What Not to Miss When Visiting the Black Hills, South Dakota
So you are thinking about traveling to the Black Hills this summer for a fun family getaway or a retreat with your sweetheart, but other than Mt. Rushmore, you don't really know where to start. Fear no more; in this article, I will outline fun and distinctive destinations, tricks, tips, and suggested "all in one" activity days. After reading, you will be well on your way to knowing the place like a local before you even arrive.
Before coming to the Black Hills, I'm sure you will do your research on the area, finding lots of information on Wall (and Wall Drug), the Badlands, and Mt. Rushmore. Because these topics have been so well written about, I'm going to skip them here with no more than a slight mention that in my own humble opinion, Wall is a crowded tourist trap and not worth the stop. I know many others who disagree with me, but that is just my own personal opinion. Can't say I didn't warn you . . . .
You might be wondering how much time to take out of your vacation for your stop in the Black Hills. I would say a week is plenty. I will go over five days' worth of activities in this article. The two in-between days will be needed for lighter activities, good eating, and Mt. Rushmore. I suggest that you save the Badlands for a day when you can go early for the sunrise or late for the sunset. Those are the only times you will truly appreciate the beauty of that area; otherwise, it just looks like a wasteland.
Note: I am writing this assuming you will be starting your week on a Monday, but of course you are not locked into doing all of this on the days I suggest. Just keep in mind that the suggestion for day five is only available Fridays and Saturdays, so you will want to make sure to pay attention to when to fit that day in so you don't end up missing one of the best feasts in the Hills!
Avoid Visiting During Sturgis
Let's touch on Sturgis time and why it's not a good idea to come for the 14 days that include or surround it. The local businesses and people in the Black Hills depend on the money that is brought in during the largest economic time of the year—the two weeks when the Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally comes to town. During this huge event, hotel costs skyrocket by hundreds of dollars a night. Rooms that you can get during the start or end of the season for $89.99 a night turn into high-dollar rentals at $299.99 for a double queen. The prices alone should deter you, but bear in mind that you'll also have to contend with congestion in streets that were built for small-town traffic, lots of noise, and long waits for restaurants. It is simply better not to come during Sturgis. In order to make sure you don't plan your trip during this time, check the current year's dates for the event. Remember that the chaos starts a few days before and lasts a few days after . . . as do the prices. You can also pick up the prior year's rally shirts at just about any gas station for around $5, bearing in mind someone paid $25.00 or more for that same shirt the year before.
Five-Day Itinerary for Black Hills, SD
Custer State Park
Recommendation on Where to Stay
My first suggestion before we start with all the hidden treasures is on where to stay. There are older and newer parts to Rapid City (where you really should be staying for the best driving distances, prices, and choices of restaurants and hotels in the Black Hills). I prefer the venues off of Elk Vale Road, which is exit number 61 off Interstate 90. This is the newer edge of town, and the hotels are brand new and reasonable in price as long as you are not coming during Sturgis. Although Elk Vale is not central to Rapid City, it does border it. This is an optimal situation, as this location leads to several key travel roads that help you to avoid driving through the main portion of Rapid, which can sometimes save you 20–30 minutes depending on your situation. My preferred hotel is the Sleep Inn & Suites because it is clean, well kept, reasonable, has laundry facilities, an indoor pool, and the staff and owners truly care about your stay. While there, take a peek at the guest book (it was written by yours truly) and drop by the water park directly next door for some fun family time.
Pick Up a Free Black Hills Map!
This map is available at most hotels and at the gas station/tourist info center across from the hotels on Elk Vale. The map will be of great use to you, especially when you find yourself wanting to take some of the back roads I suggest in this article (as I will not go into extensive detail on the directions).
Day 1: Crazy Horse, Custer, and Jewel Cave
If you are interested in paying $14.00 to drive through Custer State Park (once you purchase the park pass, you can use it at any park in the state), take Highway 79 South out of Rapid City. This will add at least 30 minutes if you do the quick drive through the park, though you can easily spend hours driving around. Custer is the best place to see large numbers of buffalo, and if you are there during the roundup, don't miss it.
Inside of Custer, you can find the Purple Pie Place, which makes excellent pies. There is also a Flintstone's Campground located in Custer, which is great for younger kids. There are also a few fast food stops, including the local pizza joint, which is good but overpriced. Ultimately, you may find packing your lunch for your trip to Custer State Park is the best way to go; the markets are overpriced and can be out of the way, so best to stock up in Rapid City if you can.
Base your Custer Day around what time you can get into Jewel Cave. I recommend taking the longer tour and not the "lantern" tour. The lantern tour is better for able-bodied people who want to see less of the gorgeous parts of the cave and would rather have more of an adventure. On this more rigorous tour, you literally go down into the first passage; it's a tight squeeze with some downright dangerous areas that you have to navigate while carrying a lantern. I found the elder people who went on that tour with us had a much harder time then they had expected. Later in this piece, I will recommend Wind Cave as another place to see. Both of these caves are worth seeing, but if you only have time for one, Jewel is the more spectacular of the two.
Note: If you are going to Jewel Cave, call ahead and reserve your tour! Give yourself at least 1 hour and 45 minutes to get there from Rapid City.
On your way back out of Custer, take Highway 16 toward Crazy Horse/Mt Rushmore. I recommend making Crazy Horse your last stop of the day. (By this time, I'm assuming you're well into the afternoon, and driving this area at night is not a great idea unless you are used to very dark, rural roads with suicidal deer populations. The easiest and quickest way back on 16 from Crazy Horse is straight through Hill City. Do not take the turn to Keystone/Mt Rushmore; it does lead to Rapid eventually, but if you aren't going to see Rushmore at that time, it adds extra time to your return trip. If you are driving at night, be very careful, especially at dusk. Plan for a dinner out in Rapid. Suggestions include Mongolian Grill for a quick but filling Asian night or Coco Palace for good sushi.
Day 2: The Needles, 1880s Train, and Keystone
This is a perfect day to incorporate Mt. Rushmore, as I have you headed to Keystone (the town below Mt. Rushmore). I know I said I wouldn't talk much about it, but all in all, my view on Mt. Rushmore is you can drive by it and see it without having to stop. You don't need to pay $10.00 to go into the park. It's great if you want to do this, and very patriotic of you as ticket sales keep the park going, but the view is not much different from the park than from the road. If you keep going past the entrance to Mt. Rushmore, you will find a turn out where you can see George Washington (the same view from the picture I have included below).
Take Highway 16 down to the Needles Highway, which you can access from the turn to Sylvan Lake. There are several highways numbered 16, so if you are confused, just stop at your friendly Park Rangers post (you should always stop anyway so they know you've paid your park fees).
The Needles takes several hours to drive, so don't fall into the trap of turning around. Look closely at your map and follow 16 out; it is a glorious drive and the views of Mt. Rushmore are great! The pigtail bridges are another reason not to turn around and go back the way you came. Just keep on driving.
Once you have completed that circuit, you should be in the Keystone area. There are several ways to do the 1880s train. There is a depot in Keystone for the train, so my suggestion is to take it from Keystone to Hill City for lunch since all of Hill City is within walking distance from the 1880s train. Then take the train back up to Keystone for your day in Keystone. Keystone has many fun shops along with Mt. Rushmore. Don't miss out on the fudge shop, as some excellent treats are to be found there. The 1880s train is nearly three hours round trip, so please keep that in mind when planning and be sure to check the train schedule before you visit.
Day 3: Rapid City
By now I'm quite sure you are a little tired of driving despite the wonderful sights you have seen, so we are going to focus on what is right around Rapid City. Most of you will have noticed the many attractions on Highway 16 on your way down to the Custer and Mt. Rushmore areas (from water slides, go-karts, and miniature golf to the legendary Bear Country USA). Your drive through Bear Country will take you into the heart of the Black Hills, where—unlike at the zoo—many different varieties of animals can be seen in their natural habitat.
Further down along Highway 16, you will find Cosmos Mystery Area. This place is fantastic and so much fun for the kids. I advise you NOT to miss this tour. This place is amazing and literally a mystery. Things like water rolling uphill, balls rolling uphill, the ability to balance your body at odd angles, standing on walls, and switching heights with other people will leave you with a gigantic smile at the end of your 30-minute tour. You will definitely walk away with a different feeling about the earth and how things can "defy" nature.
There is also Storybook Island, which is completely free. The play sets are based on all our favorite childhood fairytales. All of the sets are adopted and taken care of by the community, so while at the park, please take care to be nice to the equipment and clean up after yourselves. Some of the "sets" include scenes from Cat in the Hat, Noah's Ark, Pooh's Hundred Acre Wood, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Humpty Dumpty, Jack and the Beanstalk, 101 Dalmatians, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and Pinocchio.
Day 4: Hot Springs, Wind Cave, and the Hitchrail
Today we will venture down to Hot Springs, about an hour south of Rapid City on Highway 79. There are some great things to see in Hot Springs. Today will be a restaurant day for lunch and dinner unless you choose to bring your lunch. There is a Subway, Dairy Queen, and a few small restaurants within Hot Springs, along with a reasonably priced grocery store called Sonny's that has fried chicken and cold sandwiches. Lynn's Dakota Mart also has a deli with more choices than you will find at Sonny's, but Lynn's is slightly more expensive.
There are a few activities to choose from in Hot Springs. I am going to suggest three different Hot Springs activities, but you will most likely only have time for two of them. If you choose to do Wind Cave, please keep in mind that it will be the same procedure as Jewel Cave; you should call ahead to find a good tour time and purchase tickets before you go, as they sell out quickly in the summer months. Wind Cave is also cold—about 52˚F with a constant "wind" even in the summer—so please remember to pack warm gear if you plan on doing the cave tour.
The Mammoth Site is the largest research facility for mammoths in the world. It is amazing, and you can actually view an active paleontological dig site with Ice Age fossils exhibited in full view. To date, they have found around 55 mammoths, by far the largest collective find of the species in the world. The tour takes about 30 minutes, but I find the exhibits in this place will hold your interest far longer.
Evans Plunge is a large indoor pool that was built over the sacred inlet of the Hot Springs. They promote themselves as a water park; however, if you are used to big city water parks, you will find this one much different. The water is a constant 87˚F and flows in at a rate of 5,000 gallons per minute. The pool recycles itself with fresh mineral water 16 times each day. The best time to get there is early in the morning around 9 or 10 am. The water is so amazing; it feels as if you are swimming through silk, and you will definitely feel a change in your hair and skin texture after swimming in this water.
I have already mentioned Wind Cave, and a drive through Wind Cave National park is the way we will end the day. Even if you do not want to do the cave tour, you should still do the drive through the park. Upon completing the drive through Wind Cave, you will find yourself in a small town called Pringle. Don't blink—you may miss it. Pringle has a fantastic restaurant visible from the main road: the Hitchrail. They are closed on Mondays, so if you switch the days of your itinerary, please keep that in mind. The Hitchrail is owned by Chef "D", who is a 4-star chef. His fare is fantastic. Highlights include the prime rib, the BBQ ribs, and my, oh, my, the elk ravioli is amazing. Yes, I said elk ravioli. When you leave the Hitchrail, do not head back through Wind Cave; instead, head north to Custer and find your way back to Rapid on Highway 16. This is much faster than backtracking to the highway.
Wild Bill's Grave
Day 5: Summer Nights in Deadwood
On our final day, we will take a drive West on I-90 to Sturgis, exit at Sturgis, and follow the signs up the canyon to Deadwood. As you drive into Deadwood, the main street will be on your right. Parking in the summer can be difficult, but there is a metered lot near the Silverado Casino and another parking garage in the middle of downtown.
Walking downtown speaks for itself with the many historical buildings. Signs will point you to where Wild Bill was shot, where the infamous murderer was caught, and if you find the right saloon you can even see the chair he was sitting in mounted above the door. I'm not going to tell you all the secrets, but trust that if you find one place that claims it is Saloon #10, you also may just find another.
They do a reenactment inside of the Saloon #10 where the chair is. The actors even take the battle out into the street. It is an amazing fun and good time in Deadwood. Stop by the Celebrity Casino for some cool exhibits, and of course the Morning Star which is owned by actor Kevin Costner and has many exhibits from his career including costumes from Dances with Wolves, Waterworld, and many others.
You can also go up to Mt. Moriah Cemetery and see Wild Bill's grave year round. Even if the tours are closed you are allowed to find the gravesite on your own, which is not hard to do. Wild Bill's grave is marked with a large headstone and Calamity Jane is buried right next to him. The trip to the cemetery is interesting, especially since you get a full view of the town down below you. If you are a fan of the HBO show Deadwood, you definitely shouldn't miss this spot.
To end your evening you must stop by the Gold Dust casino for the all you can eat prime rib and crab feast. This is a no joke stop! You must be hungry. There are similar buffets offered at other casinos, but the one at the Gold Dust is by far the best. If the main seating room is full, ask for a seat in the "French Room" —I actually prefer the service in that room as it is a little less crazy then the main dining area and it seems you don't have as many people heading for the "fresh out of the kitchen crab." Please remember that the buffet is only Friday/Saturday nights so if you are swapping around the days the way I have them scheduled, plan for a weekend date for Deadwood no matter what. Also check the local website for the summer concert schedule. My husband and I have had many a free concert just because we headed down on the right night for the buffet. Do not miss out on Deadwood.
An Enjoyable Stay
All in all I hope you enjoy this article and all it highlights. I hope that it gives you a good idea of all the wonderful things you can find here in the Black Hills. Enjoy your stay with us and please remember the following safety and courtesy tips while visiting.
- Please do not approach buffalo on foot. If you find yourself near buffalo or blocked by a large herd of them, try to slow your car down before you enter the "pack," or proceed slowly and carefully. Buffalo seem docile but can turn quickly and can flip a car. You can get killed by approaching these wild animals on foot.
- Please keep to posted speed limit signs and do not go under the speed limit. Many of us appreciate the tourism, but if you are going 35 mph to sightsee on a one lane road that is marked 55 mph, I guarantee you that you are delaying someone behind you that needs to get to work to serve you later in the day. Please be kind, keep up with traffic, and if you need to sightsee, pull over.
Enjoy your days in lovely South Dakota!