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Look no further for the best all-encompassing Black Hills itinerary for spending up to 4-days in the Black Hills of South Dakota!
This article features the best things to do in the Black Hills as well as details our epic 4-day Black Hills itinerary on where to stay and how to get around this iconic US vacation and sightseeing destination.
With our ultimate Black Hills itinerary, you’ll have plenty of time to experience the best Black Hills views, attractions, family-friendly things to do.
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Black Hills Itinerary: Best Time to Visit
The Black Hills are a small mountain range in western South Dakota that extends into Wyoming, USA.
Because of its varying elevations and four distinct seasons, the weather in the Black Hills can be unpredictable and vary quite drastically from community to community.
The most popular times to visit are during the months of June, July, and August when temperatures are the warmest and children are not in school.
Some feel that the best times to visit the Black Hills are during the months of September and October, and April and May, as crowds and prices are less.
We suggest not planning your Black Hills itinerary during the winter months due to its cold temperatures, frequent road closures related to snow accumulation, seasonal attractions being closed, and fewer hours of daylight.
Black Hills Itinerary Ideas
The Black Hills region is a popular road-trip tourist destination for those of us that live in the Midwest. In addition, the Black Hills top the list of most United States family bucket lists for its classic and outdoorsy appeal.
Whether you’re visiting a historic monument, exploring Custer State Park, or spending 1 day in the Badlands, a visit to the Black Hills is iconic, memorable, scenic, and exciting!
We visited the Black Hills area when our boys were 8, 6, and 4 years old. I wouldn’t have gone with the kids being any younger, and we will perhaps go again once they get older.
Several of the attractions in the Black Hills, such as Storybook Island and Dinosaur Park, are definitely suited for younger children.
However, the monuments, parks, and awe-inspiring landscapes will definitely make more of an impression on elementary-aged children up to older adults.
All of our top recommended restaurants, landmarks, and attractions are bolded. Their physical locations fit into the flow of this itinerary. If you choose to substitute a restaurant or attraction in their place, be sure to adjust the timing of your itinerary accordingly.
Black Hills Itinerary: Day 1
- Travel to Rapid City, South Dakota.
- Stop at the Mitchell Corn Palace along the way.
- Have lunch at The Depot Pub & Grill in Mitchell.
- Continue on down the highway and stop to tour the South Dakota Air And Space Museum.
- Upon arriving in Rapid City, visit the free Dinosaur Park and Storybook Island. Be sure to take lots of photos!
- Have dinner and drinks at Independent Ale House; awesome pizza, beer, and a chill atmosphere.
Rapid City, South Dakota
U.S. Interstate 90 is the main route for ground travel into the Black Hills region.
Opting to take this route, we left our hometown in Minnesota at dusk to begin our 8
Mitchell Corn Palace
A right-of-passage when road-tripping to the Black Hills, we powered 300 miles to Mitchell, SD to visit the “World’s Only Corn Palace”.
Constructed in 1892, the Mitchell Corn Palace was built as a way to promote local agriculture.
Its crop-art decorated expo hall and uniquely designed corn murals attract more than a half-million visitors a year.
Luckily the Corn Palace is free to visit, as there is nothing overly exciting or intriguing about visiting other than to simply say that you have done it.
Tour the local shops, grab lunch and get back on the road.
Time spent at Mitchell Corn Palace: 30 minutes
South Dakota Air and Space Museum
Another free attraction, we found The South Dakota Air and Space Museum to be a real treat to visit as we continued our travels into Rapid City.
Our kids loved the outdoor airpark filled with WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and present-day aircraft.
Similarly, four indoor hangars showcase additional military history and technology displays, as well as include a great gift shop.
Bus tours of the local Ellsworth Air Force Base are available for little cost during limited months.
Time spent at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum: 45 minutes
As one of the Black Hills’ first tourist attractions, this free family attraction has been open since 1936.
Dinosaur Park is home to giant concrete statues of dinosaurs and is located high up on a ridge overlooking the Black Hills.
Somewhat of a quirky roadside attraction, one can’t help but appreciate its historical age and spectacular 100-mile views.
Be mindful that there are quite a few uphill steps required from the parking lot to the dinosaur viewing area.
Time spent at Dinosaur Park: 30 minutes
Storybook Island is a beautiful children’s park that has whimsical play areas based on storybook characters.
There is not much that is off-limits at this giant play space as children are encouraged to play and climb on all of the character replicas.
Another free attraction in Rapid City, there is, however, a carousel, train ride, and bounce house with tickets for purchase.
Storybook Island is open Memorial Day to Labor Day, daily, from 9 AM – 7 PM, weather permitting.
Time spent: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Alternate Option: Day 1
The other option for the afternoon of Day 1 is taking a one-hour drive to East to Badlands National Park.
Badlands National Park consists of a big area of colorful sharply eroded buttes and pinnacles, along with the largest undisturbed mixed grass prairie in the United States.
The rugged beauty of the Badlands draws visitors from around the world to view its dramatic layered rock formations and steep canyons.
Its incredibly unique landscapes and plentiful opportunities for exploration will make this an additional highlight on your family vacation to consider.
Additional planning tip: Looking for a similar experience to Badlands National Park? Consider visiting Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota.
This is another one of our favorite U.S. National Parks!
Black Hills Itinerary: Day 2
- Grab a coffee at the Pour Bean Coffee House in Rapid City before getting on the road.
- Travel along Highway 16 out of Rapid City and stop to visit Bear Country USA and/or Reptile Gardens.
- Make your way to Mount Rushmore and take your time exploring there.
- Eat lunch onsite at Carvers’ Cafe for excellent food and views of Mount Rushmore.
- Travel to the Cosmos Mystery Area and have a blast!
- End the day with a round of mini-golf at Pirate Cove in Rapid City.
Southern Black Hills
Mount Rushmore is the main draw to this area, so it is only fitting to include a visit to Mount Rushmore early in your Black Hills itinerary.
Likewise, if the weather becomes an issue, you’ll have the
Highway 16, the road to Mount Rushmore, is lined with several of the best Black Hills attractions for kids.
You will probably need to pick and choose what you want to stop and experience because this is where the admission costs will definitely start to add up.
Bear Country U.S.A.
Head down Highway 16 W from Rapid City and in 9 miles you will come across signs for Bear Country U.S.A.
Bear Country is a drive-thru wildlife park that is ranked #8 in terms of things to do in the Black Hills.
Black bears, reindeer, elk, buffalo, and mountain lions can be viewed roaming free in their natural environment from the comfort of your car.
We had gone to a similar attraction before, so Bear Country U.S.A. was not one of our stops, but it is considered to be a slam dunk family experience.
Reviews mention getting there right away in the morning as that is when the animals are most active.
Admission is paid per person, or a maximum vehicle rate of $65.00. Get directions and other visitor information here.
Time spent at Bear Country U.S.A.: 2 – 3 hours
If you would like to consider a different type of animal experience, it’s worth looking into visiting Reptile Gardens.
This Black Hills attraction is the world’s largest reptile zoo and is home to some of the world’s most venomous snakes.
Deemed both fun and educational, Reptile Gardens is ranked #4 in Trip Advisor’s recommended thing to do in the Black Hills and is located only 8 miles from its counterpart, Bear Country U.S.A.
Admission is steep at $18.00 for adults, $12.00 for children ages 5-12, children ages 4 and under are free.
Time spent at Reptile Gardens: 2-3 hours
Mount Rushmore National Memorial
14 miles further down the highway is the majestic Mount Rushmore.
This is the one attraction you must see in the Black Hills as it tops the list of one of the best places to visit during a South Dakota road trip!
Mount Rushmore features the faces of 4 great U.S. Presidents carved 60 feet high out of the granite mountainside.
After admiring the enormous faces, there are numerous other ways to experience this site and immerse yourself in its surroundings.
Visitors can watch a 14-minute film depicting the history and carving of Mount Rushmore or walk the Presidential Trail to get up close to the mountain sculpture.
Children ages 3 and up can complete the Junior Ranger Program. (Booklets are available at the information desk.)
There is no entrance fee for Mount Rushmore Memorial, however,
Read my post on the Ultimate Guide to Visiting Mount Rushmore to learn exactly what to expect when visiting the memorial!
Time spent at Mount Rushmore: 1 – 2 hours
Cosmos Mystery Area
Located 15 minutes from Mount Rushmore is Cosmos Mystery Area.
Known as ‘the strangest location in the Black Hills’ the Cosmos is a physically unforgettable family experience.
This was a highlight of our Black Hills itine
Read all about the Cosmos Mystery Area and its entrance fees here.
Time spent at Cosmos Mystery Area: 1 – 2 hours
Pirate Cove Adventure Golf
We capped off our day back in Rapid City with a round of mini-golf at Pirate Cove Adventure Golf.
I always like to include one stop at a mini-golf location in all of the ‘tourist-y’ cities that we visit. Pirate Cove was a great choice!
Additional planning tip: If any of these locations do
Black Hills Itinerary: Day 3
- Pack the car and a picnic for an entire day spent exploring the great outdoors!
- Take time exploring Custer State Park while twisting and turning on Needles Highway, and looping through Wildlife Loop Road.
- History buffs may want to check out nearby Crazy Horse Memorial. Adventure seekers will like Jewel or Wind Cave. And finally, kids will love the Mammoth Site Museum. All are a great choice!
- Have dinner at our family favorite, Texas Roadhouse, back in Rapid City.
Custer State Park
Custer State Park is one of the few truly wild places that remain in this country.
Home to a famous herd of 1400 free-roaming bison, the park is also known for its awe-inspiring scenery, scenic drives, and prairie dog towns.
No trip to the Black Hills is complete without a visit to Custer State Park.
We loved every minute here – and so will you! With so much to see and do once there, you’ll definitely want to read this ultimate guide to Custer State Park!
Time spent at Custer State Park: 2 hours (There is enough to do here for 1 full day, however.)
The 14-mile Needles Highway within Custer State Park is an absolutely spectacular drive through pine forests and rugged mountains.
The road’s name comes from the needle-like granite formations in which the highway was carved out.
Due to its high elevation, hairpin turns, and narrow passageways, this drive can be a bit stomach-churning. Its beauty is so captivating, however, that even the faint of heart is sure to appreciate it.
When making travel plans, be sure to allow ample time to travel at a safe speed – generally 25 MPH or slower.
Time spent driving Needles Highway: 45 – 60 minutes
Wildlife Loop Road
The 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road takes visitors through open grasslands, red-walled canyons, and pine-covered hills to experience mother nature at its finest.
Depending on the day you might see buffalo, bighorn sheep, elk, whitetail deer, burros, prairie dogs, eagles,
At the Loop Road’s southeastern tip, wild burros frequently approach car windows to ‘beg’ for treats. Occasionally, travelers will experience ‘wildlife jams’ as some of the park’s 1,400 roaming buffalo clog up the roadway.
Time spent driving Wildlife Look Road: 45 minutes
Crazy Horse Memorial
Crazy Horse Memorial is the world’s largest mountain carving and has been under construction since 1948.
Considered the Eighth Wonder of the World in progress, Crazy Horse attracts 1 to 1.5 million visitors a year who seek to watch history being made.
People either choose to see Crazy Horse Memorial in conjunction with Mount
For this 4-day Black Hills itinerary, Crazy Horse Memorial is best visited after or during your visit to Custer State Park.
Time spent at Crazy Horse Memorial: 1-2 hours
Jewel or Wind Cave
For those that are not claustrophobic like me, a trip to the Black Hills area would not be complete without a famous cave tour.
South Dakota happens to be home to some of the longest caves in the world. Likewise, the Black Hills feature two caves that are also National Parks.
Fellow family travel blogger Allison from Tips for Family Trips provides the following comparison to help you choose.
Both within 25 minutes of Custer State Park, but in opposite directions, map out their locations to determine the most efficient travel plan.
Keep in mind that Jewel Cave is located closer to Crazy Horse Memorial.
On the other hand, Wind Cave is a short 15 minutes from Mammoth Site Museum.
Time spent: 2 hours per cave
Mammoth Site Museum
More than 26,000 years ago, dozens of woolly mammoths and other animals were trapped and died in a pond, which is now Hot Springs, SD.
The site was discovered during excavation for a housing development and is now preserved as an active dig site and public museum.
Mammoth Site Museum is fascinating and definitely worth seeing. There are hands-on dig experiences for children and knowledgeable guides that provide a fun and educational experience for the entire family.
General admission for Mammoth Site Museum is around $10 for adults, $7 for kids ages 4-12, and children 3 and under are free.
Time spent at Mammoth Site Museum: 1 – 2 hours
Black Hills Itinerary: Day 4
- Visit the DC Booth Fish Hatchery and be sure to feed the fish and ducks while there.
- Spend the day traveling through Spearfish Canyon stopping at ponds, rivers, and waterfalls.
Northern Black Hills
The last region to hit in this Black Hills itinerary is the region locals call the Northern Black Hills.
Here you’ll find many family-friendly things to do in the towns of Spearfish, Sturgis, Deadwood, and others.
Spearfish-DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery
We started off Day 4 by touring the beautiful grounds of the DC Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery.
DC Booth is one of the oldest operating hatcheries in the country dedicated to fish culture and resource management.
The hatchery covers ten park-like acres with paved walkways and lovely landscaping featuring flower gardens and sculptures. The grounds are well-maintained and very clean.
Attractions include ponds and “raceways” full of trout, a museum dedicated to fish culture, the historic home of the Booth family built in 1905, a boat and a railroad car that were used to transport fish, a cute gift shop, two hiking trails, and an underwater fish-viewing area.
Admission to t
You can also buy bags of fish food in the gift shop for $1 or $2.
Time spent at DC Booth Fish Hatchery: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
Spearfish Canyon is a deep, but narrow gorge carved by the Spearfish River.
The 21-mile long Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway winds its way through the 1000-ft deep canyon and allows visitors a pristine view of multiple natural wonders.
Rock climbing, biking, hiking, and fishing are just a few of the activities that can be done throughout Spearfish Canyon. Our favorites
Bridal Veil Falls, Roughlock Falls, and Spearfish Falls are all well worth the short walks to get to.
If you really want to discover the canyon off-of-the-beaten path, rent a bicycle or ATV at Spearfish Canyon Lodge.
Time spent: Several hours depending on how many stops you make.
Additional planning tip: To further customize your tour of the Northern Hills region, you can consider alternate stops at Devils Tower National Monument, the Black Hills Mining Museum in the town of Lead, or Bear Butte State Park in Sturgis.
Where to Stay When Visiting the Black Hills
Popular cities to lodge in during your Black Hills itinerary include Keystone, Hill City, and Custer, South Dakota.
We chose to stay in Rapid City, South Dakota. Rapid City has a central location, city-like conveniences (fast food, convenience stores, etc.), and an ample amount of lodging options.
Check here for the best deals on Rapid City hotels.
Black Hills Itinerary: Conclusion
We hope that this itinerary has provided you with fun inspiration for a Black Hills family vacation.
I recommend leaving your hotel by 8:00 or 9:00 AM every day and packing a picnic lunch on most days during your visit.
Similarly, be sure to pack a cooler with water and snacks to keep everyone content along the way.
Any Black Hills itinerary requires spending a lot of time spent in the car getting from place to place. It is worth consulting our essential road trip tips, and road trip food list to keep the kids calm and happy while traveling from place to place.
Would you add any other ‘must-dos’ to this Black Hills itinerary? Please comment below; we’d all love to hear from you! -Jen
*Before leaving, be sure to check our Travel Resources Page to find exclusive travel discounts and to book hotels, rental cars, and guided tours.*