South Dakota's location right in the heart of America has historically made the state a road-tripping crossroads. The fact that so many area attractions are worth visiting has kept it popular with those in search of a Great American Road Trip. A group of these attractions, the Great Eight, make up some of the country's most iconic roadside stops, prettiest parks, quirkiest small towns, and legendary monuments. From the scenic, sweeping Missouri River, to the prairies and pinnacles of Badlands National Park, to the stony, stern gaze of the presidents at Mount Rushmore, the Great Eight is as quintessential a road trip as you can find.
Located directly on the border between Nebraska and South Dakota, this 100-mile stretch of the nation's longest (yep, it's 20 miles longer than the Mighty Mississippi!) and most majestic river is truly a sight to see. Thanks to historical markers along the way, you can experience first-hand the many places where the legendary explorers Lewis & Clark stepped foot hundreds of years ago. Unlike some other National Park Service units, the Missouri National Recreational River relies heavily on local communities and volunteers to create a unique experience. Explore by foot, take in the sites by car or boat, and get a taste of the Missouri River. Be sure to check out the Meridian Bridge in Yankton, where you can stand directly over the center of the river.
Take your time exploring the beautiful Badlands National Park of South Dakota, because there’s a nearly endless list of things you can’t afford to miss. Whether you’re looking for the perfect place to camp or a quick trail to hike, the Badlands delivers an experience you won’t forget. Begin your journey by stopping at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to get a feel for all the Badlands has to offer— there's so much more than just natural beauty here. The visitor center has lots of exhibits dedicated to the history and culture of the Badlands. Kids will love the virtual skeletons and fossilized animal casts from the prehistoric inhabitants that used to roam the lands. The Badlands were once home to sabertooth tigers, ancient rhinos, crocs, and much more. And then there's the geology of the hills. Hundreds of years of erosion have left some of the most breathtaking sedimentary layers you’ll ever get the chance to see. Make your trip worthwhile by working your way along the Highway 240 Loop Road, which gives you a little taste of everything the Badlands has to offer.
After your time at Badlands, stop by Wind Cave National Park to explore the special features hidden below South Dakota's surface. As you take a guided, ranger-led tour of part of the 10-mile cave, keep your eyes peeled for the countless cave formations within. Gypsum, frostwork, popcorn, flowstone, crystals, and, of course, the rare boxwork can all be seen. After exploring the caves, set your sights on some of the amazing wildlife that calls the park home— above the surface, that is. Make a game of spotting the various birds, or watch as the bison and buffalo roam the park. If you’re lucky, you might even be able to spot an elk or two. The cave tours are first-come, first-serve, so plan to get here early to snag the tour you're most interested in (the candlelight tours are especially cool, the Garden of Eden tour is the easiest, and the Natural Entrance Tour is the most popular).
Wind Cave is cool, but it's not the only unique cavern in South Dakota. How does exploring the world’s third-longest cave sound? With more than 193 miles of tunnels and paths to explore, you could spend days exploring the nooks and crannies of Jewel Cave National Monument. Choose from four different types of tours— from light and relaxed to taxing — and take in all the cave has to offer. The cave’s rich diversity of rock and its unique formations are certain to impress everyone in your group. New discoveries are constantly being made here, and Jewel Cave is full of surprises no matter how many times you visit. Once above ground, be sure to explore the surrounding pine forest for a breath of fresh air!
Custer State Park is one of the most popular state parks in the country, and it's not hard to see why. With Mount Rushmore just a short drive away, and thousands of acres of stunning Black Hills landscape to explore, it's a gem among parks. Plus, it's home to thousands of bison— it’s not uncommon to find yourself mere feet from them as you drive through the park. While the bison don’t care much for your time and will happily block the road, they do offer some great photo opportunities and are quite the sight up close and personal. Make sure to visit Sylvan Lake, the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center, or just drive the incredible Needles Highway as it winds among (and through!) towering granite pillars.
Often overshadowed by Mount Rushmore right down the road, Crazy Horse Mountain Memorial is worth a visit in its own right... even though it's not technically finished yet. Crazy Horse Memorial construction started in 1948 and continues to this day. When complete, it will be one of the largest statues in the world. Built to honor the Lakota chief Crazy Horse, the monument depicts him looking out into the distance over all his people’s land.
The privately-owned organization responsible for the project is a large part of the local community, and places a heavy emphasis on education with their foundation work. While there is some controversy over the monument itself (Crazy Horse never wanted to be photographed, so it's hard to guess how he might have felt about being memorialized in the side of a mountain), the sheer size of the project and the history it represents are impressive.
One of the most iconic monuments in all of the world, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a sculpture carved into a dramatic granite mountain that depicts four previous US presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. While seeing the monument up close and personal is worth the price of admission alone, the short film on the history of the monument is a must-watch, especially for the history buffs in your group.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting Mount Rushmore is the clear pride the local community and volunteers have for their monument. Virtually every person involved with the monument's upkeep is happy to answer questions and is clearly passionate about sharing its history with the world. It’s fun to see so many cultures and tourists around the world come together and marvel at a huge piece of United States history. Be sure to book a tour if you really want to get the most out of your visit.
End your amazing trip through South Dakota with a stop in Deadwood, one of South Dakota’s most well-known cities. Located smack-dab in the center of the Black Hills Gold Rush of 1874, Deadwood has quite the storied past. It was home to Wild West legends like Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny, Seth Bullock, and more. Most famously, gunman Wild Bill Hickok was shot in the back by a drunk named Jack McCall during a game of poker in Saloon No. 10 here. Re-enactments of the fatal poker game occur in Deadwood to this day. This tiny gold camp town played a huge role in the development of South Dakota, and continues to be a popular tourist destination. While the town of Deadwood has survived a few fires and economic collapses over the years, today it is home to some fantastic nightlife, casinos, and restaurants, giving you the perfect excuse to stop by and have some fun. Be sure to take in the town's Mount Moriah Cemetery to pay your respects to Wild Bill and Calamity Jane, and check out the view of town.
Whether it's taking in the gorgeous sights of Custer National Park, or learning about the history of Mt. Rushmore, this South Dakota trip is sure to be one you remember for a lifetime. Get lost exploring the many caves of South Dakota, snag a photo with buffalo inches from your car, and even set foot on a bridge directly over the center of the Missouri River. This is a trip you'll be glad you took.
In just a few hours, you can journey from the mighty Missouri river to the legendary Black Hills. Then, drift through Deadwood, roll through the Badlands, or parade past Mount Rushmore. There are many paths to each great place. Start planning for South Dakota - the ultimate American road trip.