Bucket List Worthy Things To Do In The Black Hills of South Dakota

Flags lining the path to Mount Rushmore in Custer South Dakota
A creek running through the trees and vegetation in the Black Hills National Forest in South Dakota

About the Black Hills of South Dakota

The Black Hills National Forest is part of a small, beautiful mountain range located on the western side of South Dakota. What you might think of as a surprising feature of America’s heartland, this land of granite spires includes the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rockies.

In the Black Hills, you can be treated to towering and stunning rock formations, beautiful swaying pines, golden aspens in fall, and wildlife such as bison and prairie dogs. It contains a prized American landmark, Mount Rushmore, a National Park, and a National Monument.

Traveling to The Black Hills Region of South Dakota

When flying to the Black Hills, the most accessible airport is in nearby Rapid City South Dakota.

Distance from Rapid City & Rapid City Regional Airport: 1 hour

If you plan to visit the Black Hills or Custer State Park as part of an RV trip or road trip, it can be a great addition to visits to nearby Badlands National Park and free camping at the famed Nomad View Dispersed camping area, Devil’s Tower National Monument, Thunder Basin National Grassland, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. This area has plenty of great camping options, including free boondocking in the National Forests and other public lands!

With so much to see and do, the Black Hills left a lasting impression on us. It is a wonderful area to connect with nature and do something good for your mind, body, and soul. Here are some of the best things to do and explore in this special area of South Dakota:

Best Things To Do in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Hiking Trails

We have loved seeing different landscapes and experiencing different kinds of hiking along our travels throughout the U.S. That being said, there is always something sweet about returning to the woods. Forests are a place where we feel totally present and full of joy. We found hiking to be one of the best things to do in the Black Hills, especially in the midst of crisp fall temperatures and emerging foliage.

Here are some of the best hikes to enjoy in the Black Hills of South Dakota:

Hell Canyon Trail

Hiker and her dog sitting on a rock in Hells Canyon on one of the best hikes in the Black Hills of South Dakota

What we loved about hiking in the Black Hills was that most of the trails were dog friendly! Hell Canyon is a dog-friendly hidden gem that takes you through thick vegetation and alongside and on top of colorful canyon walls.

It offers sprawling views of the canyon and fields of wildflowers. You can also see evidence of the forest regenerating and healing after the large Jasper Fire that severely burned the area a few years ago. We had this trail all to ourselves on a peaceful weekday afternoon in the fall.

Hell Canyon Hike Details:

  • Distance: 5.6 mile loop (We enjoyed hiking the loop counter-clockwise, starting down in the canyon. This does leave some steep and slippery switchbacks downhill at the end of the hike. It also leaves some of the best views for the end of the hike! If you prefer to get the steeper climb out of the way and descend into the shade later in the hike, hike clockwise.)
  • Elevation Gain: 853 feet (trailhead sits at 5,200 feet)
  • Duration: 2.5-4 hours
  • When to hike: June to October
  • Know before you go: This is also a horse trail so you may run into riders on horseback. We also ran into free-roaming cattle and bighorn sheep on the trail that surprised us when coming around a bend. Some spots of the trail are narrow and have steep drop-offs once you hike up. This might be concerning if you are afraid of heights.
Trail through the shaded woods on the floor of Hells Canyon hike in the Black Hills of South Dakota
Colorful vegetation on the Hell Canyon hike in fall in the Black Hills National Forest of South Dakota
Panoramic view of Hells Canyon in the Black Hills from the top ridge of the hike

Spring Creek and Flume Trail Loop

View of Sheridan Lake along the Spring Creek and Flume hike in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Another dog-friendly hike off the beaten path with plenty of shade that inspires a sense of wonder. This trail takes you along the shores of pristine Sheridan Lake. Wind through a beautiful forest of ponderosa pines, past rock falls, and back and forth on footbridges across a soothing creek that meanders through the area. While this can be a popular destination, we only saw 1 other person on the trail on a weekday morning in the fall.

Spring Creek and Flume Trail Hike Details

  • Distance: 4.2 mile loop (At the start of the loop, hike clockwise if you want to enjoy more of the lake and creek crossings first. Hike counter-clockwise if you want to save those for the end of your hike)
  • Elevation Gain: 429 feet (trailhead sits at 4,400 feet)
  • Duration: 1.5-3 hours
  • When to hike: April to October
  • Know before you go: This trail is marked in many places, but at times can be unclear which path is correct. Follow the signs and know that in some cases there are multiple paths that lead to the same place (marked with “50” and “Centennial Trail”). We also found it helpful to have the AllTrails map downloaded. This trail also includes narrow beams to cross the creek that can be a bit wobbly. In addition, you will walk through a short dark tunnel cut through the rock. The trail can be overgrown in some places so pants may be a good idea. We saw lots of squirrels and a few harmless snakes. The trailhead starts at the parking area near the lake.
Male hiker walking across a wooden beam bridge on the Spring Creek and Flume Trail loop in the Black Hills of South Dakota
Hiker and his dog standing in the rock tunnel on Spring Creek and Flume Trail loop in South Dakota

Saint Elmo Peak

Looking for a short and steep hike that will give you a quick workout and rewarding views? Saint Elmo Peak is an unassuming trail, accessed right off 16. Park in the grass, enter through the makeshift barbwire gate, and stumble into the woods for a trek through lush vegetation.

This is a dog-friendly trail and we were the only ones on the trail on a weekday afternoon after work. A steady incline with some scrambling, but we felt the views from the top were worth it!

View looking out over the Black Hills from Saint Elmo Peak

Saint Elmo Peak Hike Details:

Distance: 1.8 miles out and back
Elevation Gain: 1,190 feet (trailhead sits at about 5,200 feet)
Duration: 1.5-3 hours
When to hike: April to October
Know before you go: This trail is very overgrown and can require a bit of bushwhacking. There is also poison ivy in places you will want to be careful of. We felt pants were worthwhile for this hike. Due to it being overgrown and having no trail markings, you might want to have a downloaded map handy!

Custer State Park Hikes

Female hiker and her dog overlooking sharp granite rocks at Custer State Park in South Dakota

We were absolutely amazed at what we found when we navigated through the tight rock tunnels and around the hairpin turns as we entered Custer State Park. In our opinion, this is definitely one of the U.S.’s best state parks we have had the pleasure of visiting.

The dramatic spires emerging from the earth, the autumn colors, a sparkling lake, and stunning wildlife. What more could you ask for? Custer State Park has several great hiking trails, each with something unique to offer.

A few of our favorite trails and great hikes in the park are:

  • Black Elk Peak Loop – the highest point in South Dakota & East of the Rockies
  • Little Devil’s Tower – panoramic views and fun rock scrambling
  • Cathedral Spires Trail – stunning views of the impressively looming granite rock formations
  • Sunday Gulch Trail – forested trail, rock passages, running water, and a unique stair walkway
  • Sylvan Lake Shore Trail – a beautiful stroll around Sylvan Lake’s calm waters and unique rock features

If you are traveling through South Dakota’s Black Hills, we encourage you to spend time in Custer State Park. For more information on hiking trails, scenic roads, great events like the annual bison roundup, and amazing ways to connect with nature in Custer, check out our Custer State Park Guide!

For more information as you plan your hikes in the park, check out our complete guide to the Best Hikes in Custer State Park.

Hiking couple and their dog in front of Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park

National Parks & National Monuments in the Black Hills

Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument is home to the third-largest cave in the world.

On a guided tour you get the opportunity to step underground and into a foreign world of large open rooms filled with delicate formations, sparkling “jewels”, and vivid colors. Walking along the pathways through this silent underground oasis leaves you with a real sense of curiosity about all that exists where our eyes cannot easily see and all that has occurred throughout history to create these magnificent wonders.

And with many miles of the cave (which is already over 200 miles long) yet to be discovered, you can’t help but imagine what else may exist here down beneath the Black Hills.

Large room in Jewel Cave while doing the Scenic Tour at Jewel Cave National Monument

Jewel Cave National Monument offers a few different tours:

  • Discovery Tour: A 20 minute (0.1 mile) accessible tour in the first large room encountered in the section of the cave where tours are given. No steps are required. ($6/adult, $3/youth, $1/ for 5 and under, $3/senior)
  • Historic Lantern Tour: A step back in time to adventure through the cave as they would in the early 1900s. Explore the cave by lantern in a section that includes tight passages and wooden steps over 1/2 mile. Only offered from mid-May to early September. ($16/adult, $8/youth)
  • Scenic Tour: On this 1/2 mile tour, 80 minutes tour, explore various rooms and chambers of the cave. Includes over 700 steps and the opportunity to learn more about a variety of crystals and formations that exist in the cave, as well as new findings and additional exploration happening here. ($16/adult, $8/youth, $1/ for 5 and under). This was the tour we did and found it to be very impressive and informative.
  • Wild Cave Tour: If you are interested in a more rugged and authentic caving experience, this might be what you are looking for! This is a very strenuous tour over 2/3 of a mile that is not for those afraid of heights or tight spaces. 3-4 hours overall and those participating must be able to pass through an 8-1/2 inch by 24-inch crawl space before embarking on the adventure. If you are curious if you could fit through this small space, there is a place to try it out outside the theater. Only offered from mid-May to early September. ($45/adult; must be 16 or older)
Cave bacon at Jewell Cave National Monument
Jewel Cave has unique features including cave bacon and plenty of sparkling calcite crystals
The sparkling "jewels" that make up Jewel Cave at Jewel Cave National Monument in South Dakota
Unique formations inside Jewel Cave at Jewel Cave National Monument

All reservations can be made on recreation.gov and advanced booking is suggested. We found that weekend tours booked up especially fast. In addition, note that you will not be able to bring anything into the cave with you (food, drink, bags, purse, etc.). The cave is a near-constant 49 degrees Fahrenheit, no matter the time of year! Cold outside in winter? Perhaps escape down into Jewell Cave.

Wind Cave National Park

30 miles southeast of Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park offers adventures both above and below ground. Hike some trails, go for a scenic drive, experience wildlife on the prairies of the surface, or head down into a unique cave that holds 95% of the known boxwork in the world.

While only around 160 miles of this cave have been mapped, based on barometric readings it is hypothesized that this complex cave may actually contain thousands of miles yet to be discovered or explored.

Boxwork in Wind Cave at Wind Cave National Park during the Natural Entrance Tour
Amazing boxwork lines the ceiling in Wind Cave

There are 6 guided tours offered at Wind Cave:

  • Accessibility Tour: A 30-minute tour exploring an accessible room of the cave ($7/adult, $4/youth, $1/ for 5 and under, $4/senior)
  • Candlelight Tour: A historic-style tour of the cave by candlelight in a section with no lights. 2 hours and 424 steps. ($17/adult)
  • Fairgrounds Tour: A chance to explore two levels of the cave, middle and upper. 0.6 miles with 450 steps over a 90-minute tour. ($17/adult, $9/youth, $1/ for 5 and under, $9/senior)
  • Garden of Eden Tour: An easier 0.3 mile, 1-hour tour with 150 steps. Also includes the chance to see boxwork, frostwork, and cave popcorn. ($15/adult, $8/youth, $1/ for 5 and under, $8/senior)
  • Natural Entrance Tour: A chance to explore a 0.6 mile section of the cave, as well as learn more about the historical significance of the cave to the native Lakota people. 75 minutes and 300 stairs, many of which are very dimly lit. This was the tour we did and found it to be a perfect amount of time to see the section of the cave you have access to. ($17/adult, $9/youth, $1/ for 5 and under, $9/senior)
  • Wild Cave Tour: A 4 hour caving experience in an area of the cave that has not been developed with walkways, stairs, and handrails as the other cave tours have. If you are interested in this tour, you must be able to squeeze through a 10-inch tall by 3-feet wide opening. Tour is offered from June through Labor Day and requires helmets, knee pads, and light (provided). ($46/adult; must be 16 or older).

Similar to Jewell Cave, all reservations for Wind Cave tours can be made on recreation.gov and advanced booking is suggested.

We found the general structure of the tours we took at Jewell Cave and Wind Cave to be very similar. This being said, we found the experiences in the different caves themselves to be worlds apart.

Jewell Cave was expansive and sparkling and Wind Cave was more narrow and filled with intricate box work, instead of the traditional formations you might think of when envisioning a cave.

Two females enjoying the Natural Entrance Tour at Wind Cave National Park, one of the best things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

View of Mount Rushmore from the Presidential Trail, one of the best things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota
View of Mount Rushmore through the trees along the Presidential Trail

This famed American icon also calls the Black Hills of South Dakota home. Born as a way to bring tourism to the area and celebrate the phases of growth and development throughout our nation’s history, it has certainly achieved its goal. With over 2 million visitors each year, Mount Rushmore gives tourists the opportunity to marvel at a mountainside sculpting feat set to live on for the next 7 million years.

Being busy in the summer and fall months, the NPS recommends visiting early or late (before 9 or after 3:30) to avoid larger crowds.

There are a few different ways you can experience Mount Rushmore:

  • Visit the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center, watch the 14-minute educational film
  • Enjoy a Ranger-led talk in the Sculptor’s Studio to learn more about the carving process that took 14 years and involved over 400 workers
  • Walk the Presidential Trail (0.6 miles, 422 steps) to get different viewpoints of the sculpture, enjoy the surrounding trees and nature, and learn more about each president chosen
  • Buy some souvenirs at the gift shop or enjoy a bite to eat at the Cafe or Ice Cream shop
  • Utilize a device to help facilitate your self-guided tour. The Audio Tour can be rented for $6. The Multimedia Tour (which includes photos and videos) can be rented for $8.
  • In the summer you might also be able to enjoy a free ranger-led 30-minute walk or talk. Details will be posted in the Visitor or Information Center.
Mount Rushmore out the window of the Sculptor's Studio
Inside the Sculptor’s Studio

Know Before You Go:

  • There is a charge for parking and your National Park Pass will NOT work. Entering the park will require parking somewhere in a large, multilevel parking area. It is $10 for parking ($5/seniors, FREE for active duty military). Your parking fee allows you unlimited access for 1 year after purchase. You can pay for parking at various stations around the parking area or within the Memorial site.
  • Open year-round, buildings are closed on Christmas Day.
  • Parking and grounds open at 5 am throughout the year and close between 9 pm and 11 pm depending on the time of year.

We spent about 2 hours at Mount Rushmore and had a great visit. This included taking in the view at the Grand View Terrace, listening to the Ranger-led talk at the Sculptor’s studio, walking the Presidential Trail, and buying a sticker from the Gift Shop.

We were surprised by how built up it was and while we were nervous about how we would find Mount Rushmore, having heard rumblings that it can be overrated, we were genuinely impressed. You may not need to carve out several hours for this experience, but we believe it is still worthwhile. An American classic!

Crazy Horse Memorial

While you might be familiar with Mount Rushmore, you might know less about another mountain carving that exists in the Black Hills; Crazy Horse Memorial. This privately owned memorial aims to preserve the culture and traditions of the North American Indians. A work in progress, the Crazy Horse Memorial has gone through many phases since its beginning in 1948. We chose to forego this memorial as we were short on time. You can get a pretty good look at it from the road. This will be quite the sight once it is complete!

As a private memorial, rates are a bit higher than Mount Rushmore. $30 for 2 people in a vehicle or $35 for 3+ people during peak season.

Wildlife Viewing

The Black Hills of South Dakota are not only a great destination for great hiking and National Parks, Monuments, and Memorials. It is also home to a variety of wildlife! We loved getting to experience the variety of wildlife that calls the Black Hills home, in a variety of landscapes!

Wildlife Loop Road

An 18-mile scenic drive through prairie grasslands and rolling hills of Custer State Park. Along this route, you might see wildlife including bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn, deer, elk, coyotes, eagles, hawks, and burros.

Baby bison among adult bison in Custer State Park
Donkeys in the trees in Custer State Park
Donkeys begging for food along Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park

Wind Cave National Park

On the surface of Wind Cave National Park’s trails and scenic drives are home to more great wildlife. Here you can find more bison, prairie dogs, elk, the black-footed ferret, and pronghorn.

Bison and prairie dogs grazing in the grasslands at Wind Cave National Park

Black Hills Scenic Drives

Needles Highway

A 14-mile road that winds through Custer State Park offers breathtaking views of towering pine forests, large granite spires and rock formations, peaceful meadows, and unique and potentially hair-raising narrow and low stone tunnels. Needles Highway closes during the winter months. We loved experiencing it during fall, watching the autumn colors come to life.

This road is definitely NOT RV friendly and while we made it through all the tunnels, twists, and turns, in our long bed dually truck, it was certainly tight.

Our best advice? Take it slow, check for oncoming traffic and roll the windows down and check your distance from the sides. If you are like us and driving Needles Highway in a large vehicle, you can expect an audience watching nervously to see if you get through.

View of the twists and turns of the Needles Highway in Custer State Park in South Dakota

There are 2 one-way tunnels to take note of along the Needles Highway:

  • Iron Creek Tunnel: 8′ 9″ wide by 10’10” high
  • Needles Eye Tunnel: 8′ 0″ wide by 9’8″ high
Narrow rock tunnel along the Needles Highway in Custer State Park

Iron Mountain Road

Iron Mountain Road is a scenic drive that includes 17 miles of winding roads connecting Mount Rushmore to Custer State Park. A road meant for slowing down and enjoying the beautiful scenery this area has to offer, it is recommended to allow at least 1 hour for this scenic route.

We did not get to complete this during our visit, but have heard great things about this road and how beautiful and fun it is to explore!

Includes 3 tunnels:
Doane Robinson Tunnel, 12′ 0″ wide by 11′ 4″ high;
C.C. Gideon Tunnel, 11′ 6″ wide by 10′ 9″ high;
Scovel Johnson Tunnel, 10′ 9″ wide by 11′ 0″ high.

George S. Mickelson Trail

A mostly gentle and wide path that covers 109 miles throughout the Black Hills area that is open year-round. Perfect for walking, biking, or hiking. We experienced only a small section of this trail, but this could be a great addition to your itinerary if you are looking for a flatter place to explore at your own pace.

Cost: ($4 daily fee or $15 annual fee to use). You can also access it easily from Custer State Park.

Where to stay in the Black Hills: Camping and Boondocking

Another great thing to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota is to go camping. We travel full-time in our RV so we are a bit biased. We find camping to be the best way to immerse ourselves in different landscapes. Camping brings you closer to nature and can be a great way to unplug, unwind, and support your well-being.

Free Camping & Boondocking in the Black Hills

RV boondocking at North Pole Road in Custer South Dakota
Boondocking at North Pole Road

Private Campgrounds & State Parks

  • Rafter J Bar Ranch: With family coming to visit while we were in Custer, it was important for us to be on the grid for a while. Rafter J Bar Ranch is a well-known, high-ranking campground. It is nicely spread out, well-maintained, and very peaceful. It also has a great location, right across from Custer State Park.
  • Stockdale Lake Campground: A highly rated state park campground with easy access to the west entrance of Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore
  • Sylvan Lake Campground: Great state park campground with easy access to beautiful Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.
  • Horsethief Campground: Private campground nestled in nature with amenities close to many Black Hills attractions.

Best Time To Visit The Black Hills

Black Hills Weather

The most visited time of year in the Black Hills falls between late May and late September or early September. We found temperatures to be perfect in mid-September, with a touch of coolness with the emergence of fall. Perfect for boondocking comfortably and exploring the best hikes and things to do in the Black Hills and surrounding areas.

Other Sights Near The Black Hills

Looking for other things to do in the Black Hills area? Perhaps take a ride on the oldest continuously operating railroad in the U.S. on the 1880 train between Hill City and Keystone, enjoying the beautiful scenery of the area out the windows. This area is also a great place for fishing and rock climbing. One of our servers at a local restaurant even told us he moved to this area specifically for the great climbing!

If you are looking to add on to a road trip or see more outside South Dakota’s Black Hills, here are a few options to keep in mind:

  • Spearfish, SD: Explore the Northern Black Hills. Plenty of outdoor adventures including hiking, biking, ice climbing, and cross-country skiing.
  • The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs South Dakota: The largest mammoth research facility in the world. See fossils and tour an active dig site. ($14/adult, $12/senior, $11/child)
  • Devil’s Tower National Monument: One of the best crack climbing locations in the United States. This unique feature was formed by molten rock and towers 5,112 feet above the prairie. Located just over the border in Devil’s Tower Wyoming, it is about 100 miles (just under 2 hours) from Custer South Dakota.
  • Badlands National Park: 2 hours east of the Black Hills, you will run into Badlands National Park. This beautiful display of eroded buttes and sharp pinnacle formations among the grasslands offers the chance to explore unique geology that will have you feeling like you have been transported to another planet. This is also a great place to see wildlife including bighorn sheep, bison, and prairie dogs. The layers of the badlands, created throughout history, offer a colorful snapshot of how the land has changed over time. We highly recommend a visit and camping on “The Wall”, a top badlands boondocking area with breathtaking views
View from "the wall" overlooking the badlands in Wall South Dakota
View of the Badlands from the Nomad View Dispersed Camping Area

Black Hills Attractions Map

This map is a helpful starting point to get an idea of where different unique attractions are around the Black Hills region as you plan your trip:

You can also explore local guided tours, activities, and audio tours to help you make the most of your time in this beautiful area!


Places To Stay Near The Black Hills:

Campgrounds & Camping Options:

If you are looking for the perfect one-stop shop for comparing RV parks, private campgrounds, and glamping options and prices with instant booking, we highly recommend Campspot.

Our other favorite resources for finding great campgrounds and campsites include Campendium, RV Life, and iOverlander. These sites will include private campground options, state and national park campgrounds, and free camping areas on public land.

You can also check out HipCamp and TheDyrt for more unique camping experiences and accommodations.

RV Rental: If you are looking to get closer to nature but don’t have an RV, consider renting one through RV Share. We used this service when renting out our Casita and found them to be high quality and easy to use!

And if you plan to boondock and are new to dry camping, check out our boondocking guide!

Other Black Hills Accommodations:

Another great way to get closer to nature is glamping or nature-centric stays. Here are some options like that near Custer South Dakota:

You can explore all Custer area accommodations and compare prices on Booking.com, which is a great resource for unique stays at the best rates.

Please protect these areas - for the wildlife, the environment, and for the enjoyment of future generations. Practice Leave No Trace

Other articles to help you build your travel itinerary in the Dakotas:

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