Black Hills and Badlands Trip Guide | Midwest Living

Black Hills and Badlands Trip Guide

Granite spires and pine-covered hills rise from the prairie in the state's western edge. There, you'll find pieces of history, and proof of perseverance and plenty of natural beauty to explore in places like Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial and Badlands National Park.
Roughlock Falls at Spearfish Canyon
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Needles formations in Custer State Park.
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Badlands National Park.
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Mount Rushmore.
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Buffalo roundup
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George S. Mickelson Trail
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Black Hills Burger and Bun Co.
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Pump House
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Wild Bill Hickok in Deadwood
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1880 Train Stained-glass windows, wood trim, leather-upholstered benches and the chug-chug of the steam engine make riders feel like they’re stepping back in time. The two-hour round-trip between Keystone and Hill City passes dense forest and open meadows.

Badlands National Park Prairie and rolling hills give way to rugged, otherworldly outcroppings about an hour east of Rapid City. See the geologic maze along the 40-mile Badlands Loop Road. Also, join park rangers for daily (summer) prairie and geology walks, fossil talks and other programs originating at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Bear Butte State Park Hike 1.85 miles to the butte’s summit for panoramic views of the Black Hills. The Lakota and Cheyenne hold the area sacred; respect any prayer offerings you see.

Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary Guided tours take you to see herds of the 600 mustangs that range the 11,000-acre property 14 miles south of Hot Springs.

Buffalo Roundup As many as 15,000 people wait hours at Custer State Park to hear, see and feel 1,000-some bison thundering down a valley, dozens of cowboys in chase (September 30, 2016).

Crazy Horse Memorial Since 1948, the great Oglala Lakota leader has slowly emerged from the world’s largest mountain carving. Painted lines help visitors imagine what it will look like when completed. Learn about Native American culture at the visitors center and through dancers sharing customs and stories.

Custer State Park Open ranges, granite spires and crystal-blue lakes awe visitors to one of the nation’s largest state parks (71,000 acres). Hike around Sylvan Lake, drive the winding Needles Highway, paddle Legion Lake, and get up close to hundreds of bison on a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour. Hay-wagon rides depart from Blue Bell Lodge for a 45-minute ride, sing-along and chuckwagon cookout.

Evans Plunge Float in spring-fed warm (87-degree year-round) mineral water that has soothed visitors since 1890. Or splash into the Hot Springs attraction via slides.

George S. Mickelson Trail The 109-mile crushed-stone bike path from Edgemont to Deadwood follows former railbeds and passes through rock tunnels and over converted railroad bridges.

Harney Peak  At 7,242 feet above sea level, the peak makes for a challenging but doable hike. The No. 9 trail (7 miles round-trip) starting in Custer State Park takes you to the crest.

Jewel Cave National Monument Calcite crystals, dogtooth spar, and cave popcorn and bacon are a few of the formations guests see during ranger-guided tours of the third-longest cave in the world.

The Mammoth Site Walkways give visitors a close look at a prehistoric sinkhole holding fossils of 61 young male mammoths and other Ice Age animals. Exhibits bring the facts to life.

Mount Rushmore National Memorial The 60-foot-tall faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, carved from 1927 to 1941, rank as one of America’s must-see destinations. The visitors center details how the monument was created and why these presidents are included.

Spearfish Canyon See this gorge of granite and limestone cliffs, waterfalls and forest from 22-mile Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.

Wall Drug Since 1931, the sprawling, kitschy roadside attraction near the Badlands has lured motorists with souvenirs, clothing, food and 5-cent coffee.

Wind Cave National Park The rarely found cave formation boxwork—blades of calcite in a honeycomb pattern—stand out on guided tours.


Black Hills Burger and Bun Co. Meat ground on-site, buns baked daily and creative toppings make seriously great burgers at this family-owned joint in Custer. We loved The Hot Granny with bacon, cream cheese and jalapeño sauce.

Laughing Water Restaurant Try the Native American tacos (made with Indian fry bread) or bison stew at Crazy Horse Memorial’s on-site restaurant. Large windows give diners great views of the mountain carving.

Prairie Berry Winery Sample fruit-infused wines with names like Calamity Jane, Lawrence Elk and Razzy Apple. Locally grown vegetables and herbs flavor pizzas and sandwiches.


Buffalo Rock Lodge The three-guest-room B&B outside Keystone opens to a distant but direct view of Mount Rushmore. Days finish with dessert on the balcony.

Cedar Pass Lodge and Badlands Inn Cabins and rooms offer spectacular views of Badlands National Park. The complex includes a campground, restaurant and gift shop.

Custer State Park Cabins, lodge rooms and campsites take advantage of the inspiring landscape. Modern cabins at Blue Bell Lodge have woodsy accents and kitchenettes; the State Game Lodge preserves the feel of the 1920s; affordable cabins at Legion Lake Lodge cluster on the hill over Legion Lake; the veranda and some rooms at Sylvan Lake Lodge overlook the rock-rimmed lake.

Ghost Canyon Dude Ranch  Horseback ride, bike, hike, fish and kayak at the Black Hills’ first all-inclusive dude ranch, 27 miles southwest of Rapid City. The owners arrange guided day trips to local attractions.

Spearfish Canyon Lodge Overlooking Spearfish Creek, the lovely inn is a perfect base for touring the canyon, fly-fishing and snowmobiling.

Terry Peak Chalets Four vacation homes in Lead sleep up to 14 people each and come with hot tubs, full kitchen, fireplaces, decks and big-screen TVs.

More information: Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Association, blackhillsbadlands.comHot Springs Chamber of Commerce,

Spotlight: Deadwood

The Wild West still intrigues in this northern Black Hills destination. At the Adams Museum (, look for N.C. Wyeth’s sketch of notorious gambler Wild Bill Hickok and Potato Creek Johnny’s 7¾-ounce gold nugget. Weathered tombstones at Mt. Moriah Cemetery ( mark the resting place of 19th-century gunmen, gamblers, lawmen and madams. Experience a different era of history at Pump House ( in a former Texaco station, where you can snag a sandwich and coffee, see Texaco memorabilia and watch a glassblower demonstrate her art at Mind Blown Studio. Step back into the area’s past at Tatanka: Story of the Bison (, where a bronze sculpture commissioned by Kevin Costner depicts bison and Native American hunters; an interpretive center gives insights into the role of bison in Lakota life. Native American and Western history also star at the Days of ‘76 Museum ( See a re-creation of the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok four times a day outside Saloon #10 (; head inside and upstairs to the Deadwood Social Club for creative dishes such as smoked pheasant over fettuccine. Many of the town’s lodging facilities contain or adjoin casinos; our picks include The Lodge at Deadwood Gaming Resort ( and Celebrity Hotel (  More information:

Save the date

Sturgis Motorcycle Rally If hanging out with 400,000 bikers sounds like your kind of vacation, head to the Black Hills August 8–14, 2016, for one of the largest motorcycle rallies in the world. Enthusiasts attend concerts, races, bike shows and organized rides.

Rapid City

Click here for our Rapid City trip guide.

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