The main reason we love road trips is because they are often much more about the unexpected than they are the expected. That was certainly true when we packed our bags and set off for the USA’s Great Plains region, and it was doubly true because part of the route—the road that would take us through South Dakota—was one we already knew. Not long after we first met, we packed our bags for a much longer journey that started in Washington, DC and took us to Portland, Oregon, and we followed I-90 from Sioux Falls all the way to Rapid City and beyond. Perhaps the most unexpected lesson South Dakota had to teach us was how much there was to see and do there.
When we planned our first road trip, we had the same goal so many people do when they visit South Dakota: we wanted to see Mount Rushmore. As it turned out, there were far more sights to enjoy that ranged from historic to picturesque to quirky, and over the years South Dakota has become a favorite vacation destination for us. If you’re planning on a road trip or hoping to see the granite likenesses of four U.S. presidents, here are a few of our favorite things to do in South Dakota (that aren’t Mount Rushmore) that showcase the beauty and personality of the state.
Badlands National ParkAlthough the United States is a comparatively young country, its geography provides a great reminder that it’s part of a much older planet. After passing by during a 2004 drive with his dad, and then again in 2008 when we drove to Oregon, Adam refused to let a visit slip away during our most recent visit to South Dakota. While it sounds ominous, the park takes its name from the native Lakota people, whose name for the region—mako sica—translates to “bad lands.” It’s easy to understand why they settled on that description; the summers are hot and dry, and the winters are often ferociously cold. The arid conditions leave much of the land devoid of water and somewhat uninhabitable—but the stunning landscape makes it a terrific vacation destination.
Like most visitors, we opted to drive the Badlands Loop Road, which is a 30-mile scenic drive that weaves through the park and showcases many of the most popular highlights. The drive can take hours—it’s easy to spend a half day and not unheard of to spend a full day—making what sounds like a short trip. There are many overlooks and turnoffs along the paved road, and it’s easy to lose track of time while taking in the views from each. Among the most popular is Pinnacles Overlook, which looks out in a southernly direction and is especially popular at sunset. Pinnacles Overlook is also a favorite gathering spot for bighorn sheep, which are sometimes visible. As the highest overlook in Badlands National Park, it is also one of the best spots for some great panorama photos; on the clearest days, you can see the Black Hills from that spot.
The most memorable part of our visit to Badlands National Park were the rock formations, which began to erode 500,000 years ago. Many of the formations show the effects nature has on even the strongest stone through the etchings, smoothing, and jaggedness of the rocks that stretch as far as you can see. Some formations look like rolling waves while others are sharp; many of them present striped layers that present—and sometimes encase—the history of the land itself. In the oldest layers, archaeologists have found the remains of prehistoric creatures like mosasaurs, which have been extinct for more than 60 million years. Take some time to stretch your legs by experiencing one of the hikes in the park; the Window Trail is just a quarter of a mile and ends at a spot called the Windows, which provides some of the best views of the Badlands. Alternatively, the Fossil Exhibit Trail is a great place to learn about how the Badlands came to be one of the most concentrated mammal fossil beds on the planet.
Bonus: Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Not far from the northeast entrance to Badlands National Park, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is a great place to learn about the Great Plains’ role in the Cold War. We didn’t have the chance to visit because it was closed when we drove through the Badlands, but our time at the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site in North Dakota felt like a good preview for what is hidden in plain sight so close to the park. With some extra time, it would be a great addition to a day at Badlands National Park!
The Corn Palace
A trip through South Dakota isn’t complete without a stop at one of its most famous tourist attractions—and that attraction is built from corn.Originally conceived to demonstrate South Dakota’s healthy agricultural climate, the original Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota was built in 1892, and its popularity has led to several newer and bigger corn palaces to be constructed along Main Street. Today, visiting the Corn Palace is like experiencing a connection to the local community. Although the Corn Palace is largely known as a South Dakota tourist destination, it also hosts many community events that range from festivals to graduations. Perhaps the most well-known reason to visit are the murals on the side of the building, which change annually and are designed using 12 varieties of colorful corn. Ears of corn are nailed to the side of the building, and each one contributes to a mural that reflects a selected theme. Our most recent visit was based on the theme “South Dakota Stay and Play,” and it incorporated the Sturgis motorcycle rally, the Plains, and the Black Hills.
Visiting the Corn Palace is a unique experience. As tourists, we were happy to admire the mural and load up on corn-themed souvenirs from the gift shop. Just minutes away from I-90, it’s an easy and memorable way to experience South Dakota.
Dignity of Earth and Sky
Just off I-90, a 50-foot-tall statue known as Dignity celebrates 125 years of South Dakota statehood, and it’s an easy and impressive stop to make while driving west of Mitchell. The statue depicts a Native American woman outfitted in traditional dress from the 1850s. During the day, the colorful quilt she holds out shimmers when the various blue diamonds catch the sun’s rays. At night, LED lights illuminate them and can be seen from the interstate. Even if you don’t plan to stop, keep your eyes open to see her towering over the landscape in the distance.
Rapid City PresidentsAlthough Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt are the presidents most associated with South Dakota (after all, they loom larger than life at Mount Rushmore!), you can spend an afternoon visiting with most of the USA’s leaders by visiting Rapid City. 43 of the 45 people who have served as the USA’s Commander in Chief are represented (the most recent presidents have not yet been added), and there are some great photo opportunities to take advantage of if you have ever wanted a selfie with a favorite historical leader. The presidents line several streets in Rapid City, and visiting them all provides a nice walking tour and a bit of a scavenger hunt at the same time.
Bonus: Take a break from visiting the presidents with a beverage at Firehouse Wine Cellars or Firehouse Brewing Company. During our stay in Rapid City, we had a great time at both locations. We started with a tasting at Firehouse Wine Cellars and were impressed with the selection; they offer both whites and reds, including a few varietals that were new to us since they don’t grow as well in our part of the country. Firehouse Brewing Company offers plenty of great food and a selection of their own beer, all of which are made in-house.
Falls Park in Sioux FallsOne of our favorite spots to spend a very early morning is Sioux Falls, and Falls Park is the perfect place to greet the day. We have passed through Sioux Falls twice, and each time we have prioritized a visit to the park for a quiet walk and a chance to see the waterfalls that run through it. Located just north of the downtown area, the falls are especially interesting when positioned against a cityscape; it’s not as common to find waterfalls in an urban area!
Falls Park is at its best in the morning, before the city wakes up and when you have the chance to be alone with the waterfalls, the green space, and the walking paths that connect some of the park’s viewing spots. We like to visit when the sun is coming up, where we have shared the park with the occasional jogger or dog walker. No matter what time of day you pass through, it’s a nice place to stop and stretch your legs, and its proximity to Sioux Falls means plenty of options for lunch or lodging.
Crazy HorseWe spent the better part of a day visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial, which is a tribute to one of the Lakota’s best-known leaders. It has been in development for decades and will be for decades more; it has no completion date (although it does have a project plan), and work continues on it almost daily.
We shared an article about our experience visiting Crazy Horse Memorial, and if you’re curious about its history and what the visitor experience is like, take a look to see if it is a destination you want to include when driving through South Dakota.
Scenic Byways (Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway)
South Dakota is one of the states that best lends itself to a road trip, and a big reason for that is because the scenic byways are beautiful and really fun to drive. Two of our favorites are Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway.
Iron Mountain Road is a 17-mile stretch also called 16-A, and it features one-lane tunnels and pigtail bridges that wind through and curve around the natural geography. Many of the tunnels were cut directly into the giant stone walls. Iron Mountain Road runs between Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, and if both destinations are on your must-see list the road is a scenic way to travel between them. Be sure to plan for plenty of time, though; 17 miles doesn’t feel like a long distance, but you never know when you might get stopped as a herd of buffalo cross in front of you! We were amazed to encounter than exact scenario during our visit, and while some of the buffalo that charged forward made us nervous we’ll never forget their awe-inspiring size or immense power.
We got stuck in a little traffic in Custer State Park today!
🦬🦬🦬🦬🦬 👀 pic.twitter.com/4G7zaYSPsC
— Road Unraveled (@RoadUnraveled) September 6, 2021
Like Iron Mountain Road, Needles Highway is a winding road that spans 14 miles and takes you through mountains, forests, and meadows. Some tunnels are very narrow and shouldn’t be attempted with larger vehicles, but the trip is worth including as a detour as you cross the state.
One of the most well-known attractions in South Dakota is, in part, because its advertising won’t let you forget it. Wall Drug stretches over several city blocks and is the perfect place to stop for souvenirs, snacks, and their legendary free ice water.
We wrote a full article about Wall Drug’s history, ties to South Dakota during some of its most developmental years, and how it became the icon that it is today. Take a look and know that the many, many, many signs you’ll see on I-90 may feel silly and repetitive, but a stop at Wall Drug is well-worth the time.
Deadwood and the Black Hills
There’s nothing quite like experiencing the wildness of Deadwood, and any trip to South Dakota would benefit from spending a night or two in one of the best examples of what the wild, wild west was like as the USA was expanding westward. It’s especially fun to visit if you are a fan of the HBO series Deadwood!
We shared a full article that details all of the great things to see and do there, from ghost tours to shoot outs to the bars you’ll want to experience. Take a look to begin planning your visit!
Visit South Dakota!
South Dakota is in one of the most beautiful parts of the United States, and there is far more to see and do than Mount Rushmore (although we loved our time there as well!). Although many travelers focus on the most popular of the state’s tourist destination, plan to extend your journey by a few days and enjoy a few detours from I-90.
From sunrise over Sioux Falls to sunset in the Badlands, you’ll be impressed by how much there is to see and do—and glad you took a break for a hike, a few photos, and a glass of Wall Drug ice water!
Want to learn about more interesting locations? Check out these posts from our archives!