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On a road trip across the Western U.S., we spent one day in the Black Hills area of South Dakota. As reference, Black Hills National Forest is in the western part of the state and home to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial. The area is flush with tree-covered hills, with bright red rock sprinkled throughout.
Nature lovers will find so much to do that it isn’t possible to fit it all into one day in the Black Hills. However, the outline below provides a good sampling of activities to fill the day.
Best time of year to visit
Weather-wise, the Black Hills is best to visit in late spring, summer, or fall. Winter is cold and snowy, though likely beautiful with the snow-covered hills.
Black Hills National Forest spans 1.2 million acres, and as such, there are numerous lodging options throughout the area.
We chose to stay in the town of Deadwood partly because of its proximity to Spearfish Canyon. The canyon boasts a scenic drive that we wanted to do. An additional reason was to stay for free using hotel rewards points at the Doubletree by Hilton at Cadillac Jack’s. Cadillac Jack’s is a casino with two Hilton-brand hotels, one Marriott-brand hotel, and multiple dining options. It’s conveniently located right off of Highway 85 and is a short walk to restaurants and shops in Deadwood. We had our cat along, and the hotel is pet-friendly.
For more details on our hotel cost and points valuation, see the “Cost of our road trip” section in our road trip post.
History of Deadwood
Deadwood, founded in 1876, is a wild west town known best for the murder location of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok. Hickok and “Calamity Jane” (Martha Jane Burke) are buried at Mt. Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.
Things to do in Deadwood
- Re-enactments: watch the Trial of Jack McCall (for a fee) and shootouts on the stage at Outlaw Square (free).
- Wine, beer, and moonshine tasting: savor pours from Naked Winery and Sick-N-Twisted Brewery at the same location right on Main Street. If moonshine is more your speed, head to Deadwood Distilling Company for moonshine tastings.
- Casinos: as mentioned, the Doubletree we stayed at had a casino on the ground level. Deadwood has several other casinos along Main Street.
- Mt. Moriah Cemetery: visit the gravesites of Wild Bill and Calamity Jane and scope out other gravesites. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but we find old headstones to be both eerie and intriguing.
- Adams House: tour a historic home in a residential neighborhood.
- Adams Museum: affiliated with Adams House but located in downtown Deadwood. Check their website for combo tickets to visit both.
Money-saving tip! If you are interested in gambling and don’t mind giving out some personal information, casinos often offer “free play” if you sign up for their players’ card.
For instance, the Doubletree in Deadwood gave us $30 of free play to use at the onsite casino. You just have to put in your own money to start; it can be as little as $1 (as we know from experience at the penny slots). As you lose some of your money–which you almost certainly will–the free play covers your loss so you can keep playing without inserting additional money. Depending on how well you do, this could be hours or minutes of cheap entertainment.
Driving Highway 14A through Spearfish Canyon between the town of Spearfish (off of Interstate 90) and Cheyenne Crossing (on Highway 85) is a must-do. The road snakes through the floor of the canyon adjacent to Spearfish Creek. Along the way are waterfalls and numerous hiking trails.
If you love nature, this MUST be on your list of things to do during your day in the Black Hills.
Stop at Bridal Veil Falls and take in the view of the waterfall from the side of the road.
Farther south, Spearfish Canyon State Nature Area has a trail to Spearfish Falls. From the Spearfish Falls Trailhead parking lot, first check out the Upper Observation Deck. Then take the trail to the Lower Observation Deck. The trail is 1.5 miles roundtrip and is rated as moderately difficult.
Next, turn onto Roughlock Falls Road toward Roughlock Falls Trailhead. The trail is a 1-mile out-and-back trail of moderate difficulty. If that doesn’t sound appealing, you could do only the two observation points of Roughlock Falls. If you want a longer hike, you can leave your vehicle at the Spearfish Falls Trailhead and hike from there to Roughlock Falls and return.
Money-saving tip! Spearfish Canyon State Nature Area and the Spearfish Falls and Roughlock Falls trails are free with no parking fees.
A day in the Black Hills wouldn’t be complete without a stop at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Mount Rushmore is technically free to enter, but parking costs $10/vehicle for the general public, and parking offsite is pretty much non-existent. Before you ask, no, the America the Beautiful National Park Pass cannot be used to cover parking fees.
Money-saving tip! Want to avoid paying the parking fee? We found a few other spots offering views of Mount Rushmore at no cost.
One is a roadside pullout along Highway 244, not too far west of U.S. Highway 16A. That’s where we took this photo, and Christina didn’t even have to use her telephoto lens (but if you have one, use it).
A few other spots are along U.S. Highway 16A (see the next section), but the views are from a greater distance, so a pair of binoculars or a camera with a good telephoto lens would be helpful.
U.S. Highway 16A
U.S. Highway 16A heading south from the town of Keystone toward Custer State Park is a seriously-winding road with tunnels and views of the forest and hills. If you zoom in enough on Google Maps, you will see the following landmarks:
- The Pig Tails: a portion of road that does a complete 360-degree loop.
- Doane Robinson Tunnel: view Mount Rushmore through the tunnel.
- C.C. Gideon Tunnel: view Mount Rushmore through the tunnel, as in the photo below.
- Norbeck Overlook: this is a great spot to admire the beautiful Black Hills forest and a distant view of Mount Rushmore.
Of course, be careful taking photos at the tunnels, and watch for vehicles!
Custer State Park
The impressive Custer State Park offers as many amenities as some of the big National Parks. One could easily spend days hiking, boating, fishing, biking, etc. in this park. Entry costs $20 for a week-long pass.
Money-saving tip! You can avoid paying the entrance fee along some of the highways as long as you don’t plan to stop, but certain roads (like the Needles Highway, below) do require the pass.
The Needles Highway is one of the most well-known parts of Custer State Park. The road winds through tall, needle-like rock hoodoos and passes through the extremely narrow Needles Eye Tunnel.
Sylvan Lake, close to the Needles Eye Tunnel, offers kayaking, swimming, and more. Take along a picnic and relax by the lake, or climb around on the huge boulders surrounding the lake.
Crazy Horse Memorial
If you still have time, visit Crazy Horse Memorial. The memorial was intended to be a carving into a mountain of Lakota war leader Crazy Horse riding on his horse. However, the memorial remains unfinished, and only his face has been carved to date. The price to enter varies by the number of people in a vehicle. The cost for a vehicle with two people is $24, and the cost for a vehicle carrying three or more people is $30.
Money-saving tip! You can see the side of the memorial at a distance from Highway 385 at no cost.
There isn’t a great place to pull over on Highway 385 itself. We pulled off on Echo Valley Road, just south of the turn into the memorial, to snap photos. We absolutely needed our binoculars and telephoto lens. Only the side of Crazy Horse’s face was visible from this angle; we couldn’t see the full face.
Prairie Berry Winery and Miner Brewing Company
Have you ever tried wine from South Dakota? We’re guessing not. Head to Prairie Berry Winery in Hill City for a free wine tasting. Yes, you read that correctly–FREE. Call or check their website in advance to see if you need a reservation.
The winery has an extensive variety of grape wines and fruit wines ranging from dry to syrupy sweet. You can choose any five wines from the list for your tasting. Among the more interesting wines are a wine made from buffaloberries and a wine made from chokecherries. When we visited, our friendly server explained wine tastes better from crystal glasses than from glasses made from actual glass and recommended aerating all wine. To prove her point, she poured us a few extra tastes to compare.
“Hmm, I’m still not convinced. Better try it again…”
Next door to the winery is an affiliated brewery, Miner Brewing Company. Beer lovers can grab a beer to take back to the winery while the oenophiles do their wine tastings. When we visited, we tried a mango cream ale (DELICIOUS!) and a chokecherry brown ale.
If you have more than one day in the Black Hills…
One day in the Black Hills is not enough to truly explore the area. If you have more time:
- Explore more of Custer State Park. Consider hiking, renting a kayak or canoe, or staying at one of the many campgrounds or lodges within the park.
- South of Custer State Park is Wind Cave National Park, home to one of the longest, most complex cave systems in the world. As of this writing, the cave is closed to the public because the elevator is down for repairs (and has been for several months). Be sure to check the park’s website before planning a trip there. There may be other things to do besides visiting the cave, but as the name of the park would imply, the cave is the main attraction.
- If that doesn’t satisfy your cave needs, Jewel Cave National Monument offers tours of the third-longest cave in the world. Again, check their website for any park alerts or closures.
- Depending on where you stay, you could do a day trip to Badlands National Park. From Deadwood to the Pinnacles Entrance Station at the North Unit is about 100 miles one way.
Have you been? Would you go?
Have you been to the Black Hills in South Dakota? Do you think one day in the Black Hills is enough time? Tell us in the comments!
If you haven’t been there, would you go? Anything more you want to know? Let us know in the comments or contact us!
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