South Dakota Family Road Trip

Our family road trip across South Dakota remains a favorite vacation. South Dakota offers outdoor beauty from the vast prairies to the rolling Black Hills as well as nonstop wildlife viewing. From stunning state parks to awe-inspiring national parks, South Dakota should be on everyone’s must-see destinations.

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Day 1

University of South Dakota National Music Museum

Exhibit of Stradivari violins at the University of South Dakota National Music Museum

On our way out of Kansas, we stopped at the National Music Museum on the University of South Dakota's campus. The National Music Museum has an extensive collection of musical instruments, including more than 14,800 American, European, and non-Western instruments from a variety of cultures and time periods. Being big Johnny Cash fans, we were thrilled to see his guitar and June Carter’s.  The vast selection of unfamiliar instruments was fascinating. An audio-tour was included with the very reasonable price.

  • Address:  414 E. Clark Street, Vermillion, South Dakota  57069
  • Metered parking
  • AAA discount

*Currently closed for renovations - reopening planned for 2021

Palisades State Park

With only one night at Palisades State Park (30 minutes outside of Sioux Falls, South Dakota), we did not get to explore this unique park as much as we would have liked. Our campsite was at a prime location on the rushing waters of Split Rock Creek with great views of the rose-colored Sioux quartzite formations.

Cliffs of Palisades State Park, South Dakota

If hiking after a rainstorm, be prepared for copious amounts of sticky, black mud. A popular vacation spot - reserve early for weekend dates. Cabin rentals available.

  • Address: 25491 485th Avenue, Garretson, South Dakota 57030
  • Open year round (although showers/flush toilets turned off from October 1 through April 30)
  • Palisades State Park entrance fee: $8/vehicle

Day 2: 

Laura Ingalls Homestead

Girl driving a covered wagon at the Laura Ingalls Homestead, De Smet, South Dakota

As fans of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, we wanted to learn about her life in the Dakota Territory during the late 1800's. Although you can see most of Ingalls Homestead in a couple of hours, we spent a leisurely day on the 160-acre property. Out of all the activities --driving a covered wagon, touring a one-room school house, playing a pump organ, making corn husk dolls and rope, riding a pony -- the very favorite was playing in the two barns full of kittens! 

We camped on the property for $10 per night which included access to the bathrooms and hot showers.  Prairie winds are strong at night, so you definitely stake and tie down well. (Our practice at the Outer Banks, North Carolina, paid off). RV camping available with electric and water hookups; dump station located in the parking lot. For a unique camping experience, the covered wagons looked like fun.

  • Address:  20812 Homestead Rd, De Smet, South Dakota  57231
  • Admission: $15/person 5 years and up

Day 3:

World's Largest Pheasant

World's Largest Pheasant at Huron, South Dakota

Heading for a couple of nights in the Badlands National Park, we planned for few unusual stops along the way which included the World's Largest Pheasant. Located in the town of Huron, the 28-foot, 22-ton fiberglass and steel pheasant pays tribute to Huron's place as a prime pheasant hunting destination. Keep a sharp look out, and like us, you might see an actual ring-necked pheasant.

  • Address:  Hwy-14, Huron, SD 57350

The World's Only Corn Palace

World's Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota

Established in 1892, the Corn Palace was used to demonstrate that South Dakota had a viable climate for agriculture. However, the World's Only Corn Palace also attracts 500,000 tourists each year to view the one-of-a-kind corn murals.  Each year there is a new design and theme, featuring naturally-colored grains and grasses.

  • Address: 604 N Main Street, Mitchell, SD 57301
  • Hours: Memorial Day through Labor Day 8am - 9pm; rest of the year 8am - 5pm
  • Restrooms available

Dignity Statue & Missouri River Overlook

Heading west on I-90, we stopped at the Chamberlain Information Center for a break to stretch our legs. For those in larger vehicles, there is plenty of parking with extra large spaces for RVs and trucks. However, it is worth the stop alone for the chance to view the magnificent 50-foot tall Dignity statue, honoring the indigenous people of the Dakotas, as well as to enjoy the mighty Missouri River overlook.

  • Address: Chamberlain, South Dakota, located between exits 263 and 265 on Interstate 90

Murdo Drive-In (Lunch)

With a long day on the road, we fueled ourselves up at the casual eatery, Murdo Drive-In. Cooked from scratch, this is not a fast food stop, but we weren't in a hurry. Decide between grass-fed burgers, broasted* chicken, tacos, or hotdogs and finish up your meal with ice cream - you can't go wrong. *FYI: Broasted -a method that combines pressure cooking with deep frying.

  • Address: 212 Kennedy Ave, Murdo, SD 57559
  • Hours: Summer season (mid-May through August) 11am - 10pm daily

Day 4-5: 

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park trail in South Dakota

Badlands National Park remains a favorite camping stop for our family. Even if you only have a few hours, definitely make time for this other worldly experience. With only a few hours, you can stop by the visitor center and pick up a Junior Ranger booklet and map and watch the 20-minute film. A short hike at Door Trail and then a scenic drive along the Badlands National Park loop will give you a taste of this alien landscape and opportunity for wildlife spotting.

With more time (and no fear of heights), the Notch Trail is highly recommended. We spotted a fawn tucked into a nook in one of the cliff walls and great views of White River Valley. If you spend the night, the rangers give stellar programs - the dark skies were amazing for night sky viewing.

  • Badlands National Park Entrance Fee: $30/7-day pass (or a $80/year for annual National Park Pass).
  • Hiking: Carry hat, sunglasses, sunscreen, appropriate footwear, and plenty of water.
  • To help stay cool, tie a damp bandana around your neck.
  • Junior Ranger program

Read more about our Badlands National Park camping trip here

Family resting on a hike in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Family hiking ladder on Notch Trail in Badlands National Park, South Dakota
Sunflower overlooking scenic view in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Warning sign from the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, South Dakota

One name, but there are three parts to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site: Minuteman Missile Visitor Center, Delta-01 Launch Control Center, and the Missile Silo Delta-09.

Minuteman Missile Visitor Center

If possible, begin at the (free) Minuteman Missile Visitor Center, where exhibits and a park film explain the ballistic missile defense system and where it fits in the story of the Cold War. You can even touch a piece of the Berlin Wall, a symbolic reminder of the distrust between the United States and Soviet Union during this time period.

  • Address Visitor Center: I-90 exit 131, Philip, SD 57567
  • Junior Ranger program

Delta-O1 Launch Control Center

A trip to the ranger tour of the Delta-01 Launch Control Center  was worthwhile to us. A nondescript ranch house hides the below ground launch control that remotely commanded ten missiles. Our knowledgeable ranger gave an interesting historical account of the Cold War era and the daily operations of the launch control center. Advance reservations only (minimum 90 days) --- summer month tours fill 8 weeks in advance.

Each participant on the Delta-01 tour must be able to physically climb two 15-foot ladders unassisted in the event of an elevator failure. Limited to six participants per tour.

  • Address: I-90 exit 127, Wall, SD 57790
  • Admission Fee Delta-01 LCC:  $12/adult; $8/youth (6-16); under age 6 not allowed on tour.

Delta-09 Missile Silo

The  Delta-09 Missile Silo tour site (free) consists of viewing an unarmed missile in a silo. A cell-phone guided tour is available to visitors.

  • Address: I-90 Exit 116, Wall, SD 57790

Day 6-9: 

South Dakota Air & Space Museum

Girl in F-106 Delta Dart Simulator at the South Dakota Air & Space Museum

On the way to Custer State Park, don’t miss the South Dakota Air & Space Museum. Experience a walk through aviation history in the indoor gallery. Exhibits include information about the missile defense system, legendary airplanes and their crews, and innovations in aerospace technology. Afterwards, walk outside and view 30 restored aircraft ranging from the supersonic B-1 Lancer to the utility UH-1F Huey helicopter and read the inspiring stories behind each of them.

  • Address: 2890 Rushmore Dr., Ellsworth AFB, South Dakota 57706
  • Admission: Free

Custer State Park

Custer State Park offers a central location for hiking, camping, and exploring the Black Hills of South Dakota. If you need a place to stay, Custer State Park has a variety of campground locations as well as camping cabins and lodge rooms. We camped along the creek at our tent-only Grace Coolidge campsite. If you want to view wildlife, drive the 18-mile scenic Wildlife Loop Road.

Elk in Custer State Park, South Dakota

We spotted bison, burros, elk, wild turkeys, 26 deer (bucks, does, and fawns), pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs, chipmunks, and red squirrels. The best times for finding wildlife are early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

Family hiking the Sunday Gulch Trail in Custer State Park, South Dakota

Two great hikes are the Black Elk Trail and the Sunday Gulch Trail; both originate from Sylvan Lake. Arrive early to avoid crowds and find parking. Black Elk Trail took ~5 hours and Sunday Gulch ~3 hours. Pack a fleece jacket if you hike the Black Elk Trail. The tallest peak in South Dakota, it was cold and windy at the top. If you can only pick one hike, we favored Sunday Gulch Trail for its varied terrain and water features, but you can't go wrong with either hike. We rewarded ourselves with delicious homemade pie from Bobkat's Purple Pie Place.

  • Entrance Fee: $20/7-day pass

Read more about our camping trip to the Custer State Park here

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

View of presidents at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Keystone, South Dakota

From your Custer State Park location, head north on the twisty, narrow Iron Mountain Road (16A). The unique one-way tunnels frame Mount Rushmore from this approach (check the width of your vehicle or you'll find yourself trapped in these narrow tunnels). Leave yourself an hour to savor the journey. Keep your eye out for wildlife - we spotted bison, mountain goats, elk, and mule deer.

A popular American landmark, Mount Rushmore National Memorial attracts almost 3 million visitors per year to view the larger-than-life presidents carved into the side of a mountain. Stop in at the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center for informative exhibits and a short film on the history and preservation of the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Weather permitting, there is an evening lighting ceremony of the memorial.

  • No entrance fee, but $10/vehicle for parking (good for a year). Limited parking for extra-long vehicles.
  • Address: 13000 SD-244, Keystone, South Dakota 57751
  • Junior Ranger program

Jewel Cave National Monument

Interior view of Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota

Located only 13 miles west of Custer State Park, Jewel Cave National Monument makes a great stop on your South Dakota vacation. Summer months are busy and the limited group size means that tickets sell-out. Take advantage of advance ticket purchasing. Jewel Cave is the third largest cave system in the world with varied formations from cave "popcorn" to ribbons of cave "bacon." After our tour we headed over to Black Hills Burger & Bun for delicious burgers and cold drinks.

  • Address: 11149 US-16, Custer, South Dakota 57730
  • Scenic Tour: $12/adult; $8/child (6-16 yo); advance purchase suggested; footwear restrictions
  • Junior Ranger program

Read about the next stop on our road trip:  Yellowstone National Park

Read the first leg of our road trip: North Carolina through Kansas

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