Our visit to the Black Hills of South Dakota in 2015 was our favorite stop along our Wild West adventure. The region is rich with natural wonders, man-made marvels, and roadside Americana. It’s a great place to bring the whole family–with enough variety to keep everyone a happy camper. (Plus, it is home to one of the BEST campgrounds we have ever stayed at: Click here to find out what was so amazing about Rafter J Bar Ranch.)
Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Highway
Needles HIghway is a beautiful drive through some amazing rock formations in Custer State Park, which includes the iconic Needles Eye–a naturally created opening in the rock. You can also hop on the Iron Mountain Highway to circle the unique “pigtail bridges” and drive through three tunnels that frame Mt. Rushmore in the distance. Other scenic drives in the park will take you through wildlife habitats where you might see some of the park’s 1,300 free-range buffalo. (The park has an annual buffalo roundup that our friends will be going to later this month. We can’t wait to see pictures of that!) Although the state park charges a $15 entrance fee, the pass is good for a week.
We ran out of time to go check out this national park, but we heard a lot of good things from friends who have visited the region. It would be a great idea for a rainy day! There are fees for visiting the cave.
The Badlands were about an hour drive back east from our campground in the Black Hills. The best times of day to see the national park are at sunrise or sunset. With our young kiddos, we didn’t get to experience either of those times of day, but we still got to see some amazing views. You almost feel like you are on another planet!
To enter the park you have to pay a $15 entrance fee. Be prepared before you go to the park–the day we were there it was in the 90s, and there is virtually no shade. If you are visiting during the summer you’ll want to come with lots of cold water. The park offers a Jr. Ranger Program for the kiddos. (And if after visiting the park you need a place to cool off, consider checking out the famous Wall Drug–you can’t miss the exit; they advertise for MILES.)
It’s one of the iconic symbols of our country, so don’t miss the trip. There’s no entrance fee, just an $11 fee for a parking pass (which is then good for the calendar year). The park offers several interpretative areas, a scenic hike, as well as ranger-led programs. (There is a free Jr. Ranger program offered, too–but be sure to bring pencils, because those are not provided for free.) We came back for the evening light-up program–definitely recommend it. If you are traveling with young kiddos, you might want to consider bringing a stroller or kid backpack carrier since this was a very busy national park–and there is a lot of walking to do.
We didn’t have time to stop, but you can actually see it from the road, which we did on one of our touring days. Gone With the Wynns offer their take on the memorial here. (There is an entrance fee.)
You can drive to see this active fire tower located in Custer State Park. It’s the highest point in the central part of the park, from which you can see Mt. Rushmore, Crazy Horse, the Needles, and even the Badlands on a clear day. (Again, the state park does charge a $15 entrance fee, but the pass is then good for a week.)
This fire tower is no longer in use, but hikers can reach it by following the trail that begins near Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. (The state park does charge a $15 entrance fee, but the pass is then good for a week.) It is a moderate hike, so probably not best for young kiddos.
Minutemen Missile National Historic Site (FREE)
This is a former missile silo site from the Cold War era. Tours are available of the facility, even taking you 31 feet underground.
Roadside Americana and more:
In 2014 Trip Advisor ranked this Custer restaurant as the No. 1 burger joint in the nation. And we agree it’s pretty awesome! Jarrett had a buffalo burger while I branched out with the black bean version–and we weren’t disappointed. The restaurant’s hours of operation are very limited, so you’ll want to get there early and snag a place in line. The day we were there the hostess handed out playing cards in the order guests arrived. Prices were reasonable, but portions were not huge. Make sure to get the sweet potato fries!
Chapel in the Hills, in Rapid City (FREE)
This chapel is an exact replica of the famous Borgund stave church in Norway. You can tour the inside and listen to a recording detailing the architecture and history.
Storybook Island Park, in Rapid City (FREE)
This is a great spot to let your kiddos run off some steam. They will enter the gates of Storybook Island into a magical world of fantasy that will make them feel they are part of their storybooks. They can play on or walk through most of the displays, like taking a ride in Cinderella’s coach, visiting Noah’s ark, or wandering through Pooh’s Hundred Acre Wood. Some features, like the carousel and train ride, require a small fee.
South Dakota Museum of Geology, in Rapid City (FREE)
This is located on the campus of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. The museum houses displays of dinosaur skeletons and fossils, as well as rocks, gems, and minerals. A great stop on a rainy day!
Rapid City Dinosaur Park, in Rapid City (FREE)
Another fun spot to let the kiddos run off some steam while you walk around the life-sized concrete dinosaur figures dating back to the 1930s.
So that’s a brief round-up of some of the fun places to visit in the Black Hills of South Dakota–and honestly, this list only scratches the surface. We are looking forward to the day we can come back to the Black Hills and explore some more!
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