Discover What Makes South Dakota Wander-ful

Feb 11, 2021

Thanks to Mount Rushmore, every day is Presidents Day in South Dakota. This American icon is a must-see on any road trip, but there’s massively more to discover across the state.

So leave time to wander—whether that’s to find the world’s largest pheasant in Huron or to get stuck in a bison jam while in Custer State Park. To help you plan your road trip through South Dakota, we’ve paired a more famous "must-see" with one "don't miss" that should also be on your list. 

A Day with Presidents, Big and Small

Must-See: As impressive as the 60-foot-tall sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln are up close and in person, the road to get to Mount Rushmore is its own work of art.

Route 16A may not look like much on a map, but the 17-mile drive on Iron Mountain Road from Custer State Park to the entrance of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a singular drive through the towering pines, stunning scenery and abundant wildlife of the Black Hills.

Designed in 1933 (while Rushmore was still a work in progress), the drive is meant to be a meander—with 300+ curves that, in some places, take the shape of wooden pigtail bridges as you climb toward the presidential precipice. Perhaps the most memorable aspect of the drive are the one-lane tunnels built into the Black Hills granite that are oriented so the sight at the end of the tunnel is a framed view of Mount Rushmore.

Don't Miss: While the quartet of presidents at Rushmore is impressive, you can find even more presidents at many downtown intersections in nearby Rapid City. And these giants of American history are perfectly sized for selfies.

Park your car and walk amid the 43 bronze sculptures that line the sidewalks of Main and St. Joseph streets between 4th and 9th avenues. Seek out John F. Kennedy (Main & Mount Rushmore Road) walking with his son. Put on your cowboy hat and pose alongside Ronald Reagan (St. Joseph & 6th) or give the newest addition to the lineup, Barack Obama, a high five at St. Joseph and 4th. The statues aren't chronological—for example, George Washington is hanging out with Jimmy Carter, Reagan and Andrew Johnson—so a map is handy.

Rapid City is within a short drive of much of the state's Great 8 attractions as well as the Black Hills National Forest. It is also home to an eclectic mix of free attractions ranging from Art Alley, a constantly evolving collection of murals and street art that decorates a downtown alley near all those presidents, to Dinosaur Park, with its life-size dinosaurs (and 100-mile views of the Badlands to the east), to the picture-perfect Chapel of the Hills, an exact replica of a Norwegian stave church set in a peaceful park.

Legends of the Fall(s)

Must-See: On the eastern side of South Dakota sits the state's largest city, Sioux Falls. Road-trippers coming north on I-29 or west on I-90 will want to stop in town to stretch their legs and catch a view of the city's namesake, where the Big Sioux River drops 100 feet over pink quartz at Falls Park.

One of the few cities in the country with a waterfall downtown, the park is part of a massive greenway that includes a 29-mile loop around the city. Further downstream you'll find the new Arc of Dreams, a stainless steel sculpture that rises 85 feet above the Big Sioux River.

Don't leave Sioux Falls before indulging your sweet tooth at CH Patisserie, helmed by Top Chef: Just Desserts winner Chris Hanmer (the macarons alone are worth a road trip), and trying out the city's up-and-coming craft beer scene, whether it's tasting clever creations like the Barrel-aged Peanut Butter Werewolf at WoodGrain Brewing Co. or paying a beer forward through the Pints for People program (pre-pay a beer and leave a sticker for a teacher or first responder or someone with your middle name to claim) at Severance Brewing Company's award-winning taproom while you enjoy a view of Falls Park.

Don't Miss: Across the state, another set of waterfalls are decidedly not downtown. In the northern Black Hills, Spearfish Canyon was carved out of limestone over millennia by Spearfish Creek and is home to three waterfalls worth a detour as you drive the 19-mile scenic byway (Route 14A) through the canyon featured in Dances with Wolves.

The 60-foot Bridal Veil Falls is the easiest to locate, with a viewing area and ample parking right by the road. Melting winter snows mean that the falls are strongest in the spring months. A short hike to a side canyon brings you to the multi-tiered Roughlock Falls; visit in the fall to feature incredible foliage in your shot for the 'gram. While the final waterfall—Spearfish Falls—is off the beaten path, it's worth the extra steps down into the canyon for the best view.

Centuries in the Making

Must-See: While the Lakota people first named the rugged terrain near the middle of South Dakota "mako sica" (literally meaning "bad land"), there's a lot of good stuff to be found in this 244,000-acre national park. It took millions of years for the layers of sedimentary rock to erode into the buttes, spires and canyons that form the stunning, otherworldly landscape of  Badlands National Park. You should plan on spending at least a day exploring it yourself, if for no other reason than the shifting sun and shadows will show off the striped rock formations in a whole new light—especially in the magic hours surrounding sunrise or sunset.

Start by branching off of I-90 and taking a trip around the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, a 39-mile trip that pretty much defines "scenic route". Along the way, you'll want to pull over in spots like the Pinnacles Overlook (this is where you want to be at sunset) or Panorama Point (great for sunrises). 

Don't Miss: While the Badlands is a hotbed for fossils that date back millennia, the artifacts found at the 1,000-year-old Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village are relatively youthful by comparison. This Native American site has been an active archaeological excavation for more than 100 years, and in recent years, students from nearby Augustana College and the UK's University of Exeter help uncover new finds each summer as part of a field study.

All of the work happens inside the Thomsen Center Archeodome, which is open to the public during the summer months. For a look at some of the 1.5 million artifacts found at the site, visit the Boehnen Memorial Museum, also along the shores of Lake Mitchell.

Honoring the Past

Must-See: You don't often get to see a work of art as it takes shape, but visitors to the Crazy Horse Memorial can see a mountain being transformed. Work on this tribute to the legendary Lakota Sioux leader started in 1948 as Chief Standing Bear, a cousin of Crazy Horse, asked Polish-American sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski to create a mountain carving that rivaled Mount Rushmore. Talk about big plans: when finished, the sculpture is intended to be 641 feet long and 563 feet high, or nearly 10 times the size of the nearby presidents. While both men have since passed away, their families picked up the cause and a foundation now oversees the work.

Crazy Horse's face and arm are now visible as work continues. If you visit in the summer months, a Laser Light Show brings the big plans to life each night. The campus surrounding the memorial showcases Native American art, culture and heritage through events and museums. 

Don't Miss: Smaller in scope, but no less impressive, Dignity of Earth & Sky is a 50-foot stainless steel statue of a Native American woman in Chamberlain. Dedicated in 2016, the statue keeps a watchful gaze over the Missouri River and has quickly become a popular stop for travelers making the trip across I-90 (it's about two hours west of Sioux Falls).

Draped across the Native woman's outstretched arms is a star quilt with 128 blue diamond shapes that glitter in the sun as they flutter in the prairie wind. At night, LED lights illuminate the statue, casting dramatic shadows and giving Dignity a quiet grace.

Drama Comes Naturally

Must-See: If you're looking to get from point A to point B in a hurry, you needn't try the 14-mile Needles Highway in Custer State Park. But as you wind your way through dramatic needle-like granite formations that pierce the sky (and give the road its name), as well as the forests of ponderosa pine, aspen and Black Hills spruce, you won't mind spending the extra time on the road. 

For some, threading their car through the narrow Needle's Eye and Iron Creek tunnels (both are less than nine feet wide) will be enough adventure for one day. If you're up for more, this stretch of SD Hwy 87 has access to hiking (the Cathedral Spires Trail takes you through the Needles formations), rock climbing and kayaking across the mirrored surface of Sylvan Lake.

Don't Miss: On the other side of the state near Sioux Falls, another state park is popular among the locals but has stayed below the radar for many out-of-state visitors. Split Rock Creek flows along 50-foot vertical cliffs of pink Sioux quartzite that draw rock climbers, photographers and hikers to Palisades State Park.

Take Time to Slow Things Down

Must-See: One of the benefits of driving in South Dakota is that there's generally not much traffic, unless you happen across a herd of the 1,400+ buffalo that roam the rolling prairies along the Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway in Custer State Park. When that happens, stay in your vehicle (buffalo are gentle giants, but very powerful) and wait for the buffalo jam to clear while you fill your phone with buffalo photos.

On your self-guided safari through the 71,000-acre park, you may also see deer, elk, bighorn sheep, pronghorn and prairie dogs amid the grasslands and pine-covered hills. If you visit in the spring months, you may see baby animals taking their tentative first steps.

Don't Miss: Famed author Laura Ingalls Wilder moved as a young girl with her family to De Smet in eastern South Dakota so her family could settle a 160-acre plot of land that would help inspire her famous "Little House on the Prairie" books. The Ingalls Homestead brings her experience to life in a family-friendly way, with covered-wagon and pony-cart rides, a one-room schoolhouse and farm activities from the 1880s, including making rope and the surprisingly popular chore of hand-washing clothes.

Ready to Go? Check out itineraries, scenic drives and travel tips on the to help plan your trip.

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