The Ultimate South Dakota Road Trip Itinerary

Discover Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Sioux Falls, and more on a road trip through South Dakota

South Dakota was made for road trips: There are scenic, paved roads that lead to national treasures, natural anomalies, perfectly preserved Wild West towns, and quirky attractions. Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, or nature lover, this Midwest state delivers. Read on for the ultimate South Dakota road trip itinerary including where to stop, what to do, and more.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mitchell Corn Palace

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. A pair of rounded turrets and two massive domes thrust into the sky capping off walls adorned in six different types of native grass and multi-story murals depicting famous South Dakota sights. A marquee reading “South Dakota Home Grown” stands over the main entrance. All of it is made from multi-colored ears of corn.

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug Store

Nestled in the town of Wall in the western part of the state, Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed just like they did more than 80 years ago. 

Wall Drug Store © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But it wasn’t always a thriving business attracting 2 million visitors each year to the small town of Wall. Ted and Dorothy Hustead struggled to make Wall Drug successful in the early days. But the story of Wall Drug was a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering travelers free ice water. Soon travelers would make a point to stop at Wall Drug to enjoy a refreshing break and they haven’t stopped coming to Wall Drug since. Stop at Wall Drug and see what the excitement is all about.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Badlands National Park

At first blush, it doesn’t sound like the best place to go. After all, it’s called Badlands! But it’s gorgeous with towering, striated red-and-gray rock formations. Not to mention all the wildlife visitors can see here—big-horned sheep, bison, pronghorns, burrowing owls, and whole towns of adorable prairie dogs. Native Lakota people named this 400-square-mile maze of buttes, canyons, pinnacles, and spires “Mako Sica” or “Bad Land.” Nowadays, it is usually tagged as “surreal” or “otherworldly.” State Route 240—also known as the Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway—leads visitors on a 38-mile odyssey through the center of the park. The route features 16 scenic overlooks and eight trails, ranging from handicapped-accessible quarter-mile boardwalks to a 10-mile-long trek.

Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Custer State Park

Nearly 1,300 magnificent bison wander the park’s 71,000 acres which they share with the swift pronghorn, shy elk, sure-footed mountain goats, and a band of curious burros. Visitors often enjoy close encounters with these permanent residents along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road that winds around the southern edge of the park. Slender granite formations nicknamed “the needles” dominate the skyline, and grassy meadows fill the valleys. Visitors can explore the park via trail rides, scenic drives, mountain bikes, paddle-boats, hay rides, and even safari tours.

Needles Highway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Needles Highway

The Needles Highway is more than a 14-mile road—it’s a spectacular drive through pine and spruce forests, meadows surrounded by birch and aspen, and rugged granite mountains. The road’s name comes from the needlelike granite formations that seem to pierce the horizon along the highway. Visitors traveling the highway pass Sylvan Lake and a unique rock formation called the Needle’s Eye, so named for the opening created by wind, rain, freezing, and thawing.

Sylvan Lake © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Midway along this route, a turnout called The Cathedral Spires offers stunning views of the rocky outcroppings juxtaposed with Harney Peak, the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.

Mount Rushmore © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mount Rushmore

It’s finally time to see the Founding Fathers’ faces carved into the mountain—the enormity of the sculpture is truly a sight to see. Each year, approximately three million tourists from all over the world visit Mount Rushmore to experience this patriotic site. Today, the wonder of the mountain reverberates through every visitor. The four “great faces” of the Presidents tower 5,725 feet above sea level and are scaled to men who would stand 465 feet tall. The park includes a half-mile walking trail, museum, gift shop and dining room. 

Worth Pondering…

Let us place there, carved high, as close to heaven as we can, the words of our leaders, their faces, to show posterity what manner of men they were. Then breathe a prayer that these records will endure until the wind and rain alone shall wear them away.

—Gutzon Borglum, Mount Rushmore Sculptor, 1930

a-MAIZ-ing Corn-fused Roadside Attraction

The Corn Palace is an a-maiz-ing marvel of agricultural innovation

A two-story mural of Willie Nelson is made completely of corn. The high school team is called the Kernels. Their mascot is Cornelius. You gotta embrace it! Mitchell may well be the corniest city in America. No city is as singularly associated with a building as Mitchell is with its iconic arena/community center’s 43,000-square-foot piece of folk art known as the Corn Palace. And the people lean into it. Hard!

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Paris has the Eiffel Tower and Mitchell has the icon of innovation­—the amazing Corn Palace. The Mitchell Corn Palace is the only corn palace in the world, a fact you’ll see on varied billboards lining Interstate 90 as you speed through South Dakota. As curiosity lures you off the highway, you’ll pull onto Mitchell’s small-town Main Street and find a bright-gold behemoth that looks like a tornado hit Moscow and dropped part of the Kremlin on the prairie.  

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A pair of rounded turrets and two massive domes thrust into the sky capping off walls adorned in six different types of native grass and multi-story murals depicting famous South Dakota sights. A marquee reading “South Dakota Home Grown” stands over the main entrance. All of it is made from multi-colored ears of corn.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. This “palace” looks like something straight out of Russia, built in 1892 to showcase South Dakota’s bountiful harvests.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And though it might be tempting to write off the Corn Palace as yet another kitschy South Dakota roadside attraction, its origins far predate the interstate. Or even the automobile.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The first corn palace was built in 1892, but back then it wasn’t the only one in the world. Or even in the state. There were several of them throughout South Dakota and into Nebraska and Iowa. Stroll past the Corn-cession stand in the main concourse. Everything around us smells like popcorn. It was a celebration for the farmers, for all their hard work on the harvest. They wanted to pay homage to agriculture. And over time for whatever reason those communities did not maintain their corn palace and Mitchell thought, ‘hey, this is a cool thing. We’re going to keep going’.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And keep going they did: Through 128 years and three different locations until settling on the current one at 604 North Main Street in 1920. Though the building’s longevity is impressive, what’s perhaps most astounding is that Mitchell redoes the entire thing every year. Before spring planting, the city decides on the theme for the murals that will adorn the Corn Palace for the coming year. This year’s, for example, is “South Dakota Home Grown.” Once the theme is established, a team of students from Dakota Wesleyan University designs the murals. Based on the color scheme, a single local farmer then grows over 375,000 ears of corn in 12 different varieties to match the motif.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once harvest comes—typically in late September—the corn is soaked in giant water buckets to make it pliable. Giant tar paper outlines are plastered on the Corn Palace walls with color coded sections determining which corn goes where. Workers then air-nail the corn to the tar paper in a sort of paint-by-numbers game until the entire palace is covered. Typically it’s ready by the beginning of December but all of that is weather-dependent. They’re not going to have people decorating when it’s 20 below and a blizzard is blowing.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The grass is generally replaced in June or July when it shines the brightest green. So if you want to see the Corn Palace in its full Technicolor glory early summer is probably the best time to visit. The entire project costs about $175,000 which is a small investment for something that draws half a million visitors annually.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, droughts or floods can affect the crop. So some years there’s not enough corn to redo the whole thing and murals stay up for two years or more. Though the corn doesn’t rot, it fades, and birds pick off parts of the building.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though you’ll never find a shortage of roadside gawkers wandering the corn-cob concourses of the Corn Palace and the gift shop that occupies the arena floor, it has practical uses too. It hosts 335 events a year including high school and Dakota Wesleyan athletics, concerts, and festivals.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Corn is not just corn―there are many different types. The kind people eat on the cob is known as sweet corn (Zea mays convar. saccharata var. rugosa). The corn that dominates most American farms is known as field corn (Zea mays indentata). And if you’re looking for popcorn, that’s a whole different kind of corn, too. This kind of corn is simply called popcorn (Zea mays everta). Corn is not just corn.

8 Weird and Wacky Destinations for a Family Road Trip

America is home to some weird and wacky attractions that may not be in your typical travel guide, but would be sure to blow any Happy RVer’s mind!

There’s nothing more American than a road trip. So this summer, why not pack up the car and veer off the beaten track to explore something a little bit different?

This list of destinations, from a palace made of corn to a UFO crash site, provides plenty of inspiration and enough surprises for the whole family.

Be prepared for a natural wonderland. underground marvels, and a few horse-drawn buggies along the way.

Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Any drive through the Midwest will bring you face-to-face with cornstalks taller than you can imagine. The Mitchell Corn Palace in South Dakota celebrates all things corn—starting with this prairie town in the middle of nowhere. This “palace” looks like something straight out of Russia, built in 1892 to showcase South Dakota’s bountiful harvests.

Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona

Petrified Forest National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step out of your car and into a natural wonderland. The vibrant colors of the Petrified Forest will keep your eyes engaged, while these fascinating ancient fossils will engross your mind. Check out the Rainbow Forest Museum first, so you can orient yourself and determine your trail route.

Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico

Carlsbad Caverns National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take a break from being a road warrior and go caving instead. Hidden beneath the surface are more than 119 caves—formed when sulfuric acid dissolved limestone leaving behind caverns of all sizes. Experience the Big Room and Natural Entrance trails at your own pace. Ranger-guided tours include King’s Palace, Left Hand Tunnel, Hall of the White Giant, Lower, Spider, and Slaughter Canyon cave.

Amish Farm Country in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Lancaster County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re determined to unplug and unwind, find your way to Lancaster County for a truly old-fashioned time. From buggy rides to dinner theater, there’s plenty to see and do—including traditional “mud sales,” or outdoor auctions, that specialize in handcrafted products and support the local fire department.

Lassen Volcanic National Park in California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lassen Peak is the southernmost of the Cascade Mountains’ 15 volcanoes. The mountain famously erupted from 1914 until 1921 and largely changed the landscape to what you see today around the Cinder Cone. But the park is more than just a volcano. It’s a set of peaks surrounded by a lush wilderness. This park is a laid-back spot with great camping and volcanic landscapes right next to verdant forests.

Wall Drug in South Dakota

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug has grown from its humble beginnings in 1931 to a thriving oasis. Wall Drug offers dining, activities, gifts and souvenirs, visitor information and, of course, free ice water. Many road-worn travelers stop at Wall Drug and leave awake and refreshed, just like they did more than 80 years ago. Attracting 2 million visitors each year, Wall Drug is a story of success because one simple idea took root: Offering road weary travelers free ice water.

Peachoid Water Tower in Gaffney, South Carolina

The Peachoid © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Peachoid (known locally as The Peach) was commissioned to be built in 1980-81 by the Gaffney Board of Public Works. A seven ton, 60-feet long leaf was applied to one side. A New Jersey artist, Peter Freudenberg, painted the sphere after studying local peaches for many hours. It took fifty gallons of paint in twenty colors. According to official literature, the Peachoid boldly “sets the record straight about which state is the biggest peach producer in the South. Contrary to popular belief, it is NOT Georgia.”

Roswell in New Mexico

UFO Museum © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If UFOs and cosmic mysteries intrigue you, plan a pit stop in Roswell, New Mexico. Roswell’s rise to fame began in 1947, when a local rancher claimed to have found debris from a flying saucer. The myths and facts have become stranger over the years, cementing this town’s place in national history. Today, you can also enjoy fine cuisine, art museums, and Bottomless Lakes State Park, which is perfect for camping and hiking.

Worth Pondering…

If you do nothing unexpected, nothing unexpected happens.

—Fay Weldon

South Dakota: Fly Over State? Not a Chance!

South Dakota gets a bad rap as a flyover state

An often overlooked travel destination, South Dakota is a land of breathtaking scenic beauty.

Here’s the thing, visit South Dakota once and the place SELLS ITSELF. Much more than just the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and the Badlands, SoDak is the most scenic places you knew nothing about. Until now!

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lewis and Clark passed through, Crazy Horse fought for freedom, and an 1876 gold rush in the Lakota-owned Black Hills created a miner’s camp known as Deadwood that lured frontiers’ woman Calamity Jane and gunslinger Wild Bill Hickok.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

After a rather long, prairie-flat preamble in the east, western South Dakota abruptly changes into two beautiful but distinct landscapes, the striated, fossil-rich sedimentary buttes of the Badlands and the nearby mountains so thick in evergreens that the native Lakota called them paha sapa—hills that are black.

Ironically, the defining feature of Western South Dakota’s breathtaking nature is that it is indefinable. Exceptionally varied, yet incredibly geographically close, you’ll witness the diversity of the natural world while also experiencing how the landscape can change over time.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Start in Badlands National Park which is truly a natural anomaly. This rather off-putting nickname was first coined by the Lakota people, who called it “mako sica” (“land bad’), due to its extremity of temperatures, mixed prairie, and the exposed rugged and eroded sedimentary rock.

Badlands Scenic Byway © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Badlands Scenic Byway drops immediately beside the parks serrated sandstone spires, which are banded in layers of purple, red, and orange rock that indicate their age. It is these very characteristics, however, that make it an ideal location for captivating vistas and off-beat serene beauty.  

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A must-see road trip destination, Mount Rushmore is visited by 3 million people a year.

The construction in its entirety took over 400 workers more than 14 years to sculpt, and will forever remain a testament to American patriotism. There is something rather overwhelming about it, as if it is a giant projection of a proud past on the rugged landscape of the indelible natural land.

Mount Rushmore National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Another powerful and impressive monument in the works, yet open to visitation is the Crazy Horse Memorial, a depiction of the fascinating Oglala Lakota warrior. The privately-funded project began construction in 1948, yet is still quite far from completion. Once completed, however, the statue, carved out of Thunderhead Mountain, will be the world’s largest sculpture at 641 feet wide and 563 feet tall. Witness history in the making by adding this stop to your itinerary!

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

South Dakota is also about those quirky roadside attractions. A necessary pit stop is Wall Drug in the town of Wall (the gateway to The Badlands), an establishment that embraces its quirkiness and welcomes 15,000 to 20,000 tourists a day. A stop at Wall Drug may include a cup of five cent coffee, a buffalo sandwich in a restaurant that can seat 520 tourists at a time, homemade pumpkin praline fudge, and a traveler’s chapel.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Here corniness is key and despite your best efforts, you will more than likely leave with a Wall Drug tee shirt. Don’t say, I didn’t warn you.

Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And to the east along I-90, the famous Corn Palace in Mitchell which as the name might imply is AN ENTIRE ARENA MADE OF CORN!

The corny Willie Nelson at the Mitchell Corn Palace © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Life really is the journey and these words cannot reach higher truth than referring to South Dakota. Driving through Custer State Park, you will see nearly 1,300 buffalo roaming alongside burros, prairie dog, and pronghorn antelopes.

Needles Highway, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Or, if you ever want to feel confounded by Mother Nature’s capabilities, Needles Highway is the drive for you with fourteen miles of steep turns, stunning vistas, and granite spires.

Buffalo Roundup, Custer State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic highways make the journey just as spectacular as the destination. Fly over state? Not a chance!

Worth Pondering…

Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam
Where the Deer and the Antelope play;
Where never is heard a discouraging word,
And the sky is not clouded all day.

—Dr. Brewster Higley (1876)