The towering, granite-carved presidential faces looking out from Mount Rushmore are an iconic American image. Dreamed up in 1923 as a way to attract tourists to the Black Hills region of South Dakota, this monument has more than fulfilled its mission.
Like many Americans, my young son wanted to see Mount Rushmore, so we added it to our itinerary as we set off on a three-week RV road trip that included Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. And while we knew these popular national parks would amaze and delight, we did not expect nearly as much from the rest of the Black Hills. Boy, were we wrong.
Too often, tourists look at Mount Rushmore as the Black Hills’ main attraction (as we did), not realizing everything else there is to explore. Trust me when I say that RVers can easily spend days, if not weeks, enjoying South Dakota’s historic small towns, monuments, and stunning wild spaces.
Where Are the Black Hills?
The Black Hills are a small range of mountains located on South Dakota’s southwestern border. With more than five million acres of forest and mountain lands, the Black Hills seem to appear out of nowhere. As my family traveled west along Interstate 90, we whizzed by hundreds of miles of rolling grasslands when, suddenly, the pronounced peaks and tall hills appeared.
Much of the area is protected as part of the Black Hills National Forest. The larger town of Rapid City serves as the region’s main gateway for those coming from the east. The Old West spirit is still alive in Deadwood, where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane once presided over the dirt-packed streets. Keystone, Custer, and Hill City are popular basecamps for RVers, each offering a charmingly distinct atmosphere (Keystone is less than five miles away from Mount Rushmore). And every August, the town of Sturgis roars as 500,000 people arrive for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
Monuments in the Black Hills
There are two major monuments in the Black Hills: Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse. In addition to gazing up at the famous faces, Mount Rushmore National Memorial offers a wide variety of activities and things to do. My family especially enjoyed walking the Presidential Trail, which takes visitors along a number of scenic viewpoints and ends near the Sculptor’s Studio—a museum dedicated to Gutzon Borglum, the artist who designed and carved the memorial. Some other noteworthy amenities include the Mount Rushmore Audio Tour, the Memorial Ice Cream Shop, and the Mount Rushmore Bookstore. There is also a parking garage on-site that offers RV parking.
Though Mount Rushmore is a cherished American symbol, its carving was not without some controversy. Some did not like the destruction of the natural habitat, while others felt the memorial didn’t speak to the true history of the region. Thus, the Crazy Horse Memorial was born, conceived as an homage to the Lakota warrior by the same name. And while the carving is still a work in progress, a visit to Crazy Horse is a great way to learn more about local Native American history. There are multiple museums on the property as well, including the Indian Museum of North America and the adjoining Welcome Center and Native American Educational and Cultural Center.
Must-See Places Around the Black Hills
Towering ponderosa pines cast long, dark shadows on the granite ridges, giving the Black Hills their name. Sink into this beauty with a visit to one of the many amazing parks found in the region. Custer State Park is a natural starting point. Driving the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road, my family quickly spotted some of the 1,500 bison who call the park home. Ready to stretch our legs, we headed to the Sylvan Lake Shore Trail and did the easy one-mile hike around the entire lake. In fact, because of its stunning scenery, Sylvan Lake is often referred to as the “crown jewel” of Custer State Park.
Have you ever visited a place only to regret missing out on something you didn’t do while you were there? That’s how I feel about the Black Elk Peak Trail (formerly known as Harney Peak). Though we didn’t have the time or stamina for this 6.6-mile journey, I wish we had ventured to the top of Black Elk Peak—the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. In fact, on a clear day up on the summit, you can see the four surrounding states: South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska.
Another area that we missed was Spearfish Canyon. Located on the western edge of the Black Hills National Forest, Spearfish Canyon is notable for its supreme scenery, deep gorge, countless waterfalls, and 1,000-foot canyon walls.
The wonderment of the Black Hills region continues below ground. Those with an interest in caves should put Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument on their list. At both locations you can tour some of the largest explored caves in the world, see unusual boxwork formations, and learn about the unique wildlife that call these caverns home.
Scenic Drives Through the Badlands
Though not technically located within the Black Hills region, South Dakota’s Badlands are not to be missed. In Badlands National Park, rugged red hills contrast the surrounding grasslands. This park ended up being a highlight with our family, and our teenage sons enjoyed roaming the expansive, otherworldly landscape. And while it is ideal to spend a couple of days in the park, the Badlands Loop Road makes it easy to catch the scenery on a day trip.
Another dazzling drive is the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway. This takes you through some of the best scenery in the Black Hills. Each bend in the road and twisting bridge offers sweeping views of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills beyond. However, we don’t recommend this drive for motorized RVs. The narrow tunnels have very low clearances and some of the turns can be pretty sharp, so proceed with caution and go by car if possible. You can check out all the tunnel heights and road information here.
RV Parks in the Black Hills Region
RVers can take their pick from a number of exceptional campgrounds located in the Black Hills. One impressive standout is Rafter J Bar Ranch, which offers large, scenic campsites. Amenities include full hookups, a swimming pool, and direct access to the George S. Mickelson Trail, a 109-mile rail-to-trail conversion. Of all the campgrounds I have visited in five years of RVing, Rafter J Bar Ranch is my favorite.
Those who want to camp right in Custer State Park can pick from ten campgrounds, with a mixture of camping styles and amenities. Natural beauty abounds, and RVers will have easy access to the state park.
Those traveling with kids should consider the Mount Rushmore Resort at Palmer Gulch KOA, which is packed with family-friendly amenities and activities. This over-the-top park offers a splash pad, climbing tower, waterslide, jumping pillow, and two pools.
My family has already put a return trip to the Black Hills on our to-do list. While we packed in a lot of sights and attractions during our five-day stay, we barely scratched the surface of this gorgeous region.
If You Go
Find out even more information about the Black Hills over on Roadtrippers, and be sure to add it to your next trip.