Visiting the Black Hills in South Dakota? In this guide we’re sharing the best things to do in the Black Hills including hikes, towns to visit, food to eat, where to stay, and more!
During our South Dakota road trip this past summer, we spent 4 days exploring the Black Hills. While we had heard of some of the popular spots in this area, like Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial, we didn’t know much about it before planning our trip and had NO idea how stunning this area was!
With cool, historic towns, fun hikes, canyons, unique rock formations, dense forests, scenic drives, and so much more, we were so surprised by the beauty and endless things to do in the Black Hills and quickly fell in love with this region of South Dakota.
We slid down a natural water slide, had local ice cream and chocolates, ate one of the best burgers of our lives, hiked to the highest peak in South Dakota, saw some crazy sculptures, drove our van through a tunnel, saw a glimpse of the wild west, and so much more. It ended up being the highlight of our trip!
In this guide we’re sharing some of the best things to do in the Black Hills, as well as tips for the area, where to stay, and more. It is impossible to list all of the things to do in the Black Hills without making this guide 100 pages long, so we’re focusing on the areas we visited and what we consider to be the must-visit places and activities, especially if it’s your first time visiting the Black Hills.
We hope this helps you plan your Black Hills getaway and that you enjoy your time in this area as much as we did!
Check out more of our South Dakota guides!
Before embarking on your adventure, please review the Leave No Trace principles to ensure you leave every place better than you found it, so that others can enjoy these beautiful places for many years to come!
These seven principles include planning ahead and preparing, hiking and camping on durable surfaces, disposing of waste properly (pack out what you pack in!), understanding campfire rules and always fully extinguishing your fires, respecting wildlife, and being considerate of other visitors.
Note: this guide contains affiliate links, which means that if you use the links provided and make a purchase, we get a small commission at no extra cost to you. We will only ever recommend products we truly love, actually use during our adventures, and think you can benefit from too!
About the Black Hills
“The lover of nature could here find his soul’s delight; the invalid regain his health; the old, be rejuvenated; the weary find sweet repose and invigoration; and all who could come and spend the heated season here would find it the pleasantest summer home in America.” -A.B. Donaldson about the Black Hills (1874)
The Black Hills are located in Western and Southwestern South Dakota, as well as Northeastern Wyoming, and encompasses more than 8,426 square miles. As we mentioned above, this area is full of forests, canyons, cool rock formations, lakes, caves, and so much more!
Similar to the rest of South Dakota, this area has deep Native American history and the name “Black Hills” comes from the Lakota phrase “Paha Sapa,” which means “hills that are black.” This is because from a distance, the forest, against the valleys and prairies, appears black.
And we can totally see what they mean! One of our favorite views in the Black Hills was seeing the dark forest contrasted against the light green valleys. It is so stunning!
As you explore the Black Hills, you’ll notice its beauty quickly, but it’s also important to know some of the Native American history in the area. The Lakota occupied the Black Hills starting in 1776, after conquering the Cheyenne and in 1868, the US signed the Fort Laramie Treaty, which exempted the Black Hills from white settlement.
But in 1874, gold was discovered in the area, leading to the Black Hills Gold Rush and the area flooded with miners. And in 1889, the US government went back on their promise and reassigned the Lakota to five smaller reservations in the state, and the area became open to white settlement.
So while these places are fun to explore as a tourist, there is a painful history for Native Americans and we believe it’s important to know the difficult past as we use these places for our own enjoyment.
When to visit the Black Hills
Many of the main attractions in the Black Hills are open year round, but to be able to experience all that the Black Hills have to offer, you will want to visit in the warmer months, typically between May and early October. This is when all facilities will be open, trails will be more accessible, and any tours you want to go on will be operating.
However, crowds are busiest in the summer months, especially June-August, especially early August for the Sturgis Rally, so keep that in mind if you want to have some solitude. If you want to avoid the crowds, we’d suggest visiting April, May, September, or October. The bonus of visiting in late September to early October is that it’s a great time to visit to see the fall foliage, which typically peaks around this time.
If you plan to visit the park in the colder months, you may run into a light dusting or a blanket of snow (which sounds beautiful!), but you also may run into some closed roads and other attractions being closed. This list is super helpful to see when specific attractions close!
We visited in late August of 2020 and had perfect weather! The mornings were a little chilly, but the afternoons were sunny or partly sunny and between the mid to upper 60s or low 70s. We did experience random rain or thunderstorms almost every day during our trip, but they only lasted a short period of time and then the sun came back out!
Getting to the Black Hills
If you’re visiting from out of state and flying to South Dakota, your best airport to fly into would probably be Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), which is around 30 minutes to the Black Hills, depending on where you’re visiting.
Major airlines that fly into this airport include Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, and United, with direct flights from Atlanta, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix, Denver, and Salt Lake City, with some additional seasonal flights.
Southwestern South Dakota is pretty isolated from any other major cities in the US, but depending on where you’re coming from and going, it can be a great road trip stop! Here’s how far the Black Hills are from some nearby destinations!
Note: these drive times and miles are from plugging “Black Hills National Forest” into Google Maps. The actual drive times may vary depending on where in the Black Hills you’re visiting.
- Rapid City, South Dakota: 50 minutes, 42 miles
- Badlands National Park: 1 hour 45 minutes, 103 miles
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park: 4.5 hours, 256 miles
- Sioux Falls, South Dakota: 5.5 hours, 387 miles
- Denver, Colorado: 6 hours, 376 miles
- Yellowstone National Park: 7 hours, 407 miles
- Jackson, Wyoming: 8 hours, 483 miles
- Minneapolis, Minnesota: 9 hours, 614 miles
If you’re looking for a fun and epic road trip while in the area, we have you covered in our 7 Day South Dakota Road Trip Guide including the Black Hills, Rapid City, and Badlands National Park!
Getting around the Black Hills
You will definitely need your own car to get around the Black Hills, as there is no public transportation anywhere in South Dakota. If you are flying into South Dakota, you will need to rent a car at either the airport or from somewhere in Rapid City.
There are tours that can take you around the Black Hills, but we highly recommend having your own vehicle so you can explore on your own schedule!
How long should you spend in the Black Hills?
We spent about 4 days in the Black Hills between Spearfish, Deadwood, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Rapid City. And we could’ve easily spent more time!
We’d suggest having at least 3 days to get a good introduction to the most popular things to do in the Black Hills, but 5-7 days will really help you explore almost everything on this list. However, no matter how much time you have, any amount of time in the Black Hills is well spent and you’ll have a blast! Just be prepared to want to come back again and explore even more…we’re already counting down the days until we can go back!
Where to Stay in the Black Hills
With so many smaller towns and Rapid City all within close proximity to the Black Hills, plus numerous campgrounds and lodges, there are tons of places to stay when visiting the Black Hills! Here’s a list of some options to check out!
Note: we’re focusing on more of the central towns and cities, like Custer, Keystone, and Rapid City, as they will be the most convenient to most items on this list. But Spearfish and Deadwood are also good options of places to stay on the Northwestern side of the Black Hills!
We LOVE Airbnb and it’s always our go-to if we want a bit more space, a kitchen to cook meals, and some modern amenities, like WiFi, laundry, etc. There are several cool towns in the Black Hills with a variety of rental options and close to other activities.
The Woodsley: A 2 bedroom, 1.5 bathroom with some cool design features, a great patio, a grill, and views!
The Notch Cabin: Owned by the same folks as the Woodsley, this cabin is equally as cute and has 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom.
Hugo Cabin: A large studio cabin, with a twin bed in a sunroom as well!
Backroads Inn and Cabins: A super cute cabin with a king bed, kitchenette, grill, and fire pit.
Custer Pine Palace: A gorgeous 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom cabin. We love the design of this place!
Black Hills Rambler Tiny House: A 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom tiny home!
EO Bungalows: A modern, studio bungalow with lots of high end touches and walking distance to town.
Cozy Apartment: A studio apartment near downtown Rapid City
Clark Street House: A beautiful 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom house
Modern Luxury Guest Suite: A super nice 2 bedroom, 1 bathroom apartment
Urban Loft Style Apartment: A cool, industrial 1 bedroom, 1 bathroom loft
Want something a little simpler than a full on Airbnb? There are a lot of different hotels in or near the Black Hills. Here are some options to look into!
Residence Inn (we stayed here one night due to very hot temperatures and it was really nice!)
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Rapid City
Holiday Inn Express & Suites Rushmore Plaza
Hilton Garden Inn
Comfort Inn & Suites
Hotel Alex Johnson
Custer State Park, as well as Spearfish Canyon, are home to lodges that will give you the amenities of a hotel, but with more of a rustic feel.
Blue Bell Lodge (Custer State Park)
These log cabins in the Blue Bell area are some of the nicest cabins in the park. All cabins are climate controlled, include a kitchen or kitchenette, are fully furnished, come with many modern amenities, and include daily housekeeping service.
There are 29 cabins to choose from when you reserve, ranging from rustic to more luxurious with fireplaces with open-beamed ceilings.
State Game Lodge (Custer State Park)
The State Game Lodge is the largest resort in the park and offers a variety of unique stays including historical rooms, hotel rooms, cabins, and a creekside lodge.
In the main lodge and the Creekside Lodge you’ll have hotel-like rooms available. But if you’re looking for something more luxurious, check out the Creekside Cabin & Bunkhouse, Gamekeeper’s Cabin, Custer Ranch House, or the Reunion Cabin.
Adam would love to stay in the Coolidge room or the Eisenhower room, which are rooms named after the former Presidents who stayed here during their time visiting the park…how cool!
Sylvan Lake Lodge (Custer State Park)
Known as the Crown Jewel of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake and the lodge are not only beautiful, but rich in history. Several popular trails leave from this area, as this has long been a popular spot for adventures and the lodge was suggested to be built here by the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
There are 31 cabins ranging from rooms in the lodge, to a honeymoon lodge and housekeeping lodges. Not only are there accommodations here, but there is also a restaurant and water sport rentals.
Legion Lake Lodge (Custer State Park)
This lodge was recently rebuilt and has a modern feel combined with a classic lakeside vibe. There is a restaurant, water sport rentals, and tours available, along with the 26 cabins to choose from.
Creekside Lodge (Custer State Park)
The Creekside Lodge is the newest resort lodge in the park built in 2008. These more spacious rooms have a modern and woodsy vibe to them.
Spearfish Canyon Lodge
Spearfish Canyon Lodge is located close to the waterfalls of Spearfish Canyon, making it super convenient if you’re looking for a homebase when exploring the Spearfish and Deadwood areas!
Want a unique, luxurious camping experience? Check out Under Canvas by Mount Rushmore! We have always wanted to stay at one of their locations. The glamping tents can either have shared or private bathrooms and they even have some with kids tents!
Love to camp? There are tons of campgrounds to choose from when visiting the Black Hills! Here’s a handy map of all the campgrounds both in Custer State Park (green) and in the Black Hills National Forest (blue). These campgrounds are convenient to all of the activities on this guide!
You can reserve the following campgrounds, find need to know information, and see all the campgrounds in the Black Hills National Forest here. Something to keep in mind for all Black Hills National Forest campgrounds, there is a $2 fee per pet and they must be leashed and attended at all times.
During our visit, we stayed at these two campgrounds and would recommend them, especially Bismarck Lake!
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Bismarck Lake Campground
We stayed here for one night and LOVED it! We had site #4 and it was incredible! We were on the lake (with some trees and a bit of a trek to get down to it), the spot was huge, and we had a lot of privacy with no one really next to us or behind us.
Open: Mid-May-December 31
# of sites: 21
RV spots: Yes, but no hookups
Make reservations (it is first-come, first-served from the end of September until December 31)
Grizzly Creek Primitive
We stayed here one night and it was really nice! It’s more for tents vs. RVs, but we managed to squeeze our van in.
# of sites: 20
RV spots: Maximum vehicle length is 24 feet, no trailers allowed
Things to do in the Black Hills
There are so many things to do in the Black Hills and it’s impossible to cover them all, but we’re excited to share some of our favorites from our trip, including hikes, scenic byways, cool rock formations, historic towns, and more!
Although not located in South Dakota, one of the most popular sights to see when exploring the Black Hills is Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, which is actually the United State’s first ever National Monument!
We had seen photos for years of this incredible rock tower and decided to swing by on our way to South Dakota. As we drove towards Devils Tower, the scenery was full of rolling hills and then suddenly, BAM! Devils Tower emerges. And it’s one of the most intriguing and striking natural landscapes we’ve ever seen!
Standing at 867 feet tall, Devils Tower is one of a kind. It’s composed of igneous rock and is widely thought to have formed from magma underneath the earth’s surface, however the exact process of how it was formed from magma has not been determined.
While the rock tower alone is impressive, what is really cool about Devils Tower are all of the columns, called columnar jointing, that make up the tower. These columns are hundreds of feet tall and up to 10 ft wide. It is incredible!
There are many Native American stories about Devils Tower, many of which include a story about a bear, whose claws scratched the tower. In fact, Devils Tower is also known to Native Americans as “Bear’s House,” “Bear’s Lodge,” or “Bear’s Tipi.”
Things to do at Devils Tower National Monument
While you can admire Devils Tower from afar, you can also pay $25 (or free with the America the Beautiful pass!) to access the grounds and get a much closer look, which we highly recommend.
Devils Tower is a popular climbing spot, but for most visitors, you’ll likely just want to hike while at the park. We recommend checking out these trails:
- Devils Tower Trail: 1.3 miles, 137 feet of elevation gain. On this hike you’ll loop around Devils Tower, getting very close to the base of the tower at times.
- Red Beds Trail: 2.8 miles, 442 feet of elevation gain. This trail has a similar loop route to the Devils Tower Trail, but you’ll be a bit further away, giving you a different perspective of the tower.
- Joyner Ridge Trail: 1.5 miles, 332 feet of elevation gain. Unlike the other trails, this trail does not circle the tower, but still gives you great views of it as you hike through the forest and prairie.
- Want to combine all three trails? This 7.2 mile route includes them all!
We also suggest visiting the Wind Circles sculpture, also called the Circle of Sacred Smoke, which is a pretty cool piece of art that you can frame the tower in, making a really neat photo opportunity! This sculpture represents a puff of smoke from a ceremonial pipe used by Native Americans.
Our first stop in the Black Hills in South Dakota was Spearfish and it was the perfect introduction to what the Black Hills has to offer. With a cool little town (with amazing ice cream!) and the gorgeous Spearfish Canyon, it has a perfect mix of “city life” and nature!
Things to do in Spearfish
By far the best thing to do in Spearfish is explore Spearfish Canyon! The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is a 19 mile drive that winds you through Spearfish Canyon with towering cliffs and pinnacles on all sides, Spearfish Creek flowing between them, and gorgeous waterfalls to stop at.
This is a very popular fall drive due to the foliage in the canyon, so if you’re visiting in the fall, make sure to stop here.
But regardless of when you visit, there are many beautiful sights to see and hikes to do in Spearfish Canyon including 3 popular waterfalls, canyon walls, and even a waterslide!
Note: dogs are allowed on leash in Spearfish Canyon.
Bridal Veil Falls
Bridal Veil Falls is 60 feet tall and is located just off the Scenic Byway road about 5.8 miles south of the north entrance. It is a very accessible stop, with an observation deck just across from it. The falls typically have a “veil” like appearance as they glide down the side of a rock, but during our visit they were more of a trickle. It was still beautiful though!
This was our first stop at Spearfish Canyon and is a must-do in our opinion! This 1.1 mile round trip hike takes you through many streams and through the canyon to a small natural waterslide that shoots you down into the Devil’s Bathtub.
We came here at sunrise to beat the crowds (we hear that it gets very busy!) and even though the water was ice cold, we had a BLAST sliding down this slide multiple times. And the best part? We had it all to ourselves!
The trail can be a bit hard to follow at times, as it does cross the stream more times than we could count, but if you keep following the stream, you will find your way to the slide and bathtub.
Located 12.8 miles into the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is Spearfish Falls. Park at the Latchstring restaurant and there is a lovely little stroll (only 0.8 miles round trip!) to the bottom of the powerful falls.
This was our favorite of the waterfalls we visited and it’s a great waterfall to view year round. In the summer it’s nice and green around the waterfall, in the fall there are pops of yellow, and in the winter there will be snow surrounding the falls and the chance to see the falls partially frozen.
You can also see the top of the waterfalls by visiting an overlook to the right of the restaurant!
Roughlock Falls gets its name from when pioneers who travelled through this area would roughlock the wheels of the wagons so they wouldn’t roll freely as they went downhill.
Today there are parking, boardwalks, and paved walkways to make the experience of visiting these beautiful falls much more pleasant! You can either access the falls by hiking this trail for 2.2 miles round trip or you can park here and take a short walk along the boardwalks to the falls!
There are different views along the way, so make sure you visit the different viewpoints regardless of which way you get to the falls. And keep an eye out for the crystal clear spring water!
The ‘76 Trail
With great views of Spearfish Canyon, the 1.2 mile long ‘76 Trail is well worth the 564 feet of elevation you’ll gain!
Want to visit Spearfish Falls, the ‘76 Trail, and Roughlock Falls all in one hike? The newly developed Savoy-Waterfalls Trail is about 7 miles long and incorporates all 3 attractions, making it a perfect hike if you want a mix of scenery and want to use your legs instead of a car to get around.
The Community Caves Trail is a short (0.6 miles round trip), but steep hidden gem along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. This is an unmarked and unofficial trail and the hunt for the entrance to the trail is half the battle, but if you park here and use the AllTrails map you should be able to find your way.
On this trail you’ll be led to a beautiful view of the road and canyon below, as well as caves and a waterfall. While the waterfall may just be a trickle in the summer, in the winter it can be iced over with massive ice columns descending from the top of the falls all the way below the caves!
Enjoy the caves and waterfall for a bit then climb up to the top of the caves on the right hand side to see the views of the road and canyon.
Take caution going up, back down, and throughout the entire hike, as the rocks can be loose and wet. This hike is pretty challenging, so please do not attempt if you’re not comfortable with going a bit off the beaten path.
Rent a ATV/UTVWe saw so many folks riding around on ATVs/UTVs in Spearfish Canyon. It seemed like such a fun way to experience the drive and visit the different waterfalls. It’s not cheap, but if you split with a couple friends it makes it a little bit more affordable.
Where to eat in Spearfish
Here are a few spots to fuel up before or after exploring Spearfish Canyon!
- Blackbird Espresso: Coffee and breakfast items!
- Dough Trader Pizza: unique pizza options (closed on Tuesdays)
- Antunez: Mexican food (closed on Sundays and Mondays)
- Fujisan: Japanese food and sushi (closed on Mondays)
- Leones’ Creamery: AMAZING ice cream! Their flavors change all of the time, but every one we tried was delicious
- Spearfish Brewing Company: We hear this spot has great beers and they serve food from the restaurant next door.
Take a trip back to the old west with outlaws, gamblers, and gunslingers in Deadwood! This town was established after General Custer announced the discovery of gold in 1876, leading to the Black Hills Gold Rush.
Tons of people flooded to Deadwood and it became known for its lawlessness where murders were common. Thankfully today that’s not the case and the entire town is now a National Historic Landmark for its well preserved gold rush era architecture.
Things to do in Deadwood
Walk around town
One of the best things to do is just walk around Deadwood and admire it’s awesome architecture, check out some of the saloons the outlaws used to frequent, and take in a few Wild West shootout reenactments!
We had so much fun just admiring the beautiful buildings…we felt like we had been transported to a movie set or back into the past! But the best part is that it still has the authentic charm, even while being a bit touristy.
Tour a Gold Mine
The Broken Boot Gold Mine came to be back in the late 1800s when the gold rush began in Deadwood. This mine was originally called the Sein’s Mine and while they didn’t actually find much gold there, they did find fool’s gold, which was still worth money back in the day.
However, it wasn’t enough and the mine closed and reopened a couple times, before closing for good after World War I. After the mine sat vacant for 36 years, it was repaired and reopened as the Broken Boot mine.
The mine offers tours every 30 minutes, with prices ranging from $6 for kids, $8 for adults, and $10 for candlelight tours, which take you underground to explore the mine. In addition to touring the mine, you can also pan for gold!
Visit the Mount Moriah Cemetery
Deadwood was home for some famous residents, such as Wild Bill Hickok, Seth Bullock, and Calamity Jane, who are now permanent residents at the Mount Moriah Cemetery.
While visiting a cemetery for fun is sometimes a weird concept, this cemetery is one of the top things to do in Deadwood and is not only gorgeous, but has amazing views of the city and surrounding hills.
While Wild Bill and Calamity Jane’s grave sites are easy to see, Seth Bullock’s requires a bit more of an uphill trek, but the view is worth it!
Note: it costs $2 to enter the cemetery, but it’s worth it!
Hike the Homestake Trail
If you’re looking for a hike to do, check out the Homestake Trail. This is a 5.7 mile hike that takes you from Lead to Deadwood or vice versa. If you start in Deadwood you will have more climbing to do and starting in Lead gives you a more leisurely stroll. We read that you get great views of the surrounding hills and the towns nestled between them.
Check out a museum or two
Deadwood is home to a few different museums and if you love history, they are worth checking out!
- Adams House: This museum was home to W.E. Adams, who played an integral role in Deadwood’s history. This home still has original furnishings and shares the history of the family. Admission is $10 for adults and $5 for children 6-12.
- Adams Museum: This museum’s goal is to preserve and display the history of the Black Hills. It is home to Potato Creek Johnny’s gold nugget, an illustration of Wild Bill, and more! Admission is a suggested donation of $5 for adults and $2 for children.
- Days of 76 Museum: This museum is home to horse drawn wagons, stage coaches, carriages, Western and American Indian artifacts, and more! Admission is $8 for adults and $3 for children 6-12.
- Tatanka: Story of the Bison: This exhibit showcases the history of bison and Native Americans in the area, as well as life size statues. Admission is $12 for adults and $5 for children 6-12.
Play at a casino
Love to gamble? There are quite a few casinos around town to test your luck and skills!
Go to the top of the Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower
Although it’s located in nearby Lead, the Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower is a must-visit, easy hike when in the Deadwood area.
This tower was built by Seth Bullock, Deadwood’s first sheriff, to commemorate his friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt (how sweet!). A quick 0.8 mile hike takes you to the base of the tower, where you can climb up for amazing views of the Black Hills.
Bike the George S. Mickelson Trail
The George S. Mickelson trail is a 106.3 mile (one way) trail that goes south from Deadwood to Edgemont, South Dakota. While you may not have the time or energy to bike the entire thing, we suggest biking a portion of it!
Similar to the Route of the Hiawatha in Idaho, this trail has 4 tunnels and 100 railroad trestles that you get to bike through and over. It is also a part of the Rail-Trail Hall of Fame!
The George S. Mickelson trail is open year round and costs $4 to ride. There are 15 different trailheads, so you can start and end in many different spots!
Where to eat in Deadwood
Jacobs Brewhouse & Grocer: This spot has a variety of food options, from Texas Twinkies (bacon wrapped, smoked jalapenos filled with brisket and cream cheese…WOAH!), bbq, burgers, salads, and more! (closed Tuesdays)
Pump House Coffee & Deli: This coffee shop in an old gas station not only has some food options, but also has a glass blowing studio inside!
Saloon No. 10: This saloon is the spot where Wild Bill was shot, so you can enjoy some history with your food!
Chubby Chipmunk: Need a sweet treat? This chocolate shop is sooo good! They have delicious chocolate truffles in a variety of flavors, including the Chipmunk Treasure (with toffee, praline, and coconut) and the Hot Mama (with habanero, jalapeno, and chipotle peppers). Make sure to say hello to Alvin and the Chipmunks out front!
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
If you’re visiting South Dakota, especially the Black Hills, there is a good chance that Mount Rushmore is on your list.
For those not familiar with the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, it is a sculpture of 4 US presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, carved into Mount Rushmore. The profiles of the presidents are 60 ft tall and it took 400 workers 14 years to complete. And despite the intense work to create it, including blasting the rock with dynamite and hanging from steel cables with jack hammers, there were no deaths during construction.
This iconic sculpture is something we had seen photos of our entire lives and finally seeing it in person was the most surreal feeling. We were excited to visit this monument, but we enjoyed it so much more than we thought we would!
We got there for sunrise (the park gates open at 5 AM) and it was such a magical scene walking through the gates and down the walkway lined with all the state flags. And the best part? It was empty! We saw maybe 10 people the entire hour we were there. We highly recommend visiting at sunrise. Not only did we feel like we had the whole place to ourselves, it’s really cool to see Mount Rushmore in the partial dark and as the sun starts to rise.
We expected Mount Rushmore to be one of those “park, walk up, snap a photo, and then leave” kind of spots, but there was actually more to do there than we anticipated.
After grabbing the iconic photo from the viewing deck, walk on the Presidential Trail Loop Trail, which is only 0.9 miles, although it does have 422 stairs! This trail gets you more up close and personal with the four Presidents enshrined in the rock face of the Black Hills.
Along the way, you also walk by the Sculptor’s Studio. Unfortunately when we visited, the Sculptor’s Studio was not open, but this studio has a smaller sculpture of other Presidents and information about the park. You can attend a ranger program here, as well as in other areas of the park.
While it seems like a very touristy place to visit in South Dakota, we highly recommend seeing Mount Rushmore in real life!
Note: it does cost $10 to park at the memorial. The America the Beautiful Pass does not cover this.
Crazy Horse Memorial
One of the things Adam was most excited to see when we were in the Black Hills was the Crazy Horse Memorial. The Memorial’s mission is to “protect and preserve the culture, tradition and living heritage of the North American Indians.”
The mountain is a carving of Crazy Horse, who was an Oglala Lakota warrior and leader. We highly recommend listening to the History on Fire podcast before you go to learn more about Crazy Horse!
If you think Mount Rushmore is massive and remarkable, just wait until you see this place! Once it’s completed it’ll be the world’s largest mountain carving at 563 ft tall and 641ft long and will be absolutely incredible! They have been working on it since 1948, so it will very likely not be finished in our lifetime. We so wish we could see it completed! But even only partially done, it was incredible!
It costs $12 per person or $30 for a car with more than 2 people to visit Crazy Horse, but the cool thing is that this goes directly to help them continue to work on the memorial. They do not have any government assistance to complete this sculpture.
A typical visit would include a self guided tour of the museum, orientation film, a view of the monument from the viewing veranda, and if you’re lucky, a talk from a local Native American. But there are some other special activities you can partake in!
Bus Ride: For $4 extra, you can take a bus ride to the base of the mountain to get a closer look at the sculpture.
Legends in Light Laser Show: On evenings between late May and early September, come back to Crazy Horse (your admission also gets you into the laser show as well) to see them light up Crazy Horse with lasers, it looks incredible!
Night blasts: Twice per year, in the summer, they light up Crazy Horse with fireballs and each event is to commemorate a specific event, such as the Battle of the Little Bighorn, for example. These are popular events, so they recommend arriving early!
Volksmarch: Twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall, walkers are allowed to hike up to Crazy Horse’s face, which is nine stories tall! We would LOVE to come back for one of these! This would be crazy cool!
Shuttle Ride: Not attending during the Volksmarch? With a large donation ($125/person) you can go on a van ride and tour all the way up to Crazy Horse’s face! It would be incredible to witness the workmanship that close up and see the wonderful views of the surrounding area! To donate and learn more check out the Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation.
You can see more special events here!
There is also a restaurant on site called Laughing Water Restaurant, where you can try some classic dishes, like a Native American taco made with fry bread and kuchen, the state dessert.
Custer State Park
It is said that Custer State Park is one of the few truly wild places that remain in the country. It has been named one of the world’s top 10 wildlife destinations (we have never seen so much wildlife!) and the park is home to towering pinnacles that you can walk among and beneath, scenic roads and tunnels, the highest point between the Rockies and Pyranese, and beautiful lakes.
Custer State Park was the biggest highlight of our trip to South Dakota! We wrote an entire guide with things to do in Custer State Park, as well as where to stay, when to visit, and more. We’d highly recommend reading that guide to learn more about the park and to get a lot more detail on things to do there, but here is a quick list of our favorites!
Hike to Black Elk Peak
This is not only the highest point in South Dakota, but also the highest point between the Rockies and Pyranese. Crazy!!! We did this hike at sunset and took trail 9 to the top and trail 4 down. And the views from the top were amazing! Not only did we have 360 degree views of the Black Hills and Custer State Park, but there is an awesome lookout tower at the top that you can go in and explore too!
Miles: 7.4 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,515 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
Walk among the Cathedral Spires
Custer State Park is home to rock towers called cathedral spires, which look like needles piercing the sky! On this hike, you end up in a valley surrounded by them and it’s surreal!
Miles: 1.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 488 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
Explore Sunday Gulch
This hike takes you through a gulch, up a staircase and steep rocks, where you have handrails to help you. It’s a really fun and unique hike! We did the hike clockwise, which saved the best part for last. This hike starts and ends at Sylvan Lake, which is also beautiful!
Miles: 3.9 miles
Elevation Gain: 797 ft
Trail Map & Current Conditions
Drive the Needles Highway
This 14 mile stretch of road winds through Custer State Park and has amazing views of the spires, as well as two tunnels to drive though. We were worried our van wouldn’t fit through them, but we (and the van) survived and it was SO much fun!
Another nearby drive is Iron Mountain Road, which connects Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park and has 3 tunnels, as well as pigtail bridges!
See wildlife on the Wildlife Loop
This 18 mile road is one of the best spots to see wildlife in the park and we can attest that this is true! We cannot even count how many bison we saw, it was likely between 100-200!
Beyond the park’s 1,400 bison (one of the nation’s largest free roaming herds!), you also have the chance to see white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, and the famous begging burros, which are non-native burros that LOVE to be fed (it’s allowed!) and put their heads in your car window.
Hikes in the Black Hills National Forest
There are so many other trails to explore in the Black Hills besides the ones in Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, and Custer State Park. And while we didn’t have time to check them all out, these hikes below are at the top of our list for our next trip!
Stratobowl Rim Trail
Miles: 1.7 miles
Elevation Gain: 147 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
Take this trail near Rapid City to view what some call the “birthplace of the space age.” The valley you see from the rim is called the Stratobowl. In 1935, the Army Air Corps and National Geographic Society launched manned balloons from this spot into the stratosphere, 72,395 feet above ground, which at the time was a world record!
On this hike you not only get to see the bowl where these balloons were launched, but you’re also surrounded by the beautiful Black Hills.
Hippie Hole: South
Miles: 1.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 465 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
This fun, easy hike near Keystone takes you down to a watering hole with a small waterfall that you can jump into and swim! There are two ways to approach this hike, from the south or from the north. We hear the north is pretty difficult and requires driving on a rough road and some scrambling, so we suggest approaching from the south.
Miles: 2.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 469 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
This trail is a great bang for your buck! With low mileage and elevation gain, you don’t have to work too hard for the views here. Located pretty close to Rapid City, this is said to be a great choice for a sunset hike!
Hell Canyon Trail
Miles: 5.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 853 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
The Hell Canyon Trail is a loop trail that takes you along a canyon and river to a pretty cool cave! We hear that it’s easier to start by going left and that part of the hike has wildfire damage and isn’t as scenic, but don’t give up, the views get better! You may have a good chance of seeing some bighorn sheep too!
St. Elmo Peak
Miles: 1.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,190 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
This short, but very steep and rocky hike takes you up to an overlook of the Black Hills. You’ll see the stone peaks poking through the hillsides, as well as Black Elk Peak and Little Devil’s Tower at Custer State Park, making for some very interesting scenery!
Apparently this is a favorite of the locals so the trailhead is not marked, but keep an eye out for a sign that says “THINK! Drive Safely” and there will be some spots to park on grass. You’ll see a dirt path to a barbed wire fence, which you’ll need to open to get through. But make sure you close it, as it helps keep the cows contained. It’s also suggested to wear pants, as it’s a bit overgrown.
Miles: 2.8 miles
Elevation Gain: 229 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
Love hikes with water? Then you’ll love the Osprey Trail! This hike looks gorgeous, with multiple views of Pactola Lake and the hills surrounding it.
Wind Cave National Park
Did you know that South Dakota is home to two national parks? While Badlands National Park may be slightly more well known, the state is also home to Wind Cave National Park, which was actually the 7th US National Park when it was given the title in 1903 by Theodore Roosevelt.
And on top of that, it was also the first cave system to be designated a National Park anywhere in the world and is one of the densest caves in the world, with four new miles of caves being discovered every year, which is pretty wild! It also has calcite formations called boxwork and is home to 95% of the world’s boxwork!
Despite all of these cool, cave related facts, the cave was actually closed during our visit. Partially due to COVID-19, but also because the elevator has been broken for a while. However, since it’s our mission to visit every US National Park, we visited anyways and explored what we could.
Here are a few suggestions of things to do, both in and outside the cave!
Go on a cave tour!
Going on a cave tour is definitely the best thing to do at Wind Cave National Park, but like we mentioned, the cave tours have been suspended (since July 2019, so it’s uncertain when they’ll be back).
If you do visit when they are running again, we would definitely suggest going on one! While we haven’t done the tour here, we have visited other caves and they are so fun to explore. Make sure you buy tickets in advance, as spots are limited. The tours range from 1-1.5 hours and are between $10-$12.
Rankin Ridge Trail
Miles: 1 mile
Elevation Gain: 239 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
This short and easy hike takes you to a super cool fire lookout (currently closed) and amazing views of the Black Hills. This spot in particular is where we really noticed the contrast of the forest to the valley and prairie.
Lookout Point Trail and Centennial Loop
Miles: 5.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 515 feet
Trail Map & Current Conditions
This trail takes you on a portion of the Centennial Trail, which runs for 113 miles from Bear Butte to Wind Cave National Park. On this trail you’ll go through prairies and up rocky inclines, with a good chance to see bison!
Jewel Cave National Monument
South Dakota is not only home to one epic cave system, but it has TWO! (We swear, South Dakota has it all! Minus the ocean 😉). Jewel Cave, also located in the Black Hills, is currently the third longest cave in the world with 208 miles of mapped and surveyed passages.
However, similar to Wind Cave, the cave is currently closed (womp, womp…) due to elevator work. It is expected to be closed until sometime during the summer of 2021, so keep an eye out here for updates!
If you are able to visit with the cave open, you must go on a cave tour! This is the only way to enter the cave and you have a few options of what type of tour to take. The scenic tour is the most popular option, lasting 1 hour and 20 minutes and taking you through multiple chambers and up and down 734 steps. Make sure to book your tour in advance at least 72 hours in advance and up to 90 days in advance, as they do fill up.
If you want something more adventurous, go on a wild caving tour! These tours, as the name implies, are pretty wild and strenuous, lasting 3-4 hours and include crawling through small spaces, using a rope to climb up a wall, and scrambling over rocks. It looks like SO much fun! But maybe not if you’re claustrophobic.
The minimum age for the wild caving tour is 16 and they do provide helmets and gear. You can book these up to 28 days in advance by calling (605) 673-8300 and there are only limited tours offered in the summer months.
One other tour option is the historic lantern tour, where for 1 hour and 45 minutes, you’re taken through the cave by a ranger dressed in 1930’s attire, with the only light source being lanterns. You go through narrow passages, up 600 steps, and there is a minimum age of 8 years old to be able to go on the tour. Unlike the others, this tour is first-come, first-served, so arrive early to get a spot!
Please read all of the rules before going on a cave tour, for both your safety and the safety of the cave. If you’re unable to visit the cave, or are looking for other things to do at Jewel Cave, there are two short trails you can hike there!
The closest large city to the Black Hills is Rapid City, which is the second largest city in the state. And although it’s the second largest, it still has a smaller town feel, which we really liked!
We spent most of a day exploring this area and really enjoyed the unique attractions and the food. It was a fun little break from hiking and we highly recommend popping into the city, even if it’s just for a meal!
Things to do in Rapid City
The City of Presidents Walk
Did you know that Rapid City is nicknamed the “City of Presidents?” The city claims to be the most patriotic city in America and they have life sized, bronze statues of every past US president all over downtown.
It was really fun to walk around and see which ones we stumbled upon and try to guess who it was from afar. We got maybe 75% right! But if you’re looking for a specific president, they have a map to help you out!
We love seeing murals when visiting cities and Rapid City has a whole alley of them! We loved wandering around here and seeing the diverse art.
Chapel in the Hills
This place is incredible! The Chapel in the Hills is an exact replica of the Borgund Stave church in Norway and the property is also home to an authentic grass roofed stabbur (or storehouse), which was built in Norway and then shipped to Rapid City and reassembled.
It’s free to visit, but they do take donations and we recommend leaving one so they can keep up the property! This is also a popular wedding spot and we can totally see why!
Note: the chapel closes in the winter and reopens in May.
Rapid City is not only home to a Norwegian church replica, but it’s also home to a piece of the Berlin wall! When a traveling exhibit of the wall came to town, a local businessman thought it would be cool to have a couple pieces of the Berlin Wall here in Rapid City, so he purchased the pieces and 2 tank traps for a few thousand dollars!
The Journey Museum and Learning Center
This museum shares not only the history of the Black Hills, but Native American culture, as well as rotating exhibits. It’s only open on Fridays and Saturdays and it costs between $0-$12 to get into the museum, depending on your age.
Want to see some dinosaurs (cement, 1930s themed ones) and views of the city? Head up to Dinosaur Park!
If you have kiddos, they’ll love this free park with attractions based on characters from storybooks!
Where to eat in Rapid City
- Everest Cuisine: This spot is legit! It’s definitely a hole-in-the-wall, but it has incredible Indian and Nepalese food. We LOVED it!
- Tally’s Silver Spoon: A delicious breakfast spot by morning and upscale dinner spot by night!
- Independent Ale House: This spot has good pizza and a nice beer selection!
- Kathmandu Bistro: Owned by the same folks as Everest Cuisine, but located downtown.
- Colonial House Restaurant & Bar: Hearty breakfasts and caramel rolls? Sign us up!
- Jambonz Deux: This spot is whipping up some delicious Cajun food!
- The Gyro Hub: A greek spot with gyros, falafel, hummus, and more!
- Sickies Garage Burgers & Brews: This old gas station themed spot has burgers and wings, plus a cool vibe.
- Pure Bean: We visited this coffee shop and loved it! They had some cool, unique drinks (our favorite!) and a cool vibe on the inside.
- Harriet & Oak: We almost went here! They not only have coffee, but good looking food, and there is a truck inside…pretty awesome!
- Essence of Coffee: This Australian coffee shop had bomb looking food and coffee!
- Dixon Coffee Company: Need something quick? This little drive-through coffee stand will do the trick!
Visit the smaller towns
Rapid City, Spearfish, and Deadwood are just a small sliver of the towns that make up the Black Hills! While we didn’t have a chance to explore every town in the area, we drove through many of them and got a lot of recommendations from locals on YouTube. Here are a few of the popular ones and a few things to do in each!
Custer is located super close to many of the popular attractions in the Black Hills, like Crazy Horse and Wind Caves National Park. This is a good home base to explore the area, as it has quite a few lodging options and lots of restaurants.
If you’re visiting Custer you must visit Black Hills Burger and Bun Co (Closed Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays). This spot was named TripAdvisor’s #1 burger in America in 2014 and we can totally see why! Their ground fresh daily homemade burgers with in-house baked and toasted buns are AMAZING!
We got the “Hot Granny” and “Black Hills Blues” and swapped for bison patties. They were so juicy and flavorful and you can tell the quality is top notch! A few other good spots to eat are: Skogen Kitchen, Begging Burro Mexican Kitchen, Baker’s Bakery & Cafe, and The Custer Wolf.
Another fun activity to do in the area is hike the Custer Skywalk. This 0.5 mile hike has a bunch of stairs, but the views at the top are worth it!
Belle Fourche, pronounced “bell – foosh” is French for “beautiful fork” and is the closest town to the geographic center of the 50 states. Pretty cool!
If you’re in the area, go stand in the geographic center and take a tour with PaleoAdventures, where you’ll get to help dig for dinosaur bones in the Badlands and even keep some of what you find (you only get to keep the more common fossils). It sounds absolutely incredible! This is an all day tour (7 AM-8 PM) and participants must be at least 10 years old.
Located in the Southern Black Hills, Hot Springs is set in a canyon, with cool architecture, and was founded as a frontier health spa, as it has springs with warm mineral water.
And one of the best spots to experience the springs is Evans Plunge, which is the oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills, established in 1890. This is an indoor pool with slides and fun activities, all fed by the natural spring water, which is a constant 87 degrees.
Another popular activity in Hot Springs is the Mammoth Site and Museum, which is “one of the most valuable fossil treasures known to mankind today.” In the summer of 1974, a local heavy equipment operator was leveling ground for a housing development when he discovered a tusk in the ground, as well as other bones.
He kept excavating and uncovered numerous remains of mammoths and after many months of digging, they decided to cancel the housing development and they preserved the area for scientific development. And now you can visit the museum, which costs $0-$12 to enter, depending on your age, and see it all for yourself!
Keystone is the home of Mount Rushmore, so there is a good chance you’ll be spending a little bit of time around here. It’s a resort town, with lots of restaurants, shops, and places to stay, although it is a bit touristy.
Besides Mount Rushmore, there are a few fun things to do here:
This narrated 20 mile round trip train ride takes you between Keystone and Hill City. It is the oldest continuously operating tour railroad in the nation. You will get views of Black Elk Peak and the mining towns and encampments between the two cities. They also run a holiday themed train ride during the holiday months!
Rushmore Tramway Adventures
This park is home to an alpine slide, tubing, ziplines, chairlift, and more!
Rush Mountain Adventure Park
We are hooked on alpine coasters and we would’ve loved to ride the one here! There’s also a cave to explore, a zip ride, and more!
Want to see Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills from above? Helicopter tours are very popular here!
Hill City is known as the “Heart of the Hills” due to its close proximity to all attractions. If you find yourself in Hill City while visiting the Black Hills, we suggest checking out:
This narrated train ride that we mentioned above goes from Keystone to Hill City.
Wade’s Gold Mill
Hill City has ties to the gold rush in South Dakota and at Wade’s Gold Mill, you get to learn about the mining history in the area, see equipment, and even pan for gold!
Prairie Berry Winery
Love wine? Prairie Berry Winery has won over 1,000 international awards! Stop by for a free tasting, grab some bottles to enjoy during your trip, relax in one of their igloos, or eat at their restaurant.
The Museum at Black Hills Institute
This museum is home to dinosaurs, fossils, minerals, and items from all over the world! While the museum isn’t huge, it has a large collection and it is under $10 to enter!
Ready to explore The Black Hills?
Pin this guide with the best things to do in the Black Hills to help plan your trip!