Can you believe it?
The Black Hills of South Dakota was the road trip that rivaled Disney World for my kids.
They were ages 4 and 7 when we first visited the Black Hills in 2011. We visited Walt Disney World in 2013, and when I asked about their favorite vacations in 2014, the Black Hills was at the top of their list.
We returned to the Black Hills in 2018 with my extended family. There were 18 of us, ranging in age from 7 to 70. We stayed in a different city and our itinerary looked a lot different, but we returned to many of the places on this itinerary.
The Black Hills is a beautiful region of the USA, located in western South Dakota. It is mostly rural, but very popular – especially in the summer. The Black Hills and surrounding area are filled with natural wonders. A lot of kitschy tourist attractions and services have sprouted nearby. It's road trip paradise.
Here is my 7-day itinerary that includes the Black Hills' top attractions. Look for an interactive Google map, my top hotel recommendation and tips for success at the end.
Day 1 – Mount Rushmore
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. Arrive at 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 from Rapid City. https://www.bearcountryusa.com/
Mount Rushmore National Memorial – This is THE must–see attraction 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 any time during your trip. Use it for the patriotic evening program, if you want to see it. https://www.nps.gov/moru/
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. https://crazyhorsememorial.org/
Reptile Gardens – This was one of the attractions that we visited on both trips. Reptile Gardens is small reptile zoo. It's really fun for families and anyone who loves animals. Ask for a Vacation Pass when you pay, and you'll be able to return as often as you want during your Black Hills vacation. Reptile Gardens is located on Highway 16, not far from Bear Country U.S.A. http://www.reptilegardens.com
Return to Mount Rushmore after dinner for the evening program, or save it for another day.
Day 2 – Custer State Park
Custer State Park – This is a top-notch state park, well worth a full day or more. It's great for wildlife spotting, hiking, fishing, water play and scenic drives. The Wildlife Loop and Needles Highway were the highlights of this park on our first trip.
Custer State Park was our base for our big family trip in 2018. We brought paddle boards and kayaks and spent a lot of time at Center Lake and Sylvan Lake. Your pass is good for seven days, so you can easily return to Custer on other days of this trip. https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/
Day 3 – Cave Tour
Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument – There are two big caves under the Black Hills that are managed by the National Parks Service, and I love cave tours!
We didn't intend to see both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave on our first trip, but other plans were rained out, so we toured both. We returned to Jewel Cave in 2018.
The features of the two caves are different, so both tours are worthwhile if you like caves and have the time. Cave tours are somewhat strenuous because there are lots of stairs. I recommend it for ages 4+.
If you only do one, I'd pick Jewel Cave, but both are good. Both caves sell timed tour tickets on a first-come, first-served basis. You can make reservations for Jewel Cave. https://www.nps.gov/jeca/ https://www.nps.gov/wica/
Custer State Park – If you only visit one cave, spend the rest of your day at Custer State Park.
Day 4 – Badlands
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. https://www.nps.gov/badl/
If you have time, visit the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site nearby. Badlands, Wall Drug and the drive filled our day, but it's really close if you'd like to see it. https://www.nps.gov/mimi/
Wall Drug – You can't miss the signs for this crazy gift shop all the way from Rapid City to Wall 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, save an hour or two for Wall Drug. http://www.walldrug.com/
Day 5 – Deadwood
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. This quaint town is a gambling destination for adults, but family-friendly museums, historical sites, shopping, dining and activities can be found as well.
I enjoyed visiting Mount Moriah, where Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickock and other notable residents of Deadwood are buried. The cemetery has great views of Deadwood. https://www.deadwood.com/
Take the alternate route via SD-44 and US-385 to see the outstanding scenery between Rapid City and Deadwood.
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. https://sturgismotorcyclerally.com/
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 haven't been here yet, but it's on our list! https://www.nps.gov/deto/
Day 6 – Hot Springs
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. https://www.mammothsite.org/
Evan's Plunge – The hot springs that earned the city of Hot Springs its name feed this indoor/outdoor pool and water park. We haven't been here yet, but it's a popular Hot Springs attraction. I know my kids never say no to a swimming pool. http://www.evansplunge.com/
Day 7 – Rapid City
Sleep in and take a break from all the driving today!
Storybook Island – My kids LOVED this free park in Rapid City on our first trip. They loved it so much that even though they were a little too old (ages 11 and 14) on our second trip, they insisted on taking their cousins here. At Storybook Island, all of the whimsical play areas are based on story book characters. Children can play, climb and go wherever their imaginations take them. https://storybookisland.org/
Downtown 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. https://downtownrapidcity.com/
Dinosaur Park – 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. https://www.visitrapidcity.com/things-to-do/attractions/dinosaur-park-gift-shop-visitors-center
Mount Rushmore Evening Program – Return to Mount Rushmore for the patriotic evening program and lighting ceremony.
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.
Where to Stay
You have a lot of great options in the Black Hills! We have stayed in a hotel in Rapid City and a vacation rental in Custer and both were great.
For this itinerary, I recommend that you make Rapid City your home base. It is centrally located and has a lot of hotels, restaurants, activities and other services for families.
We chose the Howard Johnson by Wyndham in Rapid City after hours of combing through online reviews. It has all the amenities that were important to our family, including
- indoor pool
- in-room refrigerator
- complimentary breakfast
- affordable price
It was one of the top-rated hotels in Rapid City at the time of our visit, and still gets strong reviews. There are many solid hotels in Rapid City, but Howard Johnson is a good place to start.
Click the button below to check rates and availability for Howard Johnson and other hotels on TripAdvisor.com.
Tips for Success
Start early. The Black Hills are a popular destination during the summer, and we have found that the best way to beat the crowds is to start our day early. We aim to be out of our hotel between 7-9 AM, depending on what we have planned.
Pack Picnics. We save time and money when we buy sandwich supplies, snacks and drinks from a grocery store for picnic lunches. Store them in the mini-fridge in your hotel room.
Do the Junior Ranger Programs. You could visit six National Parks Service sites on this trip. Ask for Junior Ranger workbooks at the ranger desk. Help your kids complete the activities, then go back to collect a collectible souvenir badge. This program is free, and intended for kids ages 5-12.
Eat dinner in Rapid City. Since we get up early, we relax in the evenings. Return to Rapid City in time for dinner. Afterward, let everyone relax and recharge in their own way.
Build in plenty of pool time. I've found that my kids will let me plan anything I want as long as they get an hour or two in the hotel pool at the end of the day.
Pack layers. Summer is the most popular time to visit the Black Hills. It was a perfect 80 degrees (F) during our 4th of July visit in 2018. When we visited in early June 2011, we needed jackets. You can avoid big crowds if you visit any other time of year, but expect cool or cold temperatures.
Avoid the first week of August. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is held during the first week of August each year. It's a massive event that attracts hundreds of thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts. The Black Hills will be extra crowded during this week, and the weeks immediately before and after.
Traveling by air? Rapid City Regional Airport is the nearest airport to the Black Hills. Denver International is the nearest major airport.
Need a rental car? Driving your own car is the best way to explore the Black Hills. Find the best rates from dozens of agencies at RentalCars.com.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are a genuinely American destination. It's located in the center of the USA and summer temperatures are perfect, so it's an outstanding summer road trip for families.
I hope this itinerary will help you plan the perfect Black Hills vacation for your family!