Exciting Road Trip Adventure to South Dakota
Some of the best times in one’s life are those unplanned moments. Our road trip adventure to South Dakota was one of those. My wife and I seldom discussed this state when we would talk about our US travel bucket list and to be honest, we thought the Dakotas would probably be the last states to visit whenever we did complete our 50 state quest. But then a few things changed and next thing we knew we were heading north on I-35 for 17 ½ hours!
Towards the end of July 2020 my family (like most of America) was sick and tired of the covid-19 lockdown summer. Most of the usual summer activities were either closed or severely limited and air travel practically non-existent. We entertained ourselves the best we could at home or visited/hosted friends and family that weren’t paranoid about the virus. But after a while that got old too since we had been carrying on like this since the 1st week of April. We were now at our wits end and something had to give. Then it all came together that last weekend in July.
My wife and I were grilling outside and having drinks that summer night when my oldest daughter came to us and said we needed to do something because she and her siblings were tired of just being at home. School was starting soon and it was already announced that they would be virtual in the fall so that meant even more time at home and they all wanted to get away. My response to her was “we’ll go somewhere this coming week”.
When she went back inside, my wife and I started discussing where we could go and how limited the options were due to covid so we agreed on 4 things right away. Our destination had to be far away, it had to be somewhere we’d never been before, the weather had to be cooler, and it had to have plenty of open outdoor activities. When we looked at the US map on our phones, we both knew we had to head north. “F it, let’s drive to South Dakota” I said. And that’s how we decided on The Mount Rushmore state.
If you read my about page then you already know I’m all about the mini-van for road trips. I rented one from Budget and started looking at driving routes. My original plan had us making a beeline to the Rapid City region in South Dakota. This would be our home base for our trip. I had it calculated I would drive about 12 hours and call it a day in mid-Nebraska. That way I got most of the hard drive out of the way on day one.
Days 1 and 2 – The Drive and our stops.
We started our road trip at 5am and made it as far as York, Nebraska. I booked us 2 rooms at the Hampton Inn, ordered pizza, and called it a night. While reading up on things to do in South Dakota, I came across an article about the Dignity statue. I decided that we would see this magnificent statue off the interstate for ourselves. Was a good decision and we were not disappointed. The sculpture was stunning, beautiful, and was huge too! On the links below you can read about the story behind the sculpture and the artists that created it.
After this much needed rest stop we got back on the road and continued west.
Wall Drug Store
Our next stop was the famous Wall Drugstore about 2 hours away. It was a fun and touristy place to wander around in, stretch your legs, and load up on sweets. We had burgers there but I’d recommend waiting until you arrived to the Rapid City area to eat. The food was super pricey and just average. Get some souvenirs, sweets, and keep it moving!
HOMEBASE (Courtyard by Marriott Rapid City)
Our hotel was just outside Rapid City in a town called Box Elder. It’s a very nice property with great rates and location and would be our home for the next 4 days. I highly recommend staying in this area (especially during peak travel periods) if you are looking to save money. There are plenty of restaurants and stores nearby and if you’re looking for a little more excitement in the evenings, Rapid City is just a 12 minute ride up the road. After we checked in, we went out for dinner and called it a night. We were all excited to go see the bison the next day.
DAY 3 – CUSTER STATE PARK
Custer State Park is a short 30 minute drive from Rapid City and the 7 day entry pass is a bargain at $20 per vehicle. We entered the park from the east entrance and headed straight for the 18-mile Wildlife Loop. We had read that the areas along this route would give us the best chance to see the herds of buffalo. After only traveling a short distance on the loop, we ran into the begging burros. These animals have no shame and will go right up to your vehicle expecting food. They pretty much will eat anything from what I could tell and we fed them some apples that we had brought as snacks. They kept coming back for more and I could see they were eyeballing my tacos so it was time to get out of there. No tacos for the burros.
The Bison Herds
As we made our way along the wildlife loop we seen some prairie dogs and mule deer but weren’t having any luck spotting the herds. We would spot the occasional 1 or 2 in the distance but we wanted to see an actual herd. Everything changed when we rounded a bend just past the Oak Draw Road. Bam! There they were in all their glory. We were all thrilled to see so many of them together. We parked our car on the side of the road and enjoyed watching them graze, play, and nurse.
Needles Highway Scenic Route and Sylvan Lake
This is a fantastic scenic drive and I regret not attaching my GoPro camera to the hood of the mini-van when we drove it. Go to YouTube and search for videos on this drive. Just incredible scenery!
Needles highway ended at Sylvan lake where we got off to have our picnic lunch and explored the beautiful surrounding area on the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail. This was a very easy trail and perfect for letting your food go down before moving on to your next location. It was now late afternoon for us and everyone was ready to head back to the hotel. We took road 89 to 16A and then headed east to exit the same entrance.
DAY 4 – MOUNT RUSHMORE DAY
IRON MOUNTAIN ROAD
We took the scenic route to get to Mount Rushmore and traveled on the infamous Iron Mountain Road! This 17 mile stretch of unforgettable scenery starts at the entrance of Custer State Park and is an engineering marvel. This highway has 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails and 3 tunnels! We took this one at a very slow pace and made several stops along the way. It’s easily one of my top ten scenic drives anywhere in America.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Arriving at the memorial was pretty exciting for all of us. We had all read about this historic place and seen it in countless pictures and documentaries but it was surreal to actually be there. There is no fee to enter the memorial park, only a $10 parking fee for cars/trucks. When you arrive at the entrance there is an Avenue of Flags that greet you. The 56 flags represent the 50 states, one district, three territories, and two commonwealths of the United States of America. At the very end of this avenue is the iconic Mount Rushmore. You can’t help but feel patriotic at a place like this. It was very moving.
Day 5 – The Badlands
No trip to South Dakota is complete without visiting Badlands National Park. After an early breakfast, we went to the store and stocked up on water and snacks for a day of hiking. We drove east to Wall and then made the south turn on 240 to enter the park through the Pinnacles entrance. Right before entering the park on the right hand side is prairie dog colony. We stopped to get a better view and they immediately started “barking” as I got closer. Once the alarm was sounded they all darted to their holes and would occasionally pop up their heads to keep an eye on me. It was clear that they wanted me to get to get the hell out of their area so I got back in our ride and drove to the main entrance.
While we were paying our $30 entrance fee, a big bull bison crossed right in front of our minivan. It’s always nice to be greeted by wildlife as soon as you arrive at a park. Not too far past the entrance is a T in the road. To the right is the Sage Creek Rim Road which has several overlooks and creeks listed on the map as well as Roberts Prairie Dog Town. And to the left is the Badland Loop Road. We took the latter.
Stop at the Overlooks
First stop along the loop road were the Pinnacles and Ancient Hunters Overlook. Just amazing views of the unique badlands landscape. Desolate and eroded, it’s easy to see why the Lakota Sioux Indians gave this land the name “Mako Sica”, meaning “land bad”. The rocky terrain , climate in summer/winter, and just plain inhospitable land to travel on made it a perfect name for this place.
Looking out over the Badlands scenery, I found myself trying to imagine what it must have felt like being the first settlers and encountering this area. While we sit and marvel at how stunning everything looks, they must have dreaded the slog ahead trying to traverse this land.
For our first hiking trail, we broke the kids in easy and did the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead. This is a super easy “hike” and is on a kid friendly boardwalk path. It has replica fossils and instructive panels along the way. You can also take some other unmarked trails in the area to look for your own fossils. Just make sure you don’t take any home if you find any, as it is against park rules.
The Notch Trail
After a brief stop at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, we made our way to the #1 trail in the park, the Notch Trailhead. We had read about it and seen the pictures online before arriving but now we were ready to conquer it ourselves. This is definitely a must do hike and was a lot of fun. The log ladder was definitely a thrilling twist to this trail.
All five of us started the hike but when we got to the log ladder and sized it up, my wife announced she wasn’t going up. My 2 daughters also said they’d hang back as well. So it was just me and my boy. My son was determined and didn’t want to wait for the line of people waiting their turn on the ladder so he went up one of the side trails going up. I followed behind him and after getting past a couple of slippery parts, we made it to the top.
We did it!
From there the trail goes along the side of a cliff with a drop off on one side. The walking ledge is wide enough to let you breathe easy. If you’re scared of heights then stay close to the cliff wall and you’ll be fine. After we passed the cliff areas, we walked through the canyon until we arrived at the end of the trail at “The Notch”.
Other trails that we did and recommend:
- THE WINDOW
- ENTER THE DOOR TRAIL
- BADDEST OF THE BADLANDS
DAY 6 – STURGIS
Did I mention that our road trip took place the week leading up the world famous bike rally? Our last day in South Dakota was actually 2 days before the start of the festival and there were already bikers everywhere we went. I had to visit this small city for myself and at least get a picture at the Full Throttle Saloon! We checked out of our hotel and made the quick 30 minute drive to the biker mecca.
Entering the small city you start to wonder how in the world do they host half a million bikers in 10 days? It felt more like a cozy town than a city. The main avenue of the city was decked out and ready to welcome their yearly biker visitors. All the bars and bike shops were promoting Sturgis rally specials and there were vendors everywhere hawking shirts and other memorabilia. Of course I had to buy a couple of shirts so I could show off at my local watering hole back home. Even at this early hour, the streets were full of bikers going on their morning rides.
Full Throttle Saloon
Billed as the “world’s largest biker bar”, this place is huge by any bar size standard! Some very cool art pieces greet you as soon as you drive onto the property and the huge lettering on the side of the bar leaves no doubt you are at FTS. We arrived at the bar as soon as it opened (9am) and were the first ones there. Employees were cleaning up what remained of the previous night’s festivities and paid us no mind as we walked around taking pictures of this unique bar.
I thought the interior was cool as F. Walking in there are bars in front of you and to the left. The main live act stage is to your right. Old industrial lathes, mills, and various machines are placed all around and the tables are made with metal gears. Different for sure and gave it a chill vibe.
The FST layout was even more badass when we headed to the outdoor section. Reminded me of mad max, a carnival, and the wild west all wrapped into one. You had old cars, bikes, and bridge sections propped up in the air. Food stalls to the right and shops to the left. Main outdoor stage for the bands was straight ahead and regular chairs and tables throughout the area. Big burn discs visible, where it looked liked they lit up 2×4’s, plywood, and all kinds of shit the night before. I could only imagine how packed and wild this bar must get in the nighttime.
Another adventure in the books.
After buying another round of souvenirs in Sturgis, it was time to head back home to Texas. We had such a great time in this state and easily could have spent another week there. I highly recommend that you put South Dakota on your USA travel bucket list. There are so many amazing sites to visit and explore there. Thank you for taking the time to read about our experience! I really hope you enjoyed it.
It’s as if I’m cruising with ya bro. Details are 💯.
Was a heck of drive, that’s for sure! Would do it again in a heartbeat though.