Bestowed with great natural beauty, Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills have always been a beloved road trip destination. Pan for gold, visit a vineyard, pet wild burros, or watch a rodeo. Bike, boat, ride a horse, or explore a cave. Hike the highest peak in North America east of the Rockies, or relax in the warm springs of a spa town. It’s all here.
And here’s where to go in Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills for whatever experience you seek.
Mount Rushmore and the Central Hills
Mount Rushmore is a symbol of American exploration and expansion, a testimony to the visionary dreams of our founding fathers, and a tribute to individual effort and collective achievement. It’s also at the heart of local tourism. Served by urban and transportation center Rapid City and supported by the old mining communities of Hill City and Keystone, this mountainous region is the hub of a Black Hills visit.
The Southern Hills
It’s all about wildlife, warm water, and history in the soft rolling landscape of the Southern Hills. Custer State Park provides the best wildlife-viewing opportunities in the state, with accommodations that range from rustic to luxurious. Hot Springs originated as a place to travel to “take the cure” in the warm mineral springs that gave the town its name. It’s also home to beautiful sandstone buildings and the Mammoth Site. Wind Cave and Jewel Cave are both in this region, and Custer, where gold was first discovered in the hills, provides easy access to all of the Southern Hills attractions, including the ongoing mountain carving of Crazy Horse, which honors the famous chief and the Lakota people who hold the Black Hills sacred.
The Northern Hills
Outdoor beauty and recreational opportunities grace every corner of the hills, and the northern region is no exception. Waterfalls, hiking trails, and biking trails abound in the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, which connects the old mining communities of Spearfish and Lead. But the definition of wildlife is a little more expansive here. Once the stomping grounds of the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane, this is a place where the raucous spirit of the Wild West flourishes. Gambling, gunfights, and rodeos set the ever-active stage in Deadwood, and the roaring bikes of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally guarantee that the lights are always on in the Northern Hills.
Set in the midst of the vast plains, a wall of tall spires, flat-topped grassy buttes, and craggy eroding cliffs present an otherworldly landscape to visitors. Some 70 million years of environmental change are exposed to the eye, a product of the relentless and creative forces of wind and water. Each layer of time is different in color. When the sun is just right, the landscape of Badlands National Park turns into a wonderland of pastel yellow, dusty pink, burgundy, gray, green, and black. The town of Wall is the northern gateway to the park and home to Wall Drug, the ultimate roadside attraction. The South Unit of the park is located on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakota people. The reservation offers recreational opportunities, art galleries, and historic sites for visitors interested in Lakota culture.
When to Go
National monuments and national parks (including Mount Rushmore) are open year-round. In old-fashioned vacation style, the Black Hills of South Dakota are fully open and ready for business between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which constitutes the high season for tourism. In the “shoulder season” (May 1-Memorial Day and Labor Day-mid-Oct.), most attractions are open and there is still plenty to do. If the purpose of your visit is primarily scenic and recreational in nature, there are hotels open year-round in every region.
The weather in the hills is unpredictable, but spring is the season during which cooler temperatures and rain are most likely. It is also the season when the region is at its greenest. Early summer tends to be warm and dry, and brief afternoon thundershowers are not uncommon. Mid- and late summer can be anywhere from comfortable to extremely hot, and temperatures vary greatly between the warmer Southern Hills and the cooler mountain towns. For travelers not tied to a school schedule, early fall can be the best season to travel, with warm days and cool nights. It is my favorite season here.
The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally begins on the first Saturday in August and lasts a week. During the rally, hundreds of thousands of bikers flock to the hills and fill the campgrounds and hotels. Traffic congestion in the parks and on the roads is common during the rally, and room rates are at their highest. For some, it’s the perfect week to come, but if the constant roar of motorcycles is not for you, it might be a week to avoid. If you’ve come to the hills inadvertently during the rally, rooms are generally available and the environment is a little quieter in the Southern Hills, particularly in Hot Springs.