From the endless rolling grasslands of the High Plains of western South Dakota rise two iconic landforms: the Badlands and Black Hills.
To be fair, the Black Hills extend into northeastern Wyoming, with the singular Devils Tower looming just beyond. But the bulk of the action is in South Dakota, within 90 minutes’ drive of Rapid City. Whether you’re embarking on a long-distance road trip across the U.S. or traveling full-time in an RV, it’s worth going out of your way to pass through this beautiful part of the United States.
My wife and I spent a few days in the Badlands and Black Hills this past summer. We had a great time, and thanks to the helpful folks at the Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Association, I learned more than enough to put together this comprehensive guide for visitors following in our footsteps. It breaks the vast Badlands and Black Hills region into four distinct subregions:
- Badlands National Park and its environs
- Black Hills National Forest
- Rapid City and surrounding communities
- Other areas of western South Dakota, northeastern Wyoming, and northwestern Nebraska
Here’s what you need to know before you visit the Badlands and Black Hills.
What to Do in Badlands National Park & Surrounding Areas
The Badlands run for nearly 100 miles on a southwest-northeast axis. The closest entrance to Badlands National Park, which houses the most dramatic formations, is just east of the small settlement of Scenic, about 50 miles southeast of Rapid City.
The park has three units. The most popular is the North Unit, home to scenic Badlands Loop Road and Ben Reifel Visitor Center, which is the best place to get oriented before an extended visit.
The South Unit is co-managed with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and incorporates a patchwork of private landholdings on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It’s much more isolated than the North Unit and not well served by improved roads. The National Park service encourages anyone planning to hike extensively on South Unit lands to check in at the White River Visitor Center.
The Palmer Creek Unit is the smallest and most isolated of the three. It’s accessible only by hiking trail and dirt track; the out-and-back hike from the White River Visitor Center takes at least two days. If you want to visit, you need to check in at White River Visitor Center for a list of landowners whose properties you’ll likely traverse on the walk in.
Badlands National Park’s entry fee is $20 per passenger vehicle and $10 per walk- or bike-in. The fee gets you a seven-day pass with unlimited entry and exit privileges to any unit.
For more on Badlands National Park’s rules and regulations, plus general background information about the region’s geology and wildlife, check out the National Park Service’s excellent guide to the park.
1. Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway
South Dakota Highway 240, better known as Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway, is by far the most popular drive in Badlands National Park. Even if you don’t plan to get out of the car but to snap some photos while you’re here, it’s worth devoting at least an hour to a leisurely drive along its full length – 31 miles in the park, and about 38 miles between its two junctions with Interstate 90.
Notable overlooks along the byway include:
- Big Badlands Overlook: The loop’s easternmost overlook is one of its most dramatic. An irregular, flat-topped projection with rounded edges drops steeply into the abyss just south of the parking area. Watch your step away from marked trails; some formations are unstable or hollow.
- White River Valley Overlook: About nine miles west of Big Badlands Overlook, this overlook offers excellent south- and west-facing views across a sweeping plain broken by low formations and the occasional seasonal stream.
- Conata Basin and Yellow Mounds Overlook: Close to the Badlands Loop’s western exit from the park, these two remarkable overlooks reveal a vast, rock-studded prairie basin. Closer to the fore are undulating yellow formations that look like they’ve been stained with a great dusting of saffron.
- Pinnacles Overlook: This jagged landscape is the last notable rock formation you’ll see before the Loop’s west exit. It may be the most stunning of the bunch.
2. Badlands Wall
The Badlands Wall is an imposing escarpment rising up to 1,000 feet above the prairie. Think of it as the Badlands’ principal “mountain” range. It’s not the only area of high relief in the Badlands, but it does contain some of the highest pinnacles and ridges in the entire region, and it’s the spine from which many subordinate features branch. The Wall stretches for nearly 60 miles, mostly within the national park’s boundaries.
Though much of its extent is difficult to access by vehicle or foot, Badlands Loop Scenic Byway and some of the trails described below afford excellent views of the surrounding landscape and up-close looks at the Badlands’ intricate rock and clay substrates.
3. Door, Notch, and Window
The Door, Notch, and Window Trails all lie just southwest of Big Badlands Overlook, right off Badlands Loop. Each passes or leads to spectacular elevated vantage points from which large swathes of the Badlands’ lower reaches are visible – their names refer to the shape of openings in the Badlands Wall. All told, you’re looking at less than two miles of level hiking here, and the views are well worth the time. Just remember your camera!
4. Fossil Exhibit Trail
Located just north of Norbeck Pass on Badlands Loop, Fossil Exhibit Trail is a short, fully accessible boardwalk that guides visitors past hundreds of millions of years of Earth’s geological and paleontological history. While you won’t see any fully intact dinosaur skeletons here, there are plenty of interesting, long-extinct marine and terrestrial creatures to keep you busy. Check out the interactive panorama on Badlands National Park’s hiking page for a sneak peek (1MB download).
5. Castle Trail
Castle Trail is the longest, though not the most strenuous, of the north unit’s trails. It connects the Door and Window trailheads with the Fossil Exhibit Trailhead: a 10-mile out-and-back walk over moderately rugged terrain. If you’re up for a four-to-five-hour event, by all means do the whole thing: It’s an outstanding backdoor look at the full spectrum of habitat types and formations here, from mixed-grass prairie and seasonal streams flanked by cottonwood shrubs to stark, moon-like rock shelves.
6. Medicine Root Loop
Medicine Root winds through landscapes similar to Castle Trail’s, but it’s shorter and completes its own loop. At four miles from start to finish, it shouldn’t take you more than three hours in good conditions.
7. Highway 44
South Dakota Highway 44 runs clear across the state, from Silver City in the heart of the Black Hills to Interstate 29 near the Iowa border. The stretch that concerns us connects the tiny settlements of Scenic and Interior, running roughly east-west through the Badlands Wall and then through Buffalo Gap National Grassland just outside Badlands National Park’s boundaries.
This portion of Highway 44 is a more scenic (no pun intended) way to get from the eastern end of the park’s North Unit to Rapid City. The drive between Interior and Scenic is a quick 30 minutes, not including stops for pictures (which you’ll want to make). From there, it’s another 50 minutes or so across the prairie to Rapid City.
8. Sheep Mountain Road
Sheep Mountain Road is an isolated dirt road accessible from Bombing Range Road, a few miles south of Scenic. It terminates at a near-panoramic viewpoint stretching for dozens of miles across the basin-and-range landscape of the southern Badlands. The terminus is never crowded; it’s entirely possible you’ll travel the whole length of the road without seeing another car. Leave at least 30 minutes for the out-and-back drive from Bombing Range Road, including photo sessions.
9. Palmer Creek Unit
As noted above, the Palmer Creek Unit is the smallest and most remote of Badlands National Parks’ three units. It’s an ideal destination for a long-distance hike – just remember to lay the groundwork well ahead of time by contacting landowners whose properties you may traverse. You’ll also need to pack a great deal of water, as surface water is extremely limited along the most common routes in and out.
10. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
- Adult admission: Free to explore the visitor center and silo; $6 to tour the launch facility
- Hours: Visitor center open daily, 8am to 4pm; Delta-09 silo open daily, 9am to 3pm
Minuteman Missile National Historic Site is located a few miles north of the northeast entrance to Badlands National Park’s north unit, within sight of Interstate 90.
The main attraction here is a vintage silo complete with a (hopefully) decommissioned Delta-09 nuclear missile. A relic of the Cold War, when similar facilities dotted the northern Great Plains, it’s a sobering reminder of the awesome destructive potential of humanity’s most powerful weapons. Call at least a few days ahead to reserve your $6-per-adult tour of the Delta-01 launch facility nearby.
If it hasn’t already been made clear, western South Dakota is a sparsely populated place. Between Rapid City and the Missouri River, nearly 200 road miles to the east, there are just a handful of settlements that one can accurately describe as “towns.” Most lie on or just off Interstate 90, the only controlled-access highway between Rapid City and Sioux Falls.
Kadoka, population 650 (give or take), almost fits the bill. We stayed here one night and had a great, low-key time. The free tasting and tour at Badlands Distillery was the highlight, with generous pours and an impressive variety of liquors and liqueurs down to 50 or 60 proof. If you like it enough to buy a bottle, they go for $25 to $30 at the front counter. Hours are limited, so call ahead for availability.
The town of Wall, about 40 miles northwest of Kadoka on I-90, is a little bigger and much livelier. The main attraction here is Wall Drug, a 76,000-square-foot retail palace that words can’t really do justice. Imagine a giant museum gift shop in a dated indoor shopping mall superimposed on an Old West town, with a bunch of weird stuff happening off in the corners.
That’s Wall Drug. It’s free to enter and explore, there’s a self-serve bar with five-cent cups of coffee, the food court is surprisingly inexpensive for such a popular destination, and there are more locally (and not locally) produced crafts and trinkets on sale than you can shake a stick at. For what it’s worth, my wife and I managed to escape without buying anything.
What to Do in Rapid City, South Dakota
Rapid City has a population of about 67,000. Believe it or not, that’s enough to make it the second largest city in South Dakota, second only to Sioux Falls.
Though Rapid City is by no means a cosmopolitan hotspot, it’s an oasis of sorts simply by virtue of its geographical isolation and strategic position at the foot of the Black Hills. Rapid City definitely has more to offer than most comparably sized cities not established as year-round vacation towns or anchored by major higher education institutions.
Since Rapid City is more or less in the geographical center of the Badlands/Black Hills region, and host to the only commercial airport for miles around, it’s an ideal home base for your trip here. Even if you don’t stay for the duration, Rapid City is worth at least a day of your time – ideally, with an overnight stay thrown in. The biggest regret of our visit to the Hills was our hurried stay here; due to time constraints, we had to breeze in and out of the city in an afternoon.
Here’s a rundown of Rapid City’s top attractions and points of interest. Let’s hope you have more time to explore than we did.
13. Chapel in the Hills
- Adult admission: Free; donations encouraged
- Hours: Daily, 8am to 8pm, May 1 through September 30; closed October 1 to April 30
Chapel in the Hills is an unexpected little oddity at the base of the Black Hills, not far from central Rapid City. Architecturally, it’s an odd mix of Eastern Orthodox, Far Eastern, and Gothic styles – which is even weirder when you learn it’s an exact replica of a famous Norwegian chapel. Take a few minutes to contemplate the infinite in the quiet sanctuary, then stroll the grounds and head on your way.
14. Fort Hays Old West Town & Dinner Show
- Adult admission: Free to enter and explore the film set; $29 for a chuckwagon dinner show
- Hours: Daily, 7:30am to 7:30pm, mid-May through mid-October; dinner shows start at 6:15pm
Fort Hays is probably best known as the main photography location for “Dances With Wolves,” Kevin Costner’s 1990 opus. True to its name, it’s also a kitschy Old West town with an all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast for just $0.99 per person This is a great place to take younger kids, and if you can avoid the $29-per-adult chuckwagon dinner show ($14.50 for kids under 14), you’ll leave with your wallet intact.
15. Museum of Geology
- Adult admission: Free; donations welcomed
- Hours: Monday to Saturday, 9am to 7pm (Memorial Day to Labor Day); Monday to Saturday, 9am to 4pm (Labor Day to Memorial Day)
The Museum of Geology at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology is a rare bird: a totally free science museum devoted to the study of rocks and ancient life. Though exhibits skew on the kid-friendly side, the information level is high enough for all but the most knowledgeable adults. Highlights include chronologically organized fossil dioramas with samples from the White River Badlands, mounted fossil skeletons (including some dinosaurs), and a fluorescent mineral room that’s apparently a hit with younger kids.
16. South Dakota Air and Space Museum
- Adult admission: Free to enter the museum; $9 for a bus tour of the base and airpark
- Hours: Daily, 8:30am to 6pm, June 1st through Labor Day; daily, 8:30am to 4:30pm, Labor Day through June 1st (closed from January 1 through March 1)
Located at Ellsworth Air Force Base, a few miles northeast of Rapid City, South Dakota Air and Space Museum is another family-friendly destination that’s a must-visit for anyone interested in aviation history and hardware.
The free museum gives a nice overview of aviation and military history, but the real attraction is the $9 bus tour of the base and airpark. This is the only place in the U.S. that allows you to go inside a decommissioned missile silo. If that sounds appealing, it’s definitely worth the price of admission.
17. The Journey Museum & Learning Center
- Adult admission: $10
- Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10am to 5pm and Sunday, 1pm to 5pm (October 1 through April 30); Monday through Saturday, 9am to 6pm and Sunday, 11am to 5pm (May 1 to September 30)
The Journey Museum & Learning Center is a unique place that blends a comprehensive overview of the geological history of the Black Hills with an unflinching look at the culture and tribulations of the area’s pre-European inhabitants and its early white settlers. The facility has a slew of interactive features for kids, including a dinosaur dig. You’ll need at least half a day to see all five sections: geology, paleontology, archaeology, Native American, and pioneer.
18. Main Street Square
Main Street Square is the outdoor heart of South Dakota’s second-largest city. It occupies a centrally located superblock in downtown Rapid City and is by far the most popular outdoor staging ground for concerts, rallies, and other public events.
It’s definitely worth checking the events calendar no matter when you visit – in winter, part of Main Street Square transforms into an ice-skating rink. The square is technically open daily from 8am to 10pm year-round, though you probably won’t get kicked out if you’re there for good reason after hours during the summer.
19. Dahl Arts Center
- Adult admission: Free (donations welcome)
- Hours: Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm; Saturday, 10am to 5pm
The Dahl Arts Center is the headquarters of the Rapid City Arts Council. By extension, it’s western South Dakota’s fine arts nexus. Take a spin through its five permanent galleries and past the singular Cyclorama Mural of American History. If you have kids in tow, don’t miss the children’s gallery. Check the events calendar ahead of time – the Dahl hosts nearly 1,000 afternoon and evening events per year, many free to attend.
20. Art Alley
Art Alley is an ad hoc outdoor art gallery in downtown Rapid City, between 6th, 7th, Main, and St. Joseph Streets. The alley’s visual landscape changes slowly over time – some murals and installations are more or less permanent, while others come and go.
If you plan well in advance, you might even be able to add your own work to the space. You just need to apply for a permit from the city. The Rapid City Arts Council can help facilitate your application from out of town – look them up as soon as your visit is set in stone.
21. (Rapid) City of Presidents
The City of Presidents is an outdoor sculpture display that memorializes 43 U.S. Presidents. It stretches along Main and St. Joseph Streets between 4th and 9th Streets – the 10-block stroll is the perfect length on warm, sunny days. With no admission fee or operating hours, you can check out the City of Presidents at your leisure as you explore downtown Rapid City on foot. Use the interactive map to plan your route.
What to Do in the Black Hills
The Black Hills are a compact, ovoid range of low mountains just west of Rapid City. Geologically, the Hills (as they’re known locally) are related to the Rocky Mountains, several hundred miles off to the southwest, and they resemble Colorado’s beautiful Front Range foothills if you squint. Biologically, they’re quite a departure from the surrounding grasslands, with densely forested slopes coated in conifers and aspens interspersed with lush alpine meadows and the occasional mountain lake.
The Black Hills region roughly coincides with the extent of the Black Hills National Forest, which extends from Angostura Reservoir south of Hot Springs, to Spearfish and Sturgis in the north, to the Wyoming border in the west. (A small portion of the national forest spills over into Wyoming.) The Hills’ southern and western edges are harder to define than its northern and eastern extremes, but the most rugged, densely forested land is found within the national forest.
The Black Hills served as a homeland for the Cheyenne, then Lakota peoples, before the arrival of U.S. military forces in the mid-19th century. As in other parts of the American West, the resultant clashes were violent, persisted for years, and ended with the U.S. government claiming dominion over the land. Relations between indigenous peoples and the state and federal governments remain tense; a bitter controversy over the renaming of Harney Peak to honor Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux chieftain, roiled South Dakota’s state legislature in 2015 and 2016.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Black Hills were dominated by logging and mining interests. Old West towns like Deadwood and Hot Springs persist as reminders of that boom-and-bust time, but there’s little active resource extraction happening in the Hills these days. Tourism is the name of the game – and it’s easy for you to do your part in this prime fitness vacation destination. Here’s a look at some of the Hills’ top attractions.
22. Mount Rushmore National Memorial
- Adult admission: Free to enter; $10 parking fee per passenger car
- Hours: Parking, daily, 5am to 9pm (no overnight parking); Visitor and information centers, 8am to 5pm
You’ve seen the pictures. Located in the east-central Black Hills near the town of Keystone, Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the region’s single most popular attraction. Some say it’s not as impressive as expected in person, but I say you need to visit to make the call yourself. The free visitor and information centers offer museum-quality looks at the life and times of Gutzon and Lincoln Borglum, the genius sculptors behind Mount Rushmore, and the larger context in which they worked.
Mount Rushmore isn’t the only attraction near Keystone. It anchors a busy tourist enclave rife with family-friendly attractions and diversions. Precisely what you do in the Mount Rushmore area will depend on the age of your kids (if you have any in tow) and your budget. Some ideas:
- Rushmore Aerial Tramway: An adventure park with an aerial gondola, zipline, alpine slide, and other pulse-pounding diversions. A single adult alpine slide ride costs $12. A zipline zoom costs $20; other activities are more expensive.
- Big Thunder Gold Mine: A kid-friendly mine billed as the Black Hills’ “most complete.” A play panning session costs $10.95 per person. Spend $35 for a half-day up on the mine’s actual claim, where you can still find real gold in the watercourses.
- National Presidential Wax Museum: Take a self-guided tour through a wax museum devoted to past U.S. presidents. Admission is $10 per adult; don’t forget an audio wand for more information at each exhibit. Budget at least 30 minutes for a full walk-through.
Some of these attractions are pricey. If you’re looking to get out of the Mount Rushmore area with your budget intact, stick to the memorial itself.
23. Crazy Horse Memorial
- Adult admission: $12 per person ($30 per car carrying three or more)
- Hours: Variable depending on season and day of the week; daily, 9am to 8pm during the summer high season
Crazy Horse Memorial is a successor of sorts to Mount Rushmore. The brainchild of a Borglum protégé memorializing the great chieftain Crazy Horse, this massive rock sculpture – absolutely dwarfing Mount Rushmore in scale – has been taking shape on a mountain east of Custer State Park for decades.
Don’t hold your breath for the finished product anytime soon: The largely self-funded project has sworn off public assistance, and there’s no firm date for completion. Nevertheless, more than one million visitors come each year to see Crazy Horse’s fully envisaged face high above the parking area.
24. Custer State Park
- Adult admission: $20 for a 7-day pass
- Hours: Visitor center, daily, 9am to 4pm; park open 24/7 for campers
Custer State Park is probably the Black Hills’ most popular natural attraction. It covers more than 70,000 acres in the rugged heart of the hills, spanning (along with Black Elk Wilderness) most of the distance between Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.
Custer State Park’s highlights include Sylvan Lake, a beautiful mountain lake more than 6,000 feet above sea level; Wildlife Loop Road, where bison, elk, coyotes, and the occasional mountain lion roam; rich fishing in multiple smaller lakes and streams; and dozens of miles of hiking trails through pristine alpine woods. If possible, time your visit for September, when the annual Buffalo Roundup draws thousands of visitors (and more than 1,300 bison).
25. Black Elk Wilderness
Visitors to Black Elk Wilderness get a glimpse of what the Black Hills was like before the arrival of European pioneers. Spanning more than 13,000 acres, it’s a beautiful mix of forested hills, lush ravines, and rocky outcrops – including Black Elk Peak, the highest point in South Dakota.
Black Elk Wilderness is a sacred place. Other than backcountry camping and horseback riding on select trails, most uses are off-limits. The main attraction here is the out-and-back Black Elk Peak summit hike, which originates from the Sylvan Lake parking area in Custer State Park.
Be warned that the trail up Black Elk Peak isn’t a straight shot. There’s a warm-up ascent, and then a longer descent, before the final 1,300-foot push to the summit. Budget at least four hours for the out-and-back trip: The summit, not surprisingly, has some of the best views in the Black Hills.
26. Wind Cave National Park
- Adult admission: Free to enter and hike in the park; $10 to $30 per adult, per tour, depending on tour type (most are $10 to $12)
- Hours: Visitor center open daily, 8am to 5pm or 6pm, depending on season
Wind Cave National Park is quite literally a hidden gem: a massive cave system, perhaps the world’s largest, sprawling beneath the rolling terrain of the southern Black Hills.
Wind Cave is unique for multiple reasons, including two types of super-intricate rock formations – boxwork and frostwork – found almost nowhere else in the world. Like all caves, it’s cool inside year-round: 54 degrees, January or July.
Entry into the cave is restricted to guided tours, which run roughly from 9am to 5pm most days. Check the hours page for an up-to-date schedule. They’re well worth the cost: Our 90-minute tour was a fascinating, detailed dive into the human history and ancient geology of the cave system.
Wind Cave itself isn’t the only attraction here. The park’s surface is a rolling patchwork of thriving mixed-grass prairies and open pine forests, with a growing bison herd thrown in for good measure. If you have time after your tour, or you just don’t want to test the limits of your claustrophobia, spend an hour or two hiking the park’s 30-plus miles of trails. Elk Mountain is a fun, not-too-strenuous jaunt that leads to great views. Check Wind Cave’s hiking trails page for more details.
27. Jewel Cave National Monument
- Adult admission: $4 to $31, depending on tour (Scenic Tour is $12)
- Hours: Daily, 8:30am to 4:30pm (visitor center); tours generally run daily, 9am to 2:40pm in summer; tours are very limited in winter
Not too far from Wind Cave lies Jewel Cave National Monument, an entirely separate underground gem. The monument protects a subterranean network with at least 191 miles of mapped passageways – good enough to make it the world’s third-longest cave system.
Like Wind Cave, Jewel Cave is accessible by guided tour only. Tours are generally first come, first served, and wait times can stretch for up to four hours during the summer. The wait is worthwhile: True to its name, Jewel Cave is quite literally bedazzled with sparkly calcite crystals and other strange formations. The 80-minute Scenic Tour is the most popular option.
28. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway gives Badlands Loop State Scenic Byway a serious run for pole position on “most scenic drive in South Dakota” lists.
Starting at I-90 in Spearfish, Highway 14A runs about 20 miles through a twisting, 1,000-foot-deep ravine with steep, often sheer sides and several notable side canyons perfect for day hikes or pullouts. It’s an absolute must-see in fall, when the changing aspens light the canyon aflame in brilliant yellows and golds. Don’t miss Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls, the Black Hills’ two most accessible (and spectacular) cascades.
29. Pactola Lake
Pactola Lake is a manmade reservoir in the central Black Hills. As the largest body of water in the region, it’s a popular destination for boaters and anglers during the warm season. The views alone are worth the $6 entry fee.
If you plan to spend serious time out on the water, check in with Pactola Pines for kayak, pontoon, and stand up paddle board rentals. Pricing varies depending on boat type and excursion length – call ahead before you book.
Deadwood is ground zero for South Dakota’s Wild West heritage. It’s probably the best-preserved town in the Black Hills – the entire town has National Historic Landmark status. If you’ve seen the HBO show of the same name, you know about what to expect.
There’s lots to do in and around Deadwood. The periodic Wild West reenactments are well-acted and (mostly) family friendly. A handful of affordable old-timey saloons anchor the nightlife scene, which is second only to Rapid City’s in this part of South Dakota.
Don’t miss local historical and cultural attractions like Tatanka Story of the Bison (a museum celebrating the majesty of the bison; $10 adult admission, open daily in the warm season) and Historic Adams House, the best-preserved 19th century private residence in town ($10 adult admission, open daily in summer and Tuesday through Saturday in October and April).
Nestled in the same mountain valley as Deadwood, Lead (pronounced “LEED”) is almost as colorful. The skyline is dominated by the Homestake Mine, once the Western Hemisphere’s most productive gold mine – and still the deepest, though mining operations ceased for good in 2002. For much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Lead was a classic mining boomtown, and the town is rife with architectural relics left over from the period.
Popular attractions in and around Lead include:
- Black Hills Mining Museum: A museum dedicated to the history and technology of gold mining in the Black Hills. Museum admission is $5; the underground mine exhibit tour (one hour) is another $5.
- Historic Homestake Opera House: Probably the most famous opera house in South Dakota, this well-preserved venue harkens back to Lead’s good old days as a cultural garden spot.
- Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center: This free facility features exhibits on modern and historic mining, tours of the 1,000-foot-deep Open Cut, and guided tours winding through Lead’s downtown and the underground research facility that now occupies part of the Homestake Mine.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is obviously the main attraction in Sturgis, an I-90 town about halfway between Rapid City and Spearfish on the edge of the Black Hills. If you ride, Rally is an essential bucket list item – just be prepared to share the road with some 700,000 other bikes.
If you’re not a biker, Sturgis is still worth a stop. You don’t need to know anything about motorcycles to enjoy a quick stop at the make-agnostic, nonprofit Sturgis Motorcycle Museum & Hall of Fame. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
Spearfish is the last sizable town heading west on I-90 out of South Dakota. As the region’s northern gateway, it’s a popular place for recent arrivals to get situated before venturing any further into the Black Hills.
Unlike many Black Hills towns, Spearfish can plausibly claim to be a four-season destination. Check Spearfish Visitor Center’s things to do page for budget- and family-friendly ideas for year-round fun. Highlights include the High Plains Western Heritage Center, a year-round museum that celebrates the region’s human history and runs frequent live events (museum admission is $10; musical performances generally run $10 to $15 per person).
If you’re into fishing, don’t miss D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery, a free attraction showcasing one of the oldest operating fish hatcheries in the country. This place singlehandedly gave birth to the Black Hills’ vibrant fishing culture.
At around 5,300 feet above sea level, Custer is the highest major town in the Black Hills. Its popularity derives at least in part from its central location: It’s within 30 minutes’ drive of Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Wind Cave National Park.
35. Hot Springs
About 2,000 feet lower than Custer, Hot Springs is the Black Hills’ southernmost town of any significance. With a picturesque, cliff-flanked creek running right through town and gorgeous sandstone architecture in the tidy central business district, it’s worth going out of your way to drive through even if you don’t plan to stick around.
If you do have a few hours, check out the two major attractions in town: Evans Plunge Mineral Springs (a warm spring-fed indoor swimming pool and waterpark best suited for kids; admission is $10 to $14, depending on age) and Mammoth Site of Hot Springs (admission, including a video and dig site tour, is about $11).
Personally, I think Mammoth Site is the more interesting of the two. It’s an active dig harboring the world’s largest known collection of mammoth remains, created when at least 60 mammoths met a violent, sudden end in an Ice Age sinkhole.
What to Do Elsewhere in Western South Dakota, Eastern Wyoming & Northern Nebraska
There’s a surprising amount to do and see outside the commonly defined extent of the Badlands and Black Hills. These protected areas and points of interest are among the highlights.
36. Devils Tower National Monument
- Adult admission: $20 for a 7-day vehicle pass
- Hours: Daily, 9am to 4pm (overnight camping permitted in designated areas)
If you’ve seen the classic 1977 film “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” you’ve seen Devils Tower. It’s the centerpiece of Devils Tower National Monument, about 60 miles west of Spearfish amid the rugged uplands of northeastern Wyoming.
The tower, known more frequently these days by its indigenous name, Bear Lodge Butte, is a sheer monolith protruding nearly 900 feet above the surrounding landscape and some 1,267 feet from the bottomlands around the nearby Belle Fourche River. It’s a popular rock climbing destination: The National Park Service refers to it as “one of the finest crack climbing areas in North America.” It’s also sacred to local indigenous peoples, so be respectful if you do choose to scale it.
Don’t leave the monument without checking out the Circle of Sacred Smoke sculpture, near the picnic area. Popular hikes include the Tower Trail, a paved stretch a little longer than one mile, and the South Side and Valley View Trails, a popular loop route that passes through a prairie dog town.
37. Bear Butte State Park
- Adult admission: $6 for a 7-day vehicle pass
- Hours: Daily, sunrise to sunset
Located on the prairie north of Sturgis, Bear Butte State Park isn’t too far from the Black Hills proper, but it’s often overlooked by travelers rushing between Old West towns and gigantic rock carvings. Though the namesake butte isn’t particularly tall or dramatic, it rises sharply from the relatively flat prairie with arresting effect. This is another sacred site, so act accordingly.
38. Thunder Basin National Grassland
Thunder Basin National Grassland and Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest, its higher-elevation counterpart, cover a vast swathe of northern Colorado and eastern Wyoming – from south of Steamboat Springs north almost to the Montana border.
Thunder Basin itself starts a couple dozen miles west of the edge of the Black Hills, not far from Devils Tower. It’s desolate even by High Plains standards – and unforgettable for precisely that reason. Drive west on Wyoming Highway 450 from Newcastle, then south on Wyoming Highway 59 to Bill. If you have any luck at all, you’ll catch a bison herd or two in transit.
39. Oglala National Grasslands
Oglala National Grasslands spreads across the northwestern crook of Nebraska, on the border with Wyoming and South Dakota. It’s 50 miles south of Hot Springs by road, give or take.
The main attraction here is Toadstool Geological Park, basically a miniature version of the South Dakota Badlands. Toadstool is also the best (really, the only legal) place to camp in Oglala National Grasslands. It’s also dirt cheap: $5 per vehicle, per night.
40. Nebraska National Forest and Chadron State Park
Nebraska National Forest is a multi-unit protected area whose widely spread outposts dot the far northern portion of the state. The closest unit to the Black Hills, and arguably the most interesting anyway, is the Nebraska National Forest at Chadron. It’s a hilly, surprisingly heavily forested (by local standards) expanse centered on the Nebraska Pine Ridge, an upland region slashing across northwestern Nebraska.
Within this unit lies Chadron State Park, a popular but not overcrowded waypoint with about 100 miles of hiking trails and an awesome network of mountain-biking routes, plus a public pool operational through the summer. The daily entry fee is $6 per vehicle. Basic campsites with running water and toilet access start at $13 per night, per site. Family-friendly cabins start at $80 per night.
No matter where your travels take you in this wide-open part of the world, you’ll want to check back here for guidance on when to visit, what to bring, how to get around, and where to stay.
When to Visit
No word better describes the climate of the High Plains of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming than “changeable.” In a region characterized by wide temperature swings from one day to the next (and, indeed, from night to day) and sudden changes in wind and precipitation patterns, it’s best to be prepared for anything.
Prevailing weather patterns in the Badlands and Black Hills vary dramatically by season and altitude. As a rule, temperatures are lower and precipitation higher in the Black Hills than in the Badlands and the intervening grasslands. Summer thunderstorms, which can be life-threatening for hikers in exposed areas, are more frequent at elevation too.
Throughout the region, winters are relatively dry but highly changeable. A typical midwinter week might see highs in the 50s on Monday, whiteout conditions with gale-force winds on Tuesday or Wednesday, and lows south of minus 20 by Thursday or Friday.
Spring and fall are short and even less predictable. Most years see some snow as late as mid-May and as early as mid-October, even at lower elevations. June is the wettest month, with most rain falling in brief but violent thunderstorms. Summer highs routinely exceed 90 degrees in the Badlands and sometimes top 100 degrees, though truly muggy days are rare. It’s usually 10 to 20 degrees cooler in the Black Hills, depending on altitude.
Weather-wise, the best time to visit the Badlands and Black Hills is summer. Though the Black Hills aren’t exactly renowned for fall color, foliage season peaks there in late September or early October. If you’re interested in snow sports, come December through March – just do your research ahead of time, as many tourist-centered vendors close during the cold season.
If you can avoid a major snow event and aren’t planning to visit any seasonal attractions, winter is actually a fine time to visit the Badlands and the outer reaches of the Black Hills. Snow cover rarely persists at the region’s lower elevations for more than a few days after storms.
Crowds and Special Events
Summer is definitely the high season here. The region’s relative isolation and vast extent keep crowds under control outside concentrated, well-defined tourist areas like Wall and Keystone.
Still, if you plan to stay in a resort or better-than-average hotel or motel at any point during the high season, you’ll want to plan and book several months ahead to guarantee your spot. Camping is easier to come by at the last minute, as are accommodations on the region’s fringes: We booked a motel in Kadoka a week before we arrived with no trouble, and we arrived to find it about half-full the Thursday before Labor Day – hardly an occupancy emergency.
The glaring exception to the foregoing is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, when some 500,000 revelers descend on the northern Black Hills. The region’s infrastructure groans under the weight of the influx, with hotels and campgrounds at or near capacity as far away as Rapid City and Custer, and the remaining capacity sold at eye-watering premiums. Unless you’re visiting specifically for Rally or related activities, it’s best to avoid the first half of August altogether.
What to Bring
While this isn’t a comprehensive packing list by any means, you’ll want to have these items on hand for your visit.
- Hat and Sunblock. Sunshine is common year-round in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming. It’s especially strong during the summer, when sunburn-prone visitors would be remiss not to bring basic sun protection: wide-brimmed hat or baseball cap, sunscreen, sunglasses, and anything else. If you’re arriving by air, take travel-sized sunblock containers.
- Hydration Gear. The Badlands and Black Hills region has a semi-arid climate. When dewpoints are low, an especially common phenomenon during the cold months, dehydration can occur more rapidly than you realize. Altitude exacerbates the issue – Black Hills hikers, take note. If you plan to spend long stretches away from running water, I recommend a Camelbak hydration pack. Otherwise, bring an oversized water bottle that can easily fit into your backpack.
- Rain Gear. Rain gear is essential during the warm months, when thunderstorms can crop up with little warning. During our visit, we ran into some light rain in the Badlands – not enough to ruin our day, but definitely worth bringing out the poncho for.
- Trail-Ready Footwear. The rocky, unstable soils of the Badlands and Black Hills call for hiking boots or sturdy-soled shoes. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable hiking Black Elk Peak without my boots, that’s for sure.
- Seasonally Appropriate Outerwear. During the warm months, you’ll want comfortable, breathable clothing: shorts, T-shirts, summer dresses, light pants. If you’re hiking, comfortable socks and practical outfits are essential; if biking, athletic wear is necessary. Expect chilly summer mornings and evenings in the Black Hills – a light sweater, windbreaker, cardigan, or fleece should do the trick. During the shoulder seasons, you’ll want heavier but sheddable outerlayers for frosty mornings. In winter, standard cold-weather regalia is necessary: heavy jacket or coat, hat, gloves, neck warmers, insulating socks, and anything else you need to be comfortable in (potentially) subzero weather.
- Comfortable Backpack. A comfortable, ample backpack is your best friend in the Badlands and Black Hills. Don’t go on a hike of any length without one – at minimum, you’ll want to have a pack handy to store shedded outerlayers, extra water, and sun protection.
Getting There and Getting Around
Here’s what you need to know to plan your trip to and through the Badlands and Black Hills.
Arriving in the Badlands & Black Hills Region
Many visitors arrive in the Badlands and Black Hills by road. Interstate 90, which runs all the way from Boston to Seattle, cuts through the region from southeast to northwest, with various two-lane highways serving the region on a north-south axis. Rapid City is about six hours by car from Denver, to the south-southwest, and about eight hours by car from Minneapolis-St. Paul, to the west-northwest.
Needless to say, this part of the world is a great pit stop on a longer cross-country road trip, or as part of a regional tour of the eastern Rockies and High Plains.
If you don’t have the time or inclination to drive for many hours or days before your vacation officially begins, fly into Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP), the region’s sole commercial air travel hub.
RAP has regular direct service to Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Dallas, and Phoenix, which in turn have direct service to pretty much every other major North American city. The airport’s small size and thin schedule challenge frugal flyers: The 90-minute journey from Minneapolis costs nearly $300 round-trip on average with Delta, while the even shorter hop from Denver commands a $400 price tag with United. The best regular deal I could find was a $150 round-trip from Phoenix on Allegiant Air, an ultra-low-budget carrier rife with hidden charges.
Getting Around the Badlands & Black Hills
The Badlands and Black Hills region is vast and sparsely populated. Outside Rapid City, which itself is no metropolis, the region has no public transportation infrastructure to speak of.
The best way to get around the area is to drive yourself, either in your own car or a rental from the Rapid City airport. With your own vehicle, you’ll have maximum freedom to explore the Badlands and Black Hills at your own pace, and to reach out-of-the-way spots that tours and public transit routes (such as they are) don’t serve.
The only other feasible option is to hire a tour company for part or all of your trip. Several tour providers operate in the region, most out of Rapid City or towns in the heart of the Black Hills.
They’re generally small operations, with customizable services and (potentially) negotiable pricing. Black Hills Adventure Tours is representative: They specialize in sightseeing and adventure tours (hiking, biking, stand up paddle boarding), but seem pretty flexible and say up front that they’re happy to make “unscheduled pit stops.” Just know that guided tours are always more expensive than car rentals: Black Hills Above and Beyond Tours charges $95 per adult for its standard all-day tour, compared with $30 or less per day for a compact rental.
Where to Stay
This is a vast region: nearly 200 road miles separate the eastern edge of the Badlands from Devils Tower, in the west. Unless you only have a day or two to breeze through, you’ll probably stay in multiple locations for optimal access to widely spaced attractions.
You’ll certainly have plenty of choice. Here’s a rundown of the most common settlements and areas to stay in the Badlands and Black Hills, with commentary on the type and quality of lodgings available in each.
- Rapid City. As the largest city and de facto capital of the region, Rapid City has the greatest breadth and selection by far. I found off-season rates at two-star hotels and motels as low as $30 per night here – a serious bargain. If keeping costs down is your top priority, you’re not interested in camping, and you don’t mind driving to reach regional attractions, Rapid City is the place to be. Most hotels and motels are found along I-90 on the city’s northern fringes, in downtown Rapid City (where prices are a bit higher), and along U.S. Highway 16 heading southwest into the Hills.
- Deadwood and Lead. These northern Black Hills towns are thick with affordable hotels and motels. I found low-season two- and three-star properties for less than $50 per night. When demand is high, especially around the Sturgis Rally, expect prevailing rates north of $100 per night. Short-term rental cabins are popular in the surrounding hills. Check Airbnb and VRBO for details. Expect to pay at least $150 per night for a six- to eight-sleeper during the shoulder seasons and double that in summer. Private campgrounds, such as Whistler Gulch, abound here as well. Expect to pay at least $25 per night for tent sites, depending on amenities.
- Spearfish. Nearby Spearfish stretches for several miles along I-90. With the impressive two- and three-star motel selection you’d expect of a moderately sized highway town, it’s an ideal stopover for road trippers heading west into Wyoming. Pricing is comparable to Deadwood and Lead, but there are fewer independently owned resorts, campgrounds, and vacation rentals nearby.
- Sturgis. Sturgis is the region’s most seasonal town. Unless you’re visiting specifically for Rally, steer well clear of Sturgis and its environs during early August. If you’re lucky enough to get a hotel or even campsite in town, you’ll pay several times the going rate elsewhere. Plus, there’s less selection to begin with here: only a few two- and three-star motels, with low-season pricing comparable to Spearfish, Deadwood, and Lead.
- Hill City. Hill City is a popular jumping-off point for visits to Mount Rushmore National Monument and surrounding attractions. Despite its name, it’s pretty small, with only a handful of name-brand properties and a few independently owned operations. The cheapest low-season rate I could find was $75 per night at the Super 8 – the Best Western ran about $100 per night, and family-owned resorts were more expensive still. Expect to pay 25% to 50% more in summer.
- Custer. Custer is optimally positioned between Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, and Wind Cave National Park. Its ample lodging supply reflects its prime location. I found rooms for $50 or less per night during the off-season at two-star motels here. Nearby Custer State Park has about a dozen campgrounds with a mix of site types and amenities. Regular tent sites start at $21 per night, but pricing may vary depending on amenities and season.
- Keystone. Keystone is the center of the action for Mount Rushmore visitors. The town itself has only a few hotels and motels, and they’re not cheap: I couldn’t find any low-season rooms at name-brand motels for less than $90 per night. The surrounding hills are dotted with campgrounds and resorts. Holy Smoke Resort, a seasonal property open May through September, is representative, with cabins starting at $90 per night.
- Hot Springs. At the southern edge of the Black Hills, Hot Springs definitely feels out of the way. But it’s a good base for excursions into Wind Cave National Park and a sensible last-day stop for travelers heading south or west out of the Hills. (We stayed at the comfortable Hot Springs Hills Inn our last night in the area – if you happen to bunk down there, say hi to Wally and the family for me!) Expect to pay $50 to $60 per night for a two-star motel here, perhaps more in summer. A couple upscale relic hotels persist from Hot Springs’ boom years. Red Rock River Resort is one; expect to pay $100 to $150 per night for rooms there, depending on the season.
- Wall. Wall has about a dozen name-brand and independently owned hotels and motels, most on the cheap side. You should be able to find a room for less than $70 or $80 per night here, even in summer.
- Badlands National Park. The most convenient place to stay near the Badlands is in the Badlands. Cedar Pass Lodge, just off Badlands Loop Road in the north unit, is the only modern lodging option inside the park. Double occupancy cabins start at $176 per night – definitely higher than prevailing motel rates in surrounding communities, but potentially worth the cost for visitors looking to spread out and get close to the action. The Cedar Pass Lodge Campground is much more affordable: Tent sites start at $22 per night and RV sites run $37 per night. Sage Creek Rim Campground, a much more isolated property on the fringes of the north unit, is totally free with park entry. It’s first come, first served, and be advised that the unpaved road leading up to it can close without warning after snowstorms and heavy rains.
- East Badlands. The endless rangeland east of the northeast entrance to Badlands National Park is a desolate expanse broken only by the occasional fence line and the even more occasional dirt road. (Along I-90, you’ll see a cell tower every so often.) The 60-mile stretch from the Badlands interchange (exit 131) and the town of Murdo does have some lodging though. Kadoka, at exit 150, has a handful of affordable, brand-name motels ($80 or less per night); exit 170, near Belvidere, has a modern KOA campground with tent sites starting around $30 per night; and the selection in Murdo (exits 191 and 192) echoes Kadoka’s. If you’re driving in from the east, this stretch is a good first-night stopover – we stayed in Kadoka after an all-day drive and woke up ready to tackle the Badlands the following day.
This isn’t a comprehensive look at lodging options in the Badlands and Black Hills. I recommend using it as a starting point for further research using online aggregators like KAYAK and trivago. If you’re leaning toward independently owned hotels and motels, use prices you find on those aggregators as starting points for direct bookings with the properties. Hotel owners and managers are more willing to negotiate pricing than many realize, especially in the low season. The Black Hills subregion in particular has tons of family-owned motels, resorts, and campgrounds.
Lastly, I encourage anyone who travels more than once in a blue moon to apply for a general-purpose travel rewards credit card like the Barclays Arrival Premier ® World Elite Mastercard. Their rewards programs favor virtually all travel purchases, from airfare and extras to hotels and rental cars.
Touring the vast expanses of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming is not for city slickers. Outside the Black Hills, this is an open and unforgiving landscape characterized by long, empty stretches. That’s not a knock. In good weather, driving across the High Plains is a transcendent experience. If you have the time and budget, I highly recommend doing it at least once in your life.
While you’re out there, see if you can’t make it up to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in western North Dakota. Named after the 26th U.S. President, it’s a spectacular landscape of rolling mixed-grass prairie, lush river bottoms, and rugged badlands painted a few shades lighter than their South Dakota counterparts. The South Unit is nearly five hours north of Rapid City by road, and the North Unit is well beyond that, but the whole place is worth tacking a couple extra days onto your trip.
Have you ever been to this beautiful part of the United States? What did you do here and how did you save?