We flew into Rapid City (RAP) and rented a house in Sturgis, SD through VBRO. It ended up being the perfect home base and middle ground to everything we did. We spent our time exploring the towns on the west side of South Dakota, considered the Black Hills and Badlands: Rapid City, Lead, Deadwood, Custer, and Spearfish.
Things to Do in South Dakota
1. Outlaw Square in Deadwood
This is the downtown area of Deadwood. There are tons of shops and old western saloons to explore, and many events are hosted at the Square. During our visit, they had ice skating going on. Visit The Old Style Saloon No.10, best known for being the place American Old West legend Wild Bill was assassinated during a game of poker. We had dinner in Deadwood at Mustang Sally’s on our way home from Custer State Park.
2. Mount Moriah Cemetery Trail
A short and sweet 1 mile trail to explore before or after a round of eats and drinks in the saloons. You’ll also get a perfect view of Deadwood!
3. Snowmobiling in Black Hills
I love a good snowmobiling trip and this one didn’t disappoint. Although the snow wasn’t very deep (we were warned before going and given the option to cancel), we still enjoyed riding through and getting lost (literally) in the 1 million acres of ponderosa pine in the Black Hills! If you’re in SoDak during summer, mountain biking is another way to explore the Black Hills.
4. Spearfish Canyon
Spearfish Canyon is a drivable scenic canyon, with some hiking trails off to the side that you can stop and do. You can even do some fly fishing (I’ve always wanted to try!) while you’re there. We stopped and hiked (2 mile round trip) to Roughlock Falls. The small town of Spearfish is a great find too with tons of restaurants and cute shops. We stopped for dinner and drinks at Spearfish Brewery before heading back home.
5. Prairie Berry Winery
If there’s a winery nearby, I’m sure to find it and make a stop. The Prairie Berry Winery was a cute stop on our way to the 1880 Train Express. We did a wine tasting, then ate lunch and sipped more wine in their seasonal igloos.
6. 1880 Train Express
Enjoy a ride on an authentic old steam train through the Black Hills. The train ride is about 2 hours long and narrated, giving you some fun facts about the surroundings. You can’t beat the views and I hear it’s beautiful in the fall!
Since we visited during the holidays, we were able to enjoy the Holiday Express version of a train ride with Santa, Christmas carols, and hot chocolate! Super fun!
7. Mt. Rushmore National Memorial
If you’re in SD and don’t visit Mt. Rushmore, what are you even doing? This is a bucket list item and I’m so glad we were able to see it in real life! Once you enter you stroll down the Avenue of Flags which leads to the Grand View terrace. There is a Presidential Trail observation loop that takes you around for about half a mile. Visit the Lincoln Burglum visitor center for all the information you’d ever want regarding this amazing memorial, including exhibits and a 14-minute film. Before you leave, make sure to try the Memorial Ice Cream that is based on Thomas Jefferson’s original recipe from 1780. This was a half day activity and we were there for about 3 hours.
8. Custer State Park
This state park was incredible and one of my personal favorites on the trip! The drive there was a bit scary, but so scenic! Take a “safer” drive during warmer months through the iconic Needles Highway and the Wildlife Loop Road. Once there, we spent the day hiking through the tall needles of granite, and sliding across the frozen ponds.
9. Buffalo Safari
During warmer summer months, go off-roading into the Black Hills where the buffalo and wildlife roam! The Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours offer 2 hour family tours. I always love doing tours because the guides are so knowledgeable and give you great information! They’re always great at keeping the ride entertaining for the kids.
10. Wind Cave National Park
This National Park is very close to Custer State Park so easily to knock both out in one long outdoorsy day! Book a Natural Entrance Cave tour in advance to avoid having to wait or not being to do one at all. This National Park is nature at its finest, with hiking trails to see wildlife up close and caves hundreds of feet underground.
11. Crazy Horse Memorial
This was a bit underwhelming for us. This memorial is unfinished, with no finish line in sight. Originally said to take 30 years, it’s been 74 years since the start. Personally I wouldn’t waste your time, but if you just so happen to be driving by, sure, make the stop to admire the “what will be” memorial.
12. Terry Peak Ski
A day spent skiing is always a fun time for us. My kids love skiing, and this place was perfect for a half day of skiing. Terry Peak is South Dakota’s largest ski area, but pretty small in comparison to other major ski areas in the country. It’s a perfect spot for families and if you’re a beginner, with great rates! Highly recommended for a quick ski trip in South Dakota.
13. Badlands National Park
The drive from our house in Sturgis to Badlands National Park was a little over an hour long. We heard the sunsets were a must-do at Badlands (they are!) so this was a full day activity. We took our time and made a stop at the Wall Drug Store on our way. The kid’s loved exploring this National Park, and being December in South Dakota in the year 2020, it was completely empty. I think we saw a total of 5 people the entire time we were there. Incredible! The snow made the terrain exactly slippery so proceed with caution if you’re visiting in winter. We slipped and slided all over the place (safely) and looked like we rolled around in mud afterwards! The name Badlands means exactly what you think it means. The Lakota people dubbed this region “mako sica”, or “bad lands”, because of its rocky terrain, lack of water, and extreme temps. It was crazy windy at times it nearly knocked us over! I thought it looked like the surface of another planet, and well, come to find out, it was used at the surface of the asteroid in the 1998 film Armageddon. It was such a cool place and the sunset at the end was totally worth it!
14. Bear Country USA
Bear Country is open May-November (weather permitting). Take a leisurely 2 mile drive in your vehicle through this Black Hills park and view black bears, wolves, elk, buffalo and other wildlife! Right after you pay and enter, they’ll wash your windows so you have the best view! There is also a walking loop, cafe, and gift shop.
15. Devil’s Tower National Monument
A fun little extra activity, cross the border into Wyoming, but still a part of the Black Hills region! The Devil’s Tower National Monument is only about an hour drive from Deadwood and would make a great day trip if time allowed. Test your rock climbing skills, like many people from around the world, or enjoy plenty of trails to explore and get great views of the tower and surrounding landscape. This monument is also said to be an ideal location for stargazing at nighttime!
16. Falls Park on the Big Sioux River
If you head East or happen to be on this side of SoDak, you’ll get to enjoy a different scenery/landscape at Falls Park on the Big Sioux River. We didn’t get to experience this side of South Dakota (it’s a pretty far 5 hour drive from where we were in Sturgis), but it was on my list! Spend a fun day at Falls Park playing in the sand, climbing the rocks, getting views of the waterfalls, eating at the cafe, and even doing a Stockyard Ag experience at the historic horse barn. There is a Farmer’s market every Saturday during May – October.