There are certain states that are often overlooked when traveling within the United States and South Dakota tends to be one of them. Yet, South Dakota is packed with some of the oldest and richest history, beauty and adventure the United States has to offer!
South Dakota is great to visit with families because it is less populated, it has some of the most beautiful parks in the United States, and you will see things here that you can’t see anywhere else in the world.
Late August through October are the best times to visit South Dakota with April and May as alternatives. Although spring months can be wet and cold, the Hills’ dry weather patterns make fall visits ideal.
Depending on where you live, make South Dakota an epic family road trip or you can find flights into Rapid City which is a great starting point for exploring South Dakota and the surrounding areas.
Tip: Traveling with kids is lots of fun, but can be stressful at times. Prepare for your road trip with your kids so the family stays sane for the drive or check out our tips when flying with kids too!
Here is our suggested (and approved) itinerary for exploring South Dakota with your kids:
Day 1-2: Badlands National Park
The Badlands National Park by itself is a good reason to visit South Dakota. The park is filled with “badlands”, which describes a dry crumbly terrain where softer sedimentary rock has been eroded by wind and water. This type of erosion will leave interesting rock formations that you will see everywhere in the park.
In the Badlands National Park, you will see prairie dogs and bighorn sheep. At the Visitor Center, there is a great fossil lab where you can watch paleontologists at work and kids can learn to find their own fossils!
Where to Stay
The cabins inside the Badlands National Park book up fast! Consider Frontier Cabins as well which is just a couple miles outside the park. These cabins offer a kitchen with everything but an oven. (Freezer space is a little small as the fridges are not full size).
Kids will love the play area with slides and a fire pit for nightly s’mores. Parents will appreciate that there is a separation between the living room area and the location of two queen beds for more space than your average size hotel room.
Tip: Book the cabins in advance and bring a picnic lunch for the day. Also, let your kids hunt for fossils – ours found a tooth!
Day Three: Wall Drug Store & A Mustang Experience
Stop at the famous Wall Drug Store on your way out of the Badlands – a fun roadside attraction/shopping mall full of dining, activities, gifts, and souvenirs, visitor information and their infamous free water (they’ve been giving free water to travelers for over 80 years). There are lots of great history books on the west and Native Americans in the bookstore here. Next, head to Hot Springs, South Dakota.
Next, head to see Wild Mustangs in Hot Springs, SD. Learn about the history of mustangs in the US and then head out to see these beautiful horses. Kids will learn animal appreciation and ways to protect our wildlife.
After learning about wild animals today, take a step back in time to learn about the large animals that once roamed the plains of South Dakota. The largest mammoth concentration in the world is in Mammoth Hot Springs. This experience starts with a 10-minute video explaining how and why mammoth fossils were found here and then an hour tour through the mammoth dig site. Plan about 2 hours here or more if your kids are really into fossils and paleontology. If you come earlier in the summer, there is a program where kids can actually do some fossil digging.
Where to Stay
Stay at an amazing Airbnb perfect for families. In addition to a clean and roomy space, this Airbnb also has a miniature pony, a swing, a firepit, a chicken coop converted into a playhouse, and grasshoppers the kids will love to chase. It is a kid’s heaven!
Tips: Make sure you have a vehicle that can handle gravel roads and rough terrain. This area is wonderfully “off the grid.”
Some great horse movies to watch before meeting mustangs include Sea Biscuit and Secretariat.
Day Four: Custer State Park
Custer State Park is both gorgeous and vast! Spend the morning fishing at Legion Lake where there is a hook ‘em and cook ‘em program in the park. (note: these programs end in late summer.) If you miss the program, consider buying some inexpensive fishing rods (or packing them in the car) for some kid-friendly angling.
End the day at the Wildlife Jeep Safari and Chuck Wagon Dinner – the best wildlife safari outside of southern Africa (in our opinion). See herds of buffalo, prairie dogs, coyotes, badgers, deer, antelope and more.
Tip: The Chuck Wagon dinner can be crowded, but worth the fun experience. It has live entertainment, which kids and adults will love.
Day Five: Crazy Horse Memorial and A Trail Ride
Start the morning at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Don’t miss the 20-minute film to better understand this significant project and the history of “Crazy Horse” who was a Native American war leader of the Oglala Lakota. Watch as Lakota dancers perform with the Crazy Horse Memorial in the backdrop. There is a bus tour up to the memorial but kids will love simply taking in the kid-friendly museum and art studio.
Tips: Bring your own food and enjoy a meal or snack at the picnic tables set up on the observation deck. If you’re Native American with a tribal card, entry is free!
Next, head to the Stables at Palmer Gulch where you can ride horses. This particular ride was perfect for younger kids – the trail guide kept the kids engaged throughout the ride. If you are a more experienced rider, check out some other riding options available in the area.
Tip: Most of the riding stables in the area do not allow kids under the age of 5 to ride horses, so call ahead if this is a concern. Thus why we choose to ride at Palmer Gulch.
Day Six: Mount Rushmore
Visit the iconic Mount Rushmore National Monument. Plan on a couple of hours to hike up a little for some additional photo opportunities. There is a great video in the main center that gives everyone insight into the history and creation of this monument. After, your kids may debate and discuss whether or not there are hidden tunnels and treasures in the heads of the Mt. Rushmore Presidents.
In the afternoon, board the 1880 Steam Train for an afternoon train ride leaving from Keystone (close to Mount Rushmore) and traveling to Hill City and back. The train takes you on a wonderfully narrated ride through the Black Hills and is great for train enthusiasts of all ages. The scenery is awesome on this 2-hour ride.
Tips: You can bring food and coolers on the train to keep younger kids happy and fed. High-energy kiddos may get a little restless on the 2-hour ride so consider staying longer in Hill City and catching a later train back.
Where to Stay
Have you tried glamping? It’s where camping in tents meets king size beds with full linens and private bathrooms. Under Canvas Mt. Rushmore, offers just this experience with a stunning view of Mt. Rushmore in the backdrop. There is a full-service restaurant here, a small play area for kids and a fire pit for nightly s’mores. There is no wifi here and the stargazing is magical.
Day Seven: Deadwood
Deadwood is a great town to explore if your family is into the Wild West! Learn about famous cowboys and cowgirls such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Explore the cemetery where both of them are buried, ride a trolley, watch a shootout reenactment in the street, or tour an old mine.
Tips and “good to knows” for South Dakota:
-Half the state of South Dakota is in Mountain Time.
-The Speed Limit is 80 mph.
-Be prepared for summer rain storms—they are intense. The temperature drops upwards of 30 degrees and they can produce high winds and hail.
Check out our Midwest Travel Bucket List which includes South Dakota and more!