The Black Hills of South Dakota is a fantastic family vacation destination!
It’s a beautiful area of the country and there are tons of great family attractions that are fun and educational.
The Black Hills is like our second home – We went there every summer for 20 years, so we want to share an inside look into some of our favorite attractions to help you plan your trip.
Links are provided for each attraction so you can learn more and get the most updated information.
Of course, the most famous attraction in South Dakota is Mount Rushmore.
Mount Rushmore has a nice Visitors Center with TONS of information.
You can also walk the Presidential Trail loop that is slightly strenuous but gives you some unique views of the mountain and takes you to the Sculptor’s Studio, where you can see some of the artist’s models and learn about the construction process.
We highly recommend the evening program at Mt. Rushmore – they show an excellent movie about the 4 presidents and then slowly light up the monument.
It’s so great!
Crazy Horse Memorial
The other most well-known attraction in the Black Hills is the Crazy Horse Memorial.
The memorial is not complete, so you can see the progress on the mountain carving and there is also a large Indian Museum, special events and a laser light show at night.
Besides these two famous mountains, there are MANY other family attractions in the Black Hills, but one of the best is Reptile Gardens.
Reptile Gardens is in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s largest reptile zoo.
Just about every type of reptile is on display here and it’s pretty fascinating.
The star of the show is Maniac – the giant saltwater crocodile.
You have to see him to believe how big he is!
In addition to reptiles, there are other interesting animals to see.
Everyone always loves Prairie Dog Town where you can go underground to see the little cuties up close,
Cheyenne the Bald Eagle, on display with special permission,
and the giant tortoises that you can interact with.
Reptile Gardens also has a few shows, some really fun play areas and great photo ops!
With lunch at the cafe and browsing the large gift shop, you could definitely spend a full day at Reptile Gardens.
Reptile Gardens is open March-November.
A very nice bonus is that when you pay admission to get in, it includes a pass to come back as many times as you like during your stay in the Black Hills.
Bear Country USA
Another landmark attraction between Rapid City and Mt. Rushmore is Bear Country USA.
Bear Country is a drive-thru wildlife park where you can see many types of animals from your car, including lots of Black Bears.
It’s really amazing to see the animals roaming around so up close!
After you drive through the park, there’s an area where you park and get out to walk around to see smaller animals, including baby bears.
Bear Country is also open seasonally through November and closed in the winter.
A great way to see the beauty of the Black Hills is by riding the 1880 Train – the oldest continuously operating tour railroad in the nation.
The train travels between Hill City and Keystone, which is the closest town to Mt. Rushmore.
It’s a two-hour, narrated 20-mile round trip and you learn a lot of history about the area during the ride.
Old MacDonald’s Farm
Like Reptile Gardens, Old MacDonald’s Farm is located on the road between Rapid City and Mt. Rushmore.
It’s a very large petting farm open May-October.
One of the best parts for our kids was bottle-feeding the calves.
Besides petting and feeding the many animals, kids can also take a pony ride
or a train ride on the cutest little tractor train!
Purple Pie Place
Sherman Mom’s personal favorite attraction in the Black Hills is The Purple Pie Place located in Custer near the Crazy Horse Memorial and Custer State Park.
You can’t miss this adorable purple building that looks like it’s right out of a fairy tale!
And besides being cute, The Purple Pie Place serves delicious lunch and dinner and homemade pies that are to die for.
It’s truly the stuff that dreams are made of!
Indoor Water Parks
Several hotels in the Black Hills area have indoor pools or water parks and it’s nice to be able to swim year-round.
The biggest water park is WaTiki in Rapid City.
It’s a lot of fun for all ages and food is available for purchase.
We also love the indoor water playground at The Lodge at Deadwood, though this one is geared more towards ages 10 and under.
South Dakota is world-famous for its fossils!
The whole family will enjoy learning first-hand about prehistoric life.
The Mammoth Site
One of the richest deposits of fossils is at The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs – a working paleontological dig site.
The Mammoth Site was a prehistoric sinkhole where animals would fall in, get stuck and die, so it ended up being a very rich fossil site, including many complete mammoth skeletons.
Because it’s a working dig site, most of the bones are in the same spot where they were found and you can see how they are being carefully excavated.
The dig site is all indoors, so it’s open year-round and you can use your phone to take a self-tour of the site.
This is a one-of-a-kind site that you won’t want to miss seeing!
Museum @ Black Hills Institute
In Hill City, there’s a small but very important fossil museum – The Museum at Black Hills Institute
The Black Hills Institute is known for excavating the most complete T. Rex skeletons ever found – “Sue” and “Stan” – and they have some other very amazing fossils.
Up until now, Stan the T. Rex was housed at this museum and you could get very up close to this amazing fossil.
However, we heard that Stan was sold recently.
Every inch of this museum is filled with really cool stuff, and they also have a very small kids activity area, and a large gift shop adjoining the museum that also has really cool stuff.
Museum of Geology at South Dakota School of Mines
There’s another small but mighty Museum of Geology on the campus of the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City.
The museum has some excellent fossils and mineral displays, and admission is FREE!
There’s also a Kids Zone with some hands-on exhibits, and a great gift shop.
There is yet another Dinosaur Museum between Rapid City and Mt. Rushmore, next to Reptile Gardens, that has life-like replicas of dinosaurs.
If you want to learn all about the Black Hills area, The Journey Museum in Rapid City is very engaging for children and interesting for adults too.
The museum presents the WHOLE history of the Black Hills, starting with how the land was formed and moving through dinosaurs, early settlement, Native American culture, the wild west and all the way up to present life.
This is definitely not just a “looking” museum – kids can touch, play and interact with almost everything.
We are so impressed with the flow of this museum and the quality of the exhibits!
We usually spend about 2-3 hours here at least.
Caves & Mines
Jewel Cave National Monument
Wind Cave National Park
There are several different types of tours available for both of these caves ranging from very easy and accessible to strenuous.
One of our favorites is the Jewel Cave Historic Lantern Tour which allows you to see the cave by lantern light as early explorers would have.
Besides the two caves managed by the National Park Service, there are also many privately owned caves that you can tour throughout the Black Hills.
We enjoyed Wonderland Cave which is located between Rapid City and Sturgis.
There’s an easy hike to get to the entrance of the cave and the scenery is very beautiful.
The guides on the tour were wonderful and really made sure that each person was taken care of.
Although Wonderland Cave isn’t as big as Jewel or Wind Cave, we still saw many interesting features and it was nice to get a little more personalized tour with a smaller group and local guides.
Broken Boot Gold Mine
Another way to explore underground in the Black Hills is by touring a gold mine.
Broken Boot Gold Mine is easily accessible in Deadwood and gives a good glimpse into the mining operations of old west prospectors.
Everyone gets a hard hat to wear on the tour and it’s a very easy walk.
You can also pay extra to pan for gold outside the mine.
Sanford Lab Homestake
You can also see a MUCH bigger mining operation in Lead, South Dakota.
The Homestake Mine was the largest gold mine in the United States and is now an underground research lab.
You can learn all about it at the Visitor Center right next to the mine, and there’s an opportunity to take a trolley tour of the city of Lead to learn about the history of the mine’s impact on the area.
It really is mind blowing to stand next to the deepest hole in North America and learn about the massive amount of gold that came from this mine over the years!
There is the sweetest place for younger children to play in Rapid City – Storybook Island is a fairy tale themed park where kids can play in scenes from their favorite stories.
It is absolutely charming, and in the summer, admission is FREE!
For a small ticket price, you can also ride the carousel, train or jump in the bounce house.
There’s a snack bar available or you should enjoy a picnic in the adjoining park because you can spend many hours at Storybook Island!
Another great FREE attraction in Rapid City is Dinosaur Park where you can see seven life-size concrete dinosaurs and an amazing view of the city and surrounding areas.
There is a snack bar and gift shop on site.
D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery
The D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery in Spearfish is a unique attraction where you can enjoy the beautiful, historic hatchery grounds and feed the fish in different stages of growth.
Admission is FREE but you can pay a small fee for fish food.
It’s surprisingly fun to throw the food in the water and watch the fish snatch it up!
You can also view the fish underwater in the underground viewing area.
The grounds are very beautiful and there are a few small hiking trails.
On grounds, there is a museum to explore, a historic boat, and a historic railcar that you can walk through.
Our kids were particularly interested in seeing how the fish were transported on the railcar from the hatchery to lakes and rivers around the country.
Just outside of the fish hatchery is a park with a great playground.
Historic Deadwood was a Wild West town and is now a fun place to visit for dining, gambling, shopping, entertainment and experiencing history.
Wild Bill Hickok was shot in a saloon in Deadwood, and there is a live reenactment daily during the summer.
You can visit his grave, as well as Calamity Jane’s in the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Deadwood.
Old Time Photos
If you really want to get into the spirit of Deadwood, take some old time photos at Woody’s Wild West Photography on Main Street.
This is definitely the best old time photo studio we’ve ever seen anywhere!
It’s HUGE with over 25 different settings and thousands of costumes to choose from!
The staff will help you get your photos just right and the whole experience is so fun.
There’s a hidden gem under the streets of Deadwood that you won’t want to miss – a large model train display!
The model trains are an amazing display of hours of detailed work.
You can pay $1 to run the trains for 10 minutes, and there is also a list of things to search for in the scenes.
Days of ’76
Every July, the Days of ’76 Rodeo takes place in Deadwood.
It’s an excellent rodeo to watch, and there is always a parade that goes through the town.
If you can’t make it to the rodeo, there’s a museum on the rodeo grounds that is open year round.