Most people overlook South Dakota when it comes to choosing their bucket list destinations. But with giant-sized works of art, massive caves, and beautiful mountains, canyons, and waterfalls the Black Hills are a paradise for outdoor enthusiasts. The Black Hills were shaped by an enormous uplift from volcanic-like forces and carved by wind and rain. The igneous granite was sculpted by nature into rock spires and towers and by man into the largest sculptures in the world. Some of the largest caves in the world are found here as well. With so many amazing places to explore, we’ve put together the top 9 best of the Black Hills for your travel itinerary.
Cost: Entrance is Free. Parking is $10. (The National Park Pass is not valid for parking.)
Mount Rushmore is arguably our country’s most patriotic and recognizable memorial. It was designed by Gutzon Borglum to honor our country’s most iconic leaders. George Washington was chosen because he is the father of our nation. Thomas Jefferson for being the author of our freedom and equality in the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln is the savior of our Union and helped fulfill the promise of the Declaration by freeing the slaves. Theodore Roosevelt was chosen for being the great conservationist who championed our amazing public lands like many of those found in the best of the Black Hills.
The carving of Mount Rushmore began in 1925. It took 14 years to carve the four faces out of the granite walls. According to the park’s service, each face is approximately 60′ tall with 11′ wide eyes. It is awe-inspiring to stand at the base of this South Dakota mountain and gaze upon our country’s greatest leaders. While in the park you can read snippets about each man’s story. There is also a museum on the property where you can learn about how the mountain was painstakingly carved by a small army of mostly laymen.
2) Crazy Horse
Recommended Time: 30 minutes – 3 hours
Cost: Varies based on time of year and group size. Approximately $12/person.
Not too far from Mount Rushmore, another mammoth sculpture is slowly being etched out of the granite terrain. Started in 1948, this sculpture is of the Lakota (Native American) leader Crazy Horse. He was a leader who despised the encroachment of westerners in the Black Hills and never signed any treaties. He is also credited with leading the battle against General Custer at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. The design for the sculpture depicts Crazy Horse atop his steed pointing out at the land before him. According to the Crazy Horse Memorial, Korczak Ziolkowski designed it as a depiction of Crazy Horse’s legendary answer to the question, “Where are your lands now?” Answer: “My lands are where my dead lie buried.”
Today, the 87-foot tall face of Crazy Horse and the top of his outstretched arm can be seen for miles around the Black Hills and the site can be toured. If the project ever realizes the full design it will measure an astonishing 563′ high and 641′ long. Even incomplete this ambitious sculpture is a must-see place when visiting the best of the Black Hills.
3) Wind Cave National Park
Recommended Time: 2 – 4 hours
Cost: Entrance is Free. Each tour costs $12/person. (4 different types of tours are available.)
Note: Arrive before opening as all tickets are first-come, first-served.
When you are done exploring the massive man-made sculptures above ground why not explore the delicate natural sculptures found underground? Wind Cave National Park is home to an abundance of intricate formations known as Boxwork. Boxwork is rarely found in caves. It takes a very specific set of circumstances to create the delicate calcite lattice, namely enough water for its creation but not so much water that it is completely destroyed. At times, the ceiling of a Wind Cave room is completely covered in the rare honeycomb formation. It’s worth a visit to see first hand when exploring the best of the Black Hills.
What is in a Name?
Wind Cave is currently ranked as the sixth-longest cave in the world. However, it was the first to be protected as a National Park in 1903 by the great conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt. Wind Cave is named so because it is a barometric pressure cave. This means that the cave “breathes” in or out based on the high and low-pressure above ground. As the story goes, the westerners who discovered the small opening to the cave stuck their heads over it one day and the wind from the cave blew the hat off the head of one of the men. A few days later the men returned to show a friend the phenomenon. He again held his hat above the opening. But instead of it being blown away the cave sucked it into its depths. Thus the name, Wind Cave.
4) Jewel Cave National Monument
Recommended Time: 2 – 4 hours
Cost: Entrance is Free. Each tour has a cost associated with it.
Note: Tours are a mixture of advanced reservation and first-come, first-served. In 2021, most tours are unavailable as the elevator is being rebuilt.
While Wind Cave holds the illustrious status of being a National Park, nearby Jewel Cave National Monument is also easily one of the best of the Black Hills. It derives its name from the high concentration of calcite crystals found in the cave. It is a wetter cave and as such has stalactites, stalagmites, columns, and many other features that decorate the beautiful cave.
More than 200 miles of cavern have been explored at Jewel Cave. This makes it the third-longest cave system in the world. However, neither of the two caves have been fully explored. Scientific pressure readings taken in the caves suggest that the size of the two caves are so immense that they could actually be one cave system. That is astonishing given that the majority of each cave that has so far been discovered is pancaked on top of itself. Jewel Cave’s known system fits into a four-square-mile surface area and the two parks are located 18-miles apart as the bird flies.
5) Custer State Park
Recommended Time: 1 to 2 days
Cost: $20. (The pass is good for 7 consecutive days.)
Custer State Park is home to the real Black Hills. Here rocky igneous spires and mountainous towers rise above the surrounding landscape. Beautiful lakes reflect the mountains and sky. Some of the best hiking and climbing routes in the Black Hills are found inside Custer State Park. This includes the trail leading to the very top of South Dakota, the 7,242′ high Black Elk Peak.
This very large state park is home to a variety of wildlife like bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn, and deer. However, the wild burros often steal the show with their intrusive and stubborn nature. They will stroll along the roadway causing long traffic jams and they aren’t opposed to sticking their heads inside car windows to steal a snack. The 18-mile long Wildlife Loop Road runs through the park’s grasslands and forest giving visitors ample opportunity to see the wildlife. Just try not to give them food.
Be careful when exploring the park as there are several tight, small one-way tunnels not suitable for larger vehicles. This includes the Needle’s Eye, an 8′ 9″ wide by 9’ 8″ high hand-carved tunnel. You don’t want to accidentally get stuck here with an oversized rig.
Spearfish Canyon is found in the Black Hills as the mountain range slopes away towards the north. The canyon has been carved out by the relentless flow of Spearfish Creek. The beautiful, lush, treelined canyon is typically explored solely by the 22-mile long paved scenic byway. But this is a great place for visitors to stretch their legs and do a little hiking. There are several waterfalls to be discovered each of which is an easy hike from the main road. There is even a type of natural waterpark with a stone slide into the Devil’s Bathtub for those brave enough to take it on.
Cost: $25/vehicle. (Free with the National Park Pass.)
Devils Tower holds claim to being the nation’s first National Monument established in 1906. This gives Wyoming the honor of not only the first National Park (Yellowstone) but the first National Monument as well. It was protected by that great conservationist president etched into Mount Rushmore, Theodore Roosevelt. The igneous tower rises 867′ into the sky from its base. It is believed to have been a massive magma flow that punched through surrounding rock and eventually was exposed through erosion. The Tower consists of massive hexagonal columns, a common feature of cooled magma but these are the largest in the world. The Devils Tower is otherworldly (Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 1977) and easily one of the best of the Black Hills.
Cost: $30/vehicle. (Free with the National Park Pass.)
Badlands National Park is found in the prairie lands east of the Black Hills. While technically not a part of the mountain range this eroded landscape should not be missed when visiting the area. Badlands are found all over the world and are classified as a dry and heavily eroded landscape consisting of soft sedimentary rock. They typically expose several distinct geologic layers highlighted by color changes in the rock layers. At nearly 380 square miles, Badlands National Park protects the largest badlands in the world. The badland erosion stretches out from east to west like an enormous colorful shelf that begs to be explored.
While venturing out onto the trails is the best way to immerse yourself in the Badlands, the park’s main road Highway 240 (The Badlands Loop) weaves artfully through the formations. It strategically follows the flow of the erosive landscape gliding to the bottom of the formation and climbing back to the top several times across its 27-mile traverse. Keep your eyes peeled for bison and prairie dogs in the prairie grass above the formation. And for bighorn sheep on the eroded cliffs. Stay the night in the park’s campground and listen for the coyotes calling out to one another in the moonlight.
Along with an exorbitant amount of natural wonders the Black Hills are also home to a multitude of tourist attractions. While we typically prefer the wonders of the great outdoors, the Reptile Gardens is a must-do when exploring the best of the Black Hills. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, this South Dakota zoo is home to the largest collection of reptiles in the world. There are deadly snakes found here (behind glass) that no other zoo in the world has on display. It is an amazing place to visit and learn about the variety of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes, the difference between alligators and crocodiles, and you can even pet a 116-year-old giant tortoise name Orvil. We had the most fun meandering about the Sky Dome looking for the birds, frogs, lizards, snakes (non-poisonous), and salamanders that roam freely about.
Logistics for Visiting the Best of the Black Hills
The Black Hills are a relatively small mountain range. The majority of which can be best explored from the Holiday Inn Express located in the town of Custer or from one of the many campgrounds located in Custer State Park. The only exception is the Badlands and Devils Tower which are far enough away that you should plan to stay locally in those areas. While in Custer check out the Custer Wolf restaurant for some excellent grub and local brews. The buffalo burger is amazing.
April to June: Spring starts off on the cold side and ends up warm. This is also the rainiest time of year with an average of 2.5 inches in May. However, all this rain brings flower blooms to the Black Hills.
July & August: Summer is actually quite nice in the Black Hills. The rainy season lingers throughout the summer, but the temperatures are mild. The elevation keeps the air cooler than the surrounding area. Unfortunately, the Badlands will be uncomfortably warm for most of the summer.
September & October: While the Black Hills don’t have a lot of color change due to the trees being mostly evergreens, the Fall season is a great time to visit the Black Hills. The temperatures are cool but not yet cold. The summer crowds disperse and it is the tail end of the rainy season.
November to March: Winters in the Black Hills are long, cold, and dry. This isn’t the best time to visit the area but the Black Hills and the Badlands both take on a unique beauty with a fresh coat of white snow.
Visiting the Best of the Black Hills
The Black Hills in South Dakota is a place with overwhelming beauty both above and below the surface. This is a magical place where the mountains have captivated the minds of artists and propelled them into lifelong and even generation works of art. Hidden in this gorgeous mountain range are all kinds of wildlife to be discovered, hiking trails that lead to the very top of the state, and some of the best climbing in the country. There is so much to be discovered but these top 9 of the best of the Black Hills should not be missed when exploring this area of the country.
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