Fodor's National Park Road Trips:
The 12 Best Spots to Go ‘Plane-Spotting’ Across the U.S.
The national parks of southwestern South Dakota—along with the state park and two national memorials nearby—deliver a surprising variety of sights: the swaying grasses and abundant wildlife of one of the country’s few remaining intact prairies, the complex labyrinth of passages and unique geologic formations in one of the world’s longest caves, and some of the richest fossil beds on Earth.
At a Glance:
Miles Traveled: 175
Suggested Duration: 6 Days
Start & End Point: Rapid City, SD
Parks Visited: Wind Cave National Park, Badlands National Park
Best Time To Go: May - Sep
Day 1: Wind Cave National Park
Stop Locations: Rapid City, SD to Wind Cave National Park, SD to Hot Springs, SD
The closest commercial airport is Rapid City Regional Airport, about 70 miles from Wind Cave. Arrive in the morning to pick up your rental car and make the 1½-hour drive to Wind Cave National Park, with more than 33,000 acres of wildlife habitat above ground (home to bison, elk, pronghorn, and coyotes) and one of the world’s longest caves below. Take an afternoon cave tour and a short drive through the park. Spend the night in Hot Springs, about 7 miles from the park’s southern boundary.
Day 2: Custer State Park
Stop Locations: Custer State Park, SD
Spend today at Custer State Park, which is adjacent to Wind Cave, about 20 miles north of Hot Springs. The 71,000-acre park has exceptional drives, lots of wildlife (including a herd of 1,300 bison), and fingerlike granite spires rising from the forest floor (they’re the reason this is called the Needles region of South Dakota). While you’re in the park, be sure to visit Limber Pine Natural Area, a National Natural Landmark containing spectacular ridges of granite. If you have time, check out the Cathedral Spires trail, 2.5 miles round-trip. Overnight in one of five mountain lodges at the Custer State Park Resort.
Day 3: Jewel Cave National Monument & Crazy Horse Memorial
Stop Locations: Jewel Cave National Monument, SD to Crazy Horse Memorial, SD
Today, venture down U.S. 16 to Jewel Cave National Monument, 13 miles west of the town of Custer, an underground wilderness where you can see beautiful nailhead and dogtooth spar crystals lining its more than 168 miles of passageways.
After visiting Jewel Cave, head back to Custer and take U.S. 16/385 to Crazy Horse Memorial (about 5 miles north of Custer), home to a colossal mountain carving of the legendary Lakota leader and the Indian Museum of North America. Afterward, head 10 miles north to the former gold and tin mining town of Hill City, where you’ll spend the night.
Day 4: Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Stop Locations: Mount Rushmore National Memorial, SD
This morning, travel 12 miles to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where you can view the huge carved renderings of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln. Afterward, head northwest for 23 miles back to Rapid City, the eastern gateway to the Black Hills. Spend the night here.
Day 5: Badlands National Park
Stop Locations: Badlands National Park, SD
Begin your day early and drive west (75 miles via Interstate 90) to Badlands National Park, a 244,000-acre geologic wonderland. The Badlands Highway Loop Road (Highway 240) wiggles through the moonlike landscape of the park’s north unit for 32 miles. Stop in at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, at the far eastern edge of the park, to pick up a trail map and head out on a hike. The Notch Trail, 1.5 miles round-trip, offers spectacular views of the White River Valley, but is definitely not for anyone with a fear of heights. The Cliff Shelf trail, 0.5 mile round-trip, is a more mellow option that showcases rock formations and juniper forest as well as occasional wildlife sightings.
After you leave the park, head back to Rapid City to spend the night.
Day 6: Heading Home
Stop Locations: Rapid City, SD
The airport in Rapid City is about 10 minutes southeast of town.