With its mix of authentically awe-inspiring landscapes, concentration of parks, and hundreds—literally hundreds—of attractions, the Black Hills has served as an unforgettable vacation destination for generations of families.
I can still remember a few different family excursions in my life—on the earliest vacation I must have been six or seven. We saw a snake swimming down a clear mountain stream, spent a day at Flintstones Park in Custer, and caught a show at the long-gone Marine Life Aquarium.
The next time out, I was around 12 and traded paint with my Grandpa on carts at The Ranch (not tolerated at all by staff and totally started by the older and wiser). At 18, I grew up a little more with four days of independence staying with a friend’s older sibling in Spearfish and hiking in the Badlands.
Each trip happened at a different point in my life and certainly impacted it. Now with my own kids, and even as a Black Hills resident, it’s amazing the lasting experiences the parks and attractions are having on us.
So if you’re traveling with the brood, here’s what to do with kids in the Black Hills and Badlands region. This post has been set up as a four-day itinerary for those traveling with children—as it’s the average length of a Black Hills vacation (even though it could be even longer!).
I have not recommended a stay but check out the wide offerings and find what works best for you. The Best Western Ramkota and Fairfield Inn in Rapid City have water parks connected, so too does the Lodge at Deadwood. If you would like a more natural experience – cabins, campgrounds, and vacation homes are found all over.
Mount Rushmore is the main draw and we always suggest including that on the first day’s agenda. Doing so will negate the effects of inclement weather. Highway 16—the “Road to Rushmore”—is lined with some of the best Black Hills attractions. Reptile Gardens, Bear Country USA, Old MacDonald’s Farm, Fort Hays, Black Hills Maze, Cosmos Mystery Area, Alpine Slide at Rushmore Tramway Adventures, National Presidential Wax Museum, Big Thunder Gold Mine and 1880 Train are either on or right off the highway. And that lengthy list isn’t even all of them!
But in the interest of getting Mount Rushmore checked off the list, save most of those in Rapid City for a different day. Aim to visit the ones that are in or very near Keystone—like the classic Cosmos Mystery Area—in the morning. The whole offering at both Rushmore Tramway Adventures and Rush Mountain Adventure Park is fun on all levels, for all ages, and could be a great time before going to the memorial.
Grab lunch in Keystone, or better yet, spend it with George, Thomas, Teddy and Abe (don’t pass on the Thomas Jefferson-recipe ice cream) up on the mountain inside the Carver’s Cafe. While at Mount Rushmore, depending on the age of your crew, either check out the new kid’s area (located off the Presidential Trail) or continue the along the trail for a nice hike and some great views of the sculpture.
Next, head over to Hill City to check out the Museum at Black Hills Institute, 1880 Train, and the other offerings of this little mountain town. The Institute is an old armory that’s filled with amazing fossils from floor to ceiling. The 1880 Train is a perfect way to end the first day with a scenic, 2-hour ride from Hill City to Keystone and back.
Alternate stops here include Holy Terror Mini-Golf, Rushmore Borglum Story, SD State Railroad Museum, Brule at High Country Guest Ranch, Circle B Chuckwagons, and Teddy Bear Town.
Honestly, with Mount Rushmore anchoring so many attractions, you can continue cleaning up along the Hwy 16 corridor, but here’s where it can be good to mix in some of the natural Black Hills offerings.
On this day, I recommend heading to Custer State Park, heralded by national media as one of the world’s best animal destinations. In this area you can also tour one of the world’s top-five longest caves at either Jewel or Wind Cave.
Start the day of with the cave tour. The tours are first-come-first-serve and are one of the hottest tickets to score. It’s a definite Black Hills experience that can blow minds of all ages.
Afterward, plan on a good half-day in Custer State Park. Seek out the park’s buffalo herd on the Wildlife Loop or on a Buffalo Jeep Safari tour, hike around Sylvan Lake, feed the begging burros, and drive Needles Highway.
Teens might love the chance to climb the amazing formations in Custer State Park, so give Sylvan Rocks Climbing School a call.
Another popular Black Hills offering are trail rides from outfits like Hollingsworth Horses, Rockin’ R Trail Rides, Sage Meadow Ranch, High Country Guest Ranch, and more.
Other alternate stops could be the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, Black Hills Balloons, National Museum of Woodcarving, Evans Plunge, Beaver Lake Water Park, and Four Mile Old West Town.
If the group is still cooperating, keep in mind that Crazy Horse Memorial, the largest mountain carving in progress in the world, is right outside of Custer. If it’s late in the day, stick around for their laser light show.
Rapid City is the largest city (by far) and on the first day, everyone in your traveling party probably took note of all the attractions here. It’s been a hub for tourists since the 1930s while work on Mount Rushmore was just taking shape. Today, it’s known as the City of Presidents for the statues located downtown. You’ll notice the thriving rejuvenation that’s taking place throughout the downtown area. Main Street Square is a central point that’s always hosting unique events and activities. If you’re here on a Thursday night, you’ll enjoy the sites and sounds of Summer Nights, an outdoor event held from 6pm-9pm.
Reptile Gardens with its Guinness-record holding collection of reptiles, tropical fauna, and animal shows is a must. Adding to the fun, other animal attractions like Bear Country USA and Old Macdonald’s Farm are nearby. Load up on a cheap cowboy breakfast at Fort Hays on the way out. On the way back into Rapid City, your group can clean up any other Hwy. 16 stops you wish.
In Rapid City, we also suggest spending some time at Storybook Island, a free attraction that’s a fav of locals.
Alternate stops in Rapid City are the 30,000 sq. ft WaTiki Indoor Waterpark, Dinosaur Park, Dinosaur Museum, Putz n Glo, Rapid Escape, Journey Museum, Outdoor Campus – West, and Caputa Alpacas.
With Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, a cave and Reptile Gardens already off your list, the last region to hit is referred to by locals as the Northern Black Hills. Here, you’ll find many of the mid-sized Black Hills towns in Spearfish, Sturgis, Deadwood, and more.
You’ll also find great attractions that aren’t as well-known as the previous days stops.
Spearfish Canyon, with its waterfalls and hikes, is where locals often spend a day. Roughlock Falls is a beautiful stop and one of the easiest hikes in the Hills leads to it.
In Spearfish, feed the fish at DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and enjoy the City Park. In Deadwood – catch the Trial of Jack McCall on historic Main Street, see if you recognize any famous names buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery, or play the games at Kodiak’s Arcade and Shooting Gallery. In Lead, stop by the Sanford Homestake Visitor Center.
Devils Tower National Monument is a scenic hour drive away (a great chance to nap for the littlest ones) and has an easy trail around the base. This was the nation’s first national monument and is worth the trip.
For groups with older ones seeking more adventure, rent a UTV from outfits like Mystic Hills Hideaway, Rec Springs, Mad Mountain or other outfitters and head into the forest.
Alternate stops in the Northern Hills include the Adams Museum, Termesphere Gallery, Vore Buffalo Jump, Bear Butte State Park, Broken Boot Gold Mine, Spearfish Rec & Aquatics Center, Wonderland Cave, Trail Rides at Diamond 7 Bar Guest Ranch or the Black Hills Mining Museum.
One thing missing from this extensive list are the Badlands and Wall area. They are a favorite of my family, and if you’re traveling from the east like most Black Hills visitors are, make sure to hit the park and Wall Drug on your way in. Stop at the overlooks, take a short trail, and ride the Jackalope at Wall Drug. When you’re there, enjoy some free ice water and let the kids have a sugar buzz off some of the best cake donuts you’ll ever try.
This list is jam packed with action, but when traveling with kids, it is all subject to change. Highlight one or two stops a day and know that you can always come back. The Black Hills experience will be here for generations to come.