South Dakota Family Road Trip

South Dakota. Driving east on I-90, the state seems pretty boring and flat. Then just before you hit the Wyoming border, BOOM! You got Rapid City, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and the Black Hills! Our opinion quickly changed about South Dakota. Here is our recommendation for an epic South Dakota Family Road Trip!

South Dakota Family Road Trip Route

South Dakota Family Road Trip

Rapid City

We weren’t sure what to expect of a city in South Dakota that’s near Sturgis and Deadwood, but we were pleasantly surprised by how cool the downtown area was! If Rapid City isn’t on your list of places to visit, it should be.


They have an awesome square in the city that has a stage for music, a large open grassy area, and a splash pad for kids. The square is also surrounded with restaurants and shops. We ate down the street at the Firehouse Brewing Company. It was a great family friendly restaurant with a nice outdoor eating area and the kids all left with fireman hats. Score!


After dinner we walked down the street and hung out in the square, played tag on the grass, danced on the stage, and of course got soaked in the splash pad. When it gets dark you can keep playing in the colorful lights that go on display making it look like the water is changing colors.

They also have amazing murals on the outside walls of the buildings and statues on the street corners throughout the downtown area. I am sure the city has even more to offer but our kids were happy and content in the square so we just hung out there.

Mount Rushmore


I have mixed feelings about Mount Rushmore. I mean it is a mountain with faces carved out of it . . . But it is one of those places that can’t not do on a South Dakota family road trip. I don’t know if it is the National Park setup that makes it that way or if it is just the awe of what they were capable of doing to the rock and how cool and detailed the faces are.


If you have never been you should go. There is a museum area, a video, restaurant, and concessions. Plus your kids can get a Junior Ranger badge (check, homeschooling done for the day!).

We stayed late to see the lighting of Mount Rushmore. I wouldn’t recommend you do that. We thought there would be a light display or fireworks or something. Nope, they literally just put a spot light on the mountain, and prior to that they talked for about 20 minutes. If your kids are older, they would enjoy the talk and presentation beforehand. With younger kids, they couldn’t have cared less. So we spent the majority of the time trying to keep them quiet.

Then when the light show was done we sprinted for the car so we didn’t get stuck in the parking garage! So, if you are going to stay, you would want to watch/listen from as far back as possible so you can be the first one out. A trick Clark Griswold taught me 🙂

You don’t have to pay for getting into Mount Rushmore (this was a stipulation by the designer or something) but you do have to pay to park. Sneaky sneaky.

Black Hills


We were really impressed with the Black Hills. We stopped at Norbeck Overlook and the kids did some impromptu rock scrambling. Then we continued driving. As you drive you go through these super tight square cut-outs in the mountains. A couple of them give you an amazing view of Mount Rushmore. If you have a high zoom lens for your camera, bring it with because you can get some amazing pictures!


When driving through make sure the vehicle you have isn’t too tall or wide for some of the tunnels on the drive. There are literally square cut-outs in the rock that only a single car can fit through. Consult the all-knowing Google if you have a wide car or a dually truck. This was one of the coolest drives we have been on and is definitely a must on a South Dakota family road trip.


Another must-see is Needles Highway. Seriously do it! You drive up to the top of the mountain and see these needle like formations. They were really cool and looked like something out of the Lord of the Rings. Precious!


Then at the top there is this amazing lake. Unfortunately we got there way too late in the day to swim, it was getting dark and we were heading to Mount Rushmore for the “light show”, so we couldn’t stop. But we wish we would of had more time.

Instead everyone was hungry so we ran into a concession stand area by the lake to get food, only to find out the grill was closed for the night. Don’t judge. We gave our kids each a bag of Cheetos for dinner. Yup, that’s how you sometimes have to roll while traveling. It’s all good and the kids sure didn’t mind! Brought me back to my college days!

[clickToTweet tweet=”Don’t judge. We gave our kids each a bag of Cheetos for dinner. #parentingfail #dontjudgeme” quote=”‘Don’t judge. We gave our kids each a bag of Cheetos for dinner.'”]


Custer State Park

We were there and we did it. We had heard that you could see a lot of animals. Unfortunately we didn’t. It was a nice drive but after being at Yellowstone, it just couldn’t compare.

If you are in the area, we still recommend you stop. It was really pretty and we know people have seen animals that actually stick their heads in the window of your car! If you want to know more check out this post: Things do in Custer State Park.

The Badlands



The Badlands are awesome! They are so beautiful and unlike landscapes you normally see. It is so weird how they aren’t there and then all of a sudden you drive into the park and there are these amazing formations everywhere. It’s like you’re on another planet!



When we went it was hot. Like hot with a capital H. O. T!! They say that happens in the Badlands and it is usually warmer than other areas. It must have to do with the ground and how it reflects or absorbs the heat (I don’t really know what I am talking about), but just believe me when I say it gets HOT! Like regularly 100+ in the summer.

There are some really cool hiking areas, so be prepared by bringing water and not going to far down a trail without having water with you. Plus if you are going to be climbing make sure your kids have Keens or running shoes on. We had regular flip flop sandals and we were slipping all over the place.


There are lots of opportunities to get out and climb and see some amazing views! It was too hot for our kids and I don’t blame them. We spent a lot of time in our car driving around and checking things out. Then we would jump out of the car to check out a cool spot for 5 minutes then jump right back in the car.

They do have a nice air conditioned visitor center with a museum, an opportunity to get your Junior Ranger badge, and even get a Badlands tattoo! I would expect nothing less from a place called the Badlands!

Learn more about boondocking in Badlands National Park.


Dinosaur Park

This is a free park at the top of Rapid City where the kids can climb around on dinosaurs. There is also an amazing view of the city from here.

The Dinosaur park has a gift shop/concession area. I think it is worth a stop if you are in the area!

Bear Country

We almost didn’t go. We had just been to Yellowstone and we had seen multiple bears out in the wild. However, I read a few reviews and they were really good, so we decided to give it a try. I am really glad we did. It was really cool!

You drive in, pay, and then follow a road through the park which takes you right into the habitat of each of the animals. They had wolves, mountain lions, bears, and more! I mean Oh My!

When we got to the bears we couldn’t believe how many there were. There had to be over 20 bears and they were right there next to your car. They were very clear about how you HAD to keep your windows closed at all times and I see why!


When you were done driving through you pulled over in a parking lot and walked around to check out all the baby animals. There were the cutest bear cubs, baby foxes, and so many more adorable baby animals.


We highly recommend making this one of your stops! We have mixed feeling about zoos and animals in captivity. Especially since being at Yellowstone. But I have to say that the animals all looked well fed and happy.

South Dakota has a lot to offer and you could either make it a quick stop as part of a longer road trip or you could stay in Rapid City for the week and spend a good day or two at each of the locations we mentioned.

We spent a week there and know there is a ton more to do. Let us know in the comments of other places you have been to in South Dakota. I’m sure we’ll be back!

Also if you like this area we recommend checking out this great post on things to do with kids in Theodore Roosevelt national Park!

You excited?! Ready for your South Dakota family road trip? Check out travel partner to book your trip today!

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9 thoughts on “South Dakota Family Road Trip”

  1. My kids are grown now – the youngest graduates from college this year but 5 years ago we took an epic out west road trip and included South Dakota in our trip. We went to several of the places that you went to including Custer State Park. But for us we saw so many animals there : coyote, prairie dogs, pronghorns, wild burros and a buffalo traffic jam. Then at Yellowstone – one moose and a few scattered buffalo. Go figure! My kids so loved this trip that my oldest – who is 27 – went back to SD this summer and did the Black Hills and Badlands on his own.

    • That is so funny! We saw HUNDREDS of buffalo in Yellowstone and several grizzlies, then in Custer, we did see the prairie dogs, but that was pretty much it. Like you said, go figure! That is very cool your oldest went back there. That means he really enjoyed the trip you took before 🙂 Great job!

  2. I am in the planning stages of this road trip. How long were you in the Rapid City/Badlands/Custer area? Where did you stay? Looking forward to your response.

  3. This is wonderful, thank you! I’m wondering about your accommodations – did you move around, stay somewhere and use it as a home base for day trips? Other? Thank you so much!

  4. Thanks for the details…. very helpful for me since I am in charge to plan for a road trip to SD. How many days total is this itinerary?

    • Great! I would say a week would be good! But you could do it less time or more time. We usually prefer not to be rushed.

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