Visiting Mount Rushmore is on the top of many peoples “must-do” list when they are in the Rapid City, South Dakota area. Honestly though, while beautiful to look at, it’s not an attraction that can captivate your attention for an entire day. The good news is that there are lots of lovely sites to visit in the Black Hills area of South Dakota. We’ve put together this Road Trip Planner to show you our itinerary that took us through Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, the Black Hills, and the Badlands!
Rapid City is the largest city in South Dakota, and an excellent choice for a place to stay for a tour through the area. It’s centrally located, has a lot of hotels (including some dog-friendly ones), and is relatively affordable. On top of all the large tourist attractions, there are many smaller, locally owned, businesses in the area to keep you and your family entertained. This planner only covers one of several great drives in the area, but for us it was the best way to see the key points we were interested in.
Road Trip Planner – The Route
This Road Trip Planner assumes that you will already be in the Rapid City, SD area and begins from there. When you leave Rapid City (H and A on the map below) you’ll want to head South on Highway 16 towards Mount Rushmore. There will be a LOT of signs for this :-). You’ll continue on that route for a total of about 18 miles and then go south on Route 16A until you connect with SD 244 West. If you look up at this point you’ll see Mount Rushmore in the distance (point B) Follow the signs into the park if you’d like or do a drive by and stop in the designated pull outs.
Once done with Rushmore, continue west on 244 and be on the look out for the intersection of 244 and 87 South. You have two choices here. Go South on 87 and follow my route OR continue on HWY16 towards Crazy Horse. If you go towards Crazy Horse you can loop back to 87. If you skip Crazy Horse (like we did) continue South on 87 for about 50 Miles. It’s a lovely drive through the Black Hills. You’ll pass the Blue Bell Lodge which is a good landmark to look out for. After that you’ll want to make a Left on Wildlife Loop Road which is just a bit further. You’ll pay the park entrance fee for Custer State Park, but its totally worth it. Take the 18 mile loop through the park and it will take you back to Highway 16. Go East to HWY 36 and then it will connect you to Highway 79 North back towards Rapid City.
To hit the Badlands next, take 79N to 44E about 32 miles and into the scenic route running through the southern portion of the Badlands. It’s a scenic drive through scrubland and you’ll pass a neat little abandoned town on the way. While on 44E you’re looking for Highway 240N. This will take you through the Badlands National Park and an amazingly beautiful drive that will last about 30 miles. We spent a couple hours here, with lots of stops and lookouts. If you stay on 240 it will take you to Interstate-90 at Wall, SD. Stop for refreshments and fun at Wall Drug and the surrounding area. Then hop onto Interstate 90 and go West until you hit Rapid City again. This whole route took us about 8-9 hours to complete so you should plan on getting started pretty early. As you can see in our pics below, the sun started setting towards the end of our trip through the Badlands.
Road Trip Planner – The Photo Tour through South Dakota
The trip down to Mount Rushmore was the shortest part of our day. It was a quick jaunt down the road and then BAM! Faces in the mountain!
We then continued on our scenic drive through the Black Hills. The mountain, forest and views were beautiful.
There were also some great opportunities for wildlife spotting as we headed towards the Wildlife Loop Road of Custer State Park.
One of the coolest parts of the drive for me were the tunnels you had to drive through. Being from Florida, any time I get to road trip through the mountains and their tunnels it’s pretty cool since they are so exotic to me.
It was right after this tunnel that we ran into Lauren’s favorite critters on the whole trip. We pulled into the parking area right after the tunnel and met these little guys.
We loved the chipmunks so much we even wrote a post about them called The Chipmunks of Custer Park (with video). After our run in with the chipmunks, we arrived at the main entrance to Custer State Park. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the 1,300 hundred or so bison that freely roam the area.
After a short drive we found exactly what we were looking for! BISON! (click here for a very short funny bison video)
As we continued driving through the Custer Park wildlife loop, we were surprised to find some other critters. They’re not as rare or majestic as the Bison we saw, but they WERE rather friendly. Beware of eating in the car with the windows down… they WILL steal your food!
After we finished our loop through Custer, we made our way back on the highway. Following the planner we had to head back towards Rapid City and then take the road through the Buffalo Gap Grasslands. This would eventually lead us to the back entrance of the Badlands National Park. Along the way we found two unexpected things. The first was that there is this quaint miniature town called Longhorn, which is all but deserted, along the route.
The second is the fact that apparently, prairie dogs have: THE PLAGUE!!!
Thankfully we managed to avoid contracting THE PLAGUE!!! and made it to the Badlands safely
Badlands National Park has a little bit of everything for everyone. There are lots of gorgeous panoramas to be seen along the winding road trip through the park.
The rock formations, formed through years of erosion, are absolutely stunning.
Unlike many parks, the roads are great to drive on.
We couldn’t get over just how beautiful the area was, and how starkly different the terrain was from the Black Hills that are only an hour’s drive away.
We were also surprised with how tall and deep some of the canyons were throughout the area.
The Badlands also has some great opportunities to spot wildlife if you arrive when the animals are active. We were lucky to catch this coyote as he went along his business.
We also came across some big horn sheep, which were a pleasant surprise.
The lay of the land changes often as you drive through the Badlands as well. In between all the rock formations and canyons, there are lovely grasslands to enjoy.
My favorite feature of the park though, is definitely all the colors and textures that can be seen through the layers of sand, rock, and dirt.
Sadly though, like all good days they eventually have to come to an end.
After all the natural beauty we experienced that day there was only one thing left to do. Enjoy some good ole Americana! We had one last stop on our road trip planner and it would not be missed. Make sure you take some time to stop in Wall, SD before getting on the Interstate. You’ll find a great collection of classic road trip attractions, and tons of neat souvenirs.
Road Trip Resources
For more information on your visit to South Dakota take a look at these helpful sites.
It’s also worth noting that Badlands National Park IS pet friendly. Please check here for all their guidelines.