The Road (Trip) Less Traveled: 3 Days on the Open Road in South Dakota
Steeped in American Indian history and fresh with the footprints of legendary pioneers, South Dakota offers a little bit of everything for history buffs, road warriors, adventure-seekers, and culture vultures, alike. Draw inspiration from the Great American Road Trip, rent a classic car, check out the itinerary below, and follow the open road for this untamed state’s hidden gems and jaw-dropping views.
Set off on an hour drive down I-90 to your first stop: Deadwood, the epitome of the wild, wild west. Here lie the likes of legendary frontier scouts Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane — Jane even appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show later in life. This historic gold-mining town nestled in the Black Hills offers everything from horse sanctuaries to hiking, historic mining museums to iconic casinos (or game halls as they were once called), so take your pick for a packed day. You’re sure to feel the spirit of a bygone era — one filled with pioneers, saloon madams, gunslingers, and gold fever.
After a long day in the gold gulch, the road is calling once again. Hop back in your buggy and head south on US-385 through the dense green of Black Hills National Forest, towards President Calvin Coolidge’s “Summer White House” — the State Game Lodge in Custer. A sunrise for the books is on the horizon, so lay your head in a luxury log cabin or in the very hotel room “Cool Cal” once slept.
When your jaws have sufficiently dropped, it’s time to let the good times roll in Badlands National Park. 1.5 hours east of Rushmore, the rugged beauty of the national park inspires adventure, and her maze of buttes, spires, and pinnacles provide a striking backdrop to a hike or scenic drive. The past is preserved in surreal red rock sediments that pierce the skyline, so have your camera at the ready.
By now it’s mid-afternoon, so you’ll want to find a place to quench your thirst, satiate your curiosity, and have lunch — and Wall Drug it is. The quirky little roadside attraction that shouldn’t-have-turned-a-single-head-but-somehow-became-a-million-dollar-idea, is situated just outside Badlands' northern gateway. The pharmacy-come-rest stop earned much of its fame from a self-promotion scheme started by original owners Dorothy and Ted Hustead. Billboards advertising the establishment and “FREE ICE WATER” to thirsty travelers can be seen throughout South Dakota, its neighboring states, and as far as Morocco, Amsterdam, and London, informing commuters that Wall Drug is only a few thousand kilometers away.
Keep your eyes peeled for celebrity state critters — pronghorns, elk, and buffalo. Fun fact: Buffalo love to lick the salt off of snow-dusted cars, so if you’re traveling through in the winter months, they might get up close and personal.
Before heading back to Rapid City, let your last stop be as awe-inspiring as it is important. Half an hour from the State Game Lodge in the heart of the beautiful Black Hills stands another stone masterpiece in the making — Crazy Horse Memorial. In 1948, Polish-American mountain carver Korczak Ziolkowski began sculpting the colossal tribute. Since his passing in 1982, multiple generations of his family have taken over, wielding the chisel and etching the family’s legacy. In its unfinished and evolving glory — including a museum, a cultural center, and The Indian University of North America — it preserves the heritage of Native Americans and celebrates the heroic acts of Tasunke “Crazy Horse” Witco of the Oglala Lakota tribe. If completed as planned, it will be the world’s second tallest sculpture at a whopping 563 feet high and depict the war leader riding a horse and pointing into the distance. Read more about how Crazy Horse Memorial came to be and the Ziolkowski family’s progress.
Take the road less traveled — through pristine forests, knee-high prairie grasslands, deserts, and mountains — and make South Dakota one of your must-sees this year.
"If You Go" Hit List
- State Game Lodge, Custer, South Dakota
- Find the founding fathers at Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- Hit the hiking trails in Badlands National Park
- Dig into the past at Broken Boot Goldmine, Deadwood, South Dakota
Eat & Drink
- Harriet & Oak Café and Roaster, Rapid City, South Dakota
- Tally’s Silver Spoon, Rapid City, South Dakota
- Firehouse Brewing Co., Rapid City, South Dakota