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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 January 2023.

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 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.

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.

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.

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. 

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. 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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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 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.

Family viewing Mount Rushmore
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. What would be ideal is to stay at a cabin near Mt. Rushmore and have plenty of time to explore the area.

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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Wednesday 17th of July 2019

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.


Wednesday 17th of July 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!


Wednesday 17th of July 2019

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


Saturday 29th of June 2019

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.


Monday 1st of July 2019

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.


Saturday 21st of July 2018

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.


Sunday 22nd of July 2018

Good point, Jon. I remember my parents taking us to Devils Tower during one road trip to Mount Rushmore.


Saturday 24th of December 2016

lived in hill city my entire life and the 1880 train is haunted but its a pretty


Saturday 24th of December 2016

I bet haunted appeals to some people!


Saturday 17th of September 2016

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....


Saturday 17th of September 2016

You are absolutely correct. I need to edit that - I was confused. Is the Storybook place in Aberdeen free or do they charge admission?

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