When families ask me where they can find outdoor adventure, beautiful scenery, American history, and affordable accommodations, the Black Hills of South Dakota are at the top of my list. The first time I visited the Black Hills, I was blown away, and I feel just as passionate about this family-friendly destination today. Located on the western end of the state, the Black Hills are within easy driving distance of Rapid City, or can be accessed via I-90 on a cross-country road trip.
Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary
From Rapid City, your Black Hills road trip should take you about a week, though families could of course take longer if desired. It’s easy to tent or RV camp in the area during the summer months, but a nice aspect of the Black Hills is the availability of affordable travel lodges, roadside motels, and cabins.
Start By Exploring Wild West Towns
- Day 1-2: Drive about a hour from Rapid City to Deadwood, home of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, and Seth Bullock. Parents, you may have seen the HBO show by the same name. Deadwood doesn’t disappoint, with a historic downtown and multiple museums. Stroll the main street, stopping at Saloon 10, where Wild Bill was shot to death by Jack McCall more than a century ago. Kids will enjoy the sawdust on the floor and the historical photos on the walls, and the saloon is open to minors until late evening. Families can also visit the cemetery where Calamity Jane and the others are buried. Stay at any number of affordable Deadwood hotels, augmenting your history tour with some outdoor recreation on the nearby Mickelson Trail, a gravel-paved bike path and rail trail that winds from Deadwood 109 miles through the Black Hills. Read more about Deadwood activities for families.
- Day 3: From Deadwood, drive south on Highway 385 to Keystone. This town is best known as the gateway to Mount Rushmore, and as such, is more touristy than historic. Instead of staying the night here, stop to enjoy a few family-friendly activities, like the Rushmore Tramway Adventures, then spend a few hours of the day at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. In the evening, drive on to the small Wild West town of Custer.
- Day 4: Families will find lots to do in Custer, starting with the downtown area’s historic buildings and shops. Eat at the Purple Pie Place or Black Hills Burger and Bun (Tripadvisor’s #1 Burger joint in the entire US in 2014, #2 in 2015). For outdoor adventure, 3,000 miles of ATV trails crisscross the Black Hills, and Black Hills ATV Adventures can guide you along some of them just outside of Custer. The Mickelson Trail also goes through Custer and nearby Hill City. Hill City is a good place to rent bikes for the trail for a full or half-day adventure. Stay the night at either Custer Gulch Resort outside of town, or more centrally located Rock Crest Lodge. Read more about Custer activities for families.
Step Into Outdoor Adventure
- Day 5: Dedicate this day to exploring Custer State Park, which many believe to be worthy of national park status. This massive park deserves at least two days of your time. It can be accessed from Custer, allowing you to stay in town, or families can camp or stay in cabins within the park. Begin with an overview of the park via the Needles Highway Scenic Drive (part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway). Kids will love going through rock wall tunnels and around hairpin turns (take it slow!). Keep your eye out for mountain goats and bison along the drive. Next, check out one of the lakes in the park for some water recreation; Sylvan Lake rents watercraft and has a family-friendly swimming area. After getting some energy out, take the Wildlife Loop Road to see the buffalo corrals and prairie dog town at the other end of the park.
- Day 6: The next day, head out on a few hikes. Sturdy hikers will want to tackle Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), a strenuous seven-mile round trip hike to a lookout tower with exceptional views. The less ambitious can try Cathedral Spires (only three miles round trip) or Badger Clark Historic Trail, which gives an overview of the human history of the park. Read more about Custer State Park.
End In Rapid City
Rapid City is a fun, small city worth exploring for a day in its own right. It has a recently renovated downtown area, fun eateries, and inventive and artsy shops. There’s even a family-friendly pub and winery in a firehouse!
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This post was written in partnership with Travel South Dakota. Get more Black Hills travel ideas here.