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Touring the South Dakota Black Hills in a Day

Chad and his daughter drove through the Black Hills of South Dakota in a day. Here are his tips for making the most of the drive.

A Bison at Wind Cave National Park

A Bison at Wind Cave National Park

It's possible to hit all the main attractions of the South Dakota Black Hills in a day; my daughter and I did it a couple of years ago. I had never seen Mount Rushmore, and my daughter hadn't since she was very young. We both had a free long weekend, so we decided to make the six-hour drive from Loveland, Colorado, to the South Dakota Black Hills.

Friday we drove to Hot Springs, South Dakota, and stayed in a hotel there. Saturday we woke up, got breakfast, then headed to our first destination; Wind Cave National Park.

A pronghorn at Wind Cave NP in South Dakota

A pronghorn at Wind Cave NP in South Dakota

Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave is a small National Park. It only takes about 20 minutes or so to drive through. The main attractions of the park are the small herd of bison and the actual cave. There are ranger-guided cave tours and programs throughout the year. There are also 30 miles of hiking trails.

Since we were on limited time, we just drove through, snapping some photos along the way. We were lucky enough to see a few bison and a pronghorn in the park.

Heading north from Wind Cave National Park, the next point of interest was Custer State Park.

Burros along the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park

Burros along the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park

Custer State Park

This state park is actually bigger than the neighboring National Park. Custer State Park encompasses over 70,000 acres of the South Dakota Black Hills. Its claim to fame is its herd of 1,300+ bison. We saw one of them. Some other activities in the park include hiking, camping, boating, horseback riding, and fishing.

We decided to take a scenic drive on the Wildlife Loop Road. It's an 18-mile road that circles around the park through forests and open prairie. The park information says there's a chance to see pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, wild turkeys, deer, elk, and burros along the road. We did see a bison as soon as we got on the road, but we never spotted another after that. Later we saw some pronghorns at a distance as well as a few burros.

There are miles of trails in Custer State Park, but the only hiking we did was checking out Heddy Draw Overlook, just off of the Wildlife Loop Road. If you call walking a hundred yards down a trail hiking.

Next, we headed to the small tourist town of Custer.

Heddy Draw Overlook in Custer State Park

Heddy Draw Overlook in Custer State Park

Custer, South Dakota

Custer is a small touristy town nestled in the middle of the South Dakota Black Hills. Its close proximity to all the surrounding attractions makes it a popular place to stay for a Black Hills vacation. There are lots of hotels, motels, restaurants, and souvenir shops.

After a quick stop in Custer, we made our way north to the Crazy Horse Monument.

Crazy Horse Monument

This partially finished mountain carving depicts Crazy Horse, a Lakota leader, on his horse. The carving is much bigger than Mount Rushmore. The head of Crazy Horse alone, at 87 feet tall, is one and a half times bigger than the heads on Mt. Rushmore.

The carving was started in 1948 by a New England sculptor who was working on Mount Rushmore. Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota chief, invited him to make a memorial honoring Indians. More information can be found at the Crazy Horse Memorial website.

Mount Rushmore

The main attraction of the South Dakota Black Hills is the iconic Mount Rushmore. Every American learns about this granite mountain carving in elementary school. It depicts the heads of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Approaching Mount Rushmore from the south, visitors are treated to views of Mt. Rushmore from overlooks and framed by mountain tunnels. We waited in a crowd at one tunnel to get a shot of Mount Rushmore for almost 20 minutes. It's a popular shot and mine didn't come out very well.

Mount Rushmore through a tunnel

Mount Rushmore through a tunnel

Once you arrive, the monument is only a short walk from the parking garage. The path to Mount Rushmore is lined with the U.S. state flags. There are restrooms, a souvenir store, and an ice cream shop on the grounds.

Mount Rushmore in the South Dakota Black Hills

Mount Rushmore in the South Dakota Black Hills

Summary

After leaving Mount Rushmore, we even had time to check out Bear County USA on the way to our next hotel in Rapid City. So it's definitely possible to hit all the main attractions of the Black Hills in one day. We did a little walking around and souvenir shopping, but if you're planning on doing any serious hiking or shopping, some extra time would be advised.

Have you ever visited the Black Hills of South Dakota? How long did you stay?

© 2020 Chad Claeyssen

Comments

Liz Westwood from UK on May 29, 2020:

This sounds like a great trip. Was Mount Rushmore as impressive close up as it looks in photos? I thought your tunnel one was good.