South Dakota is not a place that immediately comes to mind when you think of family vacations, but give the Black Hills a chance and it will blow your mind. The whole place is basically a giant family-friendly attraction. Nature lovers will feast and kids will have a blast.
When to go:
Summer. From May to September is definitely the best time to go. Starting in October, many restaurants and some attractions close for winter.
Where to stay:
Hill City is the best place to stay. This charming little town is central and very close to the main attractions and by staying here you will have to drive at least one hour less per day. Rapid City is another option, bigger than Hill City it loses in charm and distance but gains in commodity, having everything a normal city can offer right there.
What to do:
This worldwide famous mountain with sculptures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln carved into granite is incredible. It is hard to believe our eyes when we get near the National Memorial.
Custer State Park
We can divide Custer State Park in three different drives:
- Needles Highway (SD 87) is the most beautiful drive in the region. Driving through this twisting and winding route that crosses tops of mountains and rock tunnels is an unforgettable experience.
- Iron Mountain Road (USA 16A) is also incredibly scenic and famous for its many one-lane rock tunnels – through most of them you can take a peek at Mount Rushmore.
- Wildlife loop: If we had to summarize the whole Custer State Park in only one road it would definitely be the Wildlife loop. A beautiful scenery in which you are basically guaranteed to drive through thousands of buffalo as well as donkeys, deer, dozens of prairie dog towns and wild goats. At some fenced points of the road it is possible to get off the car and admire the wild animals. Your kids will cherish this moment forever.
Admission to the park requires an entrance license; the fee is $20 per vehicle.
While it might be qualified as a tourist trap, the Crazy Horse Monument is just something you have to see if you are visiting the Black Hills. It is so massive that it can basically fit Mount Rushmore into the armpit of Crazy Horse. It is so ambitious that it will probably never be finished.
Welcome to the Wild Wild West! Once a lawless town during the Black Hills Gold Rush, Deadwood still preserves lots of its history and the people that made the town so famous, like Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Big family destination, all of the saloons and restaurants are well equipped to cater for kids of all ages. Do not pass on the opportunity to take a vintage photograph dressing up as wild west folks!
*Bonus – Deadwood is only an hour away from the Devil’s Tower, in Wyoming. If you have the time to spare it is really worth the visit. It’s uniqueness granted the Devil’s Tower the title of United States’ first National Monument. There isn’t much of a hike and the base of the tower is really accessible for all kids.
Perhaps the most incredible sight of the whole trip, the Badlands National Park are of indescribable beauty. Driving around these sharply eroded buttes, cliffs and pinnacles was definitely a dream come true for our family. With many view points and accessible paths it is easy to spend hours admiring this natural construction in the middle of literally nowhere.
Bear Country U.S.A.
This is a mini-safari kind of adventure. You drive through fenced areas where they keep wolves, longhorn goats, deer, elk, buffalo, and of course, bears! I recommend going in the end of the afternoon as it will be less crowded and you will get a closer encounter with the animals. After the three mile drive you can get off the car and watch closely as bear cubs play.
*Bonus – Other great options for kids are the Mammoth site and Reptile Garden.
Different tours are available at the Wind Cave, we did the “Natural Entrance Cave Tour” which is the best suited for families. It is a 2/3 mile hike that lasts approximately 1 ¼ hours and exits the cave by elevator. The guides are very knowledgeable and share a ton of information during the course.
Get on board this steam engine train for a 2 hour, 20 mile round trip between Hill City and Keystone. The views from the train are amazing and atmosphere is so much fun! Our kids loved it! From the train you can spot animals like deer, rabbits and wild turkeys. Website here
Where to eat:
The best restaurant in the region is Ruby House, in Keystone. Great portions, good food, affordable prices, extensive menu and good options for kids. Breweries are also very popular, the best two are Miner Brewing Company, where you can play lots of board games with your kids and Firehouse Brewing Company with their great selection of beer.
Keystone, Wall drug and Crazy Horse can be considered tourist traps. Crazy Horse is still worth a visit, Keystone is home to the best restaurant of the region, Ruby House. Wall Drug is not worth your time.