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There are few images of the United States more iconic than Mount Rushmore. Carving the faces of four presidents into the side of a mountain was a brilliant marketing ploy for a state that didn’t appear to have much tourism appeal. Black Hills, South Dakota is a land of history and natural beauty. The Black Hills feature many of South Dakota’s points of interest. One of the best ways to explore the Black Hills is to take a South Dakota road trip.
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This post was originally published on 08 June 2019. It was updated on 02 February 2020 to account for recent changes.
- When is the best time to visit Black Hills, South Dakota?
- Getting to Black Hills, South Dakota
- History of the Black Hills
- Week-long Road Trip thru South Dakota’s Black Hills Itinerary
When is the best time to visit Black Hills, South Dakota?
The best weather is between May and September. The Black Hills have milder weather than the surrounding areas. Summers are cooler and winters are warmer. Most of the tourism occurs between May and September. Outside of this, many of the tourist attractions will be closed or reduced hours.
May sees an average high of 66˚F and a low of 42˚F, but be prepared for colder weather. Temperatures are as low as 20˚F. May is the wettest month in South Dakota which makes it the best time of year to try and find fossils in the badlands. Most of the rainstorms are short and quick.
June has an average high of 76˚F with a low of 51˚F while July sees an average a high of 85˚F with a low of 51˚F. August features an average high of 84˚F with a low of 56˚F. In September the weather starts to cool with an average high of 73˚F with a low of 45˚F.
Related – National Parks of South Dakota
Getting to Black Hills, South Dakota
There are limited public transportation options for getting to the Black Hills. The closest airport is Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP). Denver International Airport (DIA) is the closest major airport, but it adds 12 hours of driving to this road trip.
Greyhound bus lines have several buses that pass through Rapid City.
Estimated Drive time to the Black Hills
- Sioux Falls, South Dakota – 5 hours
- Denver, Colorado – 6 hours
- Fargo, North Dakota – 8 hours
- Omaha, Nebraska – 8 hours
- Jackson Hole, Wyoming – 8.5 hours
- Minneapolis, Minnesota – 9 hours
- Salt Lake City – 10 hours
Getting around the Black Hills, South Dakota
Public transportation is limited to Rapid City. Outside the city, a rental car is necessary to get around. At the airport, you can rent cars from most of the major car rental companies.
History of the Black Hills
The Black Hills have a long and storied history. These hills are actually a small mountain range in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. The mountains rise out of the Great Plains. The mountain’s name comes from the Lakota (Sioux) language. The mountains are named after their dark granite and pegmatite.
The earliest artifacts date back to 11,500 BC. The land has been occupied by the Arikara, Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa, and Pawnee tribes. With the arrival of the Lakota (Sioux) tribes in the 1700s, they pushed the other tribes further west.
The first European arrived in the mid-1700s. These were French fur trappers and they had a few dealings with the various tribes. As the United States expanded the conflict between the tribes and the United States increased. In 1868, the Fort Laramie Treaty was signed. It “forever” protected the Black Hills from European-American settlement. That lasted about eight years.
There’s gold in them thar hills
With the 7th US Cavalry unit confirming the discovery of gold, the 1875 gold rush occurred and thousands of European-Americans invaded the Black Hills and founded the towns of Deadwood, Lead, and Custer. By 1875, the Sioux had had enough and they fought for control of their land (which was rightly theirs by the Laramie Treaty). Lead by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, the Sioux made a valiant fight and gained victory at Little Big Horn. In the end, the US Army prevailed and the Sioux lost their land and were moved on to smaller reservations. In 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the land was illegally taken and the US government was forced to pay for the land.
Week-long Road Trip thru South Dakota’s Black Hills Itinerary
This is a 7 day Badlands Itinerary with two travel days on each end.
This road trip does not include a trip to the Wounded Knee Memorial. This Memorial is located about an hour from Scenic, South Dakota or an hour and a half from Hot Springs, South Dakota. This important historical site was home to two atrocious incidents of brutality by U.S Federal Government. It is possible to add a visit during day 4 or 5. The site consists of a small museum and memorial. If you are looking to learn more on the history of Wounded Knee visit the Wounded Knee Museum in Wall, South
South Dakota Road Trip Map
South Dakota Vacation Itinerary
- Day 1 – Travel Day – Free day in Rapid City
- Day 2 – Minutemen Missile National Historic Site – Badlands National Park
- Day 3 – Badlands National Park
- Day 4 – Wind Cave National Park – Mammoth Site
- Day 5 – Custer State Park
- Day 6 – Jewel Cave
- Day 7 – Crazy Horse Memorial – Mount Rushmore National Monument
- Day 8 – Devils Tower National Monument
- Day 9 – Travel Day
Day 1 – Rapid City
South Dakota Road Trip Day 1
- Arrive in South Dakota
- Free activities
Fly into Rapid City, South Dakota and pick up your rental car. Depending on when your flight landed and how you are feeling, feel free to hit the town and explore Rapid City. Unless you plan on eating out the whole trip, stop by the grocery store.
The Journey Museum and Learning Center – The Center is an interactive museum covering the history of South Dakota. It starts with the fossil records and examines the geology of the region. Then it moves on to the archaeology and Native Americans. The final exhibit is on the pioneer and gold rush history.
Admission – $10
Museum of Geology – The museum is run by the South Dakota School of Mines. The collection focus on the incredible fossils of the surrounding areas. South Dakota was where Sue, the famed T-Rex at Chicago’s Field Museum, was found. The Badlands are well known for their fossils as well. The collection also includes rare minerals from countries around the world.
Admission – Free
Places to Eat
Firehouse Brewing – Spend any time on an interstate in South Dakota and you are sure to see an antique fire truck parked on the roadway advertising Firehouse Brewing. The Firehouse is in an actual firehouse. They brew a wide range of beer and offer quality American fare with a fresh twist. Read the TripAdvisor Reviews.
Main Dishes under $27.00
Hotels near Rapid City
- Hotel Alex Johnson: Hotel Alex Johnson is a classy historic hotel in downtown Rapid City. This hotel has played host to several U.S. presidents. The hotel is a modern hotel with that old-world feel.
- Days Inn: Capitol Reef Resort offers a range of accommodations from guest rooms to cabins to Conestoga wagons to teepees. The report offers activities
Day 2 – Minuteman Missile and Badlands
South Dakota Road Trip Day 2 – Activities
- Minuteman Missle National Historic Site
- Tour of Delta-01
- Badlands National Park
- Window Trail
- Door Trail
- Notch Trail
It is about an hour and 15-minute drive from Rapid City to the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. Depending on your Delta-01 tour time, head straight to the 01 facility. There are two parts to the Historic Site. Delta-01 is the Launch Control Facility and Delta-09 is the missile silo with a model missile in it. The visitor center has exhibits explaining the history of the Minuteman Missile program.
Once you have seen Delta-01 and Delta-09, head south and into Badlands National Parks Northeast Entrance. Head towards Ben Reifel Visitor Center, along the way stop at overlooks, enjoy the views and take a few hikes. Before you get to Ben Reifel, there is a parking lot for several hiking trails.
There are three short Badlands trails to hike at this overlook. The first is the 0.25-mile Window Trail. This short trail leads to a window in Badlands Wall.
The second trail is the Door Trail. This boardwalk leads out into the badlands and lets one walk out into the badlands. The trail is the 0.75-mile trail.
The last trail is 1.5 mile Notch Trail. Carry a bottle of water for this trail. The trail a steep trail and involves climbing a log ladder. The trail ends with an amazing view of the White River Valley.
Places to Eat near Badlands National Park
Cedar Pass Lodge Restaurant – Cedar Pass is the only dining option inside of Badlands National Park. The restaurant offers locally inspired dishes and typical American dishes. They are well known for their Sioux Indian Tacos with fresh fried bread. Read the TripAdvisor Reviews.
Wagon Wheel Bar & Grill – The Wagon Wheel is located in Interior, SD near the park’s southern entrance. This is a popular local waterhole. They serve American fare and feature bison burgers. Read the TripAdvisor Reviews.
Hotels near Badlands National Park
- Cedar Pass Lodge: Cedar Pass Lodge is the only hotel located inside of Badlands National Park. This historic area offers small rental cabins. These cabins have recently been renovated and are now eco-friendly and made using local materials and outfitted to look similar to the original 1928 cabins.
- Badlands Motel: Badlands Motel is a small budget hotel in Interior, SD and is located near the park’s southern entrance. This is a no-frills hotel that is a good base from exploring Badlands National Park
- Super 8 Kadoka – A clean chain hotel located near Minutemen Missle NHP – Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
- Best Western Plains Motel – A top-rated hotel in Wall, South Dakota – Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
Camping in and near Badlands National Park
The park has two campgrounds in the park. Cedar Pass Campground is located on the east side of the park and takes reservations. About 30 minutes away is the Sage Creek Campground. This primitive campsite doesn’t have water but is open for anyone to use.
Day 3 – Badlands
South Dakota Road Trip Day 3 – Activities
- Badlands National Park
- Ben Reifel Visitor Center
- Badlands Scenic Drive
- Saddle Pass
- Fossil Exhibit Trail
- Wounded Knee Museum
- Wall Drug
Enjoy the sunrise and then take a morning nap. Stop by Ben Reifel Visitor Center and check out Paleontology Lab. The Paleontology Lab works on the fossil discovered in the park. They prepare the samples and are happy to share what they are working on.
Head out into Highway 240 Badlands Loop Road. The loop will take several hours to drive. Take your time and explore the many overlooks. Keep an eye out for bighorn sheep and bison.
There are several hiking trail options. If you are looking for a longer hike. Hike up the Saddle Pass trail (0.13 miles) then use the connector to meet up with Medicine Root Trail for a 4-mile loop through the grasslands.
The other option is to start at the Fossil Exhibit Trail and then hike out the Castle trail for a couple of miles and come back. The full Castle trial is 10 miles.
A must-do trial is the Fossil Exhibit trail which explains many of the fossils found in the badlands.
If you aren’t camping at Sage Creek, head out the dirt road towards Sage Creek and enjoy the Badlands Wilderness Overlook, Sage Creek Overlook and Robert’s Prairie Dog Town.
Once you are done in the Badlands head back towards I-90. Stop in the town of Wall and visit the Wounded Knee Museum. This museum covers the events of December 1890 and how the Lakota homeland was stolen. After the museum, head over to the Wall Drug. Wall Drug is a massive tourist trap with just about everything you can think of. If it is touristy Wall Drug has it. Its fun to wander around and eat a few of their famous donuts.
Head towards Wind Cave National Park. It is a 2-3 hour drive depending on your route. Almost all the cave tours are first come first serve so you want to get to the visitor center at least an hour before it opens so you can get tour desired tickets.
Places to Eat
Eat-in the car or stop at Wall Drug and grab some grub.
Places to Stay
Wind Cave National Park had a first come first serve campground called Elk Mountain Campground.
The closest hotels are located in Hot Springs, South Dakota. Check out these hotels here.
- Americas Best Value Inn Hot Springs – A family-friendly hotel with free breakfast – Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
- USA Stay Hotel and Suites – A budget hotel with an indoor pool and sauna. – Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
Day 4 – Wind Cave and Mammoth Site
South Dakota Road Trip Day 4 – Activities
- Wind Cave National Park
- Mammoth Site & Museum
While the cave is the main draw for Wind Cave, the park offers numerous wildlife viewing oppounties along with several great hiking trails.
Get to the Wind Cave National Park Visitor Center as early as you can. Tour tickets are limited and usually sell out quickly. Try to get early morning tours if you can.
There are three regular tours of the cave – Fairgrounds, Natural Entrance, and Garden of Eden. All the tours cost between $10.00-12.00 per person.
The tours don’t overlap that much so you can do all three if you wanted.
Fairgrounds explores the upper and middle levels of Wind Cave and provides viewing of Wind Cave’s famed boxwork. This tour is strenuous with lots of stars and takes about an hour an half.
Natural Entrance showcases the hole that leads to the discovery of the 6th largest cave in the world and explains how the cave got its name. This tour is an hour and a quarter.
Garden of Eden is a short hour-long tour in the upper level of the caves with minimal stairs.
Once you have your cave tickets you can plan the rest of your day. Wind Cave offers some great hiking through the grasslands and wildlife viewing or head down the Hot Springs, South Dakota and visit the Mammoth Site.
Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig. The site was discovered during a construction project in the 1970s. The site has produced countless mammoth bones from a complete skull to tusks. Their collection of bones in unmatched. Entrance fee is $10.14 +tax .
Places to Eat
There are lots of dining options on Hot Springs. Check out the farmhouse Woolly’s Grill and Cellar for amazing steaks.
Places to Stay
There are several options. The first is to camp in Custer State Park. The park has several campgrounds and there are several campgrounds near the town of Custer as well.
There are several lodges and cabins in Custer State Park. These can be seen here.
If staying in or around the town of Custer, book four nights as a base for exploring over the next couple of days. Check out Custer hotel’s here.
Day 5 – Custer State Park
South Dakota Road Trip Day 5 – Activities
- Custer State Park
Custer State Park is a massive state park with over 71,000 acres to explore. The park has some of the best wildlife viewings anywhere in the United States. Pronghorn, bighorn sheep, elk, burros, and bison are seen daily in the park.
Start the day with a drive around the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. The loop will take about an hour and expect frequent stops for wildlife. Please maintain a safe distance from all wildlife (at least 100 yards from all animals).
Next head out the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. The Byway includes the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road. You will get a chance to explore the Needles (the originally planned site for Mount Rushmore), explore the rocky peaks of the Black Hills and your first views of Mount Rushmore. The entire Byway takes about 2-3 hours to drive depending on stops.
There are several trails in the park. Check with the visitor center for guidance on which trails will compliment your drives and give the best views or chances to see wildlife.
The park offers boat and kayak rentals as well as horseback riding tours.
Places to Eat
Almost all the Custer State Park lodges offer dinning. They feature local dishes in a rustic setting.
Day 6 – Jewel Cave
South Dakota Road Trip Day 6 – Activities
- Jewel Cave National Monument
Today is another early morning. Most of the Jewel Cave tour tickets are first come first serve. Jewel Cave is completely different than Wind Cave. The caves are 30 miles apart. Jewel Cave is the 3rd largest cave in the world.
You can pre-book your Scenic Tour 72 hours in advance but the rest the tours are same-day tickets. While the Scenic tour is a must to see the jewels of Jewel Cave, the lantern tours a must. Experience the cave as the original visitors did.
Tour tickets cost $12.00 for the Scenic tour and $31.oo for the lantern tour.
The Scenic Tour takes an hour a half and enters thru a man-made entrance. The tour is strenuous and has lots of stairs but visits many of the calcite crystals.
The Lantern Tour enters thru the historic entrance and you get to carry a lantern as your guide leads you thru the cave. The tour takes about 2 hours.
After the Lantern Tour, head down in to Hell’s Canyon. The trail is a 5.5-mile loop that takes between 2-4 hours to hike. The trail starts off steep but then levels out as it enters Hell’s Canyon and provides amazing views.
Places to Eat
Custer has some great dining options. Check out Black Hills Burger and Bun Co for amazing local beef.
Day 7 – Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore
South Dakota Road Trip Day 7 – Activities
- Crazy Horse Monument
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial
From Custer drive up to the controversial Crazy Horse Memorial. This statue is a work in progress. It has been slow going since 1948. The project was started by Henry Standing Bear of the Lakota (Sioux Tribe). The project was planned and started without the permission of Crazy Horse’s relatives and that is one of the main reason the statue is controversial (that and carving up a mountain that Crazy Horse fought to protect from American exploitation). The project does pay respect to the Lakota culture and is designed as a cultural center to support education.
The center costs $12.00 per person 0r $30.oo per carload. A bus ride to the bottom of the mountain for a close-up view is $4.00.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free to enter but packing is $10.00. Upon entering the memorial, check out the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center and watch the film about carving Mount Rushmore.
After that head out to the Presidential Trail and to get a close-up view of the sculpture. The trail is a 0.6-mile loop with a few stairs.
Check the times of the ranger programs. Head over to Carver’s Studio to learn in-depth about Gutzon Borglum and how they managed to carve the mountain and view his original scale model.
End your day by watching the Mount Rushmore Illumination show. Once you have seen the show head back up to Rapid City.
Places to Eat
Laughing Water Restaurant at Crazy horse off the chance to try local Lakota dishes such as buffalo stew.
For dinner, check out the Carvers’ Marketplace at Mount Rushmore National Monument.
Day 8 – Devils Tower
South Dakota Road Trip Day 8 – Activities
- Devils Tower National Monument
Today, make the two-hour drive from Custer, SD over to Devils Tower, WY. Devils Tower National Monument is a giant laccolithic butte made of igneous rock. The tower might not be in South Dakota but the formation is part of the Bear Mountains which make of up the Black Hills.
Spend a couple of hours hiking around Devils Tower (and look for aliens). The Tower is a spiritual place for many local Native American tribes. Please respect their beliefs and do not touch the prayer bundles around the area.
Places to Stay
Rapid City has a range of hotel offerings.
- Hotel Alex Johnson – A historic hotel in downtown Rapid City – Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
- Comfort Suites Hotel – Award-winning chain hotel – Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
- Days Inn – An affordable option family-friendly option – Read the TripAdvisor Reviews or Book Now.
Day 9 – Head Home
If you have some time before your flight, check out more of Rapid City. Or grab brunch at Tally’s Silver Spoon.
What are you most looking forward to on your South Dakota Vacation? Any other recommendations for a Black Hills, South Dakota Road Trip?
Feature Image Mount Rushmore – Photo Credit: Wilson Hui