Ultimate Family-Friendly South Dakota Road Trip 5-Day Itinerary

We just got back from a whirlwind road trip to South Dakota and y’all, I don’t mean to sound bossy but you need to add this vacation destination to your list because I think it’s the best kept secret. So, I thought I would share our South Dakota road trip itinerary and favorites so you can enjoy too!

South Dakota Road Trip Day 1

Day 1 was our travel day but we made it fun with lots of interesting pit stops along the way. There’s so much to see as you head out to western South Dakota.

Quick Tip – A fun activity we did along the way was look for state license plates, we ended up finding 43 or the 50 states and the kids were so excited every time we spotted a new state.!

falls park sioux falls south dakota

Falls Park – Sioux Falls, SD

Our first stop was at Falls Park for lunch at the Falls Overlook Cafe. We had the street tacos and nachos and they were delicious. They also have fun themed hard serve ice cream if you are in the mood for a sweet treat. You can climb up and see the falls from the lookout and it’s a great place to stop and stretch your legs!

corn palace south dakota with kids

Corn Palace – Mitchell, SD

Next, was the infamous Corn Palace. Every year they create new art out of corn all over the outside of the building. We spent about 45 minutes looking around and shopping in the expansive gift store. If you are looking for any “corn-themed” gifts, this place has you covered. Another free pit stop minus the shopping ;)!

Dignity of Earth & Sky Statue – Chamberlin, SD

Standing at 50 feet tall on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River, Dignity is a stainless steel monument created to honor the Dakota and Lakota people who call the great plains home. The statue is located at a rest stop at mile marker 264 (and accessible from both directions). The rest area also includes a great visitor’s center with a great display all about Lewis & Clark that our kids enjoyed!

Stop by the visitor center counter for free coloring books and flyers for local attractions as well. Once again it’s completely free, boasts beautiful views and a great way to stretch your legs.

Wall Drug – Wall, SD

Back in the 1930’s, times were tough so the local pharmacy started offering free ice water to travelers as a way to get them to stop and spend money and it worked. Wall Drug is still a popular tourist attraction and the gateway to Western South Dakota.

We had buffalo burgers in the cafe and did a little shopping. The backyard is fun for the kids. They can jump inside a conestoga wagon, “ride” a horse and sit atop an 8 foot jackalope.

We spent the night at the Best Western Plains motel. They offer complimentary breakfast & have an indoor and outdoor pool. Wall, SD is a convenient place to stay if you plan to visit Badlands National Park!

South Dakota Road Trip Day 2

badlands national park

Badlands National Park

We got an early start to avoid the heat and crowds and entered the park via the northeast entrance (exit 131 via HWY 90). We got in free because Vera is going into 4th grade. Did you know every 4th grader gets a free pass for the year, check it out here.

A great place to stop to get your first view is the Big Badlands Overlook before heading down the road to do a few hikes. We enjoyed the Door Trail first. You take a boardwalk out into the badlands and then the kids enjoyed following numbered poles out into the badlands. There is loose gravel and I slipped so be careful! The views are stunning and the kids loved the less than a mile walk.

notch trail badlands national park

Next up, we did Notch trail. Instead of being on top of the badlands, now you walk through them. There is a wooden ladder about halfway up the trail you can traverse to get up to the top of the badlands. Scott and I both took turns going up with our older kids.

We packed a back pack with water bottles and took frequent water breaks because it can get hot out there!

After our hikes, we stopped by the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. It does get crowded but there are some nice animal displays the kids can look at and make sure to ask where the animals are in the park that day. They usually know!

You can also get lunch at the Cedar Pass Lodge (I heard the Indian fry bread tacos are delicious). It’s just down the road from the visitor center but we were a bit too early so I would suggest stopping at Subway or packing a picnic to take with you to enjoy!

From there, we followed the Badlands loop road stopping occasionally at the scenic overlooks. The Fossil Exhibit trail was a bit of a let down since there are no “real” fossils, just explanations, FYI!

Make sure you continue past the Pinnacles Overlook on to the Sage Creek Rim Road to Roberts Pairie Dog Town. Not only were there lots of very active prairie dogs but we also saw a herd of bison out there as well. Quincy may or may not have picked up bison poop while there :)!

We spent about 4-5 hours there before grabbing a late picnic lunch and heading into Keystone, SD (about 1.5 hours away).

big thunder gold mine keystone south dakota

Big Thunder Gold Mine – Keystone, SD

Since we had a little time before we could check-in to our hotel, we stopped by the Big Thunder Gold Mine to mine for gems and gold. I would suggest gem mining for the younger kids because the gems are much easier to spot and there’s a bigger return on their investment. We paid for one gold mining pan and Scott and the big kids worked together to pan their 4-6 gold flakes.

Que Pasa Cantina – Rapid City, SD

After mining for gold, we toured the touristy town of Keystone before heading back to Rapid City for dinner (about a 20 minute drive). Mexican food is always a winner for us so we tried Que Pasa Cantina, owned by Firehouse Brewing (you’ll see a million fire trucks on the way to Rapid City). Up the street, they have a fun little splash pad for kid and the cutest kid’s toy store we stopped in and enjoyed.

Holiday Inn Express – Rapid City, SD

We stayed the Holiday Inn Express and it was in a very convenient location in Rapid City. However, Scott and I both said next time we would stay in a cabin in Keystone or at one of the lodges in Custer State Park since part of the charm of South Dakota is the beautiful Black Hills National Forest.

South Dakota Road Trip – Day 3

bear country usa rapid city south dakota

Bear Country USA – Rapid City, SD

Open daily from May to late November(check the website for hours here). Just 8 miles south of Rapid City on HWY 16 heading toward Keystone.

We were told to get there early since the animals are more active in the morning and they were. We unbuckled the kids and let the little kids sit in the front seat with us. Bear Country USA boasts the largest privately owned black bear population along with lots of other native animals to the area. Its a drive thru wildlife park that takes about 45 minutes.

Then, you get out of your car to see a few more animals including cute bear cubs and the gift shop! We all loved this stop and it was in our opinion worth the money. We paid the maximum vehicle price of $65. Kids under 5 are free. Get more information here.

mount rushmore national memorial with kids

Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Keystone, SD

After Bear Country, we headed to “the heads” as our kids called it. There is no entrance fee but $10 parking charge. We found our state flag and walked down the mezzanine before sitting down in the bleachers in the shade at the end. We watched this youtube video with our kids while we sat there.

Then, we went down below to tour the museum area. We enjoyed the informative displays & watched the 15 minute video before taking the walking path in a big circle towards the monument, then back to the sculptor studio to see the prototype the sculptor Borglum used. There are less people here so we snapped several good family photos along the walking path.

We finished our trip with some Thomas Jefferson vanilla ice cream for lunch. Thomas Jefferson is said to have created one of the first ice cream recipes so of course we had to enjoy the view and eat ice cream! The portions are LARGE!

alpine coaster rush adventure park

Rush Mountain Adventure Park – Keystone, SD

Western South Dakota is known for their mines and caves so of course no trip to South Dakota would be complete without a cave tour. Wind Cave National Park is nearby but they do not take advanced reservations and we didn’t want to chance going and not getting is so instead we toured Rushmore Cave at Rush Mountain Adventure Park.

We all loved the cool 58 degree temperature in the cave and one hour information-packed tour. We wiggled through tight spaces, enjoyed big open cave rooms and tiny ones too. Check out rates and hours here.

Then, we took turns riding the Alpine coaster. Vera wasn’t quite tall enough so we took turns taking the 3 kids. Solon was able to ride alone. You can get a wristband which I would suggest if you get there with enough time because one ride was just not enough!

Powder House Lodge – Keystone, SD

We finished the day having a nice dinner at the Powder House Lodge. It had an old supper club vibe and we sat outside. We enjoyed Bison steaks because when in South Dakota, you eat bison! Check out the restaurant and lodge here.

South Dakota Road Trip – Day 4

custer state park wild burros feeding

Custer State Park

First of all, this park should be a national park. I have never been to a state park quite like it. We loved our day here. We grabbed a picnic lunch, there are lodges and places to eat but there were lots of beautiful picnic areas as well.

We started our day driving the Iron Mountain Road from the Black Hills National Forest into Custer State Park. There are several tunnels you go through, make sure you look back because every one has a view of Mount Rushmore, so cool.

Then, we paid our $20 entrance fee and headed to the Visitor Center (near the east entrance). Make sure you ask a park ranger at the visitor center where the bison and burros are in the park, they will know!

From there, we headed to Wildlife Loop Road to see the bison, it was baby season, enough said. Then, on to feed & pet the wild burros. They love carrots (bring your own).

We had lunch at the Blue Belle picnic area before heading up to Needles Highway. I made Scott drive, such a cool drive but boy howdy there are not enough guardrails and no pavement markings! We stopped toward the top of Needles Highway right before Needles Eye Tunnel to do the Cathedral Spires Hike.

cathedral spires hike custer state park

Cathedral Spires Hike takes you up to and around the Cathedral Spires. It’s a “moderate” hike but Quincy did the whole thing. It’s about 3 miles round trip. Be sure to wear good tennis shoes or hiking shoes and bring water for everyone. We saw a mountain goat when we got to the top!

We finished our day by driving through the iconic Needles Eye Tunnel to Sylvan Lake. There is a beach and you can jump off some of the cliffs into the water, it was too late in the day so we didn’t do it but the big kids have it on their list for “next time”.

needles eye tunnel custer state park

There are lots of cabins around Sylvan Lake I would stay at next time or The State Game Lodge looked like a cool place to stay too! Check out those lodging options here.

We wanted to do a chuck wagon dinner but we didn’t reserve it in time. I would either suggest the Blue Bell Lodge Chuckwagon Cookout (Call 605-255-4531 to make reservations in advance) or KOA Mount Rushmore Chuck Wagon Dinner & Show (book here).

Mount Rushmore Brewing Company – Custer, SD

Since, we couldn’t reserve a chuck wagon dinner, we headed to Mount Rushmore Brewing Company. Scott enjoyed a flight of their craft made beers and we had pizza. I highly suggest the prime rib flatbread! Check out the restaurant here.

Crazy Horse Memorial

The Crazy Horse memorial is still being constructed and you can pay $35 to park & tour the visitor’s center and then, an additional cost to take a school bus up closer. I suggest just driving by on your way home from Custer on HWY 385.

South Dakota Road Trip – Day 5

D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery

This was a fun stop for the kids and free (minus the fish food). There are raceways full of rainbow and brown trout, plus a museum and railcar they used to transport the fish from the hatchery back in the day. We spent about an hour touring it and feeding the firsh before heading into Spearfish Canyon.

devil's bathtub hike spearfish canyon

Before heading into Spearfish Canyon, we picked up a picnic lunch. We stopped at Bridal Falls first along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. You can hike down from the lookout, cross the creek and get right under the falls which the kids loved. I would suggest water shoes like Keens or Tevas for this day!

After Bridal Falls, we drove just up the road and had a picnic before hiking to Devil’s Bathtub (Solon’s favorite of the trip). It’s a mile walk that took us about an hour. It’s very rocky, lots of roots and you cross the creek several times but all of our kids, including 4 year old Quincy did it and loved it.

The trail head is hard to find so ask others when you arrive, you backtrack a bit to a private driveway to the trail head and from there as long as you follow the creek, you will find it. We wore bathing suits under our clothes, packed towels and water bottles in our back pack. We also brought a chnage of clothes to change in the car when we were done.

There’s a natural “slide” into the Devil’s bathtub. FYI, Solon ripped his shorts he went down so many times so don’t wear your brand new swimsuits!

deadwood south dakota with kids

Deadwood, SD

After the hike, we finished driving through the byway. You can stop at a few other waterfalls but our kids fell asleep so we drove through Lead into Deadwood. It’s kind of a touristy town and that’s not really our thing but we did stop and walk the main street and got ice cream.

Deadwood is a famous old west town known for it’s gambling and brothels. The kids didn’t really care about Wild Bill Hickok so it’s a quick stop, if that.

Many Other South Dakota Attractions

We had a very full 5 days and there were things that we didn’t do or didn’t interest us. However, we all said this was one of our very favorite trips. The drive out is full of so many fun things along the way, it doesn’t feel like a day in the car. You can even stop in De Smet, SD to tour the original Laura Ingalls home.

Our biggest regrets were not staying in Keystone at a lodge or cabin and not getting a reservation for a chuck wagon dinner, other than that we loved it all!

The scenery and beauty of western South Dakota rivals any other western state. The people are kind, the views are breathtaking and the adventure is waiting. We can’t recommend this road trip enough. Have you been? If you have a favorite, leave a comment below. I hope you enjoy South Dakota as much as we did. Happy trails to you!

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Until next time keep on keeping on with a simple purposeful life!

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