Looking for a vacation packed with family-sized adventure? Try the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills offer five national park sites, premier wildlife viewing, western history, hidden missiles, outdoor sports, scenic drives and cozy mountain cabins within an hour of Rapid City’s food scene. I keep returning, drawn to the pine forests dotted with granite spires, the buffalo herds grazing across the rolling prairies and the warm hospitality of the South Dakota people.
South Dakota’s Black Hills and Badlands offer a week full of family-sized adventure, appealing to everyone from toddlers to Grandma and Grandpa. Outdoor enthusiasts use Custer State Park as their playground while anglers cast the perfect line. History buffs recount the pioneer battles of the area or hunker down in a hidden cold war bunker. Mount Rushmore can’t be missed; spend a few minutes or all day exploring this memorial that embodies the American spirit. Venture underground to explore two of the largest caves in the world to make a trip complete.
The National Parks of the Black Hills
My first stop is always a national park and the Black Hills boast five national park sites. All the sites are about an hour from each other though I don’t recommend trying to explore them in one day.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the American icon that draws millions of visitors to the Black Hills annually. Started in 1927, it took a team of 400 workers 14 years and $1 million to carve George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.
Mount Rushmore is located at 13000 SD-244, Keystone, South Dakota, and is open every day from 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. from mid-May to mid-August daily, closing at 9:30 p.m. the rest of the year. The nightly lighting ceremony begins at 9 p.m. during the summer. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free to enter; the garage parking fee is $11.
Badlands National Park borders the Buffalo Gap National Grassland so it offers habitats for several animal species, like buffalo, fox, bighorn sheep and the black-footed ferret. The sandstone spires and valleys glow in the setting sun with subtle hues.
Badlands National Park is located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota, and divided into two units, the North Unit and the Stronghold Unit. Badlands National Park is open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day. Admission is $15 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site offers visitors a window into the Cold War when the mission of Ellsworth Air Force Base included maintaining and launching Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Visitors can enter the underground Delta One Control facility for a simulated missile launch and drive to the Delta Nine Launch facility to see a deactivated missile all hidden in plain sight along Interstate 90.
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center is located at 24545 Cottonwood Rd. Philip, South Dakota, and open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day except Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1. Ranger-led tours take visitors 31-feet down into Delta One Launch Control Facility at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is free to enter. Tickets for the Launch Control Facility are free and first-come, first-served; a must for history buffs or military personnel and one of my favorite tours.
Wind Cave National Park is one of the largest caves in the world. How large exactly is unknown, as it’s estimated that only 5 percent has been discovered. Not only does the park have caves, I found a bison herd and a prairie dog town.
Wind Cave National Park is located 10 miles north of Hot Springs, South Dakota, along U.S. Highway 385 N. Wind Cave Visitor Center is open every day except Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer season. Cave tour tickets are sold first-come, first-serve for several different tours daily.
Jewel Cave National Monument is named after the glittering calcite that adorns the walls of the caves. As the third longest cave in the world, the main tour has 732 steps along metal scaffolding and kids under six are discouraged.
Jewel Cave National Monument is located 13 miles west of Custer, South Dakota, on U.S. Highway 16. Jewel Cave National Monument Visitor Center is open every day except Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer season. Cave tour tickets are sold first-come, first-serve for several different tours daily.
Black Hills for Kids
Custer State Park boasts abundant wildlife, scenic drives and cabins from the quaint to luxurious. Custer’s Wildlife Loop Scenic Drive was named one of the best places to see bison in the country.
Custer State Park is located 6 miles east of Custer, South Dakota, and open every day. Custer Visitor Center is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for Memorial Day to Labor Day and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the rest of the year; it’s closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and Easter.
Crazy Horse Memorial holds the record for the world’s largest ongoing mountain carving. Started in 1948, the Oglala Lakota warrior’s face is complete and work continues on the outstretched hand. Crazy Horse Memorial features a nightly laser light show.
Crazy Horse Memorial is located 6 miles north of Custer, South Dakota, and open everyday. Admission is $28 per vehicle or $11 per person. From Memorial Day through Labor Day Crazy Horse Memorial opens at 7 a.m. until 30 minutes after the laser show.
George S. Mickelson Trail offers hikers, runners, cyclists and horseback riders 109 miles of scenic travel along an abandoned railroad line. It spans the Black Hills from Deadwood to Edgemont, with side trails into Custer State Park.
Black Hills Aerial Adventures offers helicopter tours as an adventurous way to explore the Black Hills from the sky. In a matter of minutes, I got a bird’s eye view of Crazy Horse Memorial, Harney Peak and Mount Rushmore as we flew over Custer State Park.
The ride can be a bit bumpy over the peaks on a windy day so I would recommend this for families with tweens and teens. With three different locations in the Black Hills and Badlands, the flights start at $49 and open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Want to explore the wilderness but don’t want to hike, rent an UTV to explore. With wide trails and stunning views, I loved it.
I used Black Hills ATV Adventures; they provided everything I needed like maps, helmets for the kids and permits for Custer State Park and Black Hills National Forest trail passes. Half-day rentals start at $180 and they can accommodate families though the driver has to be 21-years-old.
Rapid City for Foodie Fun
Rapid City, South Dakota offers more than the Black Hills and Badlands regional airport. I enjoyed a day of ghost hunting, boutique shopping and restaurant hopping. I stayed in a newly renovated room in the historic, yet haunted Hotel Alex Johnson on my last visit. The hotel is located on 523 6th Street.
The bellhops will take guests floor by floor, telling their tales of ghostly figures and smashing glasses. The Hotel Alex Johnson is part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, and offers 143 guest rooms in the 1928 property. Be sure and check out the sky bar, Vertex, for amazing views from an art deco bar and a rooftop deck with a fire pit.
Downtown Rapid City offers lots of dining options within walking distance. I enjoyed lunch at Tally’s Silver Spoon. Located at 530 6th St., open breakfast through dinner, it’s within walking distance of the Hotel Alex Johnson.
The brew pub fans have to stop at Firehouse Brewing, located at 610 Main St. in a restored firehouse. Firehouse offers more variety of beer than I could sample in one sitting. Opens at 11 a.m. daily with a full menu.
I love to eat and Kol offers fine dining in downtown Rapid City at 504 Mount Rushmore Rd. Kol’s features a coal-fired oven and mixes up some unique cocktails for lunch and dinner.
The Press Start Barcade features 200 old-school, stand-up arcade games. It’s located at 504 Mount Rushmore Rd. Since it’s a bar, it’s 21 and over most nights.
Only in South Dakota
Looking to satisfy the teens? A walk down Art Alley located between 6th and 7th streets should do it. It’s a public arts project with notable graffiti art.
If the kids want to shake hands with all the former U.S. Presidents, stroll along 4th through 9th streets along Main St. and St. Joseph St. The City of Presidents has life-sized bronze statues located on every corner.
The Journey Museum and Learning Center walks visitors through time in the Black Hills and Badlands region of South Dakota. Great for kids, since the Journey Museum encourages exploration and discovery.
The paleontology tent, the teepee and pioneer exhibits transported me through the area’s history. Located at 222 New York Street, the museum and learning center are open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the summer. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for students ages 6 to 17 and free for kids 5 and under.
For the snake lover in your family, Reptile Gardens holds the record for the largest reptile zoo, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. With a botanical garden, a prairie dog town, gator show and snake show, Reptile Gardens charms the snake lovers in the Black Hills.
Reptile Gardens is located 8955 S. Highway 16, Rapid City. The hours are 8 a.m. and the last ticket is sold at 6 p.m. from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Admission for adults is $17, $11 for kids 5 to 12 and free for kids 4 and under. Senior and military discounts are available.
Since 1931, Wall Drug has offered free ice water to travelers along Interstate 90. Along with free water, I found 5¢ coffee and the best maple donuts. The quintessential roadside attraction, Wall Drug sells a bit of everything. Located at 510 Main St. in Wall, South Dakota. It’s open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day.
Need for ideas for your trip to the Black Hills, check out South Dakota’s travel site.