The Black Hills of South Dakota is a great destination for a vacation and even better for a road trip. One of the best parts of South Dakota’s Black Hills is that a large part of it is easily accessible for large RV’s. This guide will help you plan where to go on your vacation, what cities you can’t miss, highlight key attractions, and give you important beta on which roads to avoid if you do take a large RV into the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Patriotism has never meant more to me than it does right now, which in one of the many reasons we headed to South Dakota’s Black Hills.
I wanted to stand under Mount Rushmore and pay respect to our Fathers of Liberty.
I also wanted to see how, in the midst of chaos erupting throughout the United States and the world, South Dakota managed to maintain it’s civil liberties and continue to function in a manner that supported its citizens.
Last, I really wanted to rock climb the famous Spearfish Canyon and used my passion for patriotism, love of the outdoors, and need to establish residency as a full-time RVer as a motivation (okay, it was an excuse) to live as a dirtbag for a few weeks in South Dakota’s Black Hills.
South Dakota’s Black Hills
The Black Hills of South Dakota are absolutely gorgeous everywhere you look. The deep green forest broken up with towering limestone rock walls and meandering crystal clear blue streams will inspire your deepest sense of self while providing a playground for outdoor enthusiasts.
While its mountains may not be as sharp and jagged as nearby Colorado or Wyoming, the mountains in the Black Hills still provide an opportunity to get a birds-eye view of the wilderness and more importantly, are home to a lot of wonderful wildlife.
Who Will Love the Black Hills?
South Dakota was a perfect destination for our entire family. I’ll admit, many of our previous travels have been hallmarked by a deep desire for intensity and challenge, but this trip was all about creating a travel lifestyle where everyone thrived.
The goal of our South Dakota Black Hills trip was to create a travel lifestyle where everyone thrived.
This meant driving a little less, staying longer in campgrounds, doing more realistic hikes that everyone could do, and finding groundedness and enlightenment in nature.
You can definitely find some hardcore adventures in the Black Hills, but I found that the Black Hills are the type of place you go to nourish your soul and find inner peace.
South Dakota’s Black Hills provided us an escape from the fast-paced, rat-race driven life to a time where life moves in rhythm with the sun, where your wild heart roams free, and people still stop what they’re doing to ask how you are doing.
I this blog I hope to inspire you to prioritize a trip to the Black Hills. We’ve full time traveled for 5 years and it’s taken up this long to get here, but I wish it hadn’t.
How to Get To The Black Hills South Dakota
The Black Hills are bordered on the north by the town of Spearfish, on the east by Rapid City and Keystone, on the south by Hot Springs, and on the west’s the border of Wyoming. In the center lies Custer State Park and the small town of Hill City. Getting around the Black Hills is easy, even for large RV’s with two exceptions, highways 16A (also known as Iron Mountain Road) and Highway 87 known as the Needles Highway.
If you are flying into the Black Hills, the closest airport is in Rapid City, which home to a vibrant downtown with concerts and outdoor festivals year-round.
You might also want to check prices to fly in and out of Denver, Colorado or Billings, Montana. Victor met us for our South Dakota portion of our travels and we picked him up in Denver and then drove 6 hours to get to the Black Hills. We loved the Black Hills so much that we will be going back in a few weeks and will pick him up in Billings.
Black Hills South Dakota Weather
Things To Do in the Black Hills South Dakota
While for most, it’s the draw of Mount Rushmore, that initially draws their attention to the Black Hills, there is so much more to this area than the famous National Monument. The Black Hills National Forest is made up of 1.25 million acres (seriously, that’s a lot of trees!), which means you have a ton of options when it comes to adventures in the outdoors.
1 | Visit the Black Hills National Parks and Monuments
Head to Mount Rushmore to see the incredible carvings of the 4 Presidents- Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln. The patriot in me felt very moved when I finally was able to stand beneath the four carved iconic faces. You don’t need a lot of time here, but I do recommend hiking the Presidential Trail. It’s only about a mile or so long, but it does require hiking up a lot of stairs.
Of the two cave systems, this one seemed more interesting to me because of the intricate maze of passages and beautiful colors in the cave. It was closed though so we will have to put it on the bucket list for the next time.
Unfortunately, tours were closed due to elevator repairs so we didn’t go here, but we’d love to check out this national park next time. It has the densest cave system in the world, is covered with rare boxwork formations, and is still growing.
This popular monument was really cool to see from the highway, however, we again didn’t make time to stop and see it. From the little I reserached it, I think I would’ve loved learning more about Crazy Horse and how we stood for passion and pursuing his purpose.
2 | Custer State Park
I loved Custer State Park so much that I’ve written an entire blog about it that you can read here. Custer State Park can easily be crammed into half a day by just driving the Wildlife Loop, where there’s a good chance you’ll see hundreds of the 40,000 bison that roam the South Dakota grassland.
I loved staying inside the park for a few days. We saw so much wildlife just form our campground and the nature is beautiful and relaxing here. The grasslands of South Dakota are a hotspot for wildlife like bison, elk, deer, antelope, and prairie dogs. pronghorn antelope, elk, mountain goats.
Related Blog: 8 Awesome Things To Do in Custer State Park
3 | Sylvan Lake
Besides driving the Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park, you really need to make time to hike at Sylvan Lake. There are two incredible hikes here, Sunday Gulch and Black Elk Peak. I loved them both! If you head that way, be sure to read our blog How to Hike Black Elk Peak and Little Devil’s Tower Loop.
4 | Spearfish Canyon
Seriously, this is what brought us here. We’ve climbed all over the world and Spearfish is AWESOME! Be sure to click over to our Rock Climbing South Dakota Guide (COMING SOON) if you want a taste of this rad limestone routes.
If you don’t climb, you will want at least a half-day in Spearfish Canyon to explore its beautiful trails and waterfalls. Starting from the town of Spearfish, there’s a great trail to Devil’s bathtub (pictured below). It’s only about a mile hike each way but in spring and early summer, it will require crossing the stream a few times (although on the way back I managed to find ways to avoid getting my shoes wet by crossing on tree branches and scaling the sides of the eroding cliffs).
Spearfish Canyon is home to some amazing waterfalls and staying in Spearfish Canyon Lodge is a wonderfully romantic destination. It’s also perfect for those craving more adventure (other than rock climbing). From the lodge, you can rent quads and buggies to go explore the canyon with. Check out our full review of Spearfish Canyon Lodge by clicking the link below.
5 | Mountain Biking
South Dakota’s Black Hills has 400+ miles of excellent single track trails with way fewer crowds then places like Bend or Moab. Extreme racing is also big here. There’s the Dakota Five-O, Black Hills Back40, and Black Hills Fat Tire Festival — all are renowned for their grueling rides through spectacular terrain. In the winter, try fat biking.
6 | George S. Mickelson Trail
This is the old railroad line between Deadwood and Edgemont and has been converted into a 109-mile packed gravel trail. You don’t have to be a hardcore mountain biker to ride this, nor do you have to do the entire thing.
There are 15 easily accessed trailheads. We chose to just ride a small portion of it from Dumont to Mystic trailheads, which was pretty much all downhill. The first section felt very Euopeanesque with rolling hillsides and pastureland and the second part felt like riding parts of Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain with large rock formations and tunnels to ride through.
Note that if you do the same section, getting to the Mystic Trailhead requires driving a well maintained dirt road. Our 30” motorhome made it no problem however, it is washboard so it does rattle things quite a bit inside the rig. Taking this back road allows you to see some beautiful areas of the Black Hills.
I only rode it with Gabi and Belle, but I think even Tati, my 9-year-old, could have done it but would’ve been a little slow for us. There’s a $3 daily use fee per person ages 12 and over.
7 | Photograph Nature of Black Hills South Dakota
We ended up with so many incredible pictures of wildlife and scenic vistas on our South Dakota vacation. Some of the best shots we got were along the Wildlife Loop, where Buffalo would literally walk up to your car (RV) and lick salt off it. Be careful though!
Other great photo opportunities were at Sylvan Lake, Horsethief Lake, and Cathedral Spires.
8 | Enjoy a Scenic Drive
The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway is the most popular scenic drive in the Black Hills. Highways 16A, 244, 89 and 87 combine to create this route that includes Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway. .
Unfortunately our vehicle is too big to fit through the tunnels on those two highways, so if you are traveling in a RV larger than 10’9” wide and 10’9” high, you should click over to our 1 Week Itinerary blog with tips on how to get around these scenic drives with an RV.
Another gorgeous drive is through Spearfish Canyon. This drive between Spearfish and Cheyenne Crossing provides you with epic views, outdoor adventures, fun hikes, and views of 3 beautiful waterfalls. If you are on a road trip, look into staying one night at the beautiful Spearfish Canyon Lodge.
9 | Hike the Black Hills South Dakota
The Black Hills of South Dakota have a ton of great hikes. It’s most famous is Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak South Trail) which, at 7,242 feet, is the highest point east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees.
Related Blog: Best Hikes in South Dakota’s Black Hills
10 | Go Fishing
Someday we will become fishermen (women). Again, we travel too fast and spend way too much time hikng and climbing that we haven’t made time to learn to fish. However, I really wish we had tried fly fishing when we were in the Black Hills. Fishing is world class here and takes you to some incredibly scenic destinations in South Dakota.
11 | Explore by Off-Roading
I’m currently manifesting a Razor for us. I grew up off-roading on quads and dune buggies in the Imperial Sand Dunes and seeing how many rad off-road trails there are in the Black Hills of South Dakota made me really wish we towed our Jeep or bought a Razor to travel with.
12 | Visit Historic + Old West Towns
While the historic, old west towns of Deadwood and Keystone get a lot of hype. They didn’t intrigue me as much as Hill City.
The most popular Deadwood attractions include the Days of ’76 Museum and Mt Moriah Cemetery. Next time we are in Deadwood will be sure to stop in for the free reenactment of an Old West shootout in front of the Franklin Hotel.
I preferred the wild west town of Hill City. We had decent burgers at Desperados and there are a lot of great wineries along Highway 385 just a few miles outside of town. I recommend stopping at Prairie Berry Winery. Hill City makes a good homebase since it is centrally located to some great hikes as well as Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Sylvan Lake.
13 | Camping in the Black Hills South Dakota
We love camping and the Black Hills has some of the best campgrounds we’ve ever been to. Not only are the national forest and state park campgrounds extremely affordable, incredibly scenic, and most are spacious enough that they can accommodate large RVs.There are also plenty of resort-style RV parks to choose from. If you stay in Spearfish, be sure to check out our full review of the Spearfish Black Hills KOA.
Related Blogs: Best Campgrounds in the Black Hills of South Dakota
14 | Head to the Badlands
Last, while this is not technically in the Black Hills, most use a visit to the Black Hills as an opportunity to also explore Badlands National Park. The Badlands is famous for it’s stargazing and “magic hour” photography. We spent less than 24 hours in the Badlands and were able to capture a beautiful sunset, camp in the national park and get in some night photography, and got going early to experience parts of the park on foot. I highly recommend the Badlands but did feel like one day was enough time for me.
15 | Attractions For Kids
Even though we have 5 kids, we prefer to stick with outdoor adventures and don’t have a lot of extra time to spend at these excursions. But if I wasn’t so obsessed with rock climbing and hiking, I would totally want to do a few of these (especially with my younger kids).
- Pan For Gold at Broken Boot Gold Mine or Big Thunder Gold Mine
- Play on the ropes course at Rushmore Tramway Adventures
- See bears at Bear Country USA
- Visit the Reptile Garden
- Younger children would love Storybook Island
Best Hotels in the Black Hils South Dakota
Deadwood: Stay at the Springhill Suites by Marriott, which is on Main Street and only a 15-minute walk from the historic downtown area.
Rapid City: Stay at The Rushmore Hotel, a stylish and eco-friendly stay centered amongst the statues, restaurants and nightlife (room rates from $65 a night in early May, up to $135 starting in June).
Spearfish: Stay in the heart of Spearfish at the Best Western Black Hills and walk to great restaurants.
Hill City: Stay at Harney Peak Inn located next door to a museum with dinosaur skeletons. It’s also a 1-minute walk from Twisted Pine Winery and a 2-minute walk from vintage steam engines at Black Hills Central Railroad.
Keystone: Stay at K Bar S Lodge. It’s a few miles outside of Keystone, but the scenery is gorgeous.