This past month we took our first big family road trip out west to beautiful South Dakota. Below you’ll find our detailed itinerary we put together as we conquered our trip as a family after much research. South Dakota is incredibly beautiful, and we hope you’ll get to visit too!
This past summer, with nothing to do and my husband having extra vacation time, we decided to venture 18 hours from our home in Central Ohio to Western South Dakota.
The entire road trip happened by accident. While sitting on the porch one night, wondering what our summer would look like after my son’s two-week camp had been canceled, baseball had been canceled, and the pool was closed – my husband mentioned on a whim, “I’ve never been to Mount Rushmore, we should go.”
I ran with it. I started to research the area and was pleasantly surprised by all there was to do in the state. And after all that research and planning the itinerary, which I’m sharing with you today – nothing prepared us for how much the state captured our hearts. With numerous landscapes to discover and plenty of room to roam, it was the perfect first big road trip to South Dakota.
What does South Dakota Have?
When we started this plan, we really thought there were only a few things to do and experience. Boy, were we wrong! Below is a list of things you’ll see and learn about in South Dakota.
- The Wild West
- Native Americans
- The plains
- The Badlands
- Sod Houses
- Mount Rushmore
Ohio to South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary
Prairie Sod House – My husband’s grandmother grew up in a sod house in South Dakota, so this was a must-stop for us. It’s conveniently located on the road to the Badlands, so the location was perfect. The kids enjoyed learning the history but also chasing the prairie dogs.
Badlands Loop – The Badlands were absolutely breathtaking and a true highlight. I think we mentioned that the whole trip was worth it if just for the Badlands. We recommend the Window Trail, Door Trail, and the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail with your family. Both are easy hikes that allow you to explore and are easily accessible for all.
Wall Drug – On our way out of the Badlands, we stopped at Wall Drug. How could you not after all the billboards that greet you throughout the state? It was crowded, but I found most of my souvenirs there for a reasonable price.
Iron Mountain Road – Iron Mountain Road is the best way to introduce yourself to Mount Rushmore. The beautiful road not only cuts through Custer State Park, but you catch your first glimpses of Mount Rushmore when you drive North along the road. Tip: Take 79 South from Rapid City to 36 West to Iron Mountain Road (16A) North to get you to Mount Rushmore with the best views along the Iron Mountain Road.
Mt. Rushmore – The entire reason for our adventure was to see Mount Rushmore. We went early in the morning and arrived by 9 a.m. when it wasn’t crowded. We watched the movie in the visitor center and then made sure to see the sculptor’s studio before the short hike to Mount Rushmore’s base. The East path is mostly uphill, but the West path is paved and easy to navigate. We decided to go the steep route and then came back to the easier path.
Rushmore Tram Adventures – Just a few miles from Mount Rushmore is Rushmore Tram Adventures. We took the ski lift up the mountain and enjoyed lunch overlooking Mount Rushmore. My son enjoyed his first Bison Burger. Highly recommend! You can walk around the top of the mountain and watch other folks zipline. We chose to take the Alpine Slide down the mountain, which was super fun!
Bear Country – This is probably the only thing I don’t recommend. It’s not that it was bad; it’s just that there is so much wildlife to experience in the wild. It feels silly now that we paid to drive through. The park was crowded, and it took 1.5 hours to drive 5 miles. They told us that when we entered, but still it felt very slow. All in all, for how highly rated it is, it really felt like nothing special to us – especially when we saw the groundhog in captivity. We have plenty of those in Ohio that visit us all too regularly!
Wildlife Loop and Custer State Park – Go early when you visit Custer State Park and drive the Wildlife Loop. We got there around 7:30 a.m. and were able to honor pay our way into the park. Driving slowly, we encountered a herd of buffalo and absolutely stunning sites. Tip: Take 79 South from Rapid City to 36 West to enter Custer State Park and start the Wildlife Loop. Tip: We discovered that our entrance cost to Custer State Park was valid for seven days, so we were able to visit multiple times, which was completely worth it.
Needles Highway – From the Wildlife Loop, we went straight North on the Needles Highway. This was one of my favorite adventures on the trip. It was stunning! My husband said it was a scary drive for him with the 8 feet wide tunnels (you can’t take an RV or big truck), but it was truly an awesome drive.
Sylvan Lake Hike – About halfway through the Needles Highway is Sylvan Lake. It’s a short hike around the lake, and the kids (and my husband!) could climb the huge boulders. We got there around lunchtime and enjoyed our view as we ate and then took the hike. Tip: Parking is at a premium, so be prepared and polite (as everyone was during our visit).
Crazy Horse Memorial – This one we saw from afar. We decided to drive by and see it but did not go in.
Keystone Museum – This museum was awesome! We would have visited on Day 2, but it was closed, so we decided to drive back. A free museum in an old schoolhouse, it shares the history of the mining town. It also has some history with Little House on the Prairie as Carrie Ingalls lived in Keystone, so some of the show’s memorabilia and the show are on display. In the upstairs, you get to experience the classroom. I just loved this as you know I love old buildings. Cost: Free
Big Thunder Gold Mine – You can walk from the Keystone Museum to the gold mine. My kids really wanted to mine for gold. We really enjoyed the tour and had a fantastic tour guide. Afterward, we panned for gold – and the kids actually found gold! I think they could have stayed there all day.
Devil’s Tower – We thought about doing this and then decided against it out of concern of the distance it would take to drive there. Then after a friend had visited just a week before us, we decided to go for it. It was fantastic and one of my husband’s favorite parts of our trip. Highly recommend and worth the drive. It is such a unique place.
Deadwood – Adams Museum Who doesn’t like to learn about the Wild West?! We headed to Deadwood on our way back from Devil’s Tower. It’s a quaint busy town that has lots of history. The Adams Museum was fantastic, and my son loved getting to see a real gold nugget. Deadwood had a lot to offer; we really enjoyed a few hours there.
Mt. Moriah Cemetary – Well, I’ll be honest. We completely forgot to stop at the cemetery when we left town. I was off my game. I wish we could have seen where Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok were buried. I guess we’ll have to go back!
Mammoth Site and Museum – A whole bunch of mammoths fell into a small pond a long, long time ago, and now you can actually go and see the dig site. It was fascinating! We were able to interact directly with the archeology crew and learn a lot about the site. Seeing an active dig site like this is perfect for kids (or adults) who love to dig in the dirt!
Cascade Springs and Falls – After visiting the Mammoths, we ventured over to Cascade Falls to enjoy lunch. It was gorgeous. It’s a great swimming hole for families, but we were on our way to our next adventure, so all we did was dip our toes in. The water was cold – but it was super clear!
Evans Plunge – We decided our last day in South Dakota should end with some fun! Evans Plunge was such a highlight. It’s a hot springs pool with a rocky bottom – and lots of fun slides. No chlorine – just 5,000 gallons of spring water pumped into the pool every minute. Highly recommend this unique place. After a summer where our pool was closed because of Covid, this was a fun treat for us as a family!
Travel Day Stops
Our adventure took us from Central Ohio to South Dakota. We visited places along the way there and on the way home to make our 18-hour drive to Rapid City, South Dakota, an adventure in itself. Here’s where we stopped along the way.
Falls Park (Sioux Falls, SD) – Our first big stop in South Dakota was Falls Park. This was the perfect stopping place with unique waterfalls through the heart of downtown. The kids enjoyed climbing the rocks and getting their energy out. Cost: Free
World’s Only Corn Palace (Mitchell, SD) – This stop was unique, to say the least. An entire building built of corn, how could I not visit? We bought a big bag of kettle corn, and this quick stop provided a resting place and a great photo op. Cost: Free
Minuteman Missile (Philip, SD) – This stop happened on a whim after seeing the signs, and it was one of the highlights for me. During the Cold War, thousands of missiles were secretly installed in the plains. Learning the history of this was fascinating. I highly recommend visiting the missile site and then the missile visitor center. Cost: Free
Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center (Chamberlain, SD) – I wanted our kids to experience Native American history. What we discovered is that not only is this a museum but also a school for Native Americans. Getting to learn from the history from one of the teachers there was fascinating. Cost: Free
Laura Ingalls’ Sod House (Walnut Grove, MN) – One of the highlights for me was visiting Walnut Grove. Reading the books and watching the TV series seeing where Laura Ingalls’ Sod House location was, was a real highlight. I literally got to stand along the banks of Plum Creek!
Little House on the Prairie Museum (Walnut Grove, MN) – I loved this museum and could have spent more time there. It was very detailed about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and held lots of memorabilia from the TV show.
Where to Stay
We chose to stay in an Airbnb in Rapid City. It was the perfect location to adventure each day. Our longest drive was to Devils’ Tower, which was about 1.5 hours. However, having a home base with kids is KEY. We would set out about 6:30 am every morning (our bodies were on Eastern time, so it was easy for us as Rapid City is in the Mountain Time Zone) and then return to our Airbnb around 3 pm every day. The kids would swim in the pool, I would fix dinner, and we would have time to relax. I highly recommend finding a home base while traveling with family to allow for downtime.
Tips for Traveling with Kids
- Pack your lunch: One of the best things we did was bring along a loaf of bread, a big jar of peanut butter, and jam. We packed our lunch every day, making it so much easier to eat as a family. Not to mention, we got to eat lunch in beautiful places.
- Order groceries before travel: One of the best things I did before we left Ohio, was to order our groceries in Rapid City before we arrived. I made a meal plan for our week, and when we arrived, all I had to do was pick up our groceries. After driving 18 hours, grocery shopping in an unknown store is the last thing I wanted to do. Picking up my groceries felt like a huge win.
- Stay in one place once you arrive: Staying in one Airbnb for five nights was huge for us as a family. There were days we had to drive anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes to our location, but not having to pack up every night and having a home base was crucial for us to have time to relax. Not to mention, I could make dinner and breakfast each day to help us save money.
- Stay where there is a pool: We have two boys aged 11 and 8. We needed a pool. In the hotels, we stayed in… pool. At our Airbnb…. pool. Getting their energy out was important to us. I honestly think our boys thought we drove 1500 miles to South Dakota to have our own pool. We had to decide to have a house with a washer/dryer or a pool. We chose the pool, and I believe we chose wisely.
- Get an E-ZPass for tolls: For us, traveling West from Ohio, we had toll roads on I-90. An E-Zpass meant our trip was much faster through the toll booths, which was great for everyone. It was essential through the Chicago area, where without the pass, we would have had to exit to pay with cash.
Above I’ve shared the details of where we went while in South Dakota. If you’d like to see the detailed itinerary we followed driving from Ohio, you can click here.
I’ve said it once, and I’ll say it again. You need to visit South Dakota. The people were wonderful, and the landscape was gorgeous. It truly captured our hearts, and we cannot wait to go back.
If you have any questions or want to add ideas for anyone traveling to that area, please leave a comment below! I love hearing from you!