Planning a road trip to South Dakota may seem intimidating at first.
How much time do you need to visit Mount Rushmore? Can you combine it with a trip to the Badlands in the same day? And when is the best time to go?
Here are some of our expert tips to help you get the most out of your visit;
We recommend three days, which gives you time to explore all three driving loops, as well as tour downtown Rapid City. But if you only have one or two days, you can still make it work.
In two days, we recommend visiting the Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills on day one, and the Badlands on day two.
If you only have one day, focus on Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills. If you’re traveling along I-90 (east or west), remember that you can add the Badlands and Spearfish Canyon to your trip with minimal hassle and no backtracking, so you may be able to work one or both of these places into a travel day.
A ninety-mile loop, this tour takes in all the best sights, from the spectacular hairpin turns of the Needles Highway to the pigtail bridges of Iron Mountain Road, with an optional detour on the Custer Wildlife Loop, before finally concluding at Mount Rushmore.
You can also add a few more detours to your drive, depending on your interests: these include Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and even the former cabin of cowboy poet Charles Badger Clark.
The Black Hills are just east of Rapid City; it’s a quick thirty-minute drive from Rapid City to Mount Rushmore.
If you’re traveling in an RV, be aware that you probably won’t be able to drive the Black Hills Loop, which contains several height-restricted one-lane tunnels and sharp hairpin turns.
However, if you’re only interested in visiting Mount Rushmore, your RV should not encounter any restrictions.
The best dining options are in centrally located Rapid City. There are only one or two lodge restaurants on each driving loop, so we recommend taking a picnic or snacks during the day – it’s much more convenient and you’ll be able to find some spectacular viewpoints to enjoy your lunch.
Many of the scenic drives in the Black Hills are closed once the snow starts falling in mid-October, and only open again in April.
Another note that the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is held annually in early August.
This ten-day event usually attracts over half a million riders each year – depending on how you feel about motorcycles, this is either a reason to visit, or a period to avoid.
In addition to the three main driving loops, there are several detours you can make depending on your interests.
Some of these may require advance reservations, so it’s good to know about them ahead of time.
The third-largest cave system in the world and South Dakota’s premier caving destination.
Reservations for Scenic Tours and Wild Caving Tours are strongly recommended.
Historic Lantern Tours are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Jewel Cave is located 30 minutes from the end of the Needles Highway in the Black Hills.
The seventh-largest cave system in the world, and South Dakota’s oldest national park. Three first-come, first serve tours available.
Specialty tours, such as the Wild Cave Tour and the Candlelight Tour, need to be reserved in advance.
It’s located about forty minutes south of the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop.
Learn all about the Cold War missile silos housed beneath the Great Plains.
The Visitor Center and the Delta-09 missile silo require no reservations.
Tours of the Delta-01 Launch Control Facility do require advance reservations, however. It’s located off I-90 near the eastern entrance to the Badlands.
The legendary Sioux warrior is memorialized in this massive sculpture – when it’s eventually finished, it will be the world’s largest (all four Mount Rushmore heads will fit inside).
It’s a short ten-minute detour off the Needles Highway.
This eighteen-mile loop connects the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road in the Black Hills. You’re best off doing this drive (figure on 90 minutes) at dawn or dusk if you’re serious about seeing wildlife.
However, in the middle of the day, it’s still possible to see wild burros, wandering bison, and the occasional antelope.
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