South Dakota: An Underrated U.S. Road Trip
While most tourists may flock to the Californian coast for a road trip (and fairly so), travelers searching for something different should set their gaze on the Midwest towards South Dakota. A drive across I-90 is filled with roadside oddities, local businesses, good food, natural wonders, and lots of family fun. World Footprints has outlined can’t miss stops along the way to help inspire you to see the best of South Dakota!
Starting East in Sioux Falls, get your feet wet (pun fully intended) at Falls Park. The waterfalls are best seen from the observation deck you can walk to. Stretch your legs before hopping in your vehicle and hitting the open road.
The next stop is Mitchell’s notable Corn Palace. While it’s less of a palace and more of a rec center, the exterior is adorned with murals made entirely out of corn. This is a quirky photo op you need on your itinerary.
Onward to Wall Drug, a small town in (objectively) the middle of nowhere that offers free ice-cold water to weary wanderers. There are plenty of trinket shops and souvenir stores along the main drag of Wall Drug. Don’t miss the giant Jackalope statue, part jackrabbit and part antelope, in the backyard play area of the main building — seeing it is part of the fun.
One of the gems of South Dakota is Badlands National Park. With natural rock formations similar to the Grand Canyon, albeit on a smaller scale, this National Park is filled with walking paths and hiking trails. It’s also notorious for wildlife spotting, so keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep.
Keep driving until you hit Rapid City, sometimes affectionately referred to as “Little Denver”. This is a great place to fuel up on delicious food and coffee. We highly recommend locally-owned Harriet and Oak for coffee or Tally’s Silver Spoon for a hearty breakfast. The Firehouse is another great foodie spot, known for its homemade root beer and delicious dinner options. Hike up M Hill for views of the city or take little ones to Dinosaur Park on Skyline Drive. Both are free and a great way to shake out those road legs.
Rapid City isn’t far from Mount Rushmore. Although there has been controversy clouding the monument, its construction is remarkable given the precision and technology used at the time. There is a wonderful video exhibit inside the visitor’s center that allows travelers to see exactly how Mount Rushmore came to be and why the four presidents that adorn the mountain were chosen. Alternatively, we encourage you to drive to Crazy Horse Monument where the face of the brave Lakota leader is slowly being sculpted into stone. The entirety of Mount Rushmore can fit inside just the head of Crazy Horse, to give you an idea of the ongoing project’s scale.
Any drive through the Black Hills is scenic, but most notable for its visual grandeur is Needles Highway. The 14-mile long drive takes you around the Southwestern part of the state, winding through aspen trees and granite mountains. Needles Highway is quite narrow and curvy, so summer is the best time to experience it!
Hill City should be another pin in your map for a few reasons. The mountain town is home to the 1880s steam train, which you can still ride. This fun activity doubles as a living piece of South Dakota history. Hill City is also home to numerous hiking trails and the local favourite Alpine Inn. Built in 1886, the Alpine Inn is a fine European dining establishment that serves up impeccable German cuisine. The best part? The restaurant is family-owned and operated, and who doesn’t love to inject their money at the local level?
Custer State Park is a can’t miss for any South Dakota road trippers. The Wildlife Loop Road offers amazing views of South Dakota’s natural landscapes and the animals that inhabit them. Note that during peak travel season (i.e. the summer months), the loop can get congested with cars and construction is inevitable in the warmer weather. Be patient, keep your eyes open, and enjoy seeing nature in all its glory.
All of the stops mentioned above just brush the surface of what’s available to see in South Dakota but this article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Evan’s Plunge. Evan’s Plunge is technically a water park, but it’s made up of natural mineral water sourced from thermal hot springs. Soaking in the springs is the ultimate way to cap off your journey across the state.
Tara Tadlock is a travel writer + blogger documenting her slow, adventure travels across 42 countries (and counting) on SillyLittleKiwi.com. Growing up in a military family, she’s always lived life with a boarding pass in one hand and a camera in the other. Tara loves finding the best coffee and vegetarian food anywhere she goes, learning about culture and customs straight from locals, and cuddling any dog within reach.