South Dakota

The most popular attraction in South Dakota is Mount Rushmore. However, to my surprise, there are several other nature and quirky sites along a nice drive through the plains. I thought it would be boring, but was pleasantly surprised.

My Favorites

1. Badlands National Park


Highlights: Hiking, landscapes, nature
Suggest Staying: 1-2 days
Stay Around: Cedar Pass Campground (inside park) or Interior / Wall (outside park)
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This semi off the beaten path national park has some of the beauty you might see in Arizona’s Painted Desert or Grand Canyon. There are multi-layered, multi-colored rock formations, sweeping views of the plains, and several rocky hikes. There are many short hikes you can do easily in a full day, but if you want to pace yourself maybe take an extra half or full day.

See & Do

  • Badlands Loop Rd. Main road through the park.
  • Sage Creek Campground. Go even if you don’t camp there for wildlife spotting. Off the main loop down a dirt road. Best place to spot bison and prairie dogs which you can see from the road. Tons of each. I also saw bighorn sheep on the way.
  • Notch Trail. Hike 1.5 miles, you walk cliffside, wooden ladder to get to the rim (not too steep).
  • Door Trail. Hike 0.75 miles roundtrip.
  • Window Trail. Hike 0.25 miles roundtrip.
  • Cliff Shelf. Hike 0.5 miles roundtrip.
  • Saddle Pass. Hike 0.25 miles roundtrip. Follow the upright poles for the path. I went the hard way up through the middle of the chasm. Was certainly fun, but maybe too challenging for some. Make sure you climb all the way up to the peak.
  • Fossil Exhibit Trail. Hike 0.24 miles roundtrip.
  • Stargazing. No light pollution so very clear skies.


  • Weather. Check the weather before you go, especially if camping. I drove through a crazy thunderstorm with 70+ MPH winds and torrential downpour and lightning. Depending on the time of year, the weather can be a bit harsh, but most of the time it’s pretty temperate.
  • Sage Creek Campground. If you do camp, be aware there are only pit toilets and no other facilities. Cost is free though.

2. Jewel Cave National Monument


Highlights: Cave
Suggest Staying: 1/2 day
Stay Around: Keystone, Rapid City, or Custer State Park
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Offers some of the most unique and well preserved cave formations I’ve seen in the U.S. Take a $12 1.5 hour tour that takes you 0.5 miles through this enchanting cave.


  • Guided Tour. Check the schedule to plan your visit, as you can only see the cave by guided tour.
  • White Nose Syndrome (WNS) (Important!). This terrible fungal disease is killing off bats at an alarming rate across America. WNS doesn’t affect humans, but bats catch it and effectively can’t breathe, freak out, use up all their energy and die. Millions of bats have died as a result, so do your part to avoid spreading it! Bats are critical to our survival, they kill disease carrying insects like mosquitoes. Plus they are super cool animals. If you have been in a cave within the last 10 years that has WNS, or if you’re not sure, mention this to the rangers and be sure not to wear the same clothes, shoes, or pack.

3. Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

Highlights: Presidents
Suggest Staying: 1/2 day
Stay Around: Keystone, Rapid City, or Custer State Park
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This always seemed like a boring touristy monument judging solely from the pictures. However, after visiting, it’s pretty impressive in person. The sheer size, detail, and likeness is really incredible. Take the trail up to the base of the mountain. You also have a couple nearby towns, Custer State Park, Jewel Cave, and Wind Cave as well.


  • Logistics. If Mount Rushmore is your main destination, use Keystone as your basecamp and spend 1-3 days exploring the sites in the area beyond just the monument. They are close and awesome.
  • Fees. The monument itself is actually free, but you have to pay $11 for parking. After 5pm is free.
  • Timing. If you get there an hour or so before sunset, you get some really cool lighting. Any later and the heads will be in the shadows. Also less crowded going a bit later.

4. Custer State Park

Sylvan Lake

Highlights: Nature, forest, mountain, hiking, lake
Suggest Staying: 1-3 days
Stay Around: Park Campground or Keystone
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I unfortunately didn’t research this place enough before I went. It’s pretty big and impossible to drive through in an afternoon as I originally planned. A bit pricey at $20 to get in, there are several nice campgrounds, a beautiful lake, and nice mountain drives with lovely forest scenery. Well worth it and suggest making the time to check this place out.

See & Do

  • Sylvan Lake. Beautiful. Nestled at the top of the hills in the rocks. Great area for relaxing, canoeing, driving, or hiking. My favorite place in the park.
  • Wildlife Loop Road. Chance to see bison and other wildlife. Takes some time to do.


  • Getting Around. The park map will show you the roads and best driving route based on your time and interests.
  • Tunnels. There are several tunnels and a narrow slot through the rock walls along the main road. So if you’re driving an RV, check the roads and tunnel situation to ensure you have the clearance to get through. The narrow slot, Needles Eye Tunnel, just about allowed for my convertible to fit through.

5. Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse

Highlights: Rock carving
Suggest Staying: 1/2 day
Stay Around: Keystone, Rapid City, or Custer State Park
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The story and scope of this memorial is pretty remarkable. When finished, the size will dwarf Mount Rushmore. It started as one man with a hammer. Eventually the entire family contributed and took over when he died. The project has been going on for over 70 years and is intended to represent all Native Americans. Since the Lakota, and all Native Americans for that matter, were offered many broken promises, this project continues to be privately funded. No government grant money, just admission and donations, which is a big reason why the project has been ongoing for so long. Learn more about it here. The visitor’s center has some interesting exhibits and stories to learn more about the culture and Crazy Horse himself.


  • Tour. While you can see the memorial from the bottom at the visitor’s center, you can pay extra to get an up close tour. They don’t let the majority of people up there because they’re constantly working on it.

Other Considerations

Sioux Falls

Sioux Falls

A nice pass through or stop for a meal in the small town of Sioux Falls and be sure to visit its waterfall.

Corn Palace

Corn Palace

Worth a stop along your drive to/from Mount Rushmore. Parts of the building are actually made of corn! Not the structural parts of course. The murals on the outside and inside of this center are impressively designed out of different colors of corn.

Wall Drug Store

Wall Drugstore

Another stop on your road trip, this famous drug store is pretty big and has all kinds of things including Western clothing, drugs (not the illegal kind), outdoor items, and a cafe. Good place to stop, stretch your legs, maybe have a burger.

Devil's Gulch

Devil’s Gulch

Hideout of the legendary bandits Frank and Jesse James.


Home to Wild Bill Hickock and basis for the show Deadwood. Small, quaint town worth driving through if it's on your way.

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