An Unforgettable 5-Day South Dakota Road Trip

When most people think of unforgettable road trips through the United States, South Dakota may not be at the top of most lists, which is a shame! Home to scenic hikes and drives, two National Parks, roaming wildlife, and not to mention, Mount Rushmore, a South Dakota road trip will be packed with adventure and beautiful scenery.

14.4 million people visited South Dakota in 2022, and that number is only rising. After you complete your South Dakota road trip, you’ll understand why. It’s nothing short of fantastic!

Mars-like features await you in Badlands National Park, the tallest hike east of the Rocky Mountains awaits you in Custer State Park, and not to mention the scenic Black Hills await you too.

Whether you’re looking for history, to enjoy the great outdoors, or all of the above, you’ll find all this and more in South Dakota.

South Dakota Road Trip Route

FLYING:

For those wishing to fly to South Dakota and rent a car, you’ll need to set your sights on Rapid City. Rapid City’s airport (RAP) is the closest airport to the top attractions on this five-day South Dakota road trip.

Once you’ve secured your rental car, follow the below route and enjoy!

DRIVING:

If you are driving to South Dakota and coming from the state’s east side, follow the 5-day road trip route below, starting with Badlands National Park!

If you are coming from the west side of the state, say you’re coming from Yellowstone or Devil’s Tower, reverse the below route to make it applicable to your driving direction. You’ll start your 5-day South Dakota road trip in the Black Hills.

Day 1: Arrive in South Dakota, Rapid City

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Welcome to South Dakota! Known as the land of sunshine and infinite variety.

Day 1 of your 5-day South Dakota road trip is your arrival day. Get settled into your accommodation in Rapid City, grab a bite to eat at Independent Ale House, and plan to catch the sunset in Badlands National Park if you feel up to it and if time allows. Oh, and if you’re lucky, you may find a bison or two roaming the grasslands!

Whatever you decide to do, it’s your day to settle in and enjoy!

Day 2: Badlands National Park

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Ready to visit Mars?! Badlands National Park is one of the more unique National Parks in the United States. Located around 1 hour from Rapid City, Badlands National Park awaits you.

As you pass through the park gates, you’ll find towering spires and rock formations, dramatic canyons where bighorn sheep climb, and wild grasslands where bison and prairie dogs roam.

Visiting Badlands National Park can be done in one day. Yes, you read that correctly, one day!

Whether you want to drive the Park Loop Road, stop at scenic overlooks like White River Valley Overlook, Panorama Point, and Conata Basin Overlook, or hike the famous Notch Trail, you can do all of this with one day in Badlands National Park.

TIP! Near Badlands National Park is Wall Drug Store, a historic roadside stop full of souvenir shops, eateries, and its famous free ice water. You’ll probably see road signs for Wall Drug on your way throughout South Dakota!”

Regarding where to stay when visiting Badlands National Park, the largest concentration of accommodation options will be an hour away, in Rapid City. However, if you want something closer, there are a few hotels in Wall, South Dakota, and camping and RV sites within the National Park.

Day 3: Wind Cave National Park

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The next 5-day South Dakota road trip stop is about 2 hours from Badlands National Park, the second National Park in South Dakota, Wind Cave National Park.

Wind Cave is the first cave designated as a national park and the sixth-longest cave in the world. But these two things are not what makes Wind Cave so unique.

Wind Cave is home to the world’s largest concentration of rare box work formations. Boxworks are thin blades of calcite that make honeycomb-like structures forming on the cave ceiling and walls.

Undoubtedly, the best thing to do at Wind Cave National Park is to take a Ranger-lead cave tour to walk the cave and see the box works up close.

There are several times a day cave tours take place. Due to its popularity, cave tours often sell out 2-3 hours in advance and may sell out for the entire day.

You’re advised to book your tickets ahead of time through Recreation.gov.

TIP! If you feel up to it after exploring Wind Cave National Park, the third longest cave in the world, Jewel Cave, is 30-40 minutes away. You can also reserve a tour of Jewel Cave through Recreation.gov.

After you finish your Wind Cave Tour, you should head to Custer, South Dakota. Custer is the gateway to the beautiful Custer State Park, one of the stops tomorrow!

Custer is about 20-25 minutes from Wind Cave National Park, making it a perfect place to stay the night. And, if you have time to kill, you can grab dinner at Custer Beacon or take a leisurely 1-mile walk on the Lake Sylvan Trail.

Day 4: The Black Hills (Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial)

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Ready for day 4 of your 5-day South Dakota road trip?! The Black Hills of South Dakota cannot be missed during your visit. It’s home to breathtaking natural sceneries, fantastic hiking trails, and not to mention, historic Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.

Do you want to know the best part? Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse Memorial are all within 30-40 minutes of one another, allowing you to see a lot quickly.

You can start your day off in Custer State Park. Drive the scenic Needles Highway and hike to the Cathedral Spires, whose trailhead is just off the Needles Highway.

After your hike and drive through the State Park, make your way to Mount Rushmore, located 20 miles away. Once at Mount Rushmore, walk the Avenue of Flags to reach the viewing platform, where you can get your own photo of the four Presidential faces or walk the 0.9-mile Presidential Trail loop.

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After you’ve had your fill of Mount Rushmore, drive the 18 miles to Crazy Horse Memorial. While the monument of Crazy Horse is far from finished, you can view Crazy Horse from the viewing deck of the Native American Educational And Cultural Center. If you’d like to get a closer look, you can pay to take a bus to the mountain’s base.

Day 4 will be a long day but a fun one! You can end your night at Pounding Fathers in Custer before returning to your accommodation.

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TIP! If you are an avid hiker, we highly suggest you consider hiking to the summit of Black Elk Peak. Black Elk Peak is the tallest peak in South Dakota and the tallest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees in Europe! This hike takes several hours, so you may need to cut out an activity or hike at sunrise to make the most of your day!

Day 5: Depart South Dakota

The worst day of any road trip is the end.

If you have a later flight out of Rapid City or can start your road trip home or to your next destination a little later, we suggest breakfast in Custer at Baker’s Bakery & Cafe.

Rapid City is about 45 minutes to 1 hour away from Custer, so allow yourself time to get to Rapid City Airport and return your rental car.

We hope you enjoyed your time in South Dakota! It truly is an underrated American state.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Lauren and Jesse Stuart, an adventure travel couple, share planning tips, epic itineraries, and travel guides from destinations around the world!