Travel With Kids: Black Hills, South Dakota

Southwestern South Dakota is, in a word, surprising.

More commonly referred to as The Black Hills, southwestern South Dakota is - arguably - one of the best and most magnificent parts of the state.

The landscape is startlingly beautiful - wide lakes, waving grasses, and humble mountains.

WEATHER IN SOUTHWEST SOUTH DAKOTA

Southwest South Dakota (Custer, Keystone, and Rapid City) has lovely weather most of the year. Visit in the spring, summer, and fall - and, chances are, you will be greeted with pleasant daytime temps (50s-80s) and chilly evenings (20s-60s). The winters, however, can be icy cold with lows in the teens and highs in the 30s. This part of South Dakota averages 55 inches of snow each year, which is almost double the national average (28 days per year).

WHERE TO STAY IN SOUTH DAKOTA

Consider one of these highly rated options in the Black Hills area.

For our trip, we stayed in Custer for four nights. During that time, we also visited Keystone and Rapid City. As you can see from the below map (created by the Black Hills & Badlands Tourism Association), those three cities are actually not that far from each other. Rapid City is the largest of the cities and the furthest north, Keystone is is in the middle, and Custer is quieter and further south. Any of those three cities are great choices if you hope to see Mount Rushmore, along with other area attractions.

Travel With Kids: Black Hills, South Dakota 1

THINGS TO DO IN CUSTER, SOUTH DAKOTA

Custer is an adorable and quaint area (population: 2,000) that begs you to stay. The biggest and best attraction, by far, is Custer State Park. If you plan ahead, you can easily spend a few days in the park - hiking, swimming, camping, fishing, or picnicking.

If we had more time, we would have loved to wander the "main street" a bit - stopping in at Custer County Candy Company, the Purple Pie Place, and the 1881 Courthouse Museum.

Custer State Park

Custer State Park is a GEM of a park in southwest South Dakota. A day or week pass will provide incredible access to 71,000 acres of hiking trails, lakes, lodges, and wildlife.

You won't be bored with so many spaces for swimming, fishing, picnicking, hiking, biking, canoeing/kayaking, horseback riding, and exploring. Your eyes won't grow weary either. Simply driving through is a treat. Look out your window to see vibrant colors, roaming bison and antelope, and sparkling waterways.

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • Your $20 7-day pass grants you access to ALL state parks in South Dakota.
  • Plan ahead by packing a PICNIC breakfast, lunch, and/or dinner. There are plenty of excellent picnic tables, conveniently located throughout the park - so you'll be glad if you pack a cooler full of meals, snacks, and treats.
  • Don't forget to bring water and other drinks of your choice.
  • Many of the roads inside are narrow and curvy. If you or someone in your family is prone to motion sickness, prepare wisely by eating stomach-settling foods and bringing cinnamon bears, mints, or other candies to suck on.
  • Don't hesitate to park and wander around the various lodges and other buildings. Interesting architecture, history, and folklore - plus restrooms, snacks, and souvenirs! The Peter Norbeck Education Center is a particularly fun stop if you have young children.
  • Note sure what to do first? Try the Cathedral Spires Hiking Trail.
  • Tent sites and cabins are available inside Custer State Park - with prices ranging from $20-$55 per night.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

  • HOURS: Custer State Park is open year-round. Between Oct. 1 and April 30, showers and flush toilets may be closed.
  • COST: $20 for a weekly pass; $36 for an annual pass
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THINGS TO DO IN KEYSTONE, SOUTH DAKOTA

Keystone is another tiny town (population: 337), but with huge tourist appeal. In the summer, you'll find visitors from all over the globe - milling about at the many fun attractions in the area.

Big Thunder Gold Mine

The tour at Big Thunder Gold Mine is interesting and interactive - and includes a photo opp inside a mine cart at the very end! Garrett, our tour guide, was personable and knowledgable, without being over-the-top. One of the best parts about this tour is that the cave is a crisp 52 degrees (on average) so it feels like a great escape on sweltering summer days.

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • All tour participants are required to wear hard hats.
  • All ages are welcome, including babies-in-arms. Note, however, that the cave is dark and there is a loud noise at one point in the tour.
  • For an additional fee, you can try your hand at panning for gold.
  • There is a picnic area on-site (across the pedestrian bridge as you walk up) so feel free to pack your lunch or dinner. There is also a restaurant on-site, which offers both indoor and outdoor dining.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

  • HOURS: Open daily from March through October. Open by reservation only from November through February. Hours change depending on the season.
  • COST: Tour tickets are $11.95 per adult (ages 13+) and $8.95 per child (ages 6-12). Children, ages 5 and under, are free.
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Grapes & Grinds

Grapes & Grinds is an adorable coffee, wine, and gelato shop that deserves a spot on your itinerary. This modern and charming bistro is just the place to slow down, sip a latte, read a book, or pick up a souvenir.

The gelato case will entice you with bold and pastel colors. Choose a flavor and your tastebuds will be delighted by the fresh and creamy flavors. We particularly recommend Key Lime Pie - plentiful tangy appeal with real pie crusts crushed in.

After ordering a scone and a cup of steaming gourmet coffee, pull up a barstool inside and people-watch or dine al fresco while you watch your children slide and swing on the playground with glee.

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • Grapes & Grinds is famous for their wines. Enjoy reds or whites by the glass or buy a few bottles to take home to friends. Super cool labels make these bottles an ideal souvenir!
  • Free wine tastings are available any time of day at Grapes & Grinds. Sample five local wines of your choice for free with one of the friendly staff – just ask!
  • Coffee is the other specialty of Grapes & Grinds. The owners are serious coffee connoisseurs so you can expect freshly brewed and carefully made drinks that will compete with any big city coffee shop.
  • A playground and chess set are on-site. This is a family-friendly spot where you and your kids can relax and linger awhile.
  • The National Presidential Wax Museum is right next door! (They share a parking lot).

GENERAL INFORMATION:

  • HOURS: Open daily. Hours are dependent on the season.
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Mount Rushmore

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While you are in Keystone, you will undoubtedly want to make a trip to Mount Rushmore. Magnificent in artistry, the famous rock sculptures are wonderful to behold. Marvel as you gaze on the familiar faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln - elegantly and painstakingly carved in stone.

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • Go early in the morning or at dusk for better photo opps and fewer crowds.
  • The Junior Ranger program is an excellent learning tool. There are separate booklets for Junior Ranger Trainees (ages 3-4), Junior Rangers (ages 5-12), and Rushmore Rangers (ages 13+). Complete the book and you will take a pledge in order to receive a plastic badge, which you can wear proudly on your shirt.
  • Camping is not available and overnight parking is not permitted within the boundaries of Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

  • COST: There is no entrance fee to visit Mount Rushmore. Parking is $10 per vehicle and a parking permit entitles a non-commercial vehicle unlimited entry to the memorial for one year from the date of purchase. Note that your America The Beautiful Pass, Senior Pass, or Every Kid in the Park Pass cannot be used for parking fees.
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National Presidential Wax Museum

Our family was pleasantly surprised by this educational and entertaining wax museum in Keystone. The museum features wax figures and corresponding scenes from important moments throughout history.

You will receive a handheld audio tour device, which allows you to push a button and hear a brief, interesting narrative about each president. The recordings are professional, well-done, easy-to-hear, and unbiased - providing a bipartisan look at each presidency.

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • If you have older children and/or teens (ages 10+), there's a good chance that they will appreciate and be engaged with the audio tour. As such, you can expect to spend about 2 hours inside the museum. The audio tour is roughly one hour and forty-five minutes long if you listen to them all back to back.
  • If you have younger children, they will still benefit from the bits of information they pick up, but it is doubtful that you will be able to make it through all of the audio bites. That's totally fine! I would say that it is still worth a visit.
  • At the end of the tour, there is a well-stocked and well-decorated gift shop with fun souvenirs at reasonable prices.
  • Note that this is not the kind of wax museum where you can "pose" next to the figures. Each scene is behind a barrier of some kind.
  • Grapes & Grinds is right next door so stop in before or after for a cup of coffee, a scoop of gelato, or a glass of wine!

GENERAL INFORMATION:

  • COST: Free for ages 5 and under, $8 for ages 6-12, $9 for military and seniors, $11 for adults (ages 13-64).
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Rush Mountain Adventure Park

Rush Mountain Adventure Park is a great place to visit if you have a family with a wide age span. We have four kids (ages: 3, 8, 11, and 13) and there was something to do for every member of our party. Our 3-year-old was able to do all of the activities - MINUS the zip ride and cave tour.

A 4-Hour Wristband will give you unlimited access to the Rushmore Mountain Coaster, Soaring Eagle Zip Ride, Gunslinger 7-D Interactive Ride, and the Wingwalker (or Sky Tykes) Challenge Course - along with one guided cave tour.

All of the attractions are thrilling, but our favorites were the Challenge Course and Mountain Coaster.

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • You can ride the Rushmore Mountain Coaster solo or with a sibling/child. One person "drives" the coaster. Even our 3-year-old zipped down the coaster with dad (and then mom!).
  • The Soaring Eagle Zip Ride is a two-seater ride where you sit down and get buckled in. The "worst" part is the jolt at the end!
  • The Wingwalker Challenge Course has multiple levels and a small zipline. You go any way you choose and can complete as many obstacles as you like.
  • If you have a preschooler, the Sky Tykes Challenge Course is one of the VERY BEST things about Rush Mountain Adventure Park. Geared to ages 2-5 (48" or under), this miniature ropes course is on the bottom level of the Wingwalker course. Little ones get harnessed up and explore obstacles of their very own. There is even a mini zipline! Our 3-year-old loved this course and we spent the majority of our time with him here as our older girls took on the Wingwalker course directly above us.
  • Prepare to hike up and down lots of steps to get in-between various attractions.
  • Wear comfortable, closed toe shoes - and athletic clothing you can move in with ease.
  • Outside food & drinks ARE permitted. There are a few picnic areas down by the parking lots and people may also bring food up to the pavilion if they choose. Tailgating is another popular choice by guests.
  • Alternatively, there is a restaurant and ice cream shop on-site.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

  • COST: 4-Hour Wristbands are $52 per adult (ages 13+), $47 per child (ages 5-12), and $27 per Lil Tyke (between 38" and 41"). If you prefer, you can purchase tickets for individual attractions - but the wristband will likely be the best bang for your buck.
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THINGS TO DO IN RAPID CITY, SOUTH DAKOTA

Rapid City is far bigger than its southern neighbors. With a population of just over 75,000, this is where you will want to head if you are looking for a larger grocery store, a theatre, or a more expansive "downtown."

Dinosaur Park

This free, quirky attraction sits atop a hill in Rapid City. Drive up, park, and wander among six giant dinosaurs. You can even climb on top of a few of them if you dare.

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • There are lots of steps. Leave your stroller in the car.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

  • HOURS: Open daily. Hours are dependent on the season.
  • COST: Free
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Downtown Rapid City

Downtown Rapid City is absolutely darling and well worth a visit! There are lifesize bronze presidential statues at every intersection (one for every president to-date...minus Trump), which make for fun photo opportunities. Plus, you'll find quaint dining venues with outdoor seating, a whimsical toy shop, a bookstore, and other boutiques. After wandering around a bit, I noted that Rapid City would be an ideal destination for a mother/daughter trip or girlfriend getaway.

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • You can pick up a City of the Presidents Walking Guide at the Visitor Information Center.
  • The toy store is called Who's Toy House and they have a whimsical selection of toys, games, books, and puzzles.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

Storybook Island

Last, but CERTAINLY not least, any travel article about Rapid City is not complete without significant mention of Storybook Island. This magical park is a non-profit that was founded in 1959 by Merle Gunderson and the Rapid City Rotary Clubs. It's completely FREE during the summer months and your children (ages 1-12+) will be mesmerized. Expect to spend several hours here if the weather is nice. Our kids list this park as one of the highlights from our recent trip...and did I mention that it is free?

GOOD TO KNOW:

  • This park will hold extra appeal for bookworms. If you read fairy tales, recite poems, and have shelves that are packed with books, you will be delighted as you step into your favorite stories. Aladdin, Rapunzel, The Three Billy Goats Gruff, Humpty Dumpty, and Robin Hood - just to name a few!
  • Although the park is free, the carousel, bounce house, and train are ticket-based ($2/ticket). Concessions and souvenirs are also available for purchase, but they are subtle enough that you won't feel obligated to purchase something if your budget is limited. That said, if you have cash to spare, you can feel good about supporting this amazing park with your donation or purchase of a special treat.
  • Even teenagers will love this place for its instagram and photo appeal!
  • Pets, bikes, and and skateboards are not permitted.
  • Outside food & drinks are not permitted.
  • You can rent the birthday house, the gazebo, or the entire park for a birthday party or wedding.

GENERAL INFORMATION:

  • HOURS: Open 9:00am-7:00pm, seven days per week.
  • COST: Free Admission
  • LEARN MORE

OUR NEXT TRIP TO THE BLACK HILLS

We can't wait to visit the Black Hills again! On our next trip, we'd be sure to RE-VISIT Storybook Island, Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, and Downtown Rapid City.

These other attractions are also on our list: Black Hills Community Theatre, Cosmos Mystery Area, Rushmore Tramway Adventures, and the 1880 Train/Black Hills Central Railroad.

HAVE FUN IN SOUTH DAKOTA!

Watch this page for continued updates and top tips for planning your next trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

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