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3 Day Black Hills Travel Itinerary with Kids

    Whether you spend a weekend or a week in the Black Hills of South Dakota, it won’t be enough! This area has such a vast range of activities and sights to see, from well-known attractions like Mount Rushmore and Needles Highway to lesser-known spots like Wind Cave National Park and Crazy Horse Memorial. And Custer State Park is the perfect central hub to experience it all.

    Where to Stay in South Dakota’s Black Hills

    With 5 lodges and 10 campgrounds, there’s no shortage of places to stay at Custer State Park. We stayed in the beautiful Bluebell Campground, which was close to the Wildlife Loop and Wind Cave National Park, but farther from other area attractions. We would have loved to stay at Sylvan Lake Campground, just a half mile walk from the edge of Sylvan Lake, a spot I could have enjoyed daily during our trip.

    You’ll also find many other campgrounds and hotels Custer, Rapid City, and the surrounding areas. Choose a spot that feels central to your must-do attractions or plan to hop around a bit to cut down on travel time.

    Best Time to Visit Black Hills of South Dakota

    With temperate summer highs, the Black Hills of South Dakota is enjoyed by many guests from May to September. While October starts to get a little cooler and lows at night will get close to freezing, the fall colors are a big draw to many visitors. Mount Rushmore and this surrounding area will receive the most visitors during the summer months and guests who visit in April or May might see a good amount of rain. If you are pairing a trip to the Black Hills with the Badlands, like we were, you might want to plan your travel itinerary for spring or fall to avoid the most extreme temperatures in the Badlands.

    How to See Wildlife in South Dakota’s Black Hills

    The most commonly spotted animals in Custer State Park are bison, pronghorn, whitetail and mule deer, and prairie dogs. We saw plenty of wildlife on our way to other area attractions, although we would also recommend driving the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park. That’s where we saw the herds of bison and the ‘red dog’ babies in the spring. You’ll also find a prairie dog town along this loop.

    This is black bear country, so you’ll want to carry bear spray and make noise as you hike.

    Things To Do in Black Hills of South Dakota

    Mount Rushmore

    A Black Hills travel itinerary is not complete without a stop at Mt Rushmore. See the famous carved faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, walk the avenue of flags, and learn about this historic site at the Lincoln Borglum Museum. In addition to the museum, you’ll also find a large gift shop, a café, an ice cream shop, and an information center bookstore here. The information center bookstore is where we picked up and turned in our Junior Ranger books. The bookstore and the museum both kept business hours during our trip, so if you’re visiting in the late afternoon, be sure to stop there first so you don’t miss them. You can also walk the .6 mile Presidential Trail for some unique (but partial) viewpoints of the monuments. Walking from the west side to the east side spreads out the incline so you go up fewer stairs.

    Mount Rushmore also offers an evening show during the peak season that we’ve heard great things about, but we unfortunately visited too early in the year for that. You can also stop at the Profile Viewpoint on your way out for a side view of Washington’s face.

    Iron Mountain Road Scenic Drive

    We drove Iron Mountain Road from South Playhouse Road towards Mount Rushmore, which goes through a couple of tunnels and offers several viewpoints of the presidential carvings along the way. Norbeck Overlook is also a great spot to stop on the way. You’ll also go through several ‘Pig Tail’ bridge turns. Of the two scenic drives, this one had more twists and turns if you’re prone to car sickness.

    Needles Highway Scenic Drive

    Drive Needles Highway heading northwest, towards Sylvan Lake so the scenery will gradually become more dramatic and you’ll end with the Needles Eye Tunnel. If you’d like to do a little rock scrambling, Cathedral Spires Pullout is a great place to stop during the drive.

    Custer State Park

    There is enough to do at Custer State Park to fill a whole travel itinerary! And like I mentioned above, there are lots of camping and lodging options here, so it makes a great home base. You’ll also probably need to drive through it if you’re visiting Wind Cave National Park on your Black Hills family vacation, because the parks back up to one another. At the time of this writing, Custer entrance is $20 for a 7 day pass. The South Dakota state park annual pass is $36 so if you’re camping or visiting anywhere else, it might be worth getting the pass.

    Our top three things to do in Custer are Sylvan Lake, the Wildlife Loop, and the Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center. Sylvan Lake is a stunning (and popular!) lake partially surrounded by a spectacular rock formation. Paddle the lake if you can or walk around the path to the little bridge on the dam at the end. Legion Lake is another pretty lake you might enjoy seeing. The Wildlife Loop is about a 1 hour drive. We went in the spring and saw at least 20 baby bison with the herd on this loop. Outside of this loop, we only saw a few bison at a time in the rest of the park. This is your best bet to see bison. Stop by the visitor center and check out their park map and they’ll have the bison herd location marked on the map. The Norbeck Outdoor Center is filled with hands on learning and displays about wildlife. We also drove to the Mt. Coolidge Overlook while we were here.

    Wind Cave National Park

    Wind Cave offers a couple of different tour options, but only the Garden of Eden tour was available for purchase online ahead of time. This is the shortest tour they offer, so if I had it to do over again, I would have called ahead to ask about tour times so I’d know when to arrive to book one of the longer tours. Our tour went in a loop, starting and ending at the same point. I wish we’d been able to do the one that starts and ends at different points in the cave to feel like we saw more and spent more time in the cave.

    Crazy Horse Memorial

    Under construction since 1948, this monument to Oglala Lakota warrior Crazy Horse will be the world’s 2nd tallest statue at its completion. The face, which was finished in 1998, is 87 feet tall. Admission to Crazy Horse Memorial also includes 3 museums and a film as well as scheduled cultural programs. If you would like a closer look of the monument, you can also take a bus ride to the base. During your visit, you should also stop at the Laughing Water Restaurant for some fry bread.

    Other Area Activities

    There’s way more to do in the Black Hills than you likely have time for in your travel itinerary! Some additional activities we saw advertised that sounded like fun: Borglum Story, Reptile Gardens, Jewel Cave National Monument, Black Hill Caverns, Museum of Geology, and Rapid City’s Dinosaur Museum.

    Black Hills South Dakota with Kids:

    Read Books Before Your Trip

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    Mount Rushmore by Marion Diane Bauer
    M is for Mount Rushmore by William Anderson
    Flat Stanley’s Worldwide Adventures – The Mount Rushmore Calamity by Jeff Brown
    Good Night South Dakota by Adam Gamble & Mark Jasper
    S is for South Dakota by Sophie Davidson
    Bryson the Brave Bison by Nate Davenport
    Out on the Prairie by Donna M. Bateman
    The Prairie that Nature Built by Marybeth Lorbiecki 
    Who Pooped in the Park – There isn’t a South Dakota specific edition, but the animals here are very similar to what you’ll find in Yellowstone
    National Parks of the U.S.A. by Kate Siber

    Junior Ranger Program

    Your Junior Rangers will work hard during their trip to the Black Hills! Mount Rushmore, Wind Cave, and Custer State Park all have Junior Ranger booklets. Make sure to arrive early at Wind Cave and Mount Rushmore in order to complete the books. The Wind Cave Visitor Center closes after the mid-afternoon tour and Mount Rushmore’s Visitor Center and museum close much earlier than the rest of the facilities.

    Activities Kids Will Love in the Black Hills

    Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center at Custer – This building houses much of what you’d find at a fantastic visitor center: hands on animal exhibits and interactive displays. Additionally, there’s a cozy log cabin reading room and an entire creative outdoor play space.

    ‘Set off the dynamite’ at Mount Rushmore – While Mount Rushmore’s museum might not be as compelling to the youngest visitors, our kids enjoyed looking at some of the models and their favorite part was pushing a button connected to a display that simulated them setting off the dynamite that carved the presidential faces. Be sure to stop and get an ice cream cone too!

    Climb rocks at Sylvan Lake – The edge of Sylvan Lake is dotted with massive rocks, making it a fun spot for kids to scramble. We also found a spot along Needles Highway to pull over and go for a short rock scrambling hike.

    Wildlife Loop Road – Seeing the baby bison was high on everybody’s priority list.

    How to Plan Your 3 Day Black Hills Vacation

    A long weekend in the Black Hills is a great 2 or 3 day travel itinerary. Of course, there is enough to do here to enjoy for an entire week, but here’s what I would recommend if you just have 2 days in Black Hills, South Dakota.

    2 Day Black Hills Travel Itinerary

    Day 1 – Spent 2-3 hours driving Wildlife Loop Road, stopping at Custer State Park Visitor Center and Peter Norbeck Outdoor Education Center on your way around. Then drive Needles Highway to Needles Tunnel. From there, it’s just a short drive to Sylvan Lake, which you can walk around or enjoy paddling.

    Day 2 – Drive Iron Mountain Road to Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Take plenty of time in the museum and walk the Presidential Trail if you’d like. Spend the second half of the day at Crazy Horse Memorial, just 30 minutes away.

    3 Day Black Hills Travel Itinerary

    With a third day for your Black Hills family vacation itinerary, I would split the first day’s activities, focusing on the Wildlife Loop end of Custer. With the extra time, you could stop at Legion Lake or even add on a visit to Wind Cave National Park.

    And on your second day, you’ll have enough time for a hike or a little more exploring around Needles Highway and Sylvan Lake. Some trail options to consider: Sylvan Lake Shore Loop, Cathedral Spires Trail, Sunday Gulch Trail, Little Devils Tower Spur Trail, or one of the longer hikes to Black Elk Peak.

    4 Day Black Hills Travel Itinerary

    If you have 4 or more days in the Black Hills, check out the many ticketed attractions around Rapid City. Jewel Cave National Monument came highly recommended.

    8-10 Day Black Hills to Yellowstone Travel Itinerary

    If a weekend stay in the Black Hills isn’t enough for you, maybe you could extend the vacation across Wyoming. Ideally, you’d have time for an 8-10 day Black Hills to Yellowstone road trip, which would make for an amazing spring break trip. Start in the Black Hills, visiting Custer State Park, Mt Rushmore, and Needles Highway on Day 1 and Day 2.

    On Day 3 and 4, make the drive across the state of Wyoming. With a few detours, this will roughly be a 10 hour drive. First, you’ll drive through Ten Sleep Canyon and stop overnight in Worland or Thermopolis, depending on how far you want to drive the first day. If you want to hit all the fun things on your way across Wyoming, add an extra hour to check out Devil’s Tower at the beginning of your drive day.

    The next morning, enjoy a dip in the free Hot Springs State Park Bath House in Thermopolis, before driving to Grand Teton. Drive south along Teton Park Road to Jenny Lake, stopping at overlooks on the way. Then head north along Jackson Lake out of Grand Teton and into Yellowstone.

    Since you’re going to visit both Grand Teton and Yellowstone in this trip, go ahead and get the National Parks annual pass and plan a trip to visit another one of the country’s beautiful national parks.

    From here, follow my 4 day Yellowstone family vacation itinerary, which gives you a great overview of the entire park, including stops at Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Mammoth Hot Springs. Or if you have a full 10 days to explore, follow my 6 day itinerary.

    5-7 Day Black Hills to Yellowstone Travel Itinerary

    To keep things a little snappier, here’s an itinerary for a 5-7 day Black Hills to Yellowstone road trip.

    On Day 1, drive Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake and then visit Mount Rushmore. Stay at Sylvan Lake Lodge or Campground to keep driving minimal.

    On Day 2, you’ll drive the quickest route across Wyoming, which will still go through Ten Sleep Canyon, but will skip the other stops at Devil’s Tower, Thermopolis, and Grand Teton. If you can spare an extra day to split the drive, Devil’s Tower would make an excellent pit stop. Or you could take the southern route and spend a day in Grand Teton on your way into Yellowstone. Either way, enjoy the beautiful drive through Ten Sleep Canyon. You could also stop in Thermopolis and enjoy a dip in the free Hot Springs State Park Bath House.

    Spend Days 3-5 following my 3 day Yellowstone family vacation itinerary, which spends a day hitting the highlights in the 3 areas of the park.

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    3 Day Black Hills Travel Itinerary with Kids

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