40 Things To Do in the Black Hills Summer Guide

Cathedral Spires in South Dakota

Are you planning a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota? Get travel inspiration with my list of things to do during your summer vacation or road trip.

I grew up in South Dakota and called the Black Hills home. I’m sharing the most popular attractions and outdoor activities, including hiking, camping, swimming, stargazing, sightseeing, touring bucket list national parks, and panning for gold.

Why Are The Black Hills Called ‘The Black Hills’

how-to-hike-black-elk-peak
Pablo and I hiking near the Needles.

First, a little history…

The Black Hills are an “island in the sky,” meaning they are higher than the rest of South Dakota and the surrounding prairie Midwest.

Though they are of higher elevation, resembling the Rocky Mountains in ways, they are not geologically part of the Rocky Mountains. In fact, the Black Hills (just called the Hills by locals) are claimed to be the oldest mountain range in the United States.

The Black Hills got their name from the Lakota Native American Tribe, which referred to them as Paha Sapa. Paha Sapa translates to “hills that are black.” The Black Hills are home to evergreen pine-covered forests, which gives them a dark look from a distance.

The tallest point in the Black Hills is Black Elk Peak, which was renamed in 2015 after the Holy Oglala Lakota Medicine Man, Black Elk.

Black Elk Peak reaches an elevation of 7,242 feet (2,207 meters). It is the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rockies and is sacred to the Tribes in South Dakota.

The Hills are rich with Wild West history and ancient geology. Spending time here is truly special.

Things To Do in the Black Hills

Summer in the Hills is my favorite. The weather is spectacular.

We’ll begin this guide in the Southern Hills (Hot Springs area) and work our way to the Northern Hills (towards Spearfish).

Black Hills South Dakota Map

Below is a map of the Hills to help visually orient you on the places discussed in this guide.

Hot Springs Attractions – The Southern Hills

Boxwork in Wind Cave
Image Credit: Wirepec/Depositphotos.com.

Hot Springs is one of the main towns in the Southern Hills. It is recognized for Evans Plunge, Mammoth Site, and Wind Cave National Park.

Soak in the Evans Plunge Hot Springs Pool

Spend a few hours soaking and relaxing at Evans Plunge, famed for being one of the Black Hills’ oldest attractions.

Visit the Mammoth Site

Mammoth Site is a dig site and museum with fossils of Mammoths from the Late Ice Age. It is an interesting place to visit, especially if you’d like to see ancient Mammoth bones.

Tour Wind Cave National Park

Go for a tour underground and explore Wind Cave.

It is extraordinary that the Black Hills are home to multiple natural wonder karst and cave systems. Both Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are unique and internationally recognized caves worth visiting on your trip.

Keep a Lookout for Buffalo

The older buffalo like to hang out in Wind Cave National Park, where there are rolling hills and prairie land. You cannot visit the Black Hills without seeing buffalo.

Local Tip: If you don’t see buffalo during your visit to Custer State Park, try your luck near Wind Cave.

Custer Area – Home of Custer State Park

Sturdy Bison Stands in Wind Cave National Park
Image Credit: rruntsch/Depositphotos.com.

Custer is a famous small town. It is recognized for its Hollywood-like Custer sign, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Crazy Horse Memorial.

It is also the gateway to Custer State Park, full of fantastic hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing opportunities.

Here’s what to do while visiting the Custer area.

Walk Around the Town of Custer

Custer is my hometown. Stop downtown to grab a local bite to eat and walk this historic Wild West town.

Custer was established in 1875. It is famous for being named after George Armstrong Custer, who discovered gold in French Creek. You can walk the Mickelson trail through town along French Creek.

Artsy buffalo art sculptures line the main street along with local shops and restaurants.

See the Custer Sign

As I was saying, Custer has its own version of the Hollywood sign. It’s a local icon and cool to see lighted up at night.

Explore Custer State Park

Custer State Park is home to a wide variety of mountain wildlife, including deer, turkey, elk, bighorn sheep, white mountain goats, and mountain lions.

The park has feral burros, which used to pack gear for the Black Elk Peak fire lookout long ago.

The most notable thing to do in the park is to see the herds of buffalo roaming. Keep your eyes peeled and cameras ready to see these animals.

Below, you can learn more about each one.

Attend the Buffalo Roundup and Festivities

One of the most unique activities in Custer State Park is the annual buffalo roundup. The event is accompanied by a chili cook-off and an outdoor arts festival in September.

Camp in Custer State Park

In Custer State Park, there are nine campgrounds. Each campground offers different aspects and views.

See a Show at the Black Hills Playhouse

If you like musicals and theater, the Black Hills Playhouse is tucked away near Center Lake in Custer State Park. Visit their website to plan your visit.

Have a Beach Day at Center Lake

things-to-do-in-the-black-hills-center-lake
Pablo and I SUP’ing at Center Lake.

Whether camping or just heading to the beach for a day, check out Center Lake in Custer State Park. It has a beautiful and quiet beach and is my favorite lake.

We spent most of our summer days here growing up.

Hit the Beach at Stockade Lake

Stockade Lake is another nice lake to spend the afternoon at. You can go boating, stand-up paddle boarding, fishing, or kayaking. There is also a campground.

Stockade Lake is right off the highway, easy to see, and accessible by the West Entrance of Custer State Park.

Swim at Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is an iconic place in South Dakota. It is surrounded by large granite rocks and clear mountain water and is the gateway to the Needles Highway.

The Sylvan Lake area provides access to one of the main trailheads for hiking Black Elk Peak and exploring the Black Elk Wilderness Area.

Hike Black Elk Peak

hike-black-elk-peak
Pablo at the Black Elk Peak lookout tower.

Put hiking Black Elk Peak and exploring the Black Elk Wilderness Area on your South Dakota bucket list.

A local favorite, the views and hike to the top will take your breath away, quite literally, too. As I said earlier, Black Elk Peak is the highest point in South Dakota.

Here is more information on how to hike to Black Elk Peak from Sylvan Lake Trail #9 (my personal favorite).

Drive the Needles Highway

Take a stunning scenic drive through the Black Hills along the winding road of the Needles Highway.

Keep your eyes peeled for white mountain goats and the famous granite pinnacles. Be sure to stop at the lookouts along the way.

Hike the Sunday Gulch Trail

While you are in the Sylvan Lake area, hike the Sunday Gulch trail. It is a beautiful hike over streams and an excellent alternative to hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak.

Enjoy Stargazing

Whether you are camping or staying in a hotel, condo, Airbnb, or Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO), be sure to step outside at night and take in the night sky.

Since the Black Hills have a fairly rural population, the night sky will mesmerize you (unless you are in the town lights).

Tour Jewel Cave National Monument

West of Custer is another treasure. Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-largest cave in the world.

Take a tour and be awed. Read more information about exploring Jewel Cave and Wind Cave.

I did a college summer internship with the National Park Service at Jewel Cave. It is truly spectacular.

Visit Crazy Horse Memorial

The first time my husband visited SD with me.

Just north of Custer is Crazy Horse Memorial. The memorial’s mission is to protect and preserve North American Indian culture.

Along with the sculpture of Crazy Horse, there is a campus full of history and culture you can explore.

Hill City Area – Heart of the Black Hills

Hot air balloons over hay bales sunset landscape
Image Credit: Veneratio/Depositphotos.com.

The Hill City area is known as the heart of the Hills because it is roughly in the middle of the Black Hills.

It is relatively close to Mount Rushmore, making it a summer hot spot. A few wineries and breweries are also in the area.

These are the best things to check out while you’re in town.

Visit the Town of Hill City

Bop around the main town strip for local shopping and dining.

Ride the 1880 Train

Open seasonally, take a trip along the Black Hill Central Railroad on the 1880 train. Riding the train is fun for folks of all ages.

Stop by the Wineries and Breweries

Plan a fun afternoon outing and head to Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City for wine tasting. Next door is a brewery. Sit on the patio and enjoy the day and the views.

Wine tasting is one of my favorite things to do in the Black Hills when I visit. I love all the fruit wines.

Keystone Area – Home of Mount Rushmore

Road through Black Hills in South Dakota USA, Iron Mountain Road
Image Credit: Quasarphotos/Depositphotos.com.

Specifically known for being close to Mount Rushmore and as an old gold mining town, the Keystone area should be high on your list of things to do in the Black Hills.

Visit Keystone

As I was saying, Keystone is an old mining town turned resort-tourist town. It is most notably known as the closest town down the mountain from Mount Rushmore. Tucked between the hills and tall evergreens, Keystone has an old-west feel.

Explore the main street, local gift shops, and restaurants. The drive to and from Keystone is incredible. Keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of Mount Rushmore between the trees!

Ride the Alpine Slide or Zipline

Rushmore Tramway Adventures is a tourist attraction in Keystone with a massive alpine slide going through the hills.

While you are there, check out the chairlift or zip line.

Witness Mount Rushmore National Memorial

how-to-visit-mount-rushmore-view-of-heads
Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

Mount Rushmore is more than sculptures on the mountainside. You have to see for yourself.

It gets super busy, too. I recommend visiting earlier in the day to beat the crowds.

Pan for Gold

While you’re in Keystone, book a tour to pan for gold. This is one of the most fun things to do in the Black Hills.

Check out Big Thunder Gold Mine.

Drive Iron Mountain Road and the Pigtail Bridges

Take a scenic drive along Iron Mountain Road. Closer to Keystone and Moun Rushmore is where you’ll find the pigtails. This scenic drive is full of gems, including tunnels, switchbacks, curves, and pigtails.

Tour Rushmore Cave

Rushmore Cave, which is closer to Keystone and Mount Rushmore, is another cave in the Black Hills known for its stalactites.

Privately owned, a one-hour tour through the Pahasapa limestone will show you incredible geologic formations.

Lead-Deadwood Area – Twin Cities of the Black Hills

deadwood-south-dakota
Image Credit: iStock.com/gsagi

Did you know South Dakota has twin cities? Heading further north in the Hills, check out Lead and Deadwood.

Lead is touted as another “mile-high” city (like Denver), and Deadwood is world-renowned for its Wild West charm and gambling scene.

Discover Deadwood

The area is full of Wild West history, and legendary names such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are known to have frequented it.

Spend some time wandering the cobblestone streets or test your luck gambling. In fact, a trip to Deadwood is about as exciting as a trip to Las Vegas.

Walk or Bike the Mickelson Trail

A 109-mile-long historic trail through the Black Hills is a must-see. The path can be accessed from 15 different trailheads. Though it runs through the majority of the Black Hills, we put the Mickelson Trail under the Deadwood area for ease of access.

Here is a map of the George S. Mickelson Trail.

Run the Deadwood Mickelson Marathon & Half-Marathon

If you are a runner or walker, add the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon or half-marathon to your bucket list. Pablo and I ran this a few years ago and had a blast.

The race route goes through some of the most beautiful sections along the Mickelson Trail from Rochford to Deadwood.

Check Out Terry Peak Ski Resort

In case you visit the Black Hills during winter, there is a ski resort.

You can still drive up the mountain and hike around during the summer as well.

Spearfish Area – Northern Black Hills

Surrounded by the Black Hills National Forest, Spearfish Creek is a fly fishing paradise and holds one of the finest populations of wild rainbow trout in the Black Hills.
Image Credit: adifferentbrian/Depositphotos.com.

You can reach Spearfish by going further north from Deadwood or the Rapid City area. Spearfish is known for the beautiful Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.

I would do these things while you’re in the area.

Drive the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

Spearfish Canyon is older than the Grand Canyon. Drive the scenic byway and find incredible hikes.

Spearfish Canyon is also magnificent to drive through during the fall if you’d like to see changing foliage.

Hike to Spearfish Canyon Waterfalls

If you’d like to hike to some waterfalls, there are a few to explore. I recommend Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls.

Sturgis Area – Home of the Biker Rally

sturgis-motorcycle-rally
image credit: iStock.com/jameslee999

Also located on the edge of the Northern Hills, Sturgis is famous for hosting the annual Sturgis Biker Rally.

It is one of the closest towns to Bear Butte and Bear Butte State Park.

Here’s what to do while visiting.

Head to the Sturgis Biker Rally

Beginning the second week in August annually, if you are into motorcycles, people from all over the world gather and attend the Sturgis Biker Rally.

The rally hosts hundreds of thousands of bikers every year, along with headliner music entertainment. If you like to party or are considering getting a tattoo, Sturgis is your place.

Hike Bear Butte Sacred Mountain

For peaceful outdoor adventures, spend an afternoon hiking to the top of Bear Butte. This geologic formation formed millions of years ago in the Black Hills.

Bear Butte is a sacred mountain for many American Indian Tribes.

Rapid City Area – The Western Hub of South Dakota

Image Credit: eunikas/Depositphotos.com.

Rapid City is the largest city on the western side of South Dakota. It has all of your creature comforts, such as the airport, chain stores for shopping, hospitals, schools, and the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

Here are tourist attractions to check out while you’re in the area.

Visit Dinosaur Park in Rapid City

Go and see the Dinosaur Park on the hill in Rapid City. It is a quirky local attraction. Seven dinosaurs overlook Rapid City.

I’ll never forget the first time my parents took us here.

Tour Reptile Gardens

Reptile Gardens is a neat activity to do whether you are a local with families or are visiting on vacation. It is south of Rapid City.

This place transports you to the jungle. It is a conservation home to animals, reptiles, and botanical gardens.

Drive Through Bear Country USA

Though the Black Hills are no longer home to a thriving wild bear population (except for unique and rare visits from other mountain ranges), you can see bears at Bear Country USA.

Bear County is a family-friendly drive-through park located on your way into the Hills from Rapid City.

Experience an Optical Illusion

Cosmos Mystery Area will take you on a tour through optical illusion architecture. You’ll wonder which way is truly up! 

Go on a tour and have a ‘trippy’ experience.


More South Dakota Travel Guides:

Are you planning a trip to the Black Hills? Our other guides can help you:

Pin for Later!

Pin this guide on Pinterest to plan your South Dakota trip later.

things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Please practice Leave No Trace while exploring the outdoors.

Featured Image Credit: keeweeboy/Depositphotos.com.

Follow The Happiness Function on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, TikTok and YouTube.

Posted in

Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation and travel writer sharing the best-kept secrets that aren’t in your typical guidebook. Her goal is to inspire people to travel with a sense of adventure by sharing hidden gems across the U.S. and beyond. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo. They camp in their Aliner often and love wandering the world. Follow their latest adventures on Instagram @thehappinessfxn.

16 Comments

  1. Burt Randall on January 7, 2023 at 12:47 pm

    I never knew my state had so many things to do!

    Thanks for this article.

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 15, 2023 at 1:43 pm

      Thank you for reading. Have a great day!

  2. Catherine on February 7, 2021 at 7:16 am

    This post made me so happy! My parents were actually married in the Black Hills, and my family lived in South Dakota when I was born. I’ve been to the Black Hills only once but I was in high school so it’s definitely time for a return visit.

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 7, 2021 at 12:42 pm

      Hi Catherine! What a beautiful share. Thank you. A return visit to the Black Hills with the family during the summer sounds in order!

  3. Jamie Sharpe on February 6, 2021 at 9:44 pm

    Mount Rushmore is on my to-do list so this is a great resource. Thanks!

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 7, 2021 at 12:41 pm

      Hi Jamie – visiting Mount Rushmore will be wonderful. Hope this inspires your trip to the Black Hills!

  4. Taylor on February 6, 2021 at 6:23 pm

    This is such a great guide! I am actually planning a trip to South Dakota this upcoming summer, so definitely keeping this article handy. 🙂 It looks so beautiful there.

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 7, 2021 at 12:40 pm

      Hi Taylor – awesome! I hope you have a wonderful trip to visit the Black Hills.

  5. Krista on February 6, 2021 at 4:39 pm

    I love how many things there are to do here apart from visit Mount Rushmore!

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 7, 2021 at 12:40 pm

      Hi Krista! Indeed. There are so many things to do in the Black Hills!

  6. Megan on February 6, 2021 at 3:28 pm

    This is such a great list of ideas! We went to Mt Rushmore a few years ago and had a blast! We were surprised that there was SO much to do!

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 7, 2021 at 12:39 pm

      Hi Megan – It is great you have been to visit Mount Rushmore. There is so much history in the Black Hills.

  7. Margie on February 6, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    What a detailed list of things to do in the Black Hills! We visited Mt. Rushmore, but didnt have enough time to do much else. I know we missed a lot, so I’m hoping to return in the summer. Will use this as a guide – thank you!

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 7, 2021 at 12:39 pm

      Hi Margie – how awesome! Hope you can make it back. There are so many things to do in the Black Hills!

  8. Hannah on February 6, 2021 at 11:17 am

    Wow, what an incredible list of things to do in the Black Hills! A visit to Mount Rushmore is on my bucket list, but it looks like I’ll need a lengthy stay to see the best of the area! There are some incredible hikes listed here, I’d love to try them out to admire the incredible landscape! Thanks for the great guide!

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 7, 2021 at 12:38 pm

      Hi Hannah – thanks for reading. The Black Hills are truly spectacular. Hope you can make it for a visit!

Leave a Comment