Summer is almost here which means… family road trip! This year, instead of rushing from one big city to the next, consider slowing down the pace and exploring the beautiful state of South Dakota. Located in the heart of the American frontier, this great slice of America is home to world-renowned national monuments and historic landmarks, an array of wildlife, stunning landscapes and outdoor adventures galore and boasts a world-class arts and culture scene and an eclectic mix of quirky roadside attractions. To help you get this road trip started, we’ve traveled the state and mapped out everything you need to see and do through America’s heartland.
photo: South Dakota Department of Tourism
Where to Start Your Journey
If you and your road tripping crew plan to fly into South Dakota, you’ll want to start your journey in Rapid City which lies just east of the Black Hills National Forest in western South Dakota. Known as the gateway to Mount Rushmore, Rapid City is an irresistibly charming city adorned with art galleries, restaurants, retail shopping and a bustling Main Street Square that offers a fun-filled public space and more than 150 events each year including live concerts, festivals and outdoor movies. As you make your way through the downtown streets, you will notice the great pride the city has in its western and Native American heritage. Explore the Native American history exhibits, fine art displays and interactive museums or head to historic downtown Rapid City where you will be greeted by the City of Presidents, a series of 43 life-size bronze statues of our nation’s past presidents. Download the Interactive Walking Guide and see how many U.S. presidents you and your sidekick can spot. Psst… if you’ve got a budding artist in your group, be sure to hit Rapid City’s Art Alley which is located between 6th and 7th Streets. Started in 2005 as a public arts project, this totally cool display of art has since blossomed into a favorite among visitors and locals alike and has even gained national attention.
A Dose of American History
It’s no secret that South Dakota is home to a host of world-renowned national monuments and historic landmarks, but none is quite as famous as Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Appealing to both kids and adults alike, this iconic mountain carving features the 60-foot faces of four great U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln. Walk the Avenue of Flags to the Grand View Terrace and take in the breathtaking views or travel along the Presidential Trail for a unique, up-close view of the faces. During the summer months, self-guided audio tours (in a variety of languages) are available at the Information Center and at the Audio Tour building for $5. During your visit, be sure to check out the awesome museum exhibits inside the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center (pictured below). This is where kids ages 3-12 can become Jr. Rangers and earn an official badge by completing a series of activities; and older sibs and adults can participate in a ranger program of their own to enhance their Mount Rushmore experience. If all this learning and exploring leaves your crew hangry, head to Carvers’ Marketplace, the only dining facility in the park, to enjoy a variety of food and beverages. This is also where you can grab a taste of history at the Memorial Ice Cream Shop. The go-to item on the menu? Vanilla ice cream made from Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe. Grab a double scoop and a Presidential soda and head to the outdoor dining area where you can delight your taste buds while taking in the majestic figures and the beauty of the Black Hills.
Must-See State and National Parks
South Dakota is known for its postcard-worthy landscapes and outdoor adventures galore. And with six national parks and 13 state parks to explore, the hardest part of this road trip will be deciding which ones to visit. Custer State Park, home to the annual Buffalo Roundup in September, is located just a short drive from Rapid City and should be at the top of your must-see list. Comprised of 71,000 acres, this state park is home to abundant wildlife, including bighorn sheep, antelope, deer, elk, coyote, prairie dogs and “begging” burros and contains one of the nation’s largest free roaming buffalo herds—making it common to encounter a “buffalo jam” while driving in the park. In addition to wildlife viewing, the park also offers a new Visitor’s Center, trout fishing during the summer months, hiking, mountain biking and horseback trails as well as rock climbing, chuckwagon suppers and a privately operated resort. If you’re looking for an easy way to see the park with your tots in tow, we recommend booking a Custer State Park Resort Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. These open-air, custom-built jeep tours will allow you to see the park’s wildlife up close by taking you off-road where herds of buffalo, elk and deer thrive. Your driver (which also doubles as your guide) will offer historical and educational information about the park along the way and will take you to lesser-known scenic spots. Tours start and finish at the State Game Lodge Resort and last approximately 1.5-2 hours.
photo: South Dakota Department of Tourism
Badlands National Park, located 50 miles east of Rapid City, is a 244,000-acre experience you won’t find anywhere else, and should also be at the top of your road trip must-see list. The striking geologic deposits that make up the Badlands (which might make your kiddos wonder if they’ve stepped onto another planet) contain one of the world’s richest fossil beds. Ancient mammals such as the rhino, horse and saber-toothed cat once roamed here; today, the park is home to bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. The best way to experience this massive and awe-inspiring national park is to drive the Badlands Loop State Scenic Highway. Highway 240 gives you the perfect vantage point at every turn of the 30-mile loop and with nearly 30 scenic overlooks, impressive photo opps are easy to come by. While traveling the loop, be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife; you will more than likely encounter buffalo, pronghorn antelope, mule deer and numerous birds during your drive. Psst… to see the prairie dogs who call the Badlands home, stop by Prairie Dog Town (located on Sage Creek Rim Rd.). This homestead has been converted into a massive network of tunnels and it’s where your kids can see black-tailed prairie dogs up close.
If you want to learn more about the history of park or participate in one of the park’s many ranger programs, stop by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. And if all this exploring and wildlife spotting makes you hungry, make a pit stop at the Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant. This popular spot provides a variety of locally and regionally sourced dishes for breakfast, lunch and dinner and is known for its fry bread which can be served with a side of wojapi (a super delish American Indian thick berry sauce) or with Sioux Indian Tacos.
Snakes and Turtles and Bears. Oh My!
Visiting South Dakota’s national and state parks is one of the easiest ways to see the wildlife that call the Midwest home, but there are also several other animal encounters and attractions that should be on your family’s road trip itinerary. The Reptile Gardens, located six miles south of Rapid City, was founded on the heels of the Great Depression by Earl Brockelsby as a Black Hills attraction. Today, this family run business has grown into a world-renowned attraction, drawings thousands of visitors each year to observe and interact with exotic animals. Housing more species of reptiles than any other zoo or park in the world, some of the rarest snakes in the world (and some of the most deadliest!) call the Reptile Gardens home along with giant tortoises, lizards, crocodiles, alligators, exotic birds, fish, prairie dogs and more. Psst… the Sky Dome, which houses the reptiles, is also home to a botanical garden filled with flowering plants, rare jungle and desert plants and an array of free roaming lizards, frogs, snakes and birds.
Families who want to get up close and personal with more than 20 species of North American mammals will not want to miss a trip through Bear Country U.S.A. This unique drive-thru wildlife park, located in the picturesque Black Hills of South Dakota, is home to bears, wolves, elk, buffalo, big horn sheep, arctic wolves, mountain lions and other wildlife. Roll up your windows, lock your doors and drive the three-mile trek through the park’s 250 acres. We guarantee there will be plenty of smiles and squeals coming from the backseat, especially when your sidekick comes eye to eye with a black bear. If your animal-loving crew needs to stretch their legs or burn off the crazies, stop by Babyland. This section of the park offers a short walking tour where you can view smaller animals and those younger than one year (think: adorable baby bears) as well as pick up a variety of South Dakota swag and souvenirs in The Bear’s Den—one of the Black Hills’ biggest and most unique gift shops.
Kids loves zoos and aquariums and South Dakota’s Great Plains Zoo & Delbridge Museum of Natural History and Butterfly House & Aquarium are both worth a stop while in Sioux Falls. Home to more than 1,000 animals from 137 species, the Great Plain’s Zoo’s collection includes tigers, giraffes, rhinos, zebras and a national award-winning Snow Monkey exhibit. It’s also home to two adorable male koala bears on loan this summer from the San Diego Zoo. At the Butterfly House & Aquarium, you and your crew can interact with over 800 free-flying butterflies from around the world in the tropical conservatory as well as view hundreds of vibrant marine fishes and corals in more than 20,000 gallons of aquariums. Other attractions include a pop-up dome aquarium (pictured below), a jellyfish, shark and stingray touch pool and a Pacific tide pool.
Visit a Gold Mine & Pan for Gold
No road trip through South Dakota would be complete without visiting a historic gold mine and trying your hand at panning for gold. Big Thunder Gold Mine located in Keystone, just three miles northeast of Mt. Rushmore, offers family-friendly tours of its 1890’s authentic gold mine. Strap on a hard hat and join a friendly and extremely knowledgeable guide who will take you through the gold mine, show you Big Thunder’s replica gold processing mill, explain how gold was extracted back in the day and even help you relive the mining experience. At the end of your tour, Rattlesnake Randy (yep, that’s his real name) will teach you how to pan for gold in the running water sluices or you can book a trip to an actual claim for a half or whole day. Psst… if you decides to pan, you’ll be guaranteed to find a sample 24K genuine placer gold.
Soar Like an Eagle, Race Down a Mountain & Explore a Cave
If you and your little road trippers need to burn off the crazies or just need to spend some time out of the car, we recommend hitting Rushmore Cave & Rush Mountain Adventure Park—Black Hills’ newest destination for family fun. Here, you can soar 630 feet through the air on the park’s unique zipline, shoot laser guns in the Gunslinger 7-D Interactive Ride and race a mountain coaster down a steep and windy hillside track—complete with pigtail turns!
After you’ve hit the rides, gather your adrenaline junkies and join an expert guide for an educational (and totally cool!) underground cave tour. During your one-hour guided journey, see beautiful carvings formed by nature, travel through subterranean passageways that lead to spectacular stalactite rooms and discover other natural limestone cave formations. Everyone in your tour will also learn about local history, cave geology and the many untold stories that reveal the hidden world that lies beneath us. It’s a must-do attraction for anyone visiting the Black Hills!
Quirky Roadside Attractions
The Mount Rushmore State is known for its share of quirky roadside attractions which makes it even more appealing to pint-sized road trippers. One of our favorite spots to stop and gawk is Wall Drug, a 76,000-square-foot emporium that originally opened as a drug store in the 1930s and has since evolved into a travel icon. Stop in and browse their 26 retail shops selling everything from toys, camping gear and cowboy boots to homemade fudge, pottery and western art or grab a five-cent cup of coffee and one of their melt-in-your-mouth donuts (the maple glazed is our favorite!) and stroll down the main street of the western-themed town. Psst… don’t miss the attractions in the Backyard. This is where you can see a collection of animated displays including a roaring T-Rex, get your pic taken on a ginormous jackalope or in front of a mini Mount Rushmore, try your hand at sluicing or cool off at the Train Station Water Show, featuring jumping jets perfect for splashing!
Other roadside family favorites include The World’s Only Corn Palace which stands as a tribute to the agricultural heritage of South Dakota; Fort Hays Old West Town Chuckwagon Supper and Show complete with a chuckwagon menu served on handmade tin plates; Dinosaur Park which is home to seven life-sized dinosaur sculptures overlooking downtown Rapid City; 1880 Town modeled after you guessed it… an original 1880 town that features 30 buildings fashioned after models from 1880-1920 as well as movie props from Dancing with Wolves; and the Catfish Bay Greatest Show on H2O which features amazing water skiing tricks and stunts as well as a stage show performed by over 30 members of the Catfish Bay Water Ski Team.
Detour to a Children’s Museum & Science Discovery Center
Traveling through South Dakota during the hot summer months can make the best of road trippers tired and cranky. Thankfully, the state offers a plethora of roadside attractions to keep kids (and parents) happy and entertained. But if your crew needs to take a full-on detour inside, we recommend hitting the Children’s Museum of South Dakota in Brookings and the Kirby Science Discovery Center in Sioux Falls. The Children’s Museum is a welcoming, fun and totally entertaining environment that appeals as much to tots as it does to tweens. Here, kids can experiment with airflow, maneuver through the Cloud Climber (a multi-level climbing structure), learn how to change a tire and check a car’s oil level and explore a robust outdoor area complete with the only full-size, permanent, animatronic T. Rex in the U.S. and the latest Stickwork by Patrick Dougherty. For kids who love to learn how things work, the Kirby Science Discovery Center, located in downtown Sioux Falls, offers more than 100 interactive, hands-on exhibits for all ages. From exploring space, to learning about tornadoes, to making music and movies, this awesome space will blow your kids’ minds.
Where to End Your Journey
All good road trips must come to an end and Sioux Falls is the perfect place to end your family’s epic South Dakota road trip. From beautiful parks and a bustling arts and culture scene (including SculptureWalk—the largest annual exhibit of public sculptures in the world) to over 650 restaurants, shopping and entertainment attractions, this vibrant city has plenty to offer families. During your stay, be sure to venture to Falls Park, Sioux Falls’ number one attraction. Here, you and your crew can explore the 123 acres and watch the Falls drop an average of 7,400 gallons of water a 100 feet over the course of the Falls each second. Grab an ice cream at the Falls Overlook Cafe and enjoy the Falls at sunset or come earlier in the day and explore some of the first buildings built in Sioux Falls. Psst… for the best view of the park and city, head to the top of the five-story, 50-foot viewing tower. It’s free and open to the public and offers an ahh-mazing view!
Where to Eat Along the Way
South Dakota has a rich and vibrant culinary scene, but we know that kid fare is the name of the game when traveling with little ones. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of family-friendly restaurants across the state, and dished on some of the extras, to help make this road trip your family’s best one yet. Consider: Ruby House Restaurant and Boss’ Pizza & Chicken (order the barbecue chicken pizza and the cheese curds) in Keystone; The Carver’s Cafe at Mount Rushmore; Fort Hayes Chuckwagon and Colonial House Restaurant & Bar (save room for their famous caramel rolls, ginormous dessert bars and cakes) in Rapid City; Wall Drug Restaurant (order the bison burger, a side of onion rings and a scoop of their homemade ice cream) in Wall; Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant (order the fry bread with wojapi or the Sioux Taco) in Badlands National Park; Culver’s (order a Butterburger with a side of cheese curds and a frozen custard for the road) in Rapid City, Mitchell and Sioux Falls; Phillips Avenue Diner (order the cheese curds, fried pickles and Tator Tot Hot Dish and wash it all down with one of their famous milkshake concoctions) in Sioux Falls; Queen City Bakery (for grab-and-go meals and coffee) in Sioux Falls; Cubby’s Sports Bar & Grill (ask to sit on the roof top deck and don’t forget to order the cheese curds!) in Brookings; and RedRossa Napoli Pizza and Stensland Family Farms Ice Cream + Country Store (for dessert) in Sioux Falls.
Has your family road tripped through South Dakota? Planning to this summer? Tell us what you’re most excited to see in the Comments below!
— Kristina Moy (all photos courtesy of the writer, unless otherwise noted)
This trip was paid for by the South Dakota Department of Tourism, but all opinions expressed here belong to the writer.