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The Ultimate Travel Guide to the Black Hills

Home to over 5,000 square miles of dark, yet enchantingly beautiful ponderosa pines, the Black Hills of South Dakota boast breathtaking views, must-see attractions and unprecedent hospitality. The hills are often known for Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Black Hills Gold Rush, but you may not have known that western South Dakota is also home to Custer State Park, Black Hills National Forest, Crazy Horse Memorial, Deadwood, Spearfish Canyon, Hot Springs Mammoth Site, Badlands National Park, and many national caves.
Among the many must-see attractions, you’ll find a variety of things to do in the Black Hills ranging from wild west shootouts to mammoth-sized adventures. Literally. In our ultimate travel guide to the Black Hills, we’re taking you on an exciting quest both on-road and off.

When Is the Best Time to Visit the Black Hills?

If you’re visiting for the must-see attractions, the prime tourism season is between May and September. Temperatures during the month of May can get as low as 30° F and as high as 75° F so be prepared and pack a wide variety of clothing when you visit in the early spring. June through September averages highs of 75°-85° F and lows of 40°-50° F. Like most elevated mountain ranges, the weather in the hills is much milder than the surrounding areas. Temperatures drop at night, so be sure to pack accordingly!

Visiting in the off season? Many tourist attractions have reduced hours or are closed for the season entirely. Be sure to research the hours before you add a stop to your itinerary.

How Do I Get to and Around the Black Hills?

The Black Hills of South Dakota are located on the western side of the state right off interstate 90. There are many entrances into the hills that can be found by simply following exit signs. The hills are a 6-hour drive from Denver, CO, an 8-hour drive from Omaha, NE and a 5-hour drive from Sioux Falls, SD. A perfect destination for road trippers, the route to the Black Hills offers many roadside attractions for you to get out and stretch your legs.

For those who are not within driving distance, Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP) is the closest airport to the Black Hills. The airport offers Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Connection, Frontier Airlines, Northwest Airlines, and United Airlines. Direct flights are available from Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas. There are also seasonal routes to Rapid City Regional Airport. Rental cars are available at RAP to get you around during your adventure.

Public transportation outside of Rapid City, SD is very limited. On-demand transportation, such as LYFT, is not available outside of Rapid City limits. If you don’t have your own form of transportation, consider renting a car from the airport or a local rental agency.

Where Should I Stay in the Black Hills?

As you embark on your adventure through the Black Hills, choose a home base that offers the most comfortable amenities in a convenient location. Among the most unique places to stay in the Black Hills, the city of Deadwood boasts incredible hotel lodging options that often offer onsite restaurants. With Deadwood’s rich history and entertainment, you can to dig into the past during legendary gold mine tours or win stacks of cash from casino slot machines, blackjack, craps and roulette.

Tru by Hilton is Deadwood’s newest and most affordable hotel. Opened in the summer of 2018, Tru by Hilton is conveniently attached to the newly renovated Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort. This easygoing hotel offers modern room conveniences such as platform beds, free WiFi and a 55-inch TV with 150 channels. Reimagine the bland “complimentary hot breakfast” with Tru by Hilton’s innovative “Top It” bar featuring over 30 different breakfast toppings for waffle boats (Tru Canoe), yogurt, donuts, oatmeal and more. Play foosball or kick back in hammock chairs — there’s plenty of room for fun in the oversize 2,800 sq. ft lobby. Whenever cravings kick in, head to the 24/7 market for snacks, drinks and single-serve beer and wine. Plus, Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort has four onsite restaurants, a nightclub, Starbucks and a bistro market!

 

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Black Hills Itinerary

Custer State Park

Wildlife Loop — Start your Black Hills adventure by exploring Custer State Park, a 110 sq. ft wildlife preserve that is home to a herd of 1,500 free-roaming bison, the famous “Begging Burros,” elk, coyotes, deer, mountain goats, prairie dogs, bighorn sheep, river otters, cougars, and more. Starting from the east park entrance, wind through the 18-mile Wild Life Loop and enjoy a slow, relaxing ride of scenic wildlife.

Needles Highway — After you’ve spent the morning petting the friendly burros, loop around to the Needles Highway entrance and prepare yourself for the most beautiful cruise of your life. This National Scenic Byway is a 14-mile stretch that features sharp turns, narrow tunnels, and granite spires known as “needles.” There are many areas to stop along the way to snap pictures of the beautiful views. (totally Instagram-worthy)

Sylvan Lake — Located in the middle of all those beautiful pine trees and granite spires is a picturesque lake that was created after the Sylvan Lake Water Dam was built across Sunday Gulch Creek. The area offers prime picnic spots, rock climbing, small rental boats, swimming and hiking trails. If you’ve got a love for hiking, consider venturing the Sunday Gulch Trail. The trail is a strenuous 3-mile loop that descends through the gulch alongside a flowing creek with handrails to help you keep your balance. This trail is difficult and can take 2-3 hours to complete, so be sure to pack shoes that can get wet, a lot of water and any other supplies that you’ll need to keep energized and safe.

Hill City — End the fun-filled day by making your way through Hill City to check out the awesome shops, restaurants. and the 1880 Train. If you’re craving a glass of wine or cold brew, be sure to check out the many breweries and wineries in town —most offer free taste testing!

If you really enjoy hiking, think about adding an extra day onto your trip to hike Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak). The most common trailhead is located at Sylvan Lake. The 3.5-mile hike to the peak gains 1,100 feet in elevation can take 4-5 hours. Plus, be sure to check out the iconic Poets Table during your hike — but beware, the popular attraction is known to be difficult to find and directions are limited.

View the Custer State Park map

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Bear Country & Reptile Gardens — The Black Hills offer many opportunities to see wildlife in their natural habitat, but if you’re excited to learn even more about animals and reptiles, consider adding Bear Country and Reptile Gardens to your itinerary. Bear Country offers a drive through wildlife exhibits to observe black bears, elk, mountain lions, buffalo, reindeer and wolves in their natural habitat. After your drive, take a walk through the park to view the offspring exhibits (baby bears!). Once you’ve visited Bear Country, head down the highway just a little further to Reptile Gardens, home of the ‘World’s Largest Reptile Zoo’ and some of the world’s deadliest snakes. Experience the unforgettable thrill of nature’s most beautiful, but often most misunderstood creatures.

Mount Rushmore — The most iconic symbol of the Black Hills and an absolute must-see if you’re visiting for the first time. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free admission with a parking fee of $10 for cars. The pass is valid for 7 days, so you stop a few times throughout your trip. In the memorial you can check out the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center to watch a film about the amazing process of carving Mount Rushmore. Take a walk on the Presidential Trail to get up close views of the stone faces then take a stop at the Carver’s Studio to see the original scale model of Mount Rushmore and learn even more about Gutzon Borglum and his team.

Hippie Hole — The best kept secret spot and a popular hangout for locals, Hippie Hole is nestled in the hills on Battle Creek just a short hike off South Rockerville Road. The spot is a popular area for cliff jumping, swimming and sunbathing on the rocks. Many cliff jumpers leap off the top of the waterfall, but always be wary of the rocks below and the many dangers of jumping if you are not familiar with the area.

Keystone — After a day of adventure in the Black Hills, hit up the many shops in the city of Keystone. From handmade saltwater taffy to one-of-a-kind gift shops, there’s so much to do and see in this little tourist town. If you’re looking for more thrills, check out Rushmore Tramway Adventures for a scenic chairlift ride, alpine slide, zipline tour, jump tower and an exciting climbing course.

The Northern Hills

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway — Start your day off by stopping at the D.C Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery. Located a mile north of the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway entrance, you can explore a museum, fisheries railcar, underwater viewing windows, and feed the fish in the large fish ponds — all for free! Then, buckle up for a 22-mile journey of beautiful canyon waterfalls, picture-perfect pull-offs, thousand-foot-high limestone palisades, and breathtaking landscapes. Spearfish Canyon is beautiful any time of the year, but the fall season offers the most colorful drive as the leaves change. Hikers enjoy going off the beaten path with popular trails such as Devil’s Bathtub or 11th Hour Gulch — be sure to pack the water shoes for these hikes. Bicyclists also love Spearfish Canyon for its wide-shouldered roads and slow-paced traffic. Bicycling Magazine named Spearfish Canyon as one of the top 50 scenic bike paths in the country!

Deadwood — Once you’ve made your way through the scenic byway, turn west at Cheyenne Crossing and make your way toward the rough and rowdy town of Deadwood. Wild West outlaws, old mining camps, museums and exciting casinos, you won’t find another place like it. Explore Main Street and the one-of-a-kind gift shops or watch a real-life reenactment of Deadwood’s famous gunslingers. Get in on the action of blackjack, poker and slot machines, or learn more about the Black Hills Gold Rush, the iconic figures of Deadwood, and the many hardships the town has faced with one of the many museums. There’s so much to do in this little historic town!

Love motorcycles and dive bars? Make sure you add Sturgis, home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, to your itinerary. The small town is flooded with over 500,000 riders, concert-goers, and entertainment enthusiast every year during the first two weeks of August. You can explore Main Street and check out the many t-shirt shops, bars and motorcycle attractions.

Wall/Rapid City, South Dakota

Badlands National Park — Located an hour west of Rapid City on I-90, the Badlands National Park features dramatic landscapes of layered rock formations, steep canyons and towering spires. The distinguishable sedimentary layers boast a gorgeous mixture of purple, yellow, red, orange, tan and gray colors. The Badlands National Park preserves the world’s greatest fossil bed of ancient animals such as three-toed horse, saber-toothed cats and giant rhinoceros-like creatures. The Badlands Loop Road winds past many scenic lookouts and areas to hike along trails. The land couldn’t be more opposite of the neighboring Black Hills, so make sure you add this stop to you itinerary!

Wall Drug — At this point in your Black Hills adventure, there’s no way you’ve missed the prominent Wall Drug billboards that can be found within hundreds of miles of Wall, SD. Known for advertising free water and 5¢ coffee, you can’t skip this quirky drug store its’ gift shops, photo ops and delicious homemade donuts!

Air & Space Museum — As you head back east, consider stopping at the Air & Space Museum near Ellsworth Air Force Base to experience the fascinating past and present history of aircraft technology. The legendary exhibit showcases astonishing artifacts of the American journey into space and the military personnel who have sacrificed so much for our country throughout history.

Rapid City — A popular destination for Black Hills travelers, there are many things to do in Rapid City, SD. Check out Storybook Island for a free stroll through the park with the most iconic story book characters, or take a walk through downtown with the City of Presidents tour featuring life-sized bronze statues of our nation’s past presidents. The downtown area has a wide variety of shops from Native American art galleries to giant toy stores. Towering 11-stores high, be sure to explore the iconic Hotel Alex Johnson to view its 1920s charm, unique rooftop bar, and Native American décor. End your evening at one of the many downtown breweries, wineries or restaurants for live entertainment and an exciting night on the town.

Traveling with kids? Stop at WaTiki Indoor Waterpark Resort to splash and play in South Dakota’s largest indoor waterpark. With over 30,000 sq. ft of pools and waterslides, an arcade, and an onsite bar and restaurant, your kids are sure to have a totally tubular time. Plus, there’s four awesome attached hotels!

Wind Cave National Park/Hot Springs Mammoth Site

Wind Cave National Park — Head to the southern hills again for a fun-filled day of South Dakota’s most popular attractions. Known as the world’s largest concentration of rare boxwork formations, Wind Cave National Park is a centuries-old maze that whistles to the curious passersby. Tour tickets for the cave are limited and typically sell out so be sure to get here early in the morning to purchase your tickets.

Hot Springs Mammoth Site — Once you have purchased your Wind Cave tickets, you can begin planning what to do for the rest of the day. Consider visiting Hot Springs, SD to visit the Mammoth Site, home to the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world. The active dig site offers guided tours to watch paleontologist at work and you can even learn excavation techniques yourself.

Evans Plunge — The oldest tourist attraction in the Black Hills, relax and soak in the 87-degree mineral water from the natural hot springs below. The natural springs fill the gravel bottom pool at Evans Plunge with 5,000 gallons of crystal-clear water per minute. The pool also offers slides, hot tubs, and a steam room.

As you can see, there’s so much to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. With the wide variety of attractions, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. We hope you enjoyed our ultimate travel guide to the Black Hills!