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  • Fall foliage surrounding a boardwalk path next to the Missouri River in Bismarck, South Dakota
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    Capital City: Bismarck, North Dakota

  • Visiting the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora to study Western heritage
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    Medora, North Dakota: Saddle Up, Cowboys and Cowgirls

  • Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota
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    Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Natural Wonders Abound

  • Night view of Main Street in the historic city of Deadwood in the Black Hills of South Dakota
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    Sturgis and Deadwood, South Dakota: Reliving the Wild West

  • Sylvan Lake, one of four lakes for fishing in Custer State Park in Custer, South Dakota
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    Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands: U.S. History Meets Geologic Time

  • Main Street Square, popular gathering spot in Rapid City, South Dakota
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    Rapid City: Gateway to the Parks

Winding road through hills and forests in Custer State Park in Custer, South Dakota
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Ancient History and the Old West: A Road Trip through North and South Dakota

  • Route distance:
    892.00 km
  • Suggested Time:
    1-2 weeks

A trip through the Dakotas is about more than natural beauty.

It's about exploring and appreciating the past – both the ancient and recent. It’s a road trip though quintessential Americana: cowboys, historic towns, oddball tourist stops and views across the mountain landscape as well as Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial. Prepare for rugged mountains, golden plains and a wealth of wildlife. Make the most of your visit with this practical guide.

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Fall foliage surrounding a boardwalk path next to the Missouri River in Bismarck, South Dakota
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Capital City: Bismarck, North Dakota

Fly into Bismarck's small airport or the larger Hector International Airport (FAR) 322 kilometers to the east in Fargo. Once you're ready to hit the road, start at the North Dakota State Capitol, where a trip up to the observation deck yields a bird’s-eye view of Bismarck and sister city Mandan.

While you're here, be sure to visit Northern Plains National Heritage Area along the Missouri River where you'll find the Knife River Indian Village, Cross Ranch Centennial State Park, and historic replicas of Colonel George Armstrong Custer’s headquarters and other military buildings at Fort Abraham Lincoln. Other fun things to do in Bismarck-Mandan include a cruise on the Lewis and Clark Riverboat, a visit to the Dakota Zoo and a tour of historic Buckstop Junction.

214 km
2 hours by car
02
Visiting the North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame in Medora to study Western heritage
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Medora, North Dakota: Saddle Up, Cowboys and Cowgirls

Drive two hours west to the historic town of Medora, where a stroll through the main square will take you back into history. Children will enjoy the Medora Children's Park, a Western-themed playground, while the Billings County Museum, North Dakota Cowboy Hall of Fame and Chateau de Mores historic site provide exhibits and artifacts that delve into the area's past.

For a true Western experience, take part in the Pitchfork Steak Fondue, a night of outdoor dining and entertainment where cowboy chefs load juicy steaks onto pitchforks to be plunged into a cauldron of hot oil. While you eat, check out the Medora Musical, "The Greatest Show in the West." This live musical showcases the legacy of the 26th U.S. president, Theodore Roosevelt, against the natural splendor of the North Dakota Badlands.

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13 km
0.25 hours by car
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Painted Canyon in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota
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Theodore Roosevelt National Park: Natural Wonders Abound

Theodore Roosevelt came to the area in 1883, long before he was president, to explore and hunt bison. He fell in love with the region, and his adventures would set the tone for later conservation efforts. This landscape encompasses more than 28,500 hectares of national parkland divided into three areas. The most famous view is the Painted Canyon, which is most visitors' first glimpse into the park from Interstate 94. The striated, colorful canyon walls stretch as far as the eye can see into the Badlands. From the South Unit Visitor Center, take the 58-kilometer Scenic Loop Drive that weaves through the park. Wildlife such as bison are abundant throughout the park. To explore the North Unit, take the 22.5-kilometer Scenic Drive along the Little Missouri River Valley.

327 km
3.5 hours by car
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Night view of Main Street in the historic city of Deadwood in the Black Hills of South Dakota
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Sturgis and Deadwood, South Dakota: Reliving the Wild West

Onward to the southern neighboring state, take U.S. Route 85 south to Sturgis. Though Sturgis is home to only 6,700 residents, each August about a half-million visitors descend on the town for its motorcycle rally. The event offers activities for motorcycle enthusiasts and observers alike.

Take Boulder Canyon Road to the town of Deadwood, made famous by legends like Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and others. One of the top draws is the Main Street Shootout that happens three times a day throughout summer (except Sundays). The free show is a re-enactment of the historic town's Wild West past. Other shows include the Trial of Jack McCall (the man who gunned down Wild Bill), the Calamity Jane Show and many more.

Deadwood is also the perfect gateway into Black Hills National Forest, which offers hiking, camping, mountain biking, cave exploring, horseback riding and more – all against stunning backdrops of limestone canyons, grassland, indigo-blue lakes and rugged rock formations. The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway and Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway showcase the Black Hills' most spectacular vistas. If you're traveling with children, be sure to climb aboard the historic 1880 Train in Hill City.

82 km
1.25 hours by car
05
Sylvan Lake, one of four lakes for fishing in Custer State Park in Custer, South Dakota
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Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and the Badlands: U.S. History Meets Geologic Time

Also situated within Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park is home to the famously scenic Sylvan Lake. It's a wonderful place for fishing, boating or enjoying a waterside picnic. Try Legion Lake, a gorgeous spot to have lunch on decks overlooking the water. A herd of 1,300 bison roams throughout the park and can often be seen along the 29-kilometer Wildlife Loop.

Next, visit one of the USA’s most recognized landmarks, Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Located on Highway 244 in the Black Hills, this monument to four U.S. presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln – by sculptor Gutzon Borglum is an impressive nod to the nation's history. Drive west to the Crazy Horse Memorial, a work in progress aimed at preserving and providing education about the living heritage of North American Indians. The nighttime laser light show at the memorial is a can't-miss event.

Head east on Interstate 90 East to Badlands National Park, with geologic formations and deposits that contain some of the world's richest fossil beds. The prairie is home to bighorn sheep and prairie dogs, and is best seen with a drive along Highway 240 Loop Road, or hiking a variety of designated trails from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

100 km
1 hour by car
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Main Street Square, popular gathering spot in Rapid City, South Dakota
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Rapid City: Gateway to the Parks

The nearest major city and gateway to all of this natural beauty is Rapid City, which enjoys easy access to all of these sites. If you stay in town, be sure to check out a few of its own attractions, like Main Street Square and Reptile Gardens animal park. Before leaving the area, visit the historic Wall Drug Store about 45 minutes east of Rapid City. Don't miss Wind Cave National Park, about an hour south of Rapid City via State Route 79, and go below the prairies and mountains into one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the world.

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California
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