If there were a contest for the best road tripping state, South Dakota would be in the running. Almost every popular stop is located just off the highway and is only one or two hours away from another stop. Many of the attractions are free, too, or there is just a price per vehicle.
I also noticed a few state quirks or qualities during almost a weeks-worth of travel in it. First, it’s very into statues, but more on that later. Second, because of the Black Hills and gold mining themes, many of the attractions and their styles reminded me of the ones in Branson, MO. Lastly, despite it not being a very prominent state in general, South Dakota has some beautiful land and park areas.
As you plan your next summer road trip (family, couple or solo), think about traveling through South Dakota. And if it becomes your vacation of choice, let this 5-day itinerary from east to west (or you can do the days backward and go from west to east) be your basic guide, then add to it.
What You'll Find In This Post:
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Day 1: Sioux Falls
We begin this trip in Sioux Falls, where the main attraction is Falls Park (FREE). There, you’ll find cascading waterfalls, some historical background on the area and the previous hydroelectric plant and a café for lunch. Part of the city’s downtown sculpture and statue trail is in the park as well (remember what I said about statues?), so you could start there and walk to the rest. It’s a pretty area, and Sioux Falls seems like a serene place.
Day 2: Corn Palace and Pierre
I'll admit that I had some preconceived notions about this corn palace (FREE), which altered my perception of it when we arrived. Some of the old photos online show a palace covered entirely in corn, and while it’s now not completely made out of corn, it was still interesting to see the corn artwork on the outside and inside of the building. It’s also on the way to everything else you'll visit in South Dakota (located in Mitchell) and has an ice cream shop and souvenir store nearby, so stop by if you can!
The capital city, Pierre (apparently pronounced like the word “pier"), is a bit out of the way from the rest of the attractions on this list, but my family and I went to it for, well, me. (In case you’re confused, my goal is to visit every state capital, which also means that I’ll have visited every state.) While the capital is similar in style to many others, it does have a nice park next to it. You can also walk around the city and find statues of all the South Dakota governors and learn more about them by taking a picture of the QR codes on the plaques. (Again, remember what I said about statues?)
Day 3: Wall Drug and The Badlands
Located in Wall, Wall Drug is the most Branson-like attraction I saw in South Dakota and is reminiscent of some of the shops in Silver Dollar City but lacks some of their quality. Get that famous free ice-cold water and buy a homemade donut. (I can’t give a very helpful opinion about the donuts because I prefer yeast over cake.) You’ll also be able to walk around tons of shops and find cheap t-shirts and trinkets to commemorate your vacation.
(FREE with National Park pass, or $30 per vehicle)
The Badlands did not disappoint with their crevices, rock heights and colors and dusty hiking paths. Stop at the visitors center for some background on the park, then begin your drive. There are about 14 main lookouts throughout the park and a few other smaller stops along the way. (The painted hills was my favorite!) Don't let your children walk alone, as it's a dangerous place with the cliffs, and be sure to wear close-toed shoes! This isn’t the place to wear flip-flops, especially if you’re thinking about straying from the main paths. I’m glad I wore tennis shoes because I met a snake about 5 minutes in (YIKES!).
Day 4: Custer State Park
Custer State Park
($30 per vehicle, good for 7 days)
Do you like hiking? Interesting landscapes? Animals? Swimming? If so, this stop is for you! Custer State Park has more than 1,000 bison plus mountain goats, antelope, prairie dogs, burros, etc., and you should be able to see most of them from your vehicle. The Needles Highway route, which is (warning for people who get car sick) very curvy, goes through some narrow tunnels and includes tall skinny rocks everywhere for people to hike around. Lastly, one of my favorite places in the park was Sylvan Lake, where you can swim, kayak, paddleboard, hike and climb. Sylvan Lake is busy but beautiful!
Day 5: Rapid City
You’ll find a variety of things near this city, and some of the most popular destinations in South Dakota. For example, Mount Rushmore ($10 per car), is a short drive away and is well worth a stop, as you can learn about how this structure was created years ago, walk below the mountain to view the presidents from different angles and try the vanilla ice cream recipe that Thomas Jefferson brought over from France. Crazy Horse Memorial is also close by, but since so many people recommended not paying to get a closer look (it wasn’t completed and nothing has been done to it in recent years), we just drove by and snapped some photos.
The National Presidential Wax Museum ($12) is very informational and allows you to audio learn about each president while gazing at the realistic-looking figures. If you enjoy architecture and history, the Chapel in the Hills is a great place to visit (FREE); the chapel is beautiful and peaceful. There are many more museums, from dinosaurs to reptiles to movies, that are not as well-kept but are still fun. Lastly, in Rapid City's downtown area, you can eat at a variety of restaurants, visit art galleries and view statues of all the presidents on street corners. (I just gotta say it again ... Remember what I said about statues???)
So if you are looking for fun but cheap things to do, like the outdoors or have kids and they need something to do every couple of hours so that they don't say those famous words — Are we there yet? — make South Dakota your destination, get lost in its beautiful Black Hills and pose for a picture with every statue you find.
If you have more time than just five days, consider exploring Deadwood, which is just north of Rapid City, or head across the state's border to Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming. It's not far, and it's worth the visit!