Where's all the "great" camping and sightseeing spots on these plains?
May 20, 2017 3:52 PM   Subscribe

My family is planning a car trip from our home in the Deep South to Mt. Rushmore. We hope to spend the days sightseeing/doing touristy things and the night tent camping at parks or private campgrounds. None of us have traveled in this area before, so we are all complete newbies to everything Great Plains/Midwest. Could anyone share ideas of what to see and where to camp along a general route of going from Springfield, MO north to Sioux Falls, SD and then across South Dakota to Mt. Rushmore? I'd also really appreciate general advice from anyone who knows how to search online for campgrounds and their amenities along a certain route.

Here's a few details that might help everyone know what we're looking for.

1. We're not totally married to the route I laid out above. I'd be open to getting to Mt. Rushmore by another route if there's something really awesome along the way.

2. My family primarily enjoys tent camping, but we'd be open to staying in small cabins as well if the price is right.

3. We would prefer to have running water at our campsites, but indoor toilets are a preference rather than a necessity.

4. Again, we have no experience whatsoever with travelling in the Midwest. If you're thinking that any suggestion about what to see is too obvious, you're wrong.

Thanks in advance!
posted by Chuck Barris to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Badlands National Park is one of the most amazing places I have ever been. Honestly, my campsite there was very basic and not too exciting, but it's an alien landscape right here in the USA. Really something.
posted by papayaninja at 4:16 PM on May 20, 2017 [3 favorites]

I don't know about between, but there is so much more around Rushmore than Rushmore. I'd skedaddle across South Dakota fast and then focus my time in the awesome Badlands as mentioned above and also look into Custer State Park (camping all over, but fills up so need to reserve). There you can base for Custer itself which is gorgeous and underrated, Rushmore (go early -- awesome at sunrise and nobody there, but you really don't need all that much time there), the Black Hills, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave, can even jaunt over to Devils Tower (also go early, but was one of my favorite parts of the trip) or maybe even Thunder Basin National Grassland in WY. There is so much to see in that corner of SD/WY and I had no idea until I went on impromptu road trip last summer -- it's incredible. Be warned depending on the time you are going--it can get HOT. Like 100 degrees blasting furnace hot. Not a reason not to go, but I think it can surprise people.
posted by HonoriaGlossop at 4:33 PM on May 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Unfortunately, there's a whole lot of nothing between Springfield, MO & Sioux Falls (I say with love!). Especially given the route you're planning on, you're going to be looking at a lot of interstate and a lot of corn. Depending on your schedule for getting to Mt. Rushmore, I might suggest taking I-29 to somewhere around Omaha, NE and then cutting across Nebraska on state highways. This would let you see the Sandhills, which are gorgeous, uniquely Plains and much more interesting than never-ending cornfields.

My favorite camping spots in your general path are Waubonsie by Nebraska City, NE. Waubonsie is approx. 5 hrs from Springfield and not far off I-29.

If you want to cut across Nebraska, Smith Falls is another great state park. It's right on the Niobrara River which has lovely trout in it, if you have any fisherpeople in your family. Smith Falls is 5-6 hrs from Waubonsie (10 hrs from Springfield, MO) and it's approx. 5 hrs from Smith Falls to the Black Hills/Mt. Rushmore.

As for touristy things, you definitely will have to stop at Wall Drug in Wall, SD. You won't be able to miss the hundreds of billboards advertising it. It's a complete tourist trap, but it's also fantastic and hilarious. (You can have your picture taken riding a giant jackalope!)

Kansas City and Omaha are both nice cities with plenty of sightseeing options (art museums, zoos, nice restaurants, etc.), if you want to throw some city-time in to the mix.

And, on preview, I also heartily recommend the Badlands. It's like nowhere else in the world; it's like stepping on the moon.
posted by emilyanemone at 4:36 PM on May 20, 2017

Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo is one of the best in the world. Seriously, look it up! You'll want an entire day to spend there.

Iowa has Okoboji, a small cluster of lakes in NW Iowa. Lots of camping options in that area.

Madison County, Iowa has those bridges that were written about and turned into a movie. Winterset is there, and is the home of Marion Morrison, aka John Wayne. If you like antiquing, Walnut, Iowa is heaven.

Unfortunately, that's really about it.
posted by wwartorff at 4:49 PM on May 20, 2017

Blue Mounds State Park in Luverne, MN is a nice campground. Good shade, and some nice amenities. Highly recommended. Plus, the second season of Fargo was set there, and you can get to see that it wasn't shot there.

Snake Creek Recreation Area is South Dakota is also pretty nice. In fact, I'd recommend taking 44 across. It's a two lane, but a bit more scenic than I90. I usually take Hwy 47 up through Iona from 44 to 90 - it's a bit twisty turny and fun, but you can roll 44 into Badlands NP.

There are campgrounds all over the Black Hills area - and I recommend them rather than towards Badlands, because shade. Everything out there is fairly close together, so it is totally possible to basecamp and see everything easily enough. When I was a kid, we usually stayed in a hotel in Rapid City, later on camping in the Black Hills in one part or another.

Rushmore is interesting enough, but I really like Wind Cave and Hot Springs better, personally. Also, that drive down hwy 14 south of Spearfish is also really nice, and Bridal Veil falls is a lovely place to have lunch.

Worth mentioning - you're within spitting distance of Devil's Tower - it's literally an easy day trip away (~90 miles from Rapid City). I'd recommend it if you can fit it in.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 5:20 PM on May 20, 2017

I'll also suggest getting across SD as fast as possible in order to give you more time in the Hills. Allow me to plug my favorite BH place - Crazy Horse Memorial. It's everything Mount Rushmore was 50 years ago - check it out. Consider camping at Sylvan Lake when your're there.
posted by achrise at 8:47 PM on May 20, 2017

- Blue Bunny Ice Cream is in LeMars IA, about an hour east of I-29. No factory tour, but ice cream galore in the ice cream parlor.
- Mitchell SD, home of the Corn Palace, is right on I-90. Nothing like it!
- Definitely Badlands--go on a night hike, if possible. Unbelievable number of stars!
- Minuteman Missile Historic site is near the Badlands, if you are interested in Cold War history.
- Evans Plunge is in Hot Springs SD. It is an indoor water park that has natural, warm, spring-fed waters with a stony bottom. It's been a tourist attraction since 1890. I don't like swimming & I loved it.
- Hot Springs is where the Mammoth Site is with its 61 mammoths & the fossils of a giant short-faced bear, camel, llama, prairie dog, wolf, fish, and tons of other plant and fossils. Lots & lots of fossils. It is a well-done set-up.
- Custer State Park is great, especially if you want to see bison & prairie dogs up close. Even more to see on the Wildlife Loop Road.
- Miles & miles of hiking trails in Black Hills, including a 4-mile hike up to Elk Point, the highest point in SD.
- Depending on your route & family interest, you can visit the Laura Ingalls Wilder homestead & her house in town in De Smet SD There are sites where you can see sod houses--soddies--that will make you wonder how (and why) anyone lived in SD back then. Because it will be 100 & windy, windy, windy. (And it's just as windy or windier in winter & -100 degrees. The wind alone drove people mad. Hardy people, those pioneers!) Walnut Grove MN is also an Ingalls site. It is about an hour north of Worthington, which is on I-90 in SW Minnesota. It would be a major detour unless someone really loves Laura.
- Crazy Horse Monument is near Mt Rushmore--it has a Native American cultural center.
- The 1880 train is in Hill City--2-hour ride on train with steam locomotive
- Rapid City is a nice town with interesting shops & nice restaurants. (And if you have a young kid, Story Book Island Park. My kid liked it--it's a free city park with somewhat worn characters from stories, nursery rhymes, etc.)
- Wind Cave is amazing.

Just a note: Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is Aug 4-13, which means there will be thousands of motorcycles on every road from every direction. Something like 700,000+ people attend. Bikers will be all over Mt Rushmore & the Black Hills & every other attraction that week. Nice people, but a lot of bike traffic!

Lots more to do & see in SD, too! I agree with the comment above to scurry between Springfield & Sioux Falls--spend your time seeing all you can in SD. We did this trip (no camping!) and had a great time.
posted by Nosey Mrs. Rat at 8:47 PM on May 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

This rapidly became an unofficial brief from the SD Department of Tourism, so I'll start off by saying that I'm glad you've chosen to drive through the dull wastelands of the lower central plains states to spend your time and money in our state. We appreciate and rely on it.

Place to go, Things to see

People have been nailing it above, but I'll nth Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave, Badlands National Park (for real on the water though), Wall Drug and Devil's Tower.

I'll also mention The Mammoth Site near Hot Springs, as well as Hot Springs in general, nice central base for the surrounding area. Black Elk Peak is a reasonable hike to the top with a neat stone tower, and which convieniently sits right next to Sylvan Lake, one of the most breath-taking lakes I know of. I won't even try to name all the individual parks and trails and amazing things to see, just take my word for it, it's all glorious. We also possess Missile Silos, and if you want to believe local legend, not all of them around those parts were 'actually' deactivated.

I think the real answer is to plan around a couple biggies and make sure to leave time for side trips, because the hills and western SD are absolutely chock-full of roadside shops, tiny little attractions, and minor parks that either slip the mind or aren't online. There's actually a surprisingly good wine industry there, and and if rocks or geology interest any of you, hoo boy, get ready. Every time I go there I find a dozen new and interesting things to see and do.

Unless it's especially important to you, I'd actually skip Mt. Rushmore. It's incredibly dull, busy as all get out in the summer, and honestly, you'll probably just drive by it in the best case anyway. The Black Hills are an especially complicated part of Native American history in the area, and Mt. Rushmore sorta centers on that whole problem. It's honestly not worth it, it's just rock graffiti, and nature did it so much better everywhere else. Same goes with Crazy Horse, with the small cavet that it's interesting to see rock carving in progress, which is basically the gimmick at this point anyway.

There are also a ton, a ton of museums both small and large, institutional and private individual, formal and really really not, all over the Black Hills. I personally enjoy the Journey Museum, which does an interesting job of combining local geologic history with local Native history and mythology, and Prairie's Edge Trading Co, which is indeed mostly a store, but a store that also functions as a art gallery, and includes a massive, massive collection of beads, both historical and modern, of every description. It really makes clear how massive and diverse of an industry and practice that was and became.

Where to Stay, How to make the trip

I like the suggestion of cutting across NE and skipping over Sioux Falls and as much of eastern SD as you can, all that really adds is boring cornfield travel time, I say as someone from there. All the cool stuff is crammed into the west.

Honestly, if your standards aren't too high in terms of natural beauty and isolation for private campgrounds, I don't know that I'd worry about that to much, unless you intend to go during a peak tourist time (holidays, 4th of july (don't even think about it, it's not even fun), The Rally) you should be able to find something respectable nearby, and a lot of those places don't strike me as the sort of enterprise with a website.

Maybe check out and see if any of the old firewatch towers are still unreserved, not many of them let you actually sleep at the top and just have a small cabin, but even then it's amazing to be that deep in the wilderness and on the summit of a mountain. You'd need decent 4x4 for that though.

In terms of advice, one big one, make absolutely sure your vehicle's tires, brakes and suspension are in good repair before you go, the Black Hills in particular but SD in general the roads are not great and in the Hills the roads are often very windy and steep and without guard rails and from experience, it's not fun to struggle on them. Maybe even have a mechanic there check them out real quick before you get into the hills, especially after a long road trip, I can't tell you how much of a nightmare it would be to break down out there on those narrow roads.

The Black Hills are my favorite place on earth and I just know I'll be kicking myself over half a dozen great things I blanked on later tonight, but there's a little bit. Wish I could help more on the lower states, but honestly I really don't think anything either compares or is really even worth pulling over the car for in comparison to the Black Hills and the Badlands.
posted by neonrev at 9:07 PM on May 20, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm a foreigner who has fallen in love with the Black Hills, Badlands and Custer.

I really loved jumping into Pactola Reservoir which has campgrounds and is near Mt Rushmore. I recommend hiking down to the Hippie Hole: refreshing water, barely anyone around, ancient and imposing, all fabulous things. The drive in to the mountains and forest to get to the Hippie Hole is stunning.

I also super loved Black Elk/Harney Peak - a good hike and outstanding views.

And WALL DRUG, absolutely. Omg. My Western Australian home is full of cheesy things I bought from that has-to-be-experienced emporium.

No one has mentioned it yet, and maybe I am a dumb tourist, but I couldn't have left the Black Hills without going to Deadwood. As an addict of TV Deadwood and a childhood of western stories, I had to go see the cemetery and go hang out in the bars.
posted by honey-barbara at 5:32 AM on May 21, 2017

Campendium is a great site for looking up campsites. It has details on amenities and pricing and reviews by real people who've actually been there.
My daughter and son-in-law live in an Airstream and use the listings quite often when they're looking for a new location to move to.
posted by notaninja at 12:37 AM on May 22, 2017

The rest area off I-90 at Chamberlain, SD is worth a stop. Free, great views, room for kids to run around, and an interesting little museum including a wooden boat that kids can climb on.
posted by a fish out of water at 2:11 PM on May 22, 2017

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