South Dakota’s Black Hills are a road trip must! Hills they are not, more like small mountains at around 7,000 feet elevation. They’re home to some of the most iconic places in America, while still being relatively undiscovered, in comparison to other places attracting millions of visitors a year. Check out a few of the top things to do in the Black Hills!
Custer State Park
Custer State Park is perhaps one of the must underrated places in the US! It’s South Dakota’s first state park and can easily compete with heavy hitters like Yellowstone. The park was founded in 1913 and is home to several historic lodges. It has a variety of trails, from lakeside, to meadows to mountaintops. The wildlife viewing is some of the best you’ll find in the park systems. Custer has a resident bison herd of around 1,300, and is also home to pronghorn, burros, deer, prairie dogs and more. This park alone warrants a visit to the Black Hills! Check out our full park itinerary for more details!
Custer, South Dakota is great homebase for exploring the Black Hills region. The main street offers unique shopping and a variety of dining options, plus all the amenities like groceries, gas, and auto repair. However, it’s not so large that you’ll lose the Black Hills feeling. Wildlife wanders the outskirts and Custer State Park’s West Entrance is just 4 miles away.
Here a few noteworthy places to check out in town!
Claw, Antler & Hide Co.
You’ll know you’ve arrived in the West when you visit this shop! As the name suggests, they specialize in hides, furs, bones, antlers, skulls etc. They have truly unique items, and the prices are some of the best I’ve seen. As a small shop, you might expect higher prices, but the owner actually beats those of major retailers in Rapid City. In addition, the store carries a small selection of locally made Native American crafts.
Ken’s Minerals & Trading Post
I love rock collecting and Ken’s has a fantastic selection! The prices are reasonable and the shop does its own cutting and polishing. The carry rocks, gems and fossils from across the western US. One entire side of the store is just a display, a mini-museum, of some incredibly unique pieces in their personal collection. Check it out!
Horatio’s Homemade Ice Cream
Nothing beats homemade ice cream! Horatio’s has some delicious choices in a old school soda fountain setting. Plus, its in the former First National Bank of the Dakota Territory, founded in 1881.
The Custer Beacon is a locals hang out full of character! They serve craft beer, cider, and good food, with live music most nights. Check their calendar for the schedule. When we stopped in, they had a bluegrass open session with about 20 musicians!
Mount Rushmore is the biggest draw to the area for most people and is South Dakota’s most iconic place. Admission to the monument is free, although there is a parking fee. Veterans and military can have their parking comped in the giftshop or visitor center.
Be sure to visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center for the history and stories behind building the monument. Next, walk the Avenue of Flags to the viewing platform. If weather allows, take the 0.6 mile Presidential Trail for a closer view.
One couple we camped with did spend all day at Mount Rushmore, reading every sign and stopping at every audio tour spot, but most of us won’t need more than 2 hours to fully experience the monument.
Black Hills National Forest
Bordering Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, the Black Hills National Forest is a great place for a hike. With over 1.2 million acres, there’s solitude to be found. Scenes from National Treasure were filmed around the area, along with a couple other movies.
Black Elk Peak is the most popular trail, summiting the highest point east of the Rockies. There are multiple routes, but the most direct trail is Sylvan Lake #9 at 7 miles roundtrip.
For an easy stroll and a lovely campground, check out Horsethief Lake. It’s just a couple miles from Mount Rushmore.
Crazy Horse Memorial
The Crazy Horse Memorial was begun in 1948 and it’s still a work in progress. You can see it at a distance form the viewing platform, or sign up for Rustic Bus Tour to the base of the mountain, or book a up close Face-to-Face experience. The carving isn’t the only thing at the memorial. The Indian Museum of North America is one of the largest collections of native artifacts, arts and more. The Native American Educational and Cultural Center showcases varying exhibits, while the Sculptor’s Home preserves a portion of the original sculptor’s family house and some belongings.
Check the memorial’s website for daily programming, which includes native dance demonstrations and more. There is typically an Artist in Residence, displaying their work, among other special events.
Gold Mining- Big Thunder Gold Mine
The Black Hills have a long history of gold mining, which continues to this day. A few of the mines offer tours and gold panning. We booked a tour with Big Thunder in Keystone, just a few minutes from Mt. Rushmore. In 1892, two German immigrant miners discovered gold and opened the mine, which they worked for the rest of their lives. Today, there’s no active mining, although they think there is still gold in the walls. The tours provide insight into the process, along with some entertaining stories. My favorite? During the mining heyday, workers had to use a communal bucket to poop before they were allowed to leave each day. At the end of the week, everyone drew straws on who had to clean it out. The upside? If you found any gold in the bucket, you kept half of it.
Don’t forget to try some gold panning while you’re there! If you’re like me, a few minutes is as much I have the patience for, so the trough panning is just right. For the more enthusiastic, or patient, book a full or half day tour and pan offsite in a creek.
Rapid City is the gateway to the Black Hills, and offers boutique shops, a variety of restaurants and plenty of touristy activities.
Check out downtown for a number of Native American galleries, most notably Prairie Edge Trading Co. and Galleries. For a unique shopping experience, visit Pawnseum, aka Presidential Pawn, that’s both museum and pawn shop.
Walk Art Alley for some insane mural graffiti, and tour the City of Presidents, a series of lifesize, bronze statues of various presidents scattered throughout the downtown area.
Looking for that wild west atmosphere, visit Deadwood! In every season but winter, the town has shoot-outs on the main street, plus a full schedule of other activities. Check their site for daily and seasonal information. Deadwood has a storied history that can be found throughout town, including the bar where Wild Bill Hickok was murdered. You can also tour a historic brothel and visit Mt. Moriah Cemetery, where Wild Bill and Calamity Jane are buried. Aside from the Wild West theme, Deadwood is primarily a casino town.
Save it for Later!