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A Summer Roadtrip – South Dakota Black Hills, Badlands & More

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There are so many amazing sites in the South Dakota Black Hills, Badlands, and more! If you’re planning a family road trip, here are a few of our must see attractions!

What to see on a Summer Road Trip to Black Hills & Badlands

Must See Sights on a Summer Road Trip to South Dakota Black Hills

This 3 Day South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary for Families was part of our family’s epic three week road trip from our home in Eastern Iowa to my sister’s house in Seattle.

Along the way we visited many amazing sights in South Dakota, Montana, Washington, Wyoming, and back through South Dakota. We drove over 5,000 miles through seven different western states on our road trip. We actually hit South Dakota coming and going and were able to take in very fun sights both times.

Here are the highlights of our three week road trip

  • Laura Ingalls Wilder attractions in DeSmet
  • Badlands National Park
  • Custer State Park
  • Mt. Rushmore
  • Crazy Horse Memorial
  • Glacier National Park
  • Seattle
  • Mt. Rainier National Park
  • The Cascades
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Devil’s Tower
  • The Corn Palace

If you’re heading to the South Dakota Black Hills with your family, read on for the highlights of the South Dakota portion our trip! You will definitely want to add these destinations to your family adventure in the South Dakota Black Hills and beyond.

3 Day South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary for Families – De Smet, Badlands & Black Hills

Travel Day – From Eastern Iowa to Brookings, South Dakota 

We left our house in Eastern Iowa late morning and drove to Brookings via I-80 to Omaha and then I-29 north to Brookings. It was about 460 miles of driving for us and our intention was just to get down the road – not really enjoy anything along the way. Omaha is an amazing city and would have been a nice place to stop, but we were on a mission.


After about seven hours of driving, we spent the night at the Hampton Inn in Brookings which I booked via hotwire. The next morning, we got up early and headed to DeSmet – which was our first big road trip goal.

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Day 1 – Brookings to DeSmet

It’s a 45 minute drive west on Highway 14 from Brookings to DeSmet. We got an early start because we wanted to have time to visit all of the Laura Ingalls Wilder sights in DeSmet and then also have time for the longer drive to Badlands National Park.

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Having read all the books several times and visited Rocky Ridge Farm outside Springfield, Missouri, I will admit to you that this stop in DeSmet was at my insistence. It’s actually a little bit out of the way and a lot of people don’t make it there, which I think is a shame. It exceeded all of our expectations and the kids had a fabulous time!

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If you’re a Laura Ingalls Wilder fan, DeSmet is a must visit. The setting of my most favorite books from Little House on the Prairie series including By the Shores of Silver Lake, The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, there are so many great things to see that really bring the books to life.

My two youngest girls hadn’t wanted to read the series until we visited. Then they were so excited to read them all. It really warmed my heart!

A Few of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Sights in DeSmet

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We spent about five hours exploring the above listed historic places. Our kids’ favorites were the Surveyors’ House (this house was described as so big in the books, yet it was so tiny in reality!) and the Ingalls Homestead where they were able to play with lots of beautiful baby animals, participate in crafts, and take a wagon ride through the slough. They would have loved to spend much more time at the Ingalls Homestead.

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DeSmet to Badlands National Park

It’s about a four drive from DeSmet to Badlands National Park. You can either drop down to I-90 from DeSmet and then take the interstate all the way to the park, or you can stay on state highways and drop down to I-90 a little later.

We pried the kids away from the Ingalls Homestead and hit the road, opting for the backroads. We stayed on Highway 14 through Huron, then took Highway 281 to Highway 34 to Highway 47 and hooked up with I-90 at Reliance. We enjoyed the beautiful views of the sweeping South Dakota prairie including a far-off view of Silver Lake along the way.

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Wildlife Loop State Scenic Drive through Badlands National Park

South Dakota Highway 240, otherwise known as Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, is a 31-mile stretch of two lane highway through the Badlands National Park. It’s consistently on Top Ten lists of most beautiful US Highways! 

We exited I-90 excited for our first views of Badlands National Park famed for its wildlife, pinnacles, gullies, buttes, canyons, sunrises, and sunsets. Badlands National Park quickly became one of our family’s favorite, low-key national parks. 

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The Badlands seemingly appear from nowhere when you’re driving through South Dakota from the east. After miles and miles of relative nothingness, the pinnacles, buttes, and canyons are an amazing sight! We were so excited to use our daughter’s free 4th Graders in the Park Pass as we entered the first national park on our epic road trip. The Wildlife Loop did not disappoint.

If you don’t have a 4th grader, get your America the Beautiful Park Pass ahead of time so you can access the parks right away!

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A few of our other favorite things at Badlands National Park

There’s more to do at Badlands than the wildlife loop though. Our kids were so excited to scramble around the rocks – they wanted to hike and climb absolutely everywhere. Here are a few of the other things we really enjoyed at Badlands.

  • Roberts Prairie Dog Town
  • Hiking at Pinnacles Overlook
  • Ben Reifel Visitors Center
  • Stopping to look at all the wildlife
  • Earning Junior Ranger Badges
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After closing down the park, we stayed at a budget-friendly hotel in Wall so we’d be close to Badlands for more exploring the next morning. The town of Wall caters to backpackers, so their hotels are really nothing spectacular. But they were cheap and clean and that’s what we wanted.

We book hotels online at sites like Traveloity, Hotels.com, Hotwire, and Expedia. I check them all to see where I can get the best option.

Wall used a funny marketing system years ago to attract visitors. You’ll see FREE WATER AT WALL billboards all along I-90. It’s really a big tourist trap, but we had to explore a little anyway.

If you don’t have a lot of time in South Dakota, I would skip Wall and spend more time at Badlands National Park.

Custer State Park, South Dakota Welcome Sign

Day 2 – Wall, South Dakota to Custer State Park

We started Day 2 back at Badlands National Park. The kids weren’t finished exploring and were actually a little angry that we had to leave. (Not enough time was the theme for our trip to South Dakota!) We explored and hiked a little more and then we hit the road for Custer State Park. 

From Badlands National Park it’s just under two hours to get to Custer State Park. We got back on the I-90 and headed west to Rapid City, then south on Highway 79 and west on Highway 36.

kids with the burros at Custer State Park

Custer State Park in the South Dakota Black Hills is another amazingly beautiful park. Full of wildlife like buffalo and crazy mountain goats, it’s also home to pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros. The burros were my kids absolute favorite.

Admission was $20 for seven days (the National Park Pass doesn’t work here because it isn’t a national park). We made sure to stop in at the Visitor’s Center to find out where the buffalo might be, and we were not disappointed! 

Herd of buffalo at Custer State Park Wildlife Loop Road

We drove around the park on the Wildlife Loop and then out the park on Needles Highway toward Hill City. Along the way, we stopped and climbed the spires and the kids had a blast.

We spent another night in a cheapish hotel in Hill City, South Dakota. When traveling with four kids, economy is often key.

Day 3 – Hill City, South Dakota Black Hills

In addition to scenic drives, the South Dakota Black Hills also offer biking, horseback riding, ATV rides, backpacking, hiking, camping, steam powered railroads, Crazy Horse, and Mt Rushmore, as well. You can spend several days in the South Dakota Black Hills, but we only had about two days in total. I would love to go back and explore this area even more!

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Crazy Horse Memorial

Day 3 started at the amazing Crazy Horse Memorial. Considered the largest stone carving in the world, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a must see even though it’s not yet complete.

Carving of this monument to honor Native American Lakota Leader Crazy Horse began in 1948 and has been in under construction (by the same family!) ever since then! If you’re really lucky, you will able to take in a night time laser show or a night blast!

crazy horse

Unlike Mt. Rushmore which was completed using $1 million in federal money, Crazy Horse is being constructed by one family and zero federal dollars. To finance the project, they rely on admission fees to the museums and site as well as donations.

I have always been fascinated by Native American history (I may have read too many Native American romance novels in middle school), and I was so thrilled that my kids were equally fascinated by the The Indian Museum of North America and Native American Educational and Cultural Center at Crazy Horse too.

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Pro tip – make sure you take the bus out to the base of carving site. It’s a fun ride and we all really enjoyed the closer look we got at the base!

crazy horse rocks

Mt. Rushmore might be more iconic, I prefer the Crazy Horse complex. If you can only visit one, pick Crazy Horse. They’re open year round, weather permitting. Find out hours and more at the Crazy Horse website.

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Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

It took 400 workers 14 years to complete the iconic Mt. Rushmore which features the colossal faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Completed in 1941, Mt. Rushmore is the most visited destination in South Dakota. We probably saw more people here than all the people combined everywhere else!

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Mt. Rushmore is located outside the Black Hills town of Keystone. While there are no fees to enter, there is a $10 fee per vehicle to park. Our kids enjoyed emulating the presidents, eating ice cream, and short hike around the base.

We visited Mt. Rushmore in the afternoon, spenty one more night in Keystone and then headed out to Billings, Montana on our way to Glacier National Park.

These were our favorite sights in South Dakota – but our time was too short. If we had more time, I would love to explore the little towns in the Black Hills more, spend some time kayaking at Custer Park, and visit the Minuteman Missile Historic Site . Working with the Corps of Engineers my dad worked on cleaning out minuteman missile sites so this interests me!) near Badlands National Park.

I’d also head south of the Black Hills to visit Wind Cave National Park and the Wild Horse Sanctuary! So much to do, so little time.

Have you been to South Dakota? What was your favorite part?

If you liked this article on the South Dakota Black Hills, Badlands, and DeSmet, you might like these too.

A Kid Friendly Weekend Getaway in Omaha

Fun Things to Do with Kids in the Springfield, Missouri Area

Two Amazing Drives to Take at Custer State Park

Preparing for a summer road trip to the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota? Here are beautiful pictures of sights & useful hints to help you prepare.
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About Michelle Marine

Michelle Marine is the author of How to Raise Chickens for Meat, a long time green living enthusiast and rural Iowa mom of four. An avid traveler, Michelle has lived on three different continents and has driven all four kids across the entire USA (by herself!). She loves sharing farm-to-table recipes, their family travel adventures, and gardening and homesteading tips on her popular lifestyle blog, SimplifyLiveLove.com.

Comments

  1. blankKelli says

    Our vacation out there was one of our favorites! I definitely recommend the 31-mile loop, and doing it at different times of day to see all of the animals. Have a blast!!

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