To see a true piece of American beauty and some iconic landmarks, go north on a road trip through South Dakota. This state lies right in the middle of the country and its lack of major cities, major sports teams, and people, means many tourists never even think about going there. That is a pity, because South Dakota is full of natural beauty, nice people, hearty food, and an ingrained Native American culture.
How do I know so much about this part of the United States? I grew up here. Recently my husband and I made the drive from Minneapolis all the way west to the Black Hills of South Dakota, where Mount Rushmore is located. All in all, this is about 10 hours of driving over 600 miles but there are plenty of places to stop along the way for breaks, to stay overnight, or to take some photos. If you fly into the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport it is easy to pick up your rental car from the Sixt branch at the car rental center. After that, it is easy to drive into the city or out of town to your destination. Here I round up some of the interesting things to see and do on your drive from Minneapolis to Mount Rushmore.
South Dakota Road Trip Route
|Driving Time||10 Hours and 20 Minutes|
Stop 1: Minneapolis
We hit the road after spending the night in Minneapolis. This small city is home to a thriving music scene, great restaurants and craft beer and plenty of places to enjoy outdoor activities. If you go in the summer you can ride a bike around one of the many lakes in and near the city, or along the Mississippi River. The weather was more winter-like when we were visiting, so we stuck to indoor activities. If you are a fan of Prince, you can visit his Paisley Park estate and studio, which has been turned into a museum of sorts. If the weather is nice, the Walker Art Center in the Lowry Hill neighborhood has both indoor galleries of contemporary art and a well-known sculpture garden.
An aerial view of downtown Minneapolis and the Mississippi River
Stop 2: Minneapolis to Mitchell, SD
This part of the drive takes roughly 4 hours, depending on which route you take. We took the highway route, although it is faster and more straightforward to take Interstate 35 South to I-90 West. You will see a lot of small towns and farmland on this section of the drive, and stopping at a small town restaurant is a good way to eat some regional food and people watch the locals. Whichever way you go you will pass through Sioux Falls, the largest city in South Dakota. This is a good place to stop for any shopping needs, and be sure to take a side trip to the actual waterfalls from which the city gets its name.
One tip: You will find surprisingly authentic Mexican food here, and in many cities in the region, due to the people who have come here from Mexico to work.
Farmland outside of Sioux Falls
Stop 3: The Corn Palace
Mitchell is about an hour west on I-90 from Sioux Falls and is one of the last places to stop for a place to sleep or to get something to eat before continuing to Mount Rushmore. And as you will see from the billboards dotting the interstate, it is also home of the World’s Only Corn Palace. First things first: no, this is not a real palace in the European sense. It’s more like a city arena where basketball games and concerts take place. You can go inside for free and look at some historic photos or visit the gift shop across the street. The outside is covered in murals made from different colors of corn cobs and other grains, with the theme changing each year. Elsewhere in Mitchell is the Prehistoric Indian Village, on the edge of Lake Mitchell, where you can view an active archaeological dig of a former Native American settlement.
The changing of the murals is underway at the World’s Only Corn Palace
Stop 4: The Missouri River
A stop at the rest stop overlooking the Missouri River, or in the town of Chamberlain, is highly recommended before you continue on your journey. Places to eat or fill your car with gas are not so plentiful in the two hours between here and Highway 240, where you can drive south to Badlands National Park. Plus, the view over the river valley is great and the bathrooms are free. At the rest stop you can see the sculpture of a Native American woman named Dignity, unfurling her star quilt. The sculpture is a nod to the culture of the Lakota and Dakota tribes of the region.
A sculpture called Dignity overlooks the Missouri River
Stop 5: The Badlands
The formations that make up Badlands National Park are some of the most-unexpected sights to see in South Dakota. After driving for hours through the flat eastern part of the state, the western half is a different animal. In order to get here, follow the signs on I-90 and take the Highway 240 loop road that goes through the park. You will need to buy a park pass, but after that you are free to drive through, pull off and take photos, and even go hiking in allowed areas. This is also a great spot to see some wildlife, with bighorn sheep, buffalo, and prairie dogs making their homes within the park. When the weather is hot, look out for rattlesnakes, which also live here and try their best to blend in with the surroundings.
Some of the unique rock formations seen in Badlands National Park
Stop 6: Wall Drug
On the drive through South Dakota you will see approximately 1 million signs for this tourist attraction advertising free ice water. You will find Wall Drug in the town of Wall, just after getting done with the Highway 240 Badlands loop. The sprawling complex started off as an actual pharmacy in 1931 but now is a place to stop for some photos or buy some moccasins. I would highly recommend stopping for a bite in the sprawling cafeteria-style dining room where you can buy homemade pie and freshly made donuts.
The exterior of Wall Drug
Stop 7: Custer State Park
After Wall Drug, it is about an hour-and-a-half drive to the Black Hills National Forest and Mount Rushmore. You will drive through the outskirts of Rapid City, the second-largest city in South Dakota, no matter where you are are staying in the Black Hills. This is a good jumping-off point for all that the area has to offer, including hiking in the summer, skiing in the winter, and more tourist attractions than can be listed here. We stayed in a cabin in Custer State Park, located just south of Mount Rushmore. There was early snowfall while we were there, so the roads were a bit treacherous, but the evergreen trees were beautiful dusted with snow. There are several lakes within the park that can be fully enjoyed during warmer months, like Legion Lake below.
Legion Lake in Custer State Park
Stop 8: Mount Rushmore
If you get lost trying to find Mount Rushmore, just follow the tour buses. The immensely popular Mount Rushmore National Monument is located outside of the small town of Keystone in the Black Hills National Forest. It is free to visit, although you do have to pay for parking. The monument depicting the U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Theodore Roosevelt was conceived by the artist Gutzon Borglum and he and his son made it a reality. It was “carved” using dynamite and by hand and finished in 1941. Nearby is another rock carving of a famous Native American chief, Crazy Horse, that is only partially completed. Both Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse have theaters that show videos of how the carvings were done, and it is a good change to either sit in air conditioning or get out of the cold.
Mount Rushmore on a snowy day
Bonus Stop: Wildlife Safari
One of the best parts of the trip was an open-air Jeep wildlife safari through Custer State Park. The weather was a bit colder than expected, but we made it through the 2-hour drive to look for all of the animals that live in the park. You can see (among many other creatures) antelope, prairie dogs, buffalo, and the very friendly burros that all roam freely. You can drive the wildlife loop of the park yourself, but our guide on the safari, a park ranger, was able to go to places on and off road that the public cannot access. We had to drive for a while to see a herd of buffalo, but it was worth it.
One of the friendly burros in Custer State Park
If you plan to visit South Dakota for the first time, go in late spring or in September. The summer weather can be very hot and humid, although in the Black Hills there are plenty of lakes and streams to cool off in. There will also be fewer crowds in the Badlands and Mount Rushmore, as well as in the Black Hills in general. And don’t be surprised if people are very talkative. That is just the South Dakota friendliness in action.
Written by Andrea Heisinger, Junior Online Editor for the US website. She actually had her graduation ceremony in the World’s Only Corn Palace.
A buffalo herd in Custer State Park
Andrea enjoys exploring different countries and eating all of their foods, especially if they’re spicy.