I did a South Dakota road trip in August 2021.
Below is basically how I did it. Hopefully it can give you ideas as you are planning your own South Dakota road trip!
This South Dakota itinerary will feature 3 things that South Dakota is famous for
What is South Dakota famous for?
1. Black Hills
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MAP: South Dakota driving route
To put it simply, this was my general South Dakota route that includes entering South Dakota and leaving South Dakota:
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park ND to Custer State Park (just an overnight for sleep)
- Custer State Park to Wind Cave National Park
- 2 nights in Wind Cave National Park with time in Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, the Mammoth Site
- Wind Cave National Park to Custer State Park
- 5 nights in Custer State Park with time in Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Black Hills National Forest
- Custer State Park to Badlands National Park
- 3 nights in Badlands National Park with all time spent in the Badlands!
- Badlands National Park to Minnesota (first overnight stop, then onwards through Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Chicago, Indiana, Michigan: 3 day drive from South Dakota to Michigan)
Explore the map.
So this South Dakota road trip is focused around western South Dakota, which is where you will find the Black Hills, Badlands, and buffalo!
Getting to South Dakota
I was coming from North Dakota.
I spent 5 days in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. (No you don’t “need” 5 days in the North Dakota national park, but if you are into hiking and camping and like to take your time with things, it can be perfect!)
To put it simply, my time in Theodore Roosevelt National Park would break down into dedicating 2 days to the remote North Unit, 1 day in the even more remote Elkhorn Ranch area plus the outer South Unit areas, and 2 days in the most visited South Unit.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park to Custer State Park
My first “major” destination in South Dakota was Wind Cave National Park. Custer State Park is on the way, so I stopped there to sleep.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park to Wind Cave National Park is a 5.5 hour drive. Even as someone who doesn’t like to spend all day driving, this drive is of course doable in one day. But I broke up this drive with a stopover in a Custer State Park.
I stayed at Blue Bell campground in a Custer State Park camping cabin.
Custer State Park borders Wind Cave National Park. Custer State Park is also kind of big and it has several campgrounds.
Blue Bell campground was one of the campgrounds closer to Wind Cave National Park.
Also, the Wind Cave National Park campground is a first-come first-serve campground and I wasn’t sure if it fills up, so I wanted to get there in the morning, rather than afternoon or evening. (It turns out, according to the Wind Cave park ranger that in summer 2021 the campground did not really fill up. It was also rather empty when I went.)
The other reason for the stopover in Custer State Park is that Custer State Park campgrounds have showers. There are no showers at the campgrounds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and there are no showers at the campground in Wind Cave National Park.
The South Dakota road trip itinerary: Black Hills and Badlands itinerary
We will start Day 1 with the first full day in South Dakota!
Note that on this trip I generally didn’t pack too much into one day, and I didn’t usually get early starts to my days. It’s possible that you will find time for more to do in South Dakota. It’s also possible that you can combine the activities of some days.
So, consider this a starting point for South Dakota travel ideas!
Day 1: Wind Cave National Park
Custer State Park to Wind Cave National Park: 2 nights in Wind Cave National Park
The drive from the Custer State Park campground I was staying at to Wind Cave National Park was about a 30 minute drive.
My first stop was Elk Mountain Campground, which is the only campground in Wind Cave National Park.
After getting situated at the campground, it was off to explore Wind Cave National Park. Wind Cave tours do sell out, so you want to get to the Wind Cave visitor center earlier rather than later. When I went, the only way to buy cave tour tickets was to show up at the visitor center.
Day 2: Jewel Cave National Monument
Wind Cave to Jewel Cave
Wind Cave National Park to Jewel Cave National Monument is about a 40 minute drive, so it’s reasonable to stay in Wind Cave National Park and go to Jewel Cave as a day trip.
Similarly, Jewel Cave tours do sell out, so you want to get to the Jewel Cave visitor center earlier rather than later. And again, the only way to buy cave tour tickets was to show up at the visitor center.
See more to plan your South Dakota itinerary:
Day 3: The Mammoth Site
Wind Cave to the Mammoth Site
The Mammoth Site is designated as a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service. This is said to be the “largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world.” And you can see mammoth fossils from the Ice Age. It is an active “dig site” and you can actually see the paleontologists working. You can have a look in their lab too (through a window).
You don’t need all day for a trip to the Mammoth Site, but also take a look at the paleontology program for kids and adults.
After a visit to the Mammoth Site, I went back for hiking in Wind Cave National Park across the East Bison Flats in hopes of seeing buffalo. I did see a buffalo off in the distance.
Wind Cave to Custer State Park: 5 nights in Custer State Park
This was more or less just an arrival to Custer State Park, without doing any specific Custer State Park activities.
Once again, Wind Cave to Custer State Park can be about a 30 minute drive, or it can be longer depending on where you’re going.
I stayed in Custer State Park for 5 nights, split between Stockade Lake South campground and Game Lodge campground, both tent camping and staying in camping cabins. The campground choices were more or less determined by what was available when I booked it, like 5 to 6 weeks prior to arrival date. The popular Sylvan Lake campground had no availability for any of my dates, not even for 1 night.
In checking the weather in the previous days when I was actually in South Dakota, rain (thunderstorm?) was coming when I had a tent campsite booked. I was able to make a last-minute booking for a camping cabin. (Well, 2 days before, I think.) I am pretty sure there must have been a cancellation and that was lucky!
Camping cabins in South Dakota state parks
As a tent camper, I loved the camping cabins of South Dakota state parks.
Similar to tent camping, it is basically bring your own everything, but you don’t need to worry about the weather elements.
There are bunk beds with mattresses inside the cabin so you need to bring your own pillow and bedding. There is electricity to plug in your electronics, along with air conditioning AND heat. I actually got the chance to use BOTH in the Black Hills! Prepare for all weather!
The cost in 2021 for South Dakota state park camping cabins was $66 a night, and that includes taxes and the out-of-state resident fee. You separately also do need to buy the South Dakota state parks pass, which you need for Custer State Park. In 2021, it’s $20 for a 7-day pass (same if you’re only one day in Custer State Park) and $36 for an annual pass. You can buy either pass when you get to Custer State Park. See current fees.
Custer State Park also has more “luxury” cabins (aka “resort” cabins) at the various lodges inside Custer State Park if you are looking for a little less effort in your Custer State Park stay. There are resort cabins at Legion Lake Lodge for example. For a more standard hotel stay in Custer State Park, you can find rooms at Game State Lodge.
Day 4: Mount Rushmore and Black Hills National Forest
Custer State Park to Mount Rushmore National Memorial
A popular day trip from Custer State Park is to go to Mount Rushmore to see the faces of several presidents carved into the rock formations of the Black Hills.
Once again it will depend on where in Custer State Park you’re coming from, but Custer State Park to the Mount Rushmore parking lot might be around a 45 minute drive.
Another popular thing is to drive Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore. Then, you will be able to see Mount Rushmore as you are driving, and more specifically, you can see the presidents as you are driving through the Iron Mountain Road tunnels too. (Although I did that on another day.)
You can also see a unique perspective of George Washington as you’re driving through Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
Mount Rushmore is also connected to Black Hills National Forest.
After Mount Rushmore, I went to Breezy Point where there’s a Black Hills overlook and picnic area, along with Horsethief Lake where there is a hiking trail. There is also a rustic campground at Horsethief Lake. This would be a campground near Mount Rushmore.
See more to plan your South Dakota itinerary:
Day 5: Custer State Park
And now, after a few nights staying in Custer State Park, finally off to explore Custer State Park!
This day was mostly dedicated to Needles Highway. This is one of the top scenic drives in Custer State Park, as you drive with views of the “needles” aka the grand rock formations of the Black Hills.
Needles Highway is where you will find the iconic Needles Eye Tunnel.
There are also the popular Custer State Park hikes of Cathedral Spires Trail (pictured below) and Little Devils Tower along the Needles Highway.
See more to plan your South Dakota itinerary:
Day 6: Custer State Park
On this day I basically made it about the Custer State Park lakes and the other scenic drives in the Black Hills.
The most popular lake is Sylvan Lake, but Custer State Park has a number of lakes. You can find trails around them for a nice leisurely lakeside stroll. If you’re in Custer State Park for a few days, you can start or end your day at a different lake every day! The lakes also have picnic tables so you can eat with lake views. Here’s a brief intro to the Custer State Park lake trails.
Then I did Iron Mountain Road (which takes you through Black Hills National Forest) and Wildlife Loop Road.
The Wildlife Loop Road is the other popular scenic drive in Custer State Park. The buffalo (aka bison – it’s the same thing) is the icon of Custer State Park, and this may be your best chance to see buffalo.
Before you get on the Wildlife Loop Road, if your route is convenient, stop by the Custer State Park Visitor Center. They have a little map that displays the most recent buffalo sightings.
If the Custer State Park Visitor Center is out of the way, there’s another visitor center along Wildlife Loop Road, the Wildlife Station Visitor Center, and they have a similar buffalo sightings map.
Otherwise, in general, the best chance for seeing buffalo seems to be the stretch of road between the Custer State Park Visitor Center and the Buffalo Corrals. (map)
Although, there is no guarantee to see buffalo, and there are other places you may end up seeing buffalo in Custer State Park!
I did see buffalo walking in another spot along Wildlife Loop Road, and I also saw them walking along the main road in front of Game Lodge campground in the early morning!
If you want to see prairie dogs, turn down onto the road in front of the Wildlife Station Visitor Center and then onto Lame Johnny Road, and you’ll soon come across a prairie dog town. (map) I saw a lone buffalo resting along the road while driving this way.
If wildlife viewing is important to you, I actually recommend stopping at either of the visitor centers to ask about where the best chance to see your wildlife of choice is on that day.
Day 7: Custer State Park
This day was mostly dedicated to hiking up to Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills! (Actually it is also the highest point in South Dakota, and it’s also noted as the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains.)
There are many ways to hike to Black Elk Peak. This includes combining it with the Cathedral Spires and Little Devils Tower hikes.
I did the Black Elk Peak hike from Sylvan Lake.
The Black Elk Peak is located in the Black Elk Wilderness area of Black Hills National Forest.
So starting from Sylvan Lake, you’ll start in Custer State Park and you’ll enter Black Hills National Forest by foot. Your “destination” is the Black Elk Peak summit and fire tower. You will see views of the Black Hills all around.
Separately, Sylvan Lake also has a nice trail that goes around it that will also give you a chance to climb on some rocks if you want.
The Sylvan Lake Trail also connects to the Sunday Gulch Trail which is also worth doing even just hiking 10-15 minutes and then turning around. Start the Sylvan Lake Trail from the Black Elk Peak trailhead side, walking with the lake on your left, and I took the first Sunday Gulch trailhead. (There are 2 Sunday Gulch trailheads along Sylvan Lake Trail.)
Sylvan Lake also has picnic tables for your post-hike snack.
Day 8: Badlands National Park
Custer State Park to Badlands National Park: 3 nights in Badlands National Park
Now onto the best national park in South Dakota!
3 days in Badlands National Park might be a bit much for most people, and you may find yourself happy with just 1 or 2 days in Badlands National Park.
The drive from Custer State Park to Badlands National Park is around 1.5 to 2 hours. Once again, this will depend on where in Custer State Park you’re leaving from, and where in Badlands National Park you’re going to.
The western side of Badlands National Park (the side of Custer State Park) is the more remote area of the national park. This is the Sage Creek area.
My first destination within Badlands National Park was the Sage Creek campground.
This is another first-come first-serve campground, so again not knowing if this campground fills up, I wanted to get there earlier rather than later. During the day it felt empty and by evening the Sage Creek campground felt like it was a bit more full but there was still room for more campers.
Sage Creek campground is a free camping spot in Badlands National Park, and I stayed for 2 nights.
It’s for tent camping and small RV camping, and it’s a pretty rustic camping experience.
There are basic no-flush toilets, but there is not even drinking water available here so be sure to bring plenty of water with you.
The high temperatures in the summer can reach 100+ F in Badlands National Park.
Not to minimize the importance of staying safe in the heat, but this is a dry heat and it is does not feel as hot as 100F around the Great Lakes for example.
Yes it was hot, and yes I loved the car’s AC, but it wasn’t as miserable as you may think.
Nights are cooler and can be in the 50s.
So once again be prepared for all weather! It also rained overnight (thunderstorm) one night I was here. As the National Park Service says, weather in this area can be unpredictable!
The campground is an actual prairie dog town with tons of prairie dogs running around. You will be setting up your tent very close to prairie dog holes.
In the early mornings, there seem to also be regular buffalo sightings at the campground too.
After I got situated at the campground, I got started on the Badlands Loop Road, which is the main road through Badlands National Park.
Day 9: Badlands National Park
Along with some more overlooks along Badlands Loop Road, this was basically a Badlands National Park hiking day!
I did many of the popular hikes in Badlands National Park, located in the Cedar Pass area, including the Door Trail, the Window Trail, and the Notch Trail. These hiking trails are all from the same parking lot, located along Badlands Loop Road.
I also did the Saddle Pass Trail which is a steep and possibly slippery hike, and continued on to the Castle Trail.
Day 10: Badlands National Park
I hiked through part of the Sage Creek Wilderness Area from the campground (there was a buffalo along the trail!), and then after that hike, drove back to the main area of Badlands National Park. Another “wilderness area” that you can hike is the Deer Haven Wilderness Area which you can access from the Conata picnic area. You can do backcountry camping in both of these wilderness areas.
I stayed at the Cedar Pass campground for 1 night. This is the camping spot in the main area of Badlands National Park, and it’s a modern campground. This is the campground that will give you camping with classic views of the Badlands.
Badlands National Park is considered to be a good spot to see the night sky. You can watch the night sky on your own from anywhere in the park.
There is also a Badlands National Park night sky program that is led by park rangers. When I went, there was also a telescope set up to see the planet of Jupiter and 2 of its moons.
The Badlands night sky program is located at the Cedar Pass Campground amphitheater. You can go to this even if you’re not camping here.
See more to plan your South Dakota itinerary:
- Big Badlands Overlook
- Yellow Mounds Overlook
- Bighorn sheep in Badlands National Park
- Camping in Badlands National Park
- Cedar Pass Campground
- Sage Creek Campground
And those are some ideas for your South Dakota road trip itinerary for the Black Hills and Badlands!
If you are driving from (way) further east, maybe you want to make a detour through Michigan to visit the amazing national lakeshores of the Great Lakes!
HAPPY PLANNING YOUR SOUTH DAKOTA ROAD TRIP!