Few places in the United States invoke such strong images of pioneer culture, the Wild West and Native American heritage as the Dakotas do. It’s a spectacular area, characterized by rugged, inhospitable landscapes, iconic wildlife and a wealth of history. The best way to see all of it is by going on a Dakotas national parks road trip.
South and North Dakota are two states in the northern Midwest, both named after the local Lakota and Dakota Sioux tribes. Its rocky landscapes and vast plains are exactly the setting that many people imagine when thinking about Native Americans.
The Dakotas are the location of a few iconic battles in the Indian Wars. These conflicts resulted from clashes between the Native Americans and new settlers and miners who moved in during the Black Hills gold rush and after the construction of a railroad coming from the east. This history and heritage is still very much present in both states. This is still buffalo country and home to many descendants of those Native Americans. This all makes your Dakotas national parks road trip all the more fascinating. It’s somewhat like traveling through America’s pioneering past.
Dakotas National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
The recommend place to start and end this Dakotas national parks road trip is Rapid City, South Dakota. Home to a commercial airport, where you can get a rental car, this is the most conveniently located town in the region.
Day 1: Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park lies about 70 miles to the south of Rapid City, only 10 miles north of the town of Hot Springs. The park was established by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903. It was the seventh national park in the United States and the very first cave that became a national park anywhere on earth.
While buffalo thunder across the plains above, Wind Cave is a completely different world. Named after the pressured air flow at the cave’s entrance, it is one of the most complex and longest caves in the world. In particular, it’s renowned for its so-called boxwork, a unique type of calcite formations. Its intricate network of passageways, tunnels and chambers makes it one of the world’s densest cave systems.
Wind Cave National Park also encompasses the area above ground, which is home to the largest surviving natural prairie area in America. You’re encouraged to go for a cave tour and a drive through the park. Find yourself a nice place to sleep in Hot Springs.
Day 2: Custer State Park
On day two of your Dakotas national parks road trip, you’ll head to Custer State Park, situated adjacent to Wind Cave National Park. This park lies only about 20 miles to the north of Hot Springs.
Custer State Park is an exceptional park. It’s one of those American state parks that can compete with many of its national parks in terms of spectacular landscapes, activities and wildlife. Home to a herd of more than 1,000 buffalo, this park also features amazing rock formations and forests.
Take your time and make sure to visit the Limber Pine Natural Area and hike the 2.5-mile Cathedral Spires Trail, which will show you why this area is referred to as South Dakota’s “Needles region”.
Day 3: Jewel Cave National Monument
Located 13 miles west of the town of Custer, Jewel Cave National Monument protects the world’s third-longest cave. Its 180+ miles of mapped passageways, a section of which is accessible to visitors, offer a peek at fragile rock formations in various colors.
A guided tour of Jewel Cave is a mandatory thing to do on a Dakotas national parks road trip. After you’ve checked that off your list, head northeast toward…
Day 4: Mount Rushmore National Memorial
One of America’s most iconic sites and the star attraction in both Dakotas, Mount Rushmore draws in almost three million visitors each year. Carved into the majestic Black Hills, four massive heads of legendary U.S. Presidents—Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln—look out over the landscape.
This is one of those places that you simply must visit once in your lifetime. At the site, you can learn more about the area’s history, including Native American heritage. After your visit, head back toward Rapid Springs, where you’ll spend the night.
Day 5: Badlands National Park
It’s now day five of your epic Dakotas national parks road trip and, today, you’re visiting Badlands National Park. Encompassing 244,000 acres of rugged hills, geological formations and mixed-grass prairie, this is a world-class park.
There’s plenty to see and do here, so you should allow for at least two full days. Definitely drive the scenic 32-mile Badlands Highway Loop Road, which offers superb views of the park’s moonlike landscapes. Additionally, it’s strongly recommended to strap on your hiking boots and go for a hike or two. Great ones are the Notch Trail and the Castle Trail.
If you’re limited on time, you can head back to Rapid City after visiting Badlands National Park. However, you’re absolutely encouraged to allow for more time, make it a slightly longer trip, and head north to North Dakota, where you can visit the amazing…
Day 6 – 7: Theodore Roosevelt National Park
Theodore Roosevelt National Park lies about four hours by car from Rapid City and is the only destination in North Dakota on this Dakotas national parks road trip. Obviously named after the U.S. President, this phenomenal park consists of three different units—the North Unit, the South Unit and the Elkhorn Ranch Unit.
Both the North and South Units feature scenic drives and many miles of fantastic hiking trails. They’re home to huge numbers of wildlife, including buffalo, cougars, coyotes, elk, prairie dogs and other typical Great Plains animals. The Elkhorn Ranch Unit, a rather remote area accessible on unpaved roads, has the ranch once owned by Theodore Roosevelt.
This Dakotas National Parks road trip can be done in just one week (not including Theodore Roosevelt National Park), but it’s advised to set aside ten days. This allows for more freedom of movement—literally—and for you to spend more time in places you really like. Badlands and Theodore Roosevelt National Parks, for instance, both deserve at least two days.