The Family-Friendly Adventure Destination No One Knows About (Yet)
Head to South Dakota for an outdoor-centric road trip the kids will be telling stories about for years to come
When you take your family somewhere new, it feels like a true adventure—for all of you. If that’s the experience you’re after, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than South Dakota. With dense forests and deep lakes, mazelike rock formations, abundant archaeological sites, and otherworldly sunsets, South Dakota delivers on family-friendly exploration. Wild, wide open, and teeming with wildlife, it’s got something for kiddos and parents alike. The best part? Somehow this outdoor destination has managed to stay under the radar. That means you’ll have the whole place to yourself this summer, more or less. So hit the road, pitch a tent, cast a line, and climb through caves on this kid-approved seven-day itinerary.
Days 1–2: Sioux Falls
Sioux Falls may be South Dakota’s biggest city, but with sprawling public lands and just 200,000 residents, it feels like a charming prairie town. Kick off the trip at Palisades State Park, just 25 minutes outside the city. Spend the afternoon kayaking beneath pink quartzite cliffs on Split Rock Creek. Kayak rentals are available on-site. Want to up the adventure ante? Check out the park’s climbing and boulder routes, which range from beginner-friendly scrambles to 5.12 climbs. Camp in Palisades or head back to the city for easy access to Sioux Falls restaurants.
In the morning, rent bikes to cruise around downtown Sioux Falls. A 29-mile paved bike path loops around the city, connecting 80 parks and greenspaces. Stop at Falls Park in the heart of town and enjoy views of the city’s namesake falls from the park’s observation tower.
Day 3: The Badlands
Drive west to Badlands National Park, a highlight of any South Dakota itinerary. The park is home to one of the richest fossil deposits in the world. Visit the on-site Fossil Preparation Lab to learn from working paleontologists who conduct research at the park. Of course, there are also plenty of opportunities to spot live animals. “Keep your eyes peeled for bison, endangered black-footed ferrets, and bighorn sheep,” recommends Patty Ressler, executive director of the local nonprofit Black Hills Parks and Forests Association. Wildlife and natural history are only part of the allure, Ressler adds. With nearly 7,000 years of Indigenous ancestry, this region has a rich cultural history.
Whether you book a campsite or plan to hit the road from here, be sure to stick around the park for sunset. When the light dims, the pink-and-white-striped hills turn into a pastel moonscape.
Days 4–5: Southern Black Hills
Head west again to Custer, an excellent base camp for exploring the Black Hills. Visit two parks in one at Wind Cave National Park. Aboveground, a sprawling prairie is home to elk and a thriving bison population. Below, you’ll find one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the country. According to Lakota legend, Wind Cave contains a portal between the human and spirit worlds from which their people emerged. Learn about more natural and cultural history on a ranger-led tour of the caves. Book in advance—tours sell out during peak travel periods. You can make reservations on Recreation.gov three to 120 days before the tour date.
Next, visit Custer State Park, where Ressler recommends an out-and-back hike on the 5.8-mile Grace Coolidge Trail. “It’s fully paved, and there are plenty of spots to rest,” she says. “It’s great if you’ve got smaller children.” Cap it off with a swim in Center Lake, one of Custer’s hidden gems. Then explore the world’s third-longest cave at Jewel Cave National Monument. Fun fact: because it has only one entrance, the cave technically contains the most remote point on Earth. Join a ranger-led tour to see the interior and learn more about the rock formations within the cave. Reservations are recommended and available through Recreation.gov.
Days 6–7: Central and Northern Black Hills
Pack a picnic lunch and drive north from Custer toward Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Ressler recommends stopping at the Breezy Point Picnic Area, just off Highway 244. “There’s a short hike that takes you to an overlook,” Ressler says. “It’s one of the most amazing views in the Black Hills.” Once in Mount Rushmore National Memorial, hike the 0.6-mile President’s Trail to peek at our forefather’s faces. Then treat yourself to a night of glamping at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore.
Spend the final day of your trip in Spearfish Canyon State Nature Area for a morning of hiking. The park’s trail system connects two gorgeous waterfalls—Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls. See both on a four-mile hike. If you have fishing gear and energy for another two miles round-trip, hike to Savoy Pond to try casting for rainbow trout. After a day of exploring, don’t miss Deadwood. The town is famous for its historic buildings and the Wild West reenactments regularly staged on Main Street. For families who thrive on two wheels, the 109-mile Mickelson Trail starts here—you can also hop on at 15 trailheads along the route—and follows a historic railroad bed through the Black Hills. Bike rentals and guided tours are available through Black Hills Adventure Company.
Travel South Dakota enhances the quality of life for South Dakotans and visitors by strengthening the communities, encouraging responsible stewardship, and creating meaningful experiences for all to enjoy. Together, we’re here to serve the people of South Dakota and all who come to explore.