Should you be thinking about going to the Dakota’s Great 8 for your summer road trip? Any American road trip itinerary for the Black Hills of South Dakota needs to include all the Great 8 adventure destinations. Each is unique, and will leave everlasting memories. Many of the Dakota’s 8 Great landmarks include three iconic monuments, four National Parks and one National Forest of the United States.
We spent nine days exploring 8 great locations in South/North Dakota. We spent most of our time in the Black hills. Remembrances that will be with us forever.
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Table of Contents
Getting to South Dakota: Your Gateway to Unforgettable Adventures
When visiting South Dakota from out of state, Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) would probably be the best airport to fly into. In Southwestern South Dakota and in Custer State Park, the landscape is pretty remote. Renting a car in South Dakota is easy from either the Rapid City airport or the airport.
You might also find it cheaper to fly into and out of Denver, Colorado, or Billings, Montana. It takes 6 hours to drive from Denver to the Black Hills. It takes 5.5 hours from Billings to the Black hills.
Things to Know Before You Visit the Great 8: Tips for an Unforgettable Dakota Adventure
When planning a trip and visiting multiple parks during the year, you may wish to consider purchasing an Annual National Park pass. You should be able to recoup your investment after about three trips to different parks. Absolutely worth it!
If you plan on doing any hiking, we recommend each person should drink at least one liter of water per hour. Protect yourself from the sun and heat by also wearing sunscreen with a high SPF. Wearing a hat is a must. Stay safe out there.
Don’t Forget: passport cancellation stamps and NPS Junior Ranger programs are available at each of the park’s visitor centers.
When is the Best Time to Visit the Great 8 Destinations in the Dakotas?
In the Black Hills area, summer is by far the most popular and busiest time to visit the Dakota’s Great 8. Spring and Fall are shoulder seasons but usually avoid the larger crowds associated with the summer surge. The Dakotas’ winters are ideal for recreational snow sports like skiing, snowmobiling, ice climbing, and winter hiking, however, bring adventure enthusiasts year-round. One key event to ponder is held during late July and early August, when millions of motorcycle enthusiasts flock to the Sturgis Rally.
Stop 1: The Prodigious Mount Rushmore National Monument – Your Gateway to Dakota’s Great 8
Our first Great 8 destination is a must-see for all visitors to the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore National Monument is the nation’s most famous monument. Established in 1925, Mount Rushmore is simply iconic. Each of the 60 foot carved granite monuments honors prominent US presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, symbolizing the ideals of freedom and democracy. Sculptor Gutzon Borglum created Mount Rushmore National Memorial near Keystone, South Dakota. Sadly, Gotzon died before the completion of the sculpture. His son Lincoln Borglum, who assisted on the project, finished it after his father died. The famous landmark features interpretive nature trails, a visitor center, Sculptor’s Studio, cafe restaurant and ranger led tours.
Mount Rushmore is at 13000 Highway 244 in Keystone, South Dakota. The facility is open 365 days a year. It is open 5:00 AM – 9:00 PM from October – March and from 5:00 AM – 11:00 PM between April – September. There is no entrance fee, just a $11 parking fee per vehicle that is good for one year. In the summer, from late May to September 30 enjoy the Evening Lighting Show. is quite impressive. Check here for the current time of the ceremony.
Tip: The park opens at 5am. You literally have the park to yourself early mornings. Perfect for pictures and solitude.
A Walk on the Avenue: Exploring the Magnificent Mount Rushmore
It is breathtaking walking the Avenue of Flags graced by 56 flags representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia and the territories of Guam, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands. Also represented are the Commonwealths of Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands. The Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center is directly below the Grand View Terrace. At the end of the Avenue of Flags, it provides the best photographic views of the magnificent mountain. It makes you feel very patriotic.
We walked through ponderosa pine forest on the Presidential trail for closer views of each of the sculpted faces. You can see the details so much better along the 0.6-mile path that includes 422 steps. Interpretive signs reviewed the history of each of the Presidents. Inside the visitor center, you can gain a better perspective of the entire project from inception to completion. We learned this sacred mountain has not been without controversy. The Great Sioux Nation, including the Oglala Lakota Sioux, holds a profound physical and spiritual meaning for Pahá Sápa (Black Hills). Many saw the desecration of the mountain as another broken promise.
If seeing Mount Rushmore isn’t on your bucket list, it should be! Absolutely breathtaking. I can still smell the pine scent as if I was still walking through the forest. Getting to see this monument in person is something you’ll never forget.
Stop 2: Boundless Badlands National Park – A Must-See on Dakota’s Great 8 Adventure
Our 2nd Great 8 destination was Badlands National Park. This is the largest preserved area of mixed-grass prairie in the country.
This area was a hunting ground for the Lakota for 11,000 years, and they called it “Mako Sica” which translates to “bad lands.” Badlands National Park is most renown for its dramatic layered rock formations. The striking rock layers continuedly change with the shifting sunlight. There is nothing better than taking photographs in the park during golden hour, which occurs just after sunrise and before sunset. During these times of day, the Badlands’ buttes, narrow canyons, and rugged pinnacles take on deeper and richer shades of red, yellow and brown.
Stop in at the Two Visitor Centers: Your Guide to Exploring Badlands National Park
The Ben Reifel Visitor Center is open daily from 9 AM – 4 PM daily. Paleontologists in the Fossil Preparation Lab remove debris from fossils and prepare specimens for display. Visitors can observe and learn as they prepare and catalog finished fossils.
The South Unit White River Visitor Center is open from 9:00 until 6:00, every day of the week. The South Unit of Badlands National Park is managed in co-operation with the Oglala Sioux Tribe.
Driving the Badlands Loop Road: A Scenic Adventure Through on of Dakota’s Great 8
There are 244,000 acres to explore in Badlands National Park. Highway 240, also known as Badlands Loop Road, passes through the heart of the Badlands’ rugged formations. Either Exit 110 in Wall, SD or Exit 131 toward Interior, SD gets you onto the loop road. With several hiking trails and twelve overlooks, the Badlands Loop road is a 25-mile drive. It will take you at least an hour to drive through the park, but we know you’ll want to spend a little more time admiring the scenery.
Unlike the Grand Canyon, the colors here are totally different. This canyon was not formed by a river instead, it has been created by wind and rain over millions of years.
While driving the loop through the park; we made it a point to stop at every viewpoint taking our time. We had nowhere to be and were not in a hurry. Most visitors encountered wildlife along the road, causing traffic to slow down. Early summer mornings are great for wildlife watching. Best advice, stop to take a hike, snap a few photos, and enjoy the view!
If you are looking for bison, explore the Sage Creek Rim Road and the Sage Creek Wilderness Area remain the best places to see these magnificent beasts.
Note: While visiting the Badlands, many visitors also stop by Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, which is only 10-miles away from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.
Stop 3: South Dakota’s Marvelous Wind Cave National Park – A Hidden Gem on the Great 8 Journey
Our 3rd Great 8 destination is Wind Cave National Park. It is one of the nation’s oldest National Park established by Teddy Roosevelt in 1903. It’s also the first cave system in the world to be designated a national park. It is the seventh-largest, third-longest cave system in the world, with about 4 new miles being found every year. Admission to enter the park is free, although there are fees for different cave tours.
Take a Deep Dive into a Cave Tour: Exploring the Wonders of Wind Cave National Park
In the summer, daily cave tours are Ranger led and require a ticket. Luckily some tickets are available for advance purchase at recreation.gov otherwise they are first come, first serve. We purchased our tickets online, choosing the Garden of Eden Tour being the least amount of difficulty (0.33-miles). The one-hour tour requires visitors to climb 150 stairs. The tour descends by elevator 119 feet below the surface.
Beginning our tour, the ranger explained, the changing barometric pressure on the surface causes the wind to blow into and out of the cave as the pressure changes. This is how the cave got its name-the Lakota refer to it as Maka Oniye or “breathing earth.” (If you take the Natural Entrance tour, you will see the only opening to the cave system) On this tour you get to see one of Wind Cave’s most notable features is its Boxwork, an intricate geometric formation that resembles lace or a honeycomb. There are other beautiful cave formations, such as cave popcorn, and flowstone.
Note: the temperature in the cave is at a constant 54-degrees. You will need to dress accordingly. I suggest long pants, a light jacket or a sweatshirt. Good walking or hiking shoes are a must. (Not allowed-sandals, flip-flops and other loose shoes)
Experience the Prairie in Wind Cave: A Must-Do on Your Dakota’s Great 8 Adventure
Above the ground, Wind Cave National Park is a massive prairie habitat, particularly for bison herds. You can find both Bison and Pronghorn at Bison Flats along highway 385. In addition, the park is home to several prairie dog towns.
Looking to get off the beaten path? The 1-mile Rankin Ridge Trail is a short scenic park loop that reaches the highest point in the park: the Rankin Fire Tower. The 360-degree views of the mixed-grasslands and western forest slopes are impressive. On a clear day, you can see all the way to the badlands.
Stop 4: Jewel Cave National Monument – Unveiling the Subterranean Marvel on Dakota’s Great 8 Trail
Our 4th Great 8 destination is Jewel Cave National Monument. It is a few miles west of Custer, South Dakota. President Theodore Roosevelt designated the cave as a national monument in 1908. It is the second longest cave system in the US and they estimated that only 5% has been explored at this timeframe. There is no fee to enter the monument, but there is a fee for the different cave tours. Again, Ranger-led tours are the only way you can visit Jewel Cave.
We took the 1.25 hour Scenic Tour making reservations online. It covers 0.5-miles with over 700 descending steps, making it moderately strenuous. The tour elevator descends 200 feet below ground. During the tour, you see ‘soda straw’ stalactites and stalagmites, cave bacon, calcite crystals in many of the rooms and passageways. Our Ranger guide was very helpful and knowledgeable-explaining each of the formations. Near the end of the tour, the ranger will even turn out all the lights so you can experience total darkness. It was really eerie.
There are three hiking trails close to the Visitor Center at Jewel Cave National Park. Two self-guided trails -Roof Trail (0.25-miles) and Canyons Trail (3.5 mile). Be sure to visit the natural entrance in the historic area of the park. This is where the Lantern tour starts.
Stop 5: Crazy Horse Memorial – A Tribute to a Warrior’s Legacy on Dakota’s Great 8 Journey
Our 5th Great 8 destination was the Crazy Horse Memorial. It is just a short 40-minute drive from Mount Rushmore. It has taken 70 years for the Crazy Horse Memorial on Thunderhead Mountain to reach its current stage. However, it is still a work in progress, and as it stands, it is rather impressive. Thunderhead mountain and the Black hills hold much spiritual significance for the Lakota people. An Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, was revered by his people. He and his warriors were integral in the fight against Custer at Little Bighorn. We learned a lot about Crazy Horse on our short bus tour to the base of the monument. (Cost is $4.00)
Visitors to the site can see a smaller replica of what the completed monument will look like outside the museum. From a distance, you can still observe the actual carving of the mountain currently taking place.
The Crazy Horse Memorial area also has a museum, a gift shop, a restaurant, and a Native American Cultural and Educational Center. We explored the Sculpture Home and Studio. Here you can see the original log cabin where sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski lived with his family and created many of his earlier works. The Mountain Carving Gallery has detailed interactive exhibits that tell the story of creating the monument. For us, the most appealing museum is the Indian Museum of North America, which houses documents, photos, and artifacts detailing the history of over 300 Native American nations.
Stop 6: Countless Wildlife Encounters & Hiking in Custer State Park – Nature’s Bounty on Dakota’s Great 8 Adventure
It doesn’t matter what time of year you visit, Custer State Park. has something for everyone. This state park was our 6th Great 8 destination in the heart of the Black Hills. The park entry fee is only $20 for a pass that is good for up to 7 days. Sylvan lake is often called the ‘Crown Jewel’ of Custer State Park. We stopped here after a thrilling drive on Needles Highway to enjoy a picnic lunch and walk the Shore Trail through a 1.1-mile loop around the lake. Several hiking trails originate at this beautiful lake.
Custer State Park hiking ranks top for many visitors to the park. The most popular trail is Black Elk Peak. It is South Dakota’s highest point, at 7,242 feet. Get an early start along the 6.5 mile trail to the top Mountain Fire Lookout Tower. If you prefer a shorter trail, Cathedral Spires Trail is a short 3-mile to view awe-inspiring granite needles. We saw lots of wildlife on the trails, including mountain goats.
Interesting fact: they filmed “National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets” here. The incredible granite outcroppings made for a perfect setting.
Discover Dakota’s Great 8 Scenic Byways: The Road to Unforgettable Adventures
Custer State Park has a few intriguing sightseeing routes over its 73,000-acre expanse. The Needles highway and the Iron Mountain highway are both part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. The narrow roadway passes through tight tunnels offering spectacular panoramic views of granite peaks, rolling green meadows and clear running trout streams. However, the most popular scenic drive is the 18-mile Wildlife loop. The notorious “begging burros” are hard to miss. Although we prefer not to feed the wildlife, the rangers do not prevent visitors from feeding the animals. It is a cool experience to bring a bag of carrots! If you want to see bison, then this is the definitely where you will find them. Over 1,500 bison live in the park, freely wandering the grasslands. We also saw bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, deer, and elk along the loop.
Iron Mountain is a stunning drive through the Black Hills. It extends 17-miles from Mount Rushmore to the junction of US Route 16A and State Route 36 in Custer National Park. The road features 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, three pigtail bridges, and three one-lane tunnels. There is one tunnel that is perfectly aligned to frame Mount Rushmore.
It might make more sense to call them “Corkscrew Bridges,” which wouldn’t be as cute as Pigtail Bridges. These are along Iron Mountain Road in Mount Rushmore National Park. To gain altitude without disturbing the terrain, Cecil Clyde Gideon designed this in 1932. Awesome!
Stop 7: Historic Deadwood – A Glimpse into the Wild, Wild West on Dakota’s Great 8 Journey
It is hard to not associate the small town of Deadwood with Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Our 7th Great 8 destination, they designated the entire 1870s gold rush era town a historic landmark in 1961. During those wild frontier days, the town was flush with get-rich prospectors, seeking their fortunes. Gambling houses, bawdy bordellos, and saloons sprang up on the mining town’s main street. Lawlessness was rampant. Today visitors to this boisterous boom town can experience all the wild west offered through shootout reenactments that happen on main street every day. It is like stepping back into another time. Get a drink at Nuttal & Mann’s No. 10 Saloon, where “Wild Bill” Hickok met his untimely demise. The town’s legendary gunslinger was shot down in the Saloon while playing poker.
Be sure to pay your respects to the dead by making the climb to Mount Moriah Cemetery to find the final resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Consider a guided tour of the original site of the Shasta Rooms brothel or try your luck in the casino. Looking for the real Deadwood, we took a walk through the Adams Museum to learn the history behind the story of Seth Bullock. Also purchase a combination ticket with the Days of ’76 Museum honors Deadwood’s first pioneers. They exhibit exceptional depictions of early life in the Dakota Territory, real insight on what life is in the 1800s.
Stop 8: Missouri River – Experiencing an Excessive Expanse on the Last Leg of the Iconic Great 8 Journe
Last but not least, our 8th Great 8 destination is the mighty Missouri River, which weaves its way across this great state. Throughout the Missouri National Recreational River area are many artificial reservoirs that create recreational opportunities for kayaking, fishing, paddle boarding or swimming to escape the heat of summer. In Yankton, South Dakota, we stopped to at the Sacred Heart Cemetery to see the gravestone of Jack McCall. He shot Wild Bill Hickok while he was holding Aces and Eights (later called the deadman’s hand) at the No 10 saloon in Deadwood. Here we walked to the Meridian Bridge. It spans the Missouri River between South Dakota and Nebraska. In the heart of America, this is a great place for photos.
Near Chamberlain, South Dakota, the amazing Dignity Statue stands 50 feet tall and is 32 feet wide. A stunning tribute to Sacajawea, she overlooks the Missouri River. In the rest area, they dedicated a small museum to the 1803 Lewis and Clark Exposition.
If you have the time, make the journey from Rapid City to Medora, North Dakota, to take in the sights at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. You will not regret the 4-hour drive through boundless prairie. The canyon is a delight of colors and wildlife. Carved over millions of years by the Little Missouri River. We saw bighorn sheep, feral horses, prairie dogs, bison and more on many of the trails.
If you are in the Black Hills, consider adding a day trip to see Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming as part of your itinerary.
Accommodations: Where to Stay on Your Extraordinary Journey
Lodges and campgrounds are available in many Black Hills communities. The closest town to Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park is Keystone. Hill City, Custer, and Rapid City are also reasonable choices.
Just outside the Black Hills, we stayed at Nemo in an Airbnb, further away from the hustle and bustle. It was cheaper than staying in a hotel. There are also cheaper lodging in Sturgis, Spearfish, Lead, and Deadwood. You can also visit Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower from either of these towns, since they are more centrally located.
In North Dakota, we found a comfy Airbnb in the small central town of Belfield. Accommodations are mostly limited to Medora, Dickenson and Belfield. Campgrounds can be found in town or in the National park at both the north and south units.
What to Wear: Dressing for Dakota’s Changing Seasons and Adventures
The temperatures vary in both North & South Dakota depending on elevation and the seasons. It was unseasonably cooler during our stay. The following is a general packing list to consider for your road trip.
Walking or hiking shoes– Having the right hiking boots is perhaps the most important thing you can do to enjoy the trails. For boardwalks, KEEN hiking sandals will do.
Pants–If you’re walking through high prairie grasses, you’ll want to wear pants, so your legs don’t pickup disease-causing ticks.
Fleece Jacket because you just never know when that chill wind will blow. Weather can change quickly depending on elevation. I usually carry my rain jacket just in case. On this trip, it rained most afternoons.
Headlamp–I carry my headlamp around all the time when we’re hiking. Especially important when photographing sunset and returning after dark to the trailhead. Warning sign reminders of rattlesnakes are at every park.
Long-sleeved Shirt–A long sleeve shirt will help protect you from mosquitos, ticks and the hot sun. We choose a light loose-fitting shirt that is UPF 50+ – blocks 98% of UVA/UVB rays-with repelling technology.
Essential Accessories: Packing for a Memorable Dakota Journey
Hiking poles–These will help keep you steady if you’re climbing hills, muddy trails and traversing streams. They’re not totally necessary, but we found them helpful.
Compact binoculars – You might want a pair of the best compact binoculars when you are out hiking or exploring the great outdoors. Waterproof/Fog-proof is best.
Dry bag–This is a must if you’re fishing, kayaking or canoeing. You’ll want to keep your phone and camera dry while you’re on the water.
Bug spray–You’ll want to bring this when you visit, but especially if you want to go in the summer.
Snacks–These are more important for long hikes, but you never know when your stomach will growl. We always take Kind Bars and trail mix, along for a quick snack.
Water bottle–It’ll be hot while hiking, and you’ll need to stay hydrated, especially when elevation is in the mix. You can stay hydrated with a good Hydration Backpack that includes a water bladder. It should stay cold for up to 24 hours.
Sunglasses–This is a must, especially with the strong summer sun. We always choose polarized glasses that reflect glare.
Final Thoughts: Memories of a Lifetime: Exploring 8 Great Destinations in the Dakotas
We hope this guide with 8 great destinations will help you plan a Dakota’s road trip, no matter how much time you have. All these iconic destinations are perfect for a road trip if you are traveling through the Black Hills and Badlands of South or North Dakota. Although we don’t leave a trace, we take something with us because each outing leaves us with a distinctive lifetime memory.
What draws you to the outdoors? What memories and traditions will you create? How many of the Dakota’s Great 8 have you visited? Share your stories and memories with us in the comments below!