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Explore South Dakota's Badlands and Black Hills in 1 Week

The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip and Outdoor Adventure


South Dakota is a U.S. state you can't miss out on. It may have taken me 27 years to get there, but it quickly became one of my favorite states, and you might just come to think the same.


I spent a long time planning my trip because I wanted to see as much as I could in a week's time. This itinerary has been thoughtfully curated based on my personal experiences and many hours of travel research. I hope you find it useful in your South Dakota trip planning process. This itinerary features 7 days full of exploring with 2 days dedicated to travel. I chose to fly in and out of Rapid City Regional Airport for the ease of a round trip. My trip took place during the first week of October to avoid the busy season. You're bound to have a wonderful trip whether you pick and choose activities, swap days, or follow the itinerary closely.


Trip Summary — Click to Jump to the Day's Description on the Page


Day 1: Travel to Rapid City, SD

It's time to start your adventure. Fly or drive to Rapid City, SD. We (my boyfriend and I) arrived around 10:30 PM and rented a car from the airport. There is an airport shuttle as well called the Rapid Shuttle, offered by Airport Express Shuttle, Inc. Many hotels use this shuttle service for their complimentary shuttles. Call your hotel to confirm the shuttle options available to you. We stayed at the Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Rapid City upon arrival. Keep in mind Rapid City follows Mountain Standard Time.


Day 2: Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park is a MUST see when in South Dakota. The rugged landscape offers incredible views and plenty of wildlife viewing opportunities (bison, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and black-footed ferrets). I recommend spending an entire day here if you are a hiker or just enjoy being outside.

The trails we hiked were:

There are also countless overlooks throughout the park in addition to many more hikes. Stop at as many overlooks as you can as you drive the Badlands Loop. I recommend planning your day so you can catch a sunrise or sunset at the Badlands. There's something magical about seeing a colorful sky with the rock formations. On this day we watched sunset at the Pinnacles Overlook.


Other Details:

Day 3: Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse

I am an early riser and heard amazing things about sunrise at the Badlands, so we started our day at Badlands again for sunrise at Big Badlands Overlook. In early October the sun rose around 7AM so the wakeup call wasn't too drastic.


After sunrise, we drove back to the town of Wall and visited the iconic Wall Drug for breakfast. At this point of your trip the name Wall Drug won't be new to you because you can't possibly drive through the area without seeing tons of signs for this place. I've never seen such thorough advertising in my life. The breakfast was delicious and it's a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction. There's a mechanic dinosaur, endless gift shops, a Mini Mount Rushmore, and free ice water (they are famous for this).


The rest of our day was dedicated towards seeing memorials. We started with Mount Rushmore National Memorial. I don't think I need to say too much as you probably already know how famous it is. We took photos from the main viewing platform area and walked the Presidential Trail (0.9 miles). There is a museum and plenty of educational opportunities to learn about the construction and history of the memorial. Food and ice cream options too!

Next, we went to Crazy Horse Memorial, only about a 30 minute drive away from Mount Rushmore. Although only partially complete, Crazy Horse is the world's largest mountain carving and is considered the 8th Wonder of the World in progress. The carving depicts Crazy Horse, a Lakota war leader from the 19th century who took up arms against the federal government to fight against encroachment by white American settlers on Native American territory and to preserve the traditional way of life. I recommend going there after Mount Rushmore if you want to be truly blown away by its scale in comparison.


Other Details:

  • Where we stayed: Custer’s CampHouse, cute cabin near Mt. Rushmore

  • Where we ate: Ruby House Restaurant, groceries from Lynns Dakotamart for a campfire cookout

  • Mount Rushmore Parking Fee: $10 per vehicle, $5 for Seniors, Free for Active Duty Military

  • Crazy Horse Entrance Fee: 3+ people in a vehicle $35, 2 people in a vehicle $30, 1 person in a vehicle, $15, $10 per person on a motorcycle, bicycle, or walking, Military free

Day 4: Custer State Park and Black Elk Peak

After waking up at our Airbnb cabin in Custer, we set out to get some caffeinated beverages, picked up some subs to pack for lunch, and made our way to Custer State Park. The Park is widely known for its Bison herds often found on the Wildlife Loop Road, but I was most excited to hike. From Custer State Park you can hike to South Dakota's highest elevation (7,242 feet) at Black Elk Peak. From the summit, you'll be at the highest elevation between the Rocky Mountains and the French Pyrenees Mountains.

Most commonly people use Trail No. 9, which begins by Sylvan Lake for the 7 miles round trip hike to Black Elk Peak. We decided to ascend a different way as we wanted to make it to Cathedral Spires and Little Devil's Tower. We began with Trail No. 4A (Cathedral Spires) and connected to Trail No. 4 (Little Devil’s Tower), and then to Black Elk Peak. The total hike ended up being around 8 miles and took just under 5 hours to complete. All the trails were gorgeous, and this hike was one of my favorites of all time. To get to the trailhead you will drive on the scenic and narrow Needles Highway.

After the hike we stopped at Sylvan Lake to take in the views and briefly rest our legs. To finish the day we did try to spot some bison on the Wildlife Loop Road. Unfortunately, we were unlucky and didn't see any wildlife besides some burros. There was some construction going on which is what we attributed it to. According to the park, the best time to view animals around dawn or dusk.


Other Details:

Day 5: Wind Cave National Park and the Mammoth Site

After a few days of hikes and a lot of walking, we planned a slower day starting with a ranger-guided cave tour at Wind Cave National Park. Established in 1903, the park is one of the oldest National Parks. It is known for its calcite formations known as boxwork, as well as its frostwork. About 95% of the world's discovered boxwork formations are found in Wind Cave. The cave is the densest cave system and the seventh longest in the world.


The Park offers multiple types of tours and we decided to do the Natural Entrance Tour. The only way to view the caves is through a guided tour. Tickets are available in person and first-come, first-served the day of the tour. I read on a few other blogs of people who attended in the summer saying tours often sell out. The cave is about 54 °F, so be sure to dress accordingly.

Our other activity for the day was the Mammoth Site. We LOVED it here. It was definitely somewhere I wasn't sure was worth visiting, but after going there I would highly recommend if you have the time. The Mammoth Site is both a museum and paleontological excavation site that features a prehistoric sinkhole where the remains of 61 mammoths (58 North American Columbian and 3 woolly) were found. Here you'll view the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world.


Other Details:

Day 6: Spearfish Canyon

On our 6th day we embarked on exploring the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. Everything you'll read about on this day was accessible off this road. The canyon features multiple waterfalls, scenic views, and wildlife. This area is NOT known for having good cell service. We didn't have service most of the day, so download and maps you may need ahead of time.

The spots we visited by car or by hiking were:

  • Roughlock Falls - A breathtaking multi-tiered waterfall

  • ‘76 Trail Hike (1.2 miles) - A strenuous hike with views of the canyon from above.

  • Spearfish Falls Hike (0.8 miles) - An easy and paved hike to this gorgeous waterfall.

  • Bridal Veil Falls - A 60 feet waterfall accessible by a large parking lot. The waterfall had a very slow flow when we were there in October.

  • Devil’s Bathtub Hike (1.6 miles) - A quick hike crossing a stream several times with a swimming hole

You'll have a busy day if you visit all these sites, but it's the perfect place to get some fresh air.


Other Details:

Day 7: Devil's Tower Day Trip

Prior to this day of the trip, I had never made it to Wyoming. With the state being only a short drive from Spearfish, we decided to take a day trip to Devil’s Tower National Monument (also known as Bear Lodge Butte). The drive takes under an hour and a half. We decided to drive through a western themed town called Hulett on our way there.


The Tower is composed mostly of sedimentary rocks that were intruded when magma rose through the Earth's crust about 56 to 66 million years ago when the Black Hills uplifted. The monument is considered sacred by Northern Plains Indians and indigenous people.


While there we decided to do the Tower Trail Hike (1.7 miles) around the base of the geologic feature. If you like to climb, the monument is known as one of the finest crack climbing areas in North America. We stopped at Devil’s Tower Trading Post afterwards to pick up a souvenir t-shirt. The day trip was worth it, and we enjoyed driving through Wyoming and South Dakota.

Other Details:

  • Where we stayed: Chalet in the Black Hills

  • Where we ate: Culver's, Pizza

  • Devil's Tower Entrance Fee: Private Vehicle $25, Individual (Hiking, Bicycling, etc...) $15, Motorcycle $20, Military free

Day 8: Rapid City and Buffer Time

For the final day of our trip, I purposely scheduled in some buffer time in case the weather was bad, or a circumstance occurred out of our control that prevented us from seeing some of the main attractions. Fortunately, we had a smooth trip, so we used this day to explore some of Rapid City and more of the Black Hills. We started with a very touristy visit to the Dinosaur Park, along a ridge where dinosaurs of the Late Jurassic and Early Cretaceous have been found. The Park includes seven life-sized, concrete dinosaur replicas. With the park being open since 1936, you can definitely see the wear and tear of the dinosaurs so don't expect anything too special. If you have kids, I think they'd really enjoy it here, even if just for a short time.

Next, we got lunch in town and walked around Main Street, stopping for a quick beer at Firehouse Brewing Company, the oldest brewery in South Dakota. Downtown is known for the free City of Presidents walking tour where you can view a series of life-size bronze statues of U.S. presidents along the city’s streets and sidewalks.


Our last activity of the trip was a round trip ride on the steam-powered Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Train. The train can be boarded in Hill City and Keystone and takes you on a slow, but scenic view through the Black Hills. A narrator tells some of the stories of the Black Hills and the history of the train. It was a relaxing way to end the trip.


Other sites I've heard are great, but we missed:

Other Details:

Day 9: Travel Home

Sadly, the adventure has come to an end. Fly or drive back home with memories and photographs to last a lifetime.


I hope you found this guide useful as you embark on your own trip planning. Feel free to shoot me a message here or on Instagram (@emilygoesplaces) if you have questions.

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Hi, thanks for stopping by!

Emily Moore from emilygoesplaces.com is a travel and lifestyle blogger based in the D.C. metro area.

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