AAA Travel Tips / Best Road Trips in the Northern Plains

Best Road Trips in the Northern Plains

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By AAA Travel Editors
May 13, 2020
If you’re looking for some of the best road trips to take in the U.S., a drive in any of the Northern Plains states will check all the boxes. Dazzling scenery, fascinating history, wide-open roads that go on forever, ginormous rock sculptures that take your breath away and the kind of peacefulness that you can’t get in a city are all here. Keep your smartphone and your camera charged because there will be tons of phenomenal photo opportunities on this road trip through Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
ND Plains and Badlands
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States in the Northern Plains

The Northern Plains refers to the northern section of the Great Plains and includes the states of Iowa, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Kansas and Oklahoma also are sometimes considered part of the Northern Plains and the Great Plains; refer to AAA.com/RoadTrips for more information about exciting road trips in these states.
Mt.Rushmore
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Find Unbeatable Instagram Moments on the Black Hills Road Trip

Tall grass swaying in miles of lush prairies, vast thickets of spruce and Ponderosa pines, towering granite spires, limestone cliffs, rushing waterfalls … all are part of the incredible scenery on the Black Hills Road Trip. Signs along the route pinpointing the best views are your cue to pull over, stretch your legs and gaze at stunning landscapes. Break out the camera for photos that will provide lifelong memories and wow your friends. You’ll find unbeatable Instagram moments at the following stops, too.
Crazy Horse Memorial - Custer, South Dakota, is where you’ll find the gigantic sculpture of Crazy Horse astride his horse carved into a mountain. Work continues on the horse, although his nine-story face is now complete. The sculpture will be 563 feet high when finished.
Deadwood and Lead - These historic mining towns, founded during the gold rush days in the late 1800s, are the stuff legends are made of (and many movies, too). Take tours that explore Deadwood’s colorful history, including tales about notorious past residents Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok. A large gold vein led to the founding of Lead, where you can see miners’ homes and storefronts from its early days.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial - Find out which United States presidents are carved into stone at Mount Rushmore National Memorial, what each one represents, and how the carvings were made.
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Take Scenic Drives and Explore National Parks in the Northern Plains

• Both road trips will take you into South Dakota’s Badlands National Park, where you’ll come upon mind-blowing sights created by nature. On Badlands Loop, lay eyes upon otherworldly pinnacles, buttes and ridges, along with prairies populated with antelope, prairie dogs and mule deer, as you ride along SR 240. Scenic overlooks dot the route. Prairie Scenic Drive first takes drivers through expanses of prairie grass, then leads into mountains and canyons.
• Nebraska’s Chimney Rock National Historic Site indicated to pioneers heading west that they were at the end of the prairies. The rock’s striking spire towers almost 300 feet above the North Platte River Valley. The two bluffs at Scotts Bluff National Monument in Nebraska were another important landmark to pioneers. Find out why at the monument’s visitor center and take in beautiful views of the valley and Chimney Rock from the summit’s overlook.
• With 202 miles of passages, South Dakota’s Jewel Cave National Monument (past Custer on Leg 3) is one of the longest caves in the world. Explore the cave on four tours.
• Pass expansive prairies and wooded areas inhabited by deer, jackrabbits and wild horses in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in western North Dakota. The drive also takes you past canyons whose colorful striped walls resembling multilayered cakes are best seen at dusk.
Custer State Park in Custer South Dakota
flickr / CC BY/Rick Derevan

Where to Stop for Outdoor Recreation and Camping

• Instagram moments await in Custer State Park where free-roaming bison are likely to come into view for an accidental portrait. The park features about 60 miles of hiking and horseback riding trails as well as fishing, swimming and boating in mountain streams and lakes.
• Along this road trip lies Fremont State Recreation Area, which has 20 lakes for boating and swimming. Pack a picnic basket and go for a hike on its 40 acres. Primitive and RV camping sites also are offered.
Black Hills Reptile Gardens - Skydome
Black Hills Reptile Gardens

Where to Indulge in a Little City Life

Since you’ll drive through the following cities, or at least get very close to them, you may want to add them to your road trip itinerary.
• Rapid City, South Dakota, began life as a gold rush town in the 1870s. Spot wildlife like elk and wolves from your car at Bear Country U.S.A. and view one of the world’s largest reptile collections at Reptile Gardens; both are AAA GEM attractions.
• Four miles west of the byway’s end at Council Bluffs is Omaha, Nebraska, where Brigham Young was confirmed as the leader of the Mormon Church in 1846. Visit four AAA GEM attractions here: The Durham Museum, Joslyn Art Museum, Lauritzen Gardens and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium.
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Enjoy the Year's Best Northern Plains Events

Plan your road trip to coincide with the following fun events to make your visit even more enjoyable.
• For 10 days and nights in Sturgis, South Dakota, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally draws motorcycle enthusiasts from around the globe for races, concerts, a poker tournament, guided rides, and a beard and moustache contest.
• Welcome spring at Maifest! Held the first weekend in May in Amana, Iowa, this German festival will entertain you with dirndl-clad maypole dancers, traditional German music, international foods, and weaving and wood-crafting demonstrations.
• If you take your road trip in June, stop in North Platte for a rollicking good time at NEBRASKAland Days, an annual AAA GEM event and the state’s official state celebration. Highlights of the 10-day festival include concerts with big-name country music stars, a carnival, a 4-day rodeo, a children’s festival and parades.
friends looking at map
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Best Times to Visit the Northern Plains

Generally speaking, most road trippers head to the Northern Plains states from May through September, when the weather is warmer and more favorable for driving and outdoor activities, and the chance of heavy snow, icy roads and extreme cold are greatly diminished. Some roads may be closed in winter. Keep in mind that summers can be hot and humid, so dress appropriately. Most indoor attractions are open year-round but may be on a reduced schedule in winter months, so it’s a good idea to phone ahead and confirm hours.
Domestic Travel Boiler Plate Graphic
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Start Your Next Vacation with AAA

AAA Travel provides peace of mind for travelers—from the first mile of the journey to the last. Get inspiration for your next road trip with AAA’s TripTik Travel Planner, or browse pre-planned itineraries on AAA.com/RoadTrips. Estimating fuel costs for your trip is easy with the AAA Gas Cost Calculator, and if your car needs a quick tune-up before the trip, find a AAA Approved auto repair facility near you at AAA.com/AutoRepair. For printed maps, AAA TourBook guides and trip planning advice, visit your local AAA office.
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