The Black Hills' rugged granite formations, clear streams and labyrinthine caves possess a captivating beauty. Days quickly fill with hiking, fishing, exploring Native American history and tracking down bison for those one-of-a-kind vacation pics.

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Ageless beauty and outdoor adventure flourish in the Black Hills, in the state's southwest corner. You could easily spend a week or more here, but if you have only a couple of days, below are two itineraries: One for an overnight at Custer State Park, and the second for an overnight in Deadwood.

Instant Itinerary: Custer State Park Overnight

Day 1

Custer State Park is a great place to meet the Black Hills. Entering the park from Keystone takes visitors on the Iron Mountain Road, full of switchbacks and breathtaking views.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park
Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park

Once past the gatehouse, visitors can choose their pleasure: Fishing for rainbow trout in Grace Coolidge Creek, hiking to Black Elk Peak (the trail starts in the park, but the peak is outside), horseback riding, navigating the spectacular Needles Highway or driving along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop to spot bison. At Sylvan Lake, visitors swim, hike, fish, paddle and picnic. If you want to get up close to the park's bison herd, take a Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour for a lively narrated 90-minute ride.

The narrow Needles Highway
The narrow Needles Highway 

The park's historic State Game Lodge is where President Calvin Coolidge liked to stay. (See "5 Great Places to Stay in Custer State Park" below for more details on lodging options). If you want to leave the park for dinner, Firehouse Brewing Company in Rapid City (30 miles north of the park) serves crispy fish and chips and flavorful ales.

Day 2

Breakfast at the State Game Lodge includes a Belgian waffle bar, biscuits and gravy, and fresh fruit.

Guests easily fill a day exploring the huge park's trails and creeks. But Jewel Cave National Monument, 20 miles west of the park, is worth a visit: It's one of the longest caves in the world (more than 173 mapped miles!) and filled with calcite that glitters in lanterns' light. Tours range from half hour introductions to several-hour caving adventures.

At the iconic Mount Rushmore National Monument, 25 miles north of Custer, a flag-lowering ceremony in the evening tugs at patriotic heartstrings and honors vets in the audience.

Mount Rushmore
Mount Rushmore

For information: Black Hills, Badlands and Lakes Association, blackhillsbadlands.com

5 Great Places to Stay in Custer State Park

1 Blue Bell Lodge Modern cabins with woodsy accents and kitchenettes also have fire rings out front. Walk across the road to the dining room for homestyle cooking.

2 Legion Lake Lodge Affordable cabins cluster on the hill over pretty Legion Lake. Families can swim, use the beachside playground, rent canoes and dine in the casual on-site restaurant.

3 State Game Lodge The main lodge preserves the feel of the 1920s, when President Coolidge used to summer here. Guests can stay in the lodge, in a motel-style stone-and-timber building or in cabins.

State Game Lodge in Custer State Park.
State Game Lodge in Custer State Park.

4 Camping  Electrical hookups and clean showers put these sites on our radar. Evening educational programs share details of the inspiring landscape.

5 Sylvan Lake Lodge Frank Lloyd Wright picked the lodge's site on a rock-rimmed lake overlooking some of the prettiest views in the park. Rooms feel like midrange chain hotel spaces; the wow factor comes from the lobby, the veranda and the scenery.

Wow moment

All year long, travelers gaze in wonder at the bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs and burros in Custer State Park. But the biggest wildlife sighting happens each fall during the annual Buffalo Roundup, typically in late September. Thousands of people wait hours to hear, see and feel 1,300 bison and a few bewildered burros thundering down the valley while they're chased by dozens of cowboys on horseback. 

Buffalo roundup
Buffalo roundup

Bring the kids

Chuck wagon cookout Guests get a cowboy hat and bandana, then board a hay wagon near Custer State Park's Blue Bell Lodge. Sing well-known country tunes on the way to the steak, burger and veggie cookout, then pile on the fixin's.

Chuck wagon cookout.
Chuck wagon cookout.

Icon

Crazy Horse Memorial Travelers come from all over the globe to see the great Oglala Lakota leader (his face 90 feet high) emerge from the world's largest mountain carving. Work began in 1948 and continues daily; painted lines on the mountainside help visitors imagine what it will look like when finished. Learn about Native American culture at the visitors center and through dancers sharing customs and stories.

Crazy Horse Memorial.
Crazy Horse Memorial.