10 Things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota
The Black Hills of South Dakota had been on our bucket list for a long time. We always seem to head West from Colorado on road trips because all of our family lives in the Western States. Not only that, there are so many fun things to do around where we live in Colorado in the summer that it is hard to get away. But, we finally made it East to South Dakota in September. It was absolutely amazing! I’ve always wanted to see Mount Rushmore, and it did not disappoint. But, I found that there are so many other awesome things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Our only regret was that we didn’t allow more time for our visit.
Here are 10 things to do in the Black Hills and nearby.
Table Of Contents
Crazy Horse Memorial
In response to the carving of Mount Rushmore, the Lakota Chief Henry Standing Bear commissioned a gigantic memorial of Crazy Horse to be carved into a mountain in the Black Hills. Crazy Horse was an important Lakota warrior who fought against the white settlers taking over Native American land. Although Crazy Horse is still a work in progress, it is a must-see while visiting South Dakota.
The carving-in-progress is incredible but what I thought was most interesting was the museum. The Indian Museum of North America is full of American Indian artifacts and works of art from elaborate headdresses to beautiful jewelry and rugs.
Don’t miss watching the short movie to learn all about the life of Crazy Horse and how his monument was started.
*Plan to spend at least two hours visiting Crazy Horse.
Mount Rushmore National Monument
Mount Rushmore has been on our family bucket list for years, in fact, it is the main reason we booked our trip to South Dakota. We were not disappointed. The iconic statue of four presidents carved into the mountain is an incredible sight.
Views of the carving are great from the Avenue of Flags and Grand Terrace but I would suggest walking the Presidential Trail also. The Presidential Trail is a 0.6 mile loop that takes you from the Grand Terrace to the base of Mount Rushmore with viewpoints along the way. The trail is less crowded and it is nice to see Mount Rushmore from different angles at the viewpoints. I would also suggest stopping at the Sculptor’s studio to listen to the informative Ranger-led program.
*There is no entrance fee for Mount Rushmore but you will have to pay to park.
Helicopter Tour of Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore
As we were leaving Crazy Horse we saw a sign advertising $49 helicopter tours and we couldn’t resist stopping to check it out. We were so happy we did! Seeing Crazy Horse and the surrounding Black Hills from the air gives you a completely different perspective of the area.
Black Hills Aerial Adventures has three different Heliports- Crazy Horse, Mount Rushmore, and one near Badlands National Park. Their prices are reasonable and riding in a helicopter is an experience you will never forget.
Watch a Wild West Shoot-Out in Deadwood
Deadwood is an old goldrush town that still holds its wild west charm. I wouldn’t suggest staying here if you have kids, the plentiful casinos make Deadwood more of an adult destination. But, it is worth a visit to check out the historical Deadwood Mainstreet.
The highlight of Deadwood if you are traveling with kids is the Mainstreet shootout. In the summertime, Deadwood Alive actors close down Mainstreet and reenact a wild west shootout every few hours. You can also take a horsedrawn wagon ride through Mainstreet. Or, just walk around and check out the many stores and restaurants.
Spend the Day Exploring the Black Hills Off the Beaten Path in a Rental Side-by-Side
There is an extensive network of off-road trails in the Black Hills of South Dakota and my family loves riding ATVs. So, what better way to spend the day than renting side-by-sides.
We rented the side-by-sides from Black Hills Off-Road Rentals. Black Hills Off-Road Rentals is right on Highway 385, eight miles south of Deadwood. They provide a map and there is trail access right from the rental site without riding on the highway. Along with a map, we were provided with ideas of things to see, viewpoints, and routes to take. You could pack a lunch or just stop at one of the recommended restaurants.
One of the highlights of our day was the Black Elk Peak historic lookout tower. Black Elk Peak is the highest point in the US east of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 7,242. The smoke from wildfires obstructed our view when we were there but on a clear day, you can see for miles and miles. Even with the obstructed view, the lookout tower was a great place to explore.
* Kids must be five years old to ride in the side-by-side
Explore Jewel Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave is the third-longest cave in the world! Needless to say, it is a stop that shouldn’t be missed when visiting the Black Hills region.
Start your visit at the informative visitors center where you will learn all about how the cave is formed and what you will see inside the cave. If you are traveling with kids, Jewel Cave National Monument has an awesome Junior Ranger Program you won’t want to miss. Next, do one of the guided tours into the cave. There are four different tours to choose from. If you are visiting in the summer you will want to book reservations in advance to make sure you get the tour you want. The tours start from the visitors center and access the cave through an elevator.
*Strollers and backpack carriers are not allowed in the cave. If you plan to go with small children you will need to have a front-facing carrier or the child must walk on their own through the tour.
Take a Scenic Drive Through Custer State Park on the Needles Highway
The rugged granite mountains surrounded by pine, birch, and aspen forests in Custer State Park along the Needles Highway make for a fantastic scenic drive. The Needles Highway is fourteen miles but takes about 45 minutes to an hour to complete. This is the kind of drive you don’t want to rush. The scenery is beautiful in every direction.
There are several tunnels along the Needles Highway, the most notable one is the Needles Eye Tunnel. It is only eight feet wide and just over nine feet high through the granite cliff. Traffic backs up here because drivers need to take turns fitting through the narrow tunnel.
*If you have time, take the short detour to Sylvan Lake at the beginning of the Needles Highway. It is a great spot for a picnic or an easy hike around the lake.
-These next sites aren’t actually in the Black Hills but are within a two-hour drive and well worth the side-trip
I’d read all about Wall Drug and wasn’t excited about stopping there but knew Eli would love it. It turned out that Wall Drug was actually a surprisingly fun stop and yes, Eli loved it.
In 1931, Wall Drug started out as a tiny store in the middle of nowhere that offered free ice water to get travelers to stop. From there it has grown into a huge collection of different types of souvenir shops that offers something for everyone and attracts millions of visitors a year. Even if you aren’t into souvenir shopping, it is fun to look at the cute decorations throughout the shopping area.
Chad, who like me wasn’t excited about the stop, ended up buying a Stetson cowboy hat and Eli got a cap gun that he still treasures.
*We bought some doughnuts because we’d read about how great they were but they were disappointing. Definitely not worth the wait in line.
Feed the Prairie Dogs
A few miles from the Northeast Entrance to Badlands National Park you will find the Ranch Store adjacent to a field filled with prairie dogs and covered with holes. We stopped on a whim and were the only ones there. At first, we just walked around checking out the prairie dogs from afar. Then, after buying some peanuts, we realized that those cute little creatures will get really close if you have food.
The peanuts cost a dollar for a small bag and it was a dollar well spent. Feeding the prairie dogs is such a unique and fun experience.
Badlands National Park
After driving east for miles with nothing but prairie to see, it is amazing to arrive in Badlands National Park with its strange pinnacles and multicolored buttes. Badlands National Park’s unique landscape, great hiking trails, and plentiful animal sightings make it a must-see in South Dakota.
The best way to see Badlands National Park is to drive the Badlands Loop Road. You can access the loop road from Wall, I-90 exit 110, at the Pinnacles Entrance or you can start at the Northeast Entrance by taking exit 131 off of I-90. This beautiful loop takes you past 12 different viewpoints and one of the visitor centers. You can also access some great hiking trails from this loop.
*Bring binoculars – wildlife is plentiful in Badlands National Park but sometimes very far away.
There are so many incredible things to do and see in South Dakota. You could stay for two weeks and still feel like you didn’t have enough time. We’re already planning our next trip there.
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