When I was a kid, the stern faces of the Presidents carved immortally into stone on the side of Mount Rushmore stared up at me from my grade school text book. That may have been the impetus for the first addition to my travel bucket list. Four decades later, I have finally checked the Black Hills Badlands regions of South Dakota off my bucket list. Even though we spent four nights in southwest South Dakota, I found that there are so many things to do in the Black Hills that I wish we spent a full week.
Since I spent so much time researching what to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota and the surrounding area before I was able to prioritize what I could fit into this trip, I wanted to share some of what we learned.
Even though this area looks small on a map, there is so much to do and, given the narrow, winding roads, it can still take some time to get from place to place. Therefore it is important to plan your Black Hills itinerary ahead of time to minimize your time in the car.
Unless you live within driving distance, you will likely want to fly into Rapid City, South Dakota. Depending on when you arrive, you may want to spend some time exploring the town or plan an overnight stay at the Hotel Alex Johnson. (Note: this post contains affiliate links. If you click a link and make a purchase, I may receive a small commission.)
This historic hotel, which is part of Hilton’s Curio Collection, will give you a sense of the area’s wild west history, and also offers affordable family suites.
You can either choose to move locations a few times, or select a centrally-located home base, near Keystone or Hill City, and do your exploring from there. If you visit in the summer, just keep in mind that lodging in Custer State Park sells out three to six months in advance.
You will also want to avoid the two-weeks (plus surrounding days) of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The thousands of bikers who invade the area like a noisy infestation truly take over the region for those few weeks. We visited at the very beginning and we found streets closed to bikers only and it was nearly impossible to find parking in towns and casual restaurants were overrun.
The region welcomes the bikers and the business they bring, but the noise and congestion caused make me think we would have enjoyed ourselves even more at a different time.
Things to do in the Black Hills
If you are coming in from Rapid City (or like us, driving down from North Dakota), it is only a short detour to scoot across the border into Wyoming to visit Devil’s Tower. You may recognize this looming, ridged-protrusion from its appearance in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
And it is no wonder that Devil’s Tower was chosen for this movie because there is something rather other-worldly about this volcanic formation. Native peoples still consider it a sacred place, and scientists have varying theories on its formation. In any case, it is worth a pitstop to see the first National Monument (created under President Theodore Roosevelt). You can try your hand at rock climbing with a certified outfitter, or spend an hour hiking around the base and watching the tiny figures scale the tower like ants on an ant hill.
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
When you leave, I would suggest driving along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway (Route 14A) from Spearfish to Deadwood. Along the way, you can stop at Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls for a short hike and photo opportunity. Just keep a close eye out for cars parked at trail heads because they aren’t well marked in advance. If you arrive before 5pm, stop in a Chubby Chipmunk in Lead, SD for hand-made chocolate truffles and a picture with their chipmunk statue.
Once you arrive in Deadwood, if you have time, you can take a tour of a gold mine and do some gold panning at the Broken Boot Gold Mine or stroll through the wild west town of historic Deadwood.
We spent the night just outside of Deadwood at the Lodge at Deadwood. They have a really great kid’s pool for cooling off after a day exploring and a tasty in-house restaurant too.
The next day, you may want to start off with a scenic bike ride on the Mickelson Trail, which runs all through the Black Hills. Rabbit Bikes offers bike rentals, as well as shuttle services to/from various trailheads. Just be sure to reserve in advance!
On your second full day in the Black Hills, I would head down into the central Black Hills to visit the region’s two most famous monuments. Depending on where you are staying, I would visit Crazy Horse first if staying near Keystone, and Mount Rushmore first if staying near Hill City or Custer.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial is not a National Memorial, nor do they take money from the U.S. government. It was started to create a memorial for all the Native Americans, as Crazy Horse was chosen as a representative of multiple nations, even though no known photographs exist of Crazy Horse.
Like La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, what started as a vision of one man has become a multiple-decades project that is still underway. In 1947, Korczak Ziolkowski, a New England-sculptor who had worked on Mount Rushmore, answered the call of Chief Henry Standing Bear to create a monument of Crazy Horse in the Black Hills. Today, his descendants are still working on this project, and the mission to create a museum and college.
When you visit today, you can only see the carving from a distance, unless you pay extra for a bus tour that brings you to the base. However, there is a good informational video that tells the history, along with the museum and, if you are lucky, you can see some Native American storytellers.
Your entrance ticket allows you to return within a two or three-day period for free. This means you can come back at night to watch the Laser Light show at dark.
After your visit, I would recommend skipping the restaurant at the Memorial and heading into Hill City for lunch. I got a recommendation to stop at the Alpine Inn for good German food, but because of the bikers and Main Street closure, we made the mistake of eating at the Memorial.
If you plan on visiting in October on Native American’s Day, Crazy Horse Memorial will feature performances, art, storytelling, and hands-on activities, as well as a traditional buffalo stew lunch. You may also want to head up to Rapid City for the Black Hill’s Powwow, which is three days of singing, dancing, drum groups, athletic competitions, and other events.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Afterwards, drive along Route 244 towards Mount Rushmore. Keep an eye out for deer and pronghorn along the side of the road. Also, make sure to keep your eyes peeled for a small parking lot on the right before you get to Mount Rushmore where you can see the profile of George Washington.
Arriving at Mount Rushmore can be a little hectic. Even if you have a National Parks pass, you still need to pay to park in their parking garage. However, that is the only entrance fee. Be sure to get your picture on between the walkway of flags and stop into the Visitor Center to stamp your National Parks passport and find out about the Ranger Walks and Talks.
You really only need an hour, or maybe two if you catch an interesting Ranger Talk, to visit Mount Rushmore. After taking selfies with the Presidents, you can walk on the the Presidential Trail, which offers visitors a closer look of the memorial to examine the details of the carvings. it is a .6 mile trail to the base of the rock pile, but when we visited, half of the trail and the Sculptor’s Studio was closed.
We did catch the tail end of a Ranger Walk though and it was jammed with fascinating facts. For example, did you know that there is an iron bar sticking out of George Washington’s eye that they haven’t been able to dislodge?
They also offer a moving tribute to the troops and nightly lighting ceremony at 9 p.m. in the summer. We considered returning, but since we could technically see it from our lodging, we chose to not bother driving on the dark roads and risk having trouble finding our campsite at night. However, what we saw doesn’t compare to being there and hearing the presentation and the music.
If you are the type of family that likes guided tours, Black Hills Adventure tours offers all sorts of guided tours of the region and the monuments.
Under Canvas Mount Rushmore
There are many camping, glamping, and hotel options in the Black Hills, along with vacation rentals. However, we chose to splurge and spent two nights glamping in a Deluxe Stargazer tent at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore. See my full Under Canvas review for details, but let’s just say that it was an amazing experience for a family that doesn’t usually camp.
On your third day, I would plan to wake up early to head out to one of the nearby caves, either Jewel Cave National Monument or Wind Cave National Park. Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave in the world, and, as the name would suggest, the walls sparkle. Wind Cave is one of America’s oldest National Parks and home to one of the longest and most complex caves in the world.
Both caves offer tours but keep in mind that tickets are available on a first-come, first-serve basis. Advance ticket sales for Jewel Cave are available online but they are limited. This means it pays to get there very early before tickets sell out and so that you don’t need to wait around for hours for your tour time. Keep in mind that caves can be chilly so bring a sweatshirt, wear closed-toe shoes, and leave bags and strollers in the car.
After visiting one of the caves, head down to Hot Springs, South Dakota. Here you will find the Mammoth Site, along with actual hot springs. The Mammoth Site and museum holds the largest concentration of mammoths in the world. It is an active dig site with Ice Age fossils, offering guided tours and educational programming. In town, you can also swim at the Evans Plunge Mineral Springs.
Custer State Park
I would recommend spending at least two days in Custer State Park. This is truly one of the best state parks that I’ve visited, definitely on par with our great National Parks, there are so many things to do in Custer State Park. If you can, try to find lodging at one of the hotels or cabins around Sylvan Lake or Blue Bell Lodge.
To get there, you will want to take either Iron Mountain Road, or Needles Highway (closed in the winter), both of which are beautiful scenic drives that take about 45 to 60 minutes to complete (without photo stops.) Needles Highway is more dramatic, with its small tunnels and towering spires. Yet Iron Mountain Road offers charm with pretty scenery and pigtail bridges. If you can, plan to drive both during your stay.
Make sure to stop at the new Visitor’s Center. Here you can learn where the park’s resident bison are hanging out that day. There is also a terrific interactive exhibit that teaches visitors how to stay a close distance from bison by showing what it looks like at various distances and when you need to turn tail and get out.
After stopping at the Visitor’s Center, drive along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop. Because we stopped at the Visitor Center, we knew where to turn off the loop to find two of the park’s giant herds of bison.
It also wasn’t hard to find the park’s famous begging burros. They will walk right up to your car looking for food, because so many visitors happily oblige. Of course, the park does have all sorts of warnings about feeding the wildlife.
After driving through Wildlife Loop, I would recommend lunch at the Blue Bell Lodge. I was expecting very mediocre fare but we were really happy with the taste, quality, and friendliness of the service.
Located right next to the Blue Bell Lodge is the Blue Bell Stables. Given the choice of rock climbing, a buffalo jeep safari, chuckwagon cookout, or horseback riding, Hannah chose riding as our treat of the trip. You need to make reservations in advance but spending an hour (or more) exploring off-the-road in Custer State Park via horseback is worth the splurge.
We saw many deer along the trail, crossed rivers and fields and walked through the woods on our scenic trail ride. If you do choose to take a Buffalo jeep safari, you are guaranteed to get off the road and see bison.
Although if you stop at the visitor center and find out where they are, chances are you can find them yourself. We got to enjoy one of the herds all by ourselves for a while before one of the jeeps rambled up.
Since you don’t want to jam too much into one day, I would save Needles Highway and Sylvan Lake for your second day in the park. There are many spots to stop and take pictures along the drive. If you get lucky and it isn’t too crowded, you can possibly get a picture of your car squeezing through one of the tunnels hewn into the rock. When we went it was all motorcycles, all the time.
At Sylvan Lake, you can rent kayaks or paddle boards (first come, first serve and they seem to close by 4pm as we couldn’t find anyone to help us.) There are also some hiking trails around the lake. It is such stunning scenery that you will probably want to spend half a day swimming, kayaking, and hiking around the lake. You can have lunch or dinner at the Sylvan Lake Lodge.
Day Six – Seven
If you are visiting the Black Hills, you shouldn’t miss the opportunity to head over to Badlands National Park for an overnight visit. It is only about 1.5-2 hours drive from the Black Hills. So a lot to do as a day trip but an easy overnight. Make sure you read my tips about visiting Badlands National Park and a great lodging option.
Your first stop before heading into the park should be at Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota. With all the billboards, it is hard to miss this landmark roadside attraction. You can eat here, shop for just about anything, or check out the courtyard with a playground, splash area, pop gun gallery, and giant jackalope.
Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is one of the best National Parks we have visited. It is full of dramatic landscapes and plentiful wildlife including big horn sheep and prairie dogs. You could easily spend a full day hiking and taking pictures at scenic overlooks. But be sure to stop into the Visitor Center to learn about the Ranger programs, guided hikes, and Night Sky viewing at the amphitheater. (See my other tips for visiting the Badlands and where to stay.)
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
On your way in or out of Badlands National Park, I would recommend a stop into the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. This provides a chilling insight into the Cold War and the “near misses” that we never knew about. Further down the road, you can stop and see the glass-covered, empty missile silo that used to house one of the hundreds of nuclear missiles that dotted the Great Plains.
However, if you plan in advance, you can tour the Minuteman Missile launch control center. Tours must be pre-booked online and only take six people at a time. You will get to go underground into the bunker where the missileers sat awaiting launch orders.
If you have more time to spend, then I would head back to Rapid City and visit Bear Country USA or spend time enjoying some of the attractions in Keystone, like the Rushmore Tramway Adventures, which offers a zipline, alpine slide, and adventure course.
If this region isn’t on your radar, I highly recommend that you add it to your travel wish list! We loved our time in the Dakotas (including Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota) this summer, despite the motorcycles. Even with the roaring of the bikes, it was still not as crowded as Yellowstone when we visited a few years ago.
Want more ideas? We talked about the Black Hills with Jody from Camping Tips for Everyone on our recent podcast:
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