While you will find many recommended road tip itineraries on most places in America the same cannot be said about North & South Dakota. These are very big states with many attractions but besides the Black Hills they are very spread out. I wanted to plan a North & South Dakota trip to see as many main attractions as possible, visit all the National Park Units in the area without missing any and collect all the passport stamps. This took quite a bit of planning beforehand as many of the Parks are closed on different days of the week. In the end we decided that 11 days & 10 nights at 7 different locations to would be enough complete this road trip.
Minneapolis was our starting and ending point as it was an easy direct flight from NYC. We could have started in Fargo and ended in Sioux Falls but there were no direct flights to these cities which meant the extra stop over would take just as long as driving from Minneapolis. So in the end Minneapolis made more sense as a starting & ending point. We drove through North Dakota on the I-94 heading west and then took the I-90 east through South Dakota.
Both North & South Dakota’s landscapes are very open and uncrowded nearly everywhere. Most of the landscape is flat land or rolling hills with farmland and ranches with the exception of the Badlands on the Western part of the states that is mountainous & rugged. The big cities of Fargo & Sioux Falls are on the east were most of these states population is located.
You are welcome to read more about my trip in detail below. I have posted many helpful links and maps which anyone can use for their road trip in the beautiful states of North & South Dakota.
Duration: 11 days, 10 nights
5 states: Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana
10 national parks passport stamps: Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Park, Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site, Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Badlands National Park, Minute Man Missile National Historic Site, Pipestone National Monument.
Day 1: Minneapolis – Fargo (driving time 3.5 hours) Flew into Minneapolis airport early from NYC, rented a car and headed towards Fargo, North Dakota’s largest city.
- Hjemkomst Center – replicas of a Viking ship & Church 1hr.
- Plains Art Museum 1-2 hrs.
- Downtown Fargo – Parked near Fargo theatre, walked around downtown 2hrs.
- Slept in Fargo
Best Western Kelly Inn & Suites Fargo – kids loved the free water park
Bites & drinks:
Day 2: Fargo – Bismarck (driving time 3 hours)
- Fargo Moorehead Visitors Center – original woodchipper from Fargo & souvenirs 20 min.
- Bonanzaville – historic village complex with over 40 buildings, open from May to September (it was closed so we missed this one).
- Jamestown – National Buffalo Museum, World’s Largest Buffalo Statue and Frontier Village 1.5 hrs.
- Slept in Bismarck – the capitol of North Dakota
Bites & drinks:
Fargo – Black Coffee & Waffle Bar
Jamestown – Sabir’s Buffalo Grill
Day 3: Bismarck – Medora (driving time including all the stops below was 4.5 hrs). This was a busy day but we managed to see everything stated below, got to the national park before 4:30 and saw the whole Enchanted Highway before dusk. It was late April so the days were long.
- Downtown Bismarck – breakfast & short walk 1/2 hr.
- Former Governor’s Mansion – stopped for a quick picture.
- North Dakota State Capitol grounds – observatory was closed.
- North Dakota Heritage & State Museum – Dinosaur skeletons, rocks and native artifacts 1-2 hrs.
- Keel Boat Parkvs Fort Abraham Lincoln ParkWe only had time for one state park. We ended up choosing Fort Abraham Park, we hiked for a bit and saw the Custer State House, it was interesting but we left wondering if we should have went to Keel Boat Park instead.
- Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Park (1 hr. drive from Bismarck) – Got there before 4:30 and stamped our passports, we saw the reconstructed earth lodge and hiked the village trail 1.3 miles. It took us 2 hrs. to see everything.
- After Knife River Indian Villages we drove through the town of Golden Valley just for the heck of it and we found 2 friendly hay statues.
- Enchanted Highway – Once on I-94 heading west we turned left on Gladstone to see the many large metal sculptures and drive all the way down to Regent were the Enchanted highway ends. We fell upon the Enchanted Castle Hotel , one of the quirkiest hotels ever, there is a bar and restaurant also.
- Medora – There is only 1 hotel in Medora the AmericaInn by Wyndham Medora (windows opened) . We booked a room here because if we stayed in Dickinson that would add about 40 min each way driving to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Plus Dickinson looked like just another big city while Medora is a relaxed old western town.
Bites & drinks:
Bismarck – Peacock Alley
Day 4: Medora – 2 national parks (total driving time 5 hrs.)
- Fort Union Trading Post National Historic Site ( 2 hr. drive from Medora)- Stamped our passports and saw the fort 1hr. *Alert: Fort Union Trading Post Visitors Center runs on Central time, so just be aware that you will be arriving 1 hour later.
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit (1.5 hr. drive from Fort union) . Avoided the crowds and visited the North Unit, we found it to be quieter and more spectacular than the south. The visitors center with the passport stamp from Nov. – March is closed on Tues. Wed. & Thurs. We drove the The North Unit’s 28 mile scenic drive and saw lots of bison, then hiked both the Little Mo Nature Trail & the Caprock Coulee Nature Trail which gave a great overview of the park. We took our time and stayed at the park about 4-5 hours in total.
- Painted Canyon Visitor Center – See the overlook and do the hike if you have time. It’s about 10 min right before Medora.
- Slept in Medora
Bites & drinks:
Most restaurants and shops were closed in April.
Day 5: Medora to Devil’s Tower
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park South Unit – The weather wasn’t great so we mostly drove to explore the south unit. The scenic loop took about 1.5 hrs. to drive through, when we did it the road was closed off towards the end of the loop so we had to drive all the way back. We also did not make it to the ElkHorn Ranch it is about an hour away.
- Devil’s Tower (driving time 3.5 hrs) – we drove through Montana a bit and noticed how different these states are once we crossed the border. We chose to sleep in the quaint western town of Hulett, WY to be as close as possible to Devil’s Tower which we were going to see in the morning and stayed at the Best Western Devil’s Tower Inn
Day 6: Devil’s Tower to Custer – There is so much to do in the Black Hills, that we chose to stay 3 nights. Deadwood, Spearfish, Keystone, Hill City and Custer are just some of the towns in the area, we chose Custer because of it’s central location and size, it is not too big but not too small, just perfect.
- Hulett – morning stroll, loved all the bones on the storefronts.
- Devils Tower National Monument – Hiked the loop around the tower, and then stamped our passport 2hrs. *Alert: The Visitors Center is closed Monday and sometimes Tuesdays depending on the season, check before going.
- Spearfish Canyon – While heading towards Custer, made a right at Spearfish and headed toward Savoy and drove through this scenic byway.
- Deadwood – It was worth the stop but not our thing, too many casinos and gambling. I am sure there is plenty of stuff to do but we just moved on 2hrs.
- Crazy Horse Memorial – You have to pay a fee, and you don’t actually get up close to the memorial unless you make a hefty donation. We saw the museum and took the bus to the base for some photos 2hrs.
- Slept in Custer – We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites Custer and got a corner room with a balcony (the windows open in rooms without a balcony).
Things we missed – drove through without stopping at the city of Spearfish and never went to Sturgis where the annual motorcycle rally takes place.
Bites & drinks:
Day 7: Custer – 3 scenic drives maybe too much for most, but we figured this was the most efficient way to see as much as possible.
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial – Went early and avoided the crowds 2hrs.
- Iron Mountain Road 17 miles- Headed towards Custer State Park Visitors Center on 16A, this scenic drive requires no fee 1hr.
- Wildlife loop Scenic Byway 18 miles – Headed towards the Wildlife Visitors center and then the Blue Bell Lodge . This scenic drives requires a fee as you are entering Custer State Park 1.5 hrs.
- Needles Highway 14 miles – We continued North on 87 towards Hole in the Wall Picnic Area and then continued on to Sylvan Lake for see this scenic drive 1 hr. The lake was absolutely beautiful, we followed the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail 1.1 miles and walked around the lake which took about an 1 hr.
- Slept in Custer
Things we missed: We did not stop at Keystone to see the town
Bites & drinks:
Day 8: Custer – explored the southern part of the Black Hills
- Wind Cave National Park – Cave tours are ranger guided and tickets were sold out when we got there so we did not get to see the cave itself. We did however walk up to the natural opening of the cave, a small hole were you can feel the powerful wind gushing out. *Alert Visitors Center may not be open every day from October to April, check hours of operation before going,
- Hot Springs – Visited the Mammoth Site to see real ice age fossils of Mammoths. We then went swimming at Evans Plunge Mineral Springs a huge natural spring pool with smooth river rocks on the floor and water slides. I have never experienced a pool like this, it is one of a kind and the spring water feels amazing!
- Head back to Custer and do the Skywalk trail a 45 minute hike to the top of the hill overlooking the city and back.
- Slept in Custer
Day 9: Custer to Rapid City
- Jewel Cave National Monument – There is a 1.5 hour scenic tour available, call in advance for ticket and availability. Unfortunately we didn’t get to see this cave also as it was closed due to an elevator project in progress, this was a real bummer as this cave is a real beauty. We went to the visitors enter and got our passports stamped and then drove and walked to the entrance to at least see that, *Alert Visitors Center is not open Monday, Tuesday & Wednesday from late September – late May, check hours of operation.
- Rapid City – We Spent the rest of our day in the biggest city near the Black Hills. We 1st went to Dinosaur Park for the kids and then downtown to view a few of the 44 life-size bronze statues of our presidents. Click on this link for more attractions Planetware 11 top rated attractions.
- Slept in Rapid City
Bites & drinks:
Day 10: Rapid City to Sioux Falls – driving time is 5hrs. but it took us 7 hrs. because we backtracked to Wall to do the Badlands Loop Road.
- The Wall – We saw a ton of signs on the road for this attraction. It is a building with lots of stores with souvenirs 0.5 hrs.
- Minute Man Missile National Historic Site – the Delta-01 the Launch Control Facility (exit 127) is by guided tour only reservations are required. We visited the Delta-09 Missile Silo only (exit 116 before the visitors center) and then went to the visitors center (exit 131) *Alert Visitors Center not open every day, check hours of operation.
- Badlands National Park – This park is huge, we drove the Badlands Loop Road west all the way back to the wall and stopped at many overlooks. We did not do the Sage Creek Rim Road, or explore the southern part of the park. We chose to see the parks in this order because we were worried that if we started with the Badlands park 1st we would not make it in time to Minuteman to stamp our passports. While adding a few extra mile we got Minuteman out of the way, stamped our passports early at both locations and stayed as long as we wanted at the Badlands.
- Chamberlain – we stopped the American Creek Campground to take a break and look at the Missouri River 0.5 hrs.
- Dignity Statue – right after Chamberlain we took the first exit to view this impressive statue at Sundown 15 min.
- Mitchell Corn Palace – We saw the palace at night with it’s lights, it is used as a stadium for exhibition and games so check the calendar for events 15 min.
- Drive to Sioux Falls – South Dakota’s largest city
Last 1/2 day: Sioux Falls to Minneapolis – driving time 4.5 hrs. We got up early because Minneapolis was a long drive and we had a flight to catch.
- Falls Park – went to the park and saw the falls 1hr.
- Downtown Sioux Falls – walked a few blocks and had breakfast. We did not see much else in Sioux Falls, click on link for more attractions Planetware 10 top-rated attractions Sioux Falls
- Pipestone National Monument – We took a detour to Minneapolis to get to this park. Stamped our passport, saw the red Pipestone Quarries and did the loop hike to the falls, this is a wonderful little park 1.5 hrs. *Alert Visitors Center not open Mondays & Tuesdays during winter month.
- Minneapolis airport – evening flight to NYC