The Perfect South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary: 7 Days of Wonder

Little-known fact: South Dakota is seriously awesome! So if you are considering a South Dakota road trip, I highly recommend it.

The first time I drove through the state, I was on a bit of an open schedule and spent five days there because I loved it so much. 

I was surprised by how much there was to do and see in South Dakota: it is an unassuming gem of the United States!

While road tripping South Dakota, you will have the opportunity to explore mountain pinnacles, ancient seabeds, and prairie land. 

Beautiful wilderness in custer state park - trees and sun setting over the mountains

Along the way, you’ll also have opportunities to learn about Native American culture and their history of stewardship over these beautiful lands. 

And of course, you will see one of the most famous landmarks in the US — and perhaps what South Dakota is best known for — Mount Rushmore.

In this South Dakota itinerary, we will primarily be exploring the southwestern side of the state: it’s where all the bucket list-worthy action is!

The main attractions on this road trip flow off Interstate 90, a significant route you may already be taking if you are on an extended road trip across the US. It is a straightforward route with insane views and beautiful experiences!

PLANNING FOR SOUTH DAKOTA AT A GLANCE: 

When to Go: Since some attractions close during winter, the best time to visit South Dakota is in summer, spring and fall. But if you're into winter sports, then consider visiting during winter.

Where to Stay: For this itinerary, you'll have sleepovers in Keystone, Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, Badlands National Park, and Deadwood. 

In Keystone, I recommend staying at Quality Inn Keystone near Mount Rushmore for budget travelers, or Holiday Inn Express & Suites Keystone, an IHG Hotel (boutique hotel). 

Near Wind Cave National Park, I suggest staying at El Dorado Ranch which is just a 20 minutes drive to the park.

While you're in Cluster State Park, I suggest staying at Sylvan Lake Lodge at Custer State Park Resort or Bavarian Inn if you prefer staying outside the park.

For an overnight stay near Badlands National Park, I recommend staying at Best Western Plains Motel (mid-range, best-rated) or the Peaceful Country Living Home (vacation rental by owner). 

And for Deadwood, Bullock Hotel is a great thrilling option.

How to Get Around: A car is a must-have for a road trip in South Dakota — there is just no way around it except if you want to spend a lot of money on private tours. If you don't know where to rent a car from, you can compare car rentals and prices from here. Alternately, you can rent an RV or campervan via RVShare and save on accommodations.

Best Activities: Don't want to drive or plan? Booking a few different activities can help you eliminate the need for driving around. You can book a Mount Rushmore and Black Hills Full-Day Tour, or this Private Devils Tower Tour and Hike.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack:  A sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. You'll want binoculars to spot all the beautiful wildlife -- I suggest these Nikon binoculars. If you're hiking deep in the backcountry (especially in Badlands National park since it's an Open Hike Park!), you'll want something enabled with GPS and satellite SOS, like the Garmin InReach Mini.

Road trip pro tip: Purchase an annual pass (AKA the America the Beautiful Pass) to save money on the entrance fees for the multiple locations in this itinerary run by the NPS!

How This South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary Works

This South Dakota road trip route both starts and stops from Rapid City, SD. This is because the most beautiful and interesting parts of the state are all clustered in the Western part of the state.

While you could fly into Sioux Falls, most of the sights you want to see are clustered around Rapid City, so you should just make your way there after you fly in.

You will definitely need to rent a car if you are flying into South Dakota.

Not sure where to get the best deal on your rental? I’ve rented cars dozens of times through various search engines and have settled on RentalCars as the best site to rent with in the USA – it searches dozens of rental companies to find the cheapest price for your rental! Compare car rentals for your trip here!

South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary, Day By Day

Day 1: Rapid City

Start your journey in Rapid City.

Arriving in Rapid City, with a roadside attraction with the word 'rapid city' on it

Rapid City is at the threshold of western South Dakota, about an hour from the border with Wyoming. 

Rapid City is the best airport to fly into if you are visiting South Dakota from a state that is out of driving range. 

While it’s a small airport, it’s the most central to all the most worthwhile things on this South Dakota itinerary.

Of course, you could fly into a different South Dakota airport, like Sioux City, but you’ll have to drive to Rapid City anyway to start this road trip.

So, if possible, start in Rapid City, in the western part of the state. This is where you will find the most enticing attractions of South Dakota!

It is a great place to fuel up and acquire groceries/snacks for your South Dakota road trip… after all, a road trip is not complete without snacks!

Plus, you can explore museums and parks in the downtown of Rapid City, too, which is a fun city worthy of an afternoon of exploration.

Explore the downtown.

A view of downtown Rapid City buildings and trees

Once you’re in Downtown Rapid City, there are a few cool places you should make sure you check out during your quick whistle-stop tour of the city.

One such spot in downtown Rapid City is the Perfect Hanging Gallery. You will find prints and unique gifts to enjoy — they make great souvenirs, for yourself or others!

Additionally, Armadillos Ice Cream Shoppe is not to be missed. They have unique flavors not found in most other ice cream shops, so be sure to try out the “flavor of the day.” 

If they have their black cherry “flavor of the day”, get it! It is one of their most celebrated.

I also recommend that you explore the Berlin Wall Memorial where you can see a piece of the infamous wall…. yes, in Rapid City, South Dakota. The world is wild.

The Museum of Geology is also pretty cool, and free! You can see, dinosaur bones, gems, and minerals. Plus, they have a really interesting exhibit on the geology of the Badlands.

Check into your hotel for the night.

the lights of Rapid City after dark in downtown

In and around Rapid City, you will find some of the central South Dakota attractions. There are day hikes and historical points of interest around every corner.

Plus, it’s easy to venture out from here, deep into the Black Hills and east to Badlands National Park.

Rapid City is your doorway to the incredible things in store for your SD adventure.

After exploring the city, check into your hotel for the night so you can rest up for future adventures!

You could also make your way to Keystone, SD which would set you up in a prime position to start your day in Mount Rushmore bright and early!

Where to Stay in Keystone

BOUTIQUE | If you want a cozy and comfortable place to stay while still taking advantage of the mid-range budget, then I recommend staying at Holiday Inn Express & Suites Keystone. With comfortable beds, large rooms, a swimming pool, and a hot tub, you can’t find anything better at this price. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

BUDGET | If you prefer spending money on activities to accommodation, then Quality Inn Keystone near Mount Rushmore is a perfect choice. It’s located in a prime location with stunning mountain views, and it also has an indoor swimming pool and a jacuzzi perfect for unwinding after a busy day of exploring. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

CABIN | Encompassed by the Black Hills forest, this highly-rated woody cozy cabin is the ultimate private escape in Keystone while still being near all the major attractions. The cabin gives the ultimate forest living — from waking up to deers, enjoying the fire pit at night to chilling on the deck, it can’t get any better than this. | Book on Vrbo

Day 2: Mount Rushmore to Wind Cave

Make your way to Mount Rushmore.

the faces of four presidents of the USA carved into a large mountain

Head west on Route 16 and enjoy the short 30-minute drive to view the most significant landmark of South Dakota, Mount Rushmore! You will have to veer off onto Route 244 to reach the park.

Mount Rushmore National Monument is a not-to-be-missed spot as you traverse in the footsteps of many thrill-seekers of the great American road trip. You will walk lovely boardwalks as you look up at the massive sculptures which have been carved into the side of the mountain.

You will see the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

There is a restaurant on-site, Carvers Cafe, but the real gem is Memorial Team Ice Cream, where you can sample Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream recipe.

A Note on Mount Rushmore

A further away view of the four faces of Mt Rushmore so that you can see the scale of the sculpture against mountain and trees

However interested you are in Mount Rushmore, it is important to note that this landmark is not without controversy. This article is a fascinating primer on the issues raised by the existence of Mount Rushmore.

To simplify an incredibly complex problem, there are two main issues at stake. Number one is the issue of the United States’ violation of their treaty with the Lakota (one of three Sioux nations). 

The story is a familiar one in US history. The USA agreed to the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, which gave the Lakota tribe exclusive use of the Black Hills. Less than a decade later, after gold was discovered, the US broke their treaty and overtook the land. 

The Black Hills are an important site to the Lakota, and particularly, the mountain on which Mount Rushmore was carved holds particular significance to Native Americans.

The mountain now named “Mt Rushmore” was once called Tunkasila Sakpe Paha, or Six Grandfathers Mountain by the Lakota. It is indescribably vital for you to remember that this was once a mountain sacred to the Lakota.

The other issue at stake with Mount Rushmore is the story it tells. It was designed by Gutzon Borglum, a man with ties to the KKK, the same man who dreamed up the Confederate version of Mount Rushmore, Stone Mountain. 

So there’s that, plus the fact that Mount Rushmore celebrates four important but flawed presidents — two of whom owned slaves, and virtually all of whom displaced and disregarded Native Americans (including Lincoln) during their tenure– all while violating Native land rights.

This is not to condemn Mount Rushmore nor to say that it should not be visited, but that it should be visited with an open mind and critical eye, aware of the hypocrisies and nuances of the story, but also aware of its importance in our country’s history.

Check out the Crazy Horse Memorial.

The Crazy Horse Memorial under construction

I suggest that you balance out your time visiting a place like Mount Rushmore with sites that represent Native American culture, such as the Crazy Horse Memorial. 

You can reach the memorial by continuing west from Mount Rushmore on 244 and then heading south on 385.

Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest rock carving. Their mission states, “… to protect and preserve the culture, tradition, and living heritage of the North American Indians.”

It was conceptualized as a response to Mount Rushmore, a way of reminding people of the Native history of the land, a counterpoint to the four presidents on stolen land.

But it, too, has been met with controversy, and opinions about this memorial among the Lakota are split (this fascinating article explains some of the issues at stake.)

If you’re hungry, stop at Laughing Water Restaurant. Your visit to this restaurant benefits the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.

Head towards Wind Cave National Park.

inside one of the caves at wind cave national park. sedimentary rock layers in the cave.

As you head south on 385, you’ll make your way to Wind Cave National Park, which is the final stop on day 2 of your South Dakota road trip.

They offer cave tours in this unique cave formed by the wind. The tour will take you to an opening in the cave where you can feel the breeze that rips through this cave, which is pretty amazing!

The rock formations in the cave will also blow your mind, as well!

Find a place to stay the night.

Trees on the plains of Wind Cave National Park in the afternoon light with shadow

This park is a perfect place to camp for the night, too. There are spots open often. You could also stay in Buffalo Gap or Hot Springs.

If you’re not camping, there are a lot of accommodation options in nearby Custer, SD. 

I suggest El Dorado Ranch which is highly rated and just outside of Custer, close to Wind Cave National Park, about a 20-minute drive away.

Where to stay in Custer

RANCH | Get a chance to sleep on a ranch by staying at El Dorado Ranch. Seated on a 5-acre, this holiday home is large enough to host big families or groups of people who want to experience farm life while still having all the amenities they need in a home. Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

CABIN | If you love rustic finished-off with modern amenities, then you’ll love this lovely log cabin. There are lots of cabins in Custer but this one is my personal favorite for its large deck that offers amazing views on Crazy Horse Monument not forgetting how cozy each room feels — I am talking exposed wooden beams, various pieces of art, cute lighting features, I could go on and on raving about this cabin. | Book on Vrbo

MOTEL | If you wondered why I was raving about the previous cabin and you just want to stick to the familiar options, then Bavarian Inn, Black Hills is what I recommend. With 2 swimming pools (one indoor, one outdoor), and a chic interior vibe, this motel has a French charm of overflowing flower pots that can’t be found in any of the previous options. | Reserve on Booking.com | Reserve on Hotels.com

Day 3: Incredibly Scenic Drives

Continue your incredible South Dakota road trip with some of the most scenic drives of your life.

The Needles highway in South Dakota open road around rocks

The following roads are going to blow your mind. Now we’re really getting into the good stuff of this South Dakota itinerary!

One thing I’d like to note, it is virtually impossible to drive the entirety of these roads without doing a little backtracking, but I promise, it is worth every mile.

Optional: Make a stop at Jewel Cave National Monument.

It’s a little out of the way, but if you’re interested in caves and geology and the Wind Caves wasn’t enough cave action for you, Jewel Cave National Monument is located about 20 miles west of Custer.

It’s a beautiful cave system that you can take a tour of by lantern light, but it isn’t the best for those with a fear of the dark or for claustrophobia!

Drive the Needles Highway.

A road going through the Needles highway

From Wind Cave, head north on 385 and pick up Route 87- the Needles Highway. This is by far one of the most scenic drives I have ever been on, aside from the scenic byway in Custer State Park (your next stop).

You will pass Sylvan Lake and the highway’s namesake, the Needle’s Eye, a unique rock formation. You will also pass the Cathedral Spires.

Keep an eye out for Black Elk Peak on this road, which is the highest point in South Dakota!

The spires are a significant rock climbing destination in the US. Plus, you can hit the trail in this spot to get up and personal with these remarkable formations.

Take the Iron Mountain Road to Custer State Park.

Three pronghorn aka american antelope in a field

From the Needles Highway, you will hop onto Iron Mountain Road (Route 16-A) initially. 

You will head west on 16-A, then back on 385 North, where you will then go right onto Needles Highway again (87 South). 

Then pick up 16-A East again, where you will enter Custer State Park and can spend the night.

This route is kind of a roundabout way to get to Custer State Park. However, it will allow you to see all that these scenic routes have to offer.

Iron Mountain Road will wind you through glorious tunnels carved right through the mountains. I’ve never been on roads quite like these.

They like to describe Iron Mountain Road as 17 miles, 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, three pigtails, three tunnels, two splits, and four presidents.

Tip: You can enjoy a portion of Iron Mountain Road as you enter the park and then use it to exit the next day to see the entire road.

After exploring a portion of the road, enjoy the scenic route that winds through Custer State Park, too, for more tunnels and endless wildlife. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway is 70 miles of engaging wonder.

You will 100% see bison and may even get stuck in a “bison jam” — the South Dakota version of a traffic jam — as the park is packed with them! 

Note: Do not get closer than 25 yards of bison (and 50 is safer). Take photos with a zoom lens.

There will also be a plethora of adorable prairie dogs. For even more animal-spotting, such as pronghorns and wild burros, tack on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway.

I’m pretty sure this will be one of your favorite days road tripping South Dakota!

Choose one of the many camping or cabin spots around the park to enjoy. Hit the hiking trails, swimming, fishing, or enjoy some time just straight chilling. It’s a great way to end the day.

Plus, when you wake in the morning, you will have the chance to head back out on the scenic roads as you make your way to another absolutely stunning South Dakota destination.

Day 4: Badlands National Park

Make your way towards the Badlands through the Black Hills.

Driving through the Badlands along Sage Creek Road, seeing hills of beautiful colors

Badlands National Park is your destination for your fourth day on the road in South Dakota! 

But first, you will finish adventuring on the scenic roads of the Black Hills National Forest before you head east.

Hop back on 16-A, Iron Mountain Road, and take it all the way up to Route 16. Then take the 16 Bypass to pick up Route 44 east.

Take a left from 44 to hit Sage Creek Road. This is another beautiful drive with spacious prairie views! There are more prairie dogs and bison that call this area home. You may also get to see Badlands bighorn sheep, too!

Note: Sage Creek Road is a dirt road, so take it cautiously, especially if you have a low-clearance vehicle!

Arrive at Badlands and take a scenic drive through the park.

Driving the badlands loop road, winding street on a sunny day in South Dakota road tripping

You will enter the park at the Pinnacles Entrance Station. From there, hop on the 30-mile Badlands Loop Road to enjoy many overlooks and incredible short hikes. 

Go check out our article on the Badlands for an extensive list of recommendations of what to do in the park!

One of the coolest things about the Badlands is that it is an Open Hike park. That means you can hike virtually anywhere unless otherwise stated. 

It also gives open reign for camping!

You can camp wherever you like in the park as long as it is half a mile from any trailhead or road. You should never camp within 100 feet of any water source.

There are also two campgrounds in the park, plus a lodge. Cedar Pass Lodge also has a restaurant that is open seasonally.

If you want, you can find free dispersed camping in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. The camping is located just north of the Pinnacles Entrance Station. Once you exit the park boundary, make a right onto the first dirt road. You will find a plethora of free campsites here.

One crucial thing to note: The Badlands are named so because of the rapidly changing weather. It can bring rain and high winds at the drop of a dime. If you are going to camp, make sure you have a very sturdy tent.

Day 5: Wall Drug Store and Other South Dakota historical sites.

See a spectacular Badlands sunrise, then make your way to Wall.

Sun rising over the Pinnacles of Badlands National park

Because of the colorful majesty of the Badlands Pinnacles, you can bet it will be one of the most beautiful sunrises of your life!

The Big Badlands Overlook is an excellent spot for sunrise. Also, the Castle Trail or the Door Trail will bring excellent sunrise views.

The Castle Trail is about 10 miles out and back, but you don’t have to hike the whole thing to get the views you want. The Door Trail is 0.8 miles, giving way to a nice and short sunrise hike.

Trail sign leading to different viewpoints in badlands NP

From your glorious morning views, stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to learn a bit of history of the Badlands. 

Then, head north from the Northeast Entrance Station on Route 240. There, you can make a stop at the Minute Man Missle National Historic Site.

This historic site once was a major player in the Cold War Era. There are still over 1000 nuclear weapons under the ground of the vast prairie. When you come here, you will be able to learn about the history of the Cold War and check out the Delta-09 missile.

Stop in the town of Wall, home to Wall Drug Store, a historic roadside attraction famous for its free ice water and delicious donuts!

Then, begin heading west on I-90 to Sturgis where you can pick up US Alt-14, Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.

Hop on US Alt-14 at Sturgis and begin heading northwest.

Sturgis is best known for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which was started by Native American bikers in 1938. It usually happens in August. 

For obvious reasons during the pandemic, we don’t suggest you attend (and you might want to stay clear of Sturgis for now), but keep it in mind for future travels.

You might want to check out the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame if you’re into motorcycles!

Personally, my favorite stop in Sturgis is Uncle Louie’s Diner! It offers by far the best pancakes in the state. Feel like a challenge? In this case, you should tackle on Uncle Louie’s Challenge.

“Eat a 6-pound burger and fries meal within 30 minutes, get it for free, and a t-shirt.” No one has ever completed this challenge. Classic.

You could also continue another 20 minutes on from Sturgis to the beautiful Bear Butte State Park.

Enjoy Gold Rush history with a stop in Deadwood.

The historic downtown of Deadwood South Dakota with bars and restuarants

Deadwood was established in 1876 when gold was discovered there. It is one of the most quintessential Gold Rush Era towns of the United States.

Deadwood was once home to some of the most infamous of the Wild West outlaws. You can find the graves of Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok, among others. You can even visit some of their graves at Mount Moriah Cemetary.

You can also enjoy the many luxuries that Deadwood provides, such as breweries, wineries, and spas.

Be sure to visit Buffalo Bodega Complex, the oldest saloon in South Dakota. You will find an Old West experience as you gamble and gobble down some juicy steak. You can undoubtedly spend a night here as they have a super active nightlife.

Deadwood is a great place to spend the night. There are numerous hotels and campgrounds to choose from.

For those brave enough, a stay at Bullock Hotel will surely excite your senses, and your nerves, as this hotel is said to be haunted! Supposedly, it is haunted by the ghost of the former sheriff of Deadwood, Seth Bullock, who built the hotel in 1895.

It has been said one can smell the smoke of his cigar from time to time. It is also said that there was a hanging in room 211. Sometimes the faint figure of the person who passed can be seen.

Day 6: Black Hills

Go north to Spearfish and enjoy scenic Route US Alt-14.

Waterfall in green oasis in Spearfish, South Dakota

Before you head northwest, grab a hangover cure in Deadwood at Nugget Saloon for “the world’s best Bloody Mary.”

In the morning, you may also want to hop on the George S. Mickelson Trail before hopping back on the road. It is always nice to get a nice stretch of the legs before spending a lot of time in a car.

You can make your way along the remainder of the Spearfish Canyon Byway scenic drive.

Spearfish Canyon Byway (US Alt-14) will be a great way to fill your scenic road trip desires. Take in the beauty of the Black Hills and all the great things South Dakota has to offer.

It will take you through a beautiful canyon with the option to view lakes and Bridal Veil Falls, Roughlock Falls (located 2 miles off the highway up a dirt road), and Spearfish Falls. Plus, you can see areas where they filmed Dances with Wolves.

There are numerous campgrounds, including the Spearfish Campground which lends itself to lovely creekside camping.

Day 7: Devil’s Tower & Back to Rapid City

Take an excursion to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

The mysterious rock formation of Devils Tower in Wyoming near South Dakota

While the Devil’s Tower is not in South Dakota, it is a worthwhile detour on your journey.

This structure was clearly once a volcano. Adventurers from around the world come here to challenge themselves on the rock climbing routes!

The Devil’s Tower was once known by natives as Bear Lodge. It was a major meeting place for many of the tribes in the area, including the Cheyenne and Arapahoe. 

Each tribe has a unique story about Bear Lodge. It was often a place to gather to honor the Great Spirit.

While it is not in South Dakota, it is only an hour from Spearfish and is just too cool to pass up!

To get there, you will take I-90 West to Route 14 West. On the way, you will want to stop at Vore Buffalo Jump Foundation, which is easily accessible right off I-90. It is a famous landmark, a sinkhole to be precise.

Known for an old Native American hunting tradition of chasing buffalo to their demise into the hole, you will find this stop quite interesting. 

The area was once home to the Shoshone, Hidatsa, Crow, Kiowa, Apache, and Cheyenne tribes, all of whom have contributed greatly to the area of the region.

You will also pass through the town of Sundance, WY. It is a great frontier town to make a stop in. You can even do some hiking in Bearlodge Mountain Recreation Area if you so choose.

After making your way to the Devil’s Tower, you can head back right where you started in Rapid City if you are finishing your trip up.

Whether you will continue on west from Wyoming to Yellowstone and Grand Teton or fly back home from Rapid City. Either way, you will have successfully seen the best of what South Dakota has to offer.

***

the pinnacles of the badlands of south dakota

South Dakota is an enchanting land of mountain peaks, prairie land, and pinnacles. You will see uncountable amounts of native flora and fauna. You will enjoy lakes, creeks, and waterfalls. Yes, South Dakota has it all!

As you travel through South Dakota, you’ll see the interplay of Amerian history writ large: the long, deep-rooted Native American connections to the land meeting with the “Wild West” history of pioneers. 

Monuments such as Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse speak to the uncomfortable truths of Westward Expansion, and it’s important to be mindful of what was lost — lives, land, languages, lore — as a result of European-American settlement on the Americas.

As always, I urge you to be conscientious of the land and its history. It is truly your honor and privilege to be able to travel, so approach it with an open heart and open mind.

Your Road Trip Checklist

road tripping through the green forest of south dakota

Before embarking, get your oil changed if needed, and check your tires and fluid levels. Here are a few things you should have in your car for a road trip:

  • One gallon of emergency water per person
  • Jumper cables, or better yet, a portable car jump starter. I highly recommend you get one with an air compressor and USB charging capabilities
  • Snacks, snacks, and more snacks!
  • Cooler for perishables
  • Metallic sunscreens to keep your car cool when parked
  • Knife
  • Tire plugs
  • First-aid kit
  • Road atlas — National Geographic makes a great one which shows the public land and camping spots.
  • Books and games
  • Emergency supplies for stranding: such as chains and tracks to help you get out if you are stuck.
  • Road flares
  • Extra clothes and blankets

If you get stranded:

  • Make sure your car can be seen by anyone coming to help. This is where road flares will come in handy. You can also keep the internal dome light on to help yourself be seen if it is nighttime. It doesn’t use a whole lot of battery power.
  • If your tires are stuck in the snow or mud, attempt to shovel them out. You can also place road salt under your tires to help melt snow. Tracks will also help will mud/snow.
  • Stay with your car. Heading out to seek help in cold/hot conditions can lead to hypothermia, frostbite, or heat-related injuries.
  • Be conservative with fuel, and fill up often, especially on long stretches of road. You don’t want to run out of gas.

Don’t forget travel insurance!
Travel insurance coverage helps you recoup your losses in case of emergency, accident, illness, or theft. I’ve relied on World Nomads for my travel insurance coverage for four years with no complaints, and I’m a happy paying customer. I recommend them highly to fellow travelers!

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Badlands National Park Itinerary: 1, 2, or 3 Days of Adventure!

The prettiest formations of rock in the Badlands!

South Dakota is seriously one of the coolest states in America. It doesn’t seem to have that reputation, but it is true! 

The Black Hills and Custer State Park are gorgeous and full of wildlife. The Cathedral Spires are one of the most prominent rock climbing destinations in the United States.

As the state is full of exciting wildlife and rock features, you cannot miss a visit to Badlands National Park

You will be awe-struck by the colorful rock features and spires. Imagine reds, yellows, oranges, and white striped mountains and spires!

Small hills in the Badlands National Park at sunset with light falling on the rock formations
PLANNING BADLANDS AT-A-GLANCE:

When to Go: Mid-summer brings heavy storms -- and crowds. Best time to visit is late spring/early summer or in the early fall.

Where to Stay: The best place to stay is in Wall, SD, near the Northeast Entrance to the park. I suggest the Best Western Plains Motel (mid-range, best-rated) or the Peaceful Country Living Home (vacation rental by owner).

More options: Days Inn (mid-range), America's Best Value Inn (mid-range with pool)

How to Get Around: You'll want your own car to travel around Badlands National Park, as there is no shuttle or public transit through the park. If you're renting a car, compare prices for car rentals from Rapid City Airport here.

Don't want to drive or plan? This private one-day Badlands tour departs from Rapid City, SD and will cover all the highlights without you doing any legwork.

3 Things Not to Forget to Pack: A sturdy pair of hiking boots will serve you well -- I love my Ahnu boots. You'll want binoculars to spot all the beautiful wildlife -- I suggest these Nikon binoculars. If you're hiking deep in the backcountry (this is an Open Hike Park!), you'll want something enabled with GPS and satellite SOS, like the Garmin InReach Mini. 

Know Before You Go: If you plan to visit multiple national parks in a year, the America the Beautiful Pass will save you a bundle! It costs $80 for an annual pass (for an entire vehicle traveling together) to all US national parks and federally managed site. 
Striated red and tan rock and grasslands in the Badlands of South Dakota

This national park is one of the most extraordinary examples of prehistory in America. It used to be underwater, and some of the remaining rock seems to be still moist. 

You can see fossils and imagine how this land looked when it was still immersed under the ocean 45 million years ago.

Not only is the prehistory of this park enough to pique your interest, but it has a long history of Native American culture.

It is flourishing with plants and animals for anyone to have the opportunity to thrive off the land here. There are prairie dogs, Badlands bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and bison roaming throughout the park. 

In addition, you will see edible and medicinal plants such as wild sunflowers, licorice, and juniper.

The Lakota, Sioux, and Cheyenne Native Americans once thrived in this wild land. They were among countless other tribes who learned the lay of the land and survived for hundreds of years before white settlers took the land from them.

As always when visiting stolen land, and particularly national parks, keep in mind the history of the land. The various Native American tribes of this area were true masters of the land. Remember this when you come here. The energy is palpable, and you can feel the ancient wisdom in the air.

Rock formations in Badlands National Park with shadow and light coming into play

How to Get to Badlands National Park

From Rapid City

From Rapid City to Badlands National Park, it takes about an hour drive to get to the park. There is a small regional airport at Rapid City.

There are direct flights to the Rapid City airport from Minneapolis, Denver, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Atlanta, and Dallas.

From Sioux Falls

It’s a bit of a long drive between Sioux Falls and Badlands National Park, which is about a 4 hour drive via I-90, but it’s an airport that has a little more options than Rapid City.

There are direct flights to the Sioux Falls airport from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, Denver, and Minneapolis.

On a South Dakota Road Trip

I’m in the process of writing a post for a South Dakota road trip, but here’s a quick little overview for you.

Your road trip itinerary should include Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, the Black Hills and the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore, all of which are clustered close to the Rapid City Airport. 

Other places that might be of interest are Deadwood, SD and Devils Tower National Monument in nearby Wyoming.

Below is a map that shows a rough South Dakota road trip itinerary.

On a Larger American Road Trip

South Dakota’s two NPS sites (Wind Cave and Badlands) pair well with Mountain West or other Midwest national parks.

One example would be a road trip that includes Yellowstone, Grand Teton, Mt. Rushmore, etc. You can see both Wyoming and South Dakota on a single road trip.

You could also pair with Colorado national parks or Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

Geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park with blue geothermal waters

Entering Badlands National Park

There are three main entrances to Badlands National Park: the Northeast Entrance (close to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center), the Pinnacles Entrance, and the Interior Entrance (near the White River Visitor Center and Cedar Pass Lodge).

Either way will allow you to see a lot of the park, but the White River Visitor Center is more on the way if you are doing a South Dakota road trip as it’s easier to go to Custer State Park, the Black Hills, etc. from there.

You can enter one way and exit another or return via the same park entrance you came.

Entering Badlands National Park costs $25 per vehicle, or if you have the America the Beautiful Pass, entrance is free!

NPS Sign reading "Entering Badlands National Park" in the late afternoon sunset light

Travel Tips for Visiting Badlands National Park

Preparation for Visiting the Badlands

An important thing to note before we get into all of the options you have to explore the Badlands is that there are limited amenities. So make sure you fill your gas tank before you head into the park!

You should make sure that you bring plenty of food for 1, 2, or 3 days in the park. Packing a lunch that needs to stay cool? Skip the bulky cooler — we suggest this awesome insulated tote from Hydroflask for your picnic needs.

You can also get food at the restaurant at Cedar Pass Lodge near the south edge of the park (Interior Entrance).

They have bison burgers, tacos, and vegetarian options. They also make their own fry bread, which is delicious.

Take note: the lodge is only open seasonally. Therefore, if you are coming in the off-season, you will need to bring all the food you need for the duration of your stay.

One of the many pointed rock formations of Badlands National Park with sunset light making shadows

Weather and Timing your Badlands Visit

An important thing to note about Badlands National Park is that the weather changes rapidly. One moment it can be warm and sunny; the next cool and stormy.

There are often high winds that will rip through the landscape. This is especially important to note if you plan on camping in the Badlands. A sturdy, legit tent is imperative. We’ll let you know more about camping in the Badlands later.

Note that summer is an especially stormy time with high winds and frequent thunderstorms…  and rainbows that follow!

The best time to visit the Badlands is in late spring/early summer (April-June, where you’ll get to see wildflowers) or late summer/early fall (September-October). The peak summer months (July and August) tend to have quite volatile weather!

Wildflowers in Badlands National Park at sunrise

What is an “Open Hike” Park?

One of the most incredible things about the Badlands is that while they may have many small trails and overlooks, this park is actually what is called an Open Hike park! 

That means you can hike and camp anywhere you want in the park, even if there are no trails.

If you choose to camp off-trail, you must camp at least 0.5 miles from any trails or roads. So you should be out of sight from anyone on the trail.

Always carry a map and a daypack. See the end of the post for our gear suggestions!

If you hike or camp off-trail, you will have the fantastic opportunity to see ferrets, prairie dogs, Badlands bighorn sheep, and bison.

A bighorn sheep standing looking at the camera in Badlands national park

Be sure to give all wildlife at least 25 yards of berth and do not approach them for any reason, particularly bison, which can occasionally be aggressive.

Note: there is also a presence of rattlesnakes in the Badlands! You should look out for them especially when adventuring off-trail. Always keep your eyes on the ground when walking. You can find them sunning themselves in open areas.

So while there are some great suggestions here, you are free to explore and hike anywhere the wind may take you while you explore the Badlands! 

It makes it a great way to spend time in the Badlands as you travel and explore to your heart’s content.

 Read a bit more about the “open hike” policy here.

Exploring the backcountry of Badlands National Park which is an Open hike park meaning you do not have to hike on trails only

Camping in Badlands National Park 

There are two different campgrounds in the park and dispersed camping in the Buffalo Gap National Grassland outside the park boundary. There is no fee for dispersed camping.

The campgrounds in the park are truly lovely. The first time I came to the park, I stayed at the Cedar Pass Campground

I camped on soft grass with an incredible view of the Badlands Pinnacles, the beautiful rock formations the park is known for. I found myself easily making my way to hike right from the campground for a lovely early morning stroll!

There is also primitive camping at the Sage Creek Campground. You can access this campground from Sage Creek Rim Road. There are no amenities. 

It, however, offers spacious campsites on prairie land. It is gorgeous and will give you a wilderness experience.

To reach dispersed camping, you want to head to the north and exit the park at the Pinnacles Entrance. When leaving the park, there is a dirt road just to the right after you cross the threshold of the park boundary.

You will travel along the road to find countless areas to set up your tent, RV, or sleep in your car. The road is bumpy, so 4-wheel drive is ideal. However, I saw multiple sedans parked along the road, too, so it is doable if you are careful.

Just go slow, watching for potholes, and you should be fine despite whichever vehicle you are driving. The dirt roads of the area can be especially treacherous in the rain.

Despite the roads, it is some of the most beautiful dispersed camping I have ever had the pleasure of experiencing. You will have sweeping views of both the plains and the rugged, colorful rock of the Badlands.

Because of the Open Hike Policy, you can also camp anywhere you want in the park. Just remember to stay out of sight and 0.5 miles from any trails and roads while using Leave No Trace principles.

A blue tent out in the wilderness of Badlands National Park backcountry

A Quick Rundown on Leave No Trace Principles

Camping in the park and enjoying Badlands’ Open Hike policy works best when you use Leave No Trace (LNT) principles. 

Leave No Trace should be kind of self-explanatory. I like to think of it as “leave it better than you found it.”

LNT means you should always camp at least 100 feet from any water source. You should also urinate 100 feet away from water sources and 200 feet if you have to dig a cathole.

Carry out any soiled toilet paper. If you have to bury it, bury it at least 8 inches below the surface. This is how deep your cathole should be, but 12 inches is ideal.

Never leave trash anywhere, ever. Never!

Another nice thing to do is to “re-naturalize” your campsite. You can do this by adding debris to the area where you had set up your tent to make it appear as if you had never camped there.

Badlands FAQs

How much time do you need in Badlands National Park? One day in Badlands National Park is enough to get the basics, but two or three days will be even better. We give you options for 1, 2, and 3 day itineraries for this exact reason.

Can do you do Badlands National Park in one day? Absolutely! Start at the Northeast entrance and make your way through the park according to the itinerary suggested and you’ll hit all the Badlands highlights in a single day, or opt for one of the below tours which depart from Rapid City, SD.

What should you not miss in Badlands National Park? Everything on our one-day itinerary are the highlights of the park!

Is there a shuttle in Badlands National Park? No, there is not. You will want to bring your own car or rent a car from one of the airports if you are flying in. You can also take a private guided tour departing from Rapid City, SD if you cannot drive, just don’t want to, or if rental cars are not available.

Beautiful formations within Badlands National Park with green flora and red and earth toned rock

How This Badlands Itinerary Works

This Badlands National Park itinerary is additive, meaning that the first day of the itinerary covers everything you’d want to see if you have only one day in Badlands National Park. 

It is structured in a logical way that reduces backtracking and prioritizes the most important things. 

It also makes sure you get out and do some light hiking, so that you’re not just doing a car-hopping, whistle-stop tour of overlooks without appreciating the nature.

The second day contains the second most important things, and the third day offers some bonus ideas for things to do if you have an additional day to dedicate to your Badlands itinerary.

If you only have one day in the Badlands, you don’t need to read past day one: all the best things are in there!

If you have more than one day in Badlands National Park, continue reading to either the end of Day 2 or Day 3.

The prettiest formations of rock in the Badlands!

Badlands National Park Itinerary: Day One

Take a scenic drive on Badlands Loop Road.

Whichever end of the park you decide to enter from, you will end up on the Badlands Loop Road, a beautiful scenic byway through the park. 

It is the absolute best way to see the park if you only have one day in the Badlands, and it is one of the most scenic drives in all of the state!

Honestly, this park is relatively small compared to other national parks in the USA, so one day will allow you to see the major attractions of the Badlands.

The Badlands Loop Road is just 30 miles. As you traverse along the road, you will be able to hop out to enjoy vistas and some tremendous easy hikes in Badlands National Park!

When discussing this route of trails and overlooks, we will be entering the park from the Northeast Entrance.

Taking the scenic Badlands Loop, driving on an empty road in the Badlands in South Dakota

Make some stops for hikes and overlooks.

Your first stop will be the Big Badlands Overlook. It is a popular stop that offers hikers stunning views of the Badlands.

As you traverse south on Badlands Loop Road, you will find a great short hike at the Notch Trail

This trail is 1.5 miles and not too strenuous. One nifty feature of the trail is the rope ladder which ascends to a stunning viewpoint. It is one of the most popular hikes in the park!

Other tempting short hikes are the Window Trail and the Door Trail. Both of these trails are located at the same trailhead as the Notch Trail, so you can simply add on to your first hike if you have some energy!

In addition, these trailheads are located at the same point for the trailhead to the Castle Trail (more on this trail below), just north of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. See the photo below for trailhead information

The Window Trail is 0.3 miles, and the Door Trail is 0.8 miles. Both offer hiking trails along a boardwalk with wonderful views. 

You can also freely hike off-trail anywhere you want along the way: this is allowed within the park, due to their “open hike” policy (unlike other national parks!).

Sign that reads trails "Door, Window, Notch, Castle": 4 trailheads diverging from one point

Take a short hike amongst fossils.

One of my favorite short hikes along Badlands Loop Road is the Fossil Exhibit Trail at the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. It is a great way to get to know the prehistory of the park!

Plus, the fossil exhibits are hands-on so that you can touch the fossil moldings. You may even find an actual fossil along the trail! 

It is only 0.25 miles to hike this guy, so it’s easy for everyone, even if you’re visiting the Badlands with kids!

The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is also an awesome place to check out fossils that have been found in Badlands NP!

Have a picnic lunch with a view, followed by more exploring.

From the Fossil Trail, stop at Bigfoot Pass Overlook for a picnic lunch… this is why I suggested bringing the food you’d like for the day into the park!

Another option would be the White River Valley Overlook, which also has amazing views suitable for a picnic lunch!

Then, hit up Panorama Point for more sweeping views of the Badlands. You will also find grand vistas at the Yellow Mounds Overlook. 

This overlook has lots of little trails leading out from the parking lot. These yellow mounds also contain hues of pink, purple, and orange… not just yellow!

To the right of the parking area, you can ascend a mound to take in the views of the prairie and the classic rock features of the Badlands.

You can also hike down around the yellow mounds to the left of the lot.

Yellow mounds in Badlands National Park with stripes of orange, tan, and pinkish-red with a clear blue sky behind it

View the sunset for an incredible show of color and light.

Sunset is one of the most incredible times to view the beauty of the Badlands! 

The colors of the rock will glow in a myriad of colors as the hues of sunset complement the features of the Badlands pinnacles.

One great spot for viewing the sunset is the Pinnacles Overlook, which you can find at the end of the Badlands Loop Road.

This overlook is a popular spot, as you will see. However, it offers some of the most beautiful sweeping views of the jagged rock of the Badlands.

Striations in the rock formations of the pinnacles in the Badlands national park of south dakota at sunset

Set up camp or stay in the lodge, if overnighting in the park.

Depending on how you are structuring your trip to the Badlands, this may be the point where you turn around and go back to Rapid City or wherever you are staying the night. 

Or you may want to set up camp or head to the lodge (if you have it pre-booked) if you are spending 2 or 3 days in Badlands National Park!

If you are staying overnight in the park, you will most likely be camping (more on that below).

However, there is a lodge that is open seasonally, Cedar Pass Lodge.

Cedar Pass Lodge offers lovely accommodations and a great restaurant. They have a campground as well as environmentally-conscious cedar cabins with all the amenities. 

They also self-describe themselves to be an excellent place to view the moon… or do some stargazing on a moonless night!

The colors of the Milky Way stretching up over the horizon in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Badlands Itinerary: Day Two

Spend some time exploring the area around your campsite.

Once you’ve slept in and made yourself breakfast (or ate a filling, tasty breakfast from the lodge), you will want to explore more of whatever area you chose to stay in. 

If you’re staying only two days in Badlands National Park, you may want to break down your campsite now before continuing on with your day, or if you have three days in the Badlands, you can continue on without taking down your campsite.

The start of the day is up to you! Whether this is hiking on an established trail or taking advantage of the “Open Hike” policy of the Badlands, spend the morning your way.

If you stayed at the Lodge or the Badlands Campground near the Interior Entrance, now might be a good time to tackle the Saddle Pass Trail. 

This is a moderately-rated trail that packs a lot of punch into its short 0.7-mile length. Prepare for some scrambling!

If you stayed elsewhere in the park, you can find off-trail adventures near you or look for the nearest trailheads on your park map if you prefer to hike on-trail.

The easy boardwalk beginning to the moderately-rated Saddle Pass Trail which has some rock scrambling

Hike the Castle Trail for Sunset.

If you are staying for two days in Badlands National Park, be sure to take the time to view the sunset along the Castle Trail! 

Be sure to start this hike in the early afternoon. At 10.8 miles round trip, it is the longest trail in the Badlands. It will take up a nice chunk of an afternoon in the park, so be sure to start plenty early and bring a headlamp.

You will go on a stunning hike and explore the Castle Trail for incredible sunset views. Be sure to start the trail at the west trailhead heading east, across from the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. This will allow for you to be heading back west for the best views of the sunset.

The Castle Trail is a great option if you really want to get your hike on. It would be a wonderful way to end your last day in the park while you fully immerse yourself in the beauty of the landscape.

Sunset colors at the Castle Trail rock formation at the end of the trail

Alternative: You can camp along this trail if you want to do it the first day, instead. Remember that you have to be half a mile from the path and out of sight. It would be a great way to enjoy the park if you desire to backcountry camp out on this trail.

Other Alternative: If you’re not feeling a long hike, you can also view the sunset at the Conata Basin Overlook or Big Badlands Overlook.

Badlands Itinerary: Day Three

If you have three days to spend in the park, you can add endless backcountry adventures to your Badlands National Park itinerary! 

Perhaps you could spend the first day exploring the Badlands Loop Road, and then head on out to the depths of the park for your two nights in the park.

Twists and turns in the road of Badlands Loop Drive in South Dakota

Adventure in the park’s backcountry.

For your first night in the backcountry, Deer Haven is a great option. It would make the most sense for you to head there after you tour the park on the loop road.

It is only 2.5 miles from the Conata Picnic Area to reach the wilderness section to set up camp. While the trail is unmarked, there is a path you can follow. It will lead you to a grove of junipers, or you can camp on the buttes.

Another option for your first night would be to venture along the Badlands Loop Road and make your way out to Sage Creek Rim Road

The Sage Creek Wilderness Area of the park is another excellent spot for more backcountry adventures on your first night.

Close to the Sage Creek Bason Overlook, you’ll find the Roberts Prairie Dog Town, which has one of the highest concentrations of prairie dogs in the park!

You can find many bison game trails in this area, explicitly leading from the Sage Creek Campground. Explore the buttes or the plains from the Sage Creek Wilderness area for an all-encompassing Badlands experience.

Refer back to the info on the Castle Trail, as this is a beautiful undertaking for your second night out in the park’s backcountry. 

It is a 10.8-mile round trip, the longest maintained trail in the park. It is a nice option if you want to hike a lot while still having some time to check out more overlooks and short hikes in the early part of the day.

As it is an Open Hike park, you can venture out off-trail and explore as you please. Remember to camp at least 0.5 miles from the trail.

Notes on Backcountry Camping

If you want to camp in the backcountry here, you should always be sure to be at least half a mile from any roads or trails. Make sure you are out of sight.

Water is limited in the Badlands, so depending on where you decide to backcountry camp, you should make sure you bring plenty of water. 

Always check with a ranger before you venture out to learn about water availability out in the backcountry. Even with filtration systems, there may not be water available.

Additionally, you should always register at a ranger station before you venture out into the wild. Let them know where you plan to go and for how long. 

You do not want to get stuck out there and find no one is coming to look for you because you didn’t let anyone know where you were going!

Rule #1 of backcountry hiking: Always have a plan and make sure someone knows what that plan is.

Blue tent contrasting against the red rock and green grass landscape of Badlands National Park

Alternative Day 2 & 3 Badlands Itinerary

Explore other trails and overlooks.

If you don’t want to do backcountry camping, there are still plenty of ways you can enjoy a multi-day Badlands National Park itinerary.

On your second day in the park, head out to watch the sunrise. You will be awe-struck by the colors and sheer majesty of the park during the early morning hours. 

Again, there are some great options for this. This includes the Castle Trail, as mentioned above.

If you plan to make the Castle Trail for sunrise, you can add the Medicine Root Loop Trail to your hike, which would add 4 miles, making the entire undertaking 14.8 miles. 

This will allow you to spend a whole day hiking in one of the best sections of the park for views and buttes.

Other tempting options for sunrise are at Big Badlands Overlook or on the Door Trail. You will definitely see the sun come up and the beautiful light as it ascends over the rock of the Badlands and the prairie land of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland.

Sunrise falling on a rock formation near the Door Trail in Badlands National Park

If you choose to view sunrise at the Big Badlands Overlook or the Door Trail, you can easily make your way to the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail

This trail is 0.5 miles and is sometimes host to bighorn sheep and bison. 

Note: The park asks that you stay on this trail and sway from the Open Hike policy to help maintain this area.

When you have three days in the Badlands, you can truly explore the depths of the park. It is an excellent opportunity to drive along the Sage Creek Rim Road or Conata Road and explore at your heart’s whims.

You may also desire to head down into the Stronghold Unit. The Sheep Mountain Table Road is an off-road vehicle-only road.

If you have a vehicle with high clearance, then this is a stellar option for scenic driving. However, you can also hike this section; it is 2.5 miles to hike it.

Stair trail boardwalk leading to beautiful rock formations amidst a green lush landscape in the Badlands
Remember: the Cliff Shelf Trail is one of the exceptions to the Open Hike policy!

Get out of the park and into town.

Additionally, when you have more time on your itinerary, you can leave the park for a few hours to explore the outlying area of the park. 

For example, you may want to head out to the tourist town of Wall, SD, where there are a handful of restaurants and shops to enjoy.

Wall Drug is one of the big attractions. It is here where you can get handmade donuts and get some free ice water. The ice water was one of the ways that the original owners drew travelers to this town in the “middle of nowhere.” 

You can also find the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site here, which is an interesting place to visit to learn a bit about Cold War history.

A decommissioned Minuteman Missile silo

You can access Wall by heading out at the Pinnacles Entrance of the park.

Additionally, 1880 Town is a fun option. You can get there by leaving the park from the Northeast Entrance and heading back towards I-90.

Movies were filmed in the more than 30 buildings built during the pioneer days—the structures date from 1880 to 1920.

Plus, they have a museum, the ’50s Train Diner, gemstone panning, and live entertainment. It closes at 6 PM so you will want to make this a daytime activity.

1881 Post Office part of 1880 Town in South Dakota

Revel in the satisfaction of an incredible visit to Mako Sica.

Mako Sica is what the Lakota called the Badlands. It translates literally to bad lands. 

The variable weather and sometimes harsh environment are what created this namesake. However, this land is also sacred. It provided sustenance and a beautiful home for countless tribes. 

Remember this and treat this land with the proper respect it deserves. Remember that all National Parks are on stolen land — the same as virtually all of the United States. 

When you come here, you will be blown away by the energy and the beauty. The colors are stunning, and the adventures are endless. 

There is a reason it is nicknamed the “Land of Stone and Light.” As the weather changes rapidly, so does the light.

Embrace the wild and unpredictable movement of the Badlands. Arrive prepared for all kinds of weather. And remember, always leave the land better than you found it, especially in this most precious of landscapes.

Sunset over the Badlands of South Dakota with a sunburst effect and grass in the foreground

Badlands Day Pack Gear List

Badlands Backpacking Gear List