How to Plan a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota

Cathedral Spires Mountains hike in the Black Hills of South Dakota

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If you haven’t heard of Custer, South Dakota, you’ve probably heard of some of the things to do in the area. It’s home to Custer State Park and nearby Mount Rushmore National Memorial and it’s nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

South Dakota is quite an amazing state. From plains and prairies to foothills and granite mountains, there is a wide variety of terrains and things to do. In fact, I was surprised by how much I fell in love with the area. It was not what I expected. I now believe that South Dakota is one of the United States’ hidden gems. If you know it, you love it. If you don’t know it, you need to discover it.

In Western South Dakota, the landscape starts giving away to what will become the Rocky Mountains. The abundant pine forest and rocky hills make up the Black Hills of South Dakota. Much of the area is encompassed by the Black Hills National Forest.

The following are some of the highlights, must-dos, hidden gems, and best things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. These will help you plan the ultimate trip to the Black Hills.

Visit Custer State Park

Custer State Park is my number one recommendation, not only for those looking for things to do in the Black Hills but in all of South Dakota.

Located in the town of Custer, it’s South Dakota’s largest state park. In fact, I marveled at how this was a state park and not a National Park. It is big enough to be a National Park, and certainly offers plenty to do.

Custer State Park is perhaps one of the best places for wildlife viewing. Here we saw bighorn sheep, prairie dogs, mule deer, mountain goats, whitetail deer, and elk. Their claim to fame, however, is the bison herd.

Nearly 1500 buffalo roam the park. While there, we saw the bison every day. If you drive the 28-mile wildlife loop road, you’ll likely come across the herds in the prairie section of the park. But don’t be surprised to find them grazing near the campground or lodges as well. To learn more about the herd and safety precautions, your first stop should be at the Custer State Park Visitor Center. Additionally, ask the park rangers for the most recent sitings.

If you visit in late September, you could watch the buffalo roundup where they gather the bison herd for a health and wellness checkup.

You can choose to camp at Custer State Park, stay in one of the lodges, or purchase a day pass to drive or hike.

Camping and Lodges at Custer State Park

This had to be the highlight of our trip to South Dakota. We enjoyed camping at Custer State Park and the up-close views of wildlife we had at numerous points of our visit.

Here’s where I had trouble in planning this trip: knowing which campground to choose. Because of the size of the park, there are many campgrounds throughout the area. Many of them are smaller with fewer campsites available.

Find and book the campgrounds and lodges here.

Breaking them down:

  • Bluebell Campground – near the western edge of the park, in the French Creek Nature area.
  • Bluebell Lodge – 29 cabins surround the main lodge. It’s home to hayrides and Chuck Wagon Cookouts.
  • Center Lake Campground – Located at the norther center, it’s off the main roads and near the Black Hills Playhouse.
  • French Creek Natural Area and French Creek Horse Camp. French Creek Natural area is primitive, back-country camping. The horse camp is specificaly for campers with two corrals provided for each campsite.
  • Game Lodge Campground and State Game Lodge – Possibly the lodge you see in the brochures, it’s centrally located near the visitor’s center. the State Game Lodge is home to a restaurant, 11 cabins, and 59 campsites. The lodge is on the National Register of Historic Places, as it served as the summer White House for President Coolidge.
  • Grace Coolidge Campground – This is where we stayed. It’s just up the road from the State Game Lodge and tucked into the trees and cliffs. It’s along a creek and cliffs.
  • Legion Lake Lodge and Campground – this is a little further on from the State Game Lodge along the northern portion of Wildlife Loop Road. Restaurant, camp store, and swimming at Legion lake is here.
  • Stockate North and South Campgrounds are on a little section near Bismark Lake jutting off the western edge of the park.
  • Sylvan Lake Lodge and Campground is another of the more popular places to stay at Custer State Park. Located at the northern entrance along Needles Highway, Sylvan Lake offers trails, swimming, picnic area, general store and views of Black Elk Peak. If you plan to visit, go early to find adqueate parking. Camping here is also available at one of the 39 campsites.
hiking in custer state park in the black hills of south dakota

Hiking Trails

Custer State Park and the surrounding Black Hills offer incredible hiking trails.

Hiking in Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota meets many abilities and levels. You can do shoreline trails like the ones at Sylvan Lakeshore Trail and Legion Lake. Or opt for all-day hikes in the Black Elk Range Trail system. Many of these connect.

Our favorite was the Cathedral Spires Trail where the rock formations appear as tall spokes of a cathedral. We did this trail in about 90 minutes and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. The trail is made up of towering granite peaks, with some rocky terrain. I wouldn’t call it a strenuous hike, but come prepared with the proper hiking footwear. You will have some rock scrambles.

This trail connects to longer hiking trails, such as the Black Elk Peak Trail, so you could hike longer if desired. Be sure to arrive early as parking is extremely limited.

Driving on Iron Mountain Road in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Scenic Drives

If you’re not into hiking, or even if you are, don’t miss out on the incredible scenic routes.

Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway both wind in and out of Custer State Park. You’ll not only experience scenic views, but you’ll also wind through narrow tunnels, drive by mountain lakes. If it’s your first time on these roads, come prepared. It feels close to the edge so take your time.

On both Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway, you’ll encounter tunnels carved into the mountainside. Needle’s Eye tunnel felt more harrowing because you have to take turns with the oncoming traffic. There’s just enough room for one.

Buffalo crossing Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park

Wildlife Loop Road, as mentioned above, is a great place to find abundant wildlife. It’s 18 miles long, but you can take your time and cover the entire road in about an hour or more. We headed out a few different times on the route, both to connect to other roads and to seek wildlife. The best time to drive it is near dusk. You will see some of the more elusive wildlife.

We saw bison, the park’s signature animal. We also saw elk, pronghorn, whitetail deer, mule deer, bighorn sheep, burros, and prairie dogs.

If you don’t want to drive, consider a buffalo safari jeep tour inside of the park. Everyone gets a chance to see the wildlife while someone else drives and it’s a fantastic way to learn and ask questions about the animals.

Mount Rushmore from hiking trail.

Mount Rushmore National Monument

The famous Mount Rushmore National Memorial is also in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here you’ll see the larger-than-life heads of Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

It is free to visit, but you will pay for parking.

I highly recommend walking the loop trail that brings you closer to the monument. Stop along the way and read the various facts about each president and why they were chosen to adorn the mountainside.

Also don’t miss out on some of the ranger talks or stopping into some of the buildings. It’s there we learned that the monument intended to be full busts of the presidents and not just their heads.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial is nearby Mount Rushmore. You could visit both of these memorials on the same day.

Did you know that the idea for the Crazy Horse memorial dates back to the 1940s? It took 50 years to complete the face and once complete, it will be the largest monument.

This is a work-in-progress memorial that includes an extensive Native American museum as well as a tribute to Crazy Horse. Currently, you can view the head and outstretched arm, but a mock-up of the finished piece is on site.

We enjoyed our visit to the museum as it covers the journey and life of Crazy Horse, as well as many native tribes throughout America. Unlike the National Memorial above, Crazy Horse is not federally or state-funded. It relies solely on admissions and contributions.

Rapid City – City of Presidents

Rapid City is the biggest town in the Western Black Hills of South Dakota. The great thing is, it’s not all that big that it takes you days to explore. Set aside a day for your Rapid City adventures.

Rapid City is a very walkable town and in fact, I’d recommend you get to know the town by doing a scavenger hunt. It’s called the city of Presidents, one, for its proximity to Mount Rushmore. And two, because on the city corners are statues of all the presidents.

Pop into the visitors center to pick up a map to the City of Presidents. If you’re lucky like we were, representatives may be on the street handing them out. On the map is a scavenger hunt to keep the kids busy. For the most part, there is one on every corner, but if you’re looking for a specific one, you’ll want to know where to find him.

Another popular attraction in Rapid city is Dinosaur Park. Seven life-size replicas represent dinosaurs found in the Midwest. Best Part? It’s free.

Horse back Riding

Did I mention that the Balck Hills is a part of Black Hills National Forest? the best way to see this is by horseback.

You can do horseback riding straight from Custer State Park or choose from several stables and trail rides in the area.

Wind Cave National Park

Wind Cave is located just south of Custer State Park. While we did not get a chance to visit ourselves, we have visited both caves and national parks.

Wind Cave National Park is an excellent place to hike, but be sure to check the weather before you go because storms can quickly roll in. Once you are inside the cave make sure to bring a jacket, dress in layers, and do not go alone. The cave stays around 50 degrees Fahrenheit year-round so it can get pretty chilly.

While there is no guarantee, it’s not uncommon to spot deer, bison, porcupine, and even mountain goats within the park. If you do not see any animals try walking along the 10 mile Trail of the Whispering pines which follows a creek through a mature ponderosa pine forest.

Jewel Cave National Monument

West of Custer lies another cave, Jewel Cave National Monument.

Guided tours of Jewel Cave take you through a cave system over 110 miles long. In the caves, you will see amazingly intricate flowstones, rimstone dams, and other formations that have been created from millions of years of water flowing through the limestone.

Where to stay in the Black Hills

The best place to stay in the Black Hills of South Dakota is either Deadwood, Hill City, Custer State Park, or Rapid City. Those towns are very close together and offer a variety of activities.

At Custer State Park, we camped. If you are flying into the area, consider renting an RV to camp.

In Rapid City, you’ll find your standard hotels. YOu can search for Rapid City hotels by clicking on my Priceline link here.

While in the Black Hills area, we also popped up to Deadwood. For families, this was a good day trip visit. I wouldn’t stay here personally. Not that I have a problem with this, but it’s mostly gambling, biker bars, and shops.

Most people that go to Deadwood either want to gamble and drink at one of the casinos or they want to learn the history. Deadwood has both. Deadwood is the site of the infamous “Deadwood Miner Massacre” of 1876, which you can go visit at the Adams Museum. You can also gamble or drink at one of Deadwood’s famous casinos like The Golden Nugget Saloon. You can also learn about the life and death of Wild Bill Cody.

Notable Places to Eat

For the most part, since we were camping, we made and ate most of our meals at the campsite. However, a few places stood out.

Breakfast at the State Game Lodge in Custer State Park was a reasonably priced buffet of standard breakfast foods. Plus, you are dining in the historic dining room, so it’s well worth the atmosphere. You can also dine for lunch, dinner, and after-hours drinks.

Firehouse Brewing served up delicious burgers and beers. Again, here’s another place where the atmosphere adds to the enjoyment of the meal. Located inside of an old firehouse, it’s decked out with patches and memorabilia.

The Silver Lining Creamery scoops up premium rich and creamy ice cream with your choice of toppings. It made for a great rainy day treat.

Key Things to Plan for in the Black Hills

Pay attention to the weather as the heat can creep up on you, especially in the summer months.

Driving distances in the black hills can also be deceiving. Plan your trip to include a little extra time as the signs will not be as clear as other places.

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