A South Dakota road trip is one of the most exciting road trips to take in the U.S. It’s by far the most memorable road trip I’ve taken with my daughters. I’m excited to share this 10 day South Dakota road trip itinerary that works great for not only family travelers, but for solo and couple travelers as well.
This itinerary will take you to the very best destinations that South Dakota has to offer, give you food and hotel suggestions, and show you all the must see and must do attractions on each day. As a mom who travels alone with her two daughters, I’m always making sure to stay on budget. I made sure to include activities, restaurants, and accommodations at all price ranges.
This South Dakota Itinerary starts in the eastern part of the state and moves westward. You can easily reverse the itinerary if you’re traveling to South Dakota from the western part of the country. Of course you can remove days and locations as well if you have less than 10 days for your road trip.
In each day of the itinerary, I’ve listed things to do and several places that I’ve visited, that I think you’ll love to visit as well. Of course, you could make a huge list of things to do on each day, but don’t wear yourself down by trying to fit too much into one day.
This itinerary is exactly what you need, because there is so much to do in each place, how could you possibly narrow it down? The activities and attractions aren’t in any particular order. You can mix and match attractions, restaurants, etc. to fit your ideal South Dakota road trip.
While you’re road tripping through South Dakota you’ll learn that there are certain reoccurring themes that arise all through out the state. Native Americans, buffalo, and paleontology play huge rolls in the states history and culture. These aspects of the state are what will give you incredible experiences and memories while taking a South Dakota road trip.
Alright, let’s go!
South Dakota Road Trip 10 Day Itinerary
Day 1: Sioux Falls
The great waterfalls on the Big Sioux River is a must see S.D. Little kids love climbing along the rocks, getting sprayed by the mist, and playing in the sand. The park is full of sculptures, there’s a historic horse barn, ruins of an old mill, and you can get lunch with a perfect view at the Falls Overlook Cafe.
The Butterfly House & Aquarium
My daughters and I loved this stop on our South Dakota road trip! You can walk around with butterflies, feed them, enjoy the marine life, and there’s nifty hand-on activities for little kids. You can even touch anemones and pet sting rays in the aquarium!
Great Plain Zoo & Delbridge Museum of Natural History
See all of the awesome wildlife, eat at the cafe, ride the train around the zoo, and visit a natural history museum all in one. The museum has around 150 mounts of animals that were hunted back when they were all legal for hunting. The mounts are from 6 different continents and 38 of them are of “vanishing species” and our crucial for educational research.
The Old Courthouse Museum
Home to a huge motor bike collection, old toy and video game collection, as well as relics of the courthouse’s past. If you have a love for old buildings or history, you’ll be in heaven. The marble and hardwood floors, the intricate designs on the doors and corner pieces.. it’s all just so dreamy.
The walls are covered in murals, some are now water damaged, that were painted by a Norwegian Immigrant between 1915-1917. He was paid $500 for his work and some of the murals can still be seen undamaged today.
For something sweet in Sioux Falls, head to this cute little sweet shop where you can get macarons and other seriously delectable French pastries. I can smell the deliciousness just looking through the pictures of their treats!!
Day 2: Wall & Badlands
The gateway to the Badlands is this little town just a few miles from the northern entrance of the park, called Wall.
Wall Drug Store
Before heading to Badlands National Park, stop by the famous Wall Drug Store You can eat fresh donuts, see an 80 foot dinosaur, buy cowboy boots, eat at the cafe, and buy South Dakota made souvenirs.
The store started back in the 1930’s where the owners struggled to make it popular due to the isolated location. They attempted to draw people in by offering free ice water and to this day, Wall Drug Store still offers free ice water to everyone who visits. It’s a cool piece of South Dakota history that would be a shame to miss on a South Dakota road trip.
Badlands National Park
One of the best things you can do while you’re in the Badlands is drive through the park. The winding roads surrounded by the unique rock formations of the park is a seriously bucket list item for the United States.
Short Badlands Hikes For Parents & Kids
1.3 miles out and back, the notch trail is a lot of fun even for parent of younger kids. I hacked the Notch Trail with a two year old and 4 year old this August and we had a blast! No matter when you’re hiking this trail, the sun is brutal. Sun hats and lots of water are a must.
When it’s time to hike back out, stay towards the bottom of the trail and hike out through the canyons to avoid having to try to bring super small children back down the ladder. Going down was easy for my four year old, not so easy for my two year old.
Saddle Pass Trail
0.7 mile out and back, the Saddle Pass Trail is a good hike for when you don’t have much time or have kids. The trail is short, you get great views and picture opportunities, plus there’s a good chance for seeing wildlife.
You can see chipmunks scurrying along the rocks, sheep and pronghorn (often called antelope) walking along the walls of rock formations, and maybe even coyote or prairie dogs.
Camping In & Around The Badlands
If you like to camp while you travel or road trip, the Badlands has some of the best campsites in the whole country. We have spent weeks camping in South Dakota while we explore the state and these are some of our very favorite FREE campsites in and around the Badlands.
Pro Tip: Use the Campendium App to find free campsites wherever you are in the U.S. There’s a lot of apps people swear by when asked about how to find campsites. I have 7 of them on my phone right now, but the only one that seems genuinely reliable is Campendium.
Nomad View Dispersed Camping
This is a heavily used campsite around the badlands. DON’T let that deter you from using this campsite. I can’t recommend it enough! Everyone loves this site and you will too.
It works for tents, campers, vans, and even big RV’s, I’ve seen all types of campers and vehicle sizes here. As always I recommend getting to your campsite a few hours before dark, but if you can’t, don’t stress out because this site is HUGE.
Sage Creek Campground
Great for small campers/RV’s, tents, and van campers. This site has two
one-room bathroom buildings that have vault toilets, as well as picnic tables, some of which have a shade cover over the top. They have poles marking the campsite spots that I used to hang our Eno Hammock.
For the kids, the best part of this campsite is that the camp spots are in a circle around a big grassy area and in that area is tons of prairie dogs! Feeling the cool grassland breeze on our faces while we ate lunch and watched the prairie dogs play and communicate with each other was a memory we’ll never forget.
There are only around 20 campsites around the main grassy circle with site markers, BUT you can camp in the back field as well. The only difference is that there aren’t picnic tables or marked sites in the back camping area.
Day 3: Rapid City
Bear Country USA
This is a drive thru wildlife encounter in Rapid City that’s super exciting for kids… and me too! haha You can see arctic wolves, beavers, bobcats, big horn sheep, black bears, and other cool wildlife! If you have a large family, no worries, they won’t charge more than $65 per single vehicle. (kids 4 and under are free!)
Ahhh the famous dinosaur park! Let your kids burn their never ending energy walking around and climbing on dinosaur sculptures at this unique park in Rapid City.
Walk The City & Main Street Square
One of the most immersive experience when traveling is to walk among the unique architecture of the area that you’re in. Rapid City has a combo modern and typical mid-western architecture style. In the center the Main Street Square in the summer there’s a splash pad/fountains and in the winter the area turns into an ice rink where you can rent ice skates.
South Dakota Air & Space Museum
Located at Ellsworth Air Force Base just outside of Rapid City, this cool museum is free and available to the public (you don’t need to be able to get onto the base to visit the museum.) There’s an open air museum that has 30 aircrafts that you can walk around, touch, and read about, and typical indoor museum space as well.
The Silver Lining Creamery
Feed your sweet tooth with chocolate dipped sprinkle waffle cones and rows of vibrant colored ice creams. Love the flavors so much you can’t stand it? You can even get a pint to take with you!
Accommodation In Rapid City, South Dakota
The best part about Rapid City? The accommodation is so cheap! You can easily find hotels for $40-$55/night. I’ve listed a few budget options for you below. Which one floats your boat?
America’s Best Value Inn
Serena Inn & Suites
Super 8 By Wyndham
Day 4: Mt. Rushmore & Keystone
Mt. Rushmore is just 8 minutes from the city center of Keystone. Before making the quintessential South Dakota road trip stop at Mt. Rushmore, explore the city of Keystone!
Rushmore Tramway Adventures
You can zip line, ride an alpine slide, do a ropes course, eat at the cafe, take the scenic chair lift, or if you’re feeling brave jump off of the jump tower.
Keystone Historical Museum
This museum building was built with early Victorian architecture and holds Carrie Ingalls memorabilia, classrooms from the past, a bath tub that Howard Taft actually used, antique furniture, and more.
Keystone Old Town Walking Tour
On this self-guided walking tour, you’ll see the buildings from the late 1800’s when Keystone was a one of the fastest growing boom towns in the Black Hills. You’ll walk by saloons, old mines, a doctor’s office, ice house, blacksmith, a church, school, old houses, and more historic buildings.
15 minutes west of Keystone is the 1880 train depot. Book a 3-hour round trip ticket for $32 and enjoy a ride through the black hills on an authentic old steam engine. Kids tickets are just $16 for a round trip and kids two and under are FREE.
Ruby House Restaurant
Ready for a hearty mid-western cowboy meal? Ruby House can you give you one served in an old saloon. Velvet dark red wallpaper, wooden bar, and rifles on the wall give you the complete experience of eating in the old west.
I’m just going to go ahead and tell you the truth here. It’s overrated. Oh my god, don’t kill me. It is. I’m happy I saw it. If I was traveling with others and they hadn’t seen Mt. Rushmore before, I’d happily go again. I’m just trying to be realistic here, there’s not much to do and you have to pay $10 to park and I was mad about that at the time, haha.
Don’t get me wrong, going to Mt. Rushmore IS fun. The ice cream shop has yummy flavors, you can get cute pictures of your kiddos, have a meal at the cafe and there’s nothing like being in the Black Hills, they’re unlike any other place on Earth. You can check out the visitors center, visit the sculptors studio, and walk the 0.6 miles Presidential Trail.
If your kids are interested in the Junior Ranger program, you can complete that right there at Mt. Rushmore. I use to think that Mt. Rushmore was a place I could spend half a day or more exploring, but nowhere is really as we think it to be. It’s always after we see it for ourselves that we can truly know the place for what it truly is. Generally, one-two hours is the perfect amount of time to spend at Mt. Rushmore.
Day 5: Crazy Horse Memorial & Custer
Crazy Horse Memorial
The Native American version of Mt. Rushmore, is the Crazy Horse Memorial. You can spend much more time here than at Mt. Rushmore. Admission is $30 for 3 or more people per vehicle and that gives you access to three museums and scheduled cultural programs.
Custer County 1881 Courthouse
You can see artifacts of Custer’s past, including old cars, rifles, Native Indian moccasins, and more. There’s only a small entrance fee, activities for kids, and it’s next door to a great barbecue restaurant, Dakota BBQ.
Big Rock Park
Walk the 0.5 mile Custer Skywalk Trail in Big Rock Park to get views over Custer and of the big light up “CUSTER” sign that looks so cool at night-time.
Black Hills Burger & Bun Co
Get yourself a mouth watering burger topped with an egg or pepper poppers. Wash it down with a selection of seasonal beers. Full Menu
Custer is home to the cutest little motel! You can get your own charming little chalet for less than $100/night. The best part is it’s location is perfect for walking downtown. You can reach shops, attractions, and restaurants within 2-5 blocks of the chalet.
Day 6: Custer State Park
*You can get a 7-day pass for Custer State Park for $20 per vehicle*
Drive the Needles Eye Highway
You’ll love driving the Needles Highway, I know we sure did. The highway takes you by Sylvan Lake and through three rock tunnels. The highway was completed in 1922 after two years of construction and dynamiting.
Drive the Wildlife Loop
On this beautiful drive through Custer State Park, you can see a heard of more than 1300 buffalo, pronghorn, mountain goats, big horn sheep, deer, elk, and more native wildlife species.
The loop is an 18 mile scenic byway that can occasionally get pretty crowded if all the vehicle are stopped to view wildlife. Keep this in mine when planning your day in Custer State Park.
Gordon Stockade Historic Site
Make a quit pit stop while you’re in Custer State Park to walk around inside the fort and learn about Gordon Stockade. The site also shares a little information about the prospectors who came westward looking for gold. You only need about 15 minutes to walk around the area.
Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center
In this state park visitors center there are interactive kids activities and a collection of mounted wildlife specimens all of which are species that can be found in Custer State Park.
Hikes For Parents & Kids In Custer State Park
Cathedral Spires Trail
This 1.6 mile trail will only take you around an hour to hike. Unless you have toddlers or super young kids, that’s a whole different story, haha. The cathedral spires are a famous naturally formed landmark in Custer State Park and the trail in one of the most popular.
Sylvan Lake Shore Trail
Another good option for parents who are traveling with their kids is the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. It’s only 1.1 miles and takes around half an hour to hike. It’s an easy walk and you can find some picnic tables along the lake to stop for lunch or a snack.
The lakes of Custer State Park
The rock formations protruding up out of Sylvan lake and the surround fir trees make Sylvan lake one of the most beautiful lakes I’ve seen on our travels. You can swim, kayak, SUP, or canoe from the lake.
The lake that we spent the most time at in Custer State Park. Your little one will love swimming in the lake for hours while you sit back in the sand with a good book. Bring a folding camp chair, lots of bug spry, water, and snacks! There’s also a playground, small walk trail, and a restaurant over looking the lake.
Also, be aware that there are leeches in the water there. My four year old had a small leech on a boo boo she had on her leg after spending hours in the water. Not a single other person there that I saw ever saw a leach or said anything out loud about them. I just peeled it off real quit while she wasn’t looking and it didn’t harm her at all. Just something to be aware of.
If you’re looking for a lake you can camp around, Center Lake. Sylvan and Stockade lake seem to get all the attention and that’s really a shame because you may overlook Center Lake entirely. There are 71 campsites around the lake for tent camping, van and smaller RV’s.
If you’re wanting a lake where you can have lunch on a picnic table by the water, go kayaking, fish off a dock, and view beautiful state park wildlife, Stockade is your lake. You can see Bald Eagles and Ospreys, see a pretty waterfall and bridge area on the south side, and even rent a cabin on the lake.
Day 7: Wind Cave National Park & Hot Springs
Hike The Wind Cave Canyon Tail
The hike is a 3.8 mile out and back trail. Don’t let that scare you if you have kids with you, because it’s really more of a walk than a hike. However, this a trail this long really isn’t ideal for toddlers and super young kids. For parents and older kids or experienced younger kids, it’s perfect!
The bison actually walk in the fields and around the trails that you’ll be walking on!! Super exciting and super scary at the same time, haha. It’s a really pretty trail, but make sure to bring water and wear a sun hat because it is super sunny.
Rankin Ridge Trail
A shorter trail option, and one with breathtaking mountain ridge views; the Rankin Ride Trail is only 1 mile and is the definition of a perfect black hills trail. Walking among protruding rock formations and pine trees while you have views of the mountains and wildlife is seriously just so perfect.
Big Time Pizza
Once you make your way to Hot Springs, SD make sure you get a slice of mouth watering pizza from this pizza joint. Not only do they have good pizza, they also have a great selection of local beers, and are famil owned and operated.
The Mammoth Site
In Hot Springs in 1974 a mammoth was discovered by a heavy machine operator in a housing development. Over the follow years more than 60 mammoths were unearthed, giving the area the name, Mammoth gravesite.
It didn’t take long for the housing development to be canceled and now the site is an attraction for you to visit. Along with the 60+ mammoths, you can also see more than 85 other species of animals that were found at the site.
Establish in 1890, this is the oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills. Evans has kiddie pools, swimming pools, slides, and other typical pavilion and water park attractions. What make it so special is that all their pools are fed with water from a natural mineral hot spring.
Since the pools are spring fed, they stay at a temperature of 87 degree Fahrenheit year around. An astonishing 5,000 gallons of water flows into the pools every minutes!
When Is The Best Time To Take A South Dakota Road Trip?
Since South Dakota is in the northern part of the United States, I recommend avoiding visiting in the winter and early spring. Driving through the mountains in the western part of the state during the snow season around the month of March would be a nightmare. Plus, in the winter, Sioux Falls average daily temperature is 7 degrees Fahrenheit. brrrrr!
Visiting in the summer is always a popular option, but despite being so far north, South Dakota still gets really hot in the summer. If you visit in the summer you also have to deal with crowds, packed camp grounds, and increased hotel prices. When I was in South Dakota in August, even super budget hotels like the Motel 6 in Keystone where you can normally get a room for around $50/night had upped their prices to $100/night or more.
Also, if you visit in August, you have to deal with the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The rally brings in around 500,000 people on average, but sometimes more than 700,000. The visitors to the rally enjoy visiting popular spots in South Dakota while they’re in the state for the rally. The week leading up to the rally bring a lot of bikers as well. They arrive early to enjoy all the vendors and activities before the rally officially begins and crowds get worse.
If you decide to take your South Dakota road trip in the August, you should check the dates of the rally if that’s something you want to avoid being caught up in. Of course, this could be right up your alley and maybe August is the perfect time for you to visit. I know some motorcycle-loving kids would love to visit South Dakota during the rally as well.
For the best weather, you should visit in late summer. During the day, it’s still warm enough to swim outdoors in the lakes or pools and it’s cool enough at night to camp if you want to. Hot but not miserable in the day and you can sit outside by a campfire in hoodie at night.. perfect!
South Dakota is the 5th least populous state in the country and is the perfect place for a cross state road trip. This itinerary guides you through mountains and forests and send you searching for dinosaur fossils, and buffalos. If you’re looking for an excitement packed South Dakota road trip itinerary, you’ve found it!
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