A Classic American Road Trip Through South Dakota
Experience the history of Crazy Horse, Lewis and Clark, and Wild Bill Hickok on a stunning Black Hills drive
This is a well-traveled, unforgettable American road trip, taking you westward through the varied landscape and historic sites of South Dakota. It includes the otherworldly sandstone cliffs and towers of the Badlands, iconic destinations like Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore National Monument, Crazy Horse Monument and Custer State Park, and finally, the storied outlaw town of Deadwood. The itinerary described below kicks off in Minneapolis (about four hours from Sioux Falls). Depending on where you live, you could instead start your trip from Des Moines (also about a four-hour drive) or Kansas City (a little over five hours) without missing the route's biggest highlights. And note that if you have the time and inclination to extend your four-day road trip, from Deadwood you're only about six or seven hours from two incredible national parks: Yellowstone to the west and Rocky Mountain to the south.
The unpredictability of the coronavirus means travel restrictions are constantly evolving. Be sure to check the Minnesota and South Dakota official websites for updates, and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for safe travel.
Day 1: Minneapolis to Sioux Falls (240 miles)
The southwestern route out of Minneapolis along U.S. 169 follows the lush Minnesota River Valley through a string of historic river towns including Jordan, about 40 miles away, which has 15 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places and the state's largest candy store at Jim's Apple Farm. Minneapolis-born Prince made his 1984 movie Purple Rain along this stretch of river. Stop in Henderson, about 20 miles on, to pay homage to the musician at the new statue erected in his honor. Drive another 30 miles to find Mankato, and take a picnic (or sandwiches from downtown's Wooden Spoon) to Minneopa Falls, which tumbles over limestone ledges, and spot a herd of reintroduced bison in Minneopa State Park.
It's about 160 miles of lakes and cornfields on Interstate 90 to Sioux Falls, where you will find panini and homemade ice cream at the Falls Overlook Café in a former 1908 hydroelectric power plant overlooking namesake Sioux Falls, of course.
Where to stay: Overnight in Sioux Falls at the Hotel on Phillips, in a repurposed 1918 bank that once was the state's tallest building at nine stories. Enjoy a craft cocktail in its lounge, in the decommissioned vault.
Day 2: Sioux Falls to Wall (290 miles)
Grab a latte at Coffea Roasterie downtown and stroll past some of the nearby 62 artworks installed as SculptureWalk. Then, hit the interstate for 75 miles to Mitchell, home to the landmark Corn Palace. Murals made of colored corn, grains and grasses decorate the Moorish structure, a monument to South Dakota's agricultural fitness dating back to 1892 (skip the indoor arena; the exterior is the main attraction).
Seventy miles west in Chamberlain, at the Missouri River, visit the Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center to learn about the Northern Plains’ Native Americans and see the sacred Medicine Wheel installed in an outdoor garden. Nearby, board a replica 55-foot keelboat that the Corps of Discovery used to explore the river at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center at the I-90 rest area.
By the time you reach Wall, 150 miles on, you will have seen its billboards advertising “free ice water,” tempting motorists to Wall Drug since the 1930s. The 1931 pharmacy has now expanded into a massive tourist destination patronized by 2 million annually for that water, as well as arcade games, cowboy apparel, donuts and Western art.
Wall is the chief gateway to Badlands National Park, about seven miles south, protecting 244,000 acres of wildlife-filled prairie and eons of geological deposits visible in layered peaks. (See AARP's guide for what to see and do in the park.)
Where to stay: Rent a cabin in the national park at Cedar Pass Lodge in Interior, S.D., near Wall, to catch sunset and sunrise painting the striated rocks in warm tones.
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Day 3: Wall to Custer State Park (120 miles)
Hike a bit of the national park's moderate 10-mile Castle Trail or drive its 40-mile Badlands Loop Road to spot bison and pronghorn before leaving the park and heading back to the interstate. In 55 miles, you'll reach Rapid City, South Dakota, gateway to the Black Hills region, with statues of 43 U.S. presidents downtown in homage to nearby Mount Rushmore. Also downtown, check out the paleontology for which the region is renowned at the Journey Museum. Grab creative sandwiches (think apple and manchego cheese) at nearby Harriet & Oak for a picnic in the 1.25-million-acre Black Hills National Forest, just west of the city. The forest encompasses most of the region's attractions, including national and state parks.
From Rapid City to Mount Rushmore National Monument, about 25 miles southwest on U.S. 16 and U.S. Route 16A, granite hills wink in and out of view amid the dense ponderosa pines that give the Black Hills their name. Get up close to the mammoth busts of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt on the park's 0.6-mile-long Presidential Trail, if you're game to climb its 422-step stairway. Try to catch a Ranger Talk at the Sculptor's Studio to learn how Guzton Borglum; his son, Lincoln Borglum; and nearly 400 workers transformed the mountain over 14 years, from 1927 to 1941.
To Native Americans, the Black Hills are sacred, and Rushmore a wound, a story told at Crazy Horse Memorial, about 20 miles west on SD-244. Still under construction, the 560-foot-high statue of the Oglala Lakota warrior centers the campus, also home to the fascinating Indian Museum of North America.
Loop 21 miles south and east to end the day at glorious Custer State Park, a peaceful 71,000-acre preserve of forested granite peaks and wildlife-rich prairie.
Where to stay: Settle into one of the rustic cabins or rooms at the park's Sylvan Lake Lodge and dine in its locavore restaurant overlooking the boulder-ringed namesake lake.
Day 4: Custer State Park to Deadwood (110 miles)
Spend the morning exploring Custer State Park. On foot, amblers will enjoy the mile-long hike around Sylvan Lake, while serious hikers will gape at towering granite columns on the Cathedral Spires trail, three miles round-trip. Drive like it's Sunday on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, offering a DIY safari to see roaming buffalo, deer, elk and prairie dogs.
Backtrack west 15 miles to the town of Custer for a from-scratch hamburger with a house-made bun, at Black Hills Burger & Bun. Then, enjoy a scenic ride north about 60 miles on U.S. 385 to U.S. Route 14 Alt to enter one of the region's top natural attractions, Spearfish Canyon. Limestone palisades 1,000 feet high flank the narrow, creek-carved gorge. The 20-mile drive north from Cheyenne Cross to the town of Spearfish follows a former rail route, dotted with trailheads and overlooks at a series of waterfalls.
Stretch your legs in downtown Spearfish, an arty town filled with gastropubs (try Killian's), coffee shops (Good Day Cafe) and an art gallery featuring the work of local artists in the 1906-vintage Matthews Opera House.
A 15-mile return east on I-90 and south on U.S. 85 brings you to the lively western town of Deadwood, the product of an 1874 gold strike nearby when an original miners’ camp turned boomtown, drawing a rogue's gallery of gunslinging characters, including Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The heart of town is a National Historic Landmark and tours range from ghost-hunting to gold-panning and patrolling the streets with a guide playing the role of a frontier lawman.
Where to stay: Check into the Historic Bullock Hotel, named for Deadwood's first sheriff, for period history and a prime location walking distance to Saloon #10, where, legend has it, Hickok was shot at the poker table, holding two pairs, aces and eights, — “the dead man's hand."
Enjoy some music along the route with this road trip playlist compiled for AARP by John Mogen, keyboardist for South Dakota cover band Mogen’s Heroes, active since 1978.