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. Plus, rock climbing Spearfish Canyon had been on our bucket list for a long time and we needed to establish residency in South Dakota as full time RVers.
One reason you might want to consider visiting the Black Hills of South Dakota is for its diversity of outdoor adventures with way less crowds than the more popular national park areas like Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park.
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 | Mount Rushmore National Park
Head to Mount Rushmore National Monument 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.
You may want to time your visit to Mount Rushmore for evening time this summer in order to see the lighting of the faces. Check here for the current time of the ceremony.
2 | Jewel Caves National Monument
Jewel Caves National Monument is one of the two cave systems in the Black Hills area 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.
3 | Wind Caves National Park
Unfortunately, tours at Wind Caves National Park were closed due to elevator repairs so we didn’t get to go here either, 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.
4 | Crazy Horse
The popular monument of Crazy Horse Memorial was really cool to see from the highway, however, we again didn’t make time to stop and see it. From the little I researched it, I didn’t think it was worth the cost but others might still enjoy it.
5 | 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
6 | Hike at 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.
7 | Cliff Jump at Hippie Hole
We thought cliff jumping at Hippie Hole was one of the best things to do in the Black Hills. Hippie Hole is just minutes from Keystone and is a great little hike to do even if you don’t want to jump in or get wet.
8 | Drive Spearfish Canyon
The 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. In the fall, Spearfish Canyon is a wonderful drive to see all the gorgeous trees changing colors.
9 | Rock Climb
Seriously, this is what brought us here. We’ve climbed all over the world and the incredible limestone rock of Spearfish is AWESOME! Spearfish Canyon isn’t the best for beginner climbers though so if you are just starting out, check out the climbing in South Seas which is near Mount Rushmore.
Favorite routes in Spearfish Canyon: Chalk Stone (5.9), Totally Flaked (5.10a), Yippey-Kay-Yay (5.10b)
Favorite routes in South Seas: Second Hand Rose Arete (5.6), Solitaire (5.7), Shark Bait (5.8)
10 | Devil’s Bathtub
A popular, and really fun trail to hike is to Devil’s bathtub. 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). In the middle of summer this parking lot is packed so get here early!
11 | Spearfish Canyon Lodge
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).
12 | 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.
13 | 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.
14 | 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.
15 | Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway
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. .
If you are traveling in a RV larger than 10’9” wide and 10’9” high, you will need to stay on Highway 244 in order to avoid the numerous tunnels with height restrictions on Highway 87 and 16A.
16 | Black Elk Peak (or other rad trails)
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
17 | 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.
18 | Explore by Off-Roading
We had a wonderful time staying and playing at Spearfish Canyon Lodge and exploring the many rad off-road trails of the Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s great that you can rent a Razor right there at the lodge and explore so many miles of dirt roads instantly.
19 | Deadwood
Visiting the historic, wild west towns of the Black Hills is a must when traveling through South Dakota. While Deadwood is a bit touristy, it was still worth visiting for a day. Our favorite things to do in Deadwood include:
- Days of ’76 Museum
- Wild Bill shooting at Saloon #10
- Old West shootout in front of the Franklin Hotel
- Jacob’s restaurant
20 | Hill City
I also enjoyed 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 home base since it is centrally located to some great hikes as well as Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Sylvan Lake.
21 | Go Camping
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
21 | Boat on Pactola Reservoir
One of our favorite campgrounds in the Black Hills is Pactola Reservoir because it fits big RV’s, has cell service, and you can boat on the beautiful lake. Boat rentals are available here too!
22 | 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.
23 | Reptile Garden
My kid’s favorite attraction was the Reptile Garden. They loved the 80 year old crocodile, the alligator pond with dozens of alligators, the prairie dog enclosure, and the huge land tortoises.
24 | Attractions For Kids
We tend to stick to the outdoorsy adventures but if you have kids, you may want to check out these other popular attractions in the Black Hills:
- 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
- Younger children would love Storybook Island
25 | Devil’s Tower
While not exactly in the Black Hills, if you’re going to visit South Dakota it’s worth the detour to check out this unique rock formation.
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.