A short hop from Denver, South Dakota’s Black Hills offer year-round activities that make it the perfect family getaway for a long weekend or a weeklong vacation. The Black Hills, also known as Paha Sapa, has been the sacred and ancestral home of the Sioux, Lakota and Dakota nations for thousands of years, and in recent history this beautiful area has helped shaped the myth of the American West.
Whether your family is looking to reconnect to nature, in search of history, or just looking for a place with delicious food and a variety of activities to suit the interests of everyone on your family, these things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota should make your list.
Here’s how to plan a trip to the Black Hills, and how to make the most of the region once you’ve arrived.
Where to Stay Near the Black Hills
The Black Hills offers plenty of fun in a fairly compact and easy to navigate region, which means you can stay in one place and see it all. Rapid City is a perfect home base with plenty of dining options, activities, and shops, and is close to the major sights of the Black Hills. Great places for families to stay in Rapid City include:
- The Rushmore Hotel and Suites: Located right downtown on the road that takes you directly to Mt. Rushmore and the Black Hills, The Rushmore Hotel and Suites mixes the amenities of an urban hotel with the ease of access to all things South Dakota.
- Holiday Inn Rapid City Downtown: With its primo location right next to The Monument—the arena that hosts everything from concerts and rodeos to hockey games and car shows—the Holiday Inn Rapid City Downtown is a great choice for families. It’s walkable to downtown, close to a lovely city park, and is an easy drive to the Black Hills.
- Fairfield Inn & Suites: If you’re looking to impress the kids, the Fairfield Inn & Suites is your ticket. Although it is bit further from downtown, it earns major bragging rights as the home of South Dakota’s largest indoor water park. Nothing revives a tiny traveler better than a 30,000 square feet of waterslides, arcade games, and lazy river fun.
What to Do in the Black Hills
Once you’re settled in, it’s time to check out what makes the Black Hills of South Dakota an amazing vacation destination for families. Here’s what kids and their adults shouldn’t miss:
1. See the Presidents
Mt. Rushmore National Memorial is the Black Hills most famous sight. The 60-foot presidential busts are a symbol for the hope and spirit of the United States. Most visitors just come to the vantage spot, but a short walk along the Presidential Trail takes visitors closer to the faces and offers different views of the massive carvings. For something a little extra special, visit between Memorial Day and the end of September, when there’s a daily evening lighting ceremony that includes a ranger talk, veteran recognition, and the playing of the national anthem.
PACK WELL: 11 Stylish Luggage Brands Built to Last
Mt. Rushmore might be synonymous with presidents and South Dakota, but visitors can also see all the presidents up-close in Rapid City. The City of Presidents is a collection of life-sized bronzed statues spread around the downtown area. Enjoy a scavenger hunt or test your presidential recognition skills (it is not as easy as you might think) as you wander around downtown. And every winter, these Presidents continue to give back when they’re dressed up in hats, gloves, scarves and coats that are waiting to be shared with those in need.
2. Have a Wildlife Adventure
Whether you are a cold-blooded lover or a fan of the fuzzy, you don’t need to travel far from Rapid City to get your fix of animal adventures.
- Reptile Gardens is a must-visit destination for any reptile lover. Boasting more reptile species and subspecies than any other zoo or wild animal park in the world, Reptile Gardens is sure to amaze even the non-reptile lovers in your group. Deadly snakes, giant tortoises, salt-water crocodiles, a Big Bug collection, and lizards and frog galore are just a few of the things you’ll see in this Guinness Book of World’s Record collection. Its location is lovely too: a verdant botanical garden where over 40,000 flowering plants take root every spring.
- Bear Country USA, located between Rapid City and Mt. Rushmore, is a drive-thru wild animal park with a variety of large mammal species native to North America. Along the three-mile drive you might see black bears, wolves, badgers, reindeer, elk and more. Not to be missed is the awe-inducing Wildlife Center, where visitors can get out of their cars to see some of the smaller animals plus baby bears and wolf cubs.
3. Rock (and Fossil) Out
Western South Dakota is rich in geological and paleontological treasures. Once home to a sea, prehistoric animals, and dinosaurs, the Black Hills region is home to abundant fossils and artifacts. Modern-day travelers can learn about the region’s ancient history by visiting one of the excellent local museums.
- The Museum of Geology, located on the campus of The South Dakota School of Mines, is a free museum packed full (it has over a half million specimens) of interesting finds from the area. Displaying new specimens since 1885, the fossil collection features marine reptiles, fish, and sharks from when the area was underwater. There’s also Jurassic dinosaur fossils, including a triceratops skull; and mammals including a saber tooth tiger skeleton. The mineral collection is also one of a kind, showcasing both local minerals and a unique collection from around the world.
- The Museum at the Black Hills Institute, located in Hill City, is home to Stan, one of the world’s largest and most complete T. rex fossils. While Stan might be the star of the show, there are plenty of other unique experiences in this museum as well, including the opportunity to touch fossils, browse the collection of gemstone and other minerals, and see real meteorites.
- And just because some of the most complete fossils have already been found in the Black Hills doesn’t mean everything has been discovered. The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, is the world largest mammoth research facility, and is an active dig site. Over 60 mammoths, including three woolly mammoths, have been unearthed here, along with over 75 other Late Ice Age animals. For family-friendly fun, check out the replicated dig site for a hands-on experience for kids (and adults too).
4. Take a Hike or a Ride
Rocky spires, grasslands, quiet creeks, and pine forests set the stage for magical hikes in the beautiful and varied landscapes of the Black Hills. With many state and national parks in the area, there’s plenty of outdoor opportunities for all ages and abilities.
- The George S. Mickelson Trail is a converted railway that runs through the heart of the Black Hills National Forest. Spanning 109 miles and covering more than 100 converted railroad bridges and four rock tunnels, the crushed limestone and gravel trail mostly stays below a 4% grade, making it friendly for bikers of all abilities. With over 15 trailheads to access the trail, visitors are sure to find a ride that suits their whole party.
- The Cathedral Spires Trail, located in Custer State Park, is a moderate 1.6-mile trail that lets visitors see the Needles Rock formations up close. The Needles Formations are pillars and spires composed of eroded granite that create a dramatic backdrop for a hike. As an added bonus, abundant wildlife is often seen near the trail, animals including birds, deer, and mountain goats.
HIT THE ROAD: 6 Scenic Midwest Road Trips for Outdoorsy Families
5. Go to an Event
Rapid City and the Black Hills are truly a four-season getaway with events that are crowd pleasers for both adults and kids. Here’s what to look for in every season:
- Winter: The second largest event of the year, The Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo, features over 120 events including a horse show, rodeo events, a stock show, and live concerts. This is a not-to-be missed event for rodeo enthusiasts and rodeo-curious families alike.
- Spring: The most popular organized hike in the United States is The Crazy Horse Volksmarch. This 10K hike talks walkers up the dirt trails and gravel work roads of the astonishing Crazy Horse Memorial mountain carving, allowing them to get up close and personal to what will, upon completion, be the largest sculpture in the world. After the hike don’t miss The Indian Museum of North American, which features an engaging collection of historic artifacts from the diverse cultures of over 300 North American nations, as well as modern art pieces reflecting contemporary experiences.
- Summer: Rapid City Summer Nights is a free weekly concert series that runs every Thursday Night from Memorial Day to Labor Day. With a wide variety of performers, carnival games, and street food, it’s a fun way for the family to unwind after a day of activities.
- Fall: The Black Hills Powwow, known as He Sapa Wacipi na Oskate, is one of the premier American Indian cultural events in the United States, and welcomes all to enjoy the beauty of Great Plains indigenous song, dance, and regalia. The dance arena, which is blessed and considered sacred ground for the duration of the ceremony, is where the Grand Entry, singing, and dancing takes place. There is also an expo, parade, youth wellness symposium, and hand game tournament. For newcomers, the Powwow also hold classes about the meaning of powwow in the community, the dance and song traditions, the proper etiquette while in attendance.
6. Hop on a Train
A vintage steam train is a fun way to see the some of the small towns of the Black Hills and enjoy the scenery. Hop aboard the 1880 Train in either Hill City or Keystone between May and October for a two-hour, narrated 20-mile round trip. The narrow-gauge steam and diesel engines follow original mining and mill routes, and take visitors past Harney Peak and mining encampments. There are also special events including a Holiday Express, an Oktoberfest, and Mother’s Day rides.
7. Shop Local
Rapid City and the Black Hills are home to many artisans and a wide and unique array of local treasures.
At the Dakota Drum Company in downtown Rapid City, Lakota artist Sonja Holy Eagle carefully prepares all of the materials used in her handmade drums. Her process avoids chemicals in the buffalo hide tanning and includes the careful chiseling out and drying of cottonwood for the drum frames. This time and care provides the perfect long-lasting canvas for her hand-painted drums, which are often used by drum groups at wacipis and powwows. Her store also sells traditional beadwork and quillwork from artists of the Cheyenne River and Pine Ridge, Standing Rock, and Rosebud reservations.
Spanning two stories and half a block, Prairie Edge & Sioux Trading Post is a mesmerizing store and museum. The store carries the work of Northern Plain Indian artists, and clearly delineates items that are not crafted by Indian artists. The store also houses a bead museum and showcases a colorful array of beads and gorgeous modern and vintage beadwork.
8. Defy gravity
No family vacation is complete without parents trying to sneak in educational value. Lucky for everyone that in the Black Hills, physics comes with a big dose of fun:
- Rushmore Tramway Adventures is a family-fun adventure park sure to get everyone’s heart pumping. The whole family can enjoy the 2,000-foot Alpine Slide, on which the driver controls their own thrill level. Families can also join a two-hour zipline adventure through the forest, soaring as high as 440 feet above the ground. To get even more of an up-close view of the trees, families take on the aerial adventure park, trying to navigate obstacles suspended in trees.For something a little more low-key, take the scenic chairlift and effortlessly enjoy breathtaking views of Mt. Rushmore.
- Have your kids ever wanted to be taller than you, or have you ever dreamed of walking up a wall like your favorite superhero? If so, the Cosmos Mystery Area should be a stop on your Black Hills adventure. Get a little topsy-turvy with the tour of the cabin where all laws of nature and physics appear to not apply to the cabin … or you. Afterward visit the geode mine where kids can find and crack their own geodes.
Where to Eat in Rapid City
Rapid City has plenty of great dining options, many of which are walking distance to downtown hotels.
Find South Dakota’s first brew pub in Rapid City’s original fire house. The National Historic Registered building is home to The Firehouse Brewing Company. Adorned with vintage fire fighting equipment, this pub is sure to delight all members of the family. The all-day, family-friendly spot has a menu packed with options for everyone from vegetarians to buffalo lovers. The pub has a lovely patio plus an array of small dishes, making it the perfect stop for an afternoon refresher.
EVERYTHING AND MORE: 19 Best All-Inclusive Resorts in the U.S.
For a leisurely fine dining meal, the Delmonico Grill is a serene and modern take on a steak house. Utilizing seasonal produce, in-house dry aging, and a wood-fire grill, Chef Benjamin Klinkel and his team create uncomplicated dishes done to perfection.
For adult families traveling together, a visit to the Windsor Block Bar is a fun stop before or after dinner. The dark and cozy bar invites patrons to get comfortable and stay awhile. With a focus on craft cocktails and mocktails, everyone will find something intriguing on the menu.