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South Dakota's best scenic drives

With jaw-dropping scenery and hundreds of miles of winding roads, western South Dakota is a driver’s playground. These top routes make up some of the state’s best scenic drives. The region is rife with iconic national parks and top attractions, with some history, whimsy, buffalo and badlands thrown into the mix.

A road through Badlands National Park. Image by Holger Leue / Lonely Planet Images / Getty
A road through Badlands National Park. Image by Holger Leue / Lonely Planet Images / Getty

The Scenic Deadwood Loop

The perfect drive for anyone cruising I-90, this looping route takes you to legendary Deadwood, one of the Old West's most iconic towns. You'll also get to navigate the twisting road through Spearfish Canyon, where rushing water plunges over granite boulders amid towering trees.

The Drive: Heading west, exit I-90 at Sturgis (exit 30), a small town that comes alive with an eardrum-busting roar every August for the world's largest motorcycle rally, but is otherwise mostly a setting for gaudy billboards with scantily clad women hawking motorcycles and casinos.

Head west to Deadwood, which was already famous when the HBO TV series made it a legend. Thanks to casino money, this 1870s gold rush town has been both saved and preserved in a not-overly restored kind of way. You can wander the streets where Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok and other characters lived – and died – in ways not much different from the TV show. Learn all about Deadwood's better-than-fiction past in the Adams Museum.

Deadwood was the home of Wild Bill Hickok, among other major Wild West figures. Image by Tribune News Service / Getty
Deadwood was home to a handful of major Wild West figures like Wild Bill Hickok. Image by Tribune News Service / Getty

A short jaunt further uphill brings you to the weird and wild Lead (locals pronounce it 'leed'). Amidst the scars from almost 150 years of mining, gape at the 1250ft-deep, open-pit Homestake Gold Mine from the new Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center.

Now experience the thrill of a 20-mile-long plunge along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. This waterfall-lined, curvaceous spaghetti strand of pavement cleaves through the Black Hills. There's a vista worth stopping for around every bend; pause for longer than a minute and you'll hear beavers hard at work. Once back in Spearfish, you're just a couple of turns from rejoining I-90 at exit 12.

Entrance to Black Hills National Forest. Image by John Coletti / AWL Images / Getty
Entrance to Black Hills National Forest. Image by John Coletti / AWL Images / Getty

Practicalities: This entire route is on US 14A and is only 46 tree-filled-miles long. Depending which way you are traveling on I-90, you can do the loop in either direction. Figure on two hours to half a day, depending on how often and long you stop along the way.

The classic Mt Rushmore and Custer State Park drive

Whether it's in North By Northwest or a coffee mug in the back of your aunt's cupboard, everyone thinks they know what Mt Rushmore looks like. But it's not until you see the four presidents looming before you in granite that the actual site's raw power hits home. Next, your car will be your personal roller coaster on your way to encountering the region's iconic animals in one of America's best state parks.

The Drive: Start in Rapid City, one of America's most appealing medium-sized cities. Get a taste of US presidents frozen in time in the wonderfully walkable downtown where most street corners bear life-size bronze Statues of Presidents, from Washington to Dubya.

It took 14 years to carve Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln into stone. Image by biglannie / Budget Travel
It took 14 years to carve Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln into stone. Image by biglannie / Budget Travel

Head south on US 16 and once you're just past the tourist town of Keystone (stop here for fudge!), be ready for your first sight of George Washington, looming large in the distance. But keep going as there are three more presidents waiting. Inside Mt Rushmore National Memorial, skip the shops, cafe and main museum, and head straight for the main event. Gape at the 60ft-tall busts carved into the side of the granite mountain and then head down the Presidential Trail, which passes right below the monument for some fine nostril views. Damn, they're big!

Leaving Mt Rushmore, backtrack slightly to Keystone (fudge!) and prepare for the ride of your life on the Iron Mountain Road (Hwy 16A). It's a 16-mile roller coaster of wooden bridges, virtual loop-the-loops, narrow tunnels and stunning vistas.

Your reward at the end of the Iron Mountain thrill drive is Custer State Park. Forests mix with meadows and lakes to create a true natural wonder. Don't miss meandering over awesome stone bridges, across sublime Alpine expanses and grass-covered prairie on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. It's a sure way to see buffalo, elk, prairie dogs and more.

A cowboy drives a herd at the annual buffalo roundup at Custer State Park. Image by Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet
A cowboy drives a herd at the annual buffalo roundup at Custer State Park. Image by Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Now exit the park and head back to Rapid City on Hwys 36 and 79. Relive the day's adventures over great microbrews and fab pizza at downtown's Independent Ale House.

Practicalities: This entire route is shaped like a figure 8 and is 106 beautiful miles long. Do it justice and give it a full day.

The Baddest Drive

Outside the Black Hills, no one claims that I-90 is a scenic wonder as it plows through an endless succession of farmlands across South Dakota. Instead replace that 71 miles of bland I-90 with a trip through landscape from another world – the Badlands – and then a stop at America's schlockiest and most-loved road stop, and finally a pause to contemplate a bad outcome to the Cold War through the nuclear terror of mutually assured destruction.

The Drive: Leave Rapid City on Hwy 44, a lovely drive east through verdant fields and iconic ranchlands. Just before the appropriately named town of Scenic, turn north on Sage Creek Road. Soon the limestone hills begin morphing into bizarre shapes thanks to erosion. But this is a mere prelude to the best of Badlands National Park, which is yet to come.

Meantime stay on Sage Creek all the way to Hwy 240, where you are just south of Wall Drug in, yes, the tiny town of Wall. Strewn across billboards for hundreds of miles, you'll feel like you're coming home by the time you've reached the place. Yes, there's free water and 5¢ coffee as advertised, plus a kid-friendly arcade with classic fair games and a giant jackalope.

Now head back south to the Hwy 240 Badlands Loop Rd and into the heart of the Badlands. This otherworldly landscape, oddly softened by its fantastic rainbow hues, is a spectacle of sheer walls and spikes stabbing the dry air. Take plenty of time and plenty of photos.

The strange rock formations at Badlands National Park. Image by Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet
The strange rock formations at Badlands National Park. Image by Alexander Howard / Lonely Planet

Finally, follow Hwy 240 as it turns back to I-90 and exit 131. Here you'll find the new visitor center for the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. All through the Cold War, hundreds of missiles aimed at the Soviet Union sat in silos under the Great Plains (and some still do today). Learn all about the missiles, the ordinary people who would have launched them and this tense time in history.

Practicalities: This drive is 108 miles long. You can easily do it in reverse if you're coming from the east on I-90. Count on it taking half a day, unless you linger for a second helping of the addictive fresh donuts at Wall Drug.