Best Free Family Activities In The Black Hills You Need To Experience
The Black Hills of South Dakota are filled with fun and amazing adventures, from hiking through canyons to the iconic sculpted mountains of Rushmore and Crazy Horse. But for many, the few major sights and tourist traps are where their Black Hills vacation ends.
So when we were out there I wanted to see the rest of the Black Hills, the things that dont make it into the national brochures and tv shows. I wanted to show my kids that the hills themselves and the history surrounding them are the attraction.
So here are our favorite free things to do in the Black Hills South Dakota!
Related: Be sure to check out our 5 Best Black Hills Family Attractions!
Things To Do In Hill City The Heart Of The Black Hills
In Hill City you are just minutes from creating great memories, finding adventures and encountering the unexpected! We have fun for the entire family, including your furry friend. Most Hill City businesses are pet-friendly.
You can experience a bit of our history at the State Railroad Museum or the Civilian Conservation Corps Museum or check out more than 10,000 Teddy Bears at the Teddy Bear Museum. You can even try your hand at gold panning, explore a mine or visit one of the areas many caves.
Endless recreational possibilities surround Hill City. Youll find seven lakes nearby, plenty of campgrounds, woodsy resorts, marinas, hiking, bicycling and horseback-riding, fishing, golfing and even rock-climbing. Hill City offers adventures for both young and the young-at-heart to enjoy.
Feed The Begging Burros
While feeding wildlife in Custer State Park or anywhere in the Black Hills is to be avoided, the begging burros are the only exception!
The burros or wild donkeys are notorious for coming to cars for food and not leaving until you feed them.
Hence their name!
While visitors have safely touched and fed these animals since decades, we would still urge being cautious, especially with kids around.
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Getting To The Black Hills
If youre visiting from out of state and flying to South Dakota, your best airport to fly into would probably be Rapid City Regional Airport , which is around 30 minutes to the Black Hills, depending on where youre visiting.Major airlines that fly into this airport include Allegiant, American Airlines, Delta, and United, with direct flights from Atlanta, Minneapolis, Las Vegas, Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix, Denver, and Salt Lake City, with some additional seasonal flights.Southwestern South Dakota is pretty isolated from any other major cities in the US, but depending on where youre coming from and going, it can be a great road trip stop! Heres how far the Black Hills are from some nearby destinations!Note: these drive times and miles are from plugging Black Hills National Forest into Google Maps. The actual drive times may vary depending on where in the Black Hills youre visiting.
- Rapid City, South Dakota: 50 minutes, 42 miles
- Badlands National Park: 1 hour 45 minutes, 103 miles
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park: 4.5 hours, 256 miles
- Sioux Falls, South Dakota: 5.5 hours, 387 miles
- Denver, Colorado: 6 hours, 376 miles
- Yellowstone National Park: 7 hours, 407 miles
- Jackson, Wyoming: 8 hours, 483 miles
- Minneapolis, Minnesota: 9 hours, 614 miles
If youre looking for a fun and epic road trip while in the area, we have you covered in our 7 Day South Dakota Road Trip Guide including the Black Hills, Rapid City, and Badlands National Park!
Hill City Attractions Heart Of The Black Hills
Known as the heart of the Hills because it is roughly in the middle of the Black Hills, Hill City is also known for the 1880 train.
It is relatively close to Mountain Rushmore, making it a summer hot spot. There are a few wineries and breweries in the area as well to point out. Hey, youre on vacation have some fun!
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Top 10 Attractions In The Black Hills
The Black Hills of South Dakota are perhaps best known for those famous presidential faces carved into the side of a mountain. While theres no doubt that Mount Rushmore is a must visit attraction, if thats all you see during your Black Hills visit, then you are seriously missing out!
From underground caves, historic trains, scenic drives, spooky cemeteries, and even herds of free-roaming buffalo, the Black Hills truly has something for everyone.
Avoid Visiting During The Annual Sturgis Rally
Let’s touch on Sturgis time and why it’s not a good idea to come for the 14 days that include or surround it. The local businesses and people in the Black Hills depend on the money that is brought in during the largest economic time of the yearâthe two weeks when the Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally comes to town. But take it from me, being in the Black Hills at that time of year is no fun .
During this huge event, hotel costs skyrocket by hundreds of dollars a night. Rooms that you can get during the start or end of the season for $89.99 a night turn into high-dollar rentals at $299.99 for a double queen. The prices alone should deter you, but bear in mind that you’ll also have to contend with congestion in streets that were built for small-town traffic, lots of noise, and long waits for restaurants. It is simply better not to come during Sturgis.
In order to make sure you don’t plan your trip during this time, check the current year’s dates for the event. Remember that the chaos starts a few days before and lasts a few days after . . . as do the prices. You can also pick up the prior year’s rally shirts at just about any gas station for around $5, bearing in mind someone paid $25.00 or more for that same shirt the year before.
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Explore Custer State Park
Custer State Park is home to all kinds of mountain wildlife such as deer, turkey, elk, bighorn sheep, white mountain goats, and mountain lions, to name a few.
The Park also has feral burros used to pack the gear to Black Elk Peak long ago. Most notable are the herds of buffalo roaming within Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Monument. Keep your eyes peeled and cameras ready to see these majestic animals.
Custer State Park has outdoor activities galore such as camping, swimming, fishing, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, hiking, and sightseeing. There are many lakes to choose from in the Park. A little more on all of this below.
Spot The Bears At Bear Country Usa
If youre looking for a fun and informative day trip with kids, then visit Bear Country USA!
Bear Country is a large-scale, open-range zoo that is dedicated to providing visitors with the opportunity to see and learn about bears in their natural habitat.
On a visit, you can see over 200 bears!
Kids love seeing the bears climbing high up the trees and sleeping on the ground at Bear Country.
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Black Elk Peak South Dakotas Highest Point
While I stood there I saw more than I can tell and understood more than I saw: for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being. Chief Black Elk
Black Elk Peak sits at an elevation of 7,244 feet, making it the highest point in all South Dakota. Its also the highest point between the Rocky Mountains to the west and Appalachians in the east.
The most popular trail to the peak begins at Sylvan Lake and is a very well hiked trail. Its overall very easy and has many areas to stop and have a break or enjoy a picnic.
At the peak is a fire tower built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1938. The cement, sand and stones for the construction were hauled 3 miles up the mountain in carts pulled by mules. And while the tower was officially decommissioned in 1967, it still stands strong as a beacon for adventurers.
From the top of the tower you can look out over the entire Black Hills. To the horizon the views are totally unimpeded and on clear days you can even see 4 other states, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota, and Nebraska.
Hikes In The Black Hills National Forest
There are so many other trails to explore in the Black Hills besides the ones in Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood, and Custer State Park. And while we didnt have time to check them all out, these hikes below are at the top of our list for our next trip!
Stratobowl Rim Trail
Trail Map & Current ConditionsThis short, but very steep and rocky hike takes you up to an overlook of the Black Hills. Youll see the stone peaks poking through the hillsides, as well as Black Elk Peak and Little Devils Tower at Custer State Park, making for some very interesting scenery!Apparently this is a favorite of the locals so the trailhead is not marked, but keep an eye out for a sign that says THINK! Drive Safely and there will be some spots to park on grass. Youll see a dirt path to a barbed wire fence, which youll need to open to get through. But make sure you close it, as it helps keep the cows contained. Its also suggested to wear pants, as its a bit overgrown.
Love hikes with water? Then youll love the Osprey Trail! This hike looks gorgeous, with multiple views of Pactola Lake and the hills surrounding it.
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Explore The Urban Attraction Of Rapid City
Rapid City, the second largest city in the state, makes a perfect base for exploring the Black Hills.
Rapid City has many family friendly attractions and historic sites on Native American history and culture.
Take a photo with the amazing, vibrant murals in the Art Alley and let kids climb the T-Rex and Triceratops at Dinosaur Park in Rapid City.
Other popular attractions include Wild WaterWest, a waterslide park in Rapid City and the Reptile Gardens Zoo, which focuses on snakes.
Downtown Rapid City also has many restaurants and cafes as well as shopping.
Drive The Scenic Needles Byway
The Needles in the Black Hills are a unique geological formation of sharp, pointed granite rocks pointing straight up at the sky.
These sharp formations were formed by weathering and erosion over several decades.
The Needles Highway is a spectacular road with great views of the Needles formations.
This road is part of an early route established by fur trappers and traders in the late 18th century.
The scenic route has sharp turns, great views, and narrow mountain tunnels.
The highlight of the Needles Highway is the Needles Eye, a unique rock formation shaped like an actual needle.
For most, the drive along the needles Highway is one of the highlights of South Dakota trip.
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Camp In Custer State Park And The Black Hills
In Custer State Park, there are nine campgrounds to explore. Each campground offers different aspects and views of the Park.
There is plentiful camping all over the Black Hills in the Black Hills National Forest as well as in privately owned camping facilities. Camping is one of our most cherished activities!
Swim In The Mountain Lakes
The Black Hills are home to numerous lakes including Horse Thief Lake, Sylvan Lake, Center Lake, and Legion Lake.
These clear mountain lakes are perfect for numerous activities such as swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, fishing, and camping by the lakeside.
They are the favorite places to cool off when the temperature soars above 90 degrees in the summer.
Custer State park rents paddle-boards, canoes, kayaks, and other watercraft to visitors for use on lakes inside the park.
Visitors can also bring their personal water craft to use on the lakes.
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Black Hills With Kids: 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 a highlight on your family vacation.
From camping and hiking to auto-touring and roadside observation areas, visitors to Badlands National Park are guaranteed countless outdoor adventures.
- Plan to spend 1.5-2.5 hours here but some choose to spend an entire day.
Spend The Day Exploring The Black Hills Off The Beaten Path In A Rental Side
There is an extensive network of off-road trails in the Black Hills of South Dakota and my family loves riding ATVs. So, what better way to spend the day than renting side-by-sides.
We rented the side-by-sides from Black Hills Off-Road Rentals. Black Hills Off-Road Rentals is right on Highway 385, eight miles south of Deadwood. They provide a map and there is trail access right from the rental site without riding on the highway. Along with a map, we were provided with ideas of things to see, viewpoints, and routes to take. You could pack a lunch or just stop at one of the recommended restaurants.
One of the highlights of our day was the Black Elk Peak historic lookout tower. Black Elk Peak is the highest point in the US east of the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of 7,242. The smoke from wildfires obstructed our view when we were there but on a clear day, you can see for miles and miles. Even with the obstructed view, the lookout tower was a great place to explore.
* Kids must be five years old to ride in the side-by-side
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Sleep Inn & Suites In Rapid City
My preferred hotel is the Sleep Inn & Suites because it is clean, well kept, reasonable, has laundry facilities, an indoor pool, and the staff and owners truly care about your stay. While there, take a peek at the guest book and drop by the water park directly next door for some fun family time.
Bison are majestic creatures capable of seriously injuring or even killing you. For your safety, do not approach them.
Splash Central Waterpark Huron
Another South Dakota destination thats ideal for cooling down on a hot summers day is Splash Central Waterpark in Huron. A fun place to take the kids, it doesnt tend to attract all that many people from out of town. Even better? You can have watery fun in the sun without needing to travel to the seaside or a lake.
Among the different pools is a huge 50-metre-long Olympic swimming pool. Practice your butterfly stroke in one of the eight lanes, show off your diving skillstry not to belly flop!from the one- or three-metre diving boards, or simply tread water and splash around.
For thrills and spills speed down the many twists and turns of the open slide, or hop in an inflatable ring for the ride of your life on the Master Blaster Water Coaster. Alternatively, land with a gigantic splash after plummeting ten feetin a mere two seconds! The Free Fall Drop Slide is sure to get your heart pumping fast!
Challenge your buddies to a race across the water-based obstacle course, watch the kids frolicking in the shallow kids pool, complete with an array of interactive features, and take it easy as you drift along the lazy river. The Sea Creature Water Walk is sure to test your skills.
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Unexpected Things Youll See In The Black Hills National Forest
If youre one of the millions of people going to Mount Rushmore National Memorial this year, youll also be heading into the Black Hills National Forest. Grand as it is, Mount Rushmore is only a small piece of the 1.25-million-acre forest and all there is to see and explore. And there is a lot to see more than just the hills and the forest that the name implies.
Extensive cave systems wind their way beneath the Black Hills, with some of the longest explored caves in the world hiding just below the surface. Wind Cave National Park is the densest cave system in the world and growing, with four new miles of cave being explored every year. Jewel Cave National Monument near Custer is the third-longest explored cave in the world, and they are continuing to find new passageways. Though the cave itself doesnt have any precious gems, the calcite crystals that cover this cave make it as beautiful as any jewelry. Delve into South Dakotas caves!
While there might not be any jewels in Jewel Cave, theres definitely gold in them thar hills. Homestake Mine in Lead was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America until it closed in 2002. Surface tours are now available seasonally and there is plenty to be discovered about this unique operation. Apart from gold, important scientific discoveries are also unearthed here, where observations can be made without interference from the sun.
Black Hills National Forest
Consisting of 1.2 million acres, the Black Hills National Forest offers a lot of ways to enjoy the beautiful outdoors. With hundreds of hiking trails to explore, beautiful bodies of water, rock climbing opportunities and a plethora of picturesque picnic spots, you could spend days playing in the forest and never get bored.
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