Planning a Trip to the Badlands and Black Hills

Picture of the presidents carved at Mount Rushmore

Are you planning a trip to the Badlands and Black Hills area? We went the summer of 2020 and had an amazing time! This post has what we did, tips, and information to help you plan your visit!

When To Go to the Badlands

There are no trees of any kind in the Badlands. Even though South Dakota is in the norther part of the US, it still gets hot during the summer. We went in June and some days were pleasant and others quite warm. I’d recommend May and June or waiting until mid to late September.

Custer State Park has many trees and lakes to enjoy. If you want to enjoy the water, wait until the weather warms up some, but not too much. (Or just know your day or 2 in the Badlands will be warm but enjoy the water and shade in Custer State Park the other days) ūüôā

What Age Is Best for Kids

We went with my husband’s parents and his brother’s family. The ages ranged from 4 all the way to late 70s. All of my kids¬†loved the trip (ages 4, 7, and 9) and so did the adults. When we left, everyone wanted to go back to the area again. My 4 year old was able to do all of the short hikes in the Badlands and was even a trooper and did a 4 mile one (rated difficult on All Trails) in Custer State Park.

What To Do in the Black Hills Area:

The following is what we did on our trip to South Dakota. This is a huge tourist area, so there are countless other things you can find to do as well. You can research to find things to fit your children’s interests and your family’s budget. I would have been more than happy just getting to explore the Badlands and Custer State Park on this trip, so if you are on a budget – you will still be able to make great memories.

The Mammoth Site: We did this on our first day in the area. If your kids are into fossils and such, they will love getting to see an active dig site! The grandparents also paid for all of the kids to do the Paleontologist Excavation Program. (My 9 year old did the advanced program and the 4 and 7 year old the junior one.)

Reptile Garden: This is the place for reptile lovers. Lots of snakes and lizards. We happened to be there shortly after they fed they snakes and got to see several snakes in the process of swallowing mice. There is also a fun playground outside for younger kids. The huge tortoises were also outside and my 3 enjoyed that and a bird presentation was also going on as well. (We did this and Bear Country USA on the same day.)

Dinosaur Park: This is free and nothing fancy, but young dinosaur loving kids would probably enjoy a short stop. You walk up a hill and pass large dinosaur statues on the way.

A bear swimming at Bear Country USA in Rapid City

Bear Country USA: My kids thought it was a lot of fun getting to see so many bears and then other animals around the car as you are driving. There is also an area you can walk around that has animals once you complete the drive through. If our trip to South Dakota had been a year later, after we explored Glacier National Park and Yellowstone area and saw a dozen bears and numerous other animals in the wild, we could have done without Bear Country. But last summer the kids loved this.

Wall Drug:¬†This is one of those places I would say is a tourist trap. It is free to walk around and the kids would say they liked it but I would say it’s okay to skip if you are short on time. Lots of souvenir shopping, if that’s your thing. There’s also a restaurant if you need to grab a bite to eat. Wall Drug is also known for free ice water and 5 cent coffee. We ate there, the kids shopped for souvenirs and enjoyed taking pictures on some of the structures in the Backyard.

Minuteman Missile Site and Visitor Center:¬†¬†We stopped by this visitor center and one of the missile silos on our last day. It was free and worth a quick stop. I didn’t know much about this part of history, so it was interesting.

At one of the lookouts at the Badlands!

Badlands National Park:¬†My family¬†loved the Badlands! This was such a fun place to explore. Parts of it felt like we were on the moon. This and Custer State Park were my 2 favorite parts of the trip. As I said earlier, there is no shade here, so if you do go in the hottest summer months plan to go early in the day. We went late June and spent the day here and were fine. We didn’t do any of the long trails, but I would recommend going on all of the short trails we did. Also, plan on driving all of the way through the park and stopping at the overlooks on each end!

Trails We Did:

  • Door Trail (short, easy hike that the kids actually did twice)
  • Window Trail
  • Notch Trail (A lot of fun! The hardest part is climbing the rope ladder)
  • Cliff Shelf
  • Saddle Pass (This hike is only .7 miles but was our favorite! You definitely want hiking shoes and maybe even your hiking poles because it is slippery on the way down and easy to lose your footing. We saw a rattlesnake on this hike)
  • There is also a .4 mile Fossil Exhibit Trail that was closed when we were there.

You can easily do all the above trails in 1 day and enjoy both lookout areas. There are also longer trails (4 mile and 11 mile and more) that you can look into. Notch and Saddle Pass were our 2 favorites. Watching a sunrise or sunset would also be gorgeous!

See this AllTrails link for information on the hikes!

Another view at Badlands National Park

Mount Rushmore:¬†This was a pretty fast stop and I thought it was underwhelming. Maybe part of that had to do with the fact that the Avenue of Flags and Presidential Trail were both closed when we went. We walked around a little bit and went to the ranger talk at the Sculptor’s Studio. You probably want to go just because it’s an iconic landmark, but don’t overestimate it.

The faces carved at Mount Rushmore

Wind Cave National Park: This was closed when we went, but had it been open we definitely would have gone!

Custer State Park: I loved Custer State Park (the kids did as well)! It was such a beautiful and relaxing area and a complete contrast to the Badlands. Highly recommend. If we were on this trip ourselves, I would have spent more time here.

Places to drive: Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road, and the Wildlife Loop Road (similar to driving something like Lamar Valley at Yellowstone).

Hikes: Again, I didn’t get to spend as much time doing this as I liked but the one hike we made time for was at Sylvan Lake. Sylvan Lake was a beautiful area (and quite busy). We did the Sunday Gulch Trail (and you can easily include Sylvan Lake Shore Trail like we did) which is 4 miles and AllTrails rates it as challenging. My 4 year old was able to walk the entire way with some handholding and hosting to get her across the boulders. I highly recommend this trail!

Check out AllTrails for Custer State Park for more info on this and other hiking options! We want to go back and explore more. This Trail Pocket Book from Custer State Park also has good information.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway and D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery: This was an easy and pretty drive! We stopped at the Bridal Veil Falls to take pictures and also did the short hike to Spearfish Falls.

My kids love fish hatcheries, so this was a fun and free excursion for them. We went June of 2020, so the museum and house were still closed to visitors. We did do the short hikes they have on the property.

Mt. Moriah Cemetery:¬†We drove through the city of Deadwood and stopped at Mt. Moriah Cemetery because my father in law wanted us to see Wild Bill Hickock and Calamity Jane’s graves. There is a $2 entrance fee and we spend some time walking throughout the cemetery.

Broken Boot Gold Mine:¬†The kids all wanted to tour a gold mine, so their grandparents took everyone here and the 4 kids did the panning for gold as well. It was a fairly short tour and was fine, but I don’t know that I would do it again.

Picture of Broken Boot Gold Mine

Pirate’s Cove Mini Golf:¬†We did this one evening because my kids and nephew really wanted to. It’s a nice course that you can find at several locations around the USA.

Other Options On Our List: These were other ideas my mother-in-law had that we did not make it to:

  • Air & Space Museum
  • Storybook Island
  • Rush Mountain Adventure Park
  • Main Street Square Splash Park

View looking into the Badlands

Where to Stay When Visiting the Black Hills

Anything in the Rapid City area would work. Also, look in the surrounding cities. We rented a house in Summerset and it worked fine. It was about 10-25 minutes to the different attractions in Rapid City and an hour to Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Custer State Park and less than 45 minutes to the hatchery.

Conclusion:

Everyone in our group had a great trip! Our family has talked about going again, especially to explore Custer State Park more and see Wind Cave. We’d definitely go back to Badlands for a day as well.

This is a great possibility for a family vacation! Kids as young as 4 will be able to participate and hike most everything. But it would still be fun with younger kids, you just might end up carrying them a bit depending on the trails you do. It’s also fun for older kids and adults! So many interesting places to explore.

Again, you can do this on any budget. Stick to the state and national parks to keep things frugal and you will still have a great trip. Add in a tourist attraction or two if your budget and time allows. Either way, you will love exploring and creating memories.

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