Are you planning a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota? Find travel inspiration and the 40 best things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota during your summer vacation or road trip. Continue reading for ideas on outdoor activities as well as local attractions, including hiking, camping, swimming, stargazing, sightseeing, touring bucket list National Parks, and panning for gold! Plan an unforgettable summer road trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota!
Growing up in South Dakota, the Black Hills are a place I call home. With this in mind, you are in for a treat! We are sharing all the best things to do in the Black Hills.
First, a little history…
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The Black Hills are an island in the sky, meaning they have a higher elevation than the rest of South Dakota and the surrounding prairie Midwest. Though the Black Hills are of higher elevation resembling the Rocky Mountains in ways, they are not geologically part of the Rocky Mountains. In fact, the Black Hills have claim as the oldest mountain range in the United States.
From a distance, the Hills are dark and look black. The Black Hills got their name from the Lakota Native American tribe, referring to the Black Hills as Paha Sapa. Paha Sapa translates respectively to “hills that are black.” To explain more, 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. Black Elk Peak, rightfully renamed in 2015 after a Holy Oglala Lakota Medicine Man, reaches an elevation of 7,242 feet (2,207 meters). To point out, Black Elk Peak is the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rockies. It is a sacred place to visit in the Hills.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are rich with wild-west history and ancient geology. Spending time in the Hills is truly special. We certainly hope you have a great trip. We’ll talk about all the things to see in the Black Hills National Forest!
Now, onto the 40 best things to do in the Black Hills during the summer!
The Black Hills of South Dakota make for the ultimate summer vacation. There are many outdoor things to do, such as sightseeing, hiking, camping, gold panning, and visiting multiple National Parks.
Did you know the Black Hills of South Dakota are home to Mount Rushmore National Monument, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Wind Cave National Park? Nevertheless, check three National Parks off of your life bucket list in one vacation!
By and large, a trip you surely won’t forget; keep reading find travel inspiration, and what to do in the Black Hills! First, let’s begin the Southern Hills guide and work our way to the Northern Hills.
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.
Hot Springs, South Dakota, is home to natural hot springs. Spend a few hours soaking and relaxing at Evans Plunge, famed for being one of the Black Hills’ oldest attractions.
Mammoth Site is a dig site and museum with fossils of Mammoths from the Late Ice Age. It is an interesting and highly educational place to visit, especially if you’d like to see ancient Mammoth bones!
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 Black Hill South Dakota vacation. Go for an unforgettable tour underground and explore Wind Cave.
To see the buffalo, a local secret, the older buffalo like to hang out in the Wind Cave National Monument rolling prairie area. You cannot visit the Black Hills without seeing buffalo! If you don’t see them during your visit to Custer State Park, you have to try your luck near Wind Cave National Monument.
Next, let’s head further north in the Hills into the Custer area. Continue reading to learn more about Custer State Park.
Custer is a famous small town in the Black Hills. It is recognized for its “Hollywood-like” Custer sign, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Crazy Horse Memorial. It is also the gateway town to Custer State Park, full of fantastic hiking, camping, and wildlife viewing opportunities.
Visit Custer (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 also 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.
Elegant buffalo art sculptures line the main street. Be sure to keep a lookout. The buffalo sculptures make for great Instagram photos.
To explain, Custer has its own version of the “Hollywood sign.” The Custer sign is an iconic emblem of the town! Be sure to check it out up close or from afar. You can hike to the Custer sign. The sign is such a local treasure!
Custer State Park is home to all kinds of mountain wildlife such as deer, turkey, elk, bighorn sheep, white mountain goats, and mountain lions, to name a few. The Park also has feral burros used to pack the gear to Black Elk Peak long ago. Most notable are the herds of buffalo roaming within Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Monument. Keep your eyes peeled and cameras ready to see these majestic animals.
Custer State Park has outdoor activities galore such as camping, swimming, fishing, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, hiking, and sightseeing. There are many lakes to choose from in the Park. A little more on all of this below. Keep reading!
One of the most memorable activities in Custer State Park is the annual buffalo roundup. Later in the summer or early fall (depending on how you look at it since South Dakota doesn’t really have a fall), the roundup is accompanied by a chili cook-off and outdoor arts festival. If you’re visiting during late September, check out the South Dakota Game Fish and Parks website for details on where you can attend the annual buffalo roundup.
In Custer State Park, there are nine campgrounds to explore. Each campground offers different aspects and views of the Park.
There is plentiful camping all over the Black Hills in the Black Hills National Forest as well as in privately owned camping facilities. Camping is one of our most cherished activities!
One of the quiet, more secluded campgrounds is at Center Lake in Custer State Park. We highly recommend staying at Center Lake. It is a tucked away hidden gem in the Black Hills close to the Black Hills Playhouse theater.
Whether you are camping or just headed for a day at the beach, be sure to check out Center Lake in Custer State Park. It has a beautiful and quiet beach.
Stockage Lake in Custer State Park is another great lake to spend the afternoon. Enjoy lake activities such as boating, stand up paddle boarding, fishing, or kayaking. There is also a campground. Enjoy this mountain lake close to Custer by the main west entrance to Custer State Park. Stockade Lake is right off the highway, easy to see, and easy to access.
Sylvan Lake is another iconic lake in Custer State Park. Surrounded by large granite rocks and clear mountain water, Sylvan Lake is a gateway to the famous Needles Highway. One of the main trailheads for hiking Black Elk Peak and exploring the Black Elk Wilderness Area is also accessible from Sylvan Lake.
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 Black Elk Peak will take your breath away, quite literally, too. As said earlier, Black Elk Peak is the highest point in South Dakota.
Check out our post on hiking Black Elk Peak from Sylvan Lake trail #9 to get more details and plan your trek!
Hiking is one of the best things to do in the Black Hills National Forest.
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.
While you are in the Sylvan Lake area, hike the Sunday Gulch trail! It is a beautiful hike over streams through the Black Hills forest. It is an excellent alternative if you don’t have time to hike to the top of Black Elk Peak.
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 breathtaking night sky. Since the Black Hills have a fairly rural population, the bright night sky will blow you away unless you are in town lights. Don’t forget to look for the Big Dipper. It is easy to spot!
West of Custer is another hidden gem of the Black Hills. Remarkably, Jewel Cave National Monument is the third-largest cave in the world! Don’t miss Jewel Cave on your Black Hills South Dakota vacation. Take a tour to be awed by one of the natural wonders of the world. Read more 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.
Just north of Custer, visit Crazy Horse Memorial. The Memorial has a vital mission to protect and keep the North American Indian culture alive and protected, which is especially important. Along with the iconic mountain sculpture of Crazy Horse, there is a campus full of history and culture.
Known as the heart of the Hills because it is roughly in the middle of the Black Hills, Hill City is also known for the 1880 train. It is relatively close to Mountain Rushmore, making it a summer hot spot. There are a few wineries and breweries in the area as well to point out. Hey, you’re on vacation… have some fun!
Bop around the main town strip for local shopping and dining.
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.
Equally important, 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, enjoy the day, and enjoy the views. Take some wine home to go for later – one of our favorite things to do in the Black Hills when we visit.
Specifically known for being close to Mount Rushmore and as an old gold mining town, make visiting the Keystone area high on your list of things to do in the Black Hills. Drive Iron Mountain Road, wind through the Pigtail Bridges, and tour Rushmore Cave. If you feel the need for speed (Top Gun movie reference), check out the Alpine slide!
As we were 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 especially has an old west feel. Explore main street, local gift shops, and restaurants with old wild west gold mining ambiance. In particular, the drive to and from Keystone is incredible. Bask in the beautiful Black Hills scenery. Especially keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of Mount Rushmore between the trees!
Rushmore Tramway Adventures is a tourist attraction in Keystone with a massive slide going through the hills. It is super fun! While you are there, check out the chairlift and zip-line if you are up for adrenaline-filled fun post your visit to Mount Rushmore.
Finally, you probably want to hear more about – Mount Rushmore!
Mount Rushmore is known for being one of the best things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota! Finally, check visiting Mount Rushmore National Memorial off your life bucket list and see the iconic U.S. monument of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Mount Rushmore is more than sculptures on the mountainside. See for yourself!
If you’re visiting during 4th of July, you might be in for an epic firework display of no other. Check schedules, though. Often the firework display is canceled due to seasonal fire danger.
Mount Rushmore gets super busy. We recommend visiting earlier in the day to beat the crowds.
While you’re in Keystone, book a tour to pan for gold. Panning for gold is an iconic activity and one of the most fun things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Be sure to check out Big Thunder Gold Mine.
Take a scenic drive along Iron Mountain Road. Closer to Keystone and Mountain Rushmore is where you’ll find the pigtails. This scenic drive is full of hidden gems including, tunnels, switchbacks, curves, and the pigtails! Add this to your list of things to do in the Black Hills, SD!
Closer to Keystone and Mount Rushmore, Rushmore Cave 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.
Did you know South Dakota has twin cities? Heading further north in the Black Hills, check out Lead and Deadwood.
Lead is touted for being another “mile-high” city (like Denver), and Deadwood is world known for its wild west charm and gambling scene.
A gorgeous section of the Mickelson Trail goes through this area as well. And if you’re a runner, the famous Deadwood marathon and half-marathon are a must every June.
Plan on visiting in the winter? Well, there is even a local ski resort (Yessss)!
Full of iconic wild-west history and charm, legendary names such as Calamity Jane and Wild Bill Hickok are known to have frequented the area. 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!
A 109-mile-long historic trail through the Black Hills is a must-see. You can access the path from 15 different trailheads. Though it runs through the majority of the Black Hills, we put the Michaelson Trail under the Deadwood area for ease of access and the Deadwood Marathon summer event.
Check out the map of the George S. Mickelson Trail.
If you are a runner or walker, add the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon or half-marathon to your bucket list. Markedly, the race route goes through some of the most beautiful sections along the Mickelson Trail from Rochford to Deadwood, South Dakota.
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.
Next, we will continue heading further north in the hill to Spearfish from Deadwood.
You can get to Spearfish going further north from Deadwood or the Rapid City area. Spearfish is known for the beautiful Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway Drive. Stop and check out the waterfalls while you’re there.
Spearfish Canyon is older than the Grand Canyon (whoa!). Drive the scenic byway and find natural gem hikes. Spearfish Canyon is magnificent to drive through during the (very brief) fall to see changing foliage.
Hike to waterfalls in Spearfish Canyon. There are a few hikes to explore. For example, hike to see Roughlock Falls, Spearfish Falls, and Bridal Veil Falls.
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 sacred Bear Butte and Bear Butte State Park.
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. To point out, the rally hosts hundreds of thousands of bikers annually, along with headliner music entertainment. To emphasize, if you like to party or are considering getting a tattoo, Sturgis is your place!
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. Additionally, Bear Butte is an extremely special and sacred mountain for many American Indian tribes.
Rapid City is the largest city on the western side of South Dakota. It has all your creature comforts such as the airport, chain shopping, hospitals, schools, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, and the Dinosaur Park.
As you drive south into the Black Hills from Rapid City towards Mount Rushmore, you’ll pass Reptile Gardens, Bear Country USA, and the Cosmos Mystery Area.
Check out the Dinosaur Park on the hill in Rapid City. Indeed, a fun local hidden gem. Seven dinosaurs are overlooking Rapid City. By all means, have a look!
Reptile Gardens is a neat activity to do whether you are a local or are visiting on vacation just south of Rapid City, South Dakota. Reptile Gardens will transport you to the jungle. Furthermore, it is a conservation home to animals, reptiles, and botanical gardens.
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. Located on your way into the hills from Rapid City, Bear County USA is a neat family friend drive through Park.
Cosmos Mystery Area will take you touring through optical illusion architecture. You’ll be particularly wondering which way is truly up! Go on a tour!
Whew! Just in case you decided to skip through, to summarize, below are 40 fun things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota during a summer trip.
In essence, the Black Hills of South Dakota are rich with wild-west history and ancient geology. All in all, spending time in the Hills is incredibly special full of wild west charm and natural wonders. We especially hope you have a memorable trip.
Ashlee & Pablo
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