The Best Road Trips in America: The Ultimate Outdoor Adventure Begins With This Road Trip to the Dakotas
Collectively known as “The Dakotas,” North and South Dakota truly have something for everyone.
Road Trip Itinerary: The Best of North and South Dakota
Rolling hills, underground cave systems, Wild West history, rich Native American culture, and National and State parks brimming with hiking, biking, kayaking, and wildlife viewing. From rustic cabins and campgrounds to chic glamping sites and upscale hotels, The Dakotas have accommodations for every budget and every type of traveler.
Though this road trip itinerary visits seven cities in seven days, know that both North and South Dakota are overflowing with parks, museums, public art installations, historic sites, and incredible eateries, so if possible, consider extending your trip.
At a Glance:
Starting Location: Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Ending Location: Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Miles Traveled: 1195
Suggested Duration: 7 nights
States Visited: North Dakota, South Dakota
Stop 1: Sioux Falls to the Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Stop Locations: Sioux Falls, SD to Badlands National Park, SD
Total Travel Time: 4 hours
Total Miles: 275 miles
Recommended Route: Today’s drive is a straight shoot across Highway 90, including several optional stops at quirky roadside attractions.
Along the Way:
Roadside Attraction : Stop at the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell at the beginning of your route (70 miles from Sioux Falls) and at the six-ton Giant Prairie Dog at the end (20 miles before Wall).
Photo Op : The town of Chamberlain is the home of the impressive Dignity of Earth and Sky sculpture, a statue dedicated to the Native American population of South Dakota. The sculpture depicts a 50-foot Lakota woman with a traditional star quilt.
Detour: Just north of the town of Wall (the gateway town to Badlands National Park) is Wounded Knee The Museum, a memorial to the Indigenous people killed at the infamous Wounded Knee Massacre.
Do : You can drive the 39-mile Scenic Byway in the Badlands National Park in about an hour but you’ll want to spend the most time along Sage Creek Rim Road (on the western edge of the loop), as it’s one of the best places to see bison, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, and prairie dogs. The remoteness of the park makes it perfect for backcountry hikers and campers who want to escape the crowds and explore wilderness far from trails and roads. Badlands bike tours can also be arranged. There’s also almost no light pollution here so the astronomy and night viewing are also incredible. If you’re a fan of astronomy, plan your visit for July, when the area hosts the annual Badlands Astronomy Festival.
Eat & Drink : Fewer than 800 people live in the town of Wall, but 2 million people stop at its famous Wall Drug each year for food, photos, and shopping. It’s about 10 minutes from the Badlands so the town is a popular place for affordable food and accommodations. Don’t miss the donuts!
Stay : Cedar Park Lodge is located within Badlands National Park but it books up fast so plan ahead. Staying within the park may be a bit more expensive but it’s worth the splurge, as it allows you to enjoy sunrises and sunsets right from your window. If you prefer to stay outside the park, check out Frontier Cabins in Wall.
Breakfast: Head to Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant and try the fry bread topped with wojapi , a Native American berry sauce.
Stop 2: Badlands National Park to Mount Rushmore, South Dakota
Stop Locations: Badlands National Park, SD to Mount Rushmore, SD
Total Travel Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
Total Miles: 75 miles
Recommended Route: Today is a quick drive but if you’re a photographer and want to get the best light, you’ll want to be to Mount Rushmore before 11 a.m.
Along the Way:
Shop : Native West Trading Co., near Interior, South Dakota, is a great place to purchase authentic, handcrafted items made by local Native artists.
Detour : Visit the rolling hills of Custer State Park, where roaming bison and towering granite spires line the route. The park is famous for its herd of 1,300 bison, which you can spot along the Wildlife Loop Road. It’s the largest publicly-owned bison herd in the country and the experience is similar to what you’d encounter in Yellowstone. Each September, the park hosts its annual Buffalo Roundup, where wranglers on horseback round up the park’s herd to be sorted and vaccinated. The park offers mountain biking, fishing, paddle boating, mountain climbing, and some of the best hiking in the Black Hills. You could spend anywhere from a few hours to a few days hiking in the park.
Do: Hike the half-mile Presidential Trail to take in views of the iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial. The Nature Trail also connects to the Presidential Trail and takes you to the Carver’s Studio, where you can find tools and models used in the construction of Mount Rushmore. During May through September, Mount Rushmore puts on evening light and music ceremonies that go through the history of the site.
Eat & Drink : While at Mount Rushmore, swing by the Memorial Team Ice Cream station and treat yourself to Thomas Jefferson’s ice cream, made with the original recipe used in 1780 by the nation’s third President. Jefferson is credited with bringing the first recipe for ice cream to what would become the United States
Skogen Kitchen is a Nordic-themed restaurant offering gourmet food that’s typically hard to find in this area. Despite the high-end fare, the food is affordable and the restaurant has a casual outdoor patio that is pet-friendly.
Stay : Under Canvas Glamping is just a few miles from Mount Rushmore and has on-site programming like yoga, nature walks, and bike tours.
Breakfast: Grapes & Grinds offers the best of both worlds: coffee and wine! Start your day with a bagel and brew and grab a bottle of wine for later.
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Stop 3: Mount Rushmore to Deadwood, South Dakota
Stop Locations: Mount Rushmore, SD to Deadwood, SD
Total Travel Time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Total Miles: 50 miles
Recommended Route: No matter which route you take from the Crazy Horse Memorial to Deadwood, the drive is beautiful, but the most spectacular route would be to detour a bit along the Spearfish Canyon byway. The route will add about an hour to the drive, but you’ll pass beautiful waterfalls and gorgeous landscapes. This route is particularly stunning when the leaves are changing in autumn.
Along the Way:
Detour : Wind Cave National Park is home to one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the world. Aboveground, there’s hiking trails and an abundance of wildlife while belowground, candlelit tours explore the cave, its maze of passages, and its unique honeycomb-like boxwork formations. You could spend a couple of hours here before or after visiting Mount Rushmore (it’s about an hour’s drive each way).
Detour : Explore the living history and culture of South Dakota’s Native American tribes at the Crazy Horse Memorial. It’s worth spending a few bucks to take the bus to the base of the memorial. Also, don’t miss the Native American Museum on site, which is included with the admission to Crazy Horse.
Eat & Drink : For lunch, head to Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. which serves up homemade burgers, salads, and fun sides (think cheese curds and fried green tomatoes) using minimally-processed ingredients.
Do : Explore the wild west town of Deadwood, where real-life (and HBO) legends Wild Bill Hickcock and Calamity Jane called home. Wander the old streets where actors perform shoot-outs, tour the town in an old stagecoach, and try your hand at gold panning at the old Broken Boot mines. This Wild West town is known for rodeos, music jams, and all sorts of festivals so check out special programming at Outlaw Square to know what’s going on.
Eat & Drink : For dinner, order a local craft beer and burger at Deadwood’s Saloon #10, where Wild Bill was famously shot during a poker game. You can even pay your respects at his grave, found in the town’s Mount Moriah cemetery. Upstairs at the Saloon, you’ll find the Deadwood Social Club, offering a finer dining experience.
Stay : Deadwood has loads of accommodations at different price points and offering different amenities. If you want to stay in town, SpringHill Suites by Marriott Deadwood is a good bet (recently renovated, connected to the Cadillac Jack casino, and within walking distance to museums) but if you want to stay in nature, book a lodge (two-to-seven bedrooms) at the Black Hills Executive Lodging.
Breakfast: While you’re picking up coffee, pastries, and sandwiches at the Pump House, check out glass blown art being made next door at Mind Blown Studio.
Stop 4: Deadwood to Medora, North Dakota
Stop Locations: Deadwood, SD to Medora, ND
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 45 minutes
Total Miles: 220 miles
Recommended Route: Enjoy beautiful rolling hill and wide-open prairie landscapes as you drive to North Dakota. About 30 minutes outside of Deadwood, you will pass through the community of Belle Fourche, pronounced as “Bell Foosh.” This town is considered to be along the geographic center of the United States (with the admission of Hawaii and Alaska).
Along the Way:
Town : Stop by Sturgis, a sleepy town that livens up for three weeks of rallies during the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rallies each August. If you’re not there for the rally, pop into the Motorcycle Museum to learn a bit about the town’s motorcycle culture.
Detour: The 144-mile Maah Daah Hey trail is an epic single-track trail carved through the North Dakota badlands, showcasing some of our country’s most unique and breathtaking terrain. Majestic plateaus, large expanses of rolling prairie, and rivers intertwine to offer the adventurous outdoors lover a taste of pure, unadulterated badlands.
Do: Medora is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream, offering road biking, hiking, and camping, while the downtown area is full of shops and restaurants. Be sure to get to town by 7 p.m. so you can attend the live Medora Musical show.
Eat & Drink: Dinner at the Pitchfork Steak Fondue is a must. Here, chefs load steaks onto a pitchfork and “fondue” them western style—basically, they’re deep-fried in a vat of hot oil. Steaks are served with various sides, desserts, and drinks, and vegetarians can order a “Just the Fixin’s” plate.
Stay: Luxury meets western charm at the Historic Rough Riders Hotel in downtown Medora, but if you’re looking for something more economical or pet-friendly, check out the “tiny-house style” lodges at Elkhorn Quarters.
Stop 5: Medora to Bismarck, North Dakota
Stop Locations: Medora, ND to Bismarck, ND
Total Travel Time: 2 hours
Total Miles: 130 miles
Recommended Route: Today’s route is an easy drive on Interstate 94, with several potential detours and photo ops.
Along the Way:
Nature: Bison, deer, prairie dogs, wild horses, and eagles are plentiful in Theodore Roosevelt National Park , and a loop ride in the South Unit gets you up close with the wildlife. The park’s 70,400 acres of breathtaking Badlands is full of hiking trails, scenic overlooks, picnic spots, and campsites.
Photo Op: The best places for great photo ops in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park are Buck Hill and Wind Canyon. Also, stop at the Painted Canyon for one last look (and a quick pic!) as you leave the park and head to Bismarck.
Detour: Beginning at Exit 72 on 1-94, near Gladstone, is the Enchanted Highway, a 32-mile stretch that ends in the small town of Regent. Beginning with the “Geese in Flight” sculpture at Exit 72, large metal sculptures are placed along the county highway, each with a parking area and kiosk. Some of the sculptures include “World’s Largest Tin Family,” “Teddy Rides Again,” “Pheasants on the Prairie,” and “Grasshoppers in the Field.”
Photo Op: About 30 miles before Bismarck, you’ll pass Salem Sue, the “World’s Largest Holstein Cow.”
Detour: Forty minutes north of Bismarck is Fort Mandan, where Lewis and Clark met up with Sakakawea on their expedition. Here, you can tour this historic site and walk in the footsteps of these legendary explorers.
Do: Explore art in downtown Bismarck, including several art galleries and colorful alley art in between Broadway and Main Avenue. Next, check out some of the outdoor attractions along the Missouri River walking path, include: Eagle Sculpture, Steamboat Park, and Chief Looking’s Village Historic Site. The grounds at the State Capitol building also has an arboretum trail with 75 species of trees, shrubs, and flowers. To learn about the state’s geological, agricultural, industrial, and Native American history, visit the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum.
Eat & Drink: Bismarck is packed with great food and drink options. Grab a burger and brew at Peacock Alley or the bison medallions at the Pirogue Grille. The brewery scene is also hoppin’ and Laughing Sun Brewing has plenty of options to tempt your pallet and can also provide a tour.
Stay: Many standard and upscale hotels exist in the city but for a unique lodging experience, head to Fort Abraham Lincoln State Park, where you can overnight in a cabin or a tipi and wake up next to hiking trails.
Breakfast: Stop in at the Terra Nomad, a unique café in downtown Bismarck offering a holistic experience (and Instagrammable meals) to guests.
Stop 6: Bismarck to Fargo, North Dakota
Stop Locations: Bismarck, ND to Fargo, ND
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 40 minutes
Total Miles: 245 miles
Recommended Route: You may notice the flattened topography and fields abound as you enter North Dakota’s Red River Valley.
Along the Way:
Town: Visit Frontier Village in the town of Jamestown to take a picture with the “World’s Largest Buffalo” and to visit the National Buffalo Museum, where you can learn about the history and preservation of buffalo and see an albino bison.
Photo Op: Stop by the Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau to take a picture with the original “Woodchipper” from the movie Fargo . Also, if North Dakota is your last state to check off your bucket list, you can join the “Saved the Best for Last ” club!
Do: Art lovers will enjoy the unconventional Plains Art Museum and the interactive and mural art spread across the city. Catch a live show at the Fargo Theater (home to the “Mighty Wurlitzer,” a restored pipe organ), then head over to Unglued, an Etsy-style market with 300 local artists.
Stay: The Hotel Donaldson is definitely the most unique place to stay, as the rooms are designed around the work of regional artists and the hotel includes art galleries and hosts literary, artistic, and musical performances. A more budget-friendly option (which is also great for families) would be the Holiday Inn.
Breakfast : Jump-start your day at the Twenty Below Coffee Co. in downtown Fargo, where you can get poached eggs, homemade bread, and killer coffee.
Stop 7: Fargo to Sioux Falls, South Dakota
Stop Locations: Fargo, ND to Sioux Falls, SD
Total Travel Time: 3 hours 40 minutes
Total Miles: 245 miles
Recommended Route: Today is a quick, easy drive along I-29 so you’ll have plenty of time to explore Sioux Falls when you arrive.
Along the Way:
Detour: Explore Fort Abercrombie, which was the first permanent U.S. military fort and was once known as “The Gateway to the Dakotas.”
Do : Summer is the best time to catch free concerts and festivals in the city, but public art installations, including the Sculpture Walk and Arc of Dreams , can be enjoyed year-round. On the first Friday of each month in summer (known as First Fridays), downtown streets come alive with live music, discounts, and drink specials at restaurants, bars, and shops.
Eat & Drink : Named after the shish kebob-like grilled meat that is popular across southeastern South Dakota, Urban Chislic is a fun, casual restaurant and bar. They specialize in chislic but have a full menu of burgers, sandwiches, and fun appetizers. For a sweet treat, head to CH Patisserie or Parlour Ice Cream, both of which are owned by World Champion Pastry Chef, Chris Hanmer.
Stay : Hotel On Phillips, housed within a restored bank from 1918, is Sioux Falls’ first boutique hotel, maintaining classic charm combined with modern and elegant guest rooms.