By Jeremy Puglisi
South Dakota’s main attractions are sometimes overshadowed by points further west, like Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming and Glacier National Park in Montana. Many RV owners spend a day at Mount Rushmore and then jump back on the highway toward locations that they feel are more deserving of their time. Simply put, this is a crying shame.
South Dakota may not have any one location that can top Yellowstone or Glacier for grandeur, but taken collectively, attractions like Badlands National Park, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and the entire Black Hills region can be stacked up and compared favorably to any state in the West. Wise travelers plan South Dakota as its own trip, or build in at least a week to take in the state’s wild and kitschy wonders.
Many RV owners blow past Sioux Falls on their way in or out of South Dakota, but it’s definitely worth an overnight stop. The most popular destination in the area is Falls Park. Here you will find scenic waterfalls that delight photographers and rock scrambling opportunities for kids and adventurous adults. There’s also an observation tower, gift shop, and cafe. After exploring the falls we recommend heading to Minerva’s, a classy and cozy downtown steakhouse, for a western style dinner you will never forget. The food is phenomenal, and the legendary salad bar lives up to the hype.
The drive out to Western South Dakota on Route 90 is filled with roadside oddities and attractions. Our favorite is Porter Sculpture Park in Montrose. With more than 50 wild and wacky larger-than-life sculptures (including a 60-foot Bulls Head), situated on a gorgeous and free flowing 18-acre prairie, this is the perfect place to stretch your legs and take a break from the road. Porter Sculpture Park is also a Harvest Host location, so you can spend the night here (without hookups) and break up your drive out to the Black Hills.
With stunning, scenic views of the Badlands, Cedar Pass Campground puts you right in the heart of this amazing national park. You can step outside your door and walk over to the iconic natural formations. While not quite as rugged as the landscape, this concessionaire-run campground is definitely not an RV resort. But there’s nothing quite like the experience of staying right at the heart of a national park, and watching a Badlands sunrise or sunset right from your campsite is an incomparable experience. It’s like camping on the moon. (If you’re looking for something with more amenities, you may want to check out the Badlands/White River KOA up the road.)
Badlands National Park is best explored by heading out on one of several short trails that are all clustered together near the Northeast Entrance. The .75-mile Door Trail offers some classic Badlands photo opportunities. The .25-mile Window Trail is more of a fun scramble than a hike. Adults and kids alike have a blast climbing on the rock structures and peering out through the “windows” to the hills in the distance.
The 1.5-mile Notch Trail is more physically challenging, but it will be an absolute highlight if you are up for adventure. There’s a fairly steep ladder that you’ll have to climb to complete the hike. Folks with fears of heights might struggle a bit coming down the ladder as well. If you are physically and mentally able, do not miss this amazing hiking experience.
Is Wall Drug a tourist trap? Maybe. But either way, no trip to South Dakota is complete without a stop here—and several cups of 5-cent coffee. The homemade “cake” donuts are also legendary. But enough about the food—the options for shopping are even more abundant. Whether you want to pick up a Cast Iron Cookbook by Cowboy Kent Rollins or a dozen gold dipped gold roses, Wall Drug has got you covered. There is plenty of RV parking, so don’t be afraid to show up with your rig.
Is there anything more iconic than a family trip to Mount Rushmore? Probably not, but many people do find the experience to be overrated, overwhelming, and too commercial. We couldn’t disagree more. If you visit during a quieter time of the year and avoid spending too much time in the gift shops, we think your visit will be exciting, educational, and inspiring. Especially if you attend a few ranger-led walks and attend the magnificent “Evening Lighting Ceremony.” If you do a little homework, you might also be able to find a perfect spot to get a picture of your RV with the iconic sculpture looming right behind you. There will be no need to buy a cheesy postcard in the gift shop if you do.
Don’t miss the chuckwagon dinner show while in Custer State Park. The Hayride & Chuckwagon Cookout departs right from the Blue Bell Lodge, which is great for those staying at the Blue Bell Campground, located just a few steps away. Participants get a corny cowboy hat and bandana, and then enjoy a 45-minute wagon ride hosted by a guitar-playing, sing-a-long-leading cowboy. Tickets are not cheap, but the price of admission includes live music, dancing, and really delicious food.
Many people argue over which is more spectacular, Mount Rushmore or the Crazy Horse memorial. But that misses a much larger point. They should not be compared. But they should be considered as two pieces of a much larger story. The monument itself may be incomplete, but a visit to the memorial is incredibly fulfilling. Here you will learn about the cultures and traditions of more than 300 Native nations through their food, music, artwork, and living history. Plan on staying for several hours and taking in a few programs and live performances with this astonishing sculpture as the backdrop.
Rafter J Bar Ranch is just minutes away from Mount Rushmore, and the perfect basecamp for your trip to the Black Hills region. What makes Rafter J so special? It has a unique way of offering a state park atmosphere with resort-style amenities. The most notable thing about Rafter J (besides the natural beauty) is the size. It’s a huge campground. However, the owners have not crowded in as many sites as possible. Instead, they’ve created different “camps” with large wooded areas or fields in between each distinct area. The campground is peppered with towering Ponderosa Pines and campers have views of the scenic granite hills in the distance.
This is the legendary drive that you have probably seen repeatedly on social media. There are many beautiful lookouts along the drive, so take your time and enjoy the ride and get some good pictures of your own. The famous Needles Eye Tunnel is only 8 feet wide and 11 feet tall so we don’t recommend taking an RV through there—but you can fit through in a larger pickup truck. Just measure it before you go.
Banner Photo Credit: Flickr/Char