The Black Hills of South Dakota are home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Our first national monument resides in these hills, as well as the highest peak east of the Rockies, one of the largest herds of bison on earth, and the famous Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials.
Once you’ve factored in the stunning lakes, wandering caves, majestic badlands, granite outcrops, and all the history of the Natives and early, gold-mining settlers, it is easy to see why tourists gather here.
There is nowhere like this on earth. We consider the Black Hills of South Dakota absolutely one of the best places to visit in the USA.
So you’ve visited Mt. Rushmore, now what? Other than the monolithic monument, what are you going to do with your time?
There are no shortage of excursions, but you should know ahead that some attractions are much better than others. It’s easy to get caught in a circle near Keystone and battered in the gauntlet of tourist traps and bad food.
If you’re trying to fill your time with the most interesting sights and activities, we’ve created a list of what we consider the top 20 things to do. Many of the places have additional links (in blue) that connect to other articles we’ve written.
We have also included information about the seven most significant towns to visit (or avoid), some recommended restaurants, and local celebrations. We hope you’ll enjoy reading!
Here is the list in summation, in case you want to scroll down:
1. Mt. Rushmore. 2. Black Elk Peak. 3. Wind Cave National Park. 4. Badlands National Park. 5. Devil’s Tower National Monument. 6. Sylvan Lake. 7. Needles Highway. 8. Minuteman Missile Site. 9. Mammoth Site. 10. Toadstool Geologic Park. 11. Jewel Cave National Monument. 12. Sunday Gulch Trail. 13. Cathedral Spires Trail. 14. Iron Mountain Road. 15. Custer State Park Wildlife Loop. 16. Lake Angostora. 17. Deadwood. 18. Rush Mountain Adventure Park. 19. Spearfish Canyon. 20. Pioneer Museum. 20b. Sanford Labs Homestake Visitor Center.
There are plenty of mountains, lakes, and caves to visit in the United States of America, but there is only one Mt. Rushmore. This massive, stone carving might not be the sexiest thing to do in the Black Hills, but try telling that to grandma. “Hello, Mr. President.” We admit Mt. Rushmore has a passe vibe and smacks of boring. Here’s the thing, though… a creation of this magnitude is one of the great human achievements. It cannot be understood in words and pictures. One must visit the national monument to appreciate how awesome it is. There is enough here to keep you busy for hours.
The natural beauty of the Black Hills region climaxes in the Black Elk Wilderness. At the very top of the highest mountains stands Black Elk Peak at 7400′. This is the highest peak in the state, or until you reach the Alps in Europe. The payoff vantage is an exhilarating, 360-degree, mountaintop view. The Black Elk Peak trail is a moderate, seven-mile stroll into the heart of the Black Hills that any hiker will want to do.
To read more about Black Elk Peak, South Dakota, here you go.
Wind Cave National Park is 34,000 acres of protected grasslands; a vast and beautiful prairie that is home to bison, antelope, elk, and prairie dogs. Every morning after sunrise the buffalo herds graze about the grasslands and clog up the highway. In addition to the buffalo, Wind Cave N.P. is recognized as the densest cave system in the world, and one of the longest, containing over 150 miles of explored passageways.
To learn more about the Beautiful Things to Do at Wind Cave National Park, click here.
Hundreds of years ago, Native Americans and early settlers steered clear of this parched region because they didn’t want to die. However, in modern times, tourists flock to the Badlands because it is strangely beautiful (and we have air conditioning). The territory is famous for its maze-like arrangement of sediment-striped mountains. Visiting is easy; just pull off I-90 and drive through the park.
To learn more about what to do here, check out, South Dakota National Parks: The Badlands.
The Native tribes have deep cultural ties to Devil’s Tower — they call it Bear Lodge, and the mythical story attached to it is beautiful. In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt designated the geologic marvel our nation’s first National Monument. Due to a bad translation, it was dubbed Devil’s Tower instead of Bear Lodge. That’s embarrassing. When you walk around the Devil’s Tower, it is hard to take your eyes off of it. The 870′ behemoth looms magnificent, like a king on a throne.
Feel free to learn more about Bear Lodge by reading our article, Sunrise at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.
Sylvan Lake, South Dakota has very few peers — Tahoe, Crater, Powell, the great ones — and assumes its place in the pantheon of heavenly lakes. The best part is, most folks haven’t figured it out. The lake brings every component one could want to a body of water — beauty, variety, activity, accessibility, peacefulness — and does so with a “locals only” intimacy amidst all the Black Hills tourism. This is one of the most beautiful places in the USA.
To learn more, feel free to peek at our love-letter to Sylvan Lake, South Dakota.
The Needles Highway is 14-miles of winding road that dances among towers, tunnels, and trees. Along its way you are entreated to vast panoramas of incredible scenery and intimate settings of rocky arrangements. The granite spires and pine-covered hills in this part of the Black Hills are assembled so majestically that this is considered one of America’s most scenic roads, and surely the quintessential drive in the Black Hills region.
To learn more about the Needles Highway, check out our article, Needles Highway SD: What to See and Do.
In order to prevent (or win) a nuclear war, US military personnel buried 1000 Minuteman missiles in the plains of America during the 1960’s. Landowners and residents in the Dakotas, Nebraska, Colorado, and nearby states have lived amongst these devastating weapons of war the past sixty years. Today we can relive this fading chapter in US history at the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.
Learn more about the underrated Minuteman Missile National Historic Site here.
150,000 years ago, a slippery watering hole drew mammoths and other creatures to its fertile edges, only to see them slide into the waters and drown. Over the years, this treacherous lake would claim the lives of over sixty known mammoths. In 1974, a construction project revealed a massive mammoth gravesite. It has been a working paleontological dig ever since.
To learn more about the Mammoth Site, and other cool things to do with children in the Black Hills, check out our article, 9 Things to Do in the Black Hills with Kids.
Toadstool Geologic Park is part of the Nebraska National Forests and Parks system. Located in the NW corner of Nebraska amidst the Oglala National Grasslands, this obscure little park represents another installment of badlands in this part of the country. It is known for it’s interesting, toadstool-shaped formations and fossil deposits. If you’re looking for a day trip, Toadstool Geologic Park is awfully close to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
To learn more about this curious location, check out Toadstool Geologic Park, Nebraska.
Jewel Cave is the 3rd longest cave network in the world, with over 208 miles of passages. We heard more than one NPS worker wonder if Jewel Cave met up with Wind Cave somewhere, which could create the longest cave system in the world. The splendor of Jewel Cave is revealed through fragile formations and glimpses of brilliant color. They were working on the elevator when we visited, which laughably truncated the tour, but we saw enough to realize how awesome Jewel Cave could be.
The Sunday Gulch trailhead is found behind the large boulders on the north end of Sylvan Lake. The beginning and end of the trail are found only 50 yards apart. One trail heads straight into the gulch, where you will descend boulders and staircases with the help of handrails. The other trail lends tremendous views of the valley where there are an abundance of granite needles. The loop trail is 3-miles long.
To learn more about the Sunday Gulch Trail, enjoy Beautiful Things to Do in Custer State Park.
The Cathedral Spires trail is a three-mile out-and-back trail. The setting at the top is a picturesque valley surrounded by needle spires that lend the feeling you’re standing in a granite crown. It is truly a wonderland to traipse the tops of these peaks. Here the trail connects to a network of trails that run to places like Little Devil’s Tower and the Black Elk Peak.
If you would like to learn more about the Cathedral Spires Trail, enjoy Beautiful Things to Do in Custer State Park.
Driving Iron Mountain Road is a very cool thing to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The road is 17-miles long with 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 tunnels, and 3 pig-tails. It begins near Mt. Rushmore and winds southward toward the Needles Highway. Along the way you will see everything that defines the Black Hills region: Tree-covered hills, huge rocky prominences, and beautiful vistas. It also shares some different vantages of Mt. Rushmore.
To learn more about driving the Iron Mountain Road, enjoy Beautiful Things to Do in Custer State Park.
Driving the Wildlife Loop is a popular thing to do in Custer State Park. There are herds of bison to be found here, as well as donkeys, elk, and other fun critters. It takes over an hour to drive the loop, and can be an all-day excursion if you want. In all honesty, we found that driving through Wind Cave N.P. takes much less time and offers a better chance of interacting with the bison.
Learn all the Beautiful Things to Do in Custer State Park here.
Lake Angostora has a harbor for the boaters, a barroom for the boozers, disc-golf for the long-hairs, and a campground for the families. The draw is a beautiful lake with 36 miles of beachy shoreline. The views are terrific and the traffic is light. When the heat is sweltering in the Black Hills of South Dakota, this is one of the best places in to go.
To learn more about Lake Angostora and other places in the Hot Springs area of the Black Hills, peruse our article, A Tourist Guide to Hot Springs, South Dakota.
Deadwood is the most famous city in South Dakota, and holds a place in Wild West folklore along with Tombstone, Durango, Dodge City, and others. In Deadwood’s heyday, folks of the toughest caliber came to town for whiskey, women, and back breaking labor. Some got paid. Some got syphilis. The ghosts of Deadwood’s heroes and villains haunt the town to this very day.
To learn about Deadwood and other towns to visit in the Black Hills, check out our article, Black Hills SD: The 7 Best Towns to Visit.
And if you want to know all the things to see and do in Deadwood, South Dakota, we’ve done our best to give y’all an Honest Review of Deadwood.
About 10 minute from Keystone, SD is Rush Mountain, one of the Black Hills most popular tourist attractions. In years prior, it was known as Rushmore Cave and the cave was the primary feature. These days Rush Mountain offers caves tours, as well as a mountainside coaster, an interactive gunslinger 7-D ride, zipline, and other fun things for the kids. We strongly recommend the mountainside coaster. It is a hoot.
To learn more about Rush Mountain and other terrific things to do with your kids in the Black Hills, we recommend reading 9 Things to Do in the Black Hills with Kids.
A creek-carved gorge that runs from Savoy to Spearfish makes for a beautiful drive. Along the way you will find rivers, waterfalls, and beautiful, limestone cliffs. The Devil’s Bathtub hike is a highlight of the canyon, a moderate one-mile, out-and-back trail. On the hike you will cross the stream several times as you wind into the woods. The final destination is a natural waterslide fit for the devil himself (and your gleeful children). Other highlights in Spearfish Canyon are Bridal Vail Falls and Roughlock Falls Trail.
In 1893, the city of Hot Springs accepted the lowest bid of $23,500 to build a K-12 school. What they got for their money is a beautiful, four-story, sandstone facility that has remained one of the finest buildings in town. The school closed in 1961, but it is now maintained as a museum by the Fall River County Historical Society. If you want to know what life was like in the Black Hills 100 years ago, there’s no better place than here.
We invite you to continue reading about the Pioneer Museum and Hot Springs, SD in our article, A Tourist Guide to Hot Springs, South Dakota.
The town of Lead is home to the best producing gold mine in the western hemisphere. 39.8 million troy ounces of gold were extracted between the years of 1876 and 2002. That is the equivalent of 18,677 US gallons of gold. And believe it or not, this preposterously leviathan hole in the earth is the less interesting half of what you’ll learn about at the Sanford Labs Homestake Visitor Center.
To learn more about this incredible facility, read An Honest Review of Deadwood, SD.
There are seven primary towns in the Black Hills of South Dakota. You can read all about their highlights (and lowlights) in this article, Black Hills SD: The 7 Best Towns to Visit.
Here’s a brief synopsis of each town:
Hill City: Beautiful and authentic, the town is nestled in a hilly valley near Mt. Rushmore.
Custer: A stroll-able strip with good shops, good vibes, and good proximity to the big attractions.
Hot Springs: Slower pace, smaller crowd, and the most authentic. At the southern end of the Black Hills of South Dakota. Check out a Tourist Guide to Hot Springs, South Dakota.
Sturgis: Famous for the annual motorcycle celebration. Cool vibe, lots of shops.
Deadwood: Most historic town, but has given itself over (in part) to tourism. Nice museums and cemetery. Beautiful area, but poor location. Check out an Honest Review of Deadwood, SD.
Keystone: Best location, but decimated by tourism. A gaunt shadow of the legendary town.
Rapid City: Largest town in the region. Everything you need, but you’ll drive farther to attractions.
There is no shortage of lodging in and around these towns. Hill City, Custer, and Keystone are the most central to the Black Hills. Each of them have hotels, and there are numerous campgrounds in the area (map).
Let’s not mince words. If you’re coming to the Black Hills of South Dakota for the food, you’ve made a huge mistake. South Dakota is not a culinary Mecca. Guy Fieri doesn’t come here to check out diners, drive-ins, and dives.
Now this doesn’t mean you’re gonna starve. Any good vacation is enhanced by a few choice meals. If you’re going to eat — and we’re pretty sure you will — you might as well eat at the best places around. This is what we recommend.
Hill City — We recommend you enjoy a steak dinner at the Alpine Inn for only $15.99!
Custer — We recommend eating at Our Place for breakfast.
Keystone — Boss’ Pizza and Chicken has lots of specialty pies. We preferred the Taco and Stella’s.
Deadwood — You’re on your own.
Rapid City — We strongly recommend the Firehouse Brewing Co. Above all, eat here.
Balloon Festival, Hot Springs
Every year in late August the annual Hot Air Balloon Festival takes place over a three-day-weekend. Some of the highlights include the Glow Around Town, and the Balloon Launch from the Hot Springs airport. They do a great job for the kiddos. There is a fire hydrant party, bow and arrow tag, go carts, crafts, inflatable obstacle courses and bouncy houses. The entire town dresses up their windows and sidewalks with hot air balloon merchandise and artwork, and locals stroll the streets.
This is the hallowed venue of the greatest motorcycle rally in the USA. As many as 747,000 people have visited the legendary August celebration. The freedom rally is ten days of scenic rides, concerts, poker, 5-K’s, golfing, drinking, and rowdy socialization. None of it is child friendly, nor should it be. Helmet not required.
Annual Buffalo Roundup, between Keystone and Hot Springs
Once a year you can see a herd of 1,400 bison thunder through Custer State Park. The annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup is held the last Friday in September. Cowboys and cowgirls gather the bison from all over the prairies and funnel them into the facilities for vaccinations and herd thinning. Pull up a camping chair and feel the thundering herd blow past. Don’t feel bad if your mouth waters thinking about that buffalo steak you’ll order, cause everyone does it, and it’s delicious.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are off the beaten path of travel. Nonetheless, this is a one-stop vacation destination that provides a galaxy of spectacular and interesting entertainment options you won’t find anywhere else on earth.
We hope you have enjoyed this article and are inspired to visit the Black Hills of South Dakota. Thanks for reading!
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