October 18, 2017

South Dakota Road Trip: 10 Stops to Make as You Cross the State

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We just got back from our three-week road trip and it’s safe to say that South Dakota is a pretty amazing state. My oldest daughter and I explored the Rapid City area a few years ago, but this time, I brought the whole family (well, minus my husband, who was called back for a work crisis).

We started out in eastern Colorado, then made our way north through Wyoming before hopping on I-90 and taking it across the state, making stops in Deadwood, Rapid City, Wall, Sioux Falls, and several other small towns along the way.

Minus the Urgent Care visit in Rapid City (my middle daughter had an ear infection), it was a pretty fabulous drive across the state. There are so many fun things to do in South Dakota. Even better, we were able to hit all “Five Cool Things to Do Here” as suggested by my NatGeo Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas. 🙂

If you’re eager to take your kids on a road trip to remember, add South Dakota to your list. From west to east, here’s where to stop and what to do in South Dakota.

Stop #1: Historic Deadwood 

We started our drive in Devils Tower, Wyoming and made the 75-minute drive to Deadwood, most of which was along I-90. Deadwood is just a short drive off of I-90, but it’s worth a stop in this historic Wild West town in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Take a tour, stay for a shoot-out and pop in Saloon No. 10 where Wild Bill Hickok famously met his demise during a poker game. While in Saloon No. 10, we even got to watch a re-enactment and my kids played cards with one of the cowboys. Super fun.

While in Deadwood, you’ll also want to rent bikes from DeadWheels for a bike ride along the Mickelson Trail. I will tell you that I really wanted to do this, but alas, my son hurt himself on the playground the day before, needed six stitches, and a bike ride was off the table. 🙁

We did, however, grab lunch at Creekside Restaurant at Deadwood Gulch Gaming Resort, which was in the same location as DeadWheels. So, almost the same, right? Oh well. I always say though that circumstances like this just mean I need to come back some day.

Stop #2: Reptiles & Dinosaurs in Rapid City

I love to make stops at fun roadside attractions when we travel. If nothing else, it breaks up the drive for me and the kids. So our first stop after leaving Deadwood was Dinosaur Park in Rapid City, which was about 45 minutes away by car.

Dinosaur Park is a fun stop for kids since you can pose with seven larger than life dinosaurs that overlook the city. We were there mid-afternoon, but I can only imagine the views at sunset.

Dinosaur Park is free and you can get huge ice cream cones for only $2 in the gift shop. Bonus. Definitely add this to your list of things to do in Rapid City.

Our next stop was Reptile Gardens, which is just 15 minutes from Dinosaur Park. We saw a bird show, an alligator show and a snake show. Plus, we got to hang out with prairie dogs and giant tortoises, so it was a massive, all-around win.

Stop #3: Custer State Park 

When my daughter and I visited Rapid City a few years ago, we went to Custer State Park for a Buffalo Safari. We spent nearly two hours riding around with a guide in an open-air jeep in search of bison, antelope, prairie dogs and big horn sheep.

This time, we did a DIY version of this tour, as in a self-drive along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road at Custer State Park. At first, we didn’t see any animals, so I started to wonder if I’d made the wrong decision in doing this on my own. But then, there were bison. Lots of bison.

We also saw burros and prairie dogs along with the bison, just hanging out on the road. If you can, go in the morning or evening when the weather is cooler and the animals may be more active. However, we went around noon and still saw plenty of wild animals.

On the back half of Wildlife Loop Road, you’ll see a turnoff for Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower. It’s definitely worth a stop for gorgeous 360-degree views from the highest point in the park.

Stop #4. Crazy Horse Memorial 

Crazy Horse Memorial is very interesting. Work on this memorial began in 1948 as a tribute to all Native Americans. It’s privately-funded and it will be huge when completed (one day). Be sure to watch the short film in the visitors center. The family that began work is still very involved today.

I had no idea, but Crazy Horse Memorial will be many times larger than Mount Rushmore. I thought Mount Rushmore was big, but apparently all of Mount Rushmore can fit in just the face of Crazy Horse, and leave room to spare. Now that’s big.

At the memorial, look for entertainment, like traditional Native American dancing, as well as lots and lots of artwork both for viewing and for purchase. There’s even a restaurant offering up spectacular views of Crazy Horse Memorial and an ice cream shop. Plus, free coffee. 🙂

Stop #5: Mount Rushmore 

You definitely can’t go to Rapid City, or the entire state of South Dakota, without visiting Mount Rushmore. This was the highlight of my trip to Rapid City four years ago and it was again the highlight of our road trip across South Dakota.

When you arrive, pick up a Junior Ranger Activity Booklet. This is always a must for me and my kids. This particular Junior Ranger program is quick and easy. As a bonus, your kids can earn both a badge and a patch (though the patch will cost an extra $2).

Plan to walk along the .6 mile Presidential Trail for fantastic views of Mount Rushmore along the way. There’s also a short film in the visitors center. If you can, stay for the evening lighting program (it’s very patriotic) and get a scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s $1 more than other flavors, but it’s Thomas Jefferson’s own recipe.

Just a quick note that the on-site parking facility is run by Xanterra, not the National Park Service. What does this mean? It means that even if you have an America the Beautiful annual pass, you still need to play the $10 per vehicle parking fee. Hrmph… 

Stop #6: Wall Drug

Yes, Wall Drug is a totally kitschy roadside attraction, potentially rivaling South of the Border in South Carolina, but you have to stop. It’s literally just off I-90 and is a must-stop, if only for the free ice water and 5 cent coffee (paid on the honor system in a wooden box).

We ate lunch at Wall Drug, along with every other visitor to the state that day, and yes, I had several 5 cent cups of coffee. After lunch, we explored Wall Drug and it was just as a I remembered, only this time another one of my daughters posed on top of the Jackalope outside.

There’s a lot to do at Wall Drug. Splash around in the outdoor fountains. Wait for the T-Rex to roar (every 12 minutes). Play video games in the arcade. Pan for gold. And, from what I recall, their maple-frosted donuts are fantastic so pick up one (or a few) for the road.

Wall Drug is also famous for its roadside signs along I-90. You’ll be miles and miles away when you see your first billboard, but that’s what draws you in. Keep looking for signs, then exit at mile marker 109 or 110. You won’t be sorry. 🙂

Stop #7: Badlands National Park

Just eight miles south of Wall, South Dakota, you’ll find Badlands National Park. Since I love national parks, of course I was going to stop and get my National Parks Passport stamped. We also picked up Junior Ranger Activity Booklets (of course).

Badlands National Park is about 70 minutes east of Rapid City. As a quick side note, we stayed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Rapid City. Not only was it centrally located, close to everything we wanted to see, but it’s also attached to the WaTiki Indoor Waterpark (a major win for mom).

That noted, it was easy to get to Badlands National Park and back from Rapid City (that day, we actually did Badlands, Wall Drug and Mount Rushmore, so it was a busy day!). There are lots of short, easy hikes at Badlands, like the .75 Door Trail and the .25 mile Window Trail, but it was a very hot day, so we ended up sticking around the visitors center.

Even if you don’t hike, a self-drive around the 31-mile Badlands Loop State Scenic Highway will be plenty. There are loads of pull-off viewpoints and every view is better than the last. I probably took dozens of photos of the rugged natural beauty all around us.

Stop #8: Corn Palace

We spent five days in Rapid City, and I was sad to leave, but once we did, our next stop was the Corn Palace in Mitchell (which, of course, is just off I-90). Talk about roadside attractions. Admission to the “World’s Only Corn Palace” is free, but try to get out of there without buying a bag of popcorn (we bought chocolate-covered popcorn and it was amazing). 

Apparently, 500,000 tourists (like us!) are drawn to the Corn Palace each year to see more than 275,000 ears of corn in 12 different shades that are used to create themed corn murals. The current theme is “Rock of Ages,” but that’s getting ready to come down to make way for the new corn murals that will be completed in October.

Since we were making the lengthy drive from Rapid City to Sioux Falls, we didn’t have too much time to spend at the Corn Palace, but there is a short film if you’re eager to learn more about the history of the Corn Palace. There’s also a massive gift shop for all kinds of Corn Palace souvenirs.

Stop #9: Porter Sculpture Park 

On the way to Sioux Falls, make time for the Porter Sculpture Park in Montrose, South Dakota. It’s literally just off I-90 and if you go too fast you will miss it. We did not stop, but only because we spent two hours in Urgent Care that morning and were delayed in getting on the road.

I really wanted to stop here to check out the 50 massive sculptures that sit across 10 acres, but just like missing out on biking the Mickelson Trail in Deadwood, I knew I’d have to come back another day to see, among other sculptures, the 60-foot bull head sculpture.

 Stop #10: Waterfalls & Sculptures in Sioux Falls

At last, we finally made it to Sioux Falls on the far east side of the state and checked into the ClubHouse Hotel & Suites, which was a complete oasis after such a long day of travel. There was an indoor pool (with two water slides!), a s’mores fire pit, a breakfast buffet and free bike rentals!

The ClubHouse Hotel is only a few minutes by car from downtown Sioux Falls, including Falls Park and the Sioux Falls Sculpture Walk. You can park once and enjoy both, though you’ll need to be ready for a 2-3 mile round trip walk.

There are more than 50 sculptures in downtown Sioux Falls, mostly along Phillips Avenue in the heart of downtown. Here’s a printable map to bring along with you. I parked on 13th Street, checked out all the sculptures, and at the end found myself at the Big Sioux River and Falls Park.

There are a lot of things to do in Sioux Falls, so while in town we also got a chance to visit the Great Plains Zoo. It’s a small zoo, but it was a great way to spend the morning. They have giraffe feedings, zookeeper chats and animal encounters. That’s pretty great for a relatively small animal park.

I hope this helps if you’re thinking about things to do in South Dakota on a family road trip. We had a great time and I hope you get a chance to explore the Mount Rushmore State like we did.

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