I chose to drive to and from South Dakota, taking 2 days to drive up and 3 to drive back, but you could just as easily fly into and out of Rapid City and rent a car, and I write the itinerary assuming that you do.
Drive from Rapid City to Badlands National Park. There are two ways in between the two, I-90 and State Highway 44. Since 44 is the road that the Rapid City Airport is on, I recommend taking that on your way east and then taking the interstate on your way back. Although there is a "back entrance" to the park reached by turning off at the near-ghost town of Scenic, this necessitates driving many miles on dirt roads and though it's pretty, I don't recommend it unless you have a high-clearance vehicle. Instead, drive to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center at the east entrance, which is a little over an hour from the airport. I don't normally go for spending much time at visitor centers, but this one is informative and worth taking a little time to see.
Upon entering the park, you'll have to pay admission. I strongly recommend purchasing a Parks Pass, which gets you free or heavily discounted admission at National Parks and Monuments. Though it costs $80, you'll be visiting enough national properties on this trip that it will easily pay for itself.
The Badlands take probably 3-4 hours to properly see, allowing for plenty of hiking on trails and pulling off the road to take pictures. You have a lot of trails to choose from, so for the biggest variety of scenery and best photo ops I recommend:
- Cliff Shelf Nature Trail (just past the visitor center)
- Notch Trail (spectacular, but requires some scrambling and has a rope ladder, so not accessible to those with limited mobility)
- Door Trail (short and offers sweeping vistas of badlands terrain)
Once you've explored those to your satisfaction, head back down past the visitor center, almost to the exit, then turn right (west) on State Highway 240. The road will eventually climb up onto the escarpment and you'll have several view points to pull out and take pictures. You really can't go wrong with any or all of them, but I specifically recommend Panorama Point. At one of the pulloffs I encountered a flock of bighorn sheep quite close to me! Don't know whether this is common or not. There are a few more hiking trails on this section of the road, but I didn't take any of them, so I can't compare them to the other ones.
At a certain point, SH 240 will curve sharply to the right (north) and a dirt road will continue straight; this is the "back entrance" of the park I mentioned earlier. If you are willing to drive 4.5 miles each way on the dirt road, you'll come to a prairie dog town with loads of the cute little critters. Otherwise, go ahead north on 240 and you'll soon leave Badlands National Park. The road will take you to the town of Wall and the famous Wall Drug. I don't really go for kitschy tourist trap-type places, so I didn't stop, but you may want to. Anyway, take I-90 back to Rapid City.
Supposedly the best restaurant in town and the state is Dakotah Steakhouse, pretty much where I-90 enters Rapid City. You may want to eat there on your arrival, or return later. Take a little bit of time to wander around downtown; one interesting feature is the array of statues of presidents lining the main street. I got a mini-flight of beers at Hay Camp Brewing Co. and a tasty ice cream at Armadillos Ice Cream Shoppe.
There are several prime things to see and do in Rapid City, only some of which I got to enjoy, and of which you may want to choose some, all, or none depending on how much time you have. I'll list them quickly here:
- Chapel in the Hills is an absolutely stunning replica of the Borgund Stave Church in Norway, in gorgeous surrounds.
- Skyline Wilderness Area Park has tons of hiking and mountain biking trails, up on a ridge of hills that bisects the city.
- If you have kids, you may want to check out Storybook Island or WaTiki Indoor Waterpark Resort (right next to Dakotah Steakhouse.
I chose to stay the night in a cute little cabin in Rockerville, a little ways southwest of town, but there are plenty of hotels to stay in in Rapid City; perhaps that will work better for you.
This day is centered around Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park, but there are a few other peripheral attractions in the area that you might want to include your day. Mount Rushmore really doesn't take that long to see; I budgeted 4 hours, but it only took 1 hr 45 mins, even with walking the Presidential Trail and visiting the Sculptor's Studio, so I found myself with lots of extra time.
In between Rapid City and Mount Rushmore are Reptile Gardens, Bear Country USA, and House of Scandinavia; the first two are animal parks, while the latter is a gift & food store with products from all over Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland). I don't care much for reptiles, but I would have loved to stick my head in House of Scandinavia; unfortunately I got there too late. I did drive around Bear Country and it was a lot of fun. Tons and tons of reindeer, elk, wolves, bears, raccoons, porcupines, beavers, and all kinds of animals native to these parts. Kids would love it.
Also before you get to Mount Rushmore, you'll drive through the town of Keystone, which is basically a tourist base of operations for the entire area. Kids would also love Rushmore Tramway Adventures (I slid down the alpine slide, though they also have a treetop obstacle course and ziplines). I didn't (though I wish I had) tour Big Thunder Gold Mine; it would have been fun and interesting. Make sure to grab a cup of coffee & a pastry at Grapes and Grinds.
Then, of course, there's the main attraction: Mount Rushmore, one of the most famous monuments in the country. Take your time and take your pictures from every possible angle, and read about the Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, and the circumstances of the monument's creation in the Sculptor's Studio, but like I said, it'll still probably take less than 2 hours.
With my extra time, I chose to drive on Old Hill City Road to Hill City and back, which was very pretty and allowed me to see more of a backroads side of the Black Hills away from the tourists, but I imagine you'll probably want to stick with the attractions in Keystone. There is a historic steam train that runs the same route, which would have been very fun, but it takes more time than I was willing to spend.
After getting back from Hill City to Keystone, I drove quite a ways southeast to Wildlife Loop Road, hoping to see lots of burros and buffalo. I'm honestly not sure it was worth the time; I saw a few animals, but not many, and the scenery, while still pretty, isn't as dramatic over there. I think it would be more worth your while to drive on US 16A through the famous pigtails and tunnels (which I completely missed out on) before turning right on Playhouse Road & then right again on SH 87, the spectacular Needles Highway. This road leads you up to the beautiful Sylvan Lake and the scenery on it is something else.
Once you've found a parking spot at Sylvan Lake (which can be challenging), walk around it, rent a boat or kayak, or challenge yourself to hike up to Black Elk Peak, the highest in the state at 7244 ft/2208 m. I only made it about halfway before time and altitude persuaded me to turn around, but I got some breathtaking vistas of the mountains and the surrounding plains.
Once you're done at the lake, head downhill to Custer, where you'll stay the next two nights. I highly recommend The Roost Resort, just out of town to the east; they have log cabins that are very affordable (I think mine was $89), cozy, and adorable! I had booked one night there and one night in the Bavarian Inn on the north side of town, both because I'm a sucker for anything Bavarian-themed and because it was very highly rated on Hotels.com, but I was disappointed in the Bavarian Inn (it was also much more expensive) and really wish I had stayed both nights at The Roost Resort.
For dinner, I recommend one night at Black Hills Burger & Bun and one at Skogen, which requires a reservation. Skogen is much more fancy and high-end (and pricey, though not outrageously so), but both are delicious. The night that you go to Black Hills Burger, get a slice of pie for dessert at Purple Pie Place.
This day is a fairly laid-back one; you just make a big loop from Custer down to Wind Cave National Park and back up to Jewel Cave National Monument. If you don't care about caves, you could eliminate this day entirely, or spend more time in the Keystone area. These caves are known for a unique formation called boxwork, though, so I recommend them. Booking tour times at both caves in advance is strongly advised, as they sell out quickly in the summer.
Drive SH 87 down to Wind Cave and US 385 back up to provide some variety, and if you have enough confidence in your vehicle, take the winding dirt road up to the top of Mount Coolidge, which provides stupendous panoramas of virtually the entire Black Hills from Crazy Horse to Black Elk Peak to Mount Rushmore and the plains beyond. On the way down to Wind Cave, you may encounter groups of buffalo strolling or lounging by the side of the road, quite unconcerned by you.
There's not really too much more to say. Once you arrive at each cave, you can fill any extra time before your tour by walking around the area and enjoying the gorgeous scenery. After you finish up at Jewel Cave, make your way back to Custer and enjoy the evening. The Custer area itself is quite pretty and I believe there's a walking trail right next to US 16A.
Crazy Horse is a huge, unfinished Native American counterpart to Mount Rushmore that has been under construction for decades. There is an extensive museum of Native art and exhibits detailing the construction process, and for a small fee you can take a bus ride up closer to the monument. Very impressive.
I had driven to Hill City on Day 2, so I didn't spend much time there this day. It's a cute town, very compact and easy to walk around. There's a highly-rated restaurant with rooms called the Alpine Inn that I considered eating lunch at, but decided not to (I usually don't take time to eat lunch when I'm on the road). But I wish I had considered how cozy and sumptious the decor was and the German beers on tap; it would have been better than what I ended up getting for dinner in Spearfish.
Nearby is Wade's Gold Mill, with all the old mining buildings and equipment still intact. I really wanted to tour the mine itself, but my timing was off, and I couldn't afford to wait. But Wade greeted me very kindly, and let me watch an old video about the place, and I bought a pair of genuine silver earrings for my grandmother.
Continuing north on US 385, take a moment to stop and take pictures at the gorgeous Pactola Lake. You then head into the northern Black Hills, away from the highest mountains and the chief tourist attractions.
Deadwood is a picturesque old town with lots of Victorian-era buildings and lots of history nestled among the hills. Wild Bill Hickok was killed and buried there, and you can still visit the saloon where he died. There were also LOTS of people there; I don't know if that's typical or if there was something special going on while I was there. In any case, it's a gambling town, and maybe a little less "family friendly" than the places you've visited so far. It's still worth a visit, though I didn't spend all that long there.
Just up the hill from Deadwood is the small town of Lead, with the HUGE open-pit Homestake Mine, once the largest & deepest gold mine in North America. There's also the dense and very informative Black Hills Mining Museum, and lots of old buildings downtown. I found it a very cool little town, and honestly preferred it to Deadwood. After grabbing a beer at Dakota Shivers Brewing Company, I headed out on ALT US 14 to Spearfish Canyon.
Spearfish Canyon is breathtaking beautiful, with many small waterfalls and towering cliffs. I parked and hiked (not far) at a few different spots, but felt a bit rushed, and wished I had either gotten an earlier start or taken a little less time along the way. It's worth having time to savor the scenery. When you've had your fill, or when dusk is approaching, head north to Spearfish.
I had planned to eat at the extremely highly-rated Bunky's BBQ, but they ran out of food and closed earlier than their advertised closing time. I was frustrated because while I understand that barbecue places do often close whenever they run out of food, they advertised that they were open until 7, and... they weren't. So, instead I ate at Dough Trader Pizza, which was fine but nothing particularly memorable. They only take cash or check, by the way.
I stayed the night at the very charming Spearfish B&B, where I was the only guest and so felt like a private guest of the owners. My bedroom had lovely views of the northern edge of the Black Hills, and I would absolutely stay there again if I were in the area.
Over the next two days I drove several hours each way to see Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. I'm very glad I did so, but you certainly don't have to; you could easily drive from Spearfish directly over to Devil's Tower in Wyoming in just a couple of hours. In fact, if you really wanted to I daresay you could drive to Devil's Tower, see it, and drive all the back to Rapid City in time to catch a late afternoon flight. If you do have more time in Spearfish, there are a couple of things to see, including the National Fish Hatchery and the High Plains Western Heritage Center.