What we saw, did, ate and where we stayed during our three week RV trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota. 3 weeks in the Black Hills just isn’t enough.
The Black Hills of South Dakota was our first major stop as we began our full-time travel life. Because South Dakota is 1500 miles from our starting location in Alabama, we did stop a few times on the way there. But, it wasn’t until we hit the Black Hills that we really took our time and enjoyed the scenery and all that our location had to offer.
One night in Wall, SD
Our first stop in the Black Hills was Wall, SD. As far back as Iowa we began seeing the road signs for Wall Drug, offering up free water and 5cent coffee. We’d heard about this place from friends and it seemed like everyone said we had to check it out. We’d also seen a few photos of the Badlands and knew we wanted to visit. If we’d had any idea of what to expect, we’d have planned a much longer stay close to the Badlands.
Wall Drug turned out to be a kitchy little tourist stop with a great story. Wall Drug opened close to 100 years ago with little fanfare and few customers. There was nothing in the area to draw people in and the town was really too small to fully support the store. But, that changed when the highway opened and people began pouring into the area from across the country to see Mt. Rushmore.
As the cars drove by Wall without stopping, Dorothy Hustead had an idea. What do weary road-worn travelers need on a hot day? Water! And, thus the signs began appearing offering free water to those passing by. The tourists came in for the free water and purchased an ice cream, a soda, or something else they needed as they passed through. Soon business was booming, and what was once just a small little drug store, now spans the entire block and then some offering everything from (really amazing) donuts, to lunch, to fudge, to jewelry and cowboy boots.
We didn’t stay long at Wall Drug. It turned out that our one night in Wall happened to be the same day as their Annual Wall Celebration & Rodeo – so not only was Wall Drug packed, the entire town was packed.
After a short stop to say we saw Wall Drug, we headed over to the Badlands, expecting nothing.
The Badlands – So much more than we expected!
We’d both seen photos of the Badlands and thought it looked really neat and worth a stop. If we’d had any idea we’d have planned much more time there. We arrived at the entrance to the Badlands at about 4pm and drove about 1/4 of the way around the loop, stopping at several lookouts for amazing views.
As sunset approached we knew we wanted to find a place where we could watch the sunset over the Badlands and enjoy the kind of beauty you rarely see. We made our way back, the way we came in and turned down the gravel road that takes you to the prarie dogs but we didn’t go that far. Instead, we stumbled across some Bighorn sheep. We stopped to get some photos and then drove just a little further until we found a spot we felt would give us great views of the sunset. The spot did not disappoint.
Once the sun set we headed back to our campground, waking up the next morning to continue our journey into the Black Hills.
Campgrounds in the Black Hills
Campgrounds in the Black Hills aren’t cheap, especially if you arrive in July, or worse – August. We arrived about a week into July and found most campgrounds priced at around $50/night or higher. Luckily, we were able to find two campgrounds that accepted Passport America for unlimited stays.
Elk Creek RV Resort & the north side of the Black Hills
Don’t let the name fool you. We’ve not stayed at an RV Resort yet that lived up to that name, and this was no exception. What was probably once a resort, is now just a campground. But, with Passport America the price was right (at around $27/night) and the sites were reasonably level. It’s located in a valley, making cell reception almost non-existent, but they do have free WIFI that worked well enough to let us get some work done. So, we stayed for two weeks and really have no complaints.
Elk Creek is located about 20 minutes north of Rapid City, and about the same distance from Sturgis, making the location perfect for visiting the sites on the north side of the Black Hills.
From our vantage at Elk Creek we made an afternoon trip up to Sturgis (in early/mid July it was just about empty, making it difficult to imagine just what it would look like the first half of August). We drove through Deadwood, but continuing our trend of visiting places during their annual whatever, found them packed for their annual 3-wheeler Days and Days of 76. We were also able to make the 90-minute trek up to Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.
Heartland RV Park & the south side of the Black Hills
After just a week in the Black Hills, we knew that two weeks would not be enough. However, we also knew we wanted cell phone reception (both for phone calls and for better internet). We booked eight days at the one other campground in the Black Hills that accepted Passport America and didn’t put a limit on how long you could stay with it. Even with Passport America it was a good bit more than Elk Creek (about $43/night) and with Sturgis approaching we could only get the discount for those eight nights.
From our vantage point in Hermosa, SD (where there’s pretty much nothing), we were able to take several drives through the Black Hills. We returned to Custer, SD for the second (and third time), we rented a Slingshot and spent an entire day just cruising the awesome roads, including driving through the Needles at Custer State Park, and driving Iron Mountain road. Iron Mountain road alone made renting the Slingshot worth it. Those views were just amazing, and we managed to catch like six different sunsets in one afternoon.
Our favorite experience in the Black Hills
By far, our favorite experience and lasting memory of the Black Hills will be renting a Slingshot and cruising the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road. We went through the Needles Eye just as the sun was beginning to set and continued on through the Needles to Iron Mountain Road. Along that drive we saw so many amazing sunsets and had so much fun on that drive. We’d definitely do it again.
Where we went in the Black Hills
- Sturgis – it’s a cute little (and I can’t emphasize little enough) town. It’s hard to imagine how they fit 600,000 people in this town (much less their bikes).
- Devil’s Tower – This is another of those things that photos don’t do justice. The sheer size of it is overwhelming. FYI: there’s a KOA at the base of the tower that plays Close Encounters of the Third Kind on their outdoor screen nightly (we kinda want to stay there).
- Naked Winery – One of our criteria to mark a state off our list is to visit a winery. We have now visited three in South Dakota. I think it’s safe to check the state as visited. Naked Winery is attached to Sick & Twisted Brewery (meeting all your alcohol needs) and all of their wines have names that are a bit on the naughty side. We only tried a handful, but found several that we enjoyed. Our favorite was Cougar, a semi-sparkling white.
- Prarie Berry Winery – You can find the wines from Prarie Berry all across the state. We bought our first bottle back at Wall Drug (their signature Red Ass Rhubarb). We tried several more at the winery and a couple more later at the Heartland RV Park wine tasting (did I mention they have a weekly wine tasting?). The Red Ass Rhubarb and Gold Digger (100% pear wine) were our favorites.
- Chapel in the Hills – This is not likely to be on the standard tourist list, but after stumbling across it somewhere it got added to ours. It’s an exact replica of the Borgund Stavkirke church built around 1150 in Norway.
- Sheridan Lake – Sheridan lake is a reservoir that we stumbled across while out driving around the Black Hills. It’s a beautiful 375 acre lake surrounded by the Black Hills, with plenty of room for boating, paddle boarding or whatever you want to do on the water.
- Petrified Forest of the Black Hills – We probably wouldn’t have visited this site if it hadn’t been located directly behind Elk Creek Resort, but we’re glad we did. It was a nice little hike with many examples of petrified wood, including full downed trees.
- Art Alley – In the heart of downtown Rapid City, you’ll find an alley that is covered in ever-changing art. It’s a quick little stroll and a great place to kill time while waiting for a table at one of the downtown restaurants. We made a special stop to see it on the way to meet up with some who happened to visiting the area.
- Bear Country USA – This drive-through zoo with elk, bison, donkeys, and yes bears is worth a visit. We went late in the afternoon to avoid crowds and as a result caught most of the animals sleeping. But, the few who were awake made the trip worthwhile. We’d love to go again and see it when they’re all awake.
- Mt. Rushmore – We debated if we really wanted to visit Mt. Rushmore. After visited Bear Country and having dinner, we decided we’d go see it lit up at night. We arrived just as the lighting ceremony ended (and the place was packed). We waited for most of the people to clear out before heading closer to the monument for a few photos. It was worth the stop to say we’ve been, for the price ($10 buys an annual parking pass and that’s the only fee).
- Custer, SD – there are many little towns scattered around the Black Hills with varying levels of tourist kitch. Custer was our favorite, largely because it was lacking in much of the touristiness that make up others (like Keystone and Deadwood). Custer is also a foodie mecca. I wouldn’t call us foodies, but Black Hills Burger & Bun alone is worth the trip.
- Custer County 1881 Courthouse – This original courthouse built 7 years before South Dakota even a state is now home to the Custer museum, featuring history of the area. In addition to the courthouse building there are several other buildings adjacent including an old stagecoach stop, and the oldest log cabin in South Dakota.
- Gordon Stockade & Stockade Lake – Just outside of Custer, SD is the Gordon Stockade. This is a replica of the original stockade and the signs tell the story of the white mans illegal, albeit short-lived, occupation of the area.
- Custer State Park – Before we left we rented a Slingshot from Adventure Rentals in Custer so that we could spend a day easily exploring all the awesome roads throughout Custer State Park and the Black Hills.
- Custer Wildlife Loop – We didn’t actually complete the loop. We sat in traffic for over two hours, sometimes moving a few car lengths every 10 minutes and then finally sitting still for about 45. We came within about 1/8 of a mile from a large buffalo heard but finally decided we’d had enough of the hot sun and turned around.
- Silvan Lake – This is possibly the most picturesque lake I’ve ever seen. We want to go back and rent paddleboards or kayaks and enjoy a day there.
- Needles Highway – The Needles Highway and Needles Eye Tunnel were the original reasons we wanted to rent something to drive around the Black Hills. The Needles Eye Tunnel is a one-lane tunnel measuring only 8ft, 4inches. While we’ve seen that a few people have taken their duallys through the tunnel, it was not something we wanted to attempt. The Needles were the original proposed site for Mt. Rushmore, and the towers and spires that make up the Needles were amazing to see.
- Iron Mountain road – As cool of a drive as the Needles Highway was, it had nothing on Iron Mountain Road. That said, we wouldn’t have wanted to miss either of them. While Iron Mountain road doesn’t have the same type of view, it has a view nonetheless. The road is filled with more twists and turns than the screws they use in an RV, plus awesome switchbacks, and several awesome tunnels, including one that perfectly frames a view of Mt. Rushmore.
- Hill City – Hill City is another neat little town. It’s definitely a tourist stop, but a bit less kitch than other towns like Keystone. It’s located perfectly for access to Keystone, Mt. Rushmore, and the Crazy Horse Monument. It’s also the home of the Alpine Inn, one of the places you really should eat while in the Black Hills.
Where we ate in the Black Hills
We love seeking out awesome places to eat wherever we may be and the Black Hills has no shortage of great food. We found the best BBQ we’ve ever eaten, as well as the best burger. We’d go out of our way again for either.
If you want to know where to eat, don’t just rely on the internet (especially in a tourist area), ask the locals. When we stopped at the Strawbale Winery in Sioux Falls, the owner Don told us that if we were heading to the Black Hills we had to eat at two places – Black Hills Burger & Bun and Alpine Inn. He was not wrong on either count.
- Black Hills Burger & Bun – We at here twice. The first time we met up with some friends who happen to be workamping in the area. We waited an hour for a table and it was worth the wait. They grind their own meat (both Angus and buffalo) AND bake their own buns. They also have gluten-free buns available for those like me who need them. This place was so good we made a trip back to Custer later just to eat there again.
- J. R Rhodehouse BBQ – This place was located just a few miles from Elk Creek Resort. We love to try BBQ wherever we go and the reviews claimed it was amazing so we gave it a try. In an effort to try everything, we just ordered a Half Gout (their sampler that includes half pound of every meat they offer). We were not disappointed. This was easily the best pulled pork and beef brisket we’ve ever had. The turkey, hot links, and ribs were all quite good as well.
- Blue Belle Lodge – Located just outside the entrance to the Wildlife loop, this is one of several dining options in Custer State Park. After spending hours trying to go through the Wildlife Loop we were hungry and thirsty, so we stopped. We were worried as it looked extremely busy, but it turned out everyone was waiting for the nightly Chuckwagon Hayride, so we had the dining room almost to ourselves.
- Alpine Inn – Alpine Inn was the other place that Don told us to eat. But, between a very limited dinner menu and our inability to take off at lunchtime it was our last day before we managed to make it there. While their dinner menu only has two items, their lunch menu is full of awesome German Schnitzel, sandwiches, and salads (and plenty of gluten-free options). But, whatever you choose to eat, save room for dessert. They have so many amazing options for dessert you’ll have a hard time choosing.
Why we’d go back to the Black Hills
Three weeks is not enough time to fully enjoy the Black Hills. There was so much more we wanted to do. We still want to visit Deadwood and Mt. Moriah cemetery. We could have spent months there just hiking all the amazing trails. A couple of hikes that we really wanted to do were Bridal Veil Falls, Roughlock Falls, Vanocker Trail and Black Elk Peak (although I’m not sure we really could have managed the latter).
We didn’t get to visit any of the caves in the area (some were closed). We want to visit The Mammoth Site near Hot Springs. The Minuteman Missile Visitors Center was closed. There were several museums in the area we’d like to have visited had we not been avoiding crowds. We’d also like to do the trainride on the 1880 train from Hill City to Keystone, as well as zipline through the Black Hills. There were a couple of wineries up around Deadwood that we didn’t get to visit. We’d like to go up to Belle Fourche and The Geographic Center of the Nation. And, we’d definitely love to drive the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain road again. There was not much we experienced in the Black Hills that we wouldn’t repeat.
I’m sure there’s much more that will be added to our list of things we’d like to do there before we are able to return. We will return, and next time we’ll probably plan on staying a few months. We might even look into a Workamper job.
We’d love to know your favorite stops in the Black Hills. Please leave a comment below.