The Road Ahead: What Awaits is Great in South Dakota

Dec 9, 2020

Let's admit it upfront. South Dakota might not be the first vacation spot that comes to mind for many travelers. But when 2020 is safely in the rearview mirror, you're probably going to want to go on a road trip. And when that happens, this Midwestern state is miles ahead of the competition.

Once you drive across the wide-open spaces with rolling hills of grassland, marvel at the dramatic rock formations sculpted by hand and time, break bread at small-town diners with legit farm-to-table food and stare up into the starry night sky -- you'll quickly understand that South Dakota is seriously underrated.

So whether you bring the family or friends in the car or hop on a motorcycle for a more adventurous ride, don't miss the state's Great 8 and quirky side attractions that put South Dakota on the map.

As far as national parks go, this one rocks.

Without peeking, can you name the four presidents on Mount Rushmore National Memorial? Like the Statue of Liberty, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, Rushmore is one of those bucket-list icons of Americana that really needs to be seen in person.

Carved into granite and rising dramatically above the Black Hills National Forest, the 60-foot-tall sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln were completed in 1941. A visit to this free National Park site (parking is $10 for cars), details the 14-year work on the memorial -- and that the heads were only the beginning of the original plan. 

Although three million visitors come to the park each year, it rarely seems crowded. Visit in the morning for the smallest crowds and dramatic sunrise shadows -- the park opens daily at 5 a.m. Trails around the park offer unique vantage points and photo ops for a presidential selfie or two. Head to the outdoor amphitheater during summer nights to witness a flag-lowering ceremony and lighting of the memorial.

The landmark is located about 30 minutes from Rapid City, a good base of operations if you plan to check out more of South Dakota's Great 8, seven of which can be found in the southwest quadrant of the state. 

This work of art is a work in progress.

Crazy Horse Memorial is 17 miles southwest of Mount Rushmore, making it easy to visit both in a single day. This tribute to the Lakota Sioux leader has been under construction since 1948, and will be the largest mountain carving in the world once complete. Even cooler, you can see the sculpture face to face on special guided tours (for a fee).

Visit during the day when sculptors carve the granite by hand -- if you're lucky, you might even see some dynamite in play. Visitors can interact with Native American artists, attend lectures, learn more at museums dedicated to Native American culture and heritage, catch the nightly Laser Light Show (Memorial Day to Sept. 6) and witness a Night Blast (scheduled in 2021 for June 26 and Sept. 6), where pyrotechnics help this monumental effort take shape.

This is where the buffalo roam (but you can explore too).

The 71,000-acre Custer State Park, a 30-minute drive south of Rapid City, is a haven for outdoor adventure, hiking trails and scenic drives through this swath of the Black Hills.

Needles Highway (SD Hwy 87) is a 14-mile drive of sharp turns and narrow tunnels through pine and spruce forest that gets its name from the granite rock formations alongside the road. For an up-close view, stop for a 1.5-mile hike on the Cathedral Spires Trail along the base of these towering giants.

Also on Needles Highway is Sylvan Lake, which is a popular (and picturesque) stopping point with a swimming beach, boat rentals and campsites. The 3-mile Sunday Gulch Trail can be accessed from the lake area, and is a good cardio workout as you hike over boulders down into the gulch, then climb back over them on the way out. For a longer hike with a great view at the end, Trail No. 9 is a 7-mile trek to Black Elk Peak, the tallest point east of the Rockies at 7,242 feet.

For another only-in-South-Dakota experience, drive the Wildlife Loop Road, where buffalo, antelope, bighorn sheep and burros roam. Visit in the early or late hours for the best chance to see animals in action, and you'll enjoy South Dakota's version of rush-hour traffic.

Think he's got the travel itch. #HiFromSD #buffalo #roadtrip #DiscoverAmerica #CusterStatePark #FindYourPark

A video posted by South Dakota Dept. of Tourism (@southdakota) on

Follow the signs.

Back in 1931, the Wall Drug Store decided to hand out free ice water to attract visitors, and the rest is advertising history. Billboards soon popped up all over South Dakota with the slogan "How Many Miles to Wall Drug?" If you've driven on I-90 in South Dakota and missed them, you must've had your eyes closed.

Almost ninety years later, the famous tourist stop still offers free ice water and five-cent coffee, but it's now developed into an Old Western Town complete with a souvenir shop, 80-foot-tall dinosaur and a six-foot-tall jackalope ready for a photo op. While you're eating homemade maple donuts, buffalo burgers or hot beef sandwiches at the restaurant, enjoy the Western American art on the walls, it's worth millions of dollars. 

You can't miss it. There are signs all over town (and the state ... and the world). Plus, it's right before the exit for Badlands National Park.

Take a good look at The Badlands.

Rugged, red-hued rock buttes, spires and canyons fill the landscape of Badlands National Park (and will soon fill your phone's photo gallery). Seriously, your vacation Instagram feed will be the envy of all your friends after a day of hiking or a night of camping here.

The Wall formation is the most famous, stretching for 60 miles and revealing sedimentary rock layers the whole way. Choose a trail, from beginner to advanced, and hike to the Wall or along the boardwalk trail to see fossils of saber-toothed cats and other one-time residents. Or drive along the 39-mile Badlands Loop Scenic Byway with nearly 30 scenic overlooks. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep, buffalo, antelopes, prairie dogs and the ever-elusive black-footed ferret.

Plan to spend the day here -- the Badlands change color in the shifting sunlight, so you'll rarely see the same view twice -- then stay to stargaze; thousands of stars are visible in the night sky.

Go back when WWW stood for Wild, Wild West.

The Black Hills Gold Rush of the 1870s spawned the town of Deadwood, and while the gold is long gone, the vestiges of the Wild West remain here. Regular shoot-outs (using blanks) on Main Street keep things lively in this former home to characters such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok.

For a quick refresher on Deadwood's colorful past, visit Old Style Saloon #10. Wild Bill's Death Chair is one of many artifacts that line the walls of this spot that refers to itself as "the only museum in the world with a bar."

Celebrate July 4th in the heartland.

It doesn't get more patriotic than having Mount Rushmore as the background on your Fourth of July Instagram post. Celebrations at the monument spread across two days (July 3-4), with plenty of festivities -- from live patriotic and Native American music to presidential re-enactors.

But Rushmore is not the only spot where Independence Day is a big to-do. One of the oldest outdoor rodeos in the country, the Black Hills Roundup in Belle Fourche, takes place annually over July 4th weekend (2021 will be the 102nd event). For one of South Dakota's largest (and coolest) fireworks displays, head to the Lead Gold Camp Jubilee, where the "bombs bursting in air" echo over an open mining pit. Now that's surround sound ...

Some of the best views in the state are underground.

Follow the glow of the lantern as a park ranger leads the way through the cavernous underground of Jewel Cave National Monument, about 45 minutes from Mount Rushmore. Brilliant yellow, red and pink colors bounce off calcite crystals as light hits the otherwise-darkened walls of the world's third-longest cave. The more adventurous can don a hardhat and headlamp on the Wild Caving Tour, and crawl and squeeze their way through the winding tunnels. (Note: The park is currently closed, but is scheduled to re-open in summer 2021.)

Honeycomb-patterned calcite known as boxwork covers the cave walls at Wind Cave National Park, also less than an hour from Mount Rushmore. This is one of the world’s longest caves at 140 miles and is revered as a sacred place for the Lakota Sioux tribe, whose tradition says this is where humans first emerged to live on Earth. The cave is currently closed to visitors due to elevator repairs and social distancing restrictions, but there are no fees to visit the 30 miles of trails in the 33,970-acre park above ground that acts as a wildlife sanctuary.

It's home to one of the biggest lakes you've never heard of.

Lake Oahe is one of four reservoirs on the Missouri River and with more than 2,200 miles of shoreline, it's bigger than three of the Great Lakes. Formed by the Oahe Dam near the capital of Pierre (pronounced "peer"), the lake is a massive water playground that cuts the prairie in two and is home to some of the best walleye fishing in the U.S., even in winter when you can try your (gloved) hand at ice fishing.

The Missouri -- aka "Mighty Mo'" -- weaves its way through the state and served as a guiding path for the Lewis and Clark expedition in 1804. Travelers can follow their historic trail (and the river) across the prairie, enjoying boating, hiking and camping as you go.

Go where the road takes you.

Picture the best-case scenario for a summer road trip: an unhurried (and unharried) schedule, a sprinkling of outdoor adventure, fun on the water, bucket-list stops, a backdrop that's always ready for a family photo or two, good food, friendly people, affordable accommodations and a surprise or two along the way.

And about those surprises -- the state has more than its fair share. You're going to want to hop out for selfies at these quirky roadside attractions. There’s a six-ton prairie dog, a hilltop dinosaur sculpture park, the World’s Only Corn Palace (made entirely of South Dakota-grown corn kernels) and the world’s largest pheasant (all 22 tons of him). And that's just the beginning, the hashtag #HiFromSD has nearly 275,000 posts on Instagram.

Ready to Go? Visit the South Dakota website for itineraries, travel tips and check updates at before planning your trip.

More Deals & Tips