Located in South Dakota, the Black Hills are a small mountain range occupying the western region of the state, stretching into Wyoming. The Black Hills were originally settled by the Native American tribe, the Lakota, before being ambushed by miners who discovered gold in the area. Now the Black Hills are notoriously known for its scenic drives, bison spotting’s, charming towns, and where the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally takes place each August. And while South Dakota may not be a state that you primarily think of when you plan a vacation, trust me, there is more to this area than what meets the eye. This is why you should take a Black Hills vacation at least once in your life.
How to Have the Ultimate Black Hills Vacation
The Black Hills cover over 8,000 mi². It is full of scenic drives, hiking, wild animals, and small towns with vibrant histories of mining and stories of dangerous gunfighters coming to town. Whether you’re craving outdoor adventure, a history lesson, a solo trip, or a family vacation; a Black Hills getaway is for everyone.
South Dakota – What Should You Expect?
South Dakota is located in the northern part of the United States sharing borders with North Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska. The state experiences all four seasons, with average highs in the summer up to the 80s, and average lows in the winter down in the teens. When you visit the Black Hills, I recommend visiting when there is decent weather (spring, summer, or fall), to experience all of the outdoor activities and to be able to drive down the harrowing highways that close in the winter.
As you drive through South Dakota, especially in the Black Hills, know that wild animal sightings are common. You can expect to see deer, elk, bison, prairie dogs, foxes, mountain goats, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, and turkeys throughout this rugged landscape. Remember that these animals are wild. Do not approach them, even if you just want a quick picture. There are many incidents of tourists getting hurt by animals in this area.
Arriving at the Black Hills
The nearest and biggest city to fly into when visiting the Black Hills is Rapid City. Rapid City sits just east of the Black Hills so it’s the perfect place to begin your Black Hills, South Dakota vacation. If you’re arriving by plane, you’ll fly into Rapid City Regional Airport (RAP). At the airport, you can rent a car from the following: Alamo, Avis, Budget, Enterprise, Hertz, or National. If you’re flying in at night and need to spend the night in Rapid City, I prefer to search for hotels on booking.com; or use Airbnb. If you’re new to Airbnb, use my code for a discount off your first stay.
If you plan on picking up your car and driving straight to the Black Hills, you can choose to move through the Black Hills in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction. If you want to head north, you’ll hit one of the most scenic drives in the Black Hills – Spearfish Canyon. And if you want to go south, you’ll hit one of the most famous monuments in America – Mount Rushmore.
Below you’ll find the top sights to visit in the Black Hills with details on each destination.
7 Sights to Add to Your Black Hills Vacation Itinerary
1. Needles Highway
Located in Custer State Park (in the Black Hills), Needles Highway is a narrow road that leads you through mountain tunnels and spire-like rocks as you weave around sharp turns and oncoming traffic. While driving along, there will be many chances to stop on the side of the road and take in the incredibly unique and rugged landscape of the Needles Highway. Also known as highway 87, the road was completed in 1922 and stretches on for 14-miles.
2. Sylvan Lake
One of five lakes in Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake has been around since 1881 and is famous for being in the movie National Treasure. With natural rocks towering from the lake, it feels as though you’re in a far off country instead of South Dakota. To enter, you have to pay $10 for the day, but you can easily spend your entire day relaxing at the lake. There is a small convenience store where you’ll be able to buy food and drinks for lounging out on the beach or at a picnic table. You are also able to swim in the lake, rent kayaks, and paddleboards, picnic, and even fish with a valid South Dakota fishing license. If you want more time at Sylvan Lake, or you want to base yourself here as you explore the rest of the Black Hills, there is a lodge – Sylvan Lake Lodge – available for overnight stays.
3. Spearfish Canyon
The Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, Highway 14A, snakes 22-miles through the Black Hills and is an incredibly scenic drive. As you drive through the canyon you find yourself getting deeper into nature, with spotty cell service and many places to pull off on the side of the road. While you drive this scenic byway, don’t miss stopping at Bridal Veil Falls. If you want to be up close to the falls, make sure to bring water shoes to cross the creek to the falls. (I crossed barefoot, but the water is cold and rocky). If you’re craving more of an adventure, opt to bike the canyon instead of drive. Spearfish Canyon is ranked as one of the top 50 most scenic biking trails in the US.
4. Pactola Lake
Pactola Lake was one of those spots that I just *happened* to come across. And truthfully, it took my breath away. Located just west of Rapid City, Pactola Lake is the largest reservoir in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I recommend coming at sunset with a bottle of wine or to take a dip in the lake and watching the boats drive by. There is a free parking lot for Pactola Lake where you’ll take some stairs down to access the lake.
5. Mount Rushmore
Located in Keystone, if you’re in the Black Hills, the historic Mount Rushmore is a must-see attraction. With sculptures of Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt, carved into the side of Mount Rushmore, this monument is symbolic in America. Mount Rushmore brings in nearly 3 million visitors from across the globe each year. The monument is open from 5 am-11 pm and entry is free. You do have to pay $10 to park in the parking lot outside of the monument. When you visit, make sure to walk the Presidential Trail, 0.6 miles, taking you through the park and up close to Mount Rushmore.
6. Black Elk Peak
One of the most exciting and challenging things to do in the Black Hills is hiking Black Elk Peak to the Harney Point lookout. Black Elk Peak is the highest point in South Dakota at 7,244 feet. Black Elk Peak via Harney Peak Trail is a loop trail, with an elevation gain of nearly 1,500 feet and about 7-miles long. The beginning of the trailhead is located in Custer State Park at Sylvan Lake.
7. Cathedral Spires
For an easier hike, while still being able to witness the beauty of South Dakota pull off from the scenic Needles Highway to hike Cathedral Spires Trail. This out and back trail is only 1.5 miles with an elevation gain of 488 feet. It’s an easy way to get out of the car and stretch your legs while seeing the rock spires up close and personal.
The Black Hills in South Dakota is truly a hidden gem in the US. While people oftentimes overlook the midwest as a destination spot, the Black Hills proves that the midwest is just as worthy of a vacation as anywhere else in America. Don’t miss your chance at a Black Hills vacation to see the beauty of the outdoors, the friendliness and hospitality of the midwest, and the unique and rugged landscape of this area.
For more information on South Dakota, make sure to check out The Best Towns in South Dakota
For more South Dakota inspiration make sure to check out my Instagram page/highlight reel by searching #ppinsouthdakota or finding “South Dakota” in my highlights.