SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — With summer just weeks away, many are likely itching to get out of the house, hit the road and see some sights. But you don’t have to go far to see incredible sights, as our region of the country hosts many scenic rides, both on highways and back roads. Below are our personal picks for some of the best road trips available in KELOLAND.
This list is by no means comprehensive, and these routes were built through the aggregation of personal experiences and online travel recommendations. Please note that while some of these routes are characterized as day trips, the length of time they take will depend on the time you spend at each stop. Each of these trips could also constitute a multi-day adventure in KELOLAND. Buckle up and enjoy!
The Missouri River Cruise
Our first trip is one that rolls along the banks of the Missouri, the longest river in the United States.
Our route begins in the small university town of Vermillion, home to the University of South Dakota. The town is full of many shops, restaurants and bars, as well as a national music museum. From here, we start our journey by dipping south into Nebraska, hopping onto the gently rolling Nebraska Outlaw Trail Scenic Byway that weaves its way across the bluff along the river.
Before too long, we head back north and into South Dakota to cross the Missouri a second time via the Fort Randall Dam on our way into Pickstown. From here we head north, temporarily leaving the river as we stair-step our way up to Chamberlain, where you can give yourself a rest by hopping across the water to Oacoma to visit Al’s Oasis where you can find shops, dining and lodging.
Next head back up north, now jumping onto the Native American National and State Scenic Byway, which takes us through the Crow Creek Sioux Tribal Reservation on the way to the state capital of Pierre.
Here we once again cross the river, moving northeast along Lake Oahe, the largest manmade lake in the nation, created by the damming of the river above Pierre. As we continue, we again leave the river behind, heading to Eagle Butte, the Tribal Headquarters of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe where travelers can find the Cheyenne River Cultural Center.
Next we head northeast, back toward the river, where we find Sitting Bull Monument overlooking the waters. Finally we continue north, crossing the famous Singing Bridge to follow highway 12 west to the North Dakota border, the end of our route, but the gateway to further adventure.
The Black Hills Loop(s)
DISCLAIMER: The Black Hills region is full of countless amazing and stunning locations. We could not possibly fit them all into one trip, and most places warrant an entire trip to themselves.
For this trip, we selected the city of Spearfish, home of Black Hills State University, with its many retail and dining options for our starting point. From here we head south into Spearfish Canyon, where the road winds between soaring canyon walls. Hiking opportunities are myriad, but parking is not. Watch out for cars on the shoulder, cyclists and bikers.
After exiting the canyon, we continue southeast into the heart of the Hills, through Hill City, which hosts a number of places where you can eat. We pass by Pactola Lake before making the steep climb up to Sylvan Lake, a not-so-hidden gem that marks the trailhead up to Black Elk Peak, a lengthy hike. The area also hides the location known as Poets Table. Not marked on the map, to find it hikers will need a familiar guide, good fortune or detailed instructions, which will not be provided here. Best of luck!
Leaving Sylvan Lake, we weave our way through the Needles Highway, a stretch of road hosting towering spires of rock with stunning views of the Hills between them.
As we wrap around back to the north, we veer west, heading for Keystone, a stretch of road that takes us through narrow tunnels and the looping ‘pigtails.’
Feel free to stop by Mt. Rushmore, though many suggest skipping the official viewing area for potentially better views around the bend. Afterwards, head back down into Keystone where you’ll find plenty of dining opportunities, as well as everything you could want in terms of Black Hills tourist shops.
After this, it is a short drive north to Rapid City, the largest metro in west river. Our route does not go into Rapid, but don’t let us stop you, as you will find plenty to do.
The final main leg of our journey takes us on a pretty drive through forested hills up the road to Nemo. There are hiking opportunities scattered all along this stretch of road, though some of the best are hard to spot.
Eventually we find ourselves pulling into Deadwood, the closest you’ll find to a stereotypical ‘old west’ town in the state. If gambling is your thing, this is the place for you. You can take old-timey photos here too.
After leaving Deadwood, we wind our way down in elevation, hop onto I-90, and take a quick jaunt down the road back into Spearfish. What a trip.
Rapid City Area Badlands Day Trip
Sometimes all you need is a short getaway; a quick trip away from home that has you back in your own bed by sundown. If you’re in the Rapid City area, this Badlands loop is the drive for you. To start out, simply hop onto I-90 and go east towards Wall.
We’ll be skipping the drug store (for now), and will instead continue along the highway for about 20 miles to the Minuteman Missile Visitors Center. Here you can get an up close look at history with a view into a Cold War era ballistic missile silo.
Leaving behind the war games, simply head south until you reach the entrance to the Badlands National Park. Here you can explore many different hiking trails, or just coast along through the truly alien landscape formed by fascinating geological events. Experienced hikers may embark deeper into the park, while novices may want to stick closer to the roads. No matter what, watch out for rattle snakes.
After meandering our way through the park, we will dip out early, heading back north to the town of Wall and its world famous drug store. Be sure to stop in for the 5¢ coffee and (drum roll please) free ice water! There is also a T-rex. Do with that info what you will.
After leaving Wall, just hop back onto the interstate and make your way home with a low tank of gas and head full of fresh new memories.
Sioux Falls Area Day Trip
Say you live on the east side of the state, specifically the Sioux Falls area. Well, have we got the day trip for you. We’ll first travel southeast to reach Good Earth State Park, a lovely place to take in some nature along the trails.
Next we head south, turning just before the Lake Alvin State Recreation Area (also not a bad place to stop), before crossing the Big Sioux and zipping up the Iowa side of the river to visit Gitchie Manitou State Preserve. Comprising a large walking loop, this is a pretty spot with a dark history. Enjoy the riverside trails, wildflowers, rock formations and graffiti art.
Next we move north, back into South Dakota, up through Brandon, and all the way up to Palisades State Park, just south of Garretson. Split Rock Creek runs through the heart of this park, where steep canyon walls rise up as if out of nowhere. It’s a small but beautiful location.
After experiencing the Palisades, we encourage you to head north through Garretson to Devils Gulch, where it is said that the lost-cause Confederate outlaw Jesse James jumped the gorge on horseback to escape the law. This spot features a steep canyon, trails, a waterfall and a pleasant upstream area.
Leaving Garretson, we go east, entering Minnesota and finding ourselves at Blue Mound State Park. Here you can enjoy nature along a curved, wooded escarpment of rock featuring hiking trails and creek pools.
If all this natural beauty has you a little underwhelmed, then head on down the road a ways to Luverne, where you can schedule a skydiving excursion if you feel like you’d rather jump out of a plane than take a relaxing nature walk.
After landing safely, we round out our trip by zooming back over to Sioux Falls and swinging by the beautiful Falls Park. Take in the natural flow of the water from the viewing platforms or climb higher to the viewing tower to see the whole park.
After a busy day of travel and adventure, coast down Phillips Ave. where you will find a plethora of shops, bars, cafes and restaurants. Enjoy, buy local and head home happy.
Eastern South Dakota Loop
But what if you’re not near the river, not near the hills and not too close to Sioux Falls? What if you’re in, say, Bristol or Aberdeen? Well luckily the northeast portion of the state is also home to some hidden gems.
For our loop here, we will choose an arbitrary starting point of Aberdeen, where the first stop on the trip is Storybook Land. Take in the magical theme-parkesque attraction with fun for the whole family.
After this, we head just to the northwest, where we find the Richmond Lake Recreation Area. Here you can enjoy swimming and other lakeside activities. KELOLAND’s Grant Sweeter recommends the disc golf course, which he says is second to none.
After this we’ll head east, moving through the lake area to the town of Waubay where you will find yourself driving at times on what seems like a solitary bridge with lake water lapping at the shores just feet off each side of the road.
Before long, we reach I-29 and zip southward to Watertown where we find the Bramble Park Zoo, filled with exciting wildlife. After that joyous experience, slow things down by heading across town and taking a contemplative walk through the Redlin Art Center.
Leaving behind the cultural hotspot of Watertown, we move south to Brookings, home of South Dakota State University, but stopping off first at the shores of Lake Poinsett on the way. Once you reach Brookings, we recommend taking a gander around the town to see the shops and restaurants. KELOLAND.com reporter Ariana Schumacher recommends talking a walk around the Dakota Nature Park or even doing some fishing in the ponds. Before leaving though, be sure to stop by the McCrory Gardens on the SDSU campus.
For more natural beauty and fun, we head on down to Lake Madison before heading up to De Smet to see the childhood home of beloved author Laura Ingalls Wilder. After taking in the history, it’s just a quick and quiet ride back up to Aberdeen for the end of the trip.
South Dakota Perimeter Loop
This final trip is for the true adventurer without a solid goal in mind. Here we have constructed what we lovingly call the ‘South Dakota Perimeter Loop.’ This route takes ambitious drivers on a ring road-style trip that stays as close to the South Dakota border as possible without ever actually crossing it.
Several portions of the trip will find you actually driving on the actual border, so we recommend a clockwise approach to keep on the South Dakota side of the line.
NOTE: KELOLAND News has not road-tested all of these routes for road conditions.
This route covers an undetermined number of miles, but a driver could likely go from Sioux Falls to Washington, D.C. in the same time it will take to complete this loop. What you gain in an off-the-beaten-path view of South Dakota’s back roads with many surprises sprinkled throughout.
Explore the map below to see some of the many noteworthy places we’ve identified.