Looking a vacation packed with family-sized adventure? Try the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Black Hills offer national parks, wildlife viewing, western history, outdoor sports, scenic drives and cozy mountain cabins with a hour of Rapid City’s foodie scene. It’s an undiscovered jewel with fewer crowds and loads of adventure.
National parks top my to-do list and the Black Hills boasts five national park sites. All national park sites are about an hour from each other, a big plus for families.
South Dakota’s National Park Sites
This American iconic that draws millions of visitors to the Black Hills annually. It all started in 1927 and took 14 years and $1 million to carve George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln into the mountainside.
Mount Rushmore, located at 13000 SD-244, Keystone, South Dakota, opens every day from 5 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. from mid-May to mid-August daily, closing at 9:30 p.m. the rest of the year. The nightly lighting ceremony begins at 9 p.m. during the summer. Free to enter though the garage parking fee is $11.
Bordering the Buffalo Gap National Grassland so it offers habitats for several animal species, like buffalo, fox, bighorn sheep and the black-footed ferret. The sandstone spires and valleys glow in the setting sun with subtle hues.
Badlands National Park, located 75 miles east of Rapid City, South Dakota, features two units, the North Unit and the Stronghold Unit. Open 365-days a year and 24-hours a day, admission is $15 per vehicle for a 7-day pass.
One of the largest caves in the world and it’s estimated that only 5 percent has been discovered. Not only does the park have caves, I found a bison herd and a prairie dog town.
Wind Cave National Park is located 10 miles north of Hot Springs, South Dakota, along U.S. Highway 385 N. Wind Cave Visitor Center is open every day except Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer season. Cave tour tickets are sold first-come, first-serve for several different tours daily.
Named after the glittering calcite that adorns the walls of the caves, offers underground exploration. As the third longest cave in the world, the main tour features 732 steps along metal scaffolding and kids under six are discouraged.
Jewel Cave National Monument, located 13 miles west of Custer, South Dakota, on U.S. Highway 16, opens every day except Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1. Cave tour tickets are sold first-come, first-serve from for tours from8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the summer season.
Offering a window into the Cold War when Ellsworth Air Force Base’s mission included maintaining and launching Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Visitors can enter the underground Delta One Control facility for a simulated missile launch and drive to the Delta Nine Launch facility to see a deactivated missile all hidden in plain sight along Interstate 90.
Minutemen Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center is located at 24545 Cottonwood Rd.,Philip, South Dakota, and open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. everyday except Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and January 1. Ranger-led tours take visitors 31-feet done into Delta One Launch Control Facility at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Minutemen Missile National Historic Site is free to enter. Tickets for the Launch Control Facility are free and first-come, first-served.
Outdoor Fun for Families
Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest ongoing mountain carving. Started in 1948, the Oglala Lakota warrior’s face is completed and work continues on the outstretched hand. Crazy Horse Memorial features a nightly laser light show.
Crazy Horse Memorial is located 6 miles north of Custer, South Dakota, and open everyday. Admission is $28 per vehicle or $11 per person. From Memorial Day through Labor Day Crazy Horse Memorial opens at 7 a.m. until 30 minutes after the laser show.
Custer State Park featuresabundant wildlife, scenic drives and cabins from the quaint to the luxurious. I consider Custer’s Wildlife Loop Scenic Drive one of the best places to see bison in the country.
Custer State Park, located 6 miles east of Custer, South Dakota, offers year-round family fun. Stop by Custer Visitor Center for more information, open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. for Memorial Day to Labor Day and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the rest of the year; closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25 and Easter.
George S. Mickelson Trail offers hikers, runners, cyclists and horseback riders 109 miles of scenic travel along an abandoned railroad line. Spans the Black Hills from Deadwood to Edgemont, with side trails into places like Custer State Park.
Black Hills Aerial Adventures offers helicopter tours as an adventurous way to explore the Black Hills. In a matter of minutes, I got a bird’s eye view of Crazy Horse Memorial, Harney Peak, Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park.
The ride can be a bit bumpy over the peaks on a windy day so I would recommend this for families with tweens and teens. With three different locations in the Black Hills and Badlands, the flights start at $49 and open seven days a week from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Rapid City Family Fun
Rapid City, South Dakota offers more than the Black Hills and Badlands regional airport, I enjoyed a day of ghost hunting, boutique shopping and restaurant hopping. I stayed in a newly renovated room in the historic yet haunted Hotel Alex Johnson on my last visit, located 523 6th Street.
The bellhops will take guests floor-by-floor telling their tales of ghostly figures and smashing glasses. The Hotel Alex Johnson is part of the Curio Collection by Hilton, and offers 143 guest rooms in the 1928 property. Be sure and check out the sky bar, Vertex, for amazing views from an art deco bar featuring a rooftop deck with a fire pit.
Need to play some old-school arcade games, the Press Start Barcade features 200 stand-up arcade games. It’s located at 504 Mount Rushmore Rd. Since it’s a bar, it’s 21 and over most nights.
For snake lovers, Reptile Gardens offers the world’s largest reptile zoo according to the Guinness Book of World Records. With a botanical garden, a prairie dog town, gator show and snake show, Reptile Gardens tops the list with kids.
Reptile Gardens, located 8955 S. Highway 16, Rapid City, opens at 8 a.m. and the last tickets are available at 6 p.m. from Memorial Day until Labor Day. Adult admission is $17, $11 for kids 5 to 12 and free for kids 4 and under. Senior and military discounts are available.
Where to Eat in Rapid City
The downtown area offers varied dining options within walking distance.
I enjoyed lunch at Tally’s Silver Spoon that serves up an eclectic menu. Located at 530 6th St., open breakfast through dinner, all within walking distance of the Hotel Alex Johnson.
Need a beer? Check out Firehouse Brewing, located at 610 Main St. in a restored firehouse. Offering more beer than I could sample in one sitting. Opens at 11 a.m. daily with a full menu.
I love to eat and Koloffers a fine dining option in downtown Rapid City at 504 Mount Rushmore Rd. Kol’s features a coal-fired oven and mixes up some unique cocktails for lunch and dinner.
After eating my way through downtown Rapid City, I found quaint shops to explore. Prairie Edge Trading Company and Galleries features a collection of unique and hand-made items, located at 606 Main St.
Looking to satisfy the teens, walk down Art Alley located between 6th and 7th streets. It features a public arts project with notable graffiti art. Free.
If the kids want to shake hands with all the former U.S. Presidents, stroll along 4th through 9th streets along Main St. and St. Joseph St. The City of Presidents features life-sized bronze statues on all the street corners to enjoy. Free.
The Journey Museum and Learning Center walks kids through time in the black hills and badlands region of South Dakota. A must for kids, since the Journey Museum encourages exploration and discovery.
The paleontology tent, the teepee and pioneer exhibits walked me through the history of Badlands and Black Hills. Located at 222 New York Street and open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. for the summer. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for students ages 6 to 17 and free for kids 5 and under.
Wall Drug, the quintessential roadside attraction, sells anything a traveler forgot at home. Since 1931, Wall Drug has offered free ice water to travelers along Interstate 90. Along with free water, I found 5¢ coffee and the best donuts, try the maple ones, my favorites.
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