Known as “America’s best idea,” there’s no better way to see what the country is all about than at its national parks. I spent last summer visiting Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain national parks and knew I wanted to see more this year. I headed for the Black Hills, an area of South Dakota and Wyoming known for its appropriately named landscape. It generally includes the Badlands National Park and Devils Tower, but also Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, and much more. Popular during the summer, the best time to visit is likely during the fall when temperatures are cooler. Winter weather can affect roads, but the snow on the prairies is something to see. If you’re planning on visiting multiple parks, an annual parks pass might be a worthwhile purchase.
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The Black Hills area isn’t the easiest to access with the small Rapid City, South Dakota airport serving as the main hub. There are also airports in Pierre, South Dakota and Gillette, Wyoming where you might find cheaper fares. Some will require a connection in Denver. Rapid City is less than an hour from the major sites in this area, so it’s your best bet if you’re short on time.
A rental car is the best way to get around, but be prepared for steep rates because of a lack of inventory. I ended up spending close to $400 to rent a car for around 10 days, even with a AAA member rate. Keep in mind that the rental car counter is open around the flights, so even if you arrive late at night, it’s best to go ahead and pick up your car. I learned this the hard way when trying to find a taxi company to take me back to the airport. You can also rent motorcycles and RVs. Just remember to opt for insurance in case of animal run-ins or bumpy roads. The rental counter also warned of hail.
Where to Stay
Unlike at the larger national parks like Yellowstone, not every park in the Black Hills has multiple campgrounds or lodges. It’s good to plan your accommodations in advance, if not just to write down a few options before you arrive. I only booked my first night’s hotel in advance and campsites the night before and had no trouble.
Camping is the best way to experience the Black Hills and there are plenty of campgrounds. Freecampsites.net was helpful in finding places. There are also a few hotels in Rapid City if you’re looking to drive from there daily. I stayed at the Super 8 in Rapid City and later an Airbnb. Next time, I’d like to check out The Hotel Alex Johnson, a historic-turned-boutique property.
The Badlands has Cedar Pass Lodge, which has cabins and motel rooms as well as campgrounds. You can camp for free at Sage Creek Campground, but be warned that there are no reservations, no amenities, and it’s down a fairly rocky dirt road. But you’ll be surrounded by nature, with buffalo roaming nearby. I ended up instead staying at Sleepy Hollow Campground in Wall, which had a pool, WiFi, and laundry.
Over near Devil’s Tower, Belle Fourche River Campground is the only campground nearby and doesn’t take reservations. It has RV and tent sites as well as views of the monument. If you can’t get a spot here, Black Hills National Forest is a good alternative. The large recreation area has dozens of campsites near Rapid City and Custer.
Near Deadwood, I stayed at Creekside Campground in a cute cabin. They didn’t have any space for car camping, it did have spots for tents. At this spot, you can also stay in a teepee. This area has lots of options for accommodations, including historic hotels. I didn’t stay in Sturgis, but that town also has choices. Elk Mountain Campground is well located for visitors to Wind Cave.
Don’t miss the opportunity to stay at Custer State Park where you might see a buffalo roaming through your campsite. This top-notch state park has accommodations in their lodges and at the campsites as well as restaurants and hiking. I stayed at Center Lake, which had basic vault toilets and spots for fires. Buffalo Ridge Camp Resort also came recommended for this area.
Where to Eat
Because of the location of the Black Hills and the towns that make it up, you can actually find restaurants without going far. Custer, Hill City, Wall, and Keystone all have a few to choose from. In the Badlands, Cedar Pass Lodge is the only place to eat, but I liked the Sioux fry bread taco, pictured. The menu uses local ingredients and has vegetarian options. Lunch is the best time to go. There’s a small selection of groceries and items you can cook at your campsite, but not as many as I experienced at other national parks. Deadwood has plenty of dining options.
There were no food options at Wind Cave, apart from vending machines, and the closest restaurants were 30 minutes away. This is how I ended up having a picnic of a microwaved hot dog and chips. Later in the trip, I stocked up on sandwiches and snacks at Blair’s grocery stores, something I recommend since you never know where there will be civilization. Pack a few granola bars and extra bottles of water just in case. The larger attractions, like Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore, have their own onsite restaurants.
I ate some great things and others not so great. I liked Badlands Saloon & Grille in Wall, Saloon No. 10 and Pump House at Mind Blown Studio in Deadwood, Ruby House Restaurant in Keystone, and Firehouse Brewing Company, Essence Of Coffee and (kol) in Rapid City. I didn’t care for anything in Custer as even the well-rated places were only okay. But perhaps I should have braved the long lines at Black Hills Burger.
How to See the Parks and Area Attractions
If you plan on seeing two parks, it’s worthwhile to purchase the annual pass. Standard passes cost $80 and grant admission for your car into the parks as well as individual entry into national historic sites and recreation sites. Active military members, disabled Americans, and 4th-grade students get free passes while senior citizens can get a $10 lifetime pass. Keep in mind that the passes won’t get you into all the sites, just the parks. It’s also possible to see this area by tour, whether for the day or an extensive trip around the Black Hills. Passes into Custer State Park get you into all of the state’s parks, but the minimum time length is a week.
Pick up a map at the visitors’ centers to plan your daily activities. There are plenty of beginner-friendly trails in this area as well as scenic drives where you don’t need to leave your car. Near Deadwood, I did the hike to the Teddy Roosevelt Tower and the loop trails at the Badlands, Devil’s Tower and Mount Rushmore. I ran out of time to do the Iron Creek Trail in the Black Hills National Forest, but it was only 2.5 miles.
Check out the Spearfish Canyon area for hikes as well as a scenic drive. In Custer State Park, brave the winding Iron Mountain Road for the best views around, including peeks at Mount Rushmore. Needles Highway is another favorite drive. The George S. Mickelson Trail was recommended by many, along with the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. I did complete the Wildlife Loop Road as well.
If you’re planning on visiting either Jewel or Wind Cave, be prepared to wait. Reservations aren’t taken, so it’s best to head over early to grab a spot on a tour. This area has hikes, scenic drives through prairie dog and bison habitats, and the tours of the caves, each for different fitness levels.
When booking a ticket for Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse, keep in mind that you might want to stay for the nighttime shows. If not, I recommend going early to both as they’re very crowded by 11 am. At Mount Rushmore, be sure to catch the introductory video before seeing the sculptor’s studio. At Crazy Horse, there’s also a sculptor’s studio and museum devoted to the tribes that call this part of the country home.
There are also plenty of quirky towns in the Black Hills. You’ll see advertisements for Wall Drug Store for hundreds of miles, where they sell offbeat gifts, serve cheap donuts and coffee, and have photo op spots with the jackalope. Deadwood makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to the Wild West. Free performances by actors dressed as real life characters take place around town during the summer months. Don’t miss Mount Moriah Cemetery, final resting place of “Wild Bill,” and try your luck at the area casinos.
In the Badlands, visitors will find plenty of pull off points with elevated walkways. There are strenuous hikes like the Castle Trail. Nearby, you can visit a historic prairie homestead and a Cold War bunker. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site documents the Cold War period when this facility was prepared for nuclear war. You can tour the visitor’s center and a former missile silo.
Rapid City also has its own set of attractions, which I’ll focus on in another trip. On the way back there, Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper & Show offers dinner shows and 99 cent pancake breakfasts. They also purchased the set pieces from Dances with Wolves, which film buffs can check out. There are also displays on the other movies filmed in the state.
Last summer, I wrote this post about how to behave in the national parks after I saw some terrible actions in Yellowstone. And in Custer State Park, I saw a couple less than five feet from a bison. As a reminder, please treat the parks with respect. Recycle your maps when you’re done with them. Keep your distance from wildlife and only pull over in approved areas. Never stop your car in the middle of the road to take a picture unless you’re allowing an animal to cross. Bring water bottles to refill rather than buying plastic and if you’re camping, follow the leave no trace guidelines. And since this area is the native land of many tribes, be respectful of their practices. Don’t climb Devil’s Tower in June when they ask visitors not to and don’t touch the prayer cloths tied to trees.
Other Things to Note
Before we talk about what to pack, I’ll talk about how I camped on this trip. Since I was traveling alone, I just couldn’t justify bringing a tent and other gear. Instead, I car camped, sleeping in the back seat with my sleeping pad and sleeping bag. I made curtains out of binder clips and my Turkish towel and used battery powered lights, cracking the windows at night. I had no trouble finding places to camp and slept just fine. I also could have reclined a front seat for more room if I needed to. Not all of the campgrounds have showers, so find out where the closest facility is. Otherwise, I recommend Epic Wipes for the in-between days. And while it wasn’t as cold as my trip to Wyoming, I still would suggest bringing layers.
- toiletries in a bag easy to take to the bathhouse
- slip on shoes for getting in and out of the tent
- water bottles
- sleeping bag
- sleeping pad
- athletic shoes
- waterproof jacket
- first-aid kit
- mosquito wipes
- Turkish towel
- clothesline and washing materials
- binder clips
- Canon DSLR, Sony Xperia, and Podo
- battery pack fairy lights
- warm clothing
Have you been to the Black Hills? Any tips to share?