The Dakotas Scenic Road Trip

With plenty to do and see, you’ll love exploring North and South Dakota’s vast and rugged landscapes that will leave you breathless. This Dakotas Scenic Road Trip will offer you the chance to explore the Badlands, Wind Cave, Theodore Roosevelt, and other National Park Service sites in North and South Dakota.

Where to Go

Minuteman Missile

The first stop on your journey transports you to back in time to the Cold War and one of the more eerie places it produced. For decades, the Minuteman Missile site stored upwards of 1,000 nuclear missiles ready for launch. U.S. Air Force personnel who maintained the facility had to be on high alert in case of a nuclear attack. Visitors who lived during the Cold War will likely remember the nerve-wracking times of the nuclear arms race, fallout shelters, and the Red Scare. At Delta-01 and Delta-09, you’ll have the rare chance to relive the anxiety of the era by viewing a missile silo and an underground control center.

Badlands National Park

The next stop on your road trip is Badlands National Park. Here you’ll delve into America’s geologic history by exploring one of the richest fossil beds on the planet. Millions of years ago, the Badlands resembled a lush rainforest instead of the grasslands and sedimentary rock that exist today. This ancient landscape was once home to prehistoric creatures such as saber-toothed cats, three-toed horses, and hornless rhinoceroses. Despite the dramatic change, wildlife still abound inside the park’s 244,000 acres. The Badlands Loop Scenic Byway will pique your interest with images of striking buttes, canyons, spires, and other geologic shapes. Fossilized soils reveal colorful bands featuring shades of red, orange, yellow, gray, and white that make for mesmerizing pictures.

Wind Cave National Park

Your road trip continues at Wind Cave National Park. Rolling prairies and pine forests adorn the landscape at this park, but the real treasure hides below the surface. Nearly 150 miles of passageways crisscross underground to make Wind Cave one of the world’s most complex cave systems. Boxwork formations decorate the caves, and these calcite deposits are rarely found anywhere else in the world. Ranger-guided tours of the cave network also reveal frostwork and cave popcorn. Above ground, Wind Cave nurtures a versatile ecosystem that’s inhabited by a variety of wildlife species. Its 30+ miles of hiking trails often lead to sightings of bison, elk, bobcats, pronghorn, mountain lions, and more.

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument is the next stop along your way. With more than 200 miles of mapped passageways, Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave on the planet. Jewel Cave National Monument draws cavers and natural explorers to discover its underground wonders. Calcite crystals run along the cave walls, and other rock formations reveal striking colors. Cavers can continue to delve deeper into Jewel Cave, and guided tours let visitors explore the cave system. The Wild Caving Tour challenges you to a vigorous 2/3 of a mile trek through tight spaces, cave walls, and narrow passages. Once you’ve completed your underground expedition, nature trails allow you to discover the abundance of wildlife species in the forest. 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Next along your drive is the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Carved into the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore pays tribute to four presidents who represent the birth, growth, and preservation of the United States. The massive sculpture includes the 60-foot heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, respectively. Often called the “Shrine to Democracy,” Mount Rushmore has an elevation over 5,700 ft and rests on the mountain known by the Lakota Sioux as “The Six Grandfathers.” Unfortunately, controversy shrouds the Black Hills encompassing the landscape around Mount Rushmore due to the violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. The agreement granted the Black Hills to the Lakota people, but the U.S. seized the area upon the discovery of gold.

Black Hills National Forest

From Mount Rushmore, continue on to the Black Hills National Forest. Rising high above the prairies of the Great Plains, the Black Hills foster a diverse ecosystem and have a rich heritage. Held sacred by Native American tribes, this spiritual oasis remains a hub for recreational activity today. Within its 1.2 million acres of wilderness, the Black Hills feature granite spires, ponderosa pine forests, trickling streams, and sparkling reservoirs. Around 400 miles of trails, dozens of campgrounds, and two scenic byways lead to incredible adventures. The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway passes tumbling waterfalls, free-range bison roam the grasslands, and the stargazing here is incredible.

Theodore Roosevelt National Park

Your road trip continues at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. President Theodore Roosevelt’s ventures into North Dakota forever shaped his passion for conserving the untamed landscapes of the West. Hunting trips to his ranches provided solace, and he documented his accounts of his active lifestyle. Today, the preserved prairies and Badlands where Roosevelt hunted bison inspire future generations of nature lovers. Three distinct units make up the park, and the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail connects each of them. Medora is the ideal launching pad to explore the colorful Badlands of the South Unit. Roosevelt’s Elkhorn Ranch is tricky to find, but you’ll see bison, deer, horses, and prairie dogs along the way. Take the 14-mile Theodore Roosevelt North Unit Scenic Byway for an astonishing view of the bending Little Missouri River.

Fort Union Trading Post

The next stop on your road trip is the Fort Union Trading Post. During the 19th century, western pioneers and Native American tribes gathered at this strategic site to barter valuable commodities. Constructed in 1828 along the Upper Missouri River, the fort sparked the fur trade and spurred economic activity in growing western settlements. North Plains Tribes such as the Assiniboine, Blackfoot, Cree, Crow, and Lakota traded beaver pelts and buffalo robes for blankets, guns, clothing, and other valuable goods. The recreation of the historic trading post gives you a glimpse of life on the Western Frontier. Visit during the Indian Arts Showcase to celebrate Native American culture, hear traditional music, and meet tribal elders.

Knife River Indian Villages

The last stop on your road trip will take you to the Knife River Indian Villages. The Knife River Indian Villages delve into the history and culture of the Hidatsa people which offer visitors the opportunity to learn more about Northern Plains Native Americans. Traditional handicrafts and unique artifacts adorn the museum, and the Village Trail explores the preserved earthlodge villages. Wander the North Forest Trail for a peaceful hike that leads to the Missouri River. Several beautiful bird species frequent the area, and anglers can cast their lines along Knife River.

When to Go

North and South Dakota are both highly underrated states, and its national parks receive much fewer visitors than others. The exception would be Mount Rushmore, which sees roughly three million visitors per year. Fortunately, anywhere from late spring to early fall is a fantastic time to hit the road. September-October and April-May offer cooler weather, and Mount Rushmore’s peak crowds have faded. You may face extremely hot temperatures during the summer, and winter isn’t ideal due to limited facilities, road closures, and brutal weather.