So, you’re headed to South Dakota and you want to know some other things to do near Mount Rushmore. We see this question a lot! The short answer is that Mount Rushmore is just one of MANY great things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. This article will provide the long, in-depth answer. From national and state parks to historic museums, there are a lot of great attractions near Mount Rushmore and throughout the Black Hills. Seriously, I hope you’ve got some extra time on your itinerary!
Grant and I both visited Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills prior to meeting each other. Our first trip together was in 2012. We visited again in Winter 2018. Our third visit came in September 2019 for the Annual Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. Most recently, we spent three weeks in the Black Hills in the summer of 2020.
All this to say, we’ve spent a bit of time in the area and have still not run out of things to do when visiting the Black Hills. So, if you’re looking for something to fill two or three days, I hope you’re ready to stay busy.
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Black Hills National Forest
The Black Hills region of South Dakota takes its name from the National Forest found here. Containing 1.2 million acres of forested hills and mountains, the US Forest Service describes the Black Hills National Forest as “an Island in the Plains,” due to the surrounding prairie. The Black Hills got its name from the Lakota based on the dark appearance of the hills due to the density of the trees. In addition to the forested hills, you’ll find grasslands, streams, lakes, canyons and rugged rock formations.
Black Elk Peak is the highest peak in the mountain range (and in South Dakota) at 7,244. Additionally, Black Elk Peak is the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains, stretching all the way to the Pyrenees Mountains in France.
There is a lot of controversy surrounding the Black Hills, as the land is rich with Native American history. The Lakota conquered the Cheyenne back in the 1770s, making the Black Hills their home. In 1868, the US Government signed the Laramie Treaty, establishing the Great Sioux Reservation and prohibiting white settlement in the Black Hills. Unfortunately, when settlers discovered gold in 1874, miners rushed to the area. The US Government took the land in 1889, reassigning the Lakota to other areas.
You’ll often hear the Native Americans refer to the Black Hills as “stolen land.” While I have read differing accounts of how the United States took/gained control of the land after promising it to the Native Americans, I can certainly see why the Lakota consider “us” to have stolen the land. While we don’t look to diminish the significance of this, we also won’t dwell on it.
Hopefully, throughout your visit, you’ll learn more about the history of the area and the significant role it plays in Native American culture.
Southern Black Hills
Mount Rushmore is located in the Southern Black Hills Region, so we’ll start there. That also happens to be our favorite region, as it is home to a three national parks, our favorite state park, several scenic drives and even some interesting museums.
Keystone is best known for being the home of Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Yes, seeing the iconic sculpture doesn’t take long. And, yes, you can see the sculpture without actually entering the memorial. That said, the views that you get at the park are the best you’ll get. Additionally, Mount Rushmore National Memorial does a great job of providing exhibits on the men who carved the mountain and the carving process.
I encourage you to allot a couple of hours for your Mount Rushmore visit. While there, you can view the sculpture from several different vantage points, check out the exhibits in the Visitors Center, visit the Sculptor’s Studio and walk the Presidential Trail. The evening lighting ceremony is nice, as well.
Of course, Keystone has capitalized on its presidential connection and has done its best to give visitors more reasons to stay in town. We particularly enjoyed a visit to the National Presidential Wax Museum. Here, you’ll learn more about all of the US Presidents through scenes staged with wax figures. The museum includes all 45 Presidents, many in scenes of significance from their time in office.
Also in Keystone, you’ll find a couple of adventure parks with zip lines, ropes courses, alpine slides and other fun. Additionally, the Gutzon Borglum Historical Center tells more about the carver of Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, and his other works.
Custer wins as our favorite city in the Black Hills and where we stay when camping. We love that with a population of about 2,000 people, it’s not too big and not too small. Finally, it’s where you’ll find Custer State Park, which is consistently rated as one of the best state parks in the country.
Custer State Park is best known for its wildlife and is home to the second-largest bison herd in the United States (behind Yellowstone National Park). In addition to bison, you’ll often see pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep and the park’s infamous Beggin’ Burros. This park is large, with several scenic drives, many hiking trails, lakes for swimming and boating and several lodges and dining rooms.
Whether you just drive through and admire the scenery and wildlife or spend a couple of days hiking, we highly recommend Custer State Park when visiting the Black Hills.
Just west of Custer, you’ll find Jewel Cave National Monument, the third-longest cave system in the world. The park service offers several different cave tours at Jewel Cave, from an easy 20-minute, one-room Ranger Talk to the 3-4 hour Wild Caving Tour that requires squeezing through tight spaces. The most popular tour is the Scenic Tour, which is a moderately strenuous walking tour through several cave chambers.
Hill City, SD
Known as the Heart of the Black Hills, Hill City is located about 30 minutes north of Custer. This is a centrally located city and would not be a bad place to stay if you are planning on visiting both the northern and southern Black Hills equally. Since we tend to spend more time on the southern end, though, we prefer Custer.
The main “attraction” in Hill City is the 1880 Train. This vintage steam train follows an original railroad track, laid down in the late 1880s, and runs between Hill City and Keystone. Along the 20-mile journey, you’ll see old mining encampments, scenic views of granite peaks and open meadows and, likely, some wildlife. For even more fun, choose a ride that includes the Old West Shootout!
In Downtown Hill City, you’ll find several shops, bars and restaurants. Grant particularly enjoyed the Beef Jerky Outlet, where he was able to sample and buy several unique jerkys. His favorite was their best seller, the Cherry Maple Smoked Beef Jerky.
For an insight into much of the infrastructure in the surrounding parks and national forest, stop by the Hill City Visitor Center and check out the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Museum. The men of the CCC worked hard to maintain the forest and build bridges, dams and other structures. During the Great Depression, the CCC provided much-needed work and wages.
We had hoped to visit the Museum at Black Hills Institute in Hill City but, alas, it was closed due to COVID-19. This small natural history museum contains dinosaur fossils, minerals and other collectibles.
Eating and Drinking in Hill City
The real treat for us in Hill City was the great food and drink. Seriously, we visited three breweries and wineries in Hill City alone!
Smoke Jumper Station is the Hill City tasting house for Firehouse Brewing and Firehouse Wine Cellars. We’ve visited Firehouse Brewing in Rapid City a few times and it was great to finally try their wine. Due to the South Dakota soil, Firehouse sources many of their grapes from outside the state. The Marquette grape, however, is grown just outside Rapid City and produces a nice red wine.
Just down the road, you’ll find Naked Winery and Sick-N-Twisted Brewery. Here, you’ll find a wide range of red, white and sweet wines. The beer drinkers can choose from more than 20 varieties. We enjoyed the beer, wine, friendly service and atmosphere. I’ll be honest, though, the playful names are what really caught our attention.
For something a little different, head over to Prairie Berry Winery, which is best known for its Red Ass Rhubarb, a sweet red wine. While they do source the traditional grapes from outside the state, the wild fruit is all found locally. Located just next door, but owned by the same folks, is Miners Brewing. With a wide range of beer, cider and seltzer, most anyone can find something they like at Miners.
Finally, the Alpine Inn is also a great place for an inexpensive steak dinner. Just be sure it’s steak you want, though, as the dinner menu consists of a Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon or a vegetarian dish.
Stay tuned for an upcoming article with more details on eating and drinking in the Black Hills.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Located between Hill City and Custer is the Crazy Horse Memorial. The sculpture, which is still a work in progress, is the Native American response to Mount Rushmore.
“My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to know that the red man has great heroes also.”Chief Henry Standing Bear
The Crazy Horse Memorial really is more than just a grand carving. You can easily spend an hour or two visiting the various museums and galleries and learning more about Native American culture and traditions.
Hot Springs, SD
Located about 40 minutes south of Custer, Hot Springs is home to not just the namesake springs, but another cave system and a pretty incredible fossil site.
The Mammoth Site is the largest concentration of Columbian mammoth fossils in the world. What is most interesting about the museum is that it is built around the excavation area. As you tour the museum, you’ll find the usual exhibits but you’ll also find people actively working at the dig site. It really is neat to see many of the fossils in their original location.
Natural mineral springs have been bubbling out of the ground in this area since the 1890s. To really experience the hot springs, we suggest heading to the Moccasin Springs Natural Mineral Spa. While this facility is relatively new, the site has been home to various bathhouses and hot spring facilities since it was discovered. As an adults only (18+) facility, this is the perfect place to relax after a couple of days of hiking or driving. You’ll find pools at several different temperatures along with a yoga studio and traditional spa services.
Wind Cave National Park protects both an underground cave and the rolling prairie above ground. The cave is named for the winds produced at the natural entrance due to the barometric pressure differences. One of the unique features of the cave is a formation known as boxwork, which is rarely found in other caves. Above ground, you’ll find bison, prairie dogs and other wildlife along with several hiking trails. Take a cave tour, do some hiking or enjoy a scenic drive at Wind Cave NP.
Northern Black Hills
Located closer to Interstate 90, the Northern Black Hills offer more a little more colorful history while maintaining the outdoor beauty and adventure. These towns are also very convenient for anyone driving the interstate.
Rapid City, SD
If you’re looking for a “big city” near Mount Rushmore, Rapid City is it. With a population of about 75,000 it certainly is the biggest city in the Black Hills region. While it may not quite the metropolitan area you find in other states, it does have all the amenities of a big city, with major hotel chains, dining and shopping.
While it may not be big, we love Downtown Rapid City. You’ll find a wide array of shops, restaurants and hotels downtown. Building on the Mount Rushmore connection, you’ll also find the City of Presidents, a collection of life-size statues of each of the past presidents. As you wander through downtown, keep an eye out for your favorite past president! As of July 2020, President Trump has not yet been added to the collection.
For some inside attractions, we enjoyed the Dahl Arts Center and the Journey Museum. The Dahl is a free museum, with several different galleries with both rotating and permanent pieces. The Journey Museum provides a look at the history of the western plains through paleontology, archeology and geology. Both are open year round.
The South Dakota Air & Space Museum is another attraction in Rapid City that we really enjoyed. Unfortunately, during our visit, the museum was only open outdoors. Still, we both enjoyed walking around and viewing the various aircraft and stories of some South Dakota airmen.
Rapid City is home to many other attractions, including the popular Bear Country USA, Reptile Gardens and Storybook Island. We haven’t visited any of these places, though, so can’t comment.
Sturgis is home to one of the largest motorcycle rallies, which is held in early August of each year. If you’re planning on visiting the Black Hills during this time, this is certainly something to be aware of as it will likely be much more difficult than normal to get hotel or campground reservations. You can also expect more traffic all throughout the Black Hills during this time.
While we have nothing against motorcycles (in fact, I grew up with my dad owning several of them), the biker scene just isn’t our thing. We ended up in Gettysburg, PA during a motorcycle rally a few years ago and it was just really loud all throughout the day and night. You can certainly make your own decision based on your personal preference and tolerance, though.
Since motorcycles are not our thing, the only thing we’ve done in Sturgis is visit the Belle Joli’ Winery Sparkling House. While there is also a tasting room in Deadwood, this location in Sturgis is much bigger and more scenic. If you’re looking for a place to enjoy a glass of local wine, we recommend Belle Joli’.
Sturgis is about 30 minutes west of Rapid City, right off I-90.
Less than 30 minutes west of Sturgis, you’ll find Spearfish, which is best known for the canyon that is just south of town. In fact, driving through Spearfish Canyon should be near the top of your list of things to do in the Black Hills.
Along the scenic drive through Spearfish Canyon, you’ll find fantastic views, hiking opportunities and waterfalls. We recommend stopping at Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls. You can reach both of these with relatively short hikes (unfortunately, in opposite directions) from the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. Look for the parking lot just off of Roughlock Falls Road to access both trails. We spent about an hour and a half hiking the nearly 3 miles to both falls.
While you can access Roughlock Falls more directly by continuing to drive down Roughlock Falls Road, Spearfish Falls can only be reached with about a 1/2-mile, one way, hike. Both hikes are relatively easy, though there is a short section with a decent incline at the beginning of the Spearfish Falls Trail.
Just east of town, you’ll find the unique Termesphere Gallery. Dick Termes, a native of Spearfish, is the artist behind these incredible spherical pieces of art. Yes, the pieces are fairly expensive but they are wildly fascinating and the gallery is well worth a visit. You can also purchase flat versions of some of his work at more reasonable prices. I’ll be honest, it was really tempting to splurge on a piece. We opted for a magnet instead.
The historic town of Deadwood is, perhaps, one of the most interesting cities in the Black Hills. Deadwood was born during the gold rush of the 1870s and, according to the city’s website, “boomed into a town that played by its own rules that attracted outlaws, gamblers and gunslingers along with the gold seekers.” Indeed, it was in Deadwood that Wild Bill Hickok was shot during a poker game in which he held aces and eights, now known as the Dead Man’s Hand.
Today, you’ll find the downtown area still has the feeling of the “good ole days,” with bars, shops and carriage rides. You can visit many of Deadwood’s infamous residents at the Mount Moriah Cemetery, which is up on a ridge not far from downtown. It’s also a great place to get a birds-eye view of the city.
Just north of town, you’ll find Mount Roosevelt and the Friendship Tower. This monument was erected by Seth Bullock, a local lawman, rancher and Black Hills Forest Supervisor to commemorate the life of his good friend, President Theodore Roosevelt. A short, uphill walk brings to you to top of Mt. Roosevelt, where the Friendship Tower is located. From the tower, you’ll have great views of the area in all directions.
Take a step back in time even further, with a stop at Tatanka: Story of the Bison. It is estimated that at one time, 30-60 million bison once roamed the Great Plains of North America. By the end of the 19th century, less than 1,000 bison remained. This museum, which was founded and is owned by Kevin Costner, tells the history of bison, the role they played in the Native American culture and the impact on white settlers.
Compared to its next-door-neighbor, Deadwood, the town of Lead (pronounced Leed) is decidedly calmer. The City of Lead also dates back to the 1870s and once housed thousands of employees of the Homestake Mining Company. This mine is now shut down but you can learn more about the mine and the city at several museums in town.
At the Black Hills Mining Museum, you’ll get a look at how gold was mined and some of the unique techniques used at the Homestake Mine. There’s also a section on local history. It’s a fairly basic museum but provides a good overview of mining in the Black Hills and the Homestake Mine, in particular.
As I was writing this article, I realized that we missed the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center. According to the Lead Chamber of Commerce web site, “located on the edge of the site of the original 1876 gold strike, the Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center viewing deck overlooks the 1,250 ft deep ‘open cut’ portion of the original Homestake mine.” That is definitely getting added to our list of things to do in the Black Hills on our next visit!
Belle Fourche, SD
Located on the northern edge of the Black Hills, Belle Fource (pronounced Belle Foosh) is best known as the Geographic Center of the Nation. You’ll find a 21-foot diameter monument in the shape of a compass just outside the Tri-State Museum. Of course, as with many of these locations, the actual center of the US is about 20 miles north of the monument (I assume on private land).
The Tri-State Museum covers a little bit of everything from this area. You see the history of cowboys, rodeo, pioneers, military, dinosaurs and geology. It’s a small museum but worth a quick stop if you’re in the area.
Belle Fourche is also home to one of the oldest continuously held outdoor rodeos in the United States. The Black Hills Roundup is held every year around the Fourth of July. While it’s a relatively small rodeo, it is a good opportunity to get seats a bit closer to the action at a reasonable price. You’ll see all of the usual rodeo events including bronc riding, steer roping, barrel racing and bull riding.
Devils Tower, WY
Located in the Black Hills of Wyoming, a visit to Devils Tower National Monument makes for a good stop on your way to or from the Mount Rushmore area. It can even be done as a day trip from the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Devils Tower is one of the most unique land formations in the United States. At the National Monument, you can not only get some great views of the tower, but also learn about how it was formed, its cultural significance to Native Americans and do a little hiking.
If you want to do some hiking, you could spend several hours at Devils Tower. For those interested in just getting a few pictures and checking out the visitor center, you’ll really only need an hour or two.
Black Hills Scenic Drives
Even if you don’t have time for some of the parks and museums in the Black Hills, I highly encourage you to make time for some of the scenic drives. Seriously, the attractions near Mount Rushmore are great. But it’s the land itself that you really need to see and experience. It really is one of the most scenic areas of the United States. That’s coming from someone who has visited all 50 states.
Iron Mountain Road is one of the best scenic drives in the country, connecting the east side of Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore. It is best driven north, towards Mount Rushmore, as the tunnels were strategically built to frame the iconic sculpture.
Within Custer State Park, Needles Highway provides views of dramatic landscapes and unique granite features. The Wildlife Loop offers a drive through rolling hills and the second-largest bison herd in the country.
Spearfish Canyon is a great drive in the summer and the winter. Even if you don’t have time to stop in town or do any hiking, the drive itself is well worth the time.
Not technically in the Black Hills, but easily accessible from Rapid City, is Badlands National Park. The Badlands Scenic Loop cuts through the park and offers several overlooks to these unique formations. While you could easily spend a day or two hiking in the park, even just a quick drive through the Badlands is well worth the drive on your way to Mount Rushmore (or on your way home).
Explore the Backcountry with an ATV Rental
If you’re really looking for adventure in the Black Hills, consider renting an ATV to get out on the Forest Service roads and trails. Some of these can be explored with a regular passenger vehicle. An ATV allows you to get onto the off-highway vehicle trails and get to the really remote areas.
We rented an ATV in Custer but there are rental companies in most cities in the Black Hills. And there are thousands of miles of roads and trails all throughout the Black Hills National Forest.
While there are plenty of great views along the main highways and within the various parks, there’s just something about the unspoiled views of the backcountry that can’t be beat.
Plus, you can’t help but have fun splashing through the mud puddles and rolling over the rocky inclines! Seriously, our day on the ATV was one of our best days in all of our visits to the Black Hills and well worth the money.
Where to Stay in the Black Hills
We have now camped at the Big Pine Campground in Custer three different times. The first time, back in 2012, we were tent camping. On our second visit, we were in a rented camper van. Most recently, we camped for three weeks in our travel trailer. This campground has consistently been one of the nicest and cleanest campgrounds we’ve visited. If you’re looking for a place to camp in the Black Hills, we highly recommend Big Pine Campground.
During our winter visit in 2018-19, we stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn in Rapid City. We prefer Hilton properties, but you’ll find just about any hotel chain you might want in Rapid City. Rapid City makes a good base if you want all the comforts of a big city or if you are also interested in visiting Badlands National Park without a separate hotel or campground.
Really, any of the towns would be good towns to stay in, though. You’ll find a limited selection of major hotel chains in the various towns. Most all of the towns also offer cabin rental or local hotels. There are also campgrounds galore. If you don’t own a camper, consider renting one from Outdoorsy. It really is a great way to travel and, no, you don’t have to sleep or eat with the bugs in an RV!
Final Thoughts on Visiting the Black Hills
As you can see, the Black Hills has a lot to offer besides Mount Rushmore. Yes, Mount Rushmore is iconic and I’m glad that it draws in millions of visitors each year. The other attractions near Mount Rushmore, though, shouldn’t be skipped over.
In addition to scenic drives, museums and wildlife, you’ll find hundreds of miles of hiking trails in the Black Hills. There are also some really great restaurants, breweries and wineries in the area. Truly, there is something for everyone in this little slice of heaven in South Dakota.
The Black Hills gets most of its visitors in the summer, but it is a great winter destination as well. Yes, some of the shops, museums and restaurants are closed in the winter. Still, if you’re looking for some scenic snowy vistas or outdoor winter adventures, the Black Hills is a great winter destination.
Regardless of what brings you to the Black Hills, you are sure to find something to fall in love with.