The Black Hills have been one of my go-to favorites for a long time now. Growing up in the Midwest I had never really been “out west” until a college backpacking trip to Glacier National Park took us through the Badlands and along the north end of the Black Hills National Forest. My interest was piqued and a few years later I planned South Dakota’s Custer State Park, a huge park on the scale of many National Parks, as a layover stop on the way to the Bighorns of Wyoming for another backpacking trip.
From there I was hooked! The area kind of defined “the west” for me at the time, complete with granite spires, pine covered mountains, CCC era lodges, and wildlife like I had never seen before (I’ve since often referred to the area as a drive through zoo).
Over the years I took many trips to the Black Hills for backpacking, camping, and sightseeing. In my 20’s I did a week by myself in early May; I’ve never really been able to get enough of the area. When my oldest son turned 5, I took him and my dad for a week long camping trip and went again this year with both of my boys after my youngest had turned 5. A kind of mini rite of passage.
This Black Hills Trip Planner is definitely geared towards a family vacation but has something for everyone! It’s laid out below like an itinerary but know that this trip is a “base camp” style and can be done in pretty much any order you’d prefer. I’ve added some optional things that you might consider for older kids or more rugged adventures.
Most likely you’re driving or flying in on Day 1. If you’re flying and want to get close by plane, Rapid City is your best bet about an hour north of Custer State Park; my hands down recommendation for a base camp.
If flying into a bigger airport is easier/cheaper, consider Denver. You’re an easy 5-6 hr drive away. We now live in Colorado Springs and the drive isn’t too bad at all. Just know that the route through Wyoming is a lot of 2 lane road with very very few services. We planned it out to leave early (6-7 am) and get to Hot Springs, South Dakota in time for lunch.
Where to Stay
Without hesitation I would recommend staying in one of Custer State Park’s eight (yes, 8!) developed campgrounds. Most are great for tents as well as RV’s. If you are RV-ing, you won’t find full hookups, but you will find water/electric and dump stations.
My favorite campground is Blue Bell. It has awesome tent sites that look at a nearby mountain. It has sites large enough to accommodate bigger RV’s and it has a bunch of primitive cabins with room for 4-5, heat, AC, a deck, and picnic table. We opted for the cabin during the last trip; well worth the $50 a night. Amenities like a small lodge with a good restaurant and a general store are right outside the campground. The west entrance to the Wildlife loop road is just down the road.
For an alternate campground, consider the State Game Lodge. Another great area that is near the visitor center, the east end of the Wildlife loop road, and sees frequent buffalo visitors outside the campground.
For any of the campgrounds, reserve sites and cabins through the state up to a year ahead of time: https://gfp.sd.gov/camp/. Early reservations (11-12 months ahead of time) are recommended in the Summer for choice spots.
Looking for something a little more plush, contact the park concessionaire for stays at the park’s historic lodges and larger cabins: https://custerresorts.com/lodges-and-cabins/ or check out the Mt Rushmore KOA for full RV hookups just north of Custer State Park.
Wildlife Loop Road
Day one, get settled and take a drive on the wildlife loop road, an 18 mile road through rolling grasslands where you’re all but guaranteed to see some of the park’s 1,300+ bison, friendly burros (bring some apples or carrots), deer, and prairie dogs. Also keep your eyes peeled for elk, coyote, and pronghorns.
Wildlife Loop Road
Pro Tip: If you’re not having luck finding the bison, stop near the midway-ish point at the Wildlife Loop Visitor’s Center. The building is incredibly cool – built in the 30’s by the CCC, it’s a small but still dramatic stone and timber building that was occupied by the park’s herdsmen for around 50 years. You’ll find an elk over the fireplace and some displays around. A volunteer is always there and can tell you where you might find the herds at the time as there are some accessible dirt roads that branch off the main paved road. You’ll also find pit toilets and a picnic building there so it makes a great rest point.
The Mammoth Site
Go see some Mammoth bones! Head south on Hwy-87 (right outside Blue Bell) and then US-385 through Wind Cave and into the town of Hot Springs. The Mammoth Site & Museum is located at 1800 US 18 Bypass in Hot Springs. The Mammoth Site boasts the largest concentration of mammoths in the world. You can tour this indoor active dig site and view Ice Age fossils.
Pricing is very reasonable at about 8 bucks for kids and $10 for adults and includes the tour. Younger kids (5 – 10-ish) will love the Junior Paleontologist Excavations. For around $12 a kid they can do a one hour class that teaches them about paleontology and do a dig for cast bones like those found at the site. My kids (5 and 9 at the time) had a blast.
Pro Tip: Be sure to leave some extra time to get there, you’re bound to see some wildlife on the way. Also, if you do the Junior Paleontologist Excavations, be sure to get there even earlier to do a tour before the class. We had to skip out half way through our tour to get to the class on time. Note, the map above shows a destination on Hwy 18 Bypass. Currently, if you try to Google map the Mammoth Site’s address directly, Google will route you into a neighborhood behind the site and expect you to walk the rest of the way…
Wind Cave National Park
On your way back to Custer State Park, stop into Wind Cave National Park.
Note: Unfortunately, at the time of this writing (and during our last trip), the cave is closed due to necessary elevator repairs. Tours were expected to resume in October, 2019, however, that date has recently been pushed tentatively to November, 2019. Check the Wind Cave website for more info.
When tours resume, the Natural Entrance Cave Tour is a must. You’ll learn about the history of the cave and see the unique box work throughout the cave. It’s about 2/3 of a mile and has 300 stairs but moves at a comfortable pace and is no problem for kids. Tours are $12 for adults and $6 for kids.
Wind Cave offers a ton more to do whether you take a cave tour or not. Drive the roads of the park to see their bison herd, one of the the only two purebred bison herds in the US (the other in in Yellowstone).
Feeling slightly more adventurous? Hike the Rankin Ridge Trail to the lookout tower or drive the gravel roads to see more bison, prairie dogs, and pronghorns. Catch road NPS-5 off of Hwy-87 bordering Custer State Park and then diving southeast into Wind Cave. Head back northeast on NPS-6. Eventually you’ll come into Custer State Park onto the Wildlife Loop Road.
Wind Cave Back Roads
Pro Tip: NPS-5 and 6 are packed gravel and doable in most any car but pay attention to weather. Wet roads could become washed out in a few spots. The vistor center should be able to give you an up-to-date road status.
The Needles Highway
Today take Hwy-87 north through The Needles. You’ll be treated to tremendous views of the needle-like granite formations that shape the area. Stop at the Needles Eye (there is a small parking area) to explore a bit and take a picture of the Needles Eye and the adjacent one lane tunnel.
Feeling more adventurous? Take the 1.6 mile Cathedral Spires trail from the trail head just east of the Needles Eye or hike the trail around Sylvan Lake. Kids will love climbing rocks around the lake and checking out the damn on the back side. With older kids, consider the longer but very rewarding 6.5 mile Black Elk Peak hike that starts at Sylvan Lake. Plan a few hours if you don’t live at altitude – you’ll gain about 1500 ft in a few miles.
Whatever your adventures along the Needles Highway, watch for the resident mountain goats!
Pro Tip: Hwy-87 through the Needles is a winding mountain road, take some extra time. Also parking at the Needles Eye and at Sylvan Lake can be tough in the Summer, get to Sylvan Lake early if you plan to hike. If you do hike around the lake, don’t be deceived by the flat open trail on the front of the lake. The backside climbs rocks and roots for a short period. Totally doable for the kiddos but I’ve seen a few elderly couples and parents with strollers struggling through that section.
Honestly, can you go to the Black Hills and not go to Mt Rushmore? There is no charge to get in but there is a $10 parking fee.
Before you leave, be sure to go right out of the parking area and go up around the west side of the monument on Hwy-244 for a cool profile view of George Washington.
Pro Tip: At the time of this writing the viewing area at Mt Rushmore is under construction. Construction or not, take a hike on the 1/2 mile, easy Presidential Loop Trail. You can leave some of the crowds behind and get some good views.
Big Thunder Gold Mine
Next stop – Keystone, SD and the Big Thunder Gold Mine. Learn a bit about the gold mining history of the area and take a short tour of a mine. You’ll learn a lot about what mining was like in the late 1800’s (spoiler, it was unpleasant at best) and see some of the tools of the trade.
Be sure to add panning on to your tour to pan for gold. Each time we have been we’ve come home with a small vial of gold (and a few nuggets of fools gold).
Rates aren’t bad for the touristy area of Keystone. Adults will pay $12 and kids are $9. 5 and younger are free. Add gold panning for $10.
I’ll fully admit I would have never done things like this before kids – I’d have been taking a hike or endlessly driving the roads photographing wildlife. I’ve found doing a few of these things on a road trip can be really fun for them and me. So, while you still won’t find me slumming through T-shirt shops, you might see me excitedly finding the tiniest spec of gold.
Pro Tip: The panning can be difficult for younger kids. Consider just paying for one and having the littles “help” you. Big Thunder also offers an easier gem panning to hold their interest and give them something to bring home.
Needles, Sylvan Lake, Mt Rushmore, Big Thunder Gold Mine
Today head west out of the Custer State Park on US-16 through the town of Custer and on to Jewel Cave National Monument.
Note: at the time of this post, Jewel Cave tours are also suspended due to elevator issues – talk about bad luck. They are expecting tours to resume in May 2020. Historic Lantern tours through the natural entrance still take place but are scheduled around hibernation cycles of the bats that call that piece of the cave home. (If that’s really creeping you out, know that no bats live in the area of the scenic tour. In cave distance, it is miles away.)
Jewel Cave is free to visit but you do pay for tours – Just $12 for adults and $8 for kids 6 and up. 5 and under are free. I highly recommend the Scenic Tour, an hour and 20 minute, half mile tour that hits many highlights of the cave. The tour is officially labeled moderately strenuous with 700+ stairs. However, the path is all paved and many of the stairs you navigate down. My 5 year old had no issues or complaints. Unless you have a physical limitation, I wouldn’t be concerned.
Because of some smaller passage ways and low ceilings, little ones have to be able to walk on their own or ride in a chest mounted carrier. No strollers and no backpack carriers.
The Scenic Tour is fantastic; teaching you how the cave was formed, how it has been explored, and it’s human history up through protecting it. The kids grabbed Jr Ranger books and made quick work out of getting some badges!
Pro Tip: Summer tours can be in high demand and limited to 30 people per tour. When we arrived for our tour in late July, the wait was 4 hours. So, either arrive at Jewel Cave ridiculously early or contact Black Hills Vacations to buy tickets ahead of time. I started a reservation online but ended up calling in and getting tickets and entrance passes for many other activities in this guide all in one shot, some at a small discount.
On your way back to the park, this might be a good day for a grocery resupply in the town of Custer (there are a couple grocery stores in town on US-16). When you get back to Custer State Park, consider another drive on the wildlife loop road or spending some time on one of Custer’s many trails. We liked the Badger Clark Historic Trail for an easy one mile hike and tour of the Badger Hole Cabin.
Let’s be real, especially if you have younger kids, someone is probably on the verge of a meltdown by now. It might even be you. Take a down day, take a nap, read a book, take a short walk.
If you’re really ambitious, consider a fishing trip to one of the many lakes in the park that are stocked with trout. If you’re really looking for something more, try fishing the Grace Coolidge Walk In Area, a 3 mile trail along a meandering stream with 6 dams that form fishing pools. The stream itself hosts hungry brook trout and some rainbows; you might pull a monster from one of the pools. On a trip many years ago, I caught brook trout after brook trout on my fly rod and then got a couple rainbows to go on the grill.
Pro Tip: Fishing licenses are available at any of the general stores in the park.
Next stop, let’s go see snakes, gators, and giant tortoises (among other things) at Reptile Gardens. This is another one of those things I never would have considered without kids but I guarantee it’s worth a stop. See some interesting snakes including a couple giants like the Burmese python and Anaconda. Check out the colorful birds in the Sky Dome. Take in a couple shows – they’re funny, informative, and just the right length to hold the attention of little ones. You could spend all day here but for our time – 2 to 3 hours is the sweet spot.
Entrance rates are free for 4 and under and range up to $19 for adults. Check with Black Hills Vacations to buy tickets ahead of time at a discount.
Pro Tip: To get to Rapid City take US 16-A out of the park to US 16. The drive is very scenic – US 16-A is also known as the Iron Mountain Road north of Custer State Park. You’ll encounter the famous pigtail bridges and tunnels that frame Mt Rushmore along a winding mountain road. If you leave early this morning, the State Game Lodge has a good breakfast buffet that should have something for everyone.
Badlands National Park
After Reptile Gardens, Rapid City has plenty of lunch options before heading east on I-90 to the Badlands National Park. You can access the Badlands at Wall, SD (home of Wall Drug) or at the east end of the park, at South Dakota Hwy-240. 240 makes a loop back to Wall; I recommend passing the Badlands on I-90 and going in the east entrance to complete the loop on 240 back to Wall.
Along the way, there are plenty of overlooks to stretch the legs and see the views. Stop in the Ben Reifel Visitor Center to learn about some history of the park and see some of the fossil exhibits. On the west end of the loop, watch for Bighorn sheep.
Looking to do more? There are plenty of hikes in the Badlands. The Notch Trail is a short 1.5 mile round trip that starts in a canyon and climbs a log ladder to an scenic overlook. Due to exposure and heights, it may not be ideal for small kids though. See more hikes on the Badlands website.
Entrance fees to the Badlands are $25 per vehicle, good for 7 days. Or, use an America the Beautiful annual pass.
Pro Tip: Have a 4th grader? Get an annual park pass through the Every Kid in a Park program. The pass is good from September 1st through October 31st, so if you visit in the Summer, your fourth grader would have just finished 4th grade to qualify.
So, there’s no way around it, Wall Drug is a big tourist trap but you shouldn’t miss it. Bum around the stores, have an ice cream cone, get a bumper sticker, be on your way!
Pro Tip: Looking for dinner on the way back to camp? Check out Spokane Creek Campground on US 16-A, the cafe there makes a great pizza.
Final Thought on this Day
If you’re coming from the east, consider bumping this day to the last day of your trip. You can spend more time in the Badlands and even lay over there or in the area as part of your journey home.
Reptile Gardens, Badlands National Park, and Wall Drug
We’re getting to the end of a busy week and yesterday was a long day. It might be good to take another down day. Take a swim at one of the park’s lakes, take a drive to scope out some more bison and feed the donkeys, relax in the hammock.
If you’re a real go-getter, consider a horse back trail ride out of the stables at Blue Bell. Options vary from a 1 hr trail ride to a full day ride with lunch. Prices range from $45 to $260. Ages 5 and up.
If you’re a super-hero family and ready for another day road trip, Devil’s Tower National Monument is just 2:15 away…
We opted to take a down day our final day, scoped out some more Bison and did some initial packing up to hit the road the next day… well, we actually drove the wildlife loop road one more time after packing up on our way out of the park. We were treated to finding the biggest herd I have ever seen along the wildlife loop road. They were on both sides of the road for 1/4 mile and all over the employee/volunteer campground! We heard there were about 600 head in the area that morning.
When to Go
First, let’s say there’s not a bad time to visit. However, this itinerary is best from late Spring (late-May) through mid-Fall (mid-October). Winter time in this area is an awesome but very different trip altogether; be prepared for snow and seasonal road closures.
If you’ve spent much time in our National Parks you know mid-Summer visitation can be nothing short of insane. For the most part, the Black Hills can be pretty refreshing in terms of crowds. For a Mid-July trip, our last visit was noticeably quiet. With that said, campgrounds do fill in the Summer and there are some crazy spots. Expect big crowds at Mt Rushmore and all over the area during the annual Sturgis motorcycle rally (starts the first Friday in August and lasts for 10 days).
I started doing budgets on my trips when I realized that what I was actually spending was grossly more than what I was thinking a trip would cost in my head. Below is a budget for this trip for three of us (1 adult, 5 yr old, 9 yr old), driving my F-150 (gas guzzler) from Colorado Springs. You’re costs will vary, of course, but this should give you a starting point.
|Gas (5 fill ups or about 2,500 miles)||$400|
|Dining Out (x 9 meals)||$300|
|Food/Supplies (for meals at camp)||$175|
|Custer State Park Entrance Fees||$20|
|National Park Fees||$35|
|Mammoth Hot Springs (Including the paleontology class)||$50|
|Jewel Cave Tour||$20|
|Wind Cave Tour||$25|
|Big Thunder Gold Mine Tour & Panning||$35|
|Cabin Rental (cut this in half for tent or RV camping)||$350|
Consider any additional costs for your particular trip like Jeep rides, horse back trail rides, or fishing licenses.
I’m a pack list junkie. I have pack lists saved for trips from 20 years ago. I get home and make notes on what I used or didn’t, what the weather was, what I’d do different next time. It’s simultaneously a mental disorder and a hobby.
Here’s a basic list that assumes you stay in the State Park cabins (i.e. bring bedding) and make some but not all meals at camp. Tent camping shouldn’t add much beyond your tent or if you are RV-ing, many of these items are probably already packed in your camper.
Note: Some of the links in the pack list below are affiliate links that help us keep this going. Read our affiliate disclosure for more info.
- Sleeping Bags or Blankets
- Fitted Sheets
- Air Mattresses (the provided mattresses are better than the ground but not much, we laid 2″ camping mattresses over the top)
- Hammock (or two)
- Fire Starters
- LED Lantern and Batteries
- Camp Chairs
- Bluetooth Speaker
- Sun Screen
- Dirty Clothes Bag
- Card Games
- First Aid Kit
- Smores Cookers
- Camp Table (this handy on the cabin deck for the stove and grill)
- Propane Stove
- Propane (for stove and/or grill)
- Grill Brush and Spatula
- Fry Pan
- Spoon, Spatula, Tongs, and Whisk
- Cutting Board
- Mixing Bowl
- Measuring Cup
- Dish Washing Bins
- Dish Soap and Sponge
- Dish towel
- Kettle (Anything to heat water for dishes or hot chocolate)
- Coffee Percolator
- Camp Stove Toaster
- Paper Towels
- Paper Plates
- Trash Bags
- Cleaning Wipes
- Baby Wipes
- Hand Soap
- Water Tank
- Water Bottles (these are mostly for in the car)
Optional Items to Consider
- Fishing poles and tackle
- Quarters and Laundry Soap Packets, Dryer Sheets
Our meal prep is always pretty basic so we don’t need to bring a lot extras in terms of ingredients or kitchen gadgets. On a trip like this, we tend to dine out half the time and eat at camp the other half. The following meal options would get us through:
- Eggs and Toast
- Pancakes or French Toast (for french toast, we mix the dry ingredients at home into sandwich bags and pre-measure our pancake mix as well)
- Breakfast Sausage or Bacon
- Fruit (strawberries and grapes are favorites and easy to prep at home first)
- Hot dogs or Sandwiches
- Chips (individual snack size bags are easy and add some variety)
- Spaghetti with Frozen Meatballs
- BBQ Chicken Thighs
- Veggies are tough on camping trips but we do bagged salads that we stash in the dry hanging trays of the cooler, plus some fresh veggies like carrots that the kids don’t mind snacking on.
You can definitely save a bunch by cooking all your own meals. By cooking half and dining out the other half, we strike a good balance of cost and convenience.
The Black Hills and Custer State Park in particular is one of my favorite destinations. It was really my introduction to the “west” as a college student and I’m excited to start sharing the adventures with my kids (we’ve already got our next trip planned for next year).
I hope this guide gives you some direction and inspiration for your own trip!