Looking for an amazing family vacation in the Midwest? Consider a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The Black Hills are located in Western South Dakota and are home to the iconic Mt. Rushmore.
However, there’s much more to the Black Hills than Mount Rushmore.
This picturesque region, largely bounded by seven mountain ranges and five national forests, offers plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun as well as cultural activities.
The Black Hills have amazing national parks, sprawling state parks, lovely trails, underground cave tours, and scenic drives.
Popular tourist attractions in the Black Hills include Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Bear Country USA, and the Badlands.
The Black Hills region also consists of several cities and towns including Rapid City, Hill City, Hot Springs, Keystone, and Custer.
Outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers love the Black Hills scenery while cultural travelers can’t get enough of the historical attractions.
Here is an ultimate guide on the Best Things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
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History of the Black Hills
The Black Hills were formed by volcanic activity.
Approximately 60 million years ago, an underground magma source called the Black Hills hotspot triggered widespread volcanic activity in central South Dakota, forming what would become known as the Black Hills.
Fun fact: The Black Hills actually are not hills at all but rather mountains.
Over time, erosion and weathering exposed the once deeply buried lava flows that formed the Black Hills.
The area’s many complex underground cave systems are a result of this massive upheaval.
In the early 1800s, the Black Hills region was inhabited by Native Americans, including the Lakota and Cheyenne.
After gold was discovered here in 1874, miners from around the country came to stake their claims.
The discovery of gold is what led to the creation of towns like Deadwood and Lead along with Custer, the first capital of South Dakota.
Things to do in Black Hills, South Dakota
A bevy of surprises await visitors to this mountainous region.
The Black Hills in South Dakota are home to several top-rated tourist attractions including Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, and Historic Deadwood.
Here are the best things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
See the iconic Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is one of the iconic landmarks in America.
Mt Rushmore is the #1 reason most people plan a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Located just outside Keystone, Mount Rushmore is where four presidents’ faces have been carved into the mountainside.
The impressive monument contains 60-foot tall heads of four of our nation’s most revered figures: Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
There are several things to do at the Memorial.
Hike the Presidential Trail to get close to the sculptures, walk along the Avenue of Flags, and learn about the carving of the monument at the Visitor Center.
Mt. Rushmore sculptures are lit up every evening and attending the lighting ceremony is an amazing experience.
Explore the underground passages at Wind Cave National Park
Wind Cave National Park one of the most underrated national parks in South Dakota.
The national park is known for its massive passageway, wind-carved caverns, and deep network of tunnels.
Wind Cave National Park has the densest cave system in the world.
Visitors can tour the caves to see geological formations such as box work, flowstones, stalagmites, stalactites, and other rare cave features.
Visitors to the park can also see wildlife including prairie dogs, deer, bison, and coyotes along with the underground limestone caves.
Dig for fossils at the Mammoth Site & Museum, Hot Springs
Want to experience the Ice Age first hand when mammoths roamed freely through the Black Hills thousands of years ago?
Visit the Mammoth Site & Museum in Hot Springs, South Dakota!
The Mammoth Site & Museum is an active dig site and kids can watch researchers and paleontologists working on the fossils.
The site museum features a world-class collection of over 700 prehistoric animals including mammoths, saber tooth cats, camels, ground sloths and more! See how these creatures lived millions of years ago.
The Mammoth Site also hosts short Paleontology programs for kids where they learn to excavate their own fossils.
It’s an incredible place for history buffs and curious kids alike!
Drive the scenic Needles Byway
The Needles in the Black Hills are a unique geological formation of sharp, pointed granite rocks pointing straight up at the sky.
These sharp formations were formed by weathering and erosion over several decades.
The Needles Highway is a spectacular road with great views of the Needles formations.
This road is part of an early route established by fur trappers and traders in the late 18th century.
The scenic route has sharp turns, great views, and narrow mountain tunnels.
The highlight of the Needles Highway is the Needles Eye, a unique rock formation shaped like an actual needle.
For most, the drive along the needles Highway is one of the highlights of South Dakota trip.
Enjoy a buffalo jam on the Wildlife Loop Road
Custer State Park has the largest herd of free roaming bison in America.
Visitors can see them all over the park including hiking trails, scenic drives, and parking lots!
The Wildlife Loop Road is famous for its buffalo jams – when a big slow moving herd brings all cars to a stop!
It can often take as long as an hour for the herd to clear – use the opportunity to take photos of the majestic beasts from a safe distance.
Drive the tunnels and curving bridges of Iron Mountain Road
Iron Mountain Road is the road that engineers once said ‘couldn’t be built’.
Iron Mountain Road is a long scenic drive that is famous for its 3 narrow granite tunnels and 3 twisting pigtail bridges.
South Dakota Senator Peter Norbeck envisioned this road in its current form and planned the route himself to showcase the spectacular scenery of the Black Hills.
It is one of the finest drives in America and a favorite with road trippers.
The road needs careful and cautious driving at slow speeds and is a thrilling adventure.
The view from the last granite tunnel is breathtaking – Mount Rushmore is directly opposite you, perfectly framed by the tunnel!
Pay your respects at Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial is the ‘other face in the Black Hills’.
The carving of Sioux leader Crazy Horse will be the largest sculpture in the world upon its completion.
The in progress Memorial is a great place to learn about the Sioux leader Crazy Horse and understand the Native American culture and history of South Dakota.
The Crazy Horse Memorial complex is also home to the Native American Cultural center, Indian Museum, and the Sculptor’s Studio.
Read More: Visitor’s Guide to Crazy Horse Memorial
Step back in time at Historic Deadwood
Historic Deadwood, an abandoned mining town, is the perfect place to learn about the Gold Rush history of the Black Hills.
On the Main Street, you will find historic architecture, saloons, mock shoot outs, and monuments dedicated to Wild West heroes like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.
You can even see Wild Bill Hickok’s grave in the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.
Visit the Historic Adams House Museum, pan for gold at the Broken Boot Gold Mine, and take an Old West style photo with the family while in Deadwood.
See the stalactites and stalagmites at Jewel Cave
Jewel Cave National Monument is a show cave located in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The monument is third largest cave system in America.
It features a spectacular stalactite and stalagmite display that has been protected by being designated as a National Monument since 1908.
Jewel Cave receives over 150,000 visitors each year and continues to be on the list of top 10 most visited sites in South Dakota.
Enjoy the nature at Custer State Park
Custer State Park is the largest state park in the United States and has many recreational activities for visitors.
You can enjoy hiking, boating, fishing, hunting, camping, wildlife viewing, mountain biking, and horseback riding.
Custer State Park is also home to many bison that you can see up close on the park’s scenic drives.
Custer State Park also has a variety of lodging options for everyone: campgrounds, RV sites, back country tent areas, cabins, and rooms.
Explore the urban attraction of Rapid City
Rapid City, the second largest city in the state, makes a perfect base for exploring the Black Hills.
Rapid City has many family friendly attractions and historic sites on Native American history and culture.
Take a photo with the amazing, vibrant murals in the Art Alley and let kids climb the T-Rex and Triceratops at Dinosaur Park in Rapid City.
Other popular attractions include Wild WaterWest, a waterslide park in Rapid City and the Reptile Gardens Zoo, which focuses on snakes.
Downtown Rapid City also has many restaurants and cafes as well as shopping.
Bike the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
The Black Hills of South Dakota have many scenic drives but the Peter Norbeck Scenic Highway ranks way above the rest.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway follows a portion of Needles Highway through the Black Hills.
The byway is named for Peter Norbeck, a U.S. Senator from South Dakota who played a key role in getting the road built during the Great Depression.
Biking the byway through rock tunnels and scenic vistas is an amazing experience.
Visitors can get bike rentals in Rapid City or Custer.
Enjoy stunning vistas in the Black Hills National Forest
The Black Hills National Forest is a treasure trove for those who love the outdoors.
It offers something for everyone: hiking, biking and horseback riding trails; fishing lakes and streams; scenic overlooks; petroglyph sites; wildlife viewing opportunities!
The forest also provides habitat for elk, deer, bighorn sheep and mountain lions along with more than 240 different species of birds.
The Black Hills National Forest has been designated an International Dark Sky Park and is a favorite with star gazers.
Ride the Black Hills Railroad to Hill City
Enjoy one of the most unique attractions in South Dakota – the 1880 Train!
The Black Hills Central Railroad was built in the late 1800s to carry supplies for miners and settlers in the Black Hills.
Today, the heritage railroad route takes visitors aboard a vintage steam engine train from Hill City to Keystone.
The 20 miles long round trip ride begins at the Hill City Depot and lasts for two hours.
The route runs through the heart of the beautiful Black Hills.
As the train leaves Hill City, you will be treated to stunning views of Sylvan lake, the farmlands, abandoned mines, Black Elk Peak, and Battle Creek.
On the narrated excursion, you can hear the history of the Black Hills from friendly guides and hear the steam whistle echo in the mountains!
The Black Hills Central Railroad is great for families, train enthusiasts, and nature lovers.
Enjoy small town America in Hill City
Hill City, South Dakota is a small town in the Black Hills.
Hill city was founded as a mining camp and has since become one of the premier tourist destinations in the region.
Visitors who come to Hill City are welcomed by its historic downtown district with quaint shops, galleries and restaurants.
Spend a few days in the small town and take advantage of all it has to offer including biking, walking trails, and water activities.
Have incredible wildlife encounters in the Black Hills
The Black Hills are blessed with rich and abundant wildlife.
Visitors can see bison, deer, elks, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, eagles, meadowlarks, prairie dogs, magpies, and pheasants.
For the most memorable wildlife encounters, drive areas such as Wildlife Loop Road at dusk or dawn.
Bring along a pair of binoculars and a telephoto zoom lens to make the encounters more fun.
Drive the scenic Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway runs north from Custer through Spearfish Canyon to Deadwood.
It passes the towns of Lead and Deadwood on the way.
Along the route, you will find trout fishing streams, waterfalls including the Bridal Veil falls, picnic areas, hiking trails, and attractions such as Spearfish Canyon Lodge
Road tripping Spearfish Canyon in fall is one of our favorite things to do in South Dakota.
Feed the begging burros
While feeding wildlife in Custer State Park or anywhere in the Black Hills is to be avoided, the begging burros are the only exception!
The burros or wild donkeys are notorious for coming to cars for food and not leaving until you feed them.
Hence their name!
While visitors have safely touched and fed these animals since decades, we would still urge being cautious, especially with kids around.
Stroll the streets of Keystone
Keystone is the gateway to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.
This charming town, nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota, has many attractions of its own.
It Main Street is filled with historic buildings, souvenir shops, homestyle diners, and eclectic boutiques.
From the Presidential Wax Museum to the Big Thunder Gold Mine, Keystone has a variety of family friendly activities.
Skip the crowds at Bear Butte State Park
Bear Butte State Park is also a popular attraction in the Black Hills for those who want to avoid crowds.
The state park consists of a small mountain with a butte at its top, the Bear Butte.
This is the tallest butte in the Black Hills. It’s also a sacred Native American site.
The park has a rich natural and cultural heritage.
It is excellent for hiking, camping and picnicking.
Spot the bears at Bear Country USA
If you’re looking for a fun and informative day trip with kids, then visit Bear Country USA!
Bear Country is a large-scale, open-range zoo that is dedicated to providing visitors with the opportunity to see and learn about bears in their natural habitat.
On a visit, you can see over 200 bears!
Kids love seeing the bears climbing high up the trees and sleeping on the ground at Bear Country.
Swim in the mountain lakes
The Black Hills are home to numerous lakes including Horse Thief Lake, Sylvan Lake, Center Lake, and Legion Lake.
These clear mountain lakes are perfect for numerous activities such as swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, and camping by the lakeside.
They are the favorite places to cool off when the temperature soars above 90 degrees in the summer.
Custer State park rents paddle-boards, canoes, kayaks, and other watercraft to visitors for use on lakes inside the park.
Visitors can also bring their personal water craft to use on the lakes.
Enjoy shopping in the Black Hills
The Black Hills region offers plenty for shoppers to see and buy, including jewelry, Native American artifacts, antiques and art.
The region is home to several antique stores that attract bargain hunters from all over the country.
Attend a wine tasting in South Dakota
The Black Hills region is one of the top wine-producing regions in the country.
It produces 90 percent of all South Dakota wines and draws several visitors each year.
Visitors can explore wineries, attend live music events or enjoy food pairings at area restaurants.
Some of the popular include Prairie Berry Winery and Naughti Wines in Hill City.
Hunt game meat in the Black Hills
The Black Hills is particularly popular among hunters looking for white-tailed deer, mule deer, or elk.
Visitors can bring their own guns or rent from one of the area’s shooting ranches.
Hiking trails in the Black Hills
Hundreds of miles of trails through wooded valleys and along picturesque streams make hiking a popular activity in the Black Hills.
Visitors can hike to pristine waterfalls, take long walks through pine forests, or get an adrenaline rush from mountain climbing.
Find information on popular hiking trails in the Black Hills below.
Black Elk Peak Trail
Black Elk Peak is the highest peak in South Dakota. It is also the highest point east of the Rockies.
The peak is 7242 feet high and located in the Black Elk Wilderness Area in Custer State Park.
Visitors can take the Harney Peak South Trail to the top of the peak and enjoy panoramic views of the area.
At the top, you will find a historic stone fire tower built by the CCC in 1938.
The round trip hike starts at Sylvan Lake near Custer and takes about 4 hours.
You can read more about the Black Elk Peak trails here.
Black Elk Wilderness Area also has other hiking trails that wind along creeks and ponds through a natural habitat teeming with wildlife.
Cathedral Spires Hiking Trail
The Cathedral Spires hiking trail is a 1.6 miles long trail that offers spectacular views of the Needles.
The trail takes you up the boulders and at the top, you are surrounded by the spires.
The trail has an amazing panoramic view of the Needles formations.
You can spot wildlife including deer and mountain goat on the trail.
Sylvan Lake Trail
The Sylvan Lake Trail is located inside Custer State Park.
It is one of the most beautiful hikes in the Black Hills.
The trail is about 1.1 mile long loop and it begins near Sylvan Lake.
Hikers are rewarded with a 360-degree view of the scenery, the calm lake, and pine trees.
The trail also includes a small sandy beach area where kids can play in the shallow water.
It’s good for people of all fitness levels and popular with families.
Sylvan Lake Trail is a great hiking trail to hike on to see the wildlife.
The Mickelson Trail is a 109 miles long trail in South Dakota.
It is modeled after the Appalachian Trail and it’s one of the longest trails in the nation for hiking or biking.
The trail offers a variety of landscapes from prairie to mountain ranges with plenty of camping spots along its route.
There are also many points where you can find wildlife like elk, bison, pronghorn antelopes and black bears that roam freely throughout the area.
Events & Festivals in the Black Hills
The Black Hills region hosts several festivals annually, including the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally and Custer State Park annual Buffalo Roundup.
Here are some of our favorite annual events in the Black Hills.
Attend the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is an annual event in the Black Hills that takes place every August.
The rally attracts over 1 million people from all across the United States and around the world, making it one of the largest motorcycle events in North America.
Watch the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup
Custer State Park is home to the world’s largest buffalo herd, numbering about 1300 animals.
Custer State Park hosts the annual Buffalo Roundup in September.
Visitors can enjoy viewing the roundup from a number of viewing areas while being treated to authentic cowboy music and stories.
During the festival, visitors can enjoy exciting cowboy and Indian parades, pioneer activities, historic reenactments, chuck wagon cooking demonstrations, Western films at the outdoor movies screen, arts and crafts festival, and much more.
Enjoy the Black Hills Summer Art Fair
Black Hills Summer Art Fair is an annual event in the Black Hills.
This event takes place every July and features an art show, craft fair, and a jam-packed evening of live entertainment in the midst of natural beauty.
This is a great event for those who love the arts and enjoy browsing different art booths and galleries.
Watch for concerts or rodeos
If you’re looking to combine a visit to Mount Rushmore with an outdoor concert experience, then make plans to attend one of the summertime concerts in the Black Hills.
Deadwood also has a rodeo that features traditional racing, bull riding, steer roping, and parades on Historic Main Street.
Things to do near Black Hills, South Dakota
A variety of outdoor adventures and historic sites are located close to the Black Hills.
We recommend exploring these while planning your Black Hills trip.
Hike the dramatic landscape of Badlands National Park
Badlands National Park is one of the most popular attractions in South Dakota.
The Badlands region is home to unique, otherworldly landscapes that are a product of millions of years of erosion and deposition by the White River waters.
Bizarre geological forms, long and wide escarpments, vibrant-hued layered mounds, and utter desolation make the Badlands spectacular and dramatic!
The Badlands Loop Road offers incredibly scenic views of the landscape and has excellent pull-over spots.
Badlands hiking trails lets visitors get up close with the geological formations such as buttes, spires, and mounds.
Visit the famous Wall Drug Store
The Wall Drug Store is a must stop on any South Dakota road trip.
Located near Badlands National park, Wall Drug Store has been offering visitors free ice water since decades.
It has plenty of souvenir shops, a dinosaur sculpture, and other touristy things to do.
The Wall Drug is a must stop on South Dakota road trip.
See the Corn Palace at Mitchell
The Mount Rushmore state is full of unique and worthwhile roadside attractions.
Mitchell, South Dakota is home to the Mitchell Corn Palace.
The structure has large murals made of corn husks that tells the story of life in South Dakota.
It sits at the end of Main Street, and it’s a must-see for anyone who wants to experience all that Mitchell has to offer.
Climb up Devils Tower
Did you know that you can easily visit Devils Tower National Monument while visiting Mount Rushmore?
Devil’s Tower National Monument is a tall, lone outcropping of columnar basalt in northeast Wyoming.
It’s a sacred site to the Lakota people and was declared a National Monument to protect its importance.
The spectacular granite monolith rises above the Belle Fourche River and is a popular attraction for climbers of all abilities.
See the Sioux Falls Park
If you have more time, extend you visit to Eastern South Dakota and Sioux Falls.
Sioux Falls area attractions are plentiful. The city has a great mix of indoor and outdoor activities.
The Falls Park is a beautiful place to see the water cascade down the rocks.
The park has a number of hike and bike trails, historic buildings, and scenic views.
Other things to do include museums, theaters, golf courses, public art work including sculptures, and more.
Besides Mount Rushmore and Rapid City, the black Hills have a variety of outdoor activities and attractions for visitors.
The region makes a perfect family vacation destination in South Dakota and should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Did we miss any amazing things to do in the Black Hills? Let us know in the comments.