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 January 2023.
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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 at the Badlands National Park, 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.
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.
Update: We did it! Read how a family young kids experienced Mammoth Site.
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?
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.
Related post: 20+ Awesome South Dakota Road Trip Stops
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 in Rapid City, if only to see Babyland. While we’ve done drive-through tours in the past, none have had black bears, grizzlies and bighorn sheep.
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. 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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Island 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
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 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. What would be ideal is to stay at a cabin near Mt. Rushmore and have plenty of time to explore the area.