Many people who visit South Dakota's Black Hills don't have enough time to enjoy everything that area of the country has to offer.
A few weeks is not nearly enough, so people have to pick and choose from the many sightseeing options that are available to them.
Since my husband and I have spent a great deal of time visiting, volunteering and work camping in that area, I feel I'm in the perfect position to tell people who have travel time limitations where they can go to get the best bang for their buck.
Much depends on whether people are traveling as couples or with children, because there is something for everyone to see and do when you visit.
- view nature at its finest,
- go to an old time cowboy dinner show,
- hike, boat or swim,
- go horseback riding,
- watch a wild buffalo roundup,
- visit museums,
- stop to visit a native american reservation,
- pan for gold,
- watch gold being manufactured and
- even watch a cowboy shootout on the streets of Deadwood!
There is much more, but this list gives you some idea of the overwhelming variety of activities that are available to tourists.
Until you make the journey yourself, it will be impossible for you to know just how wonderful a place it is to visit.
However, with only a limited amount of time available, there are some things you simply should not miss seeing.
The Badlands and Wall Drug
The Black Hills is the real entry gate to the West. However, your real vacation begins just East of the hills on Interstate 90 where you will find The Badlands National Park and the famous Wall Drug.
You will be tempted to bypass them, but don't do it. Both are well worth seeing, and you can do so in less than a half day.
If you like, you can even camp right in the middle of the Badlands!
For a small entry fee, you can take a 35 mile drive through The Badlands National Park and enjoy its stunning, rugged beauty and hardy wild life.
During your visit, you'll feel as though you’re in an old cowboy movie because the terrain is so wild and stark.
If you choose not to take the drive, you'll still see many of the gorgeous rock formations, and will also save an hour or so that you can use to enjoy Wall Drug, which is located just across the street from the western exit of the badlands.
Wall Drug is a famous and very popular place for both adults and children.
At one time it was just a drug store, but over the years it became so much fun to visit that it expanded into a group of stores and restaurants. It is so big that it encompasses a good portion of Wall South Dakota.
Free Ice Water: The Story of Wall Drug is a book that shows how Wall Drug grew from a small mom and pop drugstore into one of the most famous and well loved tourist attractions in the world.
My husband and I once met the original owner,Ted Hustead ,who gave us a copy of this book and autographed it for us just because we took the time to chat with him. He was 92 at the time.
This book is something we have treasured for years and has served as a wonderful reminder of the day when we met him. It makes a wonderful souvenir and one people can treasure for years. We've had our copy for thirty years!
Wall Drug is a busy place.
It is on the historical register, and its walls are adorned with fantastic western art. It's also a great place to eat because
- Coffee is still 5 cents a cup,
- the hot roast beef sandwich is the best you'll ever eat and
- the blueberry pie will melt in your mouth.
After you finish your meal you can visit all sorts of stores that sell everything from junk to high end western wear and, if you have kids, you can play with them in the entertainment yard at the rear of the building.
This place truly has something for everyone, and is a ton of fun to visit.
90 miles west on the interstate, you'll find Rapid City where you can visit the
- Sioux museum,
- Chapel In the Hills,
- Rapid River,
- Ellsworth Air Force Base and
- South Dakota School Of Mines.
If you are short on time, you can skip seeing all of them, or, if you like, visit the Chapel in the HIlls. it is the best of the bunch to see and visiting it takes very little time.
The city also has a nice variety of restaurants as well as a beautiful mall.
For a real treat, take a tour of the Landstrom or Coleman manufacturing companies where you can watch artisans create unique and exceptionally beautiful items of Black Hills Gold jewelry.
If you are planning on camping in the hills, themselves, make sure to stock up on groceries before you move on because prices rise significantly once you've left Rapid City.
The Climb into the Hills
When you head west out of Rapid City on Route 16, you climb into the hills, which are rugged and lush with lodge pole pines.
Along the way, you'll see signs directing you to
- Crazy Horse Memorial,
- Deadwood, and
- CusterState Park
By reading them you'll have a better overview of the various vacation venues so that you can choose the spots you prefer to visit.
Some are clustered together, but others require some driving.
For example, Custer, Keystone and Hill City are within a half hour of one another, but Deadwood and Lead are quite a long drive into the mountains, even though they sit side by side.
Each venue offers special things to see and do, but if time is limited, the ones I discuss here will allow you to see as much as possible without feeling rushed.
Small Towns with Big Histories
In the summer months, the small towns of Hill City, Keystone, Lead, Deadwood, and Custer are crowded with visitors who can
- browse the many tourist oriented stores,
- dine in historic restaurants like the Alpine Inn,
- ride the 1880's train,
- enjoy nature, wildlife and beautiful scenery,
- do a little gambling or
- learn about the rich history of each area.
For example, it was in Deadwood where Wild Bill Hickock got shot holding aces and eights, now known as the dead man's hand. He is buried in Mt. Moriah Cemetery which is located just outside of town. He lies right next to Calamity Jane, another famous historical figure who was in love with him back in the day.
On the way to visit Keystone and Hill City, tourists can visit the great monuments of Mt. Rushmore and The Crazy Horse Memorial.
They can also head up the hill to do some gaming in Deadwood, or go on up to view the famous Homestake Mine in the town of Lead. (When it was still operating, this mine produced 40 million troy ounces of gold and was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America!)
Every one of these towns drips with western history, much of which is on display in its many museums, however seeing most of them takes time.
If I had to choose, I'd drive by the Crazy Horse Memorial (because you can see the mountain from the road) and Mt. Rushmore (for the same reason). I'd have lunch at the Alpine Inn and then drive on up to Deadwood where I would visit the cemetery and museum and do some gaming.
You can do all of these things in one day.
Also, if you want to eat at the Alpine Inn, you need to get there by 11:00 AM. Otherwise you'll spend a lot of time waiting in line. This is because the food is fabulous and is reasonably priced!
Deadwood is one of our all time favorite places to visit because it takes you back to a time when the West was wild, and some of the most famous people in history were alive
- Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok lived there,
- Number 10 Saloon (where Wild Bill got shot) is still open,
- The famous Bullock Hotel is open for business and
- there are small museums and historical artifacts everywhere that show visitors how people lived back in the day.
Also, many of the historic old buildings still stand, and the locals put on a good show during the summer months.
Every night at dusk, there is a reenactment of the killing of Wild Bill Hickok and a mock trial where Jack McCall is found guilty. Jurists are chosen from the audience, but there is a fee for attending the trial. However the gunfight is free to watch, and everybody seems to have a good time doing so.
Kids and adults alike love this one, so don't miss it!
Custer State Park
Smack in the middle of all of these places sits a 73,000 acre nature preserve called Custer State Park. It sits beside the small town of Custer, and both are named after the infamous General George Custer.
Just outside of the park is a campground. Behind it is a sign that show you where gold was first discovered in the Black Hills!
The park, itself, would take at least a week to see because there is a great deal to see and do there.
It has 10 campgrounds, 4 lodges, 4 lakes, 6 hiking trails, a general store, a chapel, cabins, the second largest buffalo herd in the country, a summer playhouse that brings in actors from New York and produces a new show every two weeks, two small museums, the home of South Dakota's poet laureate, a fire tower that provides a magnificent view of the entire park and even classes in star gazing, panning for gold and making fire from wooden branches.
If you go to the main visitors' center on Rt. 16, the workers there will tell you what is available, how long the drives are where to go if you only have a minimum amount of time available.
This park is a vacation in itself. If you even drive through it without doing anything else, you'll know that you will want to return one day and spend some quality time there.
My husband and I volunteered there for two summers. It was an experience we will never forget.
The Black Hills Are Worth Seeing
Visiting the Black Hills is an adventure like no other.
The time you spend there will take you to places where you will see buffalo running wild, cowboys, fabulous scenery and perhaps even treat yourself to a cowboy dinner show where you eat on tin plates, drink from tin cups and are served your meal cowboy style.
It's a wonderful area that has more to offer than has even been mentioned here.
I’ve shared some of the highlights with you, and sincerely hope that you will make the drive so that you can enjoy them yourselves. If you do go but only have a short time to visit, hopefully you'll be able to see enough to make the trip worthwhile.
As for me? I can't wait to go back!
Questions & Answers
Question: Are the hotels and restaurants in the Black Hills area handicapped accessible?
Answer: For the most part, yes, but you should always ask when making reservations.
Question: Is any gold ever found while panning in the Black Hills?
Answer: Yes, it is, but only in small amounts in most cases. If you stay at Custer State Park, the workers there will actually take you panning for gold.
© 2017 Sondra Rochelle