Can you believe it?
The Black Hills of South Dakota was the road trip that rivaled Disney World for my kids. They were ages 5 and 8 when we visited in 2011 and they still rave about the fun things we did there. Yes, we saw Mount Rushmore, and it was as spectacular as I hoped it would be, but my kids weren’t as impressed. Thankfully, there are so many great family activities to choose from in the Black Hills, that it was easy to keep everyone happy.
Rapid City makes a good base for this trip. It’s the biggest city in the area, with a wide selection of hotels, restaurants, shopping and other vacation amenities. Wherever you stay, get a room with an in-room refrigerator so that you can store picnic supplies. We stayed at Howard Johnson Inn and Suites and would stay there again.
I recommend getting out by 8 or 9 a.m. each day and packing a picnic on most days. Many of the best attractions are located in rural areas with limited services. This itinerary should get you back to Rapid City by dinner time each day. Use your evenings to explore Rapid City, swim in the hotel pool, and relax.
Here is our Black Hills itinerary for families.
Bear Country U.S.A – There are lots of places to see wildlife in the Black Hills, but if you want a guaranteed slam dunk, visit Bear Country U.S.A. Visit soon after opening time to beat the crowds and see the animals at their most active. Bear Country U.S.A. is located on Highway 16, on the way to Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial – This is the one attraction you must see in the Black Hills, so you’ll probably want to see it on the first day. Your parking pass is good for seven days, so you can return for an evening program or for any other reason during your trip. Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge here.
If you have the time and interest, you may want to visit Crazy Horse Memorial as well. It is located about 30 minutes from Mount Rushmore. It is an impressive work in progress that honors another American legend.
Reptile Gardens – This was the best attraction in the Black Hills for my son. This small reptile zoo is a fun and educational stop for families. Ask for a Vacation Pass when you pay, and you’ll be able to return any time during your Black Hills vacation. Reptile Gardens is located on Highway 16, not far from Bear Country U.S.A.
Custer State Park – This is a top-notch state park, well worth a full day if you have the time. It’s great for wildlife spotting, hiking, fishing and scenic drives. The Wildlife Loop and Needles Highway were the highlights of this park for our family. Your pass is good for seven days.
Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument – We didn’t intend to see both caves on our trip, but other plans were rained out, so we headed underground where it’s dry and 50 degrees (F) year-round. The features of the two caves are different, so both tours are worthwhile if you like caves and have the time. Kids can earn Junior Ranger badges at both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave.
I liked Jewel Cave better, but both tours are good. Most tours are available on a first come, first served basis only, but in early June, we didn’t have to wait long. It’s best if kids old enough to walk the cave tours on their own. You could combine Custer State Park and one cave tour on the same day, if time is short.
Badlands National Park – Badlands National Park is located about an hour east of Rapid City, via Interstate 90. Here, painted hills rise out of the prairie and the scenery couldn’t be more different from that of the Black Hills. Dinosaur bones have been found here and endangered species are being re-introduced to the wild.
If you have the time and interest, you could also visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site nearby. Kids can earn Junior Ranger badges at both Badlands and Minuteman Missle.
Wall Drug – You can’t miss the signs for this crazy gift shop all the way from Rapid City to Wall, South Dakota on I-90. Many of them advertise “Free Water.” We stopped at Wall Drug for ice cream, souvenirs, and lots of fun photo ops. If you make the trip to Badlands, be sure to save an hour or two for Wall Drug.
Deadwood – Fans of the Old West will not want to miss the city of Deadwood, South Dakota, which is located about one hour north of Rapid City. Today, this town is mostly a quaint gambling destination for adults, but there are some activities for families including historical sites, museums and shops. We stopped at Mount Moriah, where Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickock and other notable residents of Deadwood are buried.
Take the alternate route via SD-44 and US-385 to see some outstanding scenery on the way to Deadwood. You may wish to look into hiking, fishing or other outdoor activities in this area. For motorcycle fans, the town of Sturgis is located near Deadwood. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally brings hundreds of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts to the Black Hills during the first week of August each year.
Devil’s Tower National Monument – Devil’s Tower is located about 90 minutes beyond Deadwood in Wyoming. Unless you are from Wyoming, you may not ever have a better opportunity to see it. We didn’t make the drive, but would like to do it another time.
Downtown Rapid City – If you’re ready for a break from the car, spend some time exploring Rapid City. Downtown Rapid City has life-size statues of all of the U.S. presidents on its street corners. This walkable area has lots of interesting local shops and restaurants.
Storybook Island – This free park in Rapid City was my daughter’s favorite part of our Black Hills vacation. At Storybook Island, all of the whimsical play areas are based on story book characters. Children are encouraged to play, climb and go wherever their imaginations take them. Check the children’s theater schedule if you’d like to include it in your visit to Storybook Island.
You may also wish to visit Dinosaur Park in Rapid City. Here, several concrete dinosaurs grace a hilltop overlooking Rapid City. It’s cheesy, but the park offers nice views of the city. If you appreciate quirky roadside attractions, this is one you can do in about an hour, just about anytime during your Black Hills vacation.
If you don’t have a full day to explore Rapid City, all of these activities could be worked into other days of your trip.
Mammoth Site – Dozens of mammoth skeletons were discovered at this site in Hot Springs, South Dakota in the 1970’s and a museum has been built over this active paleontology site. We stopped here for a couple of hours on our way home from the Black Hills, and it was fascinating.
Evan’s Plunge – The hot springs that earned the city of Hot Springs its name feed this indoor/outdoor pool and water park. We didn’t try it on this trip, but it’s a popular Hot Springs attraction. I know my kids never say “no” to a swimming pool.
Have you visited the Black Hills? What attraction was your favorite, or which would you most like to visit? Please share your thoughts in the comments!