Vacationing in South Dakota’s Black Hills

Vacation in the Black Hills header image

The Black Hills of western South Dakota is a fabulous family vacation spot. There’s a wide variety of both natural and man-made wonders, with plenty to do for all ages.

The Black Hills comprise 5 million acres of mountains, forests, rivers and lakes. While our family has used it as one stop along the way to the bigger mountain ranges of the West, you can easily find enough to do to make the Hills your primary destination. Especially if you include a couple other natural wonders within an hour or two.

What You’ll Love about Vacationing in the Black Hills

ITS NATURAL BEAUTY. Smaller and very different from the larger peaks further to the west, the mountains here are beautiful in their own right. The size of the peaks is similar to the Appalachians, but the climate is different here, so, of course, the trees and foliage are different.

our adult kids running around the boulders
No matter how old our kids get, they still love climbing among the huge boulders! This is near The Eye of the Needle, on Needles Highway

Ponderosa pine, Black hills spruce, aspen and birch are common here. There are canyons, prairies, clear mountain rivers and several reservoirs.

SCENIC DRIVES. If you can, be sure to drive the 70-mile Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway for stunning views in the southeast quadrant. If you don’t have time for all of it, there are sections of it, like Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road, you don’t want to miss.

Up in the northwest section is the 20-mile drive through Spearfish Canyon. Also in the north are some fun little towns nestled in the mountains like Lead and Deadwood. In Lead is an awesome little museum of an old strip mine that’s now a world-renowned research spot deep underground.

bridal veil falls in spearfish canyon
Bridal Veil Falls in Spearfish Canyon

THE WILDLIFE. The Black Hills is famous for its wildlife, especially Custer State Park in the southeast corner. To see bison, elk, pronghorn and the friendly and adorable wild burros, be sure and take the Wildlife Loop through Custer. There’s a fee to enter since it’s a state park, but it’s well worth it. Both times we’ve been here we’ve been rewarded by lots of animal sightings.

two pronghorn in a meadow
two wild burros walk along the road
Though wild, these burros are NOT afraid of people. In fact, they look for handouts!

Read: Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park

NATIONAL MONUMENTS. The most famous monument in the Black Hills is undoubtedly Mount Rushmore. These presidents and the monument itself have gotten a bad rap from many in our country lately, but it’s one of my favorite spots here. The mountain-size sculpture itself is amazing, and we all loved walking up the Avenue of Flags.

There are interpretive paved trails at the foot of the Mount that gives you a close-up view of the stone faces, as well as a small museum and replica of what the sculpture originally envisioned before reality took over 🙂

There’s a parking fee here per car ($10 in 2017), but entrance into the monument area is free.

Mount Rushmore as seen through the Avenue of Flags
Mount Rushmore, as seen through the Avenue of Flags

The Crazy Horse Memorial is partially complete, and relies on donations and the entrance fee to fund further sculpting (see Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation). It’s also located in the southeast quadrant, just a few miles north of the town of Custer. The area includes the Indian Museum of North America and several other cultural activities and destinations.

SYLVAN LAKE & OTHERS. Sylvan Lake is one of our favorite spots in the Black Hills. It’s a reservoir, like the other lakes here, with one of the most dramatic shorelines we’ve ever seen! Bouldering, hiking, paddling and swimming are all popular at this spectacular little lake.

sylvan lake surrounded by granite rock formations
The dramatic shoreline of Sylvan Lake with its granite rock formations that are so typical of the Black Hills area

CAMPING. There are loads of beautiful campgrounds in the Black Hills, including public and private, cabins, RVs or tents. Take a look at the Black Hills Vacations website or the US Forest Service website to find one that suits your needs.

HIKING. We honestly have yet to take advantage of the many beautiful hiking trails in the Black Hills! So I can’t speak from personal experience yet, but can point you here: 10 Black Hills Hiking Trails. There are no grizzlies in the Hills, but black bears and cougars have been seen, and this is rattlesnake habitat. So be aware!

What Else to See When You’re Here

Within an hour or two of the Black Hills are other national parks and memorials you’ll want to visit, too, as long as you’re in the area:

BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK. A couple hours to the east of the Black Hills are the South Dakota Badlands. If you’re coming from the Midwest on Highway 90, plan a few extra hours to visit. You won’t regret it! If all you do is drive the main road through the Park it’ll be worth it, but trust me, you’ll want to get out of the car and check it out closer!

Read: Badlands National Park: Enter the Door Trail

DEVILS TOWER. A couple hours to the northwest of the Black Hills is Devils Tower, in northeastern Wyoming. A sacred site to many Native American tribes, Devils Tower was our country’s first national monument. It’s also a world-class climbing destination. Take as a day trip from the Hills, or swing up on your way further west , as we did.

Read: Devils Tower: Red Beds Trail, Wyoming

WALL, SOUTH DAKOTA. Don’t laugh, but my family loves Wall! The famous Wall Drug signs scattered, literally, all over the globe, all point to this itty-bitty little town in western South Dakota. Wall Drug is a fun way to spend a few hours.

It’s got your typical tourist-trap stuff, but also a couple fine art galleries, the most extensive Western Art collection in the world on display, western wear, books, 5¢ coffee, good food and more.

family at a picnic table on the shore of Pactola Lake
Picnicking along the shore of scenic Pactola Lake

For More Information

When you’re ready to vacation in the Black Hills, be sure to use this Black Hills & Badlands website as a resource. It lists everything from hiking trails to museums to monuments, campgrounds to motels to casinos. It also lists the major events—info you can use either to plan for, or plan to not go during them!

The biggest and most famous event of the year in the Black Hills is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, held in early August each year. If you like being around thousands of bikers you’ll be in your element. If not, don’t plan to vacation here in early August!

Like maps? Here are free PDF maps of the Black Hills, Badlands, Devils Tower and more.