My South Dakota Bucket List (Badlands Edition)

I’m planning my family’s summer road trip, and we’re headed to the Black Hills and Badlands of western South Dakota. I’ve got these great plans to take my family there (cue Mr. Wonderful saying “Here she goes again…”), and so I’ve started a South Dakota bucket list of places to visit and things to do.

Updated: This post was first published in 2015 and was last updated in December 2019.

South Dakota Bucket List (Badlands Edition) - The ultimate wish list of things to do in the Badlands, national parks to visit, and unforgettable experiences waiting for families in South Dakota. #SouthDakota #Badlands #Midwest #FamilyTravel

Touristy stuff? You bet. Off the beaten path? Hopefully, we find our way there too.

We can’t do it all in one trip, but a mom can dream.

My Badlands, South Dakota Bucket List

See Badlands National Park

The landscape is so startling, the wildlife is so abundant. I can’t wait to take my kids on a hike here and drive around looking for wildlife like bighorn sheep and free-roaming herds of bison.

We’re totally stopping at Robert’s Prairie Dog Town – my kids love the prairie dogs at our zoo, so seeing them not in a zoo setting will be cool. Kids 5 to 12 can take part in the Junior Ranger program, earning badges and participating in ranger-led activities like hikes and crafts.

Badlands National Park in South Dakota
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs

Seeing an active excavation site sounds fascinating. Mammoth Site happens to be home to the world’s largest mammoth research facility. I think my kids will get a kick out of the Junior Paleontologist program for ages 4 to 13; they’ll dig up full-size fossil replicas, not far from the real excavation site. 

Playing at Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Update: We did it! Read how a family young kids experienced Mammoth Site here.

See a shootout Deadwood

Deadwood is a town where we can relive the Old West. There are saloons, stagecoaches and a gold mine, and many costumed dudes walking around playing the part of cowboys, cowgirls and unsavory types. Pictures look straight out of a movie.

There are free reenactments of a shootout in front of the Franklin Hotel several times a day, which may or may not scare the crap out of my kids. Who knows? 

Historic reenactor in Deadwood, South Dakota
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Pan for gold in South Dakota

There seems to be several opportunities throughout South Dakota to pan for gold. In Deadwood, kids can try their luck at panning for gold at the 1876 Broken Boot Gold Mine.

Find Devil’s Bathtub

I was browsing Pinterest when I came across a photo of this place not far from Spearfish. This is the off-the-beaten-path stuff I’m talking about. Word is that it’s a little difficult to hike to with small kids unless you’re experienced hikers. Sounds like a challenge.

If you want more interesting hikes in the Black Hills, definitely check out this guide book!

See little bears at Country USA

It sounds like a total touristy thing to say, but I’d like to visit Bear Country USA, if only to see Babyland. While we’ve done drive-through tours in the past, none have had black bears, grizzlies and bighorn sheep. 

South Dakota Bucket List - See a bear cub at Bear Country USA in Rapid City, South Dakota
Photo provided by South Dakota Tourism

Find a wild donkey at Custer State Park

The more I look at photos to Custer State Park, the more I want to plan a trip just making this the destination.

Sylvan Lake at Custer State Park in South Dakota
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Herds of buffalo and wild burros that love being fed apples? Famous, stomach-churning scenic drives (Needles Highway and Wildlife Loop)? Bring it on. I’m packing some apple slices for the donkeys, I swear.

Also, kids can take part in the Junior Naturalist Program (7 to 12), or for kiddos 4 to 6, they can do the Pups Program – both are FREE!

Hikers at Custer State Park in South Dakota
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Update: We did it! I included my favorite photos in the trip recap here.

Take the Buffalo Safari Jeep Tour

This safari-style tour at Custer State Park gets people up-close to the buffalo. I think my husband would be relieved to not behind the wheel for once, so he too can enjoy the scenery.

Buffalo safari jeep tour at Custer State Park
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Go wildlife spotting

While we’re on the topic of buffalo, they’re definitely on our list of animals to spy while we’re in South Dakota. Other wildlife I hope we get a glimpse of: Wild stallions; long-horn sheep; prairie dogs; antelope; and, as I mentioned above, bears (hopefully, of the adorable bear cub variety).

Attend a chuckwagon dinner with the kids

What’s more western than a chuckwagon dinner? I’d love to take the family to one of these. There are a couple in the area to choose from. There’s one at Custer State Park that looks like a ton of fun, plus each person walks away with a cowboy hat.

There’s also Circle B Chuckwagon in Hill City, Palmer Gulch Wagon Ride & Supper in Hill City, and Fort Hays Chuckwagon Supper and Show in Rapid City. 

Kids at Blue Bell Chuckwagon Dinner in South Dakota
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Walk inside a cave

The Black Hills have the second and fourth longest caves in the world – Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. The kids will get a kick out of this otherworld below ground. I’m thinking we take the shortest tour possible since the kids aren’t known for patience.

I’ve got to make note that Wind Cave also has some wildlife above-ground to look for, like free-roaming bison, elk and prairie dogs. Both parks offer Junior Ranger programs for kids 5 to 12, who can earn badges and certificates by completing an activity booklet and taking cave tours.

Inside Jewel Cave National Monument
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Update: We visited Wind Cave National Park! I included my favorite photo from inside the cave in the trip recap post here.

Ride the 1880 Train

My 5-year-old is fascinated by trains so when I saw there were trips on a vintage 19th-century steam train, I knew it had to be added to our list. The 1880 train takes a scenic route through the Black Hills, with chances to see the Holy Terror Mine, Old Baldy Mountain, the Indian Cliffs and Harney Peak.

Ride the 1880 Train
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Take in some quirky South Dakota

Roadside attractions make for great stops on a road trip, allowing us to stretch out legs and take ridiculous photos. I’m looking forward to checking out:

Dinosaur Park in Rapid City – A free park with seven dinosaurs kid can climb on.

Storybook Isand in Rapid City – Another free park featuring fairy tale sets straight out of movies like “Snow White”

Wall Drug in Wall – I’ve been here, and it’s just ridiculous enough to warrant a visit with my kids

Update: We did all three on a road trip! See the fun photos and read about the delicious donuts found at Wall Drug in the trip recap here.

Visit Mount Rushmore National Memorial

You knew it was coming. You knew it was on the list. Of course we have to stop here. Unlike my first visit in my teen years, I think this time around we’ll explore the more. I found a great guidebook that might help you explore around Rushmore and nearby towns published by Moon Handbooks called “Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills: Including the Badlands.”

Family viewing Mount Rushmore
Yeah, that’s totally me and the kids at Mount Rushmore. My son saw an advertisement for South Dakota and it showed a family eating ice cream cones in front of the monument, and so that’s what he’s dead-set on us doing. Photo by South Dakota Tourism

I read I could get a cool photo of the four heads as we’re driving through a few of the tunnels on Iron Mountain Road.

Cars on Iron Mountain Road, a famously curvy road near Mount Rushmore
Photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

Update: We visited Mount Rushmore! See my favorite photos from our visit in the trip recap here.

Get ideas to plan a South Dakota trip

Visit Oh My! Omaha’s Pinterest board on all things South Dakota:

A huge list of things to do and see in South Dakota! All the monuments to see, things to do, and wildlife experiences to have while visiting western South Dakota and the Badlands. #bucketlist #Midwest #SouthDakota

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38 thoughts on “My South Dakota Bucket List (Badlands Edition)”

  1. Sylvan Lake is one of our favorites as well. Your kids too young, but biking along the Mikelson Trail is great with older kids. It was previously a railroad line, so you go through tunnels and over bridges. It’s a beautiful ride!

    • Thanks for the tips, Lisa! I keep coming across blogs and travel sites mentioning Mikelson Trail. We’ll save that for a trip after our kids have mastered two wheels.

  2. We went there 2 years ago. My kids were 7 and 5. I’m going to overload you will places, and posts. Disregard if you don’t want to look at them.

    I’ll try and put them in order. We went to:

    •Carhenge was just a spot to stretch our legs.
    •We stayed at Ponderosa Ranch when we did all the NE stuff. OH MY GOODNESS was that pretty, and out in the middle of no where. They have a kitchen, beds. Email me if you decide to go there.


    •We went to Ft. Robinson and went on a jeep ride up it.
    •Toad Stool Park was my boy’s favorite stop and they have a little sod house there:
    •High Plains, NE is a little town much like Little House on the Prairie.
    •Hot Springs has one of the biggest mammoth exhibits.
    •Crazy Horse was interesting to us, but not the kids:
    •They have the best KOA by Mt. Rushmore. They even have a shuttle that will take you there. Great pancakes, mini golf, paddle boats, a mini water slide, swimming, ducks and more.
    •Rushmore: The light show of Mt. Rushmore bored my kids. It was late, and cold. They liked going during the day. I never knew this, but there’s a trail that leads you rt. in front of it.
    •We went to wind cave. They had a great tour.
    •Wall Drug is fun for kids. It’s a tourist trap. We needed to stretch our legs.

    Then we went to Valentine on our way home to see a waterfall. We had no more energy to do anything else.

    I heard that bear park is really fun. We ran out of time to do that.

    • Thank you so much, Alissa! This is almost the route we’re taking, though we’ll be in Valentine first for a friends and family canoe trip, before going on to South Dakota. Then we’ll head back down to Toad Stool and Ft. Robinson on our way home. This is all so helpful!

  3. The Flying T Chuckwagon is closed, there is a dinosaur museum there. Just so you know! 🙂

    Also, make sure you travel Iron Mountain Road from South to North otherwise the faces will be behind you. You can take pictures either way but this makes it easier.

    • Oh geez, thank you for the heads up! I’ll make a note of that closure (good thing I didn’t just plan on showing up there). And thank you for that tip on driving Iron Mountain Road – I’m all for making things easier.

      • Yeah, for some reason Flying T hasn’t taken down their website. The dinosaur museum might be a good stop too, since you have kids, I haven’t been there yet so I don’t know from experience. I have heard a few good things though and since it just opened last summer they might have improved it for their second year.
        I work in the tourism industry here so my best advice is when you plan your trip you may want to have an extra day. People are always shocked how much stuff is actually here to do. They always wish they had another day!

  4. Any recommendations of places to stay? How many days do you think would be enough? I’d love to take my kids through Nebraska on our way out. I’ve taught Nebraska history for years so it would be neat to see some of the places I’ve talked about for years.

    • I’ll be going to South Dakota and western Nebraska in June and I’ll have a better idea of where to stay after that. I’m having a hard time right now finding lodging in Western Nebraska. I think I waited too long to book!

  5. While in Hill City for the 1880 train I recommend the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. They were featured in the film, “Dinosaur 13,” recently; well, really the whole town of Hill City was… But they have original fossil dinosaur skeletons as well as cast replicas, and it was the first home of SUE the T. rex.

    • I hadn’t heard of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. Sounds pretty interesting, though. Would you say it has much for the 5 and under crowd or is it better for older kids?

    • Thanks for those tips! My kids are animal lovers so both those places would be along the lines of stuff we’d love to do in South Dakota.

  6. No matter where you go, you will enjoy these hills! I have lived here my whole life and have enjoyed every second here. Another good place to go is Bear Butte in Sturgis. It’s kind of a long hike but it’s worth it when you get to the top! Another good spot around here if you want some beautiful pictures is the Spearfish canyon. There are tons of places to joke around there and you can even take the road to deadwood so you can see the history there too! Hope you and your kids enjoy your trip!

        • I really tried to figure out a route that allowed us to visit Spearfish Canyon and Deadwood but it didn’t work out, so there will probably be another time. I hadn’t heard of Bear Butte so thanks for that suggestion! I look forward to longer hikes once the kids are a little older.

          • There are three waterfalls on or near the road in Spearfish Canyon, and a nice little loop from Deadwood, 3 miles through Lead, and another 8 miles to Cheyenne Crossing, where you turn to enter the Canyon. (Very good restaurant here too) The streams are so clear you can watch the fish swim, with the best viewing above Roughlock Falls. Follow the Canyon to Spearfish and stop at the city park. There’s the DC Booth national fish hatchery and the kids can feed the fish. There’s also an underground viewing area with lots of big fish to view. The park also has a very unique, community-designed and constructed playground the kids will love. All of this is free. Then it’s just 15 miles back into Deadwood, so the whole loop won’t take long. Devil’s Bathtub is also accessed in Spearfish Canyon, and is gorgeous. With small kids though, I’d recommend the hike to Spearfish Falls and to Roughlock Falls down to Spearfish Canyon Lodge…much easier trails and incredibly scenic. Have fun. I live here and love it.

          • Thank you for taking the time to comment! The more I read about Spearfish the more I realize I missed out seeing some beautiful things! It is definitely on my list to visit next time.

  7. Lame Johnny Rd. From the Buffalo Pens to Horse Camp. Love to drive very slowly along the back roads and sneak up on wildlife while they are just hanging out. No traffic and we can stop and photograph without bothering anyone. No place in the Nation like the Black Hills.

  8. I’m pretty sure the castle picture depicting Storybook Island is actually from Storybook Land in Aberdeen, SD. I’m from Aberdeen, so that caught my eye. I’ve never been to the one in Rapid City…maybe they are built the same?

  9. Sorry but Storybook land in NOT in Rapid City, it is on the North eastern corner of South Dakota, you may be confused with the lesser Storybook island… but that picture is the castle in Aberdeen SD….

  10. Since people are up that way anyways, I suggest making the two hour drive west into Wyoming to visit Devils Tower National Monument. I also recommend Crazy Horse Monument.

  11. I didn’t read all the comments, but if no one said it already, you should put Cosmos Mystery Area on your list. I cannot explain other than to say gravity and the laws of nature simply do not work here. It was a blast for everyone in our group, from two teenage boys to my senior parents.

    • Intriguing! My kids are at just the right age now to love that kind of place. I’ll have to look it up before our next road trip there.

  12. I would more call this random sights in Western South Dakota. I don’t see any of the eastern side at all. There are two South Dakotas The western side where most of these attractions are located is the Black Hills area. Eastern side is prairie with a charm of it’s own. There are some great sites to see on that side as well so extend your vacation enough to see both sides. Falls Park in Sioux Falls is beautiful to see. The Corn Palace in Mitchell is a classic cheesy site usually included in the most quirky sites in the US. The Laura Ingalls Homestead in DeSmet shows what life was like for the SD homesteaders and about the real life experiences of the Ingalls family of the Little House on the Prairie fame. Many of the Ingalls family are buried in the cemetery in DeSmet. The DIGNITY Statue in Chamberlain, SD is a newer attraction with a beauty that needs to be seen. Finally the 1880 Town in Murdo, SD shows life in early SD days. There is a museum to go through as well as a “real” town town to stroll through. Some of the buildings you can go through and tour. One more western side attraction to mention is Sturgis. I don’t have to describe Sturgis it is legendary for its bike rallies. This is a nice town to tour through. Bear Butte is located outside the town. It is the other mountain in the Indian legend where the bear attacked the children at Devil’s tower. The bear fell from the tower and Bear Butte was formed. Beautiful area.

    • One other site on the western side is the Chapel In the Hills located in Rapid City, SD. The chapel is an exact replica of the famous Nordic chapel, Borgund stavkirke, of Laerdal, Norway. The Borgund stavkirke was built around the year 1150 and is considered the most completely preserved stave church still standing in Norway. Excellent place to spend a few hours stretching your legs. The chapel does have religious services and is celebrating it’s 50th anniversary in 2019

    • Very good suggestions, Alvin! When I wrote this, it wasn’t meant to cover the entire state of South Dakota, just the western/Badlands area. I definitely intend to write one for the entire state and you’ve given me a lot of great things to look into including on that list! Thanks!


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