An 8-day road trip from Saint Paul, MN to the Black Hills of South Dakota via Badlands National Park. Detour to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming on the way home. Travelers included 2 families of 5, with kids aged 4-10 years old. Lots of outdoor adventure and a variety of accommodations from camping to VRBO. Month of travel: July.
Companion post to Black Hills Gold
Day 1 – St. Paul to Badlands
Start out early (like 6am early) and drive to Mitchell, SD to visit the Corn Palace (5 hours). Grab an early lunch, snap some photos, ooh/aah over the Corn Palace. Don’t dawdle here – it’s really just a landmark to get out and stretch.
Continue on to The Badlands (another 3 hours) and aim to arrive by 4pm to settle in and explore. Be prepared to be amazed by the scenery; it looks like another planet. Climbers and hikers will have a great time here. Stop at one of the lookouts for a few pictures before continuing on to the Cedar Pass area and Visitor Center (mentioned below).
What to Do:
- Check out the Ben Reifel Visitor Center – Cedar Pass Lodge and cabins are a short walk to this center, which has interactive exhibits – and a short film – about the cultural history and prairie ecology of the Badlands. Check out the touch-and-see displays for kids, or one of the Junior Ranger programs.
- Hike and Explore – There several hiking trails near the Visitor Center area – we did a short hike before dinner and another longer hike (via a short drive) the next morning. Hiking the Badlands with kids can be a little dicey – the terrain is rocky (and sharp!) – tell kids to slow down and stay close, as there are some cliffs and sudden drop-offs that are heart-attack-inducing for parents.
- Eat some Sioux Indian Tacos – If you have time, make sure to stop at Cedar Pass Lodge for an order of “large fluffy homemade fry bread topped with re-fried beans, buffalo meat (or vegetarian option of spicy black bean burger) topped with shredded lettuce, tomato, cheddar cheese and a sprinkling of black olives.” Yes please.
Where to Stay:
There are a few options in the Badlands – from an old lodge to camping. For the non-camping family like us, Cedar Pass Lodge cabins are new and perfect for a family of 4 (5 works fine too if your kids are still small). Each “cabin” has two units – you can book one cabin for two families if traveling as a larger group. Each cabin has two queen beds, a small fridge, a microwave and an outdoor grill. The views are breathtaking – Adirondack chairs are on each deck to relax at night or enjoy your vacation coffee in the morning. These cabins book up early so plan ahead.
Days 2 to 5 – Custer State Park
Complete another short hike before leaving the Badlands. IF YOU MUST, stop at Wall Drug. In my opinion, after the natural beauty of the Badlands, this was like falling into a dark pit of despair. If you can keep your kids from looking in every store that sells the same tourist-y trinkets, get the 5 cent coffee and some donuts at the Western Art Gallery Restaurant and get the hell out of there. If you decide to skip Wall Drug, you will have more time to drive into Custer, stop along the way, and settle in when you arrive.
What to Do:
There are so many things to do and see in this area; it is hard to know what is worth your time/money and what is not. We opted for mostly outdoor activities. Because, nature. These were our favorites:
- Visit Mt. Rushmore -This is one of the main reasons to visit the Black Hills, isn’t it? It is the perfect combination of tourist attraction and outdoor excursion. Sure, you will have to deal with crowds and souvenir shops, but Mt. Rushmore really does not disappoint. Our drive from State Game Lodge provided several viewpoints of the memorial as we got closer. Once inside, walk down the Avenue of Flags to the main viewing area. Follow the Presidential Trail, a half-mile loop that provides more views and photo ops that can’t be missed. We toured the Sculptor’s Studio but skipped the Visitor’s Center since the weather was beautiful and the kids were tired of learning.
- Hike and Explore – If staying near State Game Lodge, hike the Lover’s Leap trail, a 4-mile loop to and from a rocky outcropping made famous by a local legend. The first part of the trail is a steep ascent through pine forest up to the ridge-line. There are sweeping views at the top, where you can see the Cathedral Spires and Harney Peak. Some of us traveled the full loop; others hiked back down from the high point and discovered the buffalo herd – and a snake – in our path. If you’re staying near Sylvan Lake, hike to Harney Peak – a 6.9 mile round-trip journey to a lookout tour with 360 degree views of 4 states. Make sure to pack plenty of water, snacks and layers. If making this trek with kids, read this (see #5).
- Relax at Sylvan Lake – This was one of our trip highlights. Sylvan Lake is gorgeous – a beautiful blue oasis in the midst of rugged rock outcroppings. If traveling in the heat of summer, it’s also a great place to bring a picnic and cool off. Parking fills up quickly. Our campsite was within walking distance so we spent some time here on two different occasions before moving on. I would recommend staying in or around Sylvan Lake Lodge during your time in Custer to experience this gem.
- Take a Scenic Drive – Even the shortest attention spans are spellbound by the views outside their windows on Needles Highway. There are several lookout points and a couple places to stop and explore along the way. The Needle’s Eye or Sylvan Lake are along this route – and good places to get out and explore. Our kids could not get enough climbing among the rocks. Be careful though – there are several drop offs! If you aren’t sick of driving yet – or haven’t seen any wildlife, drive the Wildlife Loop which runs 18 miles from State Game to Lodge to Blue Bell Lodge. Your best chance of seeing wildlife (coyote, bison, antelope, etc.) is first thing in the morning or at dusk. At the very least, you will run into the “begging burros”.
Where to Stay:
There are several options in Custer State Park – including campsites, camper cabins and lodges. When deciding where to stay, get yourself a good map of the park / surrounding area and pick 1-2 places depending on which activities you want to do. Don’t be fooled by how close attractions look on the map; driving through the hills adds a lot of extra time in the car. Prioritize so you can spend the most time outside.
- We spent a couple nights near the State Game Lodge in cabins. Meh. They were old, dark and dirty. However, there is a creek that runs near the property for fishing and some great hiking trails nearby so the area is nice. There are campsites and lodge rooms also. We saw many buffalo here.
- Sylvan Lake is centrally located and absolutely stunning. We loved having the option of swimming for something to do. We camped near Sylvan Lake (campsites fill up early and reservations start January 1); but there are lodge rooms and cabins available as well.
Day 6 – Hot Springs
Every trip has a day or part that doesn’t turn out as planned – and this was one of those days. We had reserved a VRBO in Lead (North of Custer State Park) so we could be luxurious after 2 days of camping. But we also really wanted to visit the Mammoth Site and Wind Cave National Park (South) – and we had to break down our campsites and re-pack the car. Due to drive time and getting a late start, we skipped the cave. Mammoth Site was pretty impressive, even though the outside looks like a run-down old building. It houses an active paleontological dig site, which has the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world (61). Visitors receive a tour of the dig site, learn about its discovery, view the working paleontology lab, and see numerous Ice Age fossils. We decided it was worth the extra time in the car.
After a late lunch at The Vault in Hot Springs, we made the 2+ hour scenic drive to Lead and checked into our VRBO.
Day 7 – Lead / Deadwood
What to Do:
Lead and Deadwood are about 10 minutes apart. We stayed closer to Lead and spent time in both towns. There are many activities to satisfy any age in and around this area.
- Visit the Homestake Mine – This “open cut” mine, closed in 2002, is just outside of Lead. It’s purported to be the largest and deepest mine (8,000 feet) in North America. In the Visitor Center, you can tour the exhibit hall, which include historic photographs, videos, science and mining artifacts, and a 3-D model of the underground. Learn about the many varieties of rock that create the mine and surrounding landscape.
- Go Horseback Riding – I recommend Andy’s Trail Rides if you are looking for horseback riding opportunities in this area of the Black Hills. Andy outfitted our large group and led us through the hills on a 1-hour private ride. As promised, it was not a typical head-to-head ride; we followed trails through woods and meadows with spectacular views. He was patient with the kids and made sure they were comfortable with their horses and the terrain.
- Go to Deadwood – This historically significant city was made famous by the gold rush of 1876 and the likes of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The entire city is a national historic landmark. Shops, restaurants, and gaming halls mingle with Victorian architecture; shoot-out re-enactments and costumed celebrities are readily available in the streets and saloons. You will really feel like you have taken a step back in time. Stop by the Visitor Center to grab maps, ask questions, and get a listing of shootouts and/or museums.
Where to Stay:
We rented a VRBO near the Terry Peak Ski Area, a 15 minute drive from Deadwood. The house was huge; 10 of us slept, ate and lounged comfortably. Several vacation rentals in the cul-de-sac had access to a centrally located outdoor pool and clubhouse – we spent a lot of our free time swimming. There are many vacation rentals and cabins similar to ours near the ski resort. On our last night together, we had a perfect greasy dinner on the outdoor patio of neighboring Lewie’s Burgers and Brews.
Day 8 – Drive Home (via Devil’s Tower)
From Deadwood, it’s roughly 90 minutes to Devil’s Tower in the Northeastern corner of Wyoming. Why not stop there on the way home – we are so close! On the way home it is not, but oh well. Vacation Coffee – right??
You can see this gigantic monolith for several miles as you approach. It is immense and other-worldly. Photographs do not accurately portray it’s impressive height when you are near the base – and if you’re like me, you’ll be annoyed that you can’t Instagram it without cutting off the top. There is a Visitor Center with exhibits explaining the geologic, natural and cultural history of Devil’s Tower. There is also a 1.3-mile paved trail that circles the the tower itself. Our kids chose to scramble and climb up more rocks – because they hadn’t done enough of that already.
From Devil’s Tower it is a 10.5-hour drive to our door. We decided to go for it (not advised, but doable). We left Wyoming at 2:30PM and arrived home at . . . you do the math. Our beds never felt so good.