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

Wall Drug: America’s Favorite Roadside Attraction

Wall Drug is NOT your typical drug store

Ever see one of those weird signs along the side of the road that read “Wall Drug, 3,472 miles,” and been like “I saw a Walgreens like three exits ago!” But, Wall Drug is NOT your typical drug store but rather a landmark shopping extravaganza off I-90 an hour east of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In addition to four city blocks of every local souvenir imaginable, it has a restaurant with buffalo burgers and fresh doughnuts, life-sized dinosaur replicas, a jackalope that you can ride—and FREE ICE WATER!

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the world’s most well-known tourist stops, it’s hard to believe Wall Drug Store got its start with something we wouldn’t even turn our heads at today—the promise of free ice water. But in fact, Ted and Dorothy Hustead turned free ice water into a million dollar idea with a little determination and quick thinking.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How do you make a living in a town of 230 people that is unanimously described as being “in the middle of nowhere” by residents and tourists alike during the middle of the Great Depression? You work with what you have—even if it’s not much. This is the story of how a tiny little drug store became the world famous Wall Drug. 

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The history of Wall Drug as we know it began back in 1931, when Nebraskan Ted Hustead bought it. He was looking to move to a small town with a Catholic Church and open a pharmacy, and Wall, South Dakota met his requirements.

Business was pretty slow at first—total shocker, right? It was Dorothy who finally dreamed up a brilliant plan to bring in more customers to their establishment: put up billboards offering free cups of refreshing ice water to tourists passing near Wall on their way to Mount Rushmore, about 60 miles west.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The year was 1936. The Great Depression gripped the nation, and the Dust Bowl made things doubly bad on the high plains. It’s doubtful many businesses had worse prospects than Hustead’s small establishment in that small town in the far reaches of western South Dakota.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So remote and drought-stricken was Wall that, when Ted bought the town’s drug store, his father-in-law told him, “You know, Wall is just about as Godforsaken as you can get.”

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Ted put the signs up along Route 16A (Interstate 90 would eventually come through Wall, but not until 1969), and the tourists came. They stopped for the free ice water. They bought ice cream. And since then, they’ve bought millions of touristy trinkets and spent countless hours partaking of the free, fun and shopping that is the modern Wall Drug.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Their advertising campaign pretty much set the standard for tourist attractions: you can find billboards advertising Wall Drug lining the highways—especially I-90 between Minnesota and Billings, Montana. You can even find billboards for Wall Drug in the most unexpected of places, like Antarctica.

Over 80 years later the 76,000-square-foot drug store—which now includes restaurants, Western art galleries, shops and children’s activities along with a pharmacy—draws thousands of visitors each summer day.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wall Drug is a rest stop from the era when you really would stop to rest, rather than pull off the interstate, gas up, and go. It’s a rest stop worth taking because once the roads get this long—and the roads here do get long—you really do need more than a few minutes to decompress before facing the next stretch of asphalt.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But, Wall Drug more than a tourist trap—it’s an icon. It brings in 2 million visitors each year to a town that people would ordinarily drive right past without a second thought. But the fact that, even though it has grown into a massive complex of kitsch and touristy cliches, they’ll still serve you a free cup of ice water when you pull up, really does say it all.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Free Ice Water. It brought us Husteads a long way and it taught me my greatest lesson, and that’s that there’s absolutely no place on God’s earth that’s Godforsaken. No matter where you live, you can succeed, because wherever you are, you can reach out to other people with something that they need!

—Ted Hustead, founder of Wall Drug

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)

The Absolute Best Places to RV This June

There is nothing that compares to the freedom of the open road, especially when following it takes you to some of the most magnificent scenery and interesting places in the US

The longest day of the year! The first day of summer! And, for many, the last day of school!

June may not have any long weekends but it absolutely has the best lineup of unofficial days for celebration. This is when warm weather, blue skies, and blooming flowers all coincide, and when people rush outside—or around America­—to enjoy it. Festivals happen. Baseball happens. Let’s just say it: Magic happens.

In other words, June is the time for an RV trip before the busy tourist months of July and August. School’s out and summer is in full swing which means one thing—it’s time for a road trip in the RV.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Read on to find the five absolutely best places to visit in June. And be sure to catch up on all our recommendations for the best places to visit in March, April, and May.

Wall Drug, South Dakota

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You begin to see signs for it about 1,000 miles before you arrive in South Dakota. They promise free ice water. Five-cent coffee! There are many, many finer restaurants in South Dakota, but none are as famous as the one in Wall Drug. It’s impossible to avoid the Badlands-bordering, 76,000 sq. ft. wonder of tourist-trapping randomness, so just go in. There’s ample RV parking.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hit the cafe and score a hot beef sandwich and a maple donut. It won’t hold a candle to the many, better food options in the state. But you will emerge with a “Where the Heck is Wall Drug” sticker. You will have chased that sandwich with a T. Rex viewing. And you’ll be happy you stopped every time you see a roadside Wall Drug sign every five minutes for the next 300 miles.

Wall Drug © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the world’s most well-known tourist stops, it’s hard to believe Wall Drug Store got its start with something we wouldn’t even turn our heads at today…the promise of free ice water. But in fact, the Husteads turned free ice water into a million dollar idea with a little determination and quick thinking.

You will find $.05 coffee here. SERIOUSLY!

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania

This site, perhaps the most famous of Civil War landmarks, provides not only the opportunity to visit hallowed ground that witnessed three brutal days of battle in 1863, but also to conduct in-depth research at the resource library about those who fought here, and elsewhere.

Gettysburg National Military Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Join one of many ranger-led or living history programs; drive the battlefield; and visit the David Wills House, where Lincoln put the finishing touches on his famous address. Round off the day by stopping for a quiet moment at Soldier’s National Cemetery, where the address was given and where the power of Lincoln’s words can still be felt today.

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Massachusetts

There are sports to be watched, history to be learned, and great food to be had in Boston, but it’s the boatloads (!) of quaint seaside towns that make Massachusetts such a gem. Amble around Cape Ann’s little fishing villages, where you can hang with lobstermen and chow down on some fresh-as-heck seafood.

Hyannis Harbor, Cape Cod © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boston, the state capital, is rich in history, culture, entertainment, and cuisine. The Freedom Trail winds through the city’s sites that played a key role in the American Revolution. South of Boston, Plimoth Plantation is one of Massachusetts’ four living history museums. It brings to life the arrival of the pilgrims and the Native American experience.

Holmes County © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Holmes County, Ohio

The Amish established themselves in the Holmes County area, and it is estimated that one in every six Amish in the world live in this area. The Amish choose to live a simple way of life, which is clearly evident by the presence of horses and buggies, handmade quilts, and lack of electricity in Amish homes.

Boston Freedom Trail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the byway you will be treated to the typical, yet breathtaking sights of Amish Country: teams of huge, blonde Belgians pulling wagons of hay, farmers working in the fields and of course, beautiful views of lush, green farmland, large white houses, and red barns.

New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

New Mexico

GREEN CHILE. Also red rock cliffs. And, sprawling mesas. The desert scenery here is absolutely breathtaking.

New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

D. H. Lawrence, writing in 1928, pretty much summed it up: “The moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul.”

New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Northern New Mexico boasts the mountains of Taos. And White Sands National Monument is one of the most distinct—and arresting—pieces of earth in the lower 48. And we’d be remiss to leave out Carlsbad Caverns, a collection of over 100 caves and one of the state’s top attractions.

Worth Pondering…

I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where it was always June.
—L.M. Montgomery