I received so much information from TripAdvisor for our trip that I wanted to share our experiences for others to learn from. Us: Family of 3, daughter is 5 1/2 yrs old. Camping in a popup trailer. I've also posted reviews for the different attractions on those specific places. Hope this helps - we really had a great trip with enough going on to stay busy but plenty of downtime as well to relax and really enjoy the time together. We have some special dietary needs so we didn't eat out much but I noted the places we did eat at.
Day 1: Drove from Madison, WI to Mitchell, SD. Very doable drive in a day. Stopped in Austin, MN at Grinder's Deli - great place, highly recommend. Stayed at the Mitchell KOA. Affordable, clean, easy to access. Ran over to the Corn Palace for a bit that night.
Day 2: Drove from Mitchell, SD to Palmer Gulch KOA near Mt Rushmore. This was our base camp for the week. Stopped at 1880's Town in Murdo on the way - neat little place for kids to run around a bit. Got to camp just before dinner time.
Day 3: Drove up to Bear Country USA (one of the top spots on our trip!). Picnic lunch at Bear Country. Headed to Hill City to walk around a bit. Really neat little town. Was getting a bit rainy out so went back to camp for a bit. Decided to go over to Mt Rushmore and explored some of the indoor exhibits. Spent about an hour there even though it rained part of the time.
Day 4: Drove down to Hot Springs to do the Mammoth Site tour. While driving through Wind Cave Nat'l Forest we saw our first buffalo. Pretty neat - they were right next to the car. Mammoth Site was ok, we aren't really into that type of things but neat to see once. The kid dig was a lot of fun, our daughter loved it. It was a warm day so we headed south to Cascade Falls. This is a little rest stop in the middle of nowhere about 20 min south of Hot Springs. But if you walk down the steps you'll find one of the most amazing places in the area. There are multiple levels of a little waterfalls that you can walk around and swim in. One section is a 4-5' deep bowl that was formed by the water. Another is water only 2-3" deep which was great for the kids to walk around and splash around in. Then there's a 6 foot drop off you can jump in off of and then swim at the bottom of the falls. If you have time this is well worth the extra drive and time. Another favorite of ours. We drove over to Jewel Cave and did the scenic tour. A little long for a 5 yr old who isn't interested in "seeing more rocks" so we ended up carrying her most of the way, but still worth it. Some kids did just fine her age so is doable. Headed back to camp for dinner.
Day 5: Sylvan Lake and scenic highway day. Took Palmer Creek Rd from camp to hwy 87 which was recommended by a review on here. Is a nice gravel road with good views of Mt Harney. About 3 miles long. Sylvan Lake is amazing! We just hiked around the lake as our daughter couldn't do much more but even that was a workout - did a lot of bouldering on the rocks that you see in all the pictures. Would go back in a heartbeat! After that headed south on the Needles Hwy. Took another person's advice and cut over to Iron Mountain Rd on Playhouse Rd/CR 753 I think it was? This basically cuts off the southern parts of both roads which isn't the main viewing attraction anyways. Headed north on Iron Mtn Rd back to camp. Make the drive in about 1:30/2 hrs instead of 3-4 hrs. We drove back through Keystone and decided to ride the tram up. I rode the slide down (lots of fun!) and the rest of the family rode the tram down. We ate at Teddy's Deli and then headed back to camp to enjoy some live music at camp.
Day 6: Decided we all needed a camp day so we hung out doing all the activities that Palmer Gulch has to offer. That night we headed down to Custer and ate at Sage Creek Grill before doing the Wildlife Loop. We stopped at the Peter Norbeck Visitor Center and saw 5 buffalo across the road. Started along the drive and didn't see much for awhile...until we hit the area where the burros are. There's a parking lot there so it must be a common area. They were awesome! Put their heads right into the car and ate whatever we'd hand to them. For "wild animals" they were very gentle with our daughter. After 20 min kept on driving, saw prairie dogs and lots of pronghorns and white tailed deer. Just at the end saw an elk which is pretty rare. On the actual loop we didn't see any buffalo. Headed back to camp.
Day 7: Spent most of the day in Rapid City. Walked around downtown a bit to see the City of Presidents, supported some of the local stores, and ate at Dakota Thyme (great place!). Rode the trolley to Storybook Island which is an amazing place for kids to burn energy. Rode the trolley back to downtown and headed back to camp around 2. Great relaxing day.
Day 8: We had met up with some friends the night prior so spent the day with them. Went to Keystone to catch the 1880's Train but it was all sold out for the day until the night trip. So we went gold panning instead. Kids had fun even though I think the gold all went into the water as they liked collecting rocks instead. Walked around a bit and they noticed the "Fat Frog" ice cream shop so started chanting "Fat Frog" as we walked the streets. Was very cute. Ate at the Ruby Restaurant which was very good. Then headed back to Mt Rushmore to walk the Presidential trail. Was back to camp around 3 and just hung out and started packing up a bit.
Day 9: Packed up camp and started heading home. Stopped in Rapid City for about an hour to walk around and get lunch. We stopped at the Breadroot Coop - very small place, some produce available. Also went to the Main Street Market which is a really nice natural/organic store, no produce, med size. Headed out of town to Wall Drug just to say we'd been there. That's one place I really wouldn't need to ever do again. Thought it would be something but is really just a very crowded overpriced cheap souviner place. Took the interstate down to the other end of the Badlands loop as we were going to check into our cabin at the Cedar Creek Pass Lodge/campground. It wasn't ready so we drove the loop down to the Prairie lookout (about 1/2 way). Think we were tired as we kinda were to the point of seeing enough of the same type of rock, so we turned around. Our daughter had been sleeping since Wall Drug so we decided just to keep on driving home instead of staying the night. Ended up getting to Sioux Falls around 9pm and stopped at the Quality Inn & Suites to find a room.
Day 10: Drove from Sioux Falls back to Madison, WI. Stopped in Albert Lea for lunch. Home around 5pm.
It was one of the best trips I've ever taken. We had so much fun and that way we balanced out chilling with doing things really worked well for our family to maintain sanity :-).
I'd highly recommend a horseback ride if you can, I couldn't find a place that would do one with a 5 yr old so we didn't. The chuckwagon rides also looked like a lot of fun (we didn't do it as the meals weren't food we could eat so would have been pretty expensive). Of all the places we went, Wall Drug is the only thing I'd do differently. The rest was worth the trip or amazing! Have a great trip and enjoy all the sites to see out there. Really is a great area! If you have any questions feel free to contact me and I'll give you my two cents. I'm sure there's things that I forgot that would be helpful!