When families ask me where to find outdoor adventure, beautiful scenery, American history, and affordable accommodations, the South Dakota Black Hills are at the top of my list. The first time I visited the Black Hills, I was overwhelmed and I feel just as passionate about this family-friendly destination today. The Black Hills are located at the western end of the state and are easily accessible by car from Rapid City. You can also reach them via I-90 on a main road.
Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary
From Rapid City, your road trip to Black Hills should take about a week, although families could of course take longer if desired. During the summer months, it’s easy to camp or camp in the area, but a nice aspect of the Black Hills is the availability of affordable travel cabins, roadside motels, and cabins.
Start exploring the cities in the wild west
- Day 1-2: Drive about an hour from Rapid City Deadwood, Home of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane and Seth Bullock. Parents, maybe you saw the HBO show with the same name. Deadwood doesn’t disappoint with a historic downtown area and several museums. Stroll down the main street and stop at Saloon 10, where Wild Bill was shot by Jack McCall over a century ago. Children will enjoy the sawdust on the floor and the historical photos on the walls. The salon is open to minors until late in the evening. Families can also visit the cemetery where Calamity Jane and the others are buried. Stay in any number of affordable Deadwood hotels and complement your history tour with outdoor recreation on the nearby Mickelson Trail, a gravel-paved bike and rail path that winds 109 miles through the Black Hills from Deadwood. Read More about deadwood activities for families.
- Day 3: From Deadwood, head south on Highway 385 Keystone. This city is best known as the gateway to Mount Rushmore and as such more tourist than historical. Instead of staying here, stop to enjoy a few family-friendly activities like the Rushmore Tramway Adventures, and then spend a few hours a day in Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In the evening you continue to the small town of Custer in the Wild West.
- Day 4: Families find a lot to do here CusterStarting with the historic downtown buildings and shops. Eat at Purple Pie Place or Black Hills Burgers and rolls (Tripadvisors # 1 Burger Joint across the U.S. in 2014, # 2 in 2015). For outdoor adventures, 3,000 miles of ATV trails lead through the Black Hills, and Black Hills ATV Adventures can take you along some of them outside of Custer. The Mickelson Trail also runs through Custer and nearby Hill City. Hill City is a good place to rent bikes for a full or half day adventure. Spend the night either at the Custer Gulch Resort outside of town or at the centrally located Rock Crest Lodge. Read more about family custer activities.
Step into the outdoor adventure
- Day 5: On this day, devote yourself to exploring Custer State Park, which many believe deserves National Park status. This huge park deserves at least two days of your time. You can access it from Custer so you can stay in town, or families can camp or stay in cabins in the park. Start with an overview of the park along Needles Highway Scenic Drive (part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway). Children will love going through rock wall tunnels and around hairpin bends (take it slow!). Look out for mountain goats and bisons along the driveway. Next, take a look at one of the lakes in the park to relax in the water. Sylvan Lake rents watercraft and has a family-friendly bathing area. After you’ve used up some energy, take the Wildlife Loop Road to see the buffalo hurdles and the prairie dog town at the other end of the park.
- Day 6: Take a couple of hikes the next day. Strong hikers should tackle Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), a strenuous 7-mile circular hike to an observation tower with exceptional views. The less ambitious can try Cathedral Spiers (only 5 km round trip) or Badger Clark Historic Trail, which give an overview of the park’s human history. Read more about Custer State Park.
End in Rapid City
Rapid City is a fun little town worth exploring for your own day. It has a recently renovated city center, fun restaurants, and imaginative and artistic shops. There’s even a family-friendly one Pub and winery in a fire station!
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This post was written in collaboration with Travel South Dakota. More Black Hills travel ideas can be found here.