Go, See, Travel | A Black Hills Family Trip — Itinerary

family vacation to black hills
zrfphoto from Getty Images via canva.com

Going to the Black Hills in South Dakota was never at the top of my bucket list, but it’s drivable from the Cedar Rapids area, and other families told me how great it was with their kids, so I begrudgingly planned a trip.

Wow, was I wrong!

If you have a 4th grader, you can easily get a pass online, allowing you to enter National Parks around the Black Hills area for free. Print the pass here before you go because this trip includes four National Parks!

Here is a 10-day plan to see and do as much as possible with kids on the way to and from the Black Hills in South Dakota:

Day 1

Eat supper in the car or along the way.

  • Drive to Sioux Falls, IA (5 Hours 20 min)
  • Stay in a hotel – We enjoyed the Hampton Inn.

Day 2

Free Breakfast at the Hotel

  • Butterfly Garden & Aquarium.
    • We went right when it opened at 10 and were done about 12pm.
    • For sure get all the kids a butterfly feeder! That was the coolest part.
    • It’s 90 degrees in the butterfly house, so dress accordingly!
  • There is also Falls Park and a Zoo, but we intend to go back another time so we didn’t miss the sunset at the Badlands!

Lunch in Sioux Falls. (We liked Noodles and Company.)

  • Leave no later than 1pm for Badlands National Park (4 hour drive.)
  • We didn’t plan on it, but stopped at the 1880s town on the way. It was shabby, but neat and the kids enjoyed it. With the hour time change to Mountain time, we didn’t actually lose the hour we stopped there in regard to the sunset time. 
  • Stay at Frontier Cabins Motel.
    • Check in after 3pm
    • Great Location & Decent Price
    • You can park right next to your cabin, so I could easily reorganize the mess the van had become.
    • Has a playground the kids had a lot of fun on first thing in the morning

Supper – We ended up eating random things in the car because we didn’t want to miss sunset at the Badlands. I’d have some things ready that could pass as supper! There was not a lot to eat in Wall, SD.

  • Sunset – Check times for the time of year you go!
    • Pinnacles Overlook – Great place to see the sunset
    • Very close to Frontier Cabins!
    • At the gate to The Badlands, you can exchange a paper National Park Pass for having a 4th grader for a plastic card and get in free to all the parks until August of the following year.

Day 3

Breakfast in the cabin brought from home. 

Explore Badlands National Park (Our kids were happy they brought their hiking sticks!)

  • Door Trial
    • Super cool place and easier for little ones to explore
    • There is an actual trail, but we just climbed around awhile and went back because I didn’t want to run out of time for The Notch Trail.
  • Notch Trail
    • At the end of the same long parking lot for the windows and doors entrance
    • Very cool hike – includes a wooden ladder and a nice big view.
    • Definitely would have some scary parts with little kids who don’t have a healthy fear of heights or would run ahead of you/not listen.
  • Cliff Shelf Nature Trail
    • Not Scary at all
    • 0.5 mile loop

Lunch – Packed Picnic and eat at tables near visitors center

  • Ben Reifel Visitor Center (Open 9-4pm)
    • Get Junior Ranger Books
    • Check out displays and cool off
  • Leave the Badlands via the Badlands Loop Road. Pretty drive and saw lots of wildlife (That’s why you could skip Custer’s wildlife loop road later on if you wanted.)

We went to Wall Drug and tried to figure out what we were supposed to love about the place. We had the homemade pie and ice cream. It was good, but not really worth the the hype. People said we had to stop there, but we weren’t impressed. We’d rather have gotten to our rental earlier and relaxed!

  • Drive to Custer, SD (2 Hours) to stay in rental house. I chose Custer because it was a good middle point for all the attractions around. 

Day 4

Breakfast at the house.

Drive to Hot Springs – 40 Minutes

  • The Mammoth Site
    • Open from 9-5pm
    • Expect 1-3 hours for visit
    • You can bring earbuds if you want to do the audio tour.

Lunch at Red Shed Smokehouse in Black Hills. SO GOOD! It’s an outdoor place across from Evan’s Plunge, so we could just park once. We ended up having leftovers and no one was sad about that. 

  • Evan’s Plunge – One of the kids favorite things we did!
    • Bring towels & Water Shoes (The bottom is all rocks!)
    • Closed Tuesdays & Wednesdays
    • Hours: 6am-7pm
    • 1145 North River Street, Hot Springs, SD 57747
  • Pioneer Museum OR World Fossil Finder Museum (We didn’t get out of Evan’s Plunge until close to 5 so we didn’t do these.)
    • Both open 9-5pm
  • Centennial Park  
    • Easy walk to the waterfall. You can also see the waterfall by the road.
    • There is also a spring of mineral water that you can drink or fill up a water bottle.

Later Supper – We enjoyed Dairy Queen in Hot Springs.

Day 5

Breakfast at the house

  • 1880s Train at Hill City 11:30
    • Not heated or cooled – bring a jacket
    • 20 minutes from Custer
    • Taffy Shop nearby
    • 16 minutes to Cosmos

Lunch – High-Liner Eatery. The food can be taken on the train or eaten after the trip.

We went late in the season so the High-Liner was closed, but there were sandwiches, wraps, and meat & cheese trays that could be purchased in the gift shop where you picked up tickets. We just brought some containers with veggies & apples to add to our lunch and put them with ice packs in a backpack. The sandwich containers were really big and hard to jam into backpacks so bringing something to wrap them smaller might not be a bad idea if you are going to haul them around for a little bit before eating.

  • Cosmos Mystery Area
    • Try to get tour about 3pm The kids LOVED this! The adults could take or leave it – but it was the kids’ favorite thing we did all day!
    • Open 10am-4pm
    • They don’t take advance tours the day of, but we were able to walk in and get into a tour. During their peak season, definitely book before!
    • Lasts about 40 minutes
    • 15 minutes from Mount Rushmore
  • Stop at National Presidents Wax Museum in Keystone on the way to Rushmore
    • People spend 1-2 hours
    • Scavenger Hunt for Kids (We didn’t see this, but only had about an hour in there and didn’t ask about it either.)
    • Hours: 8:30am-5pm
  • Holy Terror Mini Golf (next door) – We didn’t have time to do this, but another fun option. 
    • Open 9-5pm through Sept 30
    • Buy Tickets at Wax Museum

Supper – Cruizzers Pizza. The outdoor seating had a beautiful view and the pizza was good!

  • Mount Rushmore 
    • $10 to Park
    • Free Entrance
    • Visitor Center is open until 9pm (Sculpture Studio will be closed)
      • Get Junior Ranger books!
      • As soon as it was getting dark, we did the Visitor Center stuff, then back outside for the lighting ceremony
    • 8:00 Pm Lighting Ceremony – about a half hour – a talk by the ranger and a video about the presidents on the mountain. Honoring veterans and lighting the faces. 

Day 6

Breakfast at House

  • Jewel Cave – Go right away in the morning if you go! Feel free to skip if you are also going to Wind Cave. 
    • Open 8:30-4:30 – Tours at 9:15 to 2:30
    • Modified Discovery Tour (1 hr. 15 minutes)
    • Wear sturdy closed toed shoes
    • The Junior Ranger Book was a pain to do if your kids aren’t reading and writing  independently.
    • Roof Trail Hiking
      • Trail begins on south side of visitor center
      • ¼ mile loop

Lunch in at restaurant in Custer.

Afternoon Choices:

  • Rest and relax
  • Hike in Big Rock park in Custer – up to scenic views
  • Shop in Custer

Early Supper at the house or a restaurant in Custer.

  • Crazy Horse Memorial – get there no later than 6pm
    • Educational & Cultural Center Open 9am-7pm
    • Very impressive Native American Museum 
    • Laser Light show at 7:30pm
      • About a half hour
      • It was neat, but be dressed for the weather. It got very cold!

Day 7

Breakfast at the house

  • Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills
    • We decided to go back to see it in the daylight, turn in the Junior Ranger Books and get badges as well and walk the presidential trail (0.6 miles at the base of Mount Rushmore) and see the sculptor’s studio. 
    • Mount Rushmore had the best Junior Ranger books and cool wooden badges. 

Lunch – At house in Custer

  • Custer State Park
    • I’m not sure why it’s not a National Park. It’s so beautiful!
    • Needles Highway (We did not get time to do this, but it does seem neat.)
    • Hike – We did The Little Devils Tower Trail – it was 1.5 miles one way, but pretty strenuous at the end. You were climbing rocks, but it was marked. It took us about 3 hours and some bad attitudes among the kids came and went. The adults loved it. If your kids don’t have a healthy fear of heights, it would definitely make you anxious.
    • It’s right next to the highest point in SD – Black Elk Peak. The views are amazing. The hike back down took 45 minutes less because it was downhill. 

Supper –  Picnic at Sylvan Lake

  • There is an easy mile hike around Sylvan Lake that it got too dark for us to do, but the kids  LOVED climbing on the big rocks around the lake for some amazing views (and photos since the sun was setting.) 
  • There is a little beach there as well if you get there early enough for some sand play.
  • You can rent boats there as well.

Day 8

Breakfast at the house

  • Wind Cave National Park – 25 minutes from Custer
  • While waiting for your tour:
    • Check out Visitors Center
    • Hike Rankin Ridge Trail – 1 mile long
    • Complete Junior. Ranger Book (This book was a good one – much more accessible to kids who aren’t reading a lot.)

Lunch – Picnic at Wind Cave. (Picnic Tables across from Visitors Center.)

  • If you are going to do The Wildlife Loop, do it on the way home. You can bring carrots for the donkeys if they are out. Plan your route ahead of time because there is not a lot of cell reception at Wind Cave, so Google maps won’t work for you!
  • Hollingsworth Horses Horseback Riding
    • About 15 minutes from Custer
    • Early evening was perfect because the golden light makes it so pretty!
    • $75 per rider – cash or personal check
    • Riders need to be 8 years old and under 240 pounds. I called for my daughter and they said she would be ok at 7.5. They don’t have saddles small enough for smaller kids, but I think they will let them still ride around in the ring a bit for no charge. Call to make sure it would work for your family before booking.
    • You can bring bike helmets for riding if you want as they don’t provide helmets.
    • We thought the wranglers were great and taught you a lot about riding a horse in a short period of time. 

Supper – pick up food and go back to the house to relax and pack up.

Day 9

Breakfast at the house 

  • Pack up and leave the rental
  • Drive to Rapid City – 47 minutes
  • Go to Reptile Gardens
    • Open 9-4pm
    • Most people spend 2-3 hours there.
    • Kids loved it! You can go in with tortoises, watch prairie dogs, and see just about any reptile you’d want to see. 

Lunch – Packed picnic or find Something in Rapid City

  • Bear Country USA – (People said this was cool, but we decided not to do this because of time constraints and past animal abuse charges.)
    • Open 9-4pm
    • 2-3 hours
  • Storybook Island
    • This closes in mid-September. 
    • Open 9am-7pm
    • It’s FREE! 

Supper – Firehouse Brewery

  • Firehouse was neat and had great food! It’s an old firehouse downtown.
  • They had outdoor seating and the kids each got a fire hat.
  • Downtown Rapid City also has bronze statues of the presidents all over, so that was kind of cool to predict who you thought it was before looking at the tag. 

Stay the night in Rapid City

  • We stayed at Home2Suites. It was nice and a good price – it had a little kitchen with a fridge with a freezer which was great since we had a long drive the next day and could make sandwiches and freeze our ice packs.
  • It was connected to a waterpark and 3 other hotels, which was hard on the kids because we did not want to pay $48 to use the very crowded waterpark. It also meant there were a lot of kids in the hotel, but no one was kept awake by the noise.

Day 10

Free Breakfast at the hotel.

Drive Home  – about 10 hours

  • Stop at Corn Palace – Mitchell, SD 
  • Free entrance
  • This wasn’t the greatest thing ever, but the kids liked it. They have a live webcam on the balcony, so we could call grandma and wave to her and do cartwheels on the balcony for her to see! We bought some popcorn balls and they got to climb on a tractor inside.
I hope you and your kids get to discover the beauty and history of Black Hills, South Dakota. What else would you explore in the Black Hills? Share your experience in the comments.


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