The ULTIMATE Black Hills itinerary for families

Posted By Allison on Jun 5, 2014


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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.

I recommend getting out by 8 or 9 a.m. each day and packing a picnic on most days. Don’t forget to bring a cooler, packed with ice from your hotel, to keep your food nice and cool.  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.

The ULTIMATE Black Hills Itinerary for Families | tipsforfamilytrips.com | Mount Rushmore | South Dakota | summer vacation

Here is our Black Hills itinerary for families.

Day 1

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

Day 2

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

Day 3

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

Day 4

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, Black Hills

Day 5

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.

Storybook Island

Day 6

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

Day 7

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.

How else can I help?

Traveling by air? Rapid City Regional Airport is the nearest airport to the Black Hills. Denver International is the nearest major airport. We recommend SkyScanner or AirfareWatchdog to compare fares from major airlines. Then book directly from the airline, rather than a 3rd party site. Find out why HERE.

Need a rental car? Driving your own car is the best way to explore the Black Hills. Compare rates for dozens of top agencies at CarRentals.com.

Need a place to stay? 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. Click the buttons below to read my review or check availability for this hotel on TripAdvisor.

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!

 

 

 

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Allison
Hi there! I am the founder of Tips for Family Trips. I am a married mom of two children, ages 10 and 12, living near Salt Lake City, Utah. We took our first child on a two-week road trip when she was four weeks old and we have been traveling as a family ever since. We love to get out of the house to see and do fun things, both far away and in our own neighborhood.

20 Comments

  1. We actually went in the off season and Mt Rushmore and Crazy horse were about all that was open. But the plus side was in Custer state park the park service keeps the state game lodge open (only a yummy cold breakfast available and no other food besides pizza so bring your own) for $99/ night! …normally $300ish! It was a beautiful condo we stayed in with beautiful hikes all around and the kids loved it!
    We didn’t have time for mammoth or wall drug so we will go again. Thanks for the itinerary!

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  2. Glad to see this itinerary! My family is discussing a possible family reunion in South Dakota next summer and it’s nice to see how much there is to do if we go. If you have any leads on vacation rentals for family reunions, we would love to hear them! Looking for somewhere we can cook and hang out together instead of the traditional hotel . . . Thanks for these great articles!

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  3. Great site! We plan on going back to South Dakota soon! So many places, too little days off 🙂

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  4. Black Hills are definitely on the must-do family travel list! In fact, I may need to add this to my bucket list!

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  5. We just returned from Mt Rushmore last week! We spent an afternoon at Big Thunder Gold Mine. They have a tour of the gild mine ($9.25 for adults, $6.25 for kids). We found a coupon in a travel book 75 cents off each tour. Can pan for gold or even pay to go to a claim and pan.

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  6. Cosmos Mystery Area is a fun filled Black Hills attraction that is close to Rapid City and Mt Rushmore and is great for all ages. The primary service and most mysterious event is the guided tour with a myriad of demonstrations designed to boggle the mind and show the awesome power of the Cosmos “force.” The tour is where mystery, science and comedy all collide! From people changing heights on level platforms to water flowing uphill, to sitting on the wall. The Cosmos is sure to amaze and astonish the mind!

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    • Hi, Deannie! We have 5 young boys (ages 1,3,3,7,9) that we’re taking to the Black Hills for the first time. Do you think Cosmos would be okay for the younger three? How long do you suggest we plan on being there? I know we will have to prioritize as we won’t be able to hit all the attractions in one short trip. Thank you!

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  7. We’re going to the Black Hills summer with our four kids, and I like to give them some background on the history of the areas we travel to ahead of time to make it more meaningful and interesting. Any tips on resources for educating kids on the history of the Black Hills, Deadwood, Rushmore, etc?

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    • I did not do much research of that type in advance of our trip, but I think it’s a great idea! I highly recommend participating in the free Junior Ranger programs at Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Badlands, Minuteman Missile and Custer State Park to help the entire family learn more about history, wildlife and other interesting features in a fun and rewarding way. We also used the map at the Mount Moriah cemetery in Deadwood, which gave us a lot of interesting information about Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickock and other interesting people who lived there.

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  8. Any hotel recommendations with an outdoor pool? We’re going in August.

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    • I don’t have personal experience with a hotel with an outdoor pool in the Black Hills. I threw your question out to the travel blogging community and got a couple more lodging recommendations. The first is La Quinta, which has an indoor water park. The other is a cabin at Black Hills KOA. The KOA has an outdoor pool and mini golf, among other amenities. Jody Halsted of http://www.familyrambling.com highly recommends it.

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  9. Thank you so much for the information on your site! We just returned from a great family vacation to the Black Hills and enjoyed many of your recommendations and others that we passed along the way.

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    • We love comments like this!! Thank you so much! The Black Hills is a fantastic destination for families and I’m glad you had a great time.

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  10. Followed a lot of your itinerary…it was extremely helpful in planning this trip! Thank you soooo much!

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  11. Would love to be able to read this but the line of different apps you can choose (Twitter, Pinterest, email, etc..) along the side cover a good portion of the article.

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