I’m sure most of us have childhood memories of family vacations, and some of those vacations were more fun than others. One of my most memorable and fun childhood vacations was in South Dakota. The picturesque lakes, rolling landscape, granite boulders, and interesting wildlife, left an indelible impression on a young fourteen-year-old me from the flatland of Illinois.
Thirty-some years later, I experienced one of the best mother/daughter road trips to South Dakota. My daughter and I shared more laughs and mishaps during that five-day excursion, so much so, that we still talk about that trip today. And then several years later, I shared an amazing visit to the Black Hills with my husband and in mid-June of ’19, we returned again.
So, perhaps it’s obvious why the Black Hills in South Dakota is one of my favorite places I’ve visited. It’s all about sharing memorable experiences and explorations with loved ones, and what fond memories I have from all my visits. So, let’s return, but where to start?
How many days should I spend in South Dakota?
Whether you plan on stopping in South Dakota’s Black Hills on your way to your destination like we recently did, or it’s the main destination, be sure and plan enough time. We’ve never spent more than five days in the area on any given visit, and we were never ready to move on, but it all depends on your interests.
My favorite things to see and do in southwest South Dakota
1. At the top of my list is a scenic drive. I promise you won’t be disappointed. You’ll love taking in the landscape by driving a couple of very scenic roads, but be WARNED, these roads are not RV friendly … unless you’d like to turn your lovely RV roof into a convertible – which has happened, unfortunately.
The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway in the Black Hills of South Dakota is one of the most beautiful roads in the United States. Mix in America’s most patriotic monument (Mount Rushmore) and you have a never-to-be-forgotten road trip. Depending on the number of stops you make along the way, plan on spending 2-3 hours to drive this byway.
This 70-mile drive includes spiraling bridges, hairpin curves, granite tunnels, and awe-inspiring views. It’s roughly a figure-eight route, taking drivers through Custer State Park and passing by Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Several tunnels carved through the granite mountain not only provide a transportation passage but artistically frame the four faces on Mount Rushmore in the distance. These tunnels are one lane only and definitely have height and width restrictions. So, no RVs!
(To enlarge a photo in a gallery, simply click on any image)
Needles Eye Tunnel is just 8’ 4” wide and is one of three tunnels found on Needles Highway and is certainly the most famous, longest, and tallest. Its name comes from the remarkable granite spire located near the tunnel entrance. Cruising on Needles Highway isn’t about getting to the next destination, it’s about taking in the scenery. Spectacular sites to see along the way include Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, the Cathedral Spires, and Sylvan Lake. And if you’re lucky, you might even come across some cute mountain goats lingering alongside the road.
During our family road trip with the brand new motorhome back in the 1970s, my dad drove the motorhome through Needles Eye Tunnel much to my mom’s dismay. I credit my dad for talking to a ranger and measuring the motorhome a couple of times to verify that he’d fit. However, once he saw a tour bus go through it, there was no stopping him, but keeping the motorhome in the center of the tunnel was key. As kids, we thought dad was so cool!
2. Spend the day exploring a State Park and National Park. Custer State Park is home to a diverse range of wildlife including antelope, deer, bighorn sheep, coyote, prairie dogs, and burros (burros who like to beg for food), but the park is probably best known for the nation’s largest free-roaming buffalo herds.
When driving the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road through Custer State Park, don’t be surprised that your travels may be detained by a “Buffalo Jam”. These large animals weighing in as much as 2,000 pounds walk wherever, whenever, and at their own pace, but can run as fast as 40 mph. So, if they feel like standing in the middle of the road, they do.
What is the difference between buffalo and bison? Scientifically, the term “buffalo” is incorrect for the North American species; its proper Latin name is Bison. However, common usage has made the term “buffalo” an acceptable synonym for the American bison, and around here, they are called “buffalo”.
The park is also home to a wide variety of historic sites including French Creek, made famous when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, and President Calvin Coolidge’s Summer White House, the historic State Game Lodge.
Wind Cave National Park… if you’re looking to avoid crowds, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with this small national park. I’m not one for caves so I can’t share any info on the cave itself, but I can tell you, if you’re interested in seeing wildlife without the crowds in Custer State Park, then driving around Wind Cave National Park is for you. That’s exactly what I did and I definitely found beauty and wildlife.
I did attempt to hike to Lookout Point but stopped in my tracks when I encountered a lone buffalo alongside the trail. There I was hiking by myself wearing a bright pink hoodie. Mr. Buff stopped eating and just stared at me. My 135 pounds was no match for his 1,800+ pounds. So, I did the smartest thing by lowering my face to avoid eye contact and slowly retreated all the while glancing back over my shoulders to make sure he wasn’t following me.
Halfway back to the truck, the herd of Buffalo that was near the highway when I first started hiking had meandered up the hill towards the trail … toward me 😯. I quickened my pace and took great pleasure in photographing these beasts from the comfort of my vehicle. And that was the end to my attempts at hiking in the Black Hills last month. I’m getting too old for these wildlife encounters lol.
3. Take in the past. The Black Hills is rich in American history and filled with tales of cowboys, pioneers, Indians, and more. Be sure and stop in at the various visitor centers and learn about the area’s history.
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.
A visit to Mount Rushmore is a must
4. Of course, no visit to the southwest part of South Dakota would be complete without visiting Mount Rushmore. After all, it’s the American thing to do, as is visiting Crazy Horse Memorial … another worthwhile stop.
Mount Rushmore National Memorial is free to enter but you have to pay for parking ($10.00 in 2018). 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 to get a close-up view of the sculpture. The trail is a 0.6-mile loop with a few stairs. (Be sure and check the Mount Rushmore official website under “alerts” for any closures ahead of your visit so you won’t be disappointed.)
My daughter and I really enjoyed visiting the Carver’s Studio and learned a great deal about Gutzon Borglum and how they managed to carve the mountain. You might also consider a Ranger program or stay for the illumination on Friday evenings and learn a little more about the history of the monument.
And best of all, eat some Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream. Without Thomas Jefferson, we may not have this delicious treat. Give your Mount Rushmore vacation a taste of the first recorded ice cream recipe in American history.
As long as you’re in South Dakota, you really should visit the world’s largest mountain carving; Crazy Horse Memorial. This is another monumental sculpture that is huge. If budget or time is a problem, Crazy Horse can easily be seen from Highway 385.
I recommend starting your visit at the Orientation Center. The short film, “Dynamite and Dreams,” will help you gain an introduction to the memorial and its history. Then walk through the Indian Museum of North American and Native American Cultural Center to learn about the American Indian heritage before heading out to the observation deck for views of the massive monument. For an additional fee, you can take a bus to the bottom of the monument for better views. Don’t forget to stop at the information desk to get a return ticket for the “Legends in Light” laser light show they perform in the evening from the end of May to the end of September.
And twice a year, you can actually hike to the top of Crazy Horse: Volksmarch hike. This is high on my ‘must-do’ list.
Somewhere back in one of my storage units in Colorado, I have photographs of Crazy Horse that my dad took during our family vacation to the Black Hills in the early ’70s. It would be fun to compare the progress via our photographs.
5. Outdoor recreation: Lakes, Hiking, fishing. I absolutely love the picturesque lakes around here. There are many lakes and streams perfect for fishing, boating, or picnicking lakeside, and they are all pristine in my opinion. During that 1970s family vacation, I thought Sylvan Lake was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen. My brother and I hiked and explored all around this stunning little lake. We were intrigued by the granite rock and boulders and the clean, clear, cool water.
We even rented one of those paddle boats. While my brother and I exercised our legs, my dad sat on the back of the paddle boat with a fishing line in the water. No surprise, dad brought his fishing gear on this summer vacation just like any other trip. Nothing like trolling via sustainable energy. Dad was great in giving my brother and me directions on where he wanted us to paddle and gave no thought to our weakening leg muscles, but after catching a couple of teenie tiny fish, dad had enough … our legs were saved thank goodness. Ah, the memories!
I couldn’t wait to share Sylvan Lake with my daughter and I tried to recreate the hike with her that my brother and I took all those years ago.
After the hike, we stopped in at the Sylvan Lake Lodge to check out what the park considers their crown jewel. You can picnic on the grounds or have lunch at the restaurant.
Another beautiful lake and one of my favorites is Stockade Lake. It’s the largest of five lakes in Custer State Park. You’ll find a couple of campgrounds nestled in the pines near the lake, as well as a day-use picnic area.
Hiking in the Black Hills
There is no storage of trails to hike in the Black Hills, but one of the most popular trails is to the highest peak in South Dakota; the Black Elk Peak which was formerly known as Harney Peak. Even though this trail is popular, my daughter and I did not find it easy considering it’s mostly uphill. There are gradual inclines and some flat surfaces at the beginning that leads to steep inclines and stairs. The trail is considered moderately difficult.
Once you reach the 7,242-foot peak topped by a stone fire tower, you are rewarded with breathtaking views of the Black Hills National Forest. Be sure and take a break to have lunch at the top and enjoy the scenery. The fire lookout, dam, and pumphouse were built in 1939 and are listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Most people catch the trail near Sylvan Lake, but my daughter and I started at the trailhead for Little Devil’s Tower and then connected. The views of Cathedral Spires is quite stunning and not to be missed.
Top 5 things to see and do in South Dakota
- Take a scenic drive and don’t forget your camera
- Visit Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park
- Explore the local history
- Visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Crazy Horse Memorial
- Enjoy outdoor recreation: hiking, fishing, boating, 4×4 exploring
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Other sights worth noting
During my recent visit, I drove to the Mount Coolidge Lookout Tower. To get there, I turned off of Hwy 87 and continued up a 1.7-mile gravel road to the summit where I took in the views of the Black Hills. This site is 6,023 feet above the forest and is not for folks with a fear of heights. The gravel road is narrow in places with steep dropoffs and no guardrails, but the views are amazing. On a clear day, you can see Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and the Needles.
Towns of Spearfish and Deadwood
Spearfish is a cute little town from what we could gather, but we didn’t stop. We were here to drive Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway and take in the stunning landscape. With soaring limestone bluffs, a glistening creek, wildflowers, and three flowing waterfalls, it did not disappoint. The 20-mile byway is north of Custer State Park along Highway 14A and is an incredible road. Several scenes from the movie, “Dances With Wolves” were filmed in the canyon.
Next on our list was a visit to the historic town of Deadwood. Al and I are huge fans of the HBO series titled Deadwood and really looked forward to our visit.
The town is a throwback to the Wild West where gambling and bars are alive and well. Gamble in one of the many casinos and follow the footsteps of legendary characters like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Although we enjoyed the day, we probably wouldn’t return. It’s a kitschy tourist town (in my humble opinion).
But a place I always look forward to visiting is …
Badlands National Park is most definitely a worthwhile visit. Be sure and spend at least one day exploring the 244,000 acres of this other-worldly landscape. Driving the 31-mile scenic Badlands Loop Road is an absolute must and do take advantage of every pull-off and overlook. Can you say photo-op?
Even better, take a few short hikes. If you have time get off the beaten path on Sage Creek Rim Road to look for buffalo and bighorn sheep. Make sure to check with a ranger on road conditions before taking the drive.
Just northwest of the Badlands National Park on I-90 is Wall Drug. It’s one of those roadside attractions that’s synonymous with American road trips.
A roadside attraction called Wall Drug. The story behind this place … Wall Drug started simply enough when Ted Hustead purchased the South Dakota town of Wall’s drugstore in 1931. But it was Ted’s wife Dorothy who hit upon the idea that changed not just the drugstore, but the entire 231-person town of Wall. The idea: ice water. In an attempt to attract people, Dorothy Hustead put up a sign advertising free ice water to parched tourists on their way to nearby attractions. It was a big hit. From then on Wall Drug grew under its own strange power, adding a bizarre assortment of fiberglass animals, including the iconic Wall Drug jackalope, giant dinosaurs, and an array of taxidermy jackalopes. And then there are the hundreds of photos and newspaper clippings adorning the walls from years ago. My husband could’ve spent hours just looking and reading all the old photos and memorabilia hanging on the walls.
If you are a honeymooner, veteran, priest, hunter, or truck driver, you can also get free coffee and donuts. They still give out ice water too. Some 20,000 cups a day. This is also a fun place for kids. Every 30 minutes the dinosaur inside comes to life and gives you a little show. Seriously, regardless of age, make sure you spend a couple of hours in this little eclectic town at least once.
Southwestern South Dakota has something to offer just about anyone, from young to old and everyone in-between. It’s one of those places that one visit may be enough, or if you are like us, once is not enough and we find ourselves wanting to return after every visit. It’s a fun place to take children with many more kid-friendly attractions than mentioned here.
There are some great restaurants, breweries, live entertainment, and plenty of outdoor activities. Lodging is available in all forms from basic campgrounds, to RV Resorts, to motels and hotels, as well as vacation rentals. Yep, the Black Hills is definitely a great vacation destination or place to spend just a few days while passing through.
Have you ever visited this part of South Dakota? If so, what was your favorite thing to see or do?
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