Three Days in the Southern Black Hills — Parks & Points (2023)

By Courtney Johnson

The provenance of the term “Black Hills” derives from the Lakota, Pahá Sápa, and refers to the darker look of the undulating South Dakota landscape from a distance. The Black Hills is divided into two geographical areas; The Northern terrain encompasses Sturgis, Spearfish and Deadwood, while The Southern region encompasses Rushmore, Custer State Park, Jewel Cave National Park and Wind Cave National Park.

We spent three days in the Southern Black Hills over Memorial Day weekend, taking in many of the best destinations of the area, and bookmarking some highlights to revisit later. Those additional sites are mentioned at the bottom of this post!

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

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More than two million people visit this monument, where Gutzon Borglurm carved 60-foot portraits of former U.S. presidents, Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln into granite, every year. The monument is said to represent the nation's birth, preservation, development and growth.

One of the most interesting times to visit is toward sunset, as the monument is lit. We happened to visit just as the sun was setting, and appreciated the colorful background and being among a few less visitors.

We also recommend taking the 17-mile Iron Mountain Road (also known as 16A) to the monument if possible. This unique road takes you through tunnels (one that even frames the monument), on pigtail bridges, and offers views of wildlife. There are many stopping points along the road to snap a photo of the monument or other views from a distance.

Note: Mount Rushmore is currently under construction to improve accessibility and visitation. The Avenue of the Flags, amphitheater and parts of the Presidential Trail are closed.

Custer State Park

With 71,000 acres of mountains and grassland, Custer State Park is an ideal place to stay during your adventure, or at least take the time for a day trip. From tent and RV sites to cabins and rooms at one of the four historic lodges within the park, there are many ways to make this park your home base.

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We tent camped at Game Lodge, one of the nine campgrounds available, with the Grace Coolidge Creek running directly behind our campsite. The creek providedopportunities for water play, stick races and fishing where the creek runs into a pond at the entrance and exit of the campground.

One one of our three days at the park, we headed to Sylvan Lake for everything outdoors. We grabbed some worms (on recommendation from other campers) and a fishing license at the Game Lodge store. Children must have a fishing license in the state of South Dakota if they are not fishing with a license-holding adult. A game warden was checking for licenses at the park. We hoped to catch some rainbow or brown trout across the 17 acres of water. We had some nibbles, but my daughter had an easier time catching minnows. A girl we met onshore caught a trout with a net.

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We brought along our inflatable kayak and enjoyed some paddle time on Sylvan Lake. If you don’t have your own watercraft, there are kayak rentals onsite. Additional fishing, swimming and boating opportunities are available at Legion Lake, Stockade Lake, Game Lodge Pond and Center Lake.

Climbers flock to the area for unique climbing, including the cathedral spires, for a striking view of the area. A trail around the lake takes you to climbing crags. At the Needle Eye, there are additional bouldering and climbing routes.There are many trail options within the park, from the easy three-mile Creekside Trail to the easy to moderate trail around Sylvan Lake, which offers a waterfall view. We hiked the three-mile moderate Cathedral Spires Trail, the 3.2 loop of Sunday Gulch with incredible views and the Sylvan Lake Trail. Whether you prefer easy strolls or moderate hikes, the park offers something for everyone.

If you enjoy seeing wildlife from a distance, consider a drive on the 18-mile Wildlife Loop, where bison and elk roam the hillsides. While you may have to use binoculars and do some searching to find wildlife on the loop in Yellowstone, the local animal population at Custer are easy to spot on the scenic, twisting road. Don’t miss the wild burros, sometimes known as the begging burros, since many visitors feed them. Allow 1-2 hours for the drive.

Badlands National Park and Buffalo Gap National Grassland

Originally a national monument, Badlands was declared a national park in 1978. The name of this national park comes from both the Lakota, who referred to the area as Mako Sica and French-Canadian fur trappers who called it "les mauvais terres pour traverse," or "bad lands to travel through." Floods, extreme heat, lightning, and sand blasting wind are just a few of the reasons the park earned its name.

We recommend taking the 30-mile one way Badlands Loop Road from the Pinnacles Entrance. Driving from Custer, we were able to drive through some of the Buffalo Gap National Grassland. Free to visit, Buffalo Gap encompasses 600,000 acres of Badlands and prairie and is the second largest grassland in the United States. Home to over 100 species of animals, along our drive we saw bison, prairie dogs, pronghorn, mule deer and hawks. We recommend a visit to the Visitor Center in Wall to learn more about the diverse ecosystem, and taking advantage of the recreational opportunities in the grassland area such as hiking, biking, horseback riding and bird watching. There is also seasonal hunting and OHV.

Taking the Badlands Loop Road through the North Unit gives you an incredible view of the spires, pinnacles and “the wall” that makes the park so distinct. If you are a movie buff, a drive down Sage Creek Rim Road may be on your agenda to see where parts of Dances with Wolves were filmed. Also down that road is the “infamous” Robert’s Prairie Dog Town, where visitors can feed and visit with prairie dogs.

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Following the Badlands Loop Road through the park offers the opportunity to view wildlife, including a park favorite, the bighorn sheep. Often found bounding along the hills, spring and summer visits offer the chance to see babies. We stopped at The Pinnacles Overlook for a significant amount of time to watch the sheep and take in the views. There are various other spots to stop along the loop from the Yellow Mounds Overlook to the Big Foot Pass Overlook to see the uniqueness of the lands.

When open, the Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a must-see. (It was closed in late May.) There are interactive kid-friendly educational exhibits along with models representing the paleontology and geology of the area. On the way to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, you will begin to pass by the hiking trails. The Fossil Exhibit Trail is one of the most popular trails in the park. Along a boardwalk, it offers a chance for future paleontologists and their families to see exhibits dedicated to extinct animals that oncecalled the area home, as well as replicas of fossils. Our absolute must-hike in the park was The Notch Trail. It packs a lot in for a short 1.5 total miles. The 50-foot steep ladder that takes you up the ridge, the tremendous views and the chance to view different layers of rock on this hike made it a park favorite for us. Not to be missed is the Window and Door Trails, which start from the same parking lot as The Notch Trail. The Door Trail shows a physical break in “the wall” of the Badlands. These trails are perfect for those who like to climb and explore. Other popular trails are the two-mile round trip Saddle Trail that takes you straight up “the wall,” the Castle Trail and the Medicine Loop.

A few last activities to consider before exiting the park are viewing the night sky or flying a kite. The wind predictably blows most days, making great kite-flying conditions, we discovered. The park is also perfect for star gazing, due to the remoteness and distance from artificial light.

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Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Departing Badlands from the northeast gate don’t skip a visit to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site, if time allows. There are three sites where you can see the Cold War Missiles, and the Visitors Center showcases missile history. A launch control facility can be found at site Delta-01, and a missile silo is interesting to visit at Delta-09.

Other recommendations for visiting the area are Jewel Cave National Monument,Wall Drug, Mammoth Hot Springs and Wind Cave National Park. We thoroughly enjoyed our three days in the Southern Black Hills. We look forward to exploring and discovering more of what the area has to offer during another visit.

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Courtney Johnson is a freelance sports and parenting writer based in Erie, Colorado. She enjoys spending time outdoors with her husband AJ and six-year-old daughter Emma. Follow her adventures at

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