We noticed that you're using an unsupported browser. The TripAdvisor website may not display properly.We support the following browsers:
Windows: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome. Mac: Safari.

Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

Sturgis, Michigan...
Level Contributor
21 posts
9 reviews
Save Topic
Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

My wife and I are planning our first road trip style vacation this coming September. This trip will consist of just us, our Pontiac Vibe, and whatever we deem necessary in terms of luggage. We'll be leaving Sturgis, MI early on Wednesday, 9/10, and will be returning Sunday, 9/21. We'll be traveling west on I-90 as far as Yellowstone, and will be returning by way of I-94. We'll be exploring the Badlands, Black Hills, Devil's Tower, Yellowstone, Grant Teton National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park, among many other minor attractions along the way. Our primary goals for this trip consist of exploring the natural wonders of America, visiting historical sites, and getting some envy-worthy photos of nature and wildlife.

A little bit of background info by way of introduction: My wife and I are both 26 and will have been married for four years as of this September. We usually try to plan our vacations in September, due to our anniversary and the fact that we both love the fall season. This September will be our second significant trip together, with our forays in past years consisting of a week in Mackinaw City and the U.P., and a week in the mountains of Asheville, N.C. Last year we opted to stay local, touring many orchards, cider mills, vineyards, and wineries here in SW MI. We decided on a road trip this year due to the fact that this will probably be our last vacation prior to having kids. Since kids are probably in our somewhat near-term future, our travels may be somewhat restricted for the next several years and we may not have the opportunity (or the budget) to get far from home. My wife has flown to California, and I've been to San Antonio, TX by way of St. Louis, but that's the extent of our experience with the Western U.S.

I should add a disclaimer at this point - I know we've scheduled a pretty aggressive itinerary. However, stretching the trip any further isn't possible due to the limited number of vacation days at our disposal. As it is, we've structured the trip to cover two weekends to give us the maximum amount of time on the road. I fully realize that Yellowstone, Grand Teton National Park, and the Black Hills regions could all easily absorb a week's worth of vacation individually. However, we're hoping to cover a lot of ground, picking and choosing which attractions we're particularly interested in and which ones we are not. Pending the outcome of this trip, I'm fairly confident that we'll be returning at some point in the future with kids in tow to revisit these same regions, hopefully in a bit more depth. This is a fairly detailed itinerary but we plan on being pretty flexible once we hit the road, other than our start/stop locations, due to the fact that we have already made the associated reservations.

I'm most interested in feedback on the amount of time to budget for spending at the various attractions I have listed, although feedback of all types is more than welcome. I should mention that I have already perused the Top Questions area of the SD forums, which answered some of my questions. However, I'd still like additional feedback on our proposed itinerary, so here is the plan for the South Dakota portion of our road trip:

Day 1 - Wednesday, 9/10

Depart Sturgis at 6 a.m. for Sioux Falls. Google Maps recommends taking I-90 through Chicago, a trip of 712 miles and 11 hours. However, in order to avoid rush hour Chicago traffic as well as the tolls through Chicago (we don't have an I-Zoom and cash tolls are nearly double the I-Zoom rates) I'm planning on bypassing Chicago entirely via I-80 west to I-39, then I-39 north to pick I-90 back up in Rockford. From what I understand, this route will result in only $1 or so in tolls. The higher gas cost due to the greater distance of 766 miles is more or less off-set by the toll savings, and even if it wasn't, I'd rather not start off our vacation by combating rush-hour Chicago traffic. We'll be gaining an hour in the shift from EST to CST once we cross from IN to IL. Allowing an hour for stops, this should put us in Sioux Falls around 5 p.m. local time. We'll be staying at the Sleep Inn (Airport location), and the plan is to check in then go out to eat for our anniversary dinner. Afterwards, we plan to relax by touring Falls Park around dusk, enjoying the illuminated falls.

Questions: I just read one of the Top Questions for SD, covering Sioux Falls attractions. It mentioned that the evening light show which formerly illuminated the Falls at dusk has been discontinued. Can anyone confirm or deny this?

Any good recommendations on must-visit restaurants, particularly on the northern side of Sioux Falls?

Day 2 - Thursday, 9/11

Breakfast at hotel. Depart Sioux Falls at 7 a.m. for the Corn Palace in Mitchell. Should arrive about 8:30, only planning about an hour to tour the Corn Palace and gas up for the next leg of the trip, as we don't have very high expectations for the Corn Palace. We may not even bother with the interior tour. Depart Mitchell around 9:30 for the Minuteman Missile Historical Site on I-90. Arrive at MMHS around 11:30 a.m. local time, having gained an hour in the transition from CST to MST on the 3-hour drive. Allow two hours for tour. Depart MMHS and enter Badlands National Park. Possibly grab lunch at Cedar Pass Lodge, then tour Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Scope out campsite at Cedar Pass Campground. Tour Badlands in mid-afternoon, hiking any trails that catch our eye. Towards evening, take the Wildlife Loop drive and visit Roberts Prairie Dog Town.

Question: How difficult should I expect it to be to be able to get tickets for the MMHS tour if we arrive at the office around 11:30 a.m.? I've read tickets go fast during peak season, and was wondering what to expect for the shoulder season of mid-Sept.

Day 3 - Friday, 9/12

Pack up camp and hit the road by 7:00 a.m. for Custer. Take Wildlife Loop Rd. again, enjoying morning views of the Badlands. Travel to Custer via I-90 to Rapid City (possibly stop for breakfast and gas), then south on 79 to 36 west, 36 west to Alt 16 west. Should arrive in Custer by 10:30 a.m. Explore whatever Custer local attractions we feel we have time for, then head north to tour the Crazy Horse Memorial. After Crazy Horse, head north to Hill City, exploring local attractions and stopping at Prairie Berry Winery for tour and lunch. Head south, traveling Needles Hwy to Custer State Park. Take the Wildlife Loop Rd all the way around the park to Iron Mountain Rd., exploring whatever we have time for and whatever catches our eye. Traverse Iron Mountain Rd. to Mt. Rushmore, timing our arrival at Mt. Rushmore to allow us to explore the monument for 2 hours or so prior to experiencing the lighting ceremony. Depart Mt. Rushmore for lodging in Keystone at K Bar S Lodge or in Rapid City Sleep Inn & Suites (This decision is yet pending, based on how our final budget for the trip shakes out). This is a very full day. We've consciously chosen to skip the local cave tours, hiking Harney Peak, and stopping at any of the family attractions like the Reptile Gardens.

Questions: Which is better, the Mt. Rushmore lighting ceremony or the laser light show at the Crazy Horse Memorial? Is there a cutoff date at some point in the season for either lighting ceremony, or do they operate year-round?

How long should I allow for driving the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway in its entirety, (Needles Hwy, Loop Rd., Iron Mtn Rd.) stopping only at overlooks and for photo opportunities along the way? Travel estimates for each section would be really helpful.

Day 4 - Saturday, 9/13

Breakfast at hotel. Depart Keystone/Rapid City at 7 a.m. for Lead, via 385 through the Black Hills National Forest. Arrive in Lead 8 a.m. Explore local attractions, notably the Broken Boot Gold Mine Tour and gold panning. Leave Lead approximately 10 a.m. and depart for Belle Fourche. Stop in Deadwood if anything catches our eye, which I don't expect. Arrive in Belle Fourche 11 a.m. and tour the Geographical Center of the Nation monument, along with the visitor center. Head north out of Belle Fourche approximately 8-10 miles to view the true center of the nation. Depart this location approximately 12:30 p.m. for Vore Buffalo Jump on I-90, trip time 30 minutes. Tour the Buffalo Jump for approximately 1 hour. Depart for Devil's Tower National Monument approximately 2 p.m., arrive 3 p.m. Explore DTNM for approximately two hours. Depart DTNM for Sheridan approximately 5 p.m. Arrive in Sheridan approximately 7:45 p.m. and check in to hotel.

Please comment with feedback on any and all portions of the above itinerary, any and all help is welcomed. I'm looking for the most efficient vacation possible in order to maximize time at scheduled stops and to provide the most scenic route and photo opportunities possible.

Edited: 2:03 pm, April 10, 2014
Sturgis, Michigan...
Level Contributor
21 posts
9 reviews
Save Reply
1. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

I should have included the link to an earlier post I made in the Road Trip forum, with our full itinerary. For those that are interested:

tripadvisor.com/…57451563

South Dakota
Level Contributor
4,552 posts
Save Reply
2. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

First of all, congrats on your anniversary and you are correct about kids changing things. DH and I were married four years and enjoyed some nice trips before the kids came along. I'm glad we had that time. We took a few years off and vegged at lakeside cabins with toddlers and now we're touring again, so the kids and no traveling thing is obviously temporary.

Anyway, due to the length of your post and number of questions, I'll weigh in through the 11th.

Yes, avoid Chicago at all costs. I still have painful memories of trying to drive through there. Horrible.

Next, you probably already know that we're going to tell you that you're cramming too much into a short time. If I were you, I'd focus on the Black Hills, Badlands and possibly Devil's Tower on this trip and then leave Yellowstone for a different trip. Also, the North and South Dakota Badlands are similar, so decide if you want to see both or pick one or the other. Should you continue with your original plan, avoid staying in the Williston, ND area. The oil boom up there means minimal lodging choices and a higher crime rate.

It looks like you've examined the Top Questions. The title of the Top Question, "How much time should I allow to visit the Black Hills area?" is somewhat misleading. Not only does it explain how much time to allow for an entire vacation, but it will also tell how much time to allow for individual attractions.

In Sioux Falls, consider the Brimark Inn over the Sleep Inn. It's been recently renovated, rates better overall and might even be less expensive. I've been inside both hotels and, in my opinion, the Brimark is better. It's not the Waldorf Astoria, but as far as budget lodging goes, it's a great choice.

For Sioux Falls dining, there isn't much on the north end of town in the way of nice restaurants (there's Denny's, Perkins, McDonald's, Arby's), making it tough for travelers on I-90 who want a nice dinner. I'd suggest driving downtown for a nice meal. You'll have to go downtown to view the Falls, anyway. Mama's Ladas has won international recognition for its enchiladas, which are the only things on the menu and are obviously done very well. Another recommendation would be Minerva's. Make reservations for Minerva's and arrive early for Mama's Ladas. When you're done with dinner, get on Phillips Avenue and enter Falls Park from the south. This would be the easiest way in from downtown.

Yes, the Falls Park light show is no more.

For the Corn Palace, just view the outside. The inside is basically a gymnasium and gift shop. There used to be a nice little gourmet ice cream shop in the plaza across the street (look for the statue of the corn cob) if you want a snack.

Yes, we recommend arriving at the Minuteman Site at opening to secure tickets. I can't tell you how easy they are to come by in September. It's possible someone else will come on here and tell you, although the attraction is rather new and therefore hasn't had the number of visitors as, say, Mt. Rushmore. If no one responds, I'd call them and ask their opinion on obtaining tickets later in the day in September.

Edited: 2:54 pm, April 10, 2014
Arlington, Virginia
Destination Expert
for Arlington
Level Contributor
13,499 posts
114 reviews
Save Reply
3. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

Tickets for the Minuteman Missile Tour--We were in the Black Hills last year in mid-June. It was probably busier then than it will be in September, but it was still early in the tourist season. We arrived at the Minuteman Missile Site at 9am and the earliest available tickets were for 1:30 pm. If you arrive at 11:30 am, I feel confident that there will not be tickets available for an immediate tour. In fact, I would not be surprised if they were completely out of tickets by 11:30 am. The suggestion by 3174 to call the Minuteman Missile Site for their guidance on the availability of tickets in September is a good one, but don't be surprised if they tell you: a) they can't predict the demand for tickets or b) you need to get there at or near opening.

Mt. Rushmore LIghting Ceremony--The ceremony takes place at 8pm during the entirety of September, so it will still be going on while you are there. I think this is not-to-be-missed. There is an informative presentation by a park ranger followed by a gathering on stage of all military veterans in attendance--and there should still be plenty of them in September. This was a very moving aspect to the evening.

Pitman, New Jersey
Destination Expert
for Rapid City, South Dakota
Level Contributor
5,987 posts
61 reviews
Save Reply
4. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

With 11 days and considering the fact you are driving, I highly encourage you to whilttle down this itinerary. You will be travelling again when your kids are old enough to appreciate these areas, so I would try to slow down the pace and adequately see things rather than cramming. I would eliminate the ND portion of the trip totally. In fact, I'd probably only focus on either the Black Hills or Yellowstone as 3174 mentioned.

Day 3 is much too busy. I see no way that will work. You are wanting to drive the Badlands loop again (not sure if you meant to write Wildlife Loop , as that's in Custer SP), Crazy Horse, Winery,Needles, Iron Mt. Rd, Rushmore. Keep in mind that at minimum with very quick stops, the three drives in Custer SP will take close to 3 hours. They are not roads to be driven quickly. Seeing Rushmore will take 2 hrs minimum, and Crazy Horse would also require 2 hours minimum. Enjoying the Badlands again in the a.m. will also take some time. I would recommend only doing the north end of the Needles Hwy since you are on limited time.

I would also think that tix to the Minuteman at 11:30 will be hard to come by. I have not been in September, but I think it would difficult simply due to the small tour size. Only 6 can tour at a time. Calling the site is a great idea as was stated by all.

I agree that I'd opt for the lighting ceremony at Rushmore rather than Crazy Horse, as I like the fact it honors our vets.

Finally, if the budget can manage it, I'd highly recommend staying at K Bar S Lodge. It's highly rated and has a great secluded location, rather off the beaten path from busier Keystone.

Let us know if you have further questions.

Sturgis, Michigan...
Level Contributor
21 posts
9 reviews
Save Reply
5. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

Thanks for the help, all! The information about Sioux Falls restaurants, the timing of the Mt. Rushmore lighting ceremony, and the time to allow for some of the bigger attractions in the Black Hills were all most useful.

@3174 - We're definitely planning on making an end-run around Chicago, come hell or high water. Been there, done that in terms of trying to get through Chicago itself.

Initially, I structured our entire road trip the way in which I did due to several factors. While we fully intend to revisit the Badlands, Black Hills, Yellowstone, and Grand Teton at some point in the future, we don't know what the future holds. It's possible that this may end up being our one and only trip to some or even all of the sites listed above, which is part of the reason why this itinerary is somewhat aggressive. In addition, we do want to experience a true "Road-trip" style vacation, in which we forego establishing a base of operations from which to visit all of attractions in any given area, but stay somewhat on the move, constantly experiencing new things. This will be a first for us, and while we don't want to over-do it, we do want to structure this differently than we have our past trips. It is our goal to some day visit all 50 states, exploring to various levels of detail what each has to offer. This was part of the logic in routing our path out west along I-90 but the return trip along I-94, along with the desire for (slightly) different scenery and the wish to avoid retracing our steps. Along these lines, Washington State (the Yakima Valley in particular) has always been on my bucket list, recently joined there by the Glacier National Park of Montana. If and when we visit these areas, it will probably prove more economical to fly to the west coast and rent a vehicle than to make another road trip all the way from MI. Time will tell. However, with that in mind, we viewed our trip this September as an excellent opportunity to view some of what ND has to offer as we may have little or no incentive to return to or through the area in future. That being said, your comment about the SD and ND Badlands, coupled with comments from several others on the Road Trip forum, have me wondering whether I shouldn't reverse the two legs of the trip, planning to take I-94 west and return via I-90. This would have the primary benefit of allowing us to experience TRNP in ND, what some term a "mini-Yellowstone", prior to having experienced the real deal with Yellowstone, GTNP, and the Black Hills/Badlands of SD. Some have expressed the concern that visiting TRNP after the other major park systems may leave us unimpressed. I had initially planned for us to head west on I-90 and return on I-94 so that we could begin experiencing some of our major stops as soon as possible....The Badlands, MMHS, and the Black Hills attractions on Days 2 and 3. Most of our ND scheduled stops are not what I would consider major draws, and some of them we may actually choose to skip if we stick to our original plan, pending how our budget is faring and how we're doing for time and energy. With this in mind, I planned for us to head west on I-90 and return on I-94 in order to avoid driving for 3-4 solid days prior to reaching our first major attraction (Yellowstone), which is what I estimate would happen if we were to take I-94 west. Long story short, we're still planning on touring ND in addition to SD, but I do find myself revisiting the topic of whether to travel ND or SD first.

We weren't planning on staying in the Williston, ND area (unless you think the issue extends all the way to Bismarck) but will definitely make a mental note concerning the oil boom in the area mentioned.

Thanks for the tip about the Brimark Inn. It does look quite nice and as if it would fit the bill, but it so happens that we have access to a significant organizational discount for the Choice Hotels line (Sleep Inn/Suites, Comfort Inn/Suites, Quality Inn, Ascend Hotels) that results in a 30-40% savings compared to hotels of other lines with rooms in the same price range.

Mama's Lada sounds like they have some quality offerings, but it so happens that the restaurants here in the Sturgis, MI area aren't that varied, with the best of the bunch being a Mexican enterprise. It's our favorite eatery in town, but we'd probably opt for something different while on vacation. Minerva's looks excellent, thanks for the tip!

It's too bad about the light show being no more, that sounded pretty neat. I'm sure Falls Park will still prove enjoyable and relaxing, however.

The more feedback I receive, the more convinced I become that our "tour" of the Corn Palace will consist of the exterior only. We probably wouldn't make a point of stopping at this attraction if it weren't on our way to the Badlands.

We will certainly take the advice given here to contact the MMMS directly as to their past experiences with ticket availability in mid-September.

@longhorn74 - Thanks for the details on the Mt. Rushmore Lighting Ceremony. I found myself leaning towards the Mt. Rushmore ceremony over the Crazy Horse Light Show anyway, but I think you've convinced me that this will be the best choice.

@sirtravelplanner - Thanks for your input on the Black Hills portion of the trip! Your estimates of time for the various attractions were most welcome. For the reasons outlined in the first several paragraphs, I think we're committed to a far-reaching itinerary that will only allow us approximately two days in the Black Hills region (for this vacation, at any rate). I know Day 3 will be full, but considering the fact that we're planning on starting our day at 7:00 and likely finishing it around 9:00-9:30, we'll have 14 or so hours to give it our best shot.

You're correct in assuming that I meant to reference the Badlands Loop, not the Wildlife Loop, for the morning of Day 3. This is a rough breakdown of how I could see our day progressing, let me know what I'm missing:

Pack up camp in the Badlands 7:00 a.m. and depart for Rapid City along the Badlands Loop. Arrive Rapid City 9:00 a.m. Allow 30 min for snacks and gas. Depart Rapid City 9:30 a.m. for Custer via the aforementioned route, arriving in Custer 10:30 a.m. Depart Custer at 11:00 a.m. for Crazy Horse, spending 2 hours combined en route and at the site. Leave Crazy Horse at 1:00 p.m. for Hill City. Arrive Hill City 1:15 p.m., tour and eat at Prairie Berry Winery. Depart Hill City at 3:00 p.m. for Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, arriving at Mt. Rushmore approximately 6:30 p.m. Tour Mt. Rushmore, including lighting ceremony, then head to either K Bar S Lodge or back to Rapid City for the Sleep Inn & Suites. Busy, but I think we can do it. we're saving our gold mine tour and panning experiences for the following day, and aren't planning on stopping for any hikes. Strictly overlooks and photo opportunities while on the Byway. I appreciate you expressing your reservations, and if possible I'll try to allow even more time on Day 3 (Eat packed breakfast that day, etc.) to compensate.

The K Bar S Lodge caught my eye for all of the reasons which you mentioned. The price difference between it and the Sleep Inn is close to $80-100/night, so this will likely be a decision that will have to wait until we lock down our lodging in the Jackson Hole, WY area. We do like the idea of staying "in the Hills" as opposed to in Rapid City.

Do you have a recommendation between the Broken Boot Gold Mine tours and the Big Thunder Gold Mine (or any other mine touring outfit) tours? They both seem to have good reviews. The BB tour fits our Day 4 agenda better, but let me know if you have an opinion one way or the other.

Thanks once more for everyone's help.

Edited: 11:12 pm, April 10, 2014
Pitman, New Jersey
Destination Expert
for Rapid City, South Dakota
Level Contributor
5,987 posts
61 reviews
Save Reply
6. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

I have not been to Broken Boot Mine, but we have done Big Thunder. Our daughter was 8 at the time and classified it as "lame." Well, it wasn't as bad as she made it out to be, but there are better things to do and see, IMO. Everyone gets a hard hat and the tour is easily navigated. There's no steps; you just walk in. I agree with you that Broken Boot does fit your itinerary better, so I would stick with that one.

I am hopeful that you will be able to stay at K Bar S despite the much higher price. Lodging in Rapid is much cheaper, but it will be nice to be able to have a short drive back to your lodging after the lighting ceremony. Traffic tends to be quite heavy, so I think you will appreciate not having far to go. Plus, you never know if a wildlife encounter might occur.

Unrelated to the SD forum, but I can wholeheartedly recommend a motel in Jackson Hole that is actually very reasonably priced for the area. It's called the Buckrail Lodge. It's about 5-6 blocks from the town square, but the rooms are like a master bedroom of a log cabin. There's only 12 rooms, so book soon if you are interested. Rates do drop in September. We have stayed there twice, and I wouldn't stay anywhere else.

buckraillodge.com

United States
Level Contributor
3,031 posts
Save Reply
7. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

Two suggestions:

1. Take I-80 from Gary/Hammond Indiana area and take it all the way to I-35 or I-29 North. I-29 will take you straight into Sioux Falls. You can also grab I-380 in Iowa City, go north to Hwy 218 and around to Mason City and onto I-35. Its all 4 lanes and not that busy. I'm from Three Oaks, MI and this is how we go all of the time. You can make some real time on these routes.

2. You HAVE to visit Sturgis, SD just because you're from Sturgis, MI. It's right off of I-90.

Sturgis, Michigan...
Level Contributor
21 posts
9 reviews
Save Reply
8. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

Thanks again to all who posted for your help. We just finished our 12 day road trip and had quite the adventure. Looking forward to typing up the trip report, although it'll be a monumental task. Anyone have any suggestions on a platform which would allow me to easily incorporate photos to the trip report?

Pitman, New Jersey
Destination Expert
for Rapid City, South Dakota
Level Contributor
5,987 posts
61 reviews
Save Reply
9. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

Glad you had a nice time. Looking forward to the trip report. I'm sorry I can't recommend a platform for photos and text. Hopefully someone else with much more tech savvy can help.

Baltimore, Maryland
Level Contributor
128 posts
26 reviews
Save Reply
10. Re: Sept. Road Trip: Badlands and Black Hills Itinerary

Thanks for posting this report. :) I am planning a trip with my sons for next summer and it was really helpful!