Early experiences in the Dakotas provided valuable inspiration for the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. That inspiration drove his desire to form the National Park Service and you can easily imagine why he took up the cause at several national parks in the Dakotas.
Three parks are within two hours of each other in South Dakota. The fourth—Theodore Roosevelt National Park—is roughly five hours away in North Dakota. So you can reasonably hit all four on your next RV trip through the Dakotas.
Here’s your guide to these four parks in the Dakotas, three national parks and one state park.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park
The park named after the 26th President is a great location to start or end your national park road trip in the Dakotas. Because it’s a little separated from the others, hit it on your way to South Dakota or on your way back.
The park is broken into northern and southern units. The southern unit is much more popular and easily accessed off Interstate 94 in the town of Medora. The northern unit is a good option for boondockers and those seeking a more remote experience as it’s about an hour north and closer to Watford City.
A healthy grazing population of bison— the largest land mammal in North America—is a major attraction at Teddy’s park. They tend to graze in roadside meadows and occasionally halt traffic as they cross.
The park is also home to feral horses, pronghorn, elk, prairie dogs, white-tail and mule deer, and more than 186 types of birds. Whether you just enjoy the 36 Mile Scenic Drive or come for the Dakota Nights Astronomy Festival (September 16-18, 2022), this park offers plenty to do and see.
Badlands National Park
If you somehow miss the bison at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, you’ll get another chance to spot one in the Badlands. Along with bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn can regularly be spotted from the park’s many roadside overlooks.
The park’s multi-colored landscape is especially attractive to photographers at sunrise and sunset. But there are many pull-outs along the main park road for you to capture the landscape from a unique perspective.
The best times to visit the Badlands are spring and fall. Summer temperatures in the park can be sweltering and winter weather can be quite cold on the Dakota plains. There’s plenty of RV camping in the park but there’s also a large boondocking area for free RV and tent camping just outside the north entrance station.
Be sure to check out the Fossil Exhibit Trail and the Fossil Preparation Lab. The Badlands has been an epicenter for fossil discovery for decades and there’s a lot to learn about the area’s prehistoric inhabitants from scientists still conducting research at the lab.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Your Dakotas national park trip wouldn’t be complete without seeing Mount Rushmore in person. While the rest of the parks are a testament to nature’s creation, Mount Rushmore offers an ode to human engineering and persistence.
If it’s your first visit, you can quiz yourself on facts surrounding the four presidents enshrined on the hillside before you step into the information center. Enjoy the short hiking trail from the visitor center along the base of the monument to see the carvings from multiple angles.
When you do go inside, there’s a lot to learn about how this miracle of human engineering and construction came to be. From the many hurdles that had to be overcome to the techniques used to create the memorial, the informational exhibits are truly fascinating.
If you want to pick the brain of a park ranger there are five unique guided tours to choose from. All of these guided programs are free of charge and last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. You can also rent a multimedia device to learn the history of Mount Rushmore on a self-guided tour.
Custer State Park
Situated in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Custer State Park has miles of trails for hiking and mountain biking, great climbing routes, the beautiful Sylvan Lake which sits beneath granite crags, and wildlife.
The change in topography in this area is one part of what makes Custer so unique. Toward the south of the park there are rolling grasslands that provide a home for over 1,500 bison as well as pronghorns, bighorn sheep, elk, wild burros, wild turkeys, coyotes, and prairie dogs. Toward the north part of the park, the elevation increases dramatically and tall granite spires appear to shoot out of the ground dozens of feet into the air. The sheer sides and steep drops from the spires create a magnificent landscape.
While wildlife can be viewed throughout the park, the Wildlife Loop Road in the southern region of the park is known to have an abundance of animals that can be seen without even leaving your car. During our visit, I observed (and photographed) bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, and Custer’s begging burros during our drive along this road.
Custer State Park offers nine campgrounds in a variety of scenic locations. Nestled in a ponderosa pine forest near French Creek, Blue Bell Campground accommodates large RVs and tents with 31 camping sites. Center Lake Campground is located just above Center Lake with 71 sites shaded by ponderosa pines. This campground can accommodate smaller RVs and tents and all sites are available by same-day reservations. No electricity. Centrally located in the park near the visitor center, Game Lodge Campground offers 59 camping sites with electricity. Legion Lake Campground accommodates large RVs and tents. 26 camping sites with electricity are available.
Planning a national and state park RV road trip takes a lot of preparation. But if you target these four parks, you can check four amazing parks off your bucket list without a ton of driving in between.
It was here that the romance of my life began.