The Badlands of South Dakota offer some of the most picturesque views in the country, paired with some notorious Old West towns and the men and women who made them so. This wonderfully unique part of the American landscape is often voted one of the top ten places to visit by major travel publications. We tend to agree. There’s something special about this place, only experienced by visiting!
Begin your journey by arriving at Rapid City Regional Airport in South Dakota. Our five-day road trip will take us through some gorgeous terrain; however, there is no need for a four-wheel-drive rental during warm-weather seasons.
Rapid City has all the major hotel brands we’re familiar with, Hilton, Marriott, Comfort, Holiday Inn, and others. These all offer the same level of amenities, and since we’re only staying in Rapid City for one night, the choice is entirely yours. If you want to venture out and stay someplace a little more unique, then the Hotel Alex Johnson is perfect. This historic hotel was built in 1927 and combines the classic atmosphere of American Indian art and 1920s style. The hotel’s downtown location is also great for an evening walk to explore Main Street Square.
DAY 1 – RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA
Navigating Rapid City is incredibly easy; the City View Trolley offers a narrated, hop-on, and off tour of the city; its 15 stops make it simple to get around and learn a bit along the route during your first day in South Dakota.
When you’re ready for lunch in between stops, head to the family-friendly restaurant and oldest brewery in the state, Firehouse Brewing Company. May we recommend the Beer Battered Fish Tacos or the Spontaneous Heating Gumbo? Pair your meal with a locally brewed craft beer—the brewery has at least nine varieties on tap at any given time!
Our first stop will be at the Journey Museum, showcasing the rich history of the Black Hills and Badlands from prehistoric times to the present. Take out your notebook, or Notes app, the Native American and early pioneer exhibits will give context to some of our later explorations!
Following the Journey Museum, we take a detour in time and place to visit the remarkable Stavkirke Chapel. Located in a 30-acre wooded park, it is a replica of the Borgund Stavkirke, a Norwegian church built near Laerdal around the year 1150. This faithful reproduction of that chapel is a towering wooden structure with intricate carvings throughout.
Each of the trolley stops allows you to step off and board a future tour to resume the loop around the city, so don’t hesitate to get off and explore if something catches your eye.
Black Hills Caverns
When you’re ready to head out of Rapid City, just a few minutes down Highway 44 is Black Hills Caverns. Tours of the caverns offer an easy way to explore and learn about this natural wonder, featuring rare crystals, geological formations and plenty more to discover. Tours range from 30 minutes to an hour.
Wind Cave National Park
Continue your underground exploration by traveling south along U.S. Route 385 toward Wind Cave National Park. Along the way, stop at the The Museum @ Black Hills Institute for a little history lesson.
Wind Cave is one of the largest and most complex cave systems in the world. The caves lay below a stunning prairie that is well known for buffalo and other roaming wildlife. Don’t worry, it’s hard to get lost when you take a tour of South Dakota’s unique National Park. There are multiple ranger-led tour options available to different parts of the cave system. It pays to plan ahead— tour sizes are limited and can sell out by midday during the summer months. Tickets can be purchased in advance via www.recreation.gov. Touring the caves involves between 150 and 400 stairs. Looks like another leg day on this South Dakota road trip!
While the caves are the show’s star, the 33,000 acres of prairie and woodland above are just as breathtaking. With more than 30 miles of hiking trails through a mixture of ponderosa pine forest and pristine grasslands, ranging from the very accessible Elk Mountain trail to the strenuous nine-mile Highland Creek trail, there are plenty of options for hikers of all skill levels.
Where to Stay & Eat Near Mount Rushmore
After exploring Wind Cave National Park to your heart’s desire, head north to Keystone, our destination for the next two nights. Take a step back in time when you enter the 1900s-style dining room at Ruby House, and prepare for a delicious meal the whole family will love. Once you’ve had your fill, check in to your lodging of choice. Keystone has plenty of accommodations, from the K Bar S Lodge to the Roosevelt Inn. If you’re feeling adventurous, Under Canvas Mount Rushmore offers a glamping experience, and kids will love the campfire s’ mores!
DAY 2 – MOUNT RUSHMORE NATIONAL MEMORIAL
Perhaps the most iconic mountain face in America, Mount Rushmore National Memorial has the sculpted likenesses of four presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt. The carving of the mountain would take nearly two decades under the leadership of visionary artist Gutzon Borglum.
Start by visiting the Lincoln Borglum Visitor Center located beneath the Grand View Terrace. The exhibits and film in the visitor center will give you an overview of how this memorial came to be and the people who brought it from vision to reality. Check-in with the information desk for ranger talk program times. The Sculptor’s Studio talk illuminates the tools, techniques and personal stories of the men who carved the memorial.
Located along the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail is the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota Heritage Village; this area highlights the American Indian tribes who have inhabited the Black Hills for centuries before the government took away their land. Continue along the remainder of the trail, climbing 422 steps, to get a closer look at the memorial, taking in the spectacular detail. Plan to spend a little longer than you think on the Grand View Terrace.
Across from the parking lot is the Blackberry Trailhead. This somewhat strenuous gravel trail connects with the Centennial Trail about a mile from the trailhead in the Black Hills National Forest. There are several small water crossings, a wooden bridge, and some areas to stop and rest along the route. This trail is pet-friendly, but dogs must be leashed. Heading back into the wilderness, you’ll be able to see how genuinely awe-inspiring the terrain surrounding the memorial is in its natural state.
Crazy Horse Memorial
About 30 minutes west of Mount Rushmore is the site of the Crazy Horse Memorial, a work still in progress. Like Mount Rushmore, this monument is carved into the granite side of a mountain; however, the scale is much grander. The size and scope of the carving are something to behold. When completed, the Crazy Horse Memorial will be the largest sculpture in the world. Also at the site is the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Educational and Cultural Center, both offering excellent educational opportunities.
For an epic and breathtaking experience, you might want to consider a helicopter tour of Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse Memorial. Enjoy a new perspective of these larger-than-life monuments, with affordable tours starting at $49 per person.
Where to Eat Near Mount Rushmore
After plenty of stairs and a short hike, get ready to refuel. Just outside Keystone is the Powder House. This is one of the best steakhouses in the region, which says something in a destination known for cattle! However, the Powder House has more than just world-class steaks; they also have an outstanding buffalo and game menu. The reputation of the Powder House is well known, and wait times can be long. While they don’t take reservations, you can join their waiting list ahead of arriving.
DAY 3 – GEORGE S. MICKELSON BIKE TRAIL
We hope you’re ready for some more active adventure on day three! Extending from Deadwood to Edgemont is the George S. Mickelson Trail. This converted railroad line traverses more than 100 miles through the Black Hills and crosses more than 100 former railroad bridges. The route also cuts through spectacular landscapes within the Black Hills National Forest, Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park.
While we’re sure that some of our readers would find a 10-plus-mile, multi-day bike adventure exciting, we’re limiting ourselves to one full day along a more leisurely 20-mile section of the trail for this itinerary. Black Hills Adventure Tours offers a full-day, eight-hour, guided excursion through some of the most beautiful sections of the trail. Since most of the trail is former railroad routes, it contains very gentle slopes and is perfect for riders of all abilities. All equipment is included—just be ready to pump those legs! Custom distances and destinations for tours are also available.
Where to Stay in Deadwood
We’re heading to Deadwood for the night following a day on the trail. Deadwood is one of America’s most famous small towns, known for its connections to outlaws, lawmen, and cowboys. Downtown Deadwood is the ideal place to stay; the main street is walkable with many shops, restaurants and even a few places to grab an ice cream cone. In the center of downtown is the historic Bullock Hotel. You’ll step back in time as you walk down the 19th-century hallways to your fully restored room with all the luxury amenities you’d expect in a boutique hotel.
DAY 4 – DEADWOOD
Wake up in the Old West! The majority of Deadwood is a national historic district; downtown is a treasure trove of 19th-century architecture; however, this is a vibrant city, so be prepared for many of those old buildings to house modern treats.
Lawman’s Patrol guided walking tour is an excellent way to get familiar with the downtown area. This one-hour walking tour, with a costumed guide, will tell the tales of the city. Learn about the discovery of gold, the destruction of the city by flood and fire, and see the places where its most famous—or infamous—residents lived.
Broken Boot Gold Mine
The Broken Boot Gold Mine is a step back in time to when men dug deep into the earth in search of gold. This underground mine will return you to that bygone era when picks and dynamite drove men to seek their fortunes.
Days of 76’ Museum
The Days of 76′ Museum is home to the largest collection of pioneer-era wagons, firearms, and exhibits in the nation. This state-of-the-art museum has more than 7,000 square feet of exhibit space that tells the story of how the early west was shaped by technology and the tenacity of the settlers.
At 2 p.m. each day, there is a shootout at the Wild Bill Bar and Celebrity Hotel. This free show is something the kids will love.
Take some unplanned time to discover all the town of Deadwood has to offer. Stroll along Main Street and explore dozens of locally owned shops, boutiques, and even a casino and saloon or two. Worst case, you’ll find a kitschy souvenir and enjoy a local brew.
Where to Eat in Deadwood
Who doesn’t love a good buffet? Especially if it’s all you can eat! Dine at the top-rated buffet in the Black Hills, the Silverado Grand Buffet, located at the Silverado-Franklin Historic Hotel. This Vegas-style buffet features a vast selection of foods including a made-to-order station. If you’re lucky enough to be in town on the weekend, the crab and prime rib buffet on Friday and Saturday nights is a must! Don’t forget to bring your appetite.
DAY 5 – STURGIS
Can you hear the rev of the engine? If you’re a motorcyclist, you already know that Sturgis is just a few miles from Deadwood. Home to the annual rally gathering of more than half a million riders in early August for the past 82 years. The Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame has an incredible collection of vintage to modern bikes and the hall of fame honors the icons of motorcycle racing and culture. The Iron Horse Saloon is another must-see when visiting Sturgis. This 25,000-square-foot entertainment mecca has multiple dining options, including food trucks and Ray’s Chop Shop. Grab a bite to eat before heading back to Rapid City for your final departure.