I don’t know if you know this, but South Dakota is freakin’ AWESOME! I know you’re probably thinking, What are you talking about? How is this possible? Why didn’t I know this? I sure was. Whoever is in charge of keeping the amazingness of South Dakota on the down low—we need to have you come work in Montana.
I feel bad for those poor states that really don’t have much to offer other than a decent “big city.” Lucky for you, South Dakota isn’t one of those states. Now, I don’t know if the whole state is amazing, but the western part of the state sure is unforgettable. From the eclectic Wall Drug to a state park that’s better than a few national parks we’ve been to (sorry Cuyahoga Valley), you’ll be packing your bags and saying, Send me to South Dakota! after checking out our Ultimate South Dakota Travel Guide!
The Ultimate South Dakota Travel Guide: Custer State Park
John and I have been to A LOT of state and national parks on our trip. Some have been amazing, some have been decent, and some have been downright disappointing. Custer State Park ranks in the amazing category. The expansive beauty and wide range of activities within this state park makes it feel more like a national park from the moment you enter. As we were exploring, I said to John more than once, I can’t believe this is just a state park. Especially after some of the national parks we’ve visited.
Custer State Park, located in the stunning Black Hills, is South Dakota’s first and largest state park. It encompasses 71,000 acres and has abundant wildlife, hiking trails, and fantastic lakes for swimming and fishing. It also has one of the prettiest highway drives we’ve been on.
The Needles Highway runs 14 miles through Custer State Park. It is a must-drive if you are in the area, but leave your oversized vans and RVs at home because they won’t fit through the narrow tunnels. I was pretty nervous driving our van through two of the tunnels, but we made it with inches to spare!
I’d recommend this drive around sunset. You will have less traffic to deal with and the colors from the setting sun are spectacular. Needle-like granite formations dot the horizon along the highway and make for spectacular photo ops. Take your time on this drive and make sure to stop at a few of the pull offs just to take it all in.
Planning Your Visit
Custer State Park is open year-round, however Needles Highway closes after the first snow of the season and doesn’t open back up again until around April 1 or later, depending on the weather. You can purchase a weekly pass to the park for $20 or an annual pass for $30.
Wildlife Loop Road
This 18-mile scenic loop, also located in Custer State Park, is perfect for wildlife viewing. Be aware, you will probably get stuck in a “bison jam” at some point during the drive, but that is part of the fun, right? Custer State Park is home to over 1,300 free-roaming bison and they love this stretch of highway. When we took this drive, we got stuck in two pretty big bison jams for about 15-20 minutes each.
The park is also home to a herd of wild burros that frequent a stretch of this highway. We noticed a lot of people getting out of their cars to pet and feed them, causing huge traffic jams. The park does not recommend feeding the burros and neither do we. Let’s try to keep the wildlife wild people. With that being said, the park also doesn’t seem to enforce the “please don’t feed the burros” rule.
Planning Your Visit
Custer State Park is also home to deer, elk, bighorn sheep, coyotes, and mountain lions. For the best chances at catching some of this wildlife, plan your drive early in the morning (just before sunrise) or late in the evening (just before sunset). Most of these animals are crepuscular meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. The Wildlife Loop Road is open year-round; however the park advises cautious winter driving. Also, don’t take this drive if you are in a rush. The “wildlife jams” you will likely encounter are legit.
Hiking Trails Galore
From the novice hiker to the experienced backpacker, Custer State Park has a trail for you. This park is also dog friendly and your four-legged friends are allowed on most trails! All of the visitor centers within the park have handy trail guides available to help you decide which hike is best for you.
Little Devil’s Tower
John and I hiked the Trail 4-Spur Trail to Little Devil’s Tower while we were here. This is a three-mile round-trip hike and it is rated as moderate to strenuous. At the summit you are rewarded with awesome views of the Cathedral Spires and Harney Peak.
This hike was especially fun for us because we got to meet up with our fellow travelers Ashley and Paul. You can check out their travel adventures on Instagram @hoppinthemap and @beernerdtravel. They left around the same time we did and traveled around the country in the reverse order as us, and we both ended up in the Black Hills at the same time. It’s always more fun hiking with friends—especially when your husband almost over-heats and dies on the trail.
Side note: I think it was John over-heating on this very hike that led to his crazy fear of hiking into the Grand Canyon. Luckily he survived the South Dakota hike and all others…so far.
We wished we had more time in the area to do some more hiking, but now we have something to look forward to on our next visit. A few other popular hikes include:
Cathedral Spires Trail
This three mile out-and-back hike is a registered National Landmark and is rated as strenuous. The trail is lightly trafficked and provides stunning up-close views of the Cathedral Spires rock formations.
Sylvan Lakeshore Trail
This trail loops around Sylvan Lake and is great for the whole family. The loop is one mile and relatively flat throughout. There are several areas around the trail where you can stop and take a dip in the lake on hot days. This is one of the most popular (and crowded) trails in the park.
Sunday Gulch Trail
This hike is a 2.8-mile loop and is rated as strenuous. It boasts some of the most unique scenery and plant life in the park. The trail will have you crossing over large boulders and provides close-up views of rugged granite walls.
The Ultimate South Dakota Travel Guide: Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore, I think, is like coconut—most people either love it or hate it. One thing’s for sure, though: you need to check it out at least once, so you can decide for yourself.
John visited Mount Rushmore twice before our trip together. He warned me that it would probably seem much smaller than I had imagined in my head and prepared me to be utterly disappointed. There is a ton of build-up around these faces carved into stone and about three million people visit this National Memorial a year, so there must be something to it, right?
The verdict? I thought it was pretty cool. Number one: I can’t imagine the talent it must take to carve stone and make it look like anything other than stone. Number two: I can’t imagine being strapped onto a rock face and being expected to do anything other than hold on for dear life. So the fact that this sculpture looks not only like faces, but pretty darn close to the presidents they represent impressed the heck out of me.
I like to dabble in art (but am by no means an artist). Once I tried to make a clay replica of Mount Rushmore for a school project and it came out looking pretty much like a glob of clay with some eyes and noses. If only I had a picture to show you exactly how terrible it turned out. Maybe this also let me appreciate the skill that went into the real Mount Rushmore a little more? Who knows?
And don’t forget your National Parks Passport Book. John and I have a bit of an obsession for “getting stamped” at every park we visit. Yes, we’re super cool.
I Scream, You Scream
We all scream for ice cream! John would say there is no better way to enjoy a hot summer day than with a scoop of ice cream. I think I am in the minority by not caring for it and have been called “un-American” because of this more than once. With that being said, when you are visiting a monument as American as Mount Rushmore, you should probably have some ice cream while you’re there.
Did you know that Thomas Jefferson is credited with the first written ice cream recipe in the United States? This is probably what earned him a spot on Mount Rushmore if I had to guess. The vanilla ice cream served at Carvers’ Cafe at Mount Rushmore serves up some of the best vanilla ice cream around. It is locally produced and is based off of Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe! It’s definitely worth trying!
Avenue of Flags
The Avenue of Flags leading up to the Grand View Terrace was closed for construction during our visit to Mount Rushmore. This was pretty disappointing, but you were still able to see Mount Rushmore—it just wasn’t very scenic with all the construction and the torn-up walkway.
When not under construction, the Avenue of Flags contains 56 flags representing the 50 states, one district, two commonwealths, and three territories of the United States. This walkway leads to the Grand View Terrace where most pictures of Mount Rushmore are taken.
This trail is a little over half a mile in length and will allow for a closer look at the presidents’ faces. The trail is an easy walk, but there are several steps so it is not wheelchair or stroller accessible. Half of the trail was closed due to construction during our visit, so make sure you check out closures on the National Park website before you make your way there.
Planning Your Visit
Visitor facilities at Mount Rushmore are open year-round, seven days a week. Hours vary based on the season. On Christmas day, the parking structures and grounds are open but all buildings are closed. The sculpture is illuminated in the evenings and lighting ceremonies occur most nights from late May until the end of September. There is a $10 parking fee for the memorial and it is good for one year from the date of entry.
The Ultimate South Dakota Travel Guide: Badlands National Park
As John likes to say, Badlands? More like Radlands. Sometimes John likes a good dad joke or a corny pun, but we can’t hold that against him. The Badlands are home to tons of ancient fossils of camels, rhinos, saber-toothed cats, and marine reptiles, dating back 67-75 million years ago. The unique rock formations were formed from the different environments that occurred over time and you can clearly see the distinctive layers when you look at the the formations.
The Badlands National Park webpage has a great description of the layers of the geological formations and when each layer was formed. It’s pretty amazing how each layer tells a story about what was going on millions of years ago!
Unfortunately, we only had about half a day to spend in the park, so we didn’t get to do any hiking. It was also REALLY hot while we were there which might be the real reason why we didn’t do any hiking. But, the park offers several hiking trails ranging in length from .25 miles to 10 miles so you should be able to find one that suits your needs.
We chose to take a drive on the Badlands Loop Road. This road provided scenic vistas and several areas to pull off and take photos. The landscape of the Badlands was truly unlike anything I had ever seen before. The geological formations were otherworldly and I can’t wait to get back there to do even more exploring.
The Ultimate South Dakota Travel Guide: Caves
Western South Dakota is home to several cave systems. Who knew? John loves caves—weird, I know. I am more in the, if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all class. With that being said, a cool cave tour (the average temperature is about 49 degrees fahrenheit) on a hot day is never something I’ll turn down.
Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave is the third longest cave system in the world and is named after the crystal-like formations that line its walls. To be completely honest, I didn’t notice a ton of cave crystals. I think in my head I was imagining a cave full of colorful gems, but when it comes to caves, I think I’m also a little hard to impress.
We took the Scenic Tour, which allowed us to visit several cave chambers decorated with crystals, cave popcorn, stalactites, stalagmites, and my personal favorite, cave bacon. If you’ve never seen cave bacon before, take my word that it’s the coolest thing most caves have to offer. It literally looks like giant slices of bacon…Yum!
Planning Your Visit
Make sure you check the park website for cave closures before your visit. Closures may occur during the off-season for maintenance.
Jewel Cave offers several guided cave tours ranging from easy 20 minute walks to strenuous four-hour tours that require rope-assisted climbing over near vertical rocks and belly crawling through tight passages. Each tour varies in price. I recommend checking out the fees page for Jewel Cave for specifics on pricing, schedules, and reservations.
Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park is more than just a cave. Above the cave system, the national park has over 28,000 acres of prairie and forest lands which are home to elk, bison, pronghorns, and black-footed ferrets, just to name a few. The park also has over 30 miles of hiking trails ranging from easy to strenuous.
Planning Your Visit
Much like Jewel Cave, Wind Cave offers a variety of guided cave tours ranging in difficulty from moderate to strenuous. Tours range in price allow for viewing boxwork formations which Wind Cave is most famous for.
Unfortunately, cave tours stopped about a week before our arrival due to major elevator repairs. So if you have your heart set on some spelunking, make sure you check out the Wind Cave website before your visit to make sure tours are being offered.
The Ultimate South Dakota Travel Guide: Wall Drug
If you love roadside attractions, Wall Drug is the stop for you. If you have driven any stretch of interstate 90 west of the Missouri River, you’ve probably seen at least a handful of billboard for the place. The city of Wall, South Dakota, only has about 800 year-round residents, yet Wall Drug manages to attract over 2 million visitors a year.
A Little Bit of Everything
It’s no lie to say this place has a little bit of everything. Wall Drug has of course, a drug store, as well as a restaurant, souvenir shops, a splash pad and playground, and an arcade—just to name a few.
Walking into this place was a total sensory overload. There were people everywhere, all of the walls were filled with knick knacks, it was loud with music and talking. Did I mention the people everywhere? It was definitely an experience though.
If you are close, you should swing by, just so you can say you’ve been there. I mean, they give out free ice water and bumper stickers. Who doesn’t need those things? Their homemade donuts also look pretty tasty. With that being said, now that I’ve been, I don’t think I need to go back any time soon. Also, the child-free rating here is poor. There were kids everywhere and I can’t really blame them; this place would have seemed like a wonderland to me when I was a child.
The Ultimate South Dakota Travel Guide: All the Rest
Seriously, this area of South Dakota had so much cool stuff to do, we could have spent a month there and still probably wouldn’t have been able to cover it all. That’s part of what makes this area so great. It’s not just one beautiful place or fun thing to do, it’s everything. So here are a few more things worth mentioning that we didn’t have time to experience or fully explore.
This town of around 70,000 people is a great stopping point on your way to exploring the Black Hills and the Badlands. Its downtown’s Main Street is super cute and walkable and features fun restaurants/bars, boutique shops, a splash pad for the kids, and sculptures and murals throughout.
We stopped into the Firehouse Brewing Company for a beer and a late lunch one of our days in town. Located in Rapid City’s original firehouse, this is South Dakota’s first brew pub. This brewery also has an amazing outdoor covered patio that offers live entertainment most evenings.
Crazy Horse Memorial
We didn’t make it to the Crazy Horse Memorial, but it might be worth checking out. Construction of this monument began in 1948 and it has not yet been completed. Admission is $7 per person walking, on bike, or on motorcycle, $12 for one person in a vehicle, $24 for two, and $30 for three or more people in a vehicle. The campus includes a restaurant, museum, and visitor center. I’ve read that you can view the sculpture pretty well from the road on the way to the Memorial if you want to see it but don’t want to tour the campus.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
During the Cold War, a Minuteman Missile field covered a stretch of land in western South Dakota. This historic site protects two facilities that were part of this missile field. The purpose of this site is to tell the story of Minuteman Missiles, nuclear deterrence, and the Cold War. Here you can visit a missile silo and even take a tour of Delta-01 Launch Control Facility. Unfortunately for us, we ran out of time and didn’t make it here.
If you’re still reading…THANK YOU! As you can see by this REALLY long blog post—Western South Dakota has a ton to offer. It’s a place we will definitely be back to and is probably one of the most under-rated places we’ve visited on our road trip.
Have you visited western South Dakota? What’s your favorite thing to do in the area. If you haven’t visited…what are you waiting for!? We hope our South Dakota Travel Guide has been helpful. Let us know in the comments!