The Best USA Road Trip Routes

South Dakota & Badlands National Park Road Trip

South Dakota & Badlands National Park Road Trip
By Sarah Bence

This figure-of-eight route takes you on an epic road trip through South Dakota’s national parks, forests, and monuments.

The area is particularly rich in Native American history, including that of the past and present-day Lakota people. Although covering a smaller area than other Midwest road trips, it’s filled with plenty of arresting scenery, from the Badlands, to the Black Hills.

The highlights on this route could be done as day trips from (or near) Rapid City, if you prefer to explore the area from a single home base.

South Dakota black hills Custer Park near Rapid City usa

Classic scenery in South Dakota's Black Hills

South Dakota & Badlands road trip

Approx. distance: 400 miles

Duration: 8 days

Suggested route: Rapid City, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, Black Hills National Forest, Hill City, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, Wall, Badlands National Park, Rapid City.

The route

Begin your road trip in Rapid City, the largest city in South Dakota. Drive 45 minutes north-west along I-90 to Spearfish Canyon, on the northern edge of Black Hills National Forest. Spend at least a day here, driving the 19-mile Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, which includes stops at the evocatively named Devil’s Bathtub, Bridal Veil Falls, and Roughlock Falls.

Next, drive through Black Hills National Forest to Hill City, known as “the heart of the Black Hills”. This could take as little as 1 ½ hours, but with plenty of stops for hikes and photos you could devote a half day to this drive. Along the way stop in Deadwood, just 20 minutes south of Spearfish Canyon. This town made famous (or infamous) by countless films and TV shows grew up in the gold rush days and was home to many legendary figures of the Wild West.

Base yourself near Hill City at any one of the many lodges there, or go 30 minutes further south to Bismarck Lake Campground for a waterfront camping lot. Either way, you are close to the next two to three days’ destinations. You can stock up on provisions at Krull’s Market, and pick up some trail snacks at the Beef Jerky Outlet, both in Hill City.

Spend the next few days exploring Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and Crazy Horse Memorial. You could do both in the same day, but dedicating two mornings to each will make your itinerary more relaxed. Pair your sightseeing with outdoor activities such as a sunset hike up Black Elk Peak (South Dakota’s highest peak), or spend an afternoon driving the 14-mile Needles Highway to the Cathedral Spires Trail.

Devote another afternoon to driving through Custer State Park’s Wildlife Loop Scenic Byway. It is only 18 miles long but be prepared for interruptions to your journey as you observe (and stop your car for) some of the local 1,400-strong buffalo herds.

While in the Black Hills, devote another day trip to Wind Cave National Park. This is a 40-minute drive south along US-385 from Hill City. Explore the hiking trails and take a ranger-guided tour of the maze of caves.

After a few days in the Black Hills and Custer State Park, it’s time to head to Badlands National Park. From Hill City, take US-16 through Rapid City, and connect with I-90 East. It is just under a 1 ½-hour drive to reach Wall, the last stop before entering the Badlands. Wall is an unusual town, where the main point of interest is a drug store, Wall Drug. But this isn’t any old drug store – it’s two blocks of quirk, featuring five cent coffee, donuts, a 520-seat restaurant and shops, and it’s been pulling in summertime tourists since 1931.

From Wall, it’s a 30-minute drive to Badlands National Park along the I-90, or you can take the one-hour route down SD-240. The next few days are for experiencing the national park. It’s preferable to stay overnight within the park for easier access to hiking trails, viewpoints, and driving loops. Cedar Pass Lodge and Campground, and Badlands Campground are both good options near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Take your time to explore: Among the trails, viewpoints, and scenic routes to consider include Pinnacles Overlook, Badlands Loop Road, Sage Creek Rim Road, Panorama Point, Big Badlands Overlook, and the Door, Window, and Notch Trails. There are many more.

End your trip with the 1 ½-hour drive back to Rapid City. This time, take SD-44 instead of I-90. You’ll pass through the Badlands, giving you one last look at the craggy landscape.

Highlights

Black Hills National Forest

From South Dakota to Wyoming, the Black Hills National Forest is over 1.2 million acres of pine forest and mountains. The Lakota people called the area “Paha Sapa” which translates to “hills that are black,” the name coming from the dark forests that still cover the mountains. The area is also known for its unpleasant history, including the 1889 relocation of the Lakota people so white settlers could mine for gold. Today, it’s a destination for hiking, fishing, backpacking, and for visiting cultural sites.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The 60-feet high faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln draw over three million visitors per year, making them one of the country’s most-visited—and controversial—national memorials.

Originally conceived as a celebration of the United States’ birth (Washington), growth (Jefferson), development (Roosevelt) and preservation (Lincoln), the site also carries a sinister undertone for many, representing the appropriation of Sioux people’s sacred lands by the US government.

Mount Rushmore is open year-round and gets particularly busy over the summer months. Late spring and early fall are the ideal time to visit, as the weather is still pleasant but the area is less crowded. There are no fees to enter, but parking fees apply.

Wind Cave National Park

This massive cave system in South Dakota was the first cave system anywhere in the world to be protected as a national park. With more than 150 miles of passages, Wind Cave is the sixth longest cave in the world. In addition to its size, it’s known for its unusual honeycomb-like rock formation called boxwork. Wind Cave National Park is also home to an above-ground prairie and forest which stretches over nearly 30,000 acres, and is home to plenty of wildlife.

Badlands National Park

There’s nothing quite like the rugged and alien landscape of South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, with its peaks and canyons created through 75 million years of erosion. The name itself elicits a sense of eeriness that matches the landscape. To the Lakota people the area was “Mako Sica”—“badlands”— due to the fierce challenges they faced crossing the difficult terrain in often scorching temperatures.

South Dakota & Badlands National Park Road Trip

Sarah Bence

Sarah Bence is a travel journalist based in her home state of Michigan, after living in the UK for three and a half years. She writes for Lonely Planet, Fodor's, Roadtrippers Magazine, Business Insider, and more.

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