When most tourists visit South Dakota they drive through with a quick stop at Mount Rushmore, but what they don’t realize is that there are so many more things to do in South Dakota. Don’t get us wrong, Mount Rushmore is amazing but honestly even cooler things than the big faces here in South Dakota.
How Many Days to Spend on a Road Trip in South Dakota?
The perfect amount of time is a 3 day South Dakota road trip in the region that will show you the beauty of South Dakota. On previous trips, we ourselves are guilty of visiting South Dakota and only going to Mount Rushmore. On our last trip in the spring, we went on a 3-day road trip starting and ending in Rapid City, South Dakota.
There are a ton of accommodation options from hotels, log cabins, camping, and B&B’s. If you don’t want to switch hotels every night there are a few options. We opted to spend the night in 3 different cities to maximize our time exploring South Dakota.
If you’d rather stay in one room you could stay in town that is central to most things like Hill City for the first two nights and then a night near the Badlands National Park. We loved our log cabin at High Country Guest Ranch just outside of Hill City. Or you could stay in Rapids City the whole time as each of the below stops is within a 1.5-hour drive.
Rapid City Distance To South Dakota Attractions
1.5 hours to Spearfish via Blackhills National Forest 385 goes through Deadwood 1 hour via 1-90 goes through Sturgis
If you plan on flying to South Dakota you’ll fly into Rapid City, this is where we started our South Dakota road trip. Not many destinations have direct flights to Rapid City, we had a quick layover in Denver. As soon as we landed we jumped in our rental car and hit the road heading towards the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Drive
Make your way down HYW 385 North on the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway through the Blackhills for some epic views. There are several short hikes & waterfalls not far off the road that are worthwhile.
There are 3 waterfalls that are easily accessed within a 5-minute walk. We visited Roughlock Falls, Little Spearfish Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls. Our favorite was the Bridal Veil waterfall. There is a viewing platform right off the road, but for the more adventurous walk down and cross the river via logs/rocks to get up close.
We spent the night in Spearfish, which is full of accommodation and restaurants. We highly recommend the pizza at Dough Trader and the beers from Crow’s Peak Brewing. If you don’t get a chance to grab a pint at the Crow’s Peak tasting room it’s sold at restaurants & gas stations in South Dakota.
A trip to South Dakota wouldn’t be complete without visiting Mount Rushmore. Head back down 385 on the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. Mount Rushmore is nothing short of amazing. Make sure to visit the museum below the viewing deck for some history & statistics. Mount Rushmore is only an 80 minute morning scenic drive away.
If you travel during the summer months it will be busy no matter what time of day so no need to rush. If you happen to be visiting during the evening try and stay for the evening lighting ceremony of Mount Rushmore. There is a cafeteria and we highly recommend the mint chip ice cream.
Cars, Motorcycles, and RVs – $11 per vehicle
Evening lighting ceremony of Mount Rushmore May 26, 2017–Oct 1, 2017
Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest Mountain Carving in progress. We personally didn’t visit. Crazy horse is only 20 minutes from Mount Rushmore.
$28.00 Per car – more than 2 people
$22.00 = 2 people in car
$11.00 = Per person
$5.00 = Per person on motorcycles, or bicycles
Custer State Park
After exploring all the things to do near Mount Rushmore make your way to Custer State Park. It’s South Dakota’s largest and oldest state park. There are several scenic drives, hikes, over 1,500 free-roaming bison, fishing, and much more.
Hands down our favorite thing in the park was driving the Needles Highway. The rock formations on the drive will blow you away, don’t forget to mount the GoPro to the windshield for this drive.
If you want to stay right on the edge of the park check out Sylvan Lake Lodge. It has some of the best views of Sylvan lakes and the perfect location for exploring Custer State Park.
We spent the night in Hill City at High Country Guest Ranch in a cute log cabin. This would be a great place to base yourself for several nights. We highly recommend eating dinner at the Alpine Inn. We were first told about this restaurant by some Instagram followers and then again by a few locals.
The Alpine Inn only serves two things for dinner, filet mignon or a Spaetzle Primavera. We opted for the 9-ounce bacon-wrapped filet for $13.95 and we weren’t disappointed. This place is a steal, for less than $50 we each got a 9-ounce steak dinner, dessert, two beers, and a glass of wine.
If you visit during the summer expect there to be a line before dinner service even starts. Their lunch menu is much larger. Click here for Trip Advisor reviews.
Day 3 Badlands National Park
Wake up early and head back to Custer National Park for sunrise and a morning hike before continuing on your South Dakota road trip. The Badlands National Park is 1.5 hours from Custer State Park, it’s an easy drive down I-90.
On your way to the park make sure to stop at Wall Drug in Wall South Dakota. You will see sign after sign along I-90. It’s a great place to stop and have lunch before heading into the park. We suggest staying at a hotel in Wall it’s only a 10-minute drive to the entrance of the park and it has good options.
We suggest trying to arrive around lunch so you have most of the day to drive through the park and find the perfect spot for sunset. If you plan on waking up for sunrise the next day also scope out where to watch the sunrise, we suggest Window Trail on the east end of Badlands National Park.
Make sure to build time into your South Dakota road trip itinerary to watch the sunset in Badlands N.P.
The Badlands look out of this world. The park is 244,000 acres and is said to contain one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Apparently, even rhinos once roamed in South Dakota. Now you will find bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.
For us the Badlands National Park perfectly summarizes this part of South Dakota, it’s amazing and nothing like what you expect. Before traveling to the Badlands and South Dakota we would have thought this park existed somewhere in the southwest of the country, not in South Dakota. The Badlands and our entire road trip in South Dakota surprised us in a very good way.
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Have you gone on a South Dakota road trip? What would you add to our route?
While Mt. Rushmore is what brings most people to South Dakota there is so much more to this beautiful part of the country. For more on South Dakota check out our Things to do near Mt. Rushmore Article.
This post was sponsored by Travel South Dakota. Thanks to Travel South Dakota for inviting to explore your amazing state. As always all of our opinions are our own.
I visited SD from Pa back in 1969 with my parents on a trip out west to California and Arizona (relatives in Mesa). It was the highlight of our entire trip. I was astounded by the Badlands, right after a severe thunderstorm evening. Then the sun came out the rock formations glittered. We loved the Black Hills ! A bison blocked our path in the Custer State Park Scenic Loop.
I've always wanted to revisit. Now retired, I want my wife to see it as well. We are planning a trip from NC this September.
Monday 25th of May 2020
We are planing a 3 day roadtrip through SD this next month and this is perfect! Thank you so much - pretty sure we will make it to all of these stops you suggested. We are going to just stay in Rapid City for 3 nights as our home base. :) Excited and thank you for taking the time to do write this out!
Wednesday 26th of December 2018
Great article. Thank you
Saturday 25th of August 2018
We will be driving from Minneapolis. So, I am thinking that we'd drive from Minneapolis to Wall, SD. Stay overnight in Wall. Then the next day (day 1) Badlands for the day and then drive to near Custer State Park and spend the night. The day 2, Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore, and stay overnight near there. On day 3, take the scenic route to Spearfish with plenty of stops along the way. Dinner and a good night's sleep in Spearfish and had back to Minneapolis the next morning.
Monday 3rd of September 2018
Sounds like you've mapped out your trip perfect. There are so many great places to road trip to in South Dakota! Make sure to get up early for sunrise at Badlands National Park.
Thursday 19th of July 2018
I cannot say enough about the Black Hills. It was our first stop on a mega road trip across the states, and it blew us away. We loved the scenic drives like Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road and the hiking inside Custer State Park was exciting too. So many places, so little time! I know it's hard to plan and most people don't have the time to take off work, but I highly suggest to your readers to try to plan for a few more days to explore the area if possible. We were so happy we stayed for six days (including the Badlands) to explore. I would add a hike to Little Devil's Tower (3 miles round trip) with spectacular views of Cathedral Spires and the highest peak in South Dakota. And a drive on Spearfish Canyon National Byway, there are a few easy walks to beautiful cascading waterfalls. Thanks for all your tips!
Thursday 19th of July 2018
The Black Hills are gorgeous! What a great place for your first stop on a USA road trip. The longer you have always the better, there are so many things to do see in South Dakota. Getting out for a hike is always one of our favorites too.