When you think of South Dakota, I guarantee the first thing that comes to your mind is the infamous historical monument of Mount Rushmore but what if I told you that South Dakota is so much more than Mount Rushmore? I mean South Dakota isn’t referred to as “the land of infinite variety” for no reason. Beyond Mount Rushmore, South Dakota offers sprawling prairies, rolling black hills, glacial lakes and the Badlands with striking formations that make you feel like you are on Mars. The wide variety that South Dakota offers makes for the perfect destination for your next adventure. Here are the TOP 8 things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
I believe South Dakota is one of those states in The Midwest that is underrated as a tourist destination. When I told people I was going to South Dakota for a road trip, most people asked "Why?" My answer, "Why not?"
The Black Hills of South Dakota offers a variety of things to do. Home to five national parks and monuments, this area allows you to experience amazing historical monumental works of art, scenic byways, abundance of Native American culture, old Wild West towns and a wealth of attractions for all ages.
If you are looking for a fun summer road trip, I encourage you to look no further than South Dakota! Here are my Top 8 things that I think you NEED to see and do for an ultimate South Dakota road trip!
1. Glamping at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore
Let's face it, South Dakota is best experienced in the great outdoors, so what better way to experience the Black Hills than with a fun glamping experience at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore!
My stay at Under Canvas was the main reason for my trip to South Dakota and definitely a highlight of my trip! Located in the heart of Keystone, just minutes from Mount Rushmore and yes you can see Mount Rushmore from the property, this makes the perfect place to stay while exploring the Black Hills.
If you are looking for a once in a lifetime experience glamping under the stars for a night or two where you can disconnect from the real world in a luxurious safari style tent, then I highly suggest you consider a stay at Under Canvas Mount Rushmore.
2. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
Let's face it, Mount Rushmore is the main reason why you are planning a trip to South Dakota and this is a stop you CAN NOT miss! The Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a true national treasure that symbolizes the ideals of American freedom and democracy.
The memorial was created by sculpture Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln. Completed in 1941, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial features 60 ft high granite faces of four U.S. presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln. These four presidents were chosen by Borglum to “commemorate the founding, growth, preservation, and development to the United States of America.”
Plan your visit to Mount Rushmore Memorial
Mount Rushmore is the main attraction in Keystone, SD. There is no entrance fee into the memorial but you will need to pay a parking fee. Parking is $10/car, $5 for senior citizens and free for active military. If you plan on arriving for sunrise, which is what we did, there is no parking fee.
3. Crazy Horse Memorial
Mount Rushmore is not the only mountain monument located in the Black Hills. Located just 20 minutes away from Mount Rushmore is the Crazy Horse Memorial.
The Crazy Horse Memorial pays homage to the Native American culture in South Dakota. This monument depicts the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing to his tribal land. The memorial was started by the sculptor, Korczak. When Korczak died in the late 1980's, his wife Ruth and his children took over the project to bring his vision to fruition.
The Crazy Horse Memorial is still in progress. But once finished, the Crazy Horse Memorial will be the world's largest mountain carving and it is considered The Eighth Wonder of the World in progress.
Plan your visit to Crazy Horse Memorial
To help plan your visit, The Crazy Horse Memorial is open year round. Hours of operation are from 8am to 7pm. Entrance into the memorial is based on people per vehicle. If you have 3 or more people in your vehicle the entrance fee is $35, for 2 people the entrance fee is $30, for 1 person the entrance fee is $15 and if you enter on a motorcycle, bicycle or by walking the entrance fee is $10. For an additional fee of $4 per person, you can purchase the bus to base optional experience which gets your closer to the mountain.
4. Wind Cave National Park
Did you know that South Dakota is home to two National Parks? I know most people are coming to South Dakota to visit Badlands National Park, but if you are in the area and have time, I suggest you paying a visit to Wind Cave National Park.
When you first arrive into Wind Cave National Park, it may just look like a rolling prairie grassland with roaming bison and prairie dogs. But what makes this National Park so special is what's located beneath your feet! Wind Cave National Park is home to one of the world's longest and most complex caves. But what makes this cave special is the rare box work formations.
Plan your visit to Wind Cave National Park
There is no entry fee into the park if you plan on spending your time driving through or hiking. But most people who visit Wind Cave National Park are planning on booking a cave tour. There are five different cave tours to choose from with prices ranging from $14-45 depending on the tour of your choice. Pricing is based on an adult ticket with child pricing based on age.
Most of the tours can not be made with a reservation. In fact the tours are sold on a first come basis. So I suggest that if you want to do a cave tour, you should plan to arrive early in the day to purchase your ticket. We arrived around noon and there were only tickets available for one tour around 4pm. So I would suggest that you plan accordingly if a cave tour is something you want to do.
5. Custer State Park
When planning my trip to South Dakota, Custer State Park wasn't originally on the itinerary. I didn't know how a state park would be able to match up the the two National Parks but let me tell you, this state park is AMAZING! In fact, I don't know how it isn't a National Park.
Custer State park is home to 71,000 acres in the heart of the Black Hills. With striking granite peaks, rolling prairie grasslands and clear mountain lakes, this state park is just waiting for you to discover it. Whether you are looking for an adventure or relaxation, this park has something for everyone from camping, hiking, biking, swimming or fishing.
With an abundance of activities to choose from, there are five that I highly recommend. The first three on the list are the three scenic drives through Custer State Park. The first scenic drive is Iron Mountain Road which begins in Keystone. This scenic drive is 17 miles long and is a true work of art. This highway connects Mount Rushmore with Custer State Park by passing through the beautiful scenery that is the Black Hills.
The second scenic drive that you need to drive while visiting Custer State Park is Needles Highway. Needles Highway takes you through ponderosa pines and Blake Hills spruce forests, beautiful meadows and around the granite mountain peaks. These granite mountain peaks can look like needle formations, hence the name Needles Highway.
Please note that both Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway do close during the winter months due to snow. I suggest checking the Custer State Park website for road closures.
The third and final scenic drive is the Wildlife Loop. The Wildlife Loop is 18 miles through forests and rolling prairies and can take about 1.5 hours to drive the loop in its entirety. Why you ask? Because like it's name implies, this is where you can see all of the wildlife that calls Custer State Park home and the travel time is depend on "wildlife jams."
Some of the wildlife that you can see along the Wildlife Loop are roaming bison, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, big horn sheep, burros, owls, coyotes and maybe even a mountain lion. The best time to view wildlife along the Wildlife Loop Road is early in the morning or late in the evening just before sunset.
For all of my hikers out there, this next thing to do in Custer State Park is for you. I recommend that you hike the Cathedral Spires Trail. The Cathedral Spires Trailhead can be found right on the Needles Highway. When you come around a turn, you will see cars parked with a few parking spaces. This is the parking area for the trail. The only indication for this trail is the small sign that is seen as you round the corner.
This trail is an out and back trail that is roughly 1.5 miles one way with a 500 ft elevation gain and is rated moderately strenuous. Why is it considered moderately strenuous? At first the trail is level with slight incline but be prepared for a small section of the trail that will require a rock scramble. Outside of this one stretch of rocky elevation gain, the rest of the trail is relatively level with a gradual gain in elevation.
After your time hiking, I would continue along the Needles Highway for a picnic and relaxation at Sylvan Lake. Sylvan Lake is one of the most recognizable and a popular spot in the park. From hiking trails, swimming areas, SUP and non-motorized boat rentals, Sylvan Lake is a fan favorite. Whether you decided to spend a relaxing afternoon after a day of exploring or book a night at the Sylvan Lake Lodge, this is definitely a stop in Custer State Park you need to add to the list of places to see!
Plan your visit to Custer State Park
Custer State Park is open year round, 24 hours a day. In order to visit the park, an entrance pass is required for all park visitors. You can purchase an entrance pass online or upon entry into the park day of arrival. A 7-day pass is $20 per vehicle.
If you are looking for places to stay in or near Custer State Park, there are many different options. From hotels and RV parks in Custer, SD to cabin rentals and camp sites available within the park, there are many accommodation options to choose from.
6.Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park consists fo 244,000 acres of a mixed grass prairie with buttes, pinnacles and spires that seamlessly blend together to create one of nature's most fascinating masterpieces. In fact, many visitors call this place Mars.
Badlands National Park got it's name from the Lakota tribe. This area of South Dakota has dry hot summers and cold treacherous winters. Due to the harsh climate the Lakota gave this land its name, “Mako Sica,” meaning “land bad.”
This park offers hiking trails, an unforgettable scenic drive along the Badlands Loop Road, several overlooks where you can admire the colorful spires, pinnacle and buttes and even an interactive trail with replicas of the fossilized species that have been found in the park.
Plan your visit to Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is located an hour east of Rapid City on I-90. This makes for the perfect day trip from the city. The park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Entrance fee is required to enter the park. Cost to enter is $30 per vehicle, $15 per individual who are walking or bicycling and $25 per motorcycle.
If you are looking to stay near or inside the park, there are RV parks and off grid camping available. Badlands offers two different campgrounds onsite. If you are interested in backcountry camping and backpacking, that is permitted without a permit currently. If you plan to camp please keep in mind the weather. The weather in the Badlands in unpredictable and varies drastically throughout the year.
7. Wall Drug
If you are planning a road trip throughout South Dakota, be on the lookout for Wall Drug billboards. There are over 300 different Wall Drug billboards located throughout the state and has become America's favorite road side attraction!
Wall Drug is located in the small town of Wall just outside of Badlands National Park and it attracts 2 millions visitors each year. So what exactly is Wall Drug? Wall Drug started in 1931 and found success when they began offering travelers free ice water. It has since grown into a 76,000-square-foot wonderland with free attractions, shopping and a restaurant.
A stop at Wall Drug allows you to get out of the car and stretch your legs. So if you are embarking on a road trip throughout South Dakota, I suggest making a stop to see what all the fuss is about. Wall Drug is open daily from 7 a.m. - 9 p.m. to accommodate any travelers schedule. If you feel up to making a stop at Wall Drug, make sure to try some of the ice water, which is still free, a cup of 5 cent coffee and maybe even a donut.
8. Feeding Prairie Dogs
Lastly, this is an activity that the whole family will love. If you are spending some time in Badlands National Park, I recommend making a stop at The Badlands Ranch Store or Roberts Prairie Dog Town. At either one of these locations, you have the ability to get up close and personal with some prairie dogs!
We made a stop at The Badlands Ranch Store which is right before the entrance into Badlands National Park. At The Badlands Ranch Store, you have the opportunity to feed the prairie dogs. Inside the store you can purchase a bag of peanuts for $1, which will be the best dollar you have ever spent. Trust me, this was one of the highlights of my trip to South Dakota!
As you can tell, the Black Hills of South Dakota has so much to offer. Whether you are looking for an adventure or a little relaxation, the diversity of this state has something for the whole family. I hope these top 8 things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota has helped you plan your road trip. And most importantly, I hope you love South Dakota as much as I did!
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