The Black Hills includes everything you’ve read so far, and because there’s so much there, I wanted to break it up into a few separate posts. There is simply no way to explain everything in one. For a place you might never have heard of, there sure is a lot to do!
Although our recent trip doesn’t quite match this post, I thought it might be fun to condense things into a shorter adventurer. Some of the things in this post we did on the trip, and other items we didn’t have time for.
Let’s say you have 4 days (3 nights), and you fly into Rapid City. Well, what should you do?
Day 1: Landing in Rapid City
You’ll probably arrive sometime late afternoon in Rapid City. You obviously rented a car (hint, hint), since you’ll be doing some driving this trip. Get in, grab your bags, and hop in the car. Drive downtown (no more than 20 minutes) and find a good spot to park. If it’s early enough, grab lunch in one of the restaurants in the main street area. There are a ton of chain restaurants in Rapid City, but there’s some local gems too. I recommend Que Pasa if it’s a nice day and you’re into Mexican style food. Sit outside, enjoy the weather, and decompress from the flight with a decent margarita. If it’s not a great day, or barbecue and beer is just more your style, check out Firehouse Brewery. Great food, great beer (made onsite) and kid-friendly.
After lunch, walk the main street area to find some interesting shops and get your picture with your favorite president. On every street corner in the downtown area, there’s a bronze statue of a former United States President. If you want to collect them all, stop into the visitor’s center or download the walking guide before you go. Definitely stop into some of the shops in the downtown area too – I recommend perusing Prairie Edge Trading Co. & Galleries. If you’re a fan of ledger art, and even if you’re not, it’s a great look into a bit of American art history. If there’s one souvenir I’ll go back to South Dakota, it’s an original piece of ledger art – the style is remarkable, and it’s a form of art that has its roots very clearly set in Americana culture and history. Knowing that I’ll be back to South Dakota in a few years, I skipped the purchase for now.
At some point this afternoon, stop by the grocery store and pick up some lunch supplies and plenty of water for tomorrow’s trip to the Badlands. There are restaurants in the general area of the park, but I recommend going the picnic route, so you can spend more time in nature.
After you work up an appetite from walking downtown, find another spot for dinner. Go fancy with one of the steakhouses, or snag that margarita if you’re more of a night owl. Don’t go stay up too late though, I’m waking you up early tomorrow morning!
Day 2: Roadtrip to the Badlands
Wake up early, remember? Drive east on I-90 to the Badlands. Stop along the way and pick up some coffee at Wall Drug Store (and get a picture of the famous pit stop), then continue on toward the Badlands Northeast Entrance. The drive, including breakfast and coffee, should be under 2 hours. Plan to spend at least another 2 hours in the Badlands if you want to do some minor hiking. If you’re a fan of nature and plan to hike the longer trails, make sure you have plenty of water and schedule at least 4-6 hours in the National Park. Travel east to west you move through the Badlands, and you’ll end up back near Wall, or further south by Scenic, South Dakota. Either way, you’re looking at about an hour back to Rapid City.
Except you aren’t going back to Rapid! Instead, head to Custer, Hill City, or Keystone for the next 2 nights. All three are close together, and about 1 hour 30 minutes from Wall or Scenic. It doesn’t so much matter which you stay in, as long as you’re in the heart of the Black Hills – perfect for long drives, hiking, and finding the bison at various state and national parks. My personal favorite is Custer, as I think Keystone and Hill City tend to be just a bit more touristy. Check out my post for more information on what to do in Custer. If you are going to choose Custer, splurge a bit and make your dinner reservation at Skogen.
If you opt for Hill City there’s plenty to keep you busy. If you’re into fossils, stop by the Museum at the Black Hills Institute for some great paleontology and geology exhibits. The museum is small, but it’s interesting nonetheless. This Hill City museum is also the original home of the Tyrannosaurus skeleton Sue, which I got to see at the Field Museum in Chicago last year. After the museum, get in line for the Alpine Inn before dinner. The wait is long, and the food is excellent. Set in an old Victorian inn, the Alpine specializes in filet mignon, German cuisine, and mouth-watering desserts. Don’t the let the limited menu fool you, those two optiones are delicious. If you only have time for one meal in Hill City, wait out on the front porch before they open (you won’t be alone), and be one of the first people through the door to get a seat. In the summer you’ll be part of a mixed bag of tourists, bikers, ranchers, and townies.
No matter where you stay, make sure you explore the town a bit this afternoon. Each has its own interesting shops to peruse, and offers a unique feel.
Day 3: Dealer’s Choice
What do you like to do?
Spelunking? Jewel Cave or Wind Cave.
Animals? Custer State Park or Wind Cave National Park.
Just want to lay low? Head south to Hot Springs and do some wandering, get some pizza or french fries, then take a dip in Evan’s Plunge. If you’re into wineries, check out Prairie Berry Winery, they have some great stuff on offer. You’re allowed a free tasting, so take advantage and sample some of the wines before you buy.
With a free day, my personal choice would be busy. First thing in the morning, drive west to Jewel Cave and pick up tickets before they sell out. Schedule the cave tour for sometime midday when you’ll enjoy a break from the hot summer sun. While you’re waiting, drive back to check out nearby Custer if you haven’t already been. After the cave tour, drive south to Hot Springs, and grab a late lunch at Big Time Pizza. Use the fuel to walk North River Street and the murals painted on the buildings in Hot Springs. If you want to go for a swim, stop by Evan’s Plunge or any of the lakes in the area. Not enough fossils in Hill City? Drive over to the Mammoth Site on the southern side of town, and travel back in time to see the skeletons of ancient Columbian and wooly mammoths.
Once you’ve had your fill of Hot Springs, head north along Route 385, turning right onto Route 87 to drive through Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park. Hopefully by this time, it’s getting cooler in the late afternoon, and you’ll get the chance to see the bison, deer, and antelope. If you can time the elk migration, try and spot them! The elk will be harder to find than the others, and further up in the trees than the rest of the wildlife.
Day 4: Mt. Rushmore and Heading Back to the Airport
Hopefully you can snag a flight later in the day, so you can do a few more stops before you head back to the airport! I’d recommend throwing in a visit to Mt. Rushmore in the morning. The history there is awesome, and it’s definitely a sight for domestic and international tourists alike to check off their lists. You don’t need more than 2 hours at Rushmore, and could probably do it in less if you had to. The gift shop is huge, and the museum at the site is really interesting. The exhibits dig deeper into the methods of construction at the site, as well as American history leading up to the carving and the minds behind the work.
From Rushmore, Route 16 will take you back to Rapid City and civilization. You’ll pass right by Bear Country USA and the Reptile Gardens along your way. Both are essentially zoos, with a little bit of theme park blood in them. As such, both are tourist traps and a bit overpriced. But, if you have kids, they’ll probably see an ad or a brochure for one of these while on vacation. And if they saw the brochure, they’ll want to go! They’re kind of neat, and definitely a great way to end the trip in the eyes of the kiddos.
After that, it’s back home to real life! I think 4 days would be a minimum for this area, and that’s a busy 4 days. If you really want to make a trip out of it, spending at least a week will allow you to take your time between activities, and enjoy more of the nature of the area. With more time, add in Sylvan Lake, The Hitchrail in Pringle, and even Devil’s Tower out in Wyoming.
Another trip made possible by the Southwest Companion Pass! (Cue great marketing jingle..)
The Southwest Companion Pass has allowed us a lot of domestic travel, and this was no exception. Although driving up from Denver is a hike, it sure beats paying for three tickets on another airline! Tomorrow, we’ll be heading off on another Companion Pass-fueled adventure, Nashville! Looking forward to eating some Southern style cooking, catching some live music, and seeing the eclipse on Monday! If you’re in the path of totality (or making your way there), I hope you’re as excited as I am!