.
Now, if you are looking to stay closer to Badlands National Park, you’ll have to set your accommodations sites east of Rapid City. Badlands National Park is located around an hour east of Rapid City, close to the town of Wall. Just know, there are not too many hotel options out that way, but Badlands Frontier Cabins and Best Western Plains Motel are two options for you to consider. Both will put you miles away from Badlands National Park.
Located in the Black Hills, just outside of Custer State Park, you’ll find the small town of Custer. Custer is a great location for a home base to all Black Hills fun! Located close to Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and hiking trails in Custer State Park, Custer is the ideal, convenient, and beautiful location to spend a few days in.
Deadwood and Lead are located just next door to each other, making either location a great option to use as your jumping-off point for your day in Deadwood and Spearfish. Lead is definitely less “lively” than Deadwood and is actually nestled in between Deadwood and Spearfish Canyon, while Deadwood is home to its historic Main Street, bars, and restaurants.
Since we were in a camper, we stayed at campsites vs hotels. For the time we were in South Dakota, we really enjoyed our stay at Badlands Boondocking Area just outside of Badlands National Park, Bismark Lake Campground in Custer State Park, and Mount Roosevelt Dispersed Camping just outside of Deadwood.
Best Time To Visit South Dakota
The best time to visit South Dakota is from May to September. These months are the best in terms of weather as winters in South Dakota can be a little fierce.
If you want to avoid crowds, our tip is to try and visit South Dakota before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Summer is South Dakota’s busiest time for not only people visiting the state but also for people passing through South Dakota. South Dakota is a popular stopping point for folks traveling in i90 heading on their way to Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park.
South Dakota Itinerary & Road Trip Route
Day 1: Rapid City
Depending on how you are getting to South Dakota (flying or driving) and what time you arrive, your first day could be spent getting checked into your Rapid City hotel, getting dinner in town, and walking the small downtown area.
Places To Eat In Rapid City:
- Que Pasa Cantina
- Sickies Garage Burgers & Brews
- Tally’s Silver Spoon
- Firehouse Brewing Company
- Independent Ale House
Alternatively, you could forgo spending time in Rapid City and head to Badlands National Park in the late afternoon or early evening to catch a sunset in Badlands National Park and even get a hike in!
Day 2: Badlands National Park
First up on your South Dakota itinerary is Badlands National Park! From open grasslands that are home to scurrying prairie dogs, grazing bison, and rocking climbing big horn sheep to insane rock formations that make you feel like you landed on Mars, Badlands has to be among the most underrated National Parks in the U.S.
With only one day in Badlands, you should plan to start your day early. If you can be in the park before or by 8 am, you’ll be good to go!
Note: The below route assumes you are entering Badlands National Park from the “NE Entrance Station” and driving the park road, a 30-mile paved road that takes you to overlooks and trailheads, west through the park.
You can plan to follow the below route on the park road to experience the very best of Badlands National Park.
Things To Do In Badlands National Park
- Stop 1: As you enter the park from the NE Entrance Station, your first overlook will be Big Badlands Overlook
- Stop 2: After Big Badlands Overlook, it’s time to hike The Notch Trail. The best trail in Badlands National Park in our opinion!
- Stops 3-4: Once done hiking The Notch Trail, in the same parking lot you’ll find to very short walks to 1) The Door and 2) The Window. Both offer great viewpoints of Badlands.
- Stop 5: Next up, you can stop in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to learn more about Badlands National Park and pick up any souvenirs you wish to take home!
- Stops 6 – 11: The rest of the day can be spent driving the park road to some amazing viewpoints around the park. Our favorites are:
- White River Overlook
- Panorama Point
- Conata Basin Overlook
- Yellow Mounds Overlook
- Pinnacles Overlook
- Hay Butte Overlook (on Sage Creek Rim Rd).
- Optional: When you are at Hay Butte Overlook, you’ll be on the Sage Creek Rim Rd, which is a gravel road that takes you to other viewpoints, and backcountry sections of the park, and provides great opportunities for you to see wildlife!
- Exiting The Park: If you are looking to exit the park, the closest entrance will be the Pinnacles Entrance Station. You can exit the park from this Station or, drive back through the park and exit at the entrance you came from, NE Entrance Station.
Get more information on what to do in Badlands by reading our one day in Badlands travel guide!
Planning Tip: If you are staying in Rapid City, it will take you around an hour to get to Badland National Park. It’s best to avoid being in Badlands during the afternoon as 1) It can get hot (time of year dependent) and 2) The glare coming off the rocks makes it really, really, really hard to get good photos. You can take a break in the afternoon and head to Wall Drug to explore and get lunch. Then head back into the park once the sun gets less intense and catch a sunset. That’s what we did and it worked out really well!
Visit The Infamous Wall Drug
Now, no South Dakota itinerary is complete without the mention of Wall Drug. In fact, if you are driving to South Dakota, you’ll start seeing signs for Wall Drug some 200 miles away from Wall, South Dakota! So what is Wall Drug?
Well, to put it plainly, Wall Drug is an expansive tourist gift shop. Starting as a Drug Store in 1931, Wall Drug store quickly become THE stop for weary overland travelers as they offered free water and 5-cent coffee to those who entered through their doors. Some decades later, Wall Drug now has several stores that make up an entire downtown block of Wall. From fine leather products, t-shirts, mugs, and magnets to homemade fudge, a chapel (yes, a chapel), and a restaurant, Wall Drug still remains a popular stopping point for tourists visiting South Dakota.
Located 15 minutes away from Badlands National Park, stopping at Wall for lunch (TRY THEIR DONUTS!) and perusing this sprawling gift shop compound, is an easy way to kill an hour or two in the afternoon to beat the heat of Badlands National Park.
Day 3: Wind Cave National Park + Wild Life Loop
The second National Park to call South Dakota home is Wind Cave National Park. Located an hour south of Rapid City in the Black Hills, you’ll find Wind Cave National Park.
Wind Cave National Park is the 3rd largest cave in the United States and the 7th largest cave in the world. Size aside, Wind Cave National Park is home to the world’s largest concentration of boxwork, a unique formation rarely found elsewhere in the world. Wind Cave is also a sacred site as it is the place where the Native Lakota people believe their creation started.
Things To Do At Wind Cave National Park
- Drive The 18-mile Wildlife Loop: Since you will be coming from Custer, the 18-mile wildlife loop road is on your way to Wind Cave NP. The loop is known for the herds of bison, bighorn sheep, white-tailed and mule deer, elk, prairie dogs, and the famous begging burros. Yup, donkeys! These begging burros will come right up to your car window and expect a treat, so be sure to pack some carrots! It’s important to mention, that while you can feed the burros, you should not interact with or feed the other wildlife you’ll see on the loop. Oh, and your best chance to see wildlife is either early in the morning or just after sunset!
- Take A Tour of Wind Cave: If you want to see the inside of Wind Cave, taking a tour is the only way to do so. When thinking of taking a tour, understand you have a few options: 1. Garden of Eden Tour 2. Natural Entrance Tour (we took this one!) and 3. Fairground Tour. Wind Cave Tours take anywhere from 1-1.5 hours and you can expect to pay $12-$14 for the tour. These tours sell out so if you know the day and time you’ll be in Wind Cave National Park, make your cave tour reservation ahead of time. Oh, and plan to bring a jacket! The cave is a standard 54-degree year round so tours can get chilly!
- Hike to Rankin Ridge: Wind Cave National Park offers a lot to see above ground! Offering several hiking trails Rankin Ridge is an easy 1-mile loop trail that takes you to a fire lookout! On a clear day, we’re told you can see Badlands National Park from Rankin Ridge lookout!
- Hike Lookout Point Trail and Centennial Loop: Another top-rated and popular hike is the 5.2-mile Lookout Point Trail and Centennial Loop trail. This trail will take you through prairie fields where you have the chance to spot wildlife like bison and prairie dogs!
Optional Trip: Love caves?! Well 30 minutes away from Wind Cave National Park is Jewel Cave. Jewel Cave is the second largest cave in the United States and like Wind Cave, visitors can take a guided tour through its caverns and chambers.
Day 4: Custer State Park & Black Hills National Forest
Ok, we cannot say enough good things about Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest! We love this place! And if you’re a hiker or just love nature, then you will too! From its unique granite rock formations that splice from the earth to the sky, to amazing hiking trails and its fresh ponderosa pine forests, all your senses are in for a treat.
NOTE: Understand that Black Hills National Forest encompasses Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Deadwood, and Spearfish. It’s a large National Forest home to the most breathtaking scenery and land formations in all of South Dakota.
Start your morning off by heading into Custer and getting breakfast, a giant caramel cinnamon roll to be exact, from Baker’s Bakery and Cafe. Trust us, you won’t regret it. You’re going to have an active day, so it’s best to carb up 🙂
For more detail on things to do in Black Hill, check out our latest travel guide!
Things To Do In Custer State Park
- Stop 1: Sylvan Lake – After breakfast, head to Sylvan Lake. From Sylvan Lake, you have access to a few amazing trailheads. Now, if hiking isn’t your thing, and you have a paddle board or kayak, you can forgo taking a hike and spend some time paddling on the waters of Sylvan Lake. Or, grab your line and rod and get some fishing in!
- Stop 2: Hike Sunday Gulch – Depending on your fitness level, the Sunday Gulch Trail is a hike we absolutely loved! While the 3.9-mile Sunday Gulch Trail is rated as hard, that rating is not due to the elevation gain. Rather the “hard” is because you have to scale down large rock slabs using a series of steps and handrails to assist you. It’s a super fun hike and for those able to, we really suggest taking this trail!
- Stop 2 ALT: Sylvan Lake Shore Trail – Now, if Sunday Gulch sounds like a little too much for you, no worries at all! There is a lovely hiking path that circumnavigates Sylvan Lake that you can do instead. Sylvan Lake Shore Trail is a 1.1-mile loop and is rated as easy.
- Stop 3: Drive The Needles Highway – The Needles Highway (Highway 87) is a 14-mile 2-lane road that travels through the Black Hills, and some of the best parts of the Needles Highway are from Sylvan Lake to Cathedral Spires Trailhead. You’ll pass through Needles Eye (a one-way tunnel through a rock) and by viewpoints that you can pull over on to take in the views and get pictures of the impressive Black Hills and this winding highway. TIP: Make sure you check the clearance requirements before driving the Needles Highway, especially if you’re in a van, RV, or larger vehicle!
- Stop 4: Hike To Cathedral Spires and Black Elk Peak – Off the Needles Highway, you’ll find the Trailhead to Cathedral Spires. One of our favorite things we did during our South Dakota itinerary is hiking to Black Elk Peak via Cathedral Spires Trailhead! This is one hike that combines two of the best hikes not only in the Black Hills but in all of South Dakota! This 7.2-mile hike will take you to Black Elk Peak, the highest point not only in South Dakota but the tallest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrennes in Europe!
Get the complete list of can’t miss hikes in Custer State Park right here!
The top of Black Elk Peak, sitting at 7,242 feet in elevation, has fantastic views of the Cathedral Spires, the vast Black Hills, and even a lookout tower (Harney Peak Lookout) for you to walk through. We did this hike at sunset and can not recommend a sunset hike to Black Elk Peak enough! We had the entire peak to ourselves and got to watch the sunset over the Black Hills. A memory we won’t soon forget!
Get our complete travel guide on things to do in Custer & Custer State Park right here!
Tip: When hiking to Black Elk Peak at sunset, you’ll want to be sure to bring a headlamp, a jacket, and some snacks with you!
If hiking in the dark makes you nervous, no worries at all. Any time of day is a good time of day to get to the top of Black Elk Peak. It’s well worth it! Once down from Black Elk Peak, you can head into the town of Custer for some dinner and drinks. A few of our favorite Custer restaurants are Skogan Kitchen, Custer Beacon, and Pounding Fathers.
Day 5: Mount Rushmore & Crazy Horse Memorial
Get your day started early and visit some of the most iconic presidents the US has had in office. If you are not familiar with Mount Rushmore, it’s a sculpture on the hillside of the Black Hills that showcases the faces of four of the United States Presidents – George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson.
Work started on the National Monument in 1927. It took 400 people blasting dynamite, jackhammering, and drilling into the hillside until the monument was eventually completed in 1941. The biggest feat of it all, no one died in the sculpting of Mount Rushmore.
The cost to enter Mount Rushmore is free, outside of paying to park which is around $10 USD.
TIP: Get to Mount Rushmore well before 9 am if you are wanting to avoid the crowds. By the time 9 am rolls around, the place gets packed!
Things To Do At Mount Rushmore
- Walk the Avenue of Flags to the viewing deck to get your iconic Mount Rushmore Photo
- Hike the 0.9-mile Presidential Trail loop for a closer look at the four men on the rock
- Check out the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center to learn more about how Mount Rushmore was built
- Stop at the Sculptors Studio which is the place where Guzton Borglum worked from 1939-1941
Crazy Horse Memorial
It’s time to head 30 minutes down the road to see the Crazy Horse Memorial. To set your expectations, this memorial is far from finished. But the scale of what has been completed is impressive.
Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior famous for his role in the defeat of General Custer at Little Bighorn, was born in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He fought against the US Government to keep their land and culture intact. And for this reason, Crazy Horse was deemed the perfect symbol for this Memorial.
In 1948, work started on the Memorial by Korczak Ziolkowski. He and his family worked on Crazy Horse until Korczak’s death in 1982. Now, his children, his grandchildren, and other supporters carry on the work until it is finished. So, when will Crazy Horse be finished? Well, no one knows. Since Crazy Horse Memorial has not accepted government funding, the project is funded entirely by admission fees and donations.
It costs $15/per person in a vehicle and $10/per person on a motorcycle, bicycle, or walk to enter the grounds.
Things To Do At Crazy Horse:
- Take a bus ride to the base of the mountain for a close-up view of the Crazy Horse Memorial.
- Walk through the Native American Educational And Cultural Center where you can learn more about Native People’s ways of life and culture
- Enjoy the views of Crazy Horse Memorial from the outside viewing deck
- Walk around the gift shop or enjoy lunch at the Laughing Water Restaurant
Option: Visiting Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial only took us around a half day. We were done with both sites around 1 pm. If you want another activity, you can head to Custer State Park and enjoy an afternoon hike or time on Sylvan Lake!
Day 6: Deadwood
Yeehaw, ya’ll! (that’s our best attempt at Cowboy talk). Are you ready for one of the most iconic American Wild West Towns? We’re talking Deadwood. Rowdy Cowboys and Cowgirls like Wild Bill, Seth Bullock, Calamity Jane, and Poker Alice all roamed the streets of Deadwood.
It’s actually here in Deadwood where Wild Bill’s run came to an end. He was gunned down in a local tavern and that tavern is still in existence today! Outside of American History, Deadwood is actually a very charming town by day but at night, it turns into a little bit of a party.
Things To Do In Deadwood:
- Visit Mount Moriah Cemetery to see the graves of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane
- Wander down Historic Mainstreet
- Have a drink at the oldest bar in Deadwood, Buffalo Bodega
- Take a hike on George S. Mickelson Trail
- Belly up to the bar at Wild Bill Bar, the place where Wild Bill’s run came to an end
- See a staged Main Street Shootout
- Take a historic walking tour
Day 7: Spearfish
Your last stop on your 7 day South Dakota itinerary and it’s a good one! One of the most scenic drives in South Dakota and on our South Dakota itinerary is Spearfish Canyon. Spearfish Canyon is a 20-mile road (highway 14) that carves through a gorge with the Black Hills surrounding you on both sides. It’s beautiful!
The best thing about this 20-mile stretch of road is the beautiful things you can see along the way!
Things To Do in Spearfish
- Stop 1: Spearfish Falls, our favorite waterfall of the three! Plan to Park at Latchstring Restaurant. From here, you walk an easy 0.8-mile round trip to the bottom of this amazing waterfall.
- Stop 2: Hike the 76′ Trail. A 1.2-mile round trip hike takes you to a panoramic viewpoint of Spearfish Canyon.
- Stop 3: Roughlock Falls. You have two options on how to get to Roughlock falls. You can park at Roughlock Falls and walk the short path or, hike the 2.1 Roughlock Falls Trail to get to the waterfall. Up to you!
- Stop 4: Devil’s Bathtub. This is a natural waterslide, so if you are wanting to partake, bring a swimsuit! The 1.6-mile hike to Devil’s Bathtub is through a canyon with several stream crossings. It’s a lot of fun! At the end of the trail, you’ll find a small, earth-made slide with water rushing through. Sit on that and be pushed down into the very brisk waters below!
- Stop 5: Bridal Veil Falls. The easiest of the waterfalls to see is directly off of the scenic byway. Standing some 60 ft. high, Bridal Veil falls has an observation deck for you to view the rushing falls.
After Bridal Veil Falls, continue on the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway until you reach the town of Spearfish. Plan to end your day at Spearfish Brewing Company for a cold beverage and a bite to eat! Across the street is a great little ice cream parlor, Leone’s Creamery, if you’re looking for something sweet.
Have An Extra Day On Your South Dakota Itinerary?
You can also look into adding a day trip to Devil Towers in Wyoming. Devil’s Tower is around 1 hour from Spearfish, just over the state line into Wyoming. It’s a great day trip and a fun option if you have an extra day in the area. Devil’s Tower is also a great option to stop at if you are heading west to Yellowstone or Grand Teton.
Whatever you do, don’t visit Sturgis. The town is a ghost town when Bike Week is not happening. We drove through Sturgis on our way back to Rapid City and nothing was happening. Save yourself the day or at the very least a few hours and skip Sturgis.
Map of South Dakota Itinerary
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– Lauren & Jesse Stuart (The Stüs)