Taken at our tree house AIRBNB vacation home in Valley Springs, SD.

Welcome to your ultimate guide to planning to family vacation to the Black Hills, SD! This destination is family friendly and has something for all ages! You will find a weekend itinerary for a road trip throughout some of the most famous destinations in Black Hills, SD. You will also find some hidden gems and places to stay in SD!

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In this blog, you will find an intinerary for a family vacation in Black Hills SD:

  • Places we stayed (our tree house & cabin in Custer State Park)
  • Fun & free activities
  • Secret sunflower fields
  • Beautiful nature experiences (hiking, swimming, views)
  • National and State Parks & links to entry information
  • and much more!

Disclaimer: Everything in my blog is based on my own opinions, experiences and perspectives. We are all different and my hope is you can go out and create experiences and perspectives of your own. I also have some affiliate links with Adobe, Back Country and Kayak.com throughout my blog and advertisements for brands I partner with and use such as Just Strong, Goli Vitamins and DIFF Eyewear. I make a very small commission if you purchase through the link & offer a discount code.Also, these traveling itineraries are shared from my own experiences and point of view & are no means an endorsement or advice.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What should I not miss in the Black Hills?

The Black Hills has numerous family friendly activities. Our favorite was Custer State Park.

Are the Black Hills the same as the Badlands?

No- they are different areas. The Badlands is also a National Park.

Are the Black Hills worth seeing?

Absolutely!

How to Plan a Family Vaction to Black Hills SD

Mount Rushmore in Black Hills SD.

Similar to Minnesota, South Dakota experiences all four seasons of the year. Since we went summer time, we made sure to bring plenty of shorts, tank tops and swimming trunks. It gets cooler at night time (even in the summer), so we brought pants & our sweaters as well. Hiking shoes/boots were a must as well as hats, sunglasses & toiletry items.

Also, most important to my kids on our family vacation to Blacks Hills SD- snacks!! We have a designated duffel bag we put in the car as our snack bag, where we can easily grab our food and drinks. Pillows & blankets were helpful for napping during the drive, as well as books & fidgets. A travel pillow can also be nice when sleeping in the backseat of a car. Our most important item- WATER! It wasn’t humid, but it was hot out, especially hiking. Keeping as hydrated as possible is key.

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Where Did We Stay?

First, we had two amazing experiences from two very different Airbnb finds. Our first stay was the Tree House in Valley Springs, South Dakota. The host let us check in at 9 am, which I was very excited about! Our tree house is located 20 minutes from Sioux Falls, SD. This was helpful for us, as we wanted to spend some time there with a friend.

My kids were able to spot the tree house sprouting above the corn field as we drove up the gravel road. The tree house had 3 levels: 1) hot tub, 2) grill & hang out and 3) tree house living quarters. My favorite part was the beautiful wrap around deck & large windows that offered a panoramic view of the sunset & sunrise. At night time, the string lights came on & it was the most magical experience. There were fireflies lighting up the corn field-talk about Midwest summer vibes!

Our next vacation rental was located on a campground off Highway 16a in Custer, South Dakota by Custer State Park. It was a simple, one level cabin with a cozy bedroom and bunk bed. We had a cute fire pit and grill out front (firewood provided) and the bathroom was very spacious. I laid out on the grass in the front yard and stargazed for awhile. Seeing the starry night sky over the mountains was surreal and peaceful! If renting here, I suggest you bring camping gear & kitchen wear.

Below are the details for each house along with a video tour:

Name: Lookout Loft Tree House

Location: Valley Springs, SD

Guest Max #: 4 people

Average nightly cost: $135 plus fees

Click here for listing!

Name: Wheels West Cabin

Location: Custer, SD (by Custer State Park)

Guest Max #: 4 people

Average nightly cost: $181

Click here for listing!

This journal is designed with all that in mind and more! I originally made this journal for myself, but realized it’s something that should be shared to empower, support & inspire others to live life with intention & connect with nature. I know times are rough, so I have worked hard to drive down prices as much as I can by selling my guided travel journal through Etsy. Check it out by clicking here & tag me on Instagram. Thank you for the love and support!

Epic List of Places to Visit for a Family Vacation to Black Hills SD

You can click on each stop to link to the official website for each activity!

Stop 1: Pipestone National Monument- Pipestone, MN

Pipestone National Monument was our first stop heading west and it set the bar pretty high, exceeding all of our expectations. It was located 20 minutes from our tree house AIRBNB. We first stopped at the visitor center, which I highly suggest going through before you walk the trails. The visitor center has exhibits revealing some of the areas along the trail where Native Americans had sacred ceremonies, landmarks and stories behind all of them.

There is also a gift shop featuring a local Native American artist who makes jewelery out of the pipestone. For countless generations, Native Americans would venture to this area to quarry the pipestone to make pipes out of, which was used for prayer. It was surreal to visit all of these sites and know the story behind what happened there. Perhaps the best part- a beautiful waterfall you can hike to, a stream and overlooks.

Cost: Free

Hours: 8:30 am to 4:30 pm

Stop 2: Falls Park- Sioux Falls

Our next stop was Falls Park, where Sioux Falls are located. We saw a couple get engaged during our time there- it truly is a neat place! Big Sioux River runs through this public park, where you can also find remains of an old mill, cafe and observation tower. There are also lookout areas and a spot to get down close to the falls (although I advise you to be careful as it is deeper than you think! Also, there are bees nesting within some of the rocks- use caution in some areas!

Cost: Free

Hours: 6 am to 12 am

Stop 3: Japanese Garden Park- Sioux Falls

The Japanese Garden Park may be one of the most beautiful places in Sioux Falls. Located next to the water park, the Japanese Garden offers a beautiful path along Covell Lake at Terrace Park. There are stone lanterns alongside the paths, Japanese-style overhangs, a little waterfall by a bridge and plenty of beautiful Japanese-native trees. This place is also perfect for a picnic, with plenty of space to let everyone run free & take a break after a long drive!

Cost: Free

Hours: 5 am to 10 pm

Stop 4: Sculpture Walk- Sioux Falls

When approaching downtown Sioux Falls, we noticed a neat arch hovering over the area. This arch is called the Arch of Dreams and is one of 65 unique sculptures located downtown. You can park your car anywhere in the area, and walk around to see all the neat ideas. If you are around on October 6, 2022, there is a festival called Taste of Sioux Falls to raise money for Sculpture Walk. If you are a foodie, this is your dream!

Sculpture Walk is having a competition called People’s Choice Award. View all these beautiful sculptures and vote online (for free) here! (Voting ends September 20, 2022).

Cost: Free

Hours: Anytime

Stop 5: Museum of Geology- Rapid City

Raise your hand if you like crystals, rocks or have a future paleontologist on hand. That may be most of you, right? My son had asked me to find a neat place with dinosaur fossils- and the Museum of Geology did not disappoint! We drove 6 hours to Rapid City and this was our first stop.

This free museum features rare fossils, full dinosaur skeletons, marine reptiles, ancient fish, glow-in-the-dark crystals, beautiful rocks and minerals, meteorites and so much more! They also have an activity area for kids & a small gift shop. It was very quiet when we went to the museum but it is truly a hidden gem!

Cost: Free

Hours: 9 am to 6 pm (Closed on Sundays)

Stop 6: Bear Country- Rapid City

Bear Country USA is a seasonal drive through wildlife park nestled in 200 acres of land. The drive takes about 45 minutes to an hour (depending on how many people are there) and ends with a parking area where you can get out of your car and go to the gift shop or see bear cubs. We were amazed at how many bears were here! They were everywhere, most of them sleeping in the shade to beat the heat.

Other animals there are big horn sheep, bison, wolves, mountain lions, elk and other North American animals. We had a big horn sheep come right up to the car (bears can also come right to your car), which is why they ask you to keep your windows up. We enjoyed our time, saw plenty of animals and loved how up close we could safely view them!

Cost: $18 per adult, $12 for children ages 5-1 4 & under free (maximum of $65 per vehicle

Hours: 8 am to 6 pm

Stop 7: Dinosaur Park- Rapid City

To get to Dinosaur Park, you have to drive the beautiful Skyline Drive with amazing overlooks. The park is up on a hill with a view of the entire city. Dinosaur Park has been here since 1936 and has been a tourist attraction since. They have an adorable gift shop with South Dakota souvenirs and all the dinosaurs you could ever imagine! There is also ice cream and food for sale (the kids got hot dogs and pop for $2.49). From there, we climbed to Dinosaur Park to see all the exhibits up close.

Cost: Free

Hours: 5 am to 10 pm

Stop 8: Mount Rushmore- Keystone

Perhaps one of the most sought after views in South Dakota is the infamous Mount Rushmore, home to the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt. When we entered, we grabbed a parking ticket & found an open ramp (there are several). From the parking garage you can take the stairs or elevator up to the entrance to Mount Rushmore.

They have gift shops, food, activities and an amphitheater located in the monument as well. It’s surreal to see & the details in the mountain make you question how someone is able to create this work of art. This stop was one of our 2 most populated tourist stops, but it was neat to experience.

Cost: Parking is $10 per vehicle and your ticket is good for 1 year.

Hours: 5 am to 11 pm

Stop 9: Downtown Keystone- Keystone

Photo credit to https://www.allblackhills.com/nearby_towns/keystone_south_dakota.php

Downtown Keystone was one of my favorite downtown areas in South Dakota. You can find everything there and more. It’s located 2 miles from Mount Rushmore, so it was convenient to see both one right after the other. There are tons of places to eat, shop, and family activities like Big Thunder Gold Mine, Rushmore Tramway Adventures, Rush Mountain Adventure Park, Presidential Wax Museum and Horse Thief Lake. You can also take helicopter tours and zipline tours of the Black Hills here. If you want a bite to eat- check out Grapes & Grinds- trust me, you won’t regret it!

Cost: Free to visit

Hours: Vary depending on where you go

Stop 10: Downtown Historic Area- Deadwood

I have heard about Deadwood for years, so I knew it was a place we were going to see! Deadwood is home to a wonderful biking trail called Mickelson Trail. It’s also famous for it’s historic downtown area that will take you back to the Wild West.

There is also the amazing Tatanka, where you can view Native American artifacts and Mount Moriah cemetery, where Wild Bill and other western legends are laid to rest. Downtown Deadwood is neat to see just by walking through the downtown. Enjoy the countless shops, places to eat and a stage. We were able to see a Native American Pow Wow while we were there.

Cost: Free to visit & walk through

Hours: Vary depending on where you go

Stop 11: Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway- Spearfish

The scenic byway drive through Spearfish Canyon is beautiful and something you don’t want to miss while visiting the Black Hills. Short hikes will take you to Spearfish and Roughneck Falls while you can view some falls (like Bridal Falls) right from the road. Visitors of the Blacks Hills SD can view fish hatcheries you can view and plenty of other trails you can hike that are well-maintained.

Cost: Free

Hours: Anytime

Stop 12: Needle Highway- Custer

Needle Highway is one of many scenic drives in Custer State Park & if you have to pick and choose which drives to do, pick this one. This unique area offers some of the most beautiful views from Custer State Park (home to over 71,000 acres!) and access to the most interesting rock formations. It is home to famous one lane drive through like Iron Mountain Tunnel and Needle’s Eye.

This highway leads to Sylvan Lake, where you can go swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding and do more hiking/biking within the neat rock formations, granite peaks and by the wildflowers. We were able to watch the sunset from one of the beautiful overviews off Needle Highway.

Cost: To enter Custer State Park, you can purchase a 7 day pass per vehicle for $20 or an annual pass for $36. Click here to purchase your own pass online (I HIGHLY recommend this).

Hours: Open 24 hours

Stop 13: Sylvan Lake- Custer

Sylvan Lake is located off of Needle Highway and may be one of the most famous lakes in the Black Hills. You have the option to get a cabin or camp nearby and can swim, paddleboard, kayak, boat, hike or bike in the area. We had fun climbing rocks and admiring the granite formations all around (and within) the lake! It’s truly a little treasure tucked away in the mountainside.

Click here for lodging options for Sylvan Lake.

Cost: $20 entrance free to Custer State Park (good for 7 days-see link above)

Hours: Open 24 hours

Stop 14: Wildlife Loop- Custer

Wildlife loop is the plains area of Custer State Park, where you can cruise through to see the bison and prairie dogs wild and free. During all of our experiences in Custer State Park we also saw deer and big horn sheep. There are some areas with rolling hills but a lot of areas are flat for the bison. The best times to go would be dawn or dusk.

Cost: $20 entrance free to Custer State Park (good for 7 days-see link above)

Hours: Open 24 hours

Stop 15: Badlands National Park- Wall

For us, Badlands National Park was a dream! It’s like you are on a totally different planet. I enjoyed learning the history behind the Badlands area, which has been home to many ancient marine and alligator fossils as well as some dinosaurs. The area used to be completely submerged, so it’s neat to imagine how this is what below the sea looked like once upon a time! Once we paid our entry fee, we drove the Badlands Loop, which is a gravel road that leads to Prairie Town and offers scenic overlooks of the entire park.

We turned around and cruised the main Badlands Highway, where you drive into the Badlands. It was thrilling to be able to see various scenic overlooks, the yellow mounds and explored Fossil Trail (which gives the history of what animals used to live in the Badlands. This is an easy hike for anyone needing something short and accessible. We have White Oak Trail which is a short trail, but more rough because you climb through the rocks. Overall, we spent more time here than planned, but felt we needed to! Bring sunglasses, lots of water and be prepared for dust.

Cost: $30 per vehicle, $15 for hiker/biker. You can buy and annual pass to the Badlands for $55 if you’d like to visit multiple times. If you are an avid adventurer & want to visit various National Parks (also covers US Fish and Wildlife areas) across the country, I HIGHLY recommend buying the America the Beautiful entrance pass for $80. You can purchase this by clicking here.

Hours: Open 24 hours

Stop 16: Wall Drug- Wall

Wall Drug has always been a popular stop for visitors on their way to the Black Hills, Badlands or Mount Rushmore areas. You can park & walk downtown to try different eateries, shop for souvenirs (this is what we did!) and take a break from driving.

Cost: Free to park

Hours: Vary depending on store

Stop 17: Sunflower fields- Wall

Minutes before we arrived at the entrance of Badlands National Park, we noticed multiple sunflower fields on both sides of the road. We stopped to admire the sunflowers & how vast these fields are, turning everything to yellow as far as you can see! South Dakota has so many sunflower fields and we weren’t expecting so many beautiful views along our I-90 drive.

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Other Blacks Hills SD Experiences for Next Time

Sunflower fields that turn the Badlands to yellow.

Below is our list of places we would like to explore. For some places, like Custer State Park, it’s a good idea to set an entire day aside for if you have the time. Click on any activity on the list below for more information to add to your own South Dakota adventure!

  1. Sioux Falls Butterfly House & Aquarium – Sioux Falls
  2. Great Plains Zoo- Sioux Falls
  3. Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Homestead- De Smet, SD
  4. Storybook Island- Rapid City
  5. Dinosaur Museum- Rapid City
  6. Reptile Gardens- Wild Animal Park- Rapid City
  7. Rush Mountain Adventure Park- Keystone
  8. Crazy Horse Monument- Custer
  9. Mammoth Live Dig Site- Hot Springs
  10. Bluebell Loop- Custer State Park in Custer
  11. Iron Mountain Road- Custer State Park
  12. Custer State Park Hikes: Sunday Gulch, Little Devil’s Tower, Lover’s Leap, Cathedral Spires, Crow’s Peak
  13. Jewel Cave National Monument
A bird’s eye view of Rapid City from Skyline Drive.

Share in the comments which stop you are most excited about!

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