South Dakota has a unique landscape of wide-open prairies, stunning rock formations like in the Badlands, and forested regions in the Black Hills. And, of course, it’s hard to pass through “Mount Rushmore State” without visiting the famous landmark itself!
In this guide, we cover some of the best South Dakota scenic byways; from herds of bison to cascading waterfalls, each of these drives offers something special for road-tripping in South Dakota.
1. South Dakota Scenic Drives: Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway
- Distance: 70 miles
- Time needed: 3 hours to 1 day
If you’re planning to visit Mount Rushmore (and any South Dakota road trip should definitely include this in the itinerary!), then this is the best route to get there.
This scenic drive in South Dakota goes through regions of Custer State Park and the Black Elk National Wilderness Area, giving you excellent opportunities for viewing wildlife and some of the most picturesque regions of the state on your way to Mount Rushmore.
The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway was actually named one of the 10 Most Outstanding Byways in America. You’ll understand why once you start on the drive and see the spectacular vistas, hairpin turns along the mountains, and characteristic bridges that make up the drive! Thankfully there are plenty of places where you can pull off to snap photos or stop for a picnic lunch to appreciate the view better.
In addition to Mount Rushmore, some of the notable stopping points on this scenic drive in South Dakota include the Crazy Horse Memorial and the Cathedral Spires Trail. The entire drive makes a roughly figure-eight shape, with a good starting point in the Keystone town close to Mount Rushmore.
When to go: This drive is best from spring to fall when the weather is warm and you can enjoy hiking and other outdoor activities.
2. South Dakota Scenic Drives: Wildlife Loop State Scenic Byway
- Distance: 18 miles
- Time needed: 1 hour or more, depending on stops (or wildlife crossings!)
The name of this route is self-explanatory-it’s one of the best scenic drives in South Dakota to see amazing wildlife like bison, elk, pronghorn, and prairie dogs. Sometimes travelers will also spot wild burros who are often curious and bold enough to come right up to the vehicles!
If you’re interested in getting out to explore more, there are also two hiking trails located on this byway: The Prairie Trail and the Centennial Trail. The Prairie Trail is a very easy three-mile loop which is particularly beautiful in the spring when wild prairie flowers are in full bloom. The Centennial Trail is a bit more difficult, and the entire trail extends 22 miles into Custer State Park.
Keep in mind when taking this scenic route that you’ll often need to drive slowly (or even come to a stop) as bison or elk herds will often cross over the road. Numerous signs along the way remind travelers not to approach or feed the animals. They may seem curious and friendly, but it’s best to maintain your distance for everyone’s safety.
When to go: Any time of year is good for this drive, although summer is usually the best time for viewing wildlife.
3. South Dakota Scenic Drives: Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway
- Distance: 39 miles
- Time needed: 2 hours to 1 day
Badlands National Park is one of the most characteristic regions of South Dakota and is a place unlike anywhere else in the world. Sometimes described as having a “lunar” appearance, the park’s rocky formations and deep gullies put it in a league of its own in terms of natural beauty.
This loop is one of the best drives in South Dakota to appreciate the landscape, and thanks to the 16-pull-off overlook, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to get out and take photos.
The drive will bring you straight to the Badlands Interior Entrance if you’re planning on spending more time in the park, but it’s also easy to include this drive through South Dakota as part of a longer road trip if you’re just passing through the state.
Badlands is considered one of the best places to hike in South Dakota, so if you have time to explore one of the trails along the drive, like Saddle Pass or Cedar Pass, it’s definitely worth the adventure.
If you plan hiking, bring plenty of water and some snacks since some of the trailheads don’t have facilities near them.
When to go: Spring and fall are good times of year to visit the Badlands since there are fewer tourists than in summer. During winter, the park has no open accommodation, although the drive is still doable.
4. South Dakota Scenic Drives: Spearfish Canyon State Scenic Byway
- Distance: 19 miles
- Time needed: 1-5 hours
Even though this drive may be short, it’s definitely one of the most scenic roads in South Dakota. For 19 miles, US Highway 14A hugs the side of the Spearfish Canyon, which is known for its huge limestone cliffs and numerous waterfalls.
Fishing and hiking are other popular activities in the canyon if you have more time for outdoor adventures.
This is considered one of the best scenic drives in the Black Hills during the fall when the canyon is full of bright yellow and red colors of autumn leaves.
When to go: Fall is particularly spectacular, but spring and summer are also great seasons to make this drive. If you’re interested in fishing, make sure you check out when the fishing seasons are and acquire a permit before going.
5. South Dakota Scenic Drives: Native American National and State Scenic Byway
- Distance: 350 miles
- Time needed: 5 hours to 1 or more days
Crossing the state from north to south, this beautiful drive is one of the best South Dakota scenic byways for viewing wildlife. Over the course of the drive, you’ll probably have the chance to see all the characteristic prairie animals like bison, elk, prairie dogs, and pronghorn.
For much of the route, the road runs along the side of the Missouri River for some beautiful scenes of the riverbank and rolling hills in the distance.
This is one of the roads in South Dakota with the most history. Along the way, you’ll get the chance to see where the influential Native American leader Sitting Bull lived and died, as well as numerous stopping points that Lewis and Clark made during their explorations west.
Five different Native American tribes have lands along the route: the Yankton, Crow Creek, Lower Brule, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux. Visit places like the Sitting Bull Visitor Center, which has interesting exhibits about the region’s history and locally made Native American artwork for sale. Another great stop is at Lake Oahe, which can be reached by hiking a 1-mile trail that has signage and information about native plants and their uses.
When to go: Any time of year is good to make this drive, although, during spring, you’ll have the chance to see prairie wildflowers in full bloom.
More Driving Inspiration in the Midwest
South Dakota is undoubtedly one fo the hidden gems of the US for an awesome driving vacation with the family. If you love getting behind the wheel and exploring the Midwest by road as much as we do, then you may also be interested to read next:
- Best Family Vacation Spots in the Midwest
- Magical Minnesota Scenic Drives
- Superb Scenic Drives in Missouri not to Miss
- 18 Best All-American Road Trips You Need to Take With Your Family
© Family Road Trip