We love the Black Hills of South Dakota. We lived here for three months on a work assignment and spent every spare minute exploring the towns and points of interest. Our home base was Hot Springs, SD, which is at the southern end of the hills. From there we explored northward several times a week.
The purpose of this article is to help you decide which lodging and adventure options fit your style best. We have spent considerable time in the towns of the Black Hills, and we’ve rated them in five categories: Location, Activities, Restaurants, Vibe, and Beauty.
The balance between historical and tourist-friendly is delicate, and Black Hills SD towns achieve this balance to varying degrees of success. Some project authenticity better than others, while some are more beautiful, offer a superior location, or house more abundant attractions. A few of the towns we love, and a few we could live without.
The Black Hills Towns are: Deadwood, Sturgis, Rapid City, Hot Springs, Hill City, Custer, and Keystone.
When you are planning your Black Hills vacation it is good to understand the layout of the region. We have arranged the map below to show the seven towns (in red) we will discuss, as well as a few of the primary points of interest (in blue).
Three of the towns have a central location which lends an advantage in collecting visitors. Many travelers will gather around Keystone, Custer, and Hill City, causing them to feel crowded in peak summer season. The other four towns dress the perimeter of the hills; each offers a different vibe for your vacation.
No matter which town you select for lodging, or where you happen to eat a burger, you will enjoy your vacation to the Black Hills of SD. There is so much to see and do here that you just can’t lose. Nonetheless, we have our preferences and perhaps this guide will help you hone in on what matters most to you.
This town was our favorite because of its beauty and authenticity. Hill City has a key location north-west of Mt. Rushmore, and we frequently found ourselves driving through on our way to somewhere. The town is nestled in a hilly valley. The highway winds through town, revealing the community one portion at a time. Before you know it you’ve seen it all and you’re on your way.
Hill City doesn’t try to do too much. The only major attraction is the 1880 Keystone Train, but the street is lined with good shops and decent restaurants. You can walk the main strip in a couple of hours. *If you’re anything like us you can spend a couple of hours in the beef jerky store alone! Attractions like Mt. Rushmore, Sylvan Lake, Jewel Cave, Custer State Park, Wind Cave N.P., and others, are within a 30 minute drive.
We strongly recommend you enjoy a steak dinner at the Alpine Inn for only $15.99! The hotel and restaurant is a Black Hills institution. Dinner starts at 5:00 pm, but folks line up around 4:00 pm to put their name on the list. If you stroll in all willy-nilly in the summer you’re going to wait two hours to be seated.
The town of Custer has a similar vibe to Hill City, a stroll-able strip with good shops, and an assortment of eateries. One amusing aspect of the town is the sidewalks are decorated with artful buffalo statues that give a funky feel to the town. Very little about Custer is touristy and that goes a long way.
Custer gives easy access to the primary Black Hills points of interest. Sylvan Lake and the Needles Highway are just up the road. Jewel Cave is 15 minutes west. Wind Cave N.P. is 20 minutes south. Keystone, Hill City, Mt. Rushmore, etc., are all nearby. Custer might have the best access to natural beauty of all the towns in the Black Hills of SD.
We recommend eating at Our Place for breakfast. It’s a dressed-down local’s diner with dynamite food. If you need a quick snack hit up the Dakota Mart deli for chicken strips — they are delicious and priced very well. We also like the clothing selection at High Mountain Outfitters. If you are a camper, an assortment of campgrounds are just outside of town.
Sort of the forgotten child of the Black Hills, Hot Springs is the most authentic town in the region. We would recommend staying here if you want to avoid the crowd. The vibe is slow pace, small town America. Because this is a working town with a few thousand residents, T-shirt shops aren’t needed to keep the economy afloat.
The surrounding area is pretty. There are a handful of good restaurants. Access to tourist attractions is decent. The Mammoth Site, one of the best things to do in the Black Hills of SD, is located in-town. Fifteen minutes north is Wind Cave N.P. Custer is about a half-hour up the road. There are other fun, local things to do in and around Hot Springs.
The town of Sturgis has reached legendary status. This is the hallowed venue of the greatest motorcycle rally in the USA, where as many as 747,000 people have visited the August celebration.
We visited this past year in 2021 and it did not disappoint. Granted it was an AM visit on a Wednesday because we don’t drink or ride bikes, but we got the basic gist. Even in the off-season, Sturgis puts off a bad-a$$ vibe with motorcycles and vintage American characters hanging around.
After Rapid City, the town is the second largest of the Black Hills towns. There is an abundance of lodging, shopping, and restaurants, and it takes more than a few hours to visit.
The downside of Sturgis is the location. Far from the beating heart of the Black Hills, there is no direct route to the famous attractions. The fastest way to Mt. Rushmore, Sylvan Lake, etc., is to drive through Rapid City. This can make the vacation feel like day after day of lapping the freeways of South Dakota rather than immersing one’s self in the beautiful region.
This is my least favorite town in the Black Hills of SD and I’ll tell you why. Keystone is an example of when tourism goes wrong and becomes an inauthentic schlepp-fest. The food is bad. The vibe is keychain and shot glass marketplace. The only thing missing is the time share salesman, and it’s possible he was on his meth-break when we passed by.
But what Keystone lacks in character it makes up in location. It doesn’t get better than here if what you want is killer access to all the big attractions. In addition to great access to the major stuff, Keystone is home to Rush Mountain, Big Thunder Gold Mine, the Cosmos Mystery Area, Rushmore Tramway Adventures, Dahl’s Chainsaw Art, Iron Mountain Road, and the 1880 Keystone Train. Granted, you could have good access to these things and stay somewhere else.
To read more about these less discussed attractions, check out our article, 9 Things to Do in the Black Hills with Kids.
Deadwood is the most beautiful of the towns in the Black Hills of SD. It also has the most interesting history. Once upon a time, the town of Deadwood was a frontier, gold mining town full of rugged, unsavory characters.
Over the years the town has been sanitized of it’s less appropriate elements, and we’re pretty sure it had a sweet spot in history where it was rough yet safe for public consumption. Sadly, these days the town has tipped past safe into the realm of gift-shop schmucky.
The vibe is cool, but it should be cooler. Lodging is casino-esque. There are some good attractions in town, but the drive to Mt. Rushmore is a winding 50 mile highway, and even further to Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, Sylvan Lake, etc. To learn more about the things to do in Deadwood, check out our article, An Honest Review of Deadwood, SD.
Honestly, why would you stay here if you were visiting the Black Hills? That isn’t a knock against Rapid City either, because it is a pleasant town. There is just a stark contrast between the vibe of a mid-sized city and the gorgeous, historical landscape of the Black Hills.
All that said, Rapid City has reasonable access to every point of interest in the region because it sits on a network of highways. Mt. Rushmore is 30 minutes away, and anywhere else can be reached in an hour or less. Places like Deadwood and Spearfish Canyon are far, far away from Hot Springs or Custer, but from Rapid City they are reachable in 45 minutes. It is also the closest town to Badlands N.P. and the Minuteman Missile Site, and there are some cool points of interest in town, like the Press Start arcade and the Skyline Wilderness Area Dinosaur Park.
Rapid City also has the best food in the region. South Dakota isn’t known for its food, but this is as good as you will find in this part of the country. We recommend the Firehouse Brewing Co. because they have an incredible menu.
It is hard to go wrong in the Black Hills. Every town has elements that make it a worthwhile stop on your vacation (as offensive as Keystone is to our good taste). Because time is limited, we would recommend choosing a central location like Hill City or Custer.
We would avoid Deadwood and Sturgis due to their location and limited attractions. Obviously if you ride motorcycles then Sturgis is a Mecca.
If you’re looking for a place to camp, we strongly recommend Rafter J Bar Ranch. It is a large, clean RV park / campground with a perfect location between Hill City and Custer. As great as the J Bar Ranch is, though, you will have no trouble finding a good campground in and around Mt. Rushmore.
We hope you have enjoyed reading about the towns of the Black Hills of SD. And moreover, we hope you love your Black Hills experience every bit as much as we did! Take care and enjoy!
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