Planning a Black Hills road trip? The Black Hills of South Dakota are one of my favorite destinations for families, and it's perfect for a summer road trip. It's a classic American vacation.
This article is an overview for planning a Black Hills road trip and I'm sharing all my top tips on when to go, how to get there, where to stay, what to do and more.
When to Go
South Dakota's Black Hills are a fantastic summer destination. The mountain air is warm, but not hot. When we visited in early June, we needed jackets some of the time. When we visited in early July, temperatures hovered around 85 degrees F every day.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is held in the Black Hills in early August every year. Expect extra-heavy crowds during the event, plus the weeks before and after. If you're not going for the rally, you may want to avoid these weeks if you can. Get this year's dates and learn more at https://www.sturgismotorcyclerally.com/.
You can enjoy the Black Hills without the crowds if you go in the spring, fall or winter. Expect temperatures to be cool or cold. Expect some activities and services to be limited, due to weather or lower visitation.
Our most recent visit was during the week of July 4th – definitely a week for peak crowds. We occasionally had trouble finding a parking space, but the Black Hills are a big place. If you're willing to plan ahead and maybe start your day a little earlier, it's not hard to beat the crowds.
Whether you fly or drive to the Black Hills, you'll need a car once you get there. It's the best way to get around for most families, and you'll probably spend at least a couple of hours in the car on most days of your trip.
There is no public transportation to major attractions in the region. Some guided tours are available.
Rapid City Regional Airport is the closest airport to the Black Hills. The closest major airport to the Black Hills is Denver International Airport.
My first stop for searching rental cars is RentalCars.com. It's a good site to search multiple agencies and compare prices in one place.
Where to Stay
There are many hotels, campgrounds and vacation rentals in the Black Hills. The trick is finding a central base for your top activities.
We chose the Howard Johnson in Rapid City for our first trip. Rapid City makes a good base because it's the largest city in the region and has many hotels, restaurants and activities. It is centrally located for Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park and much more.
Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park are located south of Rapid City. Badlands National Park, Minuteman Missile National Historic Site and Wall Drug are to the east. Deadwood, Sturgis and Devil's Tower are to the north.
If you prefer something a little more quaint that is right in the Black Hills, look at lodging options in Keystone, Custer or Hill City.
We chose a VRBO vacation rental just outside Custer State Park for our second Black Hills road trip. My extended family stayed in camping cabins at Stockade North Campground inside Custer State Park, less than a mile away.
Custer State Park was our base for this trip. It was convenient to Mount Rushmore and the caves. We spent 2-3 days kayaking and paddle boarding Custer State Park's lakes. However, Custer was less convenient to attractions to the north and east and we didn't cover as much ground on this trip.
How Far Are the Black Hills From…
Mount Rushmore – 0 miles, Mount Rushmore is in the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore is 24 miles from Rapid City.
Badlands National Park – 62 miles or about 1 hour drive
Devils Tower National Monument – 107 miles or about 1.6 hours drive
Theodore Roosevelt National Park – 240 miles or about 4 hours drive
Denver, Colorado – 390 miles or about 6 hours drive
Yellowstone National Park – 426 miles or about 7 hours drive
More than Mount Rushmore
When we researched our first Black Hills road trip, we were astonished by how many fun things there are to do in the area. Mount Rushmore is a must, but there is a good chance that it won't even be your favorite part of the vacation.
Here is a list of activities you may want to consider for your Black Hills road trip. Find tips and reviews for those we have visited on my South Dakota destination page.
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- Custer State Park
- Wind Cave National Park
- Jewel Cave National Monument
- Crazy Horse Memorial
- Black Elk Peak
- Reptile Gardens
- Storybook Island
- Bear Country U.S.A.
- Badlands National Park
- Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
- Wall Drug
- Devils Tower National Monument
- Mammoth Site
- Evans Plunge Mineral Springs
You'll probably find even more things to do in the Black Hills as you go! There is plenty here to fill several family vacations.
Black Hills vs Badlands
Questions about Badlands National Park frequently come up in relation to the Black Hills. The good news is that you don't have to choose between the Black Hills and Badlands. They are only about an hour apart, so you can visit both on the same trip.
The Badlands landscape is completely different from that of the Black Hills. The Black Hills are rugged and mountainous with lots of trees. Badlands is colorful rolling hills rising out of the grasslands.
We visited Badlands and Wall Drug in one day on our first trip to the Black Hills. Unless you really want to dig deep into the park, one day will be enough for most families. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is also close by.
The Black Hills of South Dakota is one of my favorite summer destinations. It's one of the United States' great road trips.
I hope that our experience helps your family plan a great Black Hills road trip. If I haven't answered your questions, please ask in the comments or contact me at [email protected]