How can I expose my kids to different places, people, cultures, and environments on a budget? Take a road trip!
I absolutely love road trips. And I didn’t think I would. They can be stressful to plan, plus all that time in the car. Wouldn’t it be easier to just fly somewhere and relax? Easier yes, but not as adventurous.
And if you happen to fall in the same tax bracket as we do, flying somewhere, renting a car, and then adventuring costs a pretty penny.
The Family Road Trip
Will my kids ride that long in the car? I don’t know if I can do it!
If you have kids who still have screen time limits, trust me: they will love a road trip with unlimited screen time.
I have seen magical parents, like my sister-in-law who can take a 20+ hour road trip while the kids color, play paper dolls, sing, read, and watch maybe one movie. But I felt like once my own kids passed 10 years old, I just had to give up and say, “Unlimited screens! Put on your headphones and have a great time back there!”
The Black Hills
The Black Hills are a low isolated mountain region in west central South Dakota and northeast Wyoming, located primarily in the Black Hills National Forest. From a distance, the topography appears dark, giving the hills their name.
The Black Hills are about an eight-hour drive from Fargo, all Interstate if you like (south on I-29 and then west on I-90 at Sioux Falls).
Northern Black Hills
The northern region of the Black Hills include the cities of Sturgis, Deadwood, and Spearfish. Deadwood is an “Old West” tourist town. Historic main street is lined with shops and restaurants, and actors portray an old west shoot-out.
Spearfish Canyon is the number one natural attraction of the northern Black Hills. And Bridal Veil falls is in Spearfish Canyon, along with a few other waterfalls. Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower, managed by the National Forest service, is also located in the Northern Hills.
Southern Black Hills
In the southern region of the Black Hills, you’ll find Custer State Park. Mount Rushmore National Memorial is just north of Custer State Park. And cities in the southern Black Hills include Keystone, Custer and Hill City. The Crazy Horse Memorial, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Wind Cave National Park are all in this area as well.
Where to Stay
Depending on the length of your trip, you could likely stay in the southern Black Hills for the majority of time, including a night or two in the northern Black Hills, if desired. I think the southern hills is where most of the must-sees are located, so I will focus on tips for that area.
Do you want to be in a city where you can walk to multiple restaurants and shops?
Hill City is town with fun shops and good bars and restaurants, not just “touristy” things. It’s the kind of town to take an evening vacation stroll down Main Street.
Keystone is filled with primarily “tourist trap” kind of stores, but that’s exactly what some people are looking for on a vacation! Saltwater taffy and fudge stores are aplenty here.
Custer is bigger than Hill City, but lacks some of the “vacation charm” of Hill City.
All of these towns are within 20 minutes of each other, and all make accessing the key “things to do” very easy. If you’re not interested in cooking your own meals, a hotel in one of these cities could be the perfect fit for you.
Do you want to be in the heart of the wilderness?
Then you simply must stay in Custer State Park. These are the best hotels/resorts in the southern Black Hills, varying in luxury and price. The four lodges each offer restaurants and a gift shop.
Nothing puts you closer to hiking and nature than staying within the park. These lodge options offer opportunities to do some of your own cooking if you’d like. For my family of six, we often find it is more affordable to spend more on a place with a full kitchen and do our own cooking, versus eating out.
Looking to camp?
Again, you must stay in Custer State Park if able. I almost hate to tell more people about camper cabins, but they are the absolute best way to camp. You don’t need to haul a camper across the country or stay in a tent to get the cost efficiency of camping. Along with bunk beds, electricity, and often AC; they offer the “camping fun” of walking to a shared bathroom, cooking and eating outside, and togetherness.
Camper cabins are tough to reserve, often booking up a year in advance. But tent and RV campers are also a great way to camp, and Custer State park is a beautiful location to do it in.
Mount Rushmore KOA resort at Palmar Gulch is much more crowded and noisy and not exactly in the wilderness, but my older kids loved that. There is a lot to do right onsite: a pool, horse riding, bike rental, shopping, etc. They have many camper cabins as well. And it’s also in a great location near all the top attractions.
There are numerous privately owned campgrounds around the area as well.
Do you want all the comforts of home?
Things to Do in the Southern Black Hills
Black Elk Peak: (Formerly called Harney Peak). This hike is long, but with a very high payoff at the end. Seven miles, but quite easy terrain. This is my personal number one must-see.
Little Devil’s Tower: We might have continued past the trail, but it’s one of the most beautiful hikes we’ve ever been on. We were above the helicopters! We dragged the kids (ages 8 and up) on this hike. They thought the mild “rock climbing” at the end was very fun; I found the whole “we’re on top of a cliff” thing very scary, but adventurous.
Check out this list of additional hikes of varying lengths and difficulties for more options.
2. Custer State Park:
Drive the wildlife loop road and Needles Highway. See it all. Spend time at the visitors centers. Walk around Sylvan lake (stroller friendly).
Buffalo roam free and often stop traffic. As do burrows. You could see all of Custer State Park in a day if you didn’t do any hikes. Two days with a hike or two each day is ideal. Custer State Park is not a national park simply because the state got to it first; it’s as good as many National Parks.
And if you have time, watch the movie Dancing with Wolves before you go, because it was filmed in the Black Hills.
This is the coolest ropes course we’ve even seen. It’s like an Ewok village! This is a challenging course, probably best for kids ages 9 and up. There’s also a super long slide for kids too young for the ropes course.
Another tip, watch National Treasure (the first movie) before/after you go, because many parts of those movies were also filmed in Keystone/Mount Rushmore.
When I ask my kids what their favorite thing was about the Black Hills, they always say this cave. “It’s like real life Minecraft!”
And it’s a great thing to do in the heat of summer, because the temperature in the cave is a constant 49 degrees. Purchase tickets in advance, as this is a popular attraction. And please note there is a partial closure for maintenance into June 2021.
Wind Cave National Park is another terrific option for the “real life Minecraft adventure.” Allowing 3-4 hours, based on the tour you choose.
Crowded, but wonderful. Featuring short, stroller friendly walks, with 3-4 hours needed to explore.
6. Crazy Horse
Much larger than Mount Rushmore, and a very different perspective on the development of the area. There is a wonderful history and story behind the progress of this carving. Allow 2-3 hours for this site.
All of these things in the Southern Hills are drivable from one “home base” where you select to stay. No need to pick up and completely move to a different location. There are many other things to do: horse riding, panning for gold, petting zoos, etc. And for even more ideas, see things that we did personally on trips to the Black Hills.
Just Outside the Black Hills
Badlands National Park
The Badlands National Park is not a part of the Black Hills, but are about 90 minutes east of the southern Black Hills. It’s easy to take an hour to just drive through the Badlands on your way to the Black Hills. If you take the all-Interstate route to the Black Hills from Fargo, it’s only three miles off I-90, so an easy stop.
It certainly might be worth a night’s stay in the area, leaving more time to devote to hiking and exploring in this area.
Devil’s Tower is a national monument located an hour west of the northern Black Hills. It looks as though aliens dropped something out in the middle of nowhere. It’s an easy hike around the tower. And two hours is probably enough time to devote to this site, but you could stretch that to four hours if you don’t have whiny walkers. This photo shows the road up to the tower; you do not need to walk very far from your car to access it.
So go ahead and plan your own road trip from Fargo to the Black Hills – you won’t regret it!