For a high-level South Dakota itinerary complete with maps to all of the sites mentioned here, check out our South Dakota trips resources page. Continue reading this post to get the inside scoop on our trip and experiences.
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Rapid City, South Dakota greeted us with gusts of wind so strong that I almost got blown to the Land of Oz – Dorothy style. “What better way could we possibly start our week-long ‘whirlwind vacation’?”, I thought as my husband and I dashed inside to check-in at our hotel.
The warm welcome we received from the front desk of the budget-friendly Comfort Suites was a nice contrast to the harassing wind. I was not used to staying in Choice hotels when travelling for work or pleasure, but this hotel was rated as the top area accommodation on TripAdvisor, and it was a great recommendation. I returned the smiles of our hosts, and decided at that moment that this was going to be an awesome trip! After weeks of planning and research and an 18+ hour drive from our home in Ohio, our tour de prairie-land was finally happening! We had reached the base of operation for our vacation – Rapid City, South Dakota!
So, at this point, you may be wondering why I called this trip a “whirlwind vacation”? My answer: forgiving the (admittedly nerdy) pun at the opening about the windy conditions that we experienced, this was a whirlwind vacation because of the amount of activity that we had planned for such a short amount of time.
For starters, we like to take trips that are anchored in visiting the 400+ National Park Service (NPS) units. One of the things that we looked forward to the most was updating our National Park Passports and collect our cancellation stamps. We planned to visit six National Park sites in the area – enough to satisfy our need for “stamp cramp”.
Additionally, we were super-excited to visit some of the towns that one calls to mind when pondering the “Wild West”. After all, we were right by Deadwood, SD, the former home and current resting place of (among others) famous western pioneers Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
Leading up to the trip, we binge-watched all three seasons of the hit HBO series Deadwood in anticipation of the trip (you can even watch it on Amazon Prime – it’s rugged, but it won’t disappoint), and we were ready to experience the town!
These were the must do activities that we planned, but the list didn’t end there. We had a long list of suggestions from friends and family to explore as well. While we knew that we wouldn’t be able to fit it all in during the week that we had available, we were willing to try! That’s why I called this trip a whirlwind – because it was a rapid fire excursion of activity and fun!
Day 1: The Faces of South Dakota
No trip to the Black Hills would be complete without a visit to Mt Rushmore. Our experience was worth travelling the distance from our home in Ohio all on its own. From Rapid City, we were only about a 40-minute (27 mile) drive to Mt Rushmore. Tack on another 10+ minutes for paying the entrance fee of $10 per vehicle and parking in the multi-tiered parking garage, and the rest of the time was ours to appreciate this man-made wonder. My favorite part was walking through the pathway leading up to the overlook which contains the flags of each of the states. It was a reverent experience for me.
If you go, take your time to visit the bookstore to get your National Park Passport stamp at the checkout counter and to pick up some gifts for the kids in your life (nieces and nephew in our case). We ended up getting presidential rulers for the kids, and spent at least half an hour seeing if we could remember the presidents in order. Also, take time to view the video about the creation of Mt. Rushmore that the Park Service shows for free – it’s a fascinating story! We found the visitor experience to be very comfortable. Restrooms were available, the entire site was accessible, and the parking was only a short walk to the overlook.
After visiting Mt. Rushmore, the next stop on our trip was to the Crazy Horse Memorial (about 30 minutes, 16 miles from Mt. Rushmore). We were amazed by how much we enjoyed this site. The Crazy Horse Memorial is a privately funded project to commemorate the unity and pride of the various Native American tribes in this country. While the undertaking of forming the side of a mountain into the largest sculpture of its type is a bit ambitious in my opinion, the beautiful facilities, artwork and artifacts that are on display and for sale made this a precious part of our trip.
The highlight of this experience for me was listening to the beautiful flute music and demonstration of various types of hand-made flutes and buying some jewelry as gifts from a few different tribal artists. The representatives of diverse tribes that manned each booth were happy to share information about their tribe and their art. The artists indicated that the family behind the Crazy Horse Memorial invites them to sell their products for free each year in exchange for sharing knowledge and information about their tribes with the site’s visitors. When you visit, take the time to explore to your hearts content at this gem of a stop.
The last site for the day was a stop by Jewel Cave National Monument. This site is about 45 minutes (36 miles) from the Crazy Horse Memorial. My husband and I heard that this cave was beautiful, and were excited to check it out. Jewel Cave offers guided tours, so if caving is your adventure of choice, I would suggest reserving your cave tour in advance and planning your day around your tour time. I make this suggestion because with the amount of time that we spent at Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial, by the time that we arrived at Jewel Cave, the last tour for the day had already departed. Poor planning on our part, but after all of the exploring that we had done earlier in the day, we were content to go to the Visitor Center to get our National Park Passport stamp and explore the scenic drive above ground.
After all of these awesome experiences, the return trip to Rapid City wouldn’t be complete without stopping by the Powder House in Keystone (my favorite restaurant of the entire trip). I ordered the game sampler and tried quail and elk for the first time ever! The food was delicious (think house-made sauces and unique chutneys accompanying each dish – yum!). Even thinking about it after all of this time is making my mouth water.
If we could do it again, we would go back for the evening programs at Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial. We heard that these were awesome experiences, but did not make it back to enjoy them. You don’t even have to return on the same day. If you are in the area for multiple days, you can keep your parking / entrance receipts for free re-entry for a period of 1 year at Mt. Rushmore and for 3 days at Crazy Horse Memorial. If you are wanting to get a readmit pass at Crazy Horse, you will want to visit the Welcome desk within the Visitor Center to get your pass.
Day 2: Alien Encounters
This was the day for “other-worldly” adventure! We got up early to head to Wyoming. What an awesome opportunity to see another state only 2 hours (110 miles) away! Most of the trip out was made on I90 which has a speed limit of 80mph, and oh how quickly the miles melt away at that speed! Each minute of longing is replaced with excitement as you get closer and closer to Devils Tower National Monument!
We pulled off to get some great views from a distance upon our approach, and it only got more awesome as we got closer to the natural land formation that juts out of the earth in a super-natural manner. The cost to enter was $15 for 7-days of entry. Once in the park, there were a number of pull-offs that you can stop at as you approach the monument to observe the prairie dogs and beautiful scenery. Anxious to get to Devil’s Tower, we reserved our excitement for the pull-offs for the return trip. When we got up to the visitor’s center (we were lucky to not have to park in the overflow parking further down the hill) we made our stop by the bookstore to get our National Park Passport stamped. There was no video at this site, but you can pose with this cool alien at the visitor’s center.
I’m not a climber, but it was awesome to watch those adventurous souls scale the side of Devils Tower which seemed to stand at a 90 degree angle to the earth. Even though my climbing skills are limited, I did enjoy venturing into the boulders at the base of the formation. The walk was not very far from the parking lot and visitor center, and the passage was paved. There was, however, a decent incline to walk up to get to the boulders, and I didn’t see an easier way to get to that point. I mention this as a caution to those that might not be able to walk up steep inclines.
On the way out, we made sure to pull offs to see the Prairie Dogs that we skipped on the way in! I love those little guys.
After a couple hours visiting Devils Tower, we made our way back to South Dakota. On the way back, we took a drive through Spearfish Canyon. When we planned our original trip itinerary, this site was not even on our radar, but the locals that we talked to said that this was their favorite drive to take. As a general rule, we find that talking to people in the area and heeding their advice is one of the best ways to take advantage of the very best that an area has to offer. Spearfish Canyon took approximately and hour to drive through with sporadic stops at waterfalls and to observe some fly-fishing. There are several pull offs along the way. I would definitely consider this to be a must-do drive if you’re in the area.
Finally, we made our way to Sturgis, the home of the well-known annual biker rally and the original site of the famed Full Throttle Saloon. My husband, Jason, made it a priority to visit the site of the original saloon that was seen on TV and is famed as the world’s largest biker bar. After a fire that demolished the saloon in 2015, there stood a trailer with t-shirts, keepsakes and cold drinks for purchase. The lady that was working at the place was personable, and shared a lot of history and pictures of the saloon with us. She also had some artwork for sale that contained some of the original melted material from the bar.
After a day of exploring, we made our way back to Rapid City. We took some time to go to the downtown area where we grabbed dinner and walked around a bit.
Day 3: Rest and Stressed
The Rest: One tip that we would recommend to any vacationer (especially to those on a whirlwind trip) is to plan on having some down time. After all, running yourself ragged is counter-productive when considering the goals of vacation. That is why we always try to plan some down time in our trip schedules.
This trip was no different. We knew that we were going to need some down time, and planned it around the famous Indy 500 race. Jason grew up following Indy Car, and since our trip took place during Memorial Day week, our “day 3” coincided with the Indianapolis 500, an event that he was not willing to miss. What this meant for us is that we had the morning to sleep in, and the day to lounge around the hotel and rest. Whatever it is that helps you to rest and feel refreshed, we always recommend intentionally carving out part of your itinerary to just chill.
The Stress: After spending most of the day resting and watching Takuma Sato clench his first Indy 500 victory, we decided to take a drive along Needles highway, part of Custer State Park. This was a drive that was recommended to us by quite a few friends that had visited, and one that we found a lot of information about online. We planned to explore at a leisurely pace, expecting to see some beautiful views before retiring for the evening… but oh, the stress! I must admit that the views were lovely, but I also have to say I was (luckily) the passenger on this drive. Why, you may ask? I can give you two reasons:
- I actually got to take in the beautiful views because I wasn’t focused on the road with 110% effort; and,
- I didn’t have to worry about driving on the side of a cliff and ending any future exploration for me and Jason eternally (ha!).
All joking aside, even though the Needles highway was one of the most highly-recommended stops for our trip from our friends, it is not for everyone – and perhaps was not for us. The winding narrow roadways that meander along cliff sides and steep drop-offs made this stressful for both my driver (thanks husband) and me.
Consider your appetite for driving on high and narrow roads. The views on Needles Highway are amazing, but the route is narrow and harrowing. Luckily, Jason was the brave driver this time around, and I got to enjoy the views while he “white knuckled” the steering wheel the entire time. I could feel his stress, and with all of the other beautiful sites that we saw on this trip, this is one that we would have likely skipped if we had known just how stressful the drive was going to be.
That being said, Custer State Park maintained the roads very nicely. We actually met a couple at dinner that evening that told us about how they rode their motorcycle on Needles Highway and LOVED IT! When I heard that, I nearly had a panic attack, but they said that it was the highlight of their trip. To each their own! Just be aware and alert.
Also, I want to mention that this is not the only thing to do at Custer State Park. We had a blast on the Wildlife Drive (which I’ll talk about later), and there is a lot of camping and other activities to do at the park that we really enjoyed and highly recommend.
Day 4: Water, land and new heights
Wind Cave National Park was awesome! I was disappointed that we didn’t go into the cave as they had some beginner friendly guided cave tours, but (once again) lack of proper planning would have left us waiting for over 3 hours to catch the tour that we wanted as the earlier tours were sold out. My recommendation would be to arrive early and book your tour in advance. We did catch the video (which is a suggestion that I always have for visiting the Parks), and learned that there was more to Wind Cave than the cave system and intricate box work. Wind Cave National Park is the park that is as much about the surface of the cave as it is about the cave itself. That being said, we got to see some really cool wildlife including buffalo, coyotes on the hunt, prairie dogs, and a variety of deer on the surface. I highly recommend taking time to experience the wildlife.
If you get a chance to visit Angostura Recreation Area, make sure to take your fishing poles and tackle. Angostura was a beautiful park that was centered around a lake with various pull offs, cabins, restaurants, etc. There was even a on-the-water shop which is where we purchased some night crawlers for our fishing expedition. It didn’t take too long before we started to get some bites, and what we pulled out of the water was new for us – Walleye! These are some cool fish complete with a full set of teeth. And after we caught one, more and more started to hit the line. What a great way to spend an afternoon!
The last part of the day was spent at Custer State Park driving the Wildlife Loop. This was a dramatically different experience for us than Needle’s Highway (thank goodness!). We explored the park not long before sunset. The drive was easy with minimal changes in elevation, and the animals that we saw were many and varied. It was at Custer State Park that we saw the largest herd of buffalo (crossing in front of our car) that we saw on our entire trip. We also saw some neat birds, deer and donkey. I highly recommend this beautiful addition to the trip (and make sure to take your binoculars). This was the part of the trip where I felt the most comfortable and “at home”.
If you plan to enter Custer State Park (or any other SD State Park) more than once during your trip, consider getting a pass. The temporary park permit pass at Custer will grant you access to any parks for a period of 7 days. We didn’t know this, and ended up paying for admission to Angostura and then paying for admission to Custer when we could have just saved money with the pass.
Day 5: The “Wild West”
As I mentioned earlier, in preparation for our trip to South Dakota, we binge watched all three seasons of the HBO series, Deadwood. If you enjoy the history of the “Wild West”, then Deadwood is one of those mythological places that was once home to some of the West’s most famous characters. Quick draw Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny, Sheriff Seth Bullock, Al Swarengen – all were residents of this legendary mining town. The town is likely very different today than it was back then (it definitely caters to tourists and is complete with one of the most beautiful visitor centers that I have been in), but it did still feel like we were in a special place. There are a lot of casinos and restaurants. We stopped by the Celebrity Hotel which had some neat movie memorabilia that you could check out and enjoy even if you don’t gamble.
We geeked out over getting to visit significant sites in Deadwood like Saloon 10 (where Wild Bill was fatally shot), the Bullock Hotel, and the Mount Moriah cemetery where some of the well know names mentioned above were laid to rest.
Getting a chance to walk around at Mount Moriah gave us the opportunity to do one of our favorite things that we do on that vacation – to meet some new friends. We met a couple named Dave and Jeanne who shared with us their new-found RV lifestyle and told us about the joy that they were experiencing road tripping and seeing this beautiful country. That lifestyle has such an appeal to us, and we appreciated hearing their plans and experiments with being location independent.
Talk to people that you meet on the road! Get recommendations from locals (and actually follow them). Your experience will be enriched as a result.
Day 6: Hitting the Wall
After nearly a week of excitement, we were tired. Nonetheless, we still had some exciting, not-to-miss items on our agenda. We said our good byes to Rapid City, and headed a little over an hour west to Wall, SD. Wall became our new “home base” for the last couple of days of our trip. We stayed at the lovely Frontier Cabins (again, a top rated accommodation on TripAdvisor), and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. The cabin had a nice porch with rocking chairs that enabled us to relax with nothing around us but the beautiful prairie. The cabins were comfortable and clean – a significant improvement over the spider-ridden cabins that I remember from the days of my middle school camp outings. This would be our base of operation for the last couple of days of our trip.
Not far from Wall, SD, we visited the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. We spent over an hour exploring the Visitor Center which provided some neat history on the Cold War and the training and preparation that the Minutemen and women went through to be ready in the event of an attack. The idea being that if necessary, they would be ready to act within a minute’s notice. We enjoyed the Visitor Center and continued our learning on the self-guided tour of a missile site. In order to do the self-guided tour, you will need to have a cell phone. Basically, you call a phone number at the site, and listen to prerecorded snippets that explain different things that you see on site. It was a new experience for us to have a tour delivered in this way, but it was neat to get to explore at our own pace.
The Minuteman Missile National Historic Site also offers the opportunity to go into a Missile Silo. This, however, requires some advance preparation. We recommend contacting the Visitor Center in advance if you want to make sure that you get to take advantage of this experience. We, unfortunately, missed out on this experience.
The evening was spent exploring the Wall Drug Store. I had heard some describe Wall Drug as a tourist trap (after all, there were a lot of foreign-made goods and not many locally-made products). However, if you take the store for what it is, a solitary stop along a long stretch of road that basically doesn’t have other easily accessible towns nearby, it is neat to see how the place made a name for itself by offering the convenience of free water to travelers that did not (at the time) have the convenience of automobiles and air conditioning. We enjoyed seeing the various statues and knick-knacks, and would definitely visit again if we found ourselves in the area.
Day 7: The Badlands
Two words – purely amazing!
We started our trip at the Badlands National Park with a picture. I’ll let you in on another nerdy secret. In addition to getting my passport stamped at each park unit, I am also a fan of getting my picture at the park sign at each of the National Scenic Parks. It is a little comical even to me that I got into this practice because in actuality it’s just a big sign that happens to be installed at one of the most magical places in the country. I mean, if I really think about it, at the end of the day, I will have many pictures and at least one cancellation stamp to commemorate my experience. But for some reason, I feel a sense of personal satisfaction out of the park sign photos. Although we had to wait on a couple of car loads of visitors in front of us, I cherished my time with the sign.
In order to really experience the Badlands, I recommend trying some of the walks and hikes. One of the first areas that you encounter when you enter the park from the Northeast (before even arriving at the Visitor Center) is the Big Badlands Overlook. This was a brief walk along a boardwalk with amazing views! Visitors young and old, and even those with pets were able to stroll along the boardwalk and take in the awe-inspiring landscape only a few steps from their vehicle. Take a walk on the boardwalk and see the panoramic views of the land! We did this walk and then went out to walk the Castle Trail before even arriving at the Visitor Center.
We went to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get our stamps, and to learn about the formation of the land and how it is a record of the animals and fossils that are found there. It was interesting to me to learn about the rapid erosion of the land as well. Note that the park actually has two Visitor Centers (Ben Reifel which is quickly accessed via the Northeast entrance of the Park, and the White River Visitor Center that is located on the Pine Ridge Reservation – we only visited Ben Reifel). If we get a chance to go back, we will definitely check out the White River Visitor Center. As of the time of our visit, however, some of the southern areas of the park were not as well developed, and some of the roads were not paved. This did keep us from venturing too far off of the Badlands Loop Road.
In the 4 hours that we spent at the park, we drove the Badlands Loop Road and stopped at several of the pull-offs to take short hikes and see the dramatic views from the overlooks that the park maintains. Driving the Badlands Loop Road is the most popular activity at the park.
One of my favorite stops was the Pinnacles Overlook. This was the best place to feel like we were walking “on the top” of the Badlands. This was also the best place to observe the big horn sheep. It took me a few minutes to locate them in the distance because they seemed to blend into the background, but once I did spot them, I realized that they were all over the place.
At the park, you will also see some amazing wildlife up close. There are freely grazing buffalo, prairie dogs, and even big horn sheep to name a few. The wildlife served as a reminder that we were in a very different place than our Ohio home. Knowing that the Badlands was our last excursion of the trip, it was very fulfilling to end on a high note at the intersection of the beauty of nature and the diversity of creation. I believe that the National Park Service also did a great job of teaching me that the Badlands was an ever-changing and quickly eroding environment. This, too, put the trip in perspective for me and made me grateful for the opportunity that I had to be able to visit and see this wonderful place – after all, it won’t be there forever and will never again exist as it did that day.
It’s fun to look back over the trip. We did the following:
- Got stamp cramp at 6 national park units
- Explored 2 of South Dakota’s State Parks
- Caught our first Walleye ever
- Witnessed a coyote hunt
- Visited with some of the most prolific figures from the Wild West
- Tried elk and quail
- Got up close and personal with buffalo, prairie dogs, and big horn sheep
- Learned through experience
- Sharpened the saw (aka got some inspired refresh time)
- Spent hours of quality time together!
Reflecting on the trip overall, even though there was a lot of action, I felt as though I had many opportunities to connect to where I was. I gained an appreciation for the land and its people, had a chance to get up close and personal with animals that I’ve never seen before, had an alien encounter :-), sampled new foods, explored several legendary historic towns, met new friends, and stepped outside of my comfort zone. What more could I ask for?
So, give South Dakota a whirl. It is a beautiful and environmentally diverse state with more to see and do than can be reasonably packed into a week. National park units are plentiful, state parks are there for your enjoyment, and there’s tons of fun to be had! There is no better time than now to start planning your next adventure!
For a high-level South Dakota itinerary complete with maps to all of the sites mentioned here, check out our South Dakota trips resources page. Thanks for reading!
Still have a question? Have a tip to share for others visiting the Black Hills? Leave a comment below!