The best 7-day South Dakota road trip itinerary with kids starting from Minnesota and includes: Sioux Falls, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Wind Cave National Park, and more.
South Dakota is an incredible place for families to visit filled with Native American history, great wildlife viewing and diverse scenery. There is so much to see, but we’ll fit it all in in this 7-day South Dakota road trip itinerary. So let’s get going for this road trip to the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore and so much more. Getting in two national parks, Badlands and Wind Cave, and a Corn Palace, what more could you ask for? This itinerary will go from east to west starting from Minnesota, but can always be reversed. Ready? Let’s go!
Disclosure: When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission at no additional cost to you. We only recommend products we would use ourselves and all opinions expressed here are our own. Read more about our Affiliate Disclaimer.
South Dakota Road Trip Stops Near Sioux Falls:
Falls Park in Sioux Falls
(adds 30min, 15min off I-90 in each direction) 900 N. Phillips Ave, Sioux Falls, South Dakota 57104. Park with waterfalls where the river flows over many tiers of Sioux quartzite. There are rocks to walk and climb on and a great spot for a picnic. Walk up to the observation tower (elevator & stairs) to see a great view of the town. There is also a playground and restrooms near an open pavilion. Close to a coffee shop and downtown shopping area. The Falls Overlook Cafe is a great option for lunch and ice cream.
Butterfly House and Aquarium
The Butterfly House & Aquarium is located in Sertoma Park in Sioux Falls.
The aquarium portion is small but has some beautiful clownfish, jellyfish, lionfish, stingray, starfish, and other exhibits. In the butterfly room, kids can spend time feeding the butterflies. Adjacent to the parking lot is five different playgrounds that are good for kids of all ages.
Sioux Falls Accommodations
Expedia is great for hotel bookings as it provides a lot of flexibility for changes. Check here for hotels available in Sioux Falls. If you want to make it a bit further than Sioux Falls, Chamberlain, SD is almost 6hr from Minneapolis and hotel options can be found here.
Day 2: Sioux Falls to Badlands National Park (4hr + stops)
Leave Sioux Falls to drive to the Badlands area where you’ll stay for one night or more to explore the national park. There are quite a few possible stops along the way so we recommend taking your time getting there and save exploring Badlands National Park for Day 3. If everyone is still happy after arriving you could go into the park for a night sky stargazing.
Note: You will cross into Mountain Time before Badlands, so you will gain an hour.
South Dakota road trip stops near Badlands
Porter Sculpture Park
(right off I-90 adds no additional time) Interstate 90 Montrose, South Dakota 57048 USA
For us sculpture parks have been an easy and safe stop during Covid and this one does not disappoint. Open seasonally, so check availability and pricing here. Easy stop just off I-90 about 25 miles west of Sioux Falls. Over 40 industrial art sculptures. The largest sculpture in the park is a 60-foot-tall (18m) bullhead and it took three years to build. It’s been named one of the 50 best American roadside attractions by TIME.
The World’s Only Corn Palace
The Corn Palace is open year-round and is free to visit. A roadside attraction featuring ornate exterior design with corn-made murals with a new theme selected yearly. (Adds 10min, 5min off I-90 in each direction) 604 N Main Street Mitchell, SD 57301
Dignity Statue near Chamberlain
(Adds no additional time) A magnificent 50-foot-tall statue by Dale Lamphere honors the culture of the Lakota and Dakota people. Located on a bluff between exits 263 and 265 on Interstate 90 near Chamberlain. Click here for more info.
Badlands Ranch Store
Prairie dogs! There is a large prairie dog colony that lives right by this store. Kids can view them up close and peanuts are available for feeding. This is a fun, easy stop that was a highlight of the trip. (adds 5min, it’s right off I-90)
Stargazing in Badlands National Park
With no major city lights to disrupt the view, visitors can see more than 7,500 stars on any given night. During the spring, summer and fall months, Park Rangers offer a night sky program (complete with telescopes) and point out constellations, stars, and planets. Click here for more info.
Accommodations near Badlands National Park
If you are considering where to stay on your visit, consider that the Badlands has some of the best campsites anywhere in the US. If you’re not into camping here are some lodging options as well. If you stay outside the park the closest towns to the park entrance are Wall or Interior. There are three park entrances you can enter from the Pinnacles Entrance, Interior Entrance, or Northeast Entrance.
Great for small campers/RV’s, tents, and van campers. Sleep with the bison, see burrowing owls and spectacular views. Sage Creek Campground is a rare example of free camping found inside the park.
Nomad View Dispersed Camping This is a very popular campsite around Badlands, it’s large and can accommodate tents, campers, vans, and even big RV’s.
Cedar Pass Lodge This is the only lodging located within Badlands National Park.
Day 3: Explore Badlands National Park then drive to Rapid City (1 hr drive + stops)
This South Dakota road trip would not be complete without homemade donuts and free ice water on your way in or out of Badlands National Park at this famous roadside attraction. You’ll see SO many signs no directions will be needed.
Badlands National Park
A vast landscape wonderland filled with buttes, pinnacles and spires surrounded by a mixed-grass prairie that looks otherworldly. You can drive the Badlands Loop Road where you’ll find overlooks and signs explaining the landscape.
Badlands National Park Entrance Fees
Check here for the entrance fee option that meets your needs.
The American the Beautiful Pass is a great option if you think you’ll be visiting a few parks throughout the year. We currently have it and love it! This pass is a single-time annual fee. It will give you access to all of the US National Parks for a year. At only $80 per vehicle, this is a great deal! Plus, it is a great incentive to get out and explore the beauty that the National Parks have to offer. The pass is not available for immediate download and isn’t always available at all entrance gates so check here for info in advance.
If you happen to have a 4th grader (or 5th grader through Aug 2021) in your family make sure to check out the Every Kid Outdoors program as they get a free park pass for them and their family for a year.
Things to do in Badlands National Park
Badlands Loop Road: The Loop Road can be accessed by heading south from Interstate 90 via Exit 110 (Wall) or Exit 131. SD 44 provides an alternate, scenic access to the park and intersects SD 377 in the town of Interior. From Interior, follow SD 377 two miles north to the Interior Entrance and another half mile to Badlands Loop Road (240).
Robert’s Prairie Dog Town (Wall, SD) Stop here to see the largest prairie-dog colony in Badlands National Park.
Hikes with kids in Badlands National Park
The easiest hike with the most reward if you’re short on time is the Door Trail. To get to the trailhead: Take Badlands Loop Road (Route 240) two miles east of the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to a large turnout on the east side of the road for Door, Window, and Notch Trails. The Door Trail begins from the north end of the lot. Trailhead address: Badlands Loop Road (SD 240), Badlands National Park, Interior, SD 57750
Door Trail (0.75 miles/1.2 km (round trip) Rated as easy. An accessible ¼ mile boardwalk leads through a break in the Badlands Wall known as “the Door” and to a view of the Badlands. From there, the maintained trail ends. They note, travel beyond this point is at your own risk and to watch for drop-offs.
Window Trail (0.3 mile/0.48km out and back trail) This trail is short and provides excellent views of layered badlands geology. The view at the end provides a premier vantage point of the Badlands wall, extending far beyond the park’s eastern boundary.
Notch Trail (1.5 miles/2.4 km, out and back) Rated as Moderate. If you want to bring your kids just make sure they can climb a ladder, but it’s not too steep or technically challenging. After meandering through a canyon, this trail climbs a log ladder and follows a ledge to “the Notch” for a dramatic view of the White River Valley. The trail begins at the south end of the Door and Window parking area if you want to add it on. Be careful of drop-offs with kids. This hike can get hot if the sun is out since the wind is blocked. Beware of the weather as it’s not advised after heavy rains.
Open Hike Policy
One thing that makes Badlands National Park unique is its Open Hike Policy. This means that you can hike and explore almost any part of the park whether or not there is an established trail or not. It was so nice not to have to tell the kids ‘Stay on the trail!’ at every turn. An easy place to take advantage of this is off of Door Trail, as well as at any of the overlooks along the Badlands Loop Road.
For visitors with a stroller or wheelchair, there are accessible trail options in Badlands National Park:
- The first portion of Door Trail is a boardwalk with a spacious viewpoint at the end.
- Window Trail is a full boardwalk leading out to a viewpoint with railings.
- The first portion of Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a boardwalk.
- Fossil Exhibit Trail is a full boardwalk with wayside exhibits accessible to those at wheelchair heights.
Tips for a successful hiking trip
- Always carry water! Two quarts per person per two-hour hike is recommended.
- Hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen are strongly encouraged. Rain gear is also recommended since weather conditions can change rapidly.
- Keep a distance of at least 100 feet from all wildlife
- Leave anything you find in the park — fossils, plants, animals, artifacts, and rocks — are to remain as you find them so others can enjoy them after you.
- Remember the 7 principles of Leave no trace.
Stargazing in Badlands National Park. With no major city lights to disrupt the view, visitors can see more than 7,500 stars on any given night. During the spring, summer, and fall months, Park Rangers offer a night sky program (complete with telescopes) and point out constellations, stars, and planets.
Day 4-6 Rapid City Day Trips
Rapid City provides a great home base for this South Dakota road trip. There’s so much to see in the Black Hills and surrounding area. You can get a feel for the history of the city and the US by walking downtown from Main to Joseph streets in a six-block area along the life-size bronze sculptures of the 44 US presidents (45th is underway). A stop in Prairie Edge Trading Co., where visitors can learn about the Northern Plains Indian culture and see one of the country’s best collections of authentic Plains Indian art and crafts. Their mission is to help preserve these traditions and provide artists an outlet for their work. Just across from Prairie Edge is Main Street Square, a beautiful community gathering space. Rapid City provides a great South Dakota road trip home base for seeing the Black Hills and surrounding areas. The attraction options provided here can be broken across days 4-6 on this trip and you can see how we did that in the sidebar to the right.
Rapid City and Surrounding Area Accommodations and Eats
Where to stay near Rapid City and the surrounding area?
We love staying in unique accommodations that bring an experience your family won’t soon forget. There are some great options here to suit all budget levels as well.
Staying in a vacation rental through AirB&B or VRBO can be a nice option. This is a great AirB&B we stayed at during our recent South Dakota road trip. The home is in the heart of Rapid City and is very kid-friendly with a backyard space with a great sitting area, swings, play space, and basketball hoop my kids loved. Indoor desks are also available if you’re schooling/working from the road.
Under Canvas––30 min from Rapid City. A great glamping experience you won’t soon forget close to Mount Rushmore.
Rushmore Shadows Resort, Rapid City. They offer glamping wagons along with cabins, tent sites, full hookup RV sites.
If waterpark hotels are more your thing (or your kid’s thing, let’s be honest) then here are some great options.
If you prefer being closer to Custer State park these are a few options
Lots of other great hotel options in the Custer area that are kid-friendly here.
Where to eat?
Firehouse Brewery 610 Main St. – Rapid City, SD
Silverlining Creamery Score some great ice cream here.
Day 4 Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway
Custer State Park (40min drive from Rapid City)
7-Day park pass was $20 per vehicle but check for current rates. This park has been named one of the top 10 wildlife destinations in the world and it’s for good reason Source. The park is a 110-square-mile preserve where wildlife abounds. Custer State Park is second in the US for the largest bison herd only behind Yellowstone. Be ready because bison will likely meander in front of your car and you can also see burros, bighorn sheep, pronghorn (also known as antelope), wild turkeys, elk, and mountain goats. The stress-free navigating, manageable crowds and wildlife everywhere make this park a favorite for kids and adults alike.
There are two visitor centers in the park. One is at the East Entrance and the other is the Wildlife Station along the wildlife loop which runs around most of the park and offers a beautiful array of wildlife viewing opportunities.
“May you get caught in many buffalo jams.”
Things to do in Custer State Park
18-mile Wildlife Loop: expected travel time is 1.5 hours but travel time is dependent on “wildlife jams”. Or if you feel more comfortable with a guide there is the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours
Needles Highway is one of three scenic routes along Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. It is not to be missed and goes through Custer State Park. Check this and other scenic drives out here.
Sylvan Lake: parking can be difficult here. It’s a beautiful lake and the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail is a 1.1-mile loop and a great option with kids. It’s a mostly flat trail but provides enough interesting things to keep kids excited. You’ll see the Sylvan Lake Dam, boardwalks, and rock tunnels. There’s also a swimming beach and boat rentals (non-motorized only) where visitors can rent paddle boats, canoes, or other watercraft rentals. There’s a general store in Sylvan Lake Lodge.
Guided horseback rides depart from Blue Bell Lodge Stables
Wild beggin’ Burros (small donkeys)
These burros have roamed the land of Custer State Park for nearly a century when they were first used as pack animals to get visitors from Sylvan Lake Lodge up the steep path to the summit of Black Elk Peak, the highest point in the US east of the Rockies. When the tourist trips ended, the working burros were released to the wild and this herd has since shared the park with whitetail and mule deer, wild turkeys, elk, antelope, bison, coyote and park visitors.
Pro tips for Custer State Park
If you plan to visit, it is acceptable to bring carrots or apples to feed the burros since this practice has been going on for generations. Although it is very uncommon to be able to feed animals in a national park the rangers acknowledge that in this case, it’s ok to feed the burros. What do burros eat? We brought a bag of full-size carrots and apples but they are not picky! If you don’t want to get up close and personal with a burro you might want to shut your car windows as they’ve been known to stick their heads right in.
If you happen to be there in Custer State Park at the end of September don’t miss the Buffalo roundup and Arts festival. If you go, get there early, locals are usually in line by 5am, gates open at 6:15am and roundup begins 9am. Bring blankets or chairs, water, and a cooler with food. There is also food available. No pets allowed.
Day 5 Mainstreet Square, Dinosaur Park, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse
We always like a day on vacation where we take it easy and often break off and do separate things. This is a great day to pick a couple of the low-key items below or just lay low. We love to see Mount Rushmore in the evening when it’s lit up and there are fewer crowds so this is an easy add-on.
Mainstreet Square 512 Main St., Rapid City, SD
A community gathering spot with a splash pad, live music, food trucks, and drinks in the summer. It’s a great place for the kids to cool off if it’s a hot day and the adults can be well rewarded with a break on a hot summer day. Check the schedule here.
Dinosaur Park 940 Skyline Dr. Rapid City, SD 57701
There is a clearly marked parking lot, but it does require walking up a set of 90 stairs to get to the top. This is a quick and easy stop that will allow your kids to burn off some energy playing and climbing on the dinosaurs. It’s free and has been open to the public since 1936. It has spectacular 100-mile views and if you look to the east you can see the Badlands.
A note on the popular Bear Country attraction
Almost There Adventures does not recommend any attraction where animals are bred solely for human entertainment and profit. This business has a horrible past of animal mistreatment and although it’s under new management it’s still the same family and we do not recommend supporting it. There are so many great parks nearby to see animals in their natural habitat where they’re also protected.
A South Dakota road trip wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore is located in Western South Dakota, 23 miles South West of Rapid City on Highway 16. There is no fee to enter the monument, but there is a fee for parking. When we went it was $10 but check here for current info.
If you have one to two hours:
Upon entering, you’ll walk along the impressive avenue of flags before spotting the grand statue. If you have more time to spend, look for the self-guided audio tour for Mount Rushmore near the bathrooms on the way in.
Presidential Trail (~1mile, includes 700 stairs) and Evening Lighting Ceremony
We’re always looking for ways to steer clear of the crowds and taking the Presidential Trail will get you away from the crowds that gather at the main viewing area. We love going at dusk for the lighting ceremony, as it’s really impressive getting to view the sculpture from the trail up close up as well as all lit up. It’s open until 10pm.
The Presidential Trail is open via the Nature Trail or from the right side of the Grand View Terrace. The trail takes you to the base of the mountain and you must return the same way. When on the Presidential Trail you’ll see the Sculptor’s Studio. You can stop and listen to a 15-minute ranger-led talk about the sculptor Gutzon Borglum, the carving process, and the lives of the workers who helped complete the sculpture.
You can stop in the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, located beneath the Grand View Terrace, to learn about how the sculpture was constructed. Learn about how kids can become a junior ranger and other fun activities here.
A final last stop in Carvers’ Café for a Monumental Ice Cream cone made with Thomas Jefferson’s original vanilla ice cream recipe from 1780. If you have more time check out another hike.
Crazy Horse Memorial
This can easily be done on the same day as Mount Rushmore as they’re fairly close or if you’re short on time it can also be seen from the road. This is 9 miles south of Hill City, SD, and 4 miles north of Custer, SD. This can be viewed from Highway 16 (runs between Hill City and the town of Custer). There was a nice place to pull over on the east side of the road near the entrance. Click here for more info.
Day 6 Wind Cave National Park, Mammoth Site or 1880 Train
What to do in Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park is one of the oldest national parks, established in 1903, and also is one of the smallest parks at over 33,000 acres. There is no cost for admission to the park, but there is a charge for the cave tours.
All cave access is by ranger-guided tour only and all tours leave from the visitor center. Tickets are only available in person first-come, first-served the day of the tour, and sell out quickly. Tour sizes are currently limited to 50% capacity (20 people or less per tour) to ensure adequate social distancing in the cave and masks are required. They open the visitor center at 8 am for ticketing and the first tour of the day for 9 am is the most popular and sells out first.
Pro tips for Getting Wind Cave National Park Tour Tickets in 2021
- Highly recommend getting in line by 7am if you want to be sure to get tickets for the first tour at 9am. When we were there in early May 2021, we got there by 7:20am. There were already six groups before us waiting in line outside the visitor center. We got tickets but because they only allow up to 20 people per group and this wasn’t even peak season yet, consider getting there early. They open the door to the visitor center at 8am and it’s a fairly efficient ticketing process.
- You can connect to the free Wi-Fi while waiting in line outside the visitor center.
- Nerd alert: They have anti-fog spray for glasses in the visitor center. You’ll thank me after an hour in a cave not fogging up.
- They recommend closed toe footwear, it’s 54F/12C in the cave so bring a long sleeve shirt, and they don’t allow any bags/purses, camera gear like tripod etc only allow keys, phone or handheld camera.
- You’ll likely have some time to kill before the tour starts. If you drive just past the visitor center there will be an open field with prairie dogs and our kids had fun getting out and trying to spot where they would pop up next.
Considerations on bringing kids to Wind Cave National Park
We did the Natural Entrance Tour which was about 1 hour 15 minutes and ⅔ mile walk with 300 stairs. Our kids were the only kids on the tour and were 7,7,12 years old. One of our 7-year-olds did tire of the guided discussion partway through, but he pulled through and enjoyed it overall. I don’t think I would bring kids much younger than 6 years olds, but every child is different. There are a lot of stairs in a mostly dark space with low lighting and intermittent periods of time when they need to be quiet when the guide is talking. There’s no running or touching the sides of the caves allowed.
You can often see bison roaming on the way in and there’s a great prairie dog field just past the visitor center. Click here to view other ideas on places to view wildlife in the park.
If you have 1 hour for a hike after or before a cave tour the Prairie Vista or Elk Mountain trails are good options. If you have 2 hours consider Wind Cave Canyon or Cold Brook Canyon Trails
Other activities nearby Wind Cave:
Mammoth Site in Hot Springs (20 minutes from Wind Cave)
This is an internationally renowned indoor working paleontological site and museum. It’s one of the top fossil interpretive sites in North America and there are more than 60 mammoths that have been unearthed. They have hands-on activities for kids and an educational experience for all. There’s a short film that explains how the site came to be, how it was discovered, and the techniques used for preserving what is found there.The self-guided tour (a guide book is included) takes you around the dig site with signage and graphics to help explain what you are seeing. Current hours and rates on their website.
1880 Train in Hill City or Keystone SD
The Hill City Depot is the closest when coming from Wind Cave National Park (36min). The Keystone station is closest when coming from Rapid City (27min). This is a two-hour, historical narrated steam train ride that kids love and it runs between Hill City and Keystone. It’s a 20-miles round trip and goes back and forth between the Hill City station and the Keystone station and you can start your ride from either end. The train runs through the central Black Hills going through forests, meadows and wooded canyons. The route follows Battle Creek, home to gold prospectors before and during the turn of the century. This is a great addition if you’re looking for something different to add to your trip. Choose an open air car on a nice day and sit on the opposite side on the way back for a different view.
Accommodations Near Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave is about 50min drive from Rapid City, South Dakota (see separate Rapid City accommodations above). If you’re wanting to stay closer to Custer or in the park here are a couple of other options.
This place looked like so much fun when we were driving in. It’s on an 86-acre campground with modern mountain cabins, luxury canvas tents, glamping teepees, camping cabins, RV Hookups, and tent camping sites.
Day 7: the way home or onto the next adventure
Make stops at anything you missed on the way back or grab one last hike in Badlands National Park.
South Dakota Road Trip Planning Essentials
When to visit?
South Dakota has four distinct seasons. The best months to visit are May-October. Spring is great when the weather is moderate, the baby animals are out and there are fewer crowds. Summer is typically the peak tourist season. Also, be aware in August there is the famous 10-day Sturgis Motorcycle Rally when crowds in the area will be significantly larger and accommodations will be difficult to find available. Winter brings below zero temperatures and substantial snow that can make travel difficult.
How to get there?
Flying: The Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) and the Sioux Falls Regional Airport (FSD) are the two airports in South Dakota that serve the most destinations and airlines in the US, as well as connections from abroad. You can fly into either, but if you fly into Rapid City you’ll just need to reverse the itinerary and do it west to east.
Driving: this guide will assume driving east to west from Minnesota, but can be used in reverse as well.
Bison vs Buffalo
Let’s get this straight, it’s easy to see why there is great confusion over which is which. But we’ll use the H’s: home, hump, and horns to determine which live in South Dakota. Contrary to the song “Home on the Range,” buffalo do not roam in the American West or South Dakota. Instead, buffalo are indigenous to South Asia (water buffalo) and Africa (Cape buffalo), while bison are found in North America and parts of Europe. Another major difference is the presence of a hump. Bison have one at the shoulders while buffalo don’t. The hump allows the bison’s head to function as a plow, sweeping away drifts of snow in the winter. Lastly, horns. Buffalo tend to have large horns, some reaching more than 6 feet (1.8 meters). The horns of bison, however, are much shorter and sharper.
That solves it! What you’ll see in South Dakota and anywhere in North America for that matter are bison, but you’ll still see the name frequently interchanged.
That’s a wrap on this week-long South Dakota road trip! Hope you were able to find some unique adventure ideas in this itinerary that your family is sure to remember for a long time. If you go please share your thoughts below.