South Dakota is extremely underrated. The state not only houses Mount Rushmore but also majestic national parks, quirky little towns, and a landscape of varying vistas that will each appeal to visitors in their own unique ways. In total, we spent three nights in South Dakota (see my article on our one night in Sioux Falls). Had I known how awesome it is here, we would have easily spent an entire week immersing ourselves in the endless activities and stunning sights. More people need to make their way over to this part of the country. I hope that my itinerary below will inspire you to visit and see for yourself what makes this state so attractive.
Feel free to steal our two nights itinerary in the Mount Rushmore area (if you have longer, add on a third night in Sioux Falls).
Day One: 1. Work Your Way Over to Wall Drug
Wall Drug draws two million visitors each year to the tiny city of Wall. This kitschy little store contains a bunch of smaller shops selling souvenirs, memorabilia, and even fudge. There is also a restaurant on-site (the smell of fried food deterred us from eating there) and very clean restrooms. The drug store's history is what made a stop here enticing to me. Dating eighty years ago, the original owners committed to opening a pharmacy and general store in Wall, known as "the geographical center of nowhere". They struggled drawing in customers and brilliantly came up with the concept of pitching dozens of large, handmade billboards along the road, which still line the highway, advertising that ice-water is available to all visitors for free. The strategy was a success and thousands of hot, hungry, and tired drivers started to pull in. The original pharmacy can still be found on site along with all the other eclectic offerings in this funky tourist trap. It's a great stop to stretch your legs if it is on your route but I wouldn't make it a destination in your travels per se.
2 . Be Bewildered by the Beauty in Badlands National Park
The dramatic landscapes in the park can be appreciated from several lookout points along the Badlands Loop Scenic Byway. The stretch covers approximately forty miles, fifteen overlooks, and an abundance of trailheads. This loop is the best way to experience Badlands. Although the park cannot compete with The Grand Canyon, the drive through the park is unforgettable regardless. A really cool feature in the landscape is the sprawling grass fields among the buttes, spires, and canyons. The contrast between the bright green grass and the dried-out rock formations is striking. Below are the overlooks that we enjoyed most:
Approximately one mile or so after the Ancient Hunters Overlook is an unnamed viewpoint that I think is one of the nicest and most unique in the vicinity. The colorful, sprawling hills are spectacular and otherworldly.
Yellow Mounds This viewpoint is another one that you should not miss. The yellow rock formations resulting from decaying plants on the former sea bed are quite beautiful and unusual. Keeping with the color theme, there are also yellow wildflowers that add to the spectacular sight.
This perspective offers the typical scenery that you will find in the Badlands with panoramic views of the ubiquitous red rocks. The scenery here feels particularly infinite.
Burns Basin This is another great spot to soak in the expansive vistas. Except here you can appreciate them at the comfort of a bench.
Fossil Extinct Overlook
This was another one of my favorites in the park. The landscape is different in this area than others in the park and you can actually walk through the grounds. There are several little hills that you can climb. If you're as lucky as we were you'll also spot a ram seeking shelter in one of the small caves in the rock ahead. Another cool perk is that nearby is the Fossil Exhibit Trail, a well-paved trail that features exhibits of extinct creatures that once inhabited the park.
3. Lodge in Lux-Camping Overlooking Mount Rushmore
Under Canvas Mount Rushmore is "Recognized by Condé Nast Traveler as a 'Best Resort in the World', 'Top 10 Resort in the United States and #2 in 'Top Resorts in the US – Midwest & West' ". The campsite is ideally set between the Black Hills National Forest and Badlands National Park and is just 3.5 miles away from Mount Rushmore. The spacious safari-inspired tents are decorated with king beds, lush linens, and private bathrooms/showers. Common areas are beautifully appointed enticing guests to lounge in the communal areas. There is a daily activity calendar, including yoga classes and guided hikes. Breakfast and dinner are served on-site along with nightly s'mores by several lit firepits. Keep in mind, temperatures peak during summer months and although the campsite has Wi-Fi there is no a/c anywhere on-premises. Luckily temperatures drop drastically in the evenings but don't plan on lingering on the premises before 5:00 pm without experiencing a heat stroke. We loved changing our lodging experience up a bit and this was a perfect way to experience the outdoors without really roughing it at all.
1. Make Your Way to Mount Rushmore First Thing in the Morning
Mount Rushmore is a very popular landmark that gets inundated with visitors as the day progresses. We made sure to arrive by 8:00 am and successfully beat the crowds. Like most people, I've seen pictures of the monument thousands of times. Despite how familiar Mount Rushmore may feel, the in-person experience is quite breathtaking. In fact, we unexpectedly ended up lingering on the grounds for nearly an hour. Make sure to take the half-mile Presidential Trail around the park that offers many different vantage points of this monumental masterpiece. The trail will also take you to the "Sculptor's Studio" where Gutzon Burglom, the artist, worked on his vision. To avoid climbing hundreds of stairs through the trail, start your walk on the left entrance walking clockwise.
2. Get Bewitched by Black Hills National Forest Knows as "an island in the plains" the Black Hills National Forest" is a nature enthusiast's delight. Driving through the windy roads is an excursion in itself. Just follow the road as it leads you through rugged rock formations, lakes, canyons, and expansive grasslands. Roll down the windows, pump up the music, inhale the mountain air and just drive.
3. Watch the Wildlife in Wonder
Take the Black Hills Forest route towards Custer Park. There is an entrance fee to get into the park but if you want to drive along Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway you'll have to pay a reasonable fee. Wildlife Loop is the highlight of the park as there are many opportunities to encounter wildlife as you drive through the eighteen-mile loop. We saw dozens of bison and their calves grazing the fields, some were as close as six inches from our car! Being so close to these beasts was one of the coolest experiences of my life. Further down the loop, we crossed a field with wild horses and donkeys with their foals. What a sight! The drive along this loop was surreal. I was on a constant lookout for unicorn encounters and sightings of fluttering fairies...
4. Recalibrate in Downtown Custer
After all this sightseeing and excitement you will surely work up an appetite! However, don't expect lots of gourmet, healthy food options in the area. Lucky for you, I did some research ahead of time and found Baker's Bakery & Cafe, a well-reviewed restaurant that offers healthier options like salads and wraps. We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food and the old-western charm of the historic downtown area. This makes for a great refueling rest stop between Custer Park and Crazy Horse.
5. Be Captivated at Crazy Horse Once completed, Crazy Horse will be the world's largest monument. Watching a future wonder of the world being worked on is really exciting! A visit to witness this mammoth rock-side sculpture in the flesh is truly being privy to history in the making. The monument honoring Native American culture and deep history in the region began being built back in1948. Many estimate that it will take another one hundred years to complete. There is a fee to enter the park. Insider's Tip: I would only pay the entrance fee if you are interested in touring the museums and exhibits. If you just want to see the monument you can get an equally great vantage point off the highway.
6. Cool Off in a Lovely lake
Lake Sylvan is a perfect retreat from blazing summer temperatures. If you follow my itinerary, you should be at around 2:00 pm in your day by now, the time of day when high temperatures peak. There is no better way to escape the heat than by plunging in cold, crystal clear waters. The lake is absolutely beautiful and has several rock formations used as jumping cliffs by the many swimmers who visit. There are free kayaks and paddleboards available on a first-come-first-served basis. There are also several little shores around the lake to enter the waters. The most populated, and largest, beach area is near the rocks where daredevils, including my children, took their leaps into the lake.
7. Navigate Through Nutty Needles Highway
The drive along Needles Highway easily makes my list of America's Top Five scenic drives. The road is best known for its needle-like granite formations. You will be wowed for the entire fourteen-mile drive along magnificent vistas. To add to the adventure, you'll need to drive through an extremely narrow tunnel that will miraculously accommodate your car.
8. Head Back to Homebase to Honor the Sun During our glamping adventure at Under Canvas, we learned that the best time to enjoy the campgrounds is after 5:00 pm when the temperature cools down. Heading back around this time will allow you to enjoy the gorgeous grounds without feeling like you are melting or wondering if you accidentally reserved a sweat lodge for your room. End the day with an outdoor dinner amongst the pine trees, play some soothing tunes on the guitar available in the lobby, watch the sunset on the terrace that overlooks Mount Rushmore, and of course, enjoy one more night of roasting marshmallows.
South Dakota is a perfect summer destination. Add it to your wishlist, make the wish, and watch it come true!