My family and I just finished a week-long vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota; it’s the second time we’ve been there in four years, and we have had a fantastic trip each time. A lot of people probably think the only thing to do in the Black Hills is visit Mount Rushmore, but there is so much more to explore. For a family with kids– ours are two-and-a-half and nearly eight years old– the possibilities are endless. I’m going to list some of the highlights of traveling to the Black Hills with kids, including attractions to visit, photos, and restaurant recommendations. If you are looking for a fun, affordable, unique place to take your family on vacation, consider taking a trip to South Dakota- who knew it was such a beautiful, interesting place?
Geography of the Black Hills
This area of South Dakota is extremely vast- it is nearly impossible to encompass the entire region from Rapid City to Deadwood and Hill City to Custer in one week’s vacation. This year, we stayed just outside Custer. We rented a house through VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner), an option I highly recommend, as we were able to buy food and eat meals in our kitchen as often as we wanted. Many of the attractions and areas to explore are an easy day’s drive from anywhere you might be staying, and we found we were able to easily combine several activities and trips in one day. Having one of these is a necessity for your Black Hills vacation:
Mount Rushmore is a must-see for any family traveling to this area. Sure, you can see the famous faces from certain parts of the highway (we recommend driving on the scenic Iron Mountain Road to catch beautiful glimpses of the monument on your way there), but it’s worth the $11 for parking (and free admission!) to actually go in and explore the park. There is an interesting video to watch, a museum that older children especially will enjoy, and an easy, pretty hike around the area with different views of the mountain. There is also a great gift shop and delicious ice cream. And how could you pass up a photo op like this?
The 1880 Train from Hill City to Keystone
We took the 1880 train ride each time we vacationed in the Black Hills; really, unless you have motion sickness, who doesn’t like a good train ride? The trip is an hour long, and runs between Hill City and Keystone- both fun towns to explore after disembarking (deboarding?) the train. Keystone is a true “old west” saloon town with old-fashioned taffy shops, gold panning for kids (and adults!), and old time (tyme?) photos. Our oldest daughter had so much fun gem panning in Keystone- for $10 she got both the panning experience and all the gems in her bag. There are great restaurants and fun shops in both Hill City and Keystone.
Word to the wise: if you think two hours round trip is too much for your young kids (we did!), have an adult skip the train ride and drive to your destination, or if you have extra cars, drop one off so you don’t have to take the train both ways. Older kids may be up for it, but it would have been major overkill for our toddler, who fell asleep half an hour into the train ride as it was. The ride itself is scenic and informative– and a great opportunity to spot wildlife!
Bear Country, USA
This one is a little pricey — a maximum fee of $60 per vehicle– but totally worth it. When else can you take an actual “Bear Selfie?”
The wildlife– everything from mountain goats to reindeer to the many bears who live there– often walk right up to your car. It’s amazing for kids to see animals “in the wild” right outside their car. We got some great photos of the bears playing, sparring, and climbing in their vast habitat.
The famous Needles Highway is another “must” for your Black Hills vacation. The landscape is so unique, and there are great opportunities for photography, climbing, and hiking along the highway. Plus, I’m pretty sure every kid loves driving through tunnels, and the narrow rock tunnels along Needles Highway are particularly thrilling. We took a great hike when we stopped.
Our family continued on to the Wildlife Loop after exiting Needles Highway- it was such a thrill to see a herd of buffalo in the wild just feet away from our car!
Also on Needles Highway is the entrance to Custer State Park, including the beautiful Sylvan Lake. Our family took two day trips to the lake, once to swim and paddleboat, and once to hike and picnic. The views are lovely, and the rock climbing and hiking are perfect for energetic, adventurous kids. There are several options for boating and fishing- the paddleboat experience was a bit pricey at $43 for an hour, but our family really enjoyed it.
This is hands-down the best park I have ever seen. Located in Rapid City, it’s easy to pair a trip to Storybook Island with one of the numerous attractions near Rapid City, including Bear Country or the Reptile Garden. Donations are welcome and encouraged, but admission to this park is free! It features nursery rhyme characters, favorite Disney and storybook characters, and a train ride. To be honest, I think I found it just as delightful as my children did, as the characters are all “old school” favorites from my own childhood. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:
The Reptile Gardens is another fun place to take kids near the Rapid City part of the Black Hills. Admission is fairly reasonable- $16.50 for adults and less for kids (our youngest was free), and there is quite a bit to do there. In addition to housing snakes, alligators, crocodiles, and lizards, there is a beautiful botanic garden and lovely landscaping on the grounds. There are snake, crocodile, and bird shows hourly, and the giant tortoises were a hit with our girls. (OK, fine, they scared the crap out of our toddler, but our oldest daughter loved petting them.)
OK, people, I’m going to be honest with you. We were thrilled to see that there was a hot springs pool (located in Hot Springs, SD, FYI.) within half an hour of our vacation home in Custer– Evan’s Plunge. This wasn’t our favorite place. If you have older kids who enjoy waterslides and don’t need your assistance cleaning up after a swim, this might be worth it for you. Evan’s Plunge is pretty old school, and could use some updating. There was a lot of mildew both inside and out, and the locker room was abysmal. If our kids had been older, we would have enjoyed planting ourselves by the outdoor pool in the sun while they rode waterslides, but with our kids being as young as they are, it wasn’t really our scene. Again, the locker room was borderline disgusting and had only cold showers. We opted to ride home unshowered and grimy. Shudder.
To be fair, I think big kids and teenagers would have a blast here. And probably people who are less easily grossed out and um, less high maintenance and more “outdoorsy” than I am.
Crazy Horse Monument
We did this four years ago before our youngest daughter was born, and decided to skip it this time. If you have older kids who are history buffs, this is an interesting place with lots of information to explore. If your kids are younger, they may be a little bit bored.
Ft. Hays Chuckwagon Dinner and Music Show
On a whim, I decided we should experience a chuckwagon dinner and show. I know- very unlike me. There were several to choose from, and we landed on Ft Hays, as it was literally minutes away from the Reptile Gardens where we’d spent our afternoon. It is a beautiful, scenic spot; in fact- the movie “Dances with Wolves” was filmed there. In addition, there is an old town area with a blacksmith shop, a covered wagon, and even simple machines and tools that kids can try out. Admission to Ft Hays is free, if you are just there to poke around. For dinner and the show, we spent roughly $29/adult and $15/kid.
The food was excellent, and our oldest daughter got a kick out of going through the chuckwagon line with her tin plate. I wasn’t sure if our girls would get much out of the after-dinner music show, but to be honest, the entire family loved it. The musicians were talented and entertaining, and they played a great variety of old cowboy and country tunes mixed with rock and roll and modern songs. We had so much fun, more than we’d expected.
We didn’t go to any caves because of our children’s ages, but Jewel Cave, Wind Cave, and Rushmore Cave are all nearby. As a child, I went to Jewel Cave and remember it being spectacular. If you have older, adventurous kids, you should definitely check out the caves.
We also skipped Deadwood, partly because of the kids’ ages and partly because of the distance. I’ve been there several times as a teen and an adult, and it really is a lot of fun. Plus, gambling.
Outside the Black Hills: Wall Drug and the Badlands
If you’ve ever driven along Interstate 90, you may have seen the slightly obnoxious signs for Wall Drug. Let me tell you- it’s worth the stop. Full of kitschy shops, Old West-themed decor, and the highly acclaimed “5 cent coffee and free ice water” (Isn’t all water free? our savvy daughter inquired), it’s a one-of-a-kind tourist attraction.
The cafe has pretty tasty food and delicious donuts that my parents stock up on whenever they pass through. Plus, there are opportunities for memorable family photos like this:
Our kids had a blast exploring Wall Drug. And did I mention the free bumper stickers? If you make the drive to Wall Drug (it’s east of the Black Hills along I-90), you should definitely take the time to drive through Badlands National Park. It’s a 24-mile loop of some of the most unique, memorable scenery in the country. There are areas designated for climbing and hiking, and especially for older (read: coordinated) kids, it is a fantastic place to explore and rock climb.
Where to Eat
There are obviously countless restaurants in each town of the Black Hills. We’ve stayed in both Hill City and Custer, so most of our favorites were there.
The Alpine Inn in Hill City is an absolute must. It’s also usually packed, so get there early and plan accordingly. The dinner menu is limited to just several items- steak, a German meal, and perhaps a seafood option, but the full lunch menu features incredible German fare and great salads. They also have a fantastic selection of homemade desserts (we ordered three to share and completely overindulged.), German beer, and a fantastic variety of wine.
Speaking of wine, we stumbled on the Naked Winery in Custer while we were waiting for a table at a nearby restaurant. People. They have a seating area in the back for kids featuring goldfish crackers, chocolate chips, and cartoons. I almost wept with joy. The wines were fantastic, by the way. You can do a tasting, order a glass, or buy a bottle. There are several wineries strewn about the Black Hills, including the cleverly named Stone Faces winery.
We happened to be waiting for our table at Black Hills Burger & Bun, which is frequently jam-packed as they were just named Trip Advisor’s “Best Burger IN THE COUNTRY.” They didn’t disappoint. I ordered the “Fat Smitty,” which featured cheese, bacon, garlic aioli, and a fried egg. It may have changed my life.
Also in Custer is the charming Purple Pie Place. My husband and I left the kids with my parents and snuck out for some pie, and it was worth the excursion into town. The pie was fantastic. They also have ice cream, malts, and a famous chicken pot pie that I’ve heard is incredible.
Wheels West RV Park and Cavalry Cafe just outside Custer on Highway 16 has a delicious breakfast. It’s a small place, and they make the food one ticket at a time, so be prepared to wait. In fact, a sign up front says, “Helen Waite is now in charge of rush orders. If you’re in a hurry, go to Helen Waite.” It was worth the wait- everything was amazing.
In addition to Ft Hays, Circle B Ranch has a Chuckwagon dinner and show that is supposed to be wonderful.
We really had a fantastic time, and our family will undoubtedly return again. There is so much to do in the Black Hills– so many things we haven’t tried yet– that I suspect next time we will add some completely new activities to our list of favorites. No matter what their ages, a Black Hills vacation with kids can be exciting, fun, stress-free, and memorable.
If you have any questions for me about traveling in the Black Hills, send me an email using the Contact Me form above! Wherever your family goes, I wish you a harmonious, restful, tantrum-free vacation.
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