In these onerous times, the safest way to travel is a road trip via car or RV. Then you can easily social distance and still see spectacular places. Of course, if you’re a family the issue is always finding a trip that keeps all ages happy. Welcome to your South Dakota road trip…
By Jim Ferri
The southwestern corner of South Dakota – an area roughly 100 miles wide – is one of the best places in the USA for a family road trip.
It’s easily accessible by car and air service. There are also plenty of hotels, restaurants and campgrounds, and an incredible number of things to see and do. You’ll find national monuments and national and state parks; natural wonders; and plenty of activities to keep you busy for days.
The reason this South Dakota road trip / family vacation is good, it’s a near-perfect place for a family as well as a multi-generational group. From small children and teenagers right through to grandparents, there’s many things for everyone. Within an hour’s drive in almost any direction you’ll find an incredible number of things to do.
Even if you can’t take the trip this year, plan to take it sometime during the next few years. It’s a road-trip experience everyone in the family will remember forever.
The itinerary that follows is the route I took on a South Dakota road trip, before there were pandemic considerations. Note that we’ve given all driving distances from Rapid City since it’s in the center of the area of this road trip. You may want to follow our group’s daily route, or just drive directly from Rapid City to specific places.
Several of the areas listed here are under the aegis of the National Park System. The government is currently increasing access and services in a phased approach across all units of the National Park System. You can check the status of each park through the National Park Service site.
You should also check the access status of each of the other places I’ve listed below. If conditions don’t allow access this year, I would definitely plan to do this great road trip sometime in the future.
First Stop on My South Dakota Road Trip: Rapid City
I flew into Rapid City, the largest city in the region with a good airport. It’s also easily accessible by car (approximately a 6-hour drive from Denver, 7 hours from Omaha, and 8 hours from Minneapolis).
Rapid City is an interesting small city, nicknamed the “City of Presidents” for the life-size statues of U.S. presidents on its street corners. For some time after my arrival I just wandered around looking at many of the statues, which was quite interesting. I then joined the small group with whom I would take my South Dakota road trip.
That tour kicked off the next morning at a place called, incongruously enough, Black Hills Bagels in Rapid City, where our small group stopped for a quick breakfast.
I’m always dubious of any bagel created west of the Hudson River. It’s an attitude, along with my accent, that’s the result of my New York origins. So, I was shocked when the woman at the counter knew exactly what I meant by “poppy, toasted, with a schmear.”
As expected, it was unlike its Manhattan cousin – more a marriage of a bagel and a croissant – but it was deliciously different.
Bear Country USA, an Interesting Road-Trip Attraction
(Rapid City to Bear Country USA: 15 min via US-16 W)
Bolstered with a second cup of coffee, I joined my group and headed off to nearby Bear Country USA and the Reptile Gardens. Both were much different than the tacky road-trip attractions one encounters on the Interstates back East.
Bear Country USA is a unique drive-thru park featuring North American wildlife, and we encountered bears, wolves, elk, buffalo and other wildlife as we crept along on a three-mile serpentine drive.
While it was interesting being able to study the wildlife up relatively close from our car seats, most enjoyable was what the park people call Babyland – a walk-through area where you could see young animals, especially the numerous bear cubs, at play.
Nearby Reptile Gardens publicizes itself as “home to some of the rarest snakes in the world.” And despite my limited knowledge of serpents, it did seem to live up to its claim.
Although I’m not a snake person, the whole place had me mesmerized, especially the giant tortoise lumbering about outside.
Badlands National Park – Perfect for a Road Trip
(Rapid City to Badlands National Park: 55 minutes via I-90 E)
After lunch we headed east to the Badlands National Park. It’s a fascinating place you can’t experience anywhere else in the U.S.
A tortured landscape of pinnacles, domes and other fantastic shapes, it’s the remnant of a prehistoric inland sea that has become a geologist’s dream.
Pull your car into a cutout and you’re surrounded by layers of multicolored rock. Drive a few hundred yards and you’re among Bighorn sheep and other wildlife grazing along the roadside.
Since we’d be returning the next day, we didn’t spend much time there, and continued on to the Prairie Homestead. The Homestead is an original sod home built by pioneers, one of the few that remain today. It’s on the eastern edge of the park.
We were all taken aback by the austerity of the area. We were also shocked by how people could eke out a living here. Even, more importantly, how they could survive in the brutal extremes of the Great Plains in such a place.
It was fascinating to walk about the old farm, past implements rusting away in the tall prairie grass. All around chickens strutted about pecking for bits of food.
A Century-Old Road Trip Destination: Wall Drug
(Rapid City to Wall: 50 min via I-90 E)
Later, while passing through the adjacent town of Wall, we stopped at Wall Drug, a South Dakota landmark. The drugstore became popular during the Great Depression and Dust Bowl years by offering free ice water to travelers.
Today the surrounding town of Wall has grown into a village of kitsch, which also speaks of the history of this part of America. One of the places it speaks loudest is in the restaurant in the rear of Wall Drug.
There you’ll find one of the most extensive private collections of western art in the US. Most interesting is that the artwork hangs right on the wall by your table, so you can view it close up.
Today tiny Wall Drug has morphed into a mini-mall that encompasses a Traveler’s Chapel, a pharmacy museum, a cafe, a western-wear store and a shop for camping supplies, among others. If that’s not enough for your road-trip needs, cross the street and visit Dakota Mercantile, the Broken Arrow Trading Company, the Badlands Bar and the Cactus Saloon Casino.
The Badlands at Dawn
(Rapid City to Badlands National Park: 55 minutes via I-90 E)
The next morning, we were up well before dawn to head back to the Badlands to experience its famous sunrise.
After parking our car, we walked out on a boardwalk that wound around grass clumps and rocks for a few a few hundred feet. We passed one prominent sign that read “Beware Rattlesnakes!” At the end of the boardwalk, where we stepped back onto the rock-strewn moonscape, I saw another. “Baddest of the Badlands,” it read, “Beyond this point, self-reliance is key.”
The sunrise was nothing short of spectacular, one of the most beautiful vistas you’ll see anywhere. It was an unforgettable morning as the changing light cascaded across the kaleidoscopic layers of rocks.
It surprised me since it all seemed somewhat unreal, and not just because of the rugged, otherworldly nature of the Badlands. It was unreal because it contrasted so dramatically with my other South Dakota road-trip experiences, I’d had just a few days earlier…only a bit over an hour’s drive away.
We spent an hour or so enjoying the spectacle and its aftermath before driving off to Cedar Pass Lodge, a restaurant near the park ranger station headquarters. Breakfast was the typical eggs, pancakes and French toast, which were all very good. What made it extra special, however, was our view of the beautiful, colorful, changing landscape in front of us. It all made for a memorable meal.
Bette’s Kitchen, Then On to Wounded Knee
After breakfast our road trip took us across the rolling prairie hills on the reservation, on our journey of discovery. Midday, we stopped for lunch at Bette’s kitchen, a small restaurant that features home-style dining. Very home-style.
It was set up in the home of Bette O’Rourke, a descendant of Black Elk. He was a renowned member of the Oglala Lakota tribe (the Sioux) who witnessed the Battle of Little Bighorn. You can eat in Bette’s kitchen while viewing the photos of her family and ancestors or at outside tables.
After lunch we our South Dakota road trip on to Wounded Knee, site of the infamous 1890 massacre of the Lakota/Sioux. In 1973 the area was also occupied by the American Indian Movement. Knowing how important Wounded Knee was to American Indians, I was looking forward to visiting the area.
Unfortunately, when we arrived, I found it more depressing than impressive. Although considered a sacred place, the entire area was unkempt and overgrown. That included the mass common grave that, interestingly, is still being used as a cemetery. I was taken aback by how little, if anything, has been done to mark the site. And honor the individuals who lost their lives in the tragic incident.
After leaving Wounded Knee, we were off for a brief stop at the Red Cloud Indian School. It’s a Catholic school that serves Oglala Lakota Native American children on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Museum at Hot Springs Mammoth Site
(Rapid City to Hotsprings: 1 hour via SD-79 S)
After departing the school we set our sights on the Hot Springs Mammoth Site. Still an active paleontological dig site, it’s the world’s largest mammoth research facility.
Unfortunately, when we visited there were no digs underway, which I learned were only undertaken for 6-8 weeks a year in the summer. The museum, however, is built around the pits where the excavations are taking place. So no matter the time of year, you can see how everything was left in the pits from the previous years, bones and all.
Nevertheless, it was exceptionally interesting to learn how the site was created and to see the many Mammoth remains excavated. All in all, it was a good choice for a stop on a South Dakota road trip.
The Wild Horse Sanctuary, An Incredible Road-Trip Discovery
(Rapid City to Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary: 1 h 20 min via SD-79 S)
Outside Hot Springs we found another road-trip adventure at the Wild Horse Sanctuary, where wild horses run free through five canyons and across 11,000 acres of pristine prairie near the Cheyenne River. It was an incredible road experience on my South Dakota road trip.
An old school bus took us up to a hilltop where we found a wild herd of grazing horses. It was obvious they were used to humans, since they would allow you to get very close to them and it was an amazing and beautiful encounter. To the horse people in our group it was a wonderful experience; to the rest of us it was almost magical.
We spent our afternoon that day with more horses at the Rockin’ R near Custer where we took trail rides up into the Black Hills.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
(Rapid City to Mt. Rushmore: 30 min via US-16 W)
Of course, no road trip to South Dakota would be complete without a visit to the famous Mount Rushmore National Memorial. We visited the following morning at (you guessed it) sunrise.
In retrospect, sunrise was the perfect time to visit since it not only provided a more dramatic view of the monument but also allowed us to beat the crowds.
If you’re on a South Dakota road trip there’s a an added benefit when you visit a National Park early in the morning: there’s no entry fee at that time.
We also enjoyed a second benefit at 8:00a.m. when park’s Carvers Café opened. We then had an exceptional view of the Presidents with our morning coffee and breakfast.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Mt. Rushmore to Crazy Horse: 30 min via US-16 E/US-385 N and SD-244 E
Following breakfast, we were off to the memorial to Crazy Horse, an Oglala Lakota warrior, about 20 minutes away.
Crazy Horse is a truly spectacular site still in its construction stage. It’s so monumental that the entire quartet on Rushmore would be able to fit into the carving when it’s completed. Exactly when it will be completed is still unknown since the project is privately funded and the finished complex will also encompass a college for Indians, a visitor center, gift shop, etc.
After leaving the memorial we continued driving through the beautiful Black Hills, making an afternoon stop in Custer for a break. Although we didn’t visit it on our road trip, Wind Cave National Park was just a few miles away.
The Ultimate South Dakota Experience: the Great Buffalo Round-Up
The last day of our road trip we had the experience of attending the South Dakota Buffalo Roundup in Custer State Park in the Black Hills.
It may be difficult to replicate, however, since It’s an annual event held on one Friday in late September/early October. Still, it provides an authentic taste of America’s Old West and draws thousands. It’s done to cull the herd to ensure a balance between its size and available rangeland forage.
The two-hour event culminates in a chuck-wagon lunch for which there’s a nominal charge, although there’s no fee to attend the Roundup, and reservations aren’t required. Also, park entrance fees are also waived the day of the Roundup.
Deadwood: Last Stop on Our South Dakota Road Trip
(Rapid City to Deadwood: 50min via US-14 ALT E and I-90 E)
Following the Round-Up we continued our road trip by driving up to Deadwood, a historical old city in South Dakota known for its gold rush history. It’s the place made famous by the likes of Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane. It’s also where Wild Bill was shot and buried.
Today the entire town is a National Historic Landmark. You can learn why in the Days of ‘76 Museum, a very interesting museum with fascinating exhibits on life in the old American west.
Spend an hour or two in it before heading for a restaurant or the town’s historical gaming halls and casinos.
Not far away is the city of Sturgis (population approximately 7,000), best known for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (held annually in August) and the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame . The rally attracts 500,000 motorcyclists, concert-goers, vendors and tourists from all over the world.
– All photos by the author
If you go:
Travel South Dakota