Black Hills & Badlands

Our family recently spent 3 1/2 days in the Rapid City, South Dakota area.  There are so many things to explore within an hours drive from the city.  Most people (including us) have heard of Mount Rushmore and it is certainly worth a visit.  But when we started doing research prior to our trip, we were blown away with all the other things to see and do in the area.

We thought we would do a short summary of the things we did (and some of the things we want to come back to do) to help others plan a trip to the Rapid City, SD area.  There were several other Cessna 195 Club members that were exploring the area also so our itinerary was flexible to accommodate meeting up with people here and there.  We were the only family with a little one so our days started much earlier than everyone else!

After numerous trips with our airplane and having a small child, we have learned that flexibility is key.  Things don’t often go exactly as planned!  So over the years we’ve learned that making a rough list of the things that we want to see works way better than a rigid planned out itinerary. 

So here goes with the things we got to see and do…

Wildlife Loop Drive in Custer State Park

This was high on our TO DO list. Custer State Park is home to a herd of approximately 1,300 free roaming bison (also known as the North American buffalo).  The best times to do the drive is early morning or evening, so that you have a chance to see the bison wandering around.  We did the drive early morning and had great success.  In addition to the bison we also saw wild turkeys, deer, feral burros and prairie dogs.

Legion Lake Lodge

This was a great place to stop for a break.  Mama and Daddy enjoyed sipping on lattes and H snacked on a homemade biscuit with PB&J, while sitting by the lake.

Mount Coolidge

We came across the signs as we were making our way to Deadwood, SD, so we decided to check it out.  You had to pay close attention for the drive up and down but it was fun and scenic.  The old fire tower was neat to see, but the views at the top were obstructed by the wires running from the many towers perched on the top.

Deadwood, SD

We met up with friends for lunch in Deadwood.  We had wanted to see the historic main downtown. While it was neat to walk along, overall it was not very kid friendly.  Deadwood started out and continues to be a gambling town, so there were lots of small casinos and an age requirement of 21 years.  I would say a great place for adults and not so great for families with small children.

Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway

We love scenic drives and hikes, so when our friends suggested that this was a great drive to do we went for it (even though it was not on our TO DO list)!  The drive follows Spearfish Creek.  The road follows the canyon floor while you look up at the limestone rock faces.  We would highly recommend this drive.

Spearfish Falls

This is a relatively short and easy hike on a well maintained gravel trail.  Parking is by the Latchstring Restaurant across from Spearfish Canyon Lodge.  The trail was not crowded at all and we had the viewing area at the bottom of the falls pretty much to ourselves.  And as we walked back to the rental car from the falls, H kept telling everyone “It’s pretty neat down there!”

Devil’s Bathtub hike

As we were driving along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway we saw the signs for Devil’s Bathtub followed by a parking area, so we pulled in.  We had no idea what we were in for and we were probably not as prepared as we should have been.  But we decided to follow the others along the trail to see what the “Devil’s Bathtub” was. 

It was mid-afternoon when we started the hike and we had successfully crossed the stream several times without getting our feet wet.  But as we continued we kept seeing people coming the other way that were in bathing suits or soaking wet clothes and with footwear that was all wet.  We were just in our t-shirts, shorts and running shoes so we started wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.  The next group of people we passed we asked if it was worth the hike and they all said a resounding “yes”, so we kept on going. 

At this point we lost count of how many times we had crossed the stream.  However, as we continued there were more and more sections that required H to slow down and hold hands.  Due to his strong-willed and fearless nature he continually did not listen.  So, in order to make sure no one got hurt we decided to turn around and head back, even though we didn’t make it all the way to the Bathtub. 

We were told by others coming the other way that we were very close to the end.  Where we turned around the stream was now flowing through large carved rock surfaces, so we could envision what the Bathtub looked like.  I think this hike was worth it and if we had been better prepared we would have worn the appropriate footwear and started earlier in the day.

Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial is more than just a monument in progress.  It is a story of collaboration, determination and dreams.  Prior to visiting we did not know much about the Memorial and the story behind it.  We only had a couple hours to visit but the glimpse we got into the mission and vision of the Memorial was well worth it.

Chief Henry Standing Bear commissioned master carver Korczak Ziolkowski in the early 1940’s. Work on the mountain carving began in 1948 and continues today.  Korczak knew that he would not finish the monument before his death and developed a detailed instruction book so that his family could continue.  He passed away in 1982.  His wife Ruth oversaw the sculpting and lead the Foundation until her death in 2014.  Now some of their children and grandchildren continue to carry out the promise made to Chief Standing Bear all those years ago.

In addition to the monument there is a museum, cultural center, restaurant and gift shop.  Everything is privately funded.  The Crazy Horse Memorial Foundation also founded the Indian University of North America which currently offers a one semester program in collaboration with the University of South Dakota.

Needles Highway

It’s nickname is the “Impossible Highway”.  It is a National Scenic Byway that was completed in 1922.  This was high on our TO DO list. We did not do the full drive because of time constraints, but the section that we did was spectacular.

Sylvan Lake

Although the lake is man-made it is a beautiful place with the large rock formations protruding from the water.  We enjoyed a picnic lunch here before our hike.  Definitely worth a stop.  There is a trail that goes all the way around the perimeter of the lake, which we did not have time to do.

Cathedral Spires Hike

Along the Needles Highway Drive there are several trailheads for different hikes that vary in length and difficulty.  We did the Little Devil’s Tower trail (trail #4) to the Cathedral Spires.  This was the “easier” trail to get to the Spires.  From my research a couple hours before hiking, the other trails to the Spires sounded more difficult, with some steep scrambles and we didn’t want to try those trails with H.  This trail was a bit longer but the elevation gains were more manageable.

Badlands National Park

The park is about a 1 hour drive from Rapid City.  We dedicated a whole day to do the park and to visit the nearby Wall’s Drugstore.  We arrived at the park early so that we could do the 8:30AM geology ranger walk that went along the Door Trail. 

We went to the visitor center to get our National Park stamp in our Passport book.  H also did the children’s activity book to get his Junior Ranger badge. 

We did the Notch Trail hike.  There were definitely sections that made me nervous with H, but only because he is stubbornly independent!  The trail did not take as long as the sign advertised.

We thoroughly enjoyed the drive along the the Badlands Loop Road.  There are lots of look out points to stop at along the way.  We also did the drive along Sage Creek Rim Road to the Prairie Dog Town.  We not only saw lots of prairie dogs but as we were driving back to Badlands Loop Road we had to stop for a group of Bighorn Sheep that were crossing the road! 

The expansive eroding landscape in the Park is like none we’d ever seen before.  It was wonderful to get out and explore!

Wall Drug Store

Established in 1931 by Ted Hustead, the store now sees more than 2 million visitors a year.  It all started with the offer of free ice water and lots and lots of roadside signs to guide travelers to the small store.  Now the store takes up one whole block in town and is filled with souvenirs, restaurants, ice cream shop, donut shop and of course a pharmacy.  And the coffee is still 5 cents and the water is free!

Iron Mountain Road

For anyone going to visit Mount Rushmore, I would highly recommend doing the Iron Mountain Road drive from South to North on your way to Mount Rushmore.  We drove out of our way to do this and were not disappointed.  There are 3 tunnels along the road that perfectly frame Mount Rushmore in the distance.  It is amazing!  And the Welcome sign at the start of the drive says it all – 17 miles, 314 curves, 14 switchbacks, 3 pigtails, 3 tunnels, 2 splits and 4 Presidents!

Mount Rushmore

Our trip would have not been complete without a visit to Mount Rushmore. Work on the sculpture started in 1927 and finished in 1941.  The carvings of the faces was completed between 1934 and 1939.  Gutzon Borglum designed the sculpture and oversaw the project with the help of his son Lincoln.  Gutzon died in March 1941 and his son Lincoln took over until the project was cancelled in October 1941 due to lack of funding.  The faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln are 60 feet tall.  An amazing work of art.

Harriet & Oak

We love seeking out local coffee shops on our trips and this was a great find.  Very cool interior, super helpful staff, delicious drinks and food and even old VW van inside with a table and stools to sit in.  The VW van was definitely a hit with H!

Tally’s Silver Spoon

We had an exceptional group dinner at this restaurant. It was one on our list of restaurants to try. They very graciously accommodated a group of at least 10 with a possible 5 or 6 others for our Cessna 195 Club travelers.  In total we ended up with 12 in our group.  Dinner was amazing! We ordered Hudson a pasta dish off the main menu (because we never order off kids menus), which he enjoyed.  But when he tasted Mama’s pasta dish with bison meat he asked if we could order him that next time!

Dakotah Steakhouse

This was a great find by our Cessna 195 Club friends.  There were 16 in our party and the service was exceptional.  They had a pretty decent cocktail menu and lots of choice for food.  We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

What we want to come back to do and see…

Bear Country USA

This was something we discovered as we drove to Wildlife Loop in Custer State Park. After researching it a bit more while we were there we had hoped to be able to fit in a visit to this drive through wildlife park. It is on the top of the list for next time!

Wind Cave National Park

The Caves were closed to tours because of elevator problems.  We knew this prior to our trip as there was an Alert posted on the NPS website.  We had crossed our fingers that they might reopen by the time we got there, but no such luck.

Jewel Cave National Monument

This was our back-up plan when we found out Wind Cave was closed.  And then a couple weeks before our trip an Alert was posted on the NPS website that these Caves were also closed to tours because of elevator problems.  The NPS was having back luck with elevators!

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

We saw the signs for this on our way to the Badlands National Park Northeast Entrance.  I had not heard of it prior to that.  This was the site where an arsenal of nuclear missiles were “hidden in plain site”.  We did not have time to go visit and it is probably something to do when H is a bit older.


It is legal to drive a registered ATV on the roads in South Dakota.  This was one thing we knew nothing about until we started driving around the Black Hills and there were probably as many ATV’s on the roads as there were cars!  There is a lot of off-roading in the Black Hills and being able to drive on the main roads facilitates getting to/from the different off-road trails.  I’m sure it would be a ton of fun and a guided off-road tour would be a great thing to do!

More hiking!

The Black Hills/Custer State Park area is filled with numerous hiking trails.  We only scratched the surface on this last trip.  More hiking is definitely on our list for next time!

Black Forest Inn Restaurant

We ran out of time to try all the restaurants that we had researched ahead of time.  There are a couple that we will keep on our list to try during our next visit.  This one was located in the Black Hills north of Mount Rushmore.


This looks like an amazing restaurant that features a large coal-fired oven.  It is in downtown Rapid City.  We were so disappointed when it was closed Monday’s as that was our only night to pick a place to have dinner with the group.

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