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How to Plan the Greatest Black Hills Road Trip to South Dakota’s National Parks

A paved road winding through Badlands National Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

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When you think of vacation getaways, South Dakota probably doesn’t come to mind. However, this little corner of the midwest has so much to offer! Be embarking on a Black Hills road trip, you can see everything from the famous Mount Rushmore to a continuously growing underground world.

The Black Hills are an absolutely amazing place to visit. Don’t forget, the area is also teeming with a fascinating history! Check out my favorite destinations below so you have all the tools you need to create a Black Hills road trip itinerary.

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Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary

Below, you’ll find options for 3, 4, or 5 days in the Black Hills. But how do you get there? Here is the logistical information you’ll need:

Airports: Flying in and out of Rapid City can be pricey, but it’s the most conveniently located Black Hills airport. If you want to save a bit on airfare, you could also try flying in and out of Denver. Other options are Minneapolis-St. Paul and Sioux Falls. For the best deals on airfare, check out Skyscanner!

Where to Stay: Having lived in Custer for one year, I may have a bit of bias when I say it’s the best city in the Black Hills. Nonetheless, it’s a great option with plenty of hotels and restaurants. Plus, it’s centrally located to see all of the destinations below. Alternatively, check out some of the lodges, cabins, and campgrounds in Custer State Park.

Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary Map

Use the map below to plan your Black Hills road trip. The map features my favorite destinations, restaurants, and places to stay.

Black Hills road trip map legend

Itinerary for a 3-Day Black Hills Road Trip

If you’re lucky enough to live close to the Black Hills and you’re looking for a weekend away, this is the perfect place. In just three days, you’ll be treated to iconic sites like Mount Rushmore while basking in the wonders underground and viewing a variety of wildlife. In the Black Hills, you’ll see some of the best that South Dakota has to offer. While a longer Black Hills road trip is ideal, you can see a lot in three days’ time.

Day 1: Custer State Park

A group of bison grazing in green grass at Custer State Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

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The rocky summit of Black Elk Peak, the tallest mountain in South Dakota, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip  A burro standing on the road looking into the window of a vehicle, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

The sunset shines a golden and pink hue on the Needles in Custer State Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

Two white mountain goats licking salt off of the road in Custer State Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip  A tunnel frames Mount Rushmore perfectly on the Iron Mountain Road, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

Custer State Park

Custer State Park requires a full day to explore fully. It’s so incredible that it’s been proposed as a national park more than once in its history. It’s easily one of the more popular state parks in the United States. In addition to the things to do listed below, Custer State Park is a great place to try rock climbing and a prime location for those involved in the sport.

Scenic Drives: Needles Highway (for rock spires), Iron Mountain Road (tunnel views of Mount Rushmore), Wildlife Loop Road (where the buffalo, burros, and pronghorn roam)

When to Go: Visit during the Buffalo Roundup in autumn for a unique event! There are limited services and road closures in winter (October 1-April 30). Summer is the most popular season. During the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally (usually in August), expect huge crowds.

Cost: You can purchase a week-long pass for your vehicle for $20 or an annual pass for $30.

Popular Hikes: Black Elk Peak (the tallest mountain in South Dakota; use Trail 4 or Trail 9), Cathedral Spires, Little Devils Tower, Lovers Leap, Needles, South Dakota Centennial Trail, Sunday Gulch

Things to See/Do: Feed the burros, visit Sylvan Lake

Where to Stay: Lodges and Campgrounds in Custer State Park

Day 2: Wind Cave and Mount Rushmore

A group of pronghorn below the moon over Wind Cave National Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

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Wind Cave National Park

Boxwork, a cave formation found in Wind Cave National Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

NPS Photo

I’ll be completely honest with you: between Jewel Cave and Wind Cave, Wind Cave is my favorite. Personally, I believe Jewel Cave is prettier on the inside. If you’re going to choose only one cave tour, I would visit Jewel Cave.

So then, you may ask, why is Wind Cave my favorite? It’s all about what you find above ground. The surface of Wind Cave National Park is incredible. There are tons of trails, scenic drives, and amazing wildlife, like bison and pronghorn. You’re almost guaranteed to see some little prairie dogs wandering about, too.

Don’t skip Wind Cave because you’ve already been inside some other cave on your Black Hills road trip. Even if you can’t go underground, reserve some time to see this lovely park.

Pro Tip: Get there early to book your cave tour! Tickets sell out quickly and cannot be reserved in advance (unless you’re a large group).

Things to Do: Cave tours, hiking trails, wildlife viewing, scenic drives, ranger programs

Cost: The park itself is free, but a cave tour will cost a small fee. Fees vary based on the type of tour you choose.

Also in the Area: Check out the Mammoth Site, a museum and active paleontological excavation site.

Where to Stay: Hot Springs Baymont Inn, River Falls Lodging, USA Stay Hotel

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The sun setting behind Mount Rushmore, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

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Going on a Black Hills road trip and not visiting Mount Rushmore would be like visiting the Vatican but not going inside the Sistine Chapel. True, the mountain probably would’ve looked cooler if they had just left it untouched. Still, it’s an incredible feat to carve such accurate sculptures into the granite rock (one of the hardest).

Things to Do: There are a few trails at the memorial so you can see the carvings from different angles. Don’t forget to try some of the ice creams – they say it’s Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe.

Where to Stay: Battle Creek Lodge, Keystone Baymont Inn

Day 3: Jewel Cave, Crazy Horse, and Devils Tower

Where to Stay: Custer is the best base for these attractions. I’d recommend staying at the Holiday Inn, Rock Crest Cabins, Best Western, or Days Inn.

Jewel Cave National Monument

A cluster of nailhead spar, a calcite crystal, in Jewel Cave, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

NPS Photo

Jewel Cave is a truly special place and a hidden gem in the National Park system. It’s the third-longest cave in the world at 200+ miles, and it’s still being explored. In fact, it’s estimated that they have only discovered 3% of the cave system. Who knows, maybe it’s connected to Wind Cave?

Pro Tip: Get there early to book your cave tour! Tickets sell out quickly. You can also try and reserve the Scenic Tour in advance; there are a limited number of tickets available online.

Cost: The park itself is free, but a cave tour will cost a small fee. Fees vary based on the type of tour you choose.

Things to Do: Cave tours, hiking trails, ranger programs

Crazy Horse

A close-up of the face of Crazy Horse, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

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If you hadn’t already had enough of mountain carvings after visiting Mount Rushmore, check out Crazy Horse.

Still unfinished, this monument pays tribute to a Native American called Tasunke Witco, a well-known Lakota warrior. Upon completion, this will be the largest mountain carving in the world. You can watch its slow progress with occasional building events.

Alternatively, visit in Spring or Fall and take part in the Volksmarch, an event allowing visitors to hike up to the monument’s face. Events will be held on June 6, June 7, and September 29 in 2020.

Black Hills Road Trip in 4 Days

With four days, your road trip can take you beyond the Black Hills and into the Badlands.

Badlands National Park

A view of rocky Badlands in Badlands National Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

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A paved road winding through Badlands National Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip   A hiker poses next to an overlook at Badlands National Park, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

I once did a road trip from Delaware to South Dakota, and I stopped here in the middle of the night to camp. It was pitch black and I couldn’t see anything. For all I knew, I was still surrounded by the seemingly never-ending golden plains of South Dakota. I managed to find my reserved campsite and settled in for the night. When I woke up, I was treated to one of the most surprising views of oddly shaped rocks surrounding me on all sides. Badlands National Park is truly unlike any other. If you have enough time, plan your own road trip in Badlands National Park.

Things to Do: Hiking trails, scenic drives, wildlife viewing, fossil prep lab, camping, backcountry camping

Popular Hikes: The Notch, The Door, The Window, Fossil Exhibit, Castle; read more about hiking in Badlands National Park

Cost: There is a $25 fee to enter the park (which admits the entire vehicle). America the Beautiful passes are accepted here.

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Looking down the barrel of a missile silo at Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, , a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

NPS Photo

Located right across the street from one of the entrances to Badlands National Park is the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site. This hidden gem has a brand new visitor center and fascinating tours of the Delta-01 Launch Facility. This location played a crucial role in the Cold War. The most incredible parts for me were learning about the conditions these workers lived in while realizing that facilities like this still exist today.

Things to Do: Delta-01 Launch Facility tour, see the state-of-the-art visitor center, see the missile silo at Delta-09

Cost: The park itself is free; tours cost $12 for adults and $8 for children.

Add These to Your 5-Day Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary

While you likely can’t visit each of these locations in one day, pick and choose to create the final day of your itinerary. Or, if you’re lucky enough to have even more time, spend those extra days visiting these special spots.

Devils Tower National Monument

Devils Tower stands alone above green grass and a pine forest. It is a must-stop on any Black Hills road trip.

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A hiker sits on a rock below Devils Tower, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip   A group of prairie dogs below Devils Tower in Wyoming, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

Devils Tower, or Bears Lodge, is my favorite place in Wyoming. Many people are surprised by this since Wyoming is also home to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. But it’s true – I’ve been to Devils Tower more times than I can count and it blows my mind each time. The mystery surrounding how it was formed, the scenery surrounding it, the Native stories, the wildlife… I love it all.

Things to Do: Camping, hiking trails, wildlife viewing

Cost: There is a $25 fee to enter the park (which admits the entire vehicle for up to 7 days). America the Beautiful passes are accepted here.

Deadwood

Downtown Deadwood, South Dakota, a historic western town, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

Pixabay Photo

Do you like gambling? Old western films? Western legends like Wild Bill Hitchcock and Calamity Jane? If so, Deadwood, South Dakota is the place for you. In this small town, you can find some cool history, lots of casinos, and plenty of beer. If none of those appeals to you, try out one of their spas or visit the Black Hills National Forest.

Spearfish Canyon

A paved road winding through Spearfish Canyon, a must-see on a Black Hills road trip

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One of the most scenic drives on any Black Hills road trip is Spearfish Canyon, part of the Black Hills National Forest. The area is beautiful if you’re only looking for a scenic drive, but also has numerous hikes and swimming holes to offer each visitor.

In the winter, ice skating and ice climbing are also popular. If you’re driving between the southern and northern hills on your Black Hills road trip, take this scenic byway. I promise you won’t regret it!

Geographic Center of the United States

monument Geographic center of entire united states nation in US Belle Fourche South Dakota SD

While the center of the 48 contiguous United States is in Kansas, in Belle Fourche you can find the geographic center of all 50 states. If you have the time, it’s worth a stop simply for a quick photo and maybe some bragging rights. It is a bit off the beaten path of the typical Black Hills road trip, so I wouldn’t make a special trip here in place of others on this list. After all, it’s just a photo opportunity in the grand scheme of things.

Rapid City

Rapid City, South Dakota

Since you’re likely using Rapid City as the gateway for your Black Hills road trip, why not take some time to explore it? Some highlights include the City of Presidents Walk downtown. Here, you’ll find a statue of each president on every corner.

On your way west to the Black Hills, you could stop by Fort Hays, Reptile Gardens, or Bear Country USA for a cheesy but fun time.

Pin the Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary

By combining these popular South Dakota attractions and parks, you'll create the perfect Black Hills road trip itinerary. Includes options for 3, 4, or 5 days. | Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary | #nationalparks #blackhills #southdakota By combining these popular South Dakota attractions and parks, you'll create the perfect Black Hills road trip itinerary. Includes options for 3, 4, or 5 days. | Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary | #nationalparks #blackhills #southdakota By combining these popular South Dakota attractions and parks, you'll create the perfect Black Hills road trip itinerary. Includes options for 3, 4, or 5 days. | Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary | #nationalparks #blackhills #southdakota By combining these popular South Dakota attractions and parks, you'll create the perfect Black Hills road trip itinerary. Includes options for 3, 4, or 5 days. | Black Hills Road Trip Itinerary | #nationalparks #blackhills #southdakota

National Parks by State: Checklist for All 419 • Riley's Roves

Friday 13th of December 2019

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