Road trippin’ in America is one of the most cliché yet authentic trips you can take. The US of A is a massive country, and driving is still the best way to get around—especially when gas prices are so low! So about two weeks ago, I set off from Minneapolis to road trip out to the southwestern part of South Dakota (and just a bit of northeastern Wyoming).
If you’re planning a road trip to the area, look no further! Here’s my full guide on what to see and do along the way!
Jolly Green Giant
If you’re heading to South Dakota from Minnesota, chances are you’ll be driving west along Interstate 90 (I-90), and chances are you’ll pass by an exit for Blue Earth. This 55.5-foot statue of the Jolly Green Giant dwarfs everything in its surroundings, and is absolutely worth a quick stop! The statue is free, and there is a museum next door with more information and history on Minnesota’s own symbol of frozen/canned vegetables. It’s behind the Dairy Queen parking lot.
Another great pitstop along I-90 is the Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota. The corn palace is—you guessed it!—made out of corn, but really is a stadium/entertainment venue on the inside. The outside is covered in crop art, which is redone in different designs and patterns every year. This original building was built in 1921, and attracts about 500,000 visitors each year! It’s clearly signposted from I-90, and there are free parking lots that are well signposted as well. The Corn Palace is free for visitors.
Badlands National Park
The Badlands were one of the main reasons I planned a road trip to South Dakota in the first place—this park is absolutely incredible! There are striking geological features of eroded buttes, pinnacles, and spires, mixed in with grass prairie as far as the eye can see. One of the best ways to see the “greatest hits” of the park is to drive the Badlands Scenic Highway Loop (South Dakota highway 240, or SD 240), as there are loads of stunning view points where you can get out and take photos. The Badlands is also home to lots of wild animals, including prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, and bison! Driving the Sage Creek Rim Road will be your best bet for seeing wildlife. The park is $15 for a 7-day pass for private, non-commercial vehicles. There are tons of camping, hiking, and backpacking opportunities in the park. For more pictures of the Badlands, check out my post here!
When the free ice water and 5 cent coffee is advertised 400 miles away, you know that you have to make the stop… Wall Drug isn’t just a store anymore, it’s a South Dakotan institution! The place takes up nearly a whole block in the town of Wall, South Dakota, and yes, they still offer that free ice water that gave them fame! It’s kitschy and touristy, but lots of fun. There’s a huge selection of connected (and air conditioned) shops to satisfy all your tourist needs, as well as a café. Make sure you get your free Wall Drug bumper sticker on the way out! There is free parking all around Wall Drug.
The Black Hills National Forest is one of the other reasons I decided to head out west to South Dakota. The scenery is incredible—even just driving is an event in and of itself! There are loads of opportunities for camping and hiking, and lots of small towns around the national forest for exploring. For more specific locations in the Black Hills, keep on reading!
Mount Rushmore National Monument
Ahh, the shrine of democracy: Mount Rushmore. This is one of the most popular stops on any Midwestern road trip, and one of the most visited national monuments in the country! Honoring four former presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt) with their faces carved into the mountain, you just can’t miss a trip here, if only to chant U-S-A and fist pump. While there’s no admission fee, there is an $11 charge per car for parking, with lots of spaces in the ramps and lots.
Hill City/Keystone 1880 Train
One of my favorite parts of my road trip: taking the Historic 1880 Steam Train from Hill City to Keystone! The journey is about one hour each way, with great scenery and narrated commentary by guides. I’d recommend buying your ticket in advance, as the trains are very popular and can fill up fast—also, try to be in line 45 minutes before your departure to get a good seat, especially if you have a group that wants to sit together! The train departs from either Hill City or Keystone—you can stagger your return journey to give yourself a few hours to explore either of the towns. The train is $28 for adults, round-trip. Don’t miss this great activity in the Black Hills!
Custer State Park
Custer State Park is one of South Dakota’s most popular state parks, and with good reason! Sylvan Lake is a gorgeous area to explore, and you can’t miss the chance to get up close and personal with bison on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road!
But my favorite part of Custer State Park was definitely driving the Needles Highway. The granite spires that make up the Needles are jaw-droppingly beautiful, and driving the highway (scary as it may be with all the twists and turns and high elevation!) is an experience you can’t miss. If you have the time, I also recommend hiking the 3-mile Cathedral Spires Hike in the Needles—there’s a parking area at the trail head for vehicles. Custer State Park would also be a great place to spend more time camping or hiking, if you have the time! Entrance fees to the park are $20 per vehicle, valid for 7 days.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving in progress, depicting the Native American Lakota chief, Crazy Horse, as a way to protect and preserve Native American culture and traditions. The carving began in 1948 and still continues to this day! The Crazy Horse Memorial also houses the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center. While I arrived fairly late and couldn’t justify the steep entry price of $11 per person (or $28 per car with more than 2 people) when I was already so tired/it was already getting dark/the site was closing soon, you can see Crazy Horse from the highway and surrounding roads for free.
Born of a gold rush in the late 1800s, the city of Deadwood today is a fun and quirky mixture of history and gambling. The whole town was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1961, and gambling was legalized in 1989. I think “Hick Vegas” is the most charming way to describe the place—Deadwood is a fun town to pass through! Walking around the historic downtown district is a must, and if you’re a gambling fan you’ll find plenty to keep you busy. There is cheap parking (50 cents/hour) in the large parking lot off of Miller Street (behind Sherman Street).
Spearfish: Leones’ Creamery
I’m going to be honest: I went to Spearfish solely for ice cream. Leones’ Creamery did not disappoint—I would happily drive back there just for more ice cream! My knowledge of Spearfish besides ice cream is limited—but you seriously can’t miss the chance to get your hands on one of those Classic Sundaes! Leones’ Creamery is tucked back on Main Street next to the old red brick City Hall building. There’s free street parking.
This small town north of the Black Hills and in the far west of South Dakota is worth a stop if you’re driving through to Wyoming. Belle Fourche is the Geographic Center of the Nation, which is commemorated at the Center of the Nation Monument near the river. There’s a visitor center, historic cabin, and lots of flags on the site.
If you drive west to Wyoming from Belle Fourche (a beautiful drive in and of itself), you’ll pass through the charming town of Aladdin, population 15!
Devil’s Tower National Monument
This was my last big stop on the road trip, and it definitely did not disappoint! Devil’s Tower is located in northeastern Wyoming, about an hour from Belle Fourche, and was the first National Monument in the country. You can see the huge rock tower from miles away, but nothing compares with seeing it up close. The geologic rock formation gives you a different view from all sides, so I highly recommend walking the easy Tower Trail hike. If you’re especially brave, it’s one of the best opportunities for climbing in the country! The Devil’s Tower site is also sacred to Native Americans. You simply can’t miss a quick drive across the South Dakota border to see Devil’s Tower when you’re in the area. It’s $10 for admission (for private, non-commercial vehicles), and valid for 7 days.
My total road trip (from Minneapolis, visiting the above sites, and back) was 1700 miles. There are plenty of larger cities in southern South Dakota to explore if you have the time—Sioux Falls (in eastern South Dakota near the Minnesota border) and Rapid City are a good starting point—but I really do recommend getting outside and seeing the natural scenery as a top priority.
My Itinerary: I had a jam-packed couple of days, with lots and lots of driving! Coming from Minneapolis, I saw the Jolly Green Giant, the Corn Palace, and entered the Badlands in Day 1. On Day 2, I visited more of the Badlands, Wall Drug, and then entered the Black Hills: Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and Crazy Horse Memorial. Day 3 started with the 1880 Train from Hill City to Keystone and back, Deadwood, Spearfish, Devil’s Tower, and Belle Fourche. Day 4 was spent almost exclusively driving back. I stayed in Interior (for the Badlands) my first night, Rapid City for my second night, and Belle Fourche for the third night, all at motels.
It was a whirlwind trip that definitely deserved more time, but I was quite happy with the chance to see the major places on this highlights tour!
Have you ever roadtripped in the USA? What was your experience like?