Thinking about where to spend your next 48-hour weekend getaway? Forget New York City or Florida and instead, consider North and South Dakota! Ok, so you may think we are crazy but after our epic road trip around both these states in just 48 hours (that’s right, it’s possible to explore a bunch of attractions and landmarks in both) we want to share our itinerary exploring this part of the States.
If you have never visited North or South Dakota, you are probably thinking exactly what we did prior to our road trip to TBEX in Minneapolis. Having visited 46 states, North and South Dakota were two of our four remaining states. We all know about Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and perhaps Badlands National Park but I knew nothing about North Dakota. We needed a plan to explore as much of both states as possible in just 48 hours.
48 Hours in North and South Dakota
I contemplated writing a post comparing North vs South Dakota and why you should visit one over the other but after considering the pros and cons of each, I figured it would be better to share our experiences in both.
Here is a map and schedule of our itinerary and what we visited along the way.
Day 1 (Afternoon)
- 1:00PM to 5:00PM – Explore Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- 5:00PM to 10:00PM – Drive to Rapid City (Approximately 350 miles or 4 1/2 hours along I-90)
Day 2 (Morning)
- 7:00AM to 8:30AM – Explore Downtown Rapid City
- 9:00AM to 10:30AM – Mount Rushmore
- 11:00AM to 12:30PM – Needles Highway
Day 2 (Afternoon/Evening)
- 12:30PM to 2:00PM – Drive to Wall (Approximately 90 miles or 1 1/2 hours)
- 2:00PM to 3:00PM – Wall Drug Store
- 3:00PM to 5:30PM – Badlands National Park
- 5:30PM to 8:00PM – Drive to Pierre and visit South Dakota State Capitol (Approximately 120 miles or 2 hours back along I-90)
- 8:30PM to 11:30PM – Drive to Bismarck, ND (Approximately 210 miles or 3 hours through South/North Dakota scenic byways)
Day 3 (Morning)
- 8:00AM to 9:30AM – Explore Bismarck and visit North Dakota State Capitol
- 9:30AM to 1:00PM – Drive to Fargo (Approximately 195 miles or 3 hours along I-94)
And that is how you explore North and South Dakota in just 48 hours! Don’t worry, we will share a little more information on each of the spots we visited during this road trip. It may seem like A LOT of driving…ok, who are we kidding because it is a lot…but this is extremely rewarding once you have accomplished it.
We are not all fortunate enough to have plenty of days to spend exploring each of these states so we hope that you will consider this as a viable route, or at least part of this if you are looking at visiting both North and South Dakota.
Welcome to South Dakota!
Spending a few hours in Sioux Falls is the best way to start your experience in South Dakota. We were pleasantly surprised at how cool Sioux Falls was, in particular, the stunning Falls Park which is a MUST-SEE attraction.
You could easily spend several hours relaxing and exploring these falls but be sure to take a stroll downtown which is just a short walk from Falls Park.
Check out the towering Cathedral of St. Joseph that overlooks the city and the Old Courthouse Museum offers a quirky experience educating visitors about the history of Sioux Falls in the late 1800s.
You can check out more information on our post of the top things to do in Sioux Falls.
The drive from Sioux Falls to Rapid City along I-90 is not as bad as you may imagine. Yes, it’s almost 350 miles but given the speed limit is for the most part 80mph, you can easily drive this in around 4 hours. We stayed overnight at the Hotel Alex Johnson in downtown Rapid City which offers a perfect location to explore for a few hours the next morning.
Known as ‘The City of Presidents’, Rapid City offers an awesome self-guided walking tour around the downtown area. On every street corner of two parallel streets are monuments of the 42 former presidents, offering a historical reflection on American history. Be sure to find your favorite president!
You can check out more information on our post of downtown Rapid City and the City of Presidents walking tour.
It’s the most famous landmark in South Dakota so a trip to this state wouldn’t be the same without visiting the Black Hills to check out Mount Rushmore. Whether you agree with the stereotype that Mount Rushmore is just an overrated tourist attraction, I truly believe this is something you have to see for yourselves. In our opinion, it is anything but overrated!
We had an awesome time exploring and marveling over the intricate details of this monument. The Presidential hiking trail is a cool experience to get an up close and personal look at the four presidents but just being on the grounds of Mount Rushmore is something I think everyone should experience to appreciate the beauty here.
If you want to visit Mount Rushmore, we encourage you to check out our post detailing our experiences there.
Needles Highway – Custer State Park
A short drive from Mount Rushmore will lead you to a stunning scenic drive known as the Needles Highway. The drive is within Custer State Park so the $20 admission fee into the park may sound a little expensive especially when you realize you will only experience this one drive. But once you start appreciating the breathtaking beauty along this route, you will know this was $20 well spent!
Passing through tunnels that are only just wide enough for one vehicle and admiring the spectacular geological formations that create such a beautiful environment make this two-hour journey one that you won’t forget.
If you are interested in seeing more spectacular images from our journey through Custer State Park, check out our review of the Needles Highway experience.
Wall Drug Store
As you drive I-90, you can’t help but notice a plethora of billboards advertising Wall Drug Store. A marketing ploy for sure but one that will work because if you are not enticed to check out what Wall Drug is all about, you should be!
Located in the small town of Wall, this iconic drug store started with a couple offering visitors the incentive of free iced water. It doesn’t sound much but in the heart of South Dakota with not much else around, this was certainly an attractive offering that worked for the owners of Wall Drug Store.
Today, Wall Drug is more than just a store…it’s an experience that you have to check out! Be sure to check out the restaurant that still offers the free iced water along with 5 cent coffee.
If you want to find out more about this idyllic shopping mall, check out our post on Wall Drug Store.
Badlands National Park
Looking for amazing natural beauty in South Dakota? Look no further than Badlands National Park! After leaving Wall Drug Store, the entrance to this national park is just a couple of miles down the road and offers a stunning scenic drive with a variety of overlooks and experiences you will cherish forever.
Impromptu encounters with wildlife such as bighorn sheep are frequent and just add to the overall experience in Badlands. If you have an annual National Park pass, your entrance to Badlands will be free but regardless it is well worth the admission fee!
Details of our experience in this national park can be found on our post highlighting why the Badlands Scenic Drive is such a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.
The drive from Badlands National Park to North Dakota offers a couple of alternative routes. If you are interested in visiting the State Capitol building, head back down I-90 towards Rapid City and then head north towards Pierre. We arrived in Pierre around 8:00PM so had enough daylight to walk around and explore the State Capitol.
If you have more time to explore Pierre, you could check out a variety of museums depicting South Dakotan history or perhaps visit the Fighting Stallions Memorial.
Having the State Capitol in Pierre is a little strange in my opinion given that many more visitors head to either Sioux Falls or Rapid City but at least this gave us an excuse to visit the city before crossing the state line into North Dakota.
Welcome to North Dakota!
Our time in North Dakota was much less than South Dakota but we still had time to spend the night in Bismarck and explore the North Dakota State Capitol building the following morning.
I am sure there will be people that disagree with this but I was disappointed by the appearance of North Dakota’s State Capitol. There was very little character and it reminded me of a high-rise corporate building. The uniqueness of this architecture in comparison with other State Capitols at least makes it stand out from the rest but in my opinion, not in a good way!
Our final stop on this epic road trip saw us drive three hours on I-94 from Bismarck to Fargo. We were again left a little disappointed but perhaps if we had spent a little more time there we would have experienced more of what there is to do here.
The Fargo Air Museum is one of the most popular attractions here with a variety of interesting planes on display. If you are an aviation enthusiast, I’m sure this will be an attraction you won’t want to miss. For the rest of you, well perhaps you will continue on your journey through North Dakota and beyond.
Our journey saw us leave Fargo and head towards Minneapolis which was much more attractive than trying to figure out the best reasons to stick around Fargo.
We may be utterly crazy for attempting this in such a short timeframe but we did it! We had a great time exploring South Dakota and visiting so many cool attractions and despite being a little disappointed by our experiences in North Dakota, we are assuming that we just didn’t visit the right parts of the state (we would love to head west and explore Theodore Roosevelt National Park on another trip).
Regardless of your viewpoints of this form of travel, exploring a lot in a short time is feasible and definitely a way many people prefer to travel. We are not all fortunate to have ample time to spend in each location so hopefully a guide like this will inspire you to visit North and South Dakota in the near future.
What are your experiences in the two Dakotas? Do you have a preference over the two?