There are dozens of amazing things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Some of them are very well known, like Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, Deadwood, Sylvan Lake, and the Devil’s Tower.
With this article we hope to introduce traveling families to some less frequently discussed attractions. After you’ve toured the lakes, caves, and mountains, and drug the kids to the monuments and parks, and pet the buffalo (just kidding, don’t), and done all the other things to do in the Black Hills, why not try out a couple of these places? The kids will thank you for it.
The Mammoth site is a mind-blowing curiosity. 150,000 years ago there was a steep-sided watering hole from which the Columbia Mammoth and Wooley Mammoth would bathe or drink. The sinister thing about this oasis was the slick shale surrounding the grassy edge made it easy to slip in and difficult to climb out. Over sixty known mammoths and other awesome creatures fell prey to the slippery perimeter, falling into a 65-foot lake from which they would never escape.
In 1974, a construction project revealed a massive mammoth gravesite. A paleontologist purchased the land at cost, and the Mammoth Site has been a working paleontological dig ever since.
Volunteers help to unearth the fossils, and you can learn about the process and even become apart of it.
This is a one of a kind attraction and easily one of the best things to do in the Black Hills with kids. It is located in Hot Springs, South Dakota, a town located just south of Wind Cave National Park. Plan on spending 2-hours or longer to read the placards and peruse the exhibits.
The prairie dog is a cute little critter and kids simply love them. Seriously, is there is a more adorable sound than the “Yee-who!” battle cry of the prairie dog?
For a buck you can rent a small sack of peanuts and cycle them through the marmots. They won’t exactly trust you, but they can fake a relationship long enough to work a legume out of you.
Monica was especially deft at luring the beasts. At one point she appeared to be throwing a tea party. The children in their enthusiasm had less success. If you’re overeager the prairie dog may avoid you.
Also worth noting: they appear to be well-fed and repeatedly turn down peanuts. Find the hungry ones for the best results — you will have dozens from which to choose.
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.
The cave contains a large number of beautiful cave formations such as stalactites and stalagmites and is a real crowd-pleaser. The tour was given by a young man who’s wit and knowledge added a great deal to the experience. As far as caves go, Rushmore Cave is one of the better ones around.
The Rushmore Mountain Coaster was awesome. After ushering you to the top of the mountain, the coaster cart is cut loose to free-glide down the winding tracks. The operator has a handbrake to control the speed.
If you feel the need, forget the hand brake for a rip-roaring descent. Flying down the mountainside is one of the best things to do in the Black Hills with kids.
Throwback arcades have popped up all over the country. Not every city has one, and some are clearly better than others.
Press Start in Rapid City, SD puts forth a decent effort to recreate an early 90’s arcade. It has a basement atmosphere, which we appreciated. Most games are $.25 to play, and there are about 50 machines.
Kids these days rarely get to experience the thrill of spending hours in an arcade, popping quarter after quarter into a game to “beat it”, with no ability to save their progress. It was a different era of gaming in the late 80’s/early 90’s, one that grown-ups remember fondly.
This place lives large in the memories of our son. When it comes to kids, it’s hard to beat video games.
The Cosmos Mystery Area is a hillside shack set at such an angle that when inside your body struggles to find equilibrium. The mystery is, how and why is this happening? The foundation is crooked and the things in the room are set at odd angles, which makes uphill downhill and is rather humorous.
Two people could appear to stand on equal ground, but one towers above the other. A ball tethered to the ceiling appears to hang crooked, but it is the tourist that is crooked. Another ball on a track appears to roll uphill, which is impossible, but explain that to your eyes.
Everything is at its damndest at this odd attraction. Most kids love tactile experiences, and the Cosmos Mystery Area is about as tactile as you can get. If you’ve never been to one of these types of places — they seem to be all over the US — take a chance and book ahead. It’s an hour of your life like nothing you’ve ever experienced.
We would recommend taking the kids to a gold mine at least once. The process whereby the gold is extracted is basically the same any every mine. The tour we had in Goldfield, Arizona wasn’t much different than the one at Big Thunder Gold Mine.
What makes this mine great is the story of the men who created it. We don’t want to spoil it for you because it’s good drama. After you’ve toured the mine, for ten bucks you can pan for gold, which is a solid experience on its own.
If you’ve never toured a gold mine, we recommend this one. Big Thunder Gold Mine is definitely one of the best things to do in the Black Hills with kids.
The towns of Hill City and Keystone, SD converge a few miles to the north, and at the highway intersection sits the greatest candy store for hundreds of miles.
We take our candy stores seriously, and we don’t say this lightly. If you are of our ilk — the kind of people who like to see their children super stoked — then Candyland is one of the best things to do in the Black Hills with kids. They also have putt-putt, ice cream, and coffee.
This is a two-hour, narrated 20-mile round trip between Hill City and Keystone, SD. Passengers view vistas of Harney Peak, mining encampments and participate in good old-fashioned fun. Trains follow the original route of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad laid down in the late 1880s to service the mines and mills between Hill City and Keystone.
The Black Hills Central Railroad is the oldest continuously operating tour railroad in the nation and operates three steam and two diesel engines throughout the season. One of the locomotives is more than 100 years old.
This is considered one of the best things to do in the Black Hills. Small children may have more fun than older kids. The train is usually sold out in summertime, so booking in advance is advised.
This is a very personal recommendation for a small horseback riding ranch 15 minutes outside of town. The owner was very kind to give a private lesson to our daughter, which included prepping the horse, an hour-long trail ride on her property, and brushing out the horse afterward. From start to finish the lesson lasted 2-3 hours. It was the best horse riding experience our daughter has ever had.
Sage Meadow Ranch is beautiful and decorated with lots of fun horse garb. The drive in is a little off the beaten path, but rest assured there’s a ranch back there on those dirt roads. She took tremendous care of our daughter and the price was very fair. We would strongly recommend Sage Meadow Ranch.
Phone: (605) 745-4866
Address: 26840 Iron Shoe Trail, Hot Springs, SD 57747
Rushmore Tramway Adventures:
Similar to Rush Mountain. Ride a handbrake operated cart down a concrete luge at high speeds, zip-line across the hillside, or ride the chairlift like a wussy. Very close to Keystone and Mt. Rushmore.
Reptile Gardens has more species and subspecies of reptiles than any other zoo or wild animal park in the world! Or so they say.
Enter a world that began forming 60 million years ago under what used to be an inland sea. You’ll see numerous formations including boxwork, stalactites, stalagmites, columns, several varieties of crystals, and even helictites.
Wall Drug is the worst. So bad, in fact, that we went there twice. We only made it to Jewel Cave once, but somehow found ourselves in tchotchke hell a second time. I guess we thought two dozen rooms of souvenirs was worth another look?
You’ve surely seen the bumper stickers for Wall Drug. Sometimes word of mouth runs afoul, like when everyone ran out to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding. We’re humans, and the crowd gets bamboozled from time to time. We are here to help you avoid this unfortunate mistake.
We will forever beat the drum that Wall Drug is one of the worst tourist attractions in the USA. It’s like being forced to watch a car dealership commercial on a loop in a wood-paneled porta-john decorated with monogrammed garbage. Every molecule in the place is lame. Unless you really enjoy kitschy schlock, Wall Drug gets the hardest pass.
And don’t forget your bumper sticker!
There aren’t many better places to vacay with the fam than the Black Hills of South Dakota. There is an abundance of beauty and history in this part of the country, and businesses have set up a plethora of experiences, so there is something for everyone. Except for a beach. Oh wait. There’s one of those, too.
Here is a map of all the places. We recommend them all, and we hope you have a great time with your kids in the Black Hills!
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