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Black Hills Trip Report

Pitman, New Jersey
Destination Expert
for Rapid City, South Dakota
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5,887 posts
61 reviews
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Black Hills Trip Report

We recently enjoyed some time in the Black Hills of South Dakota and paired it with time in Colorado. Here is a trip report for the South Dakota leg of our trip. I hope it's helpful in trip planning.

July 26

Our Southwest flight to Denver was uneventful and on time. We gathered our bags and headed to the Avis bus to pick up our rental car. I swear all car rental companies are running the same scams. We booked a full size Chevy Impala, and the counter clerk tells us that their similar is a Chevy Malibu, which we rented last year and found quite small. I did see a couple of Impalas out in the lot. She then told us that “they recommend” having a 6 cylinder car for mountain driving and that we might consider upgrading to a premium car. We did wind up doing that and spending more money ($8 additional per day) for a Ford Taurus. We did really like the car and found it very suitable for our luggage needs. Overall, I found Avis to be a very disorganized operation, as the clerk had to keep “calling” to check on availability of cars. I would think they could just use the computer to check. She also told us our car would be brought to us, but after a quick search of the lot, we found it sitting waiting to be picked up. She said it was being cleaned, which was not accurate. It’s good we looked around rather than wait for a long time. Our flight landed at 9:30 a.m., but we never left Denver for South Dakota until around 11, mainly due to a wait and slowness of the transactions. I think many were being urged to upgrade their vehicles, which is nothing new in the rental car business.

We began the drive from Denver to Keystone, SD, which actually seemed a bit long and pretty dull. Once you hit Wyoming, there’s not much to see but cows and open land. I don’t know if I’d want to make the drive again with having a later start as we did. Plus, we had been up for a while since we were coming in from the east coast. We arrived in Keystone at 6 p.m., but we stopped for a quick lunch, a couple of potty breaks, and gas.

We were thrilled with our room at the Rushmore Express in Keystone. We had a large suite with marble bathroom, 2 queen beds, and living room with fireplace and micro fridge. There were 2 tv’s; the room was modern, immaculate and huge! The staff was young college students, but they all did a great job in assisting guests. A review of the property will follow.

Of course, our dinner was at Big Time Pizza, and we enjoyed a cheeseburger pizza that we were thinking about for 6 hours. Lol!

After dinner, my dh and dd did the Zipline at the Alpine Slide. They both loved it!

July 27

We slept extremely well in very comfortable beds at Rushmore Express. We were up early and took advantage of the hotel breakfast. It was actually mediocre compared to the room. There was little variety, and it was mostly “carbs.” However, it is always nice to have a continental breakfast than nothing at all.

We headed straight to Jewel Cave and arrived at around 8:20 a.m. We got on the 9:20 a.m. Scenic tour. Our ranger had hurt her knee hiking in the Grand Canyon, and despite her pain, she still gave the tour well. I give her credit for tackling all those stairs in a brace. The cave is mostly nailhead spar with a few stalactites and stalagmites. The tour focused a lot on the appreciation of the parks, with a good foundation of the cave’s basic offerings.

On the way to Jewel Cave, we rode past Mt Rushmore. I had just said to my husband that I had hoped to see a mountain goat this year, and he promptly said, “your wish has come true.” Around the bend on Rt. 244 were a Mom and her baby, which was an incredible sight for me.

After our tour at Jewel Cave, we went to the Game Lodge’s lunch buffet. We enjoyed it very much. As Peachbelle says, the bison stew is excellent. Really, all the food was fresh, and it was not sloppy like some buffets. I highly recommend it! Service was also quite good.

From there, we drove the Wildlife Loop. I admit it was not the ideal time to drive it, but we were on a schedule this time. We didn’t see much except antelope and adorable prairie dogs, but it was enjoyable nonetheless. The antelope are incredibly fast!

We headed to Wind Cave after driving the loop and had around a 45 minute wait for the Natural Entrance Tour. We had done the Fairgrounds Tour previously, so it was nice to do something different. As frequently mentioned on our forum, boxwork abounds at Wind; in fact, 95% of the world’s boxwork is there. I was impressed with our tour guide, who was a college intern aspiring to be a ranger. She did an excellent job. Once again, I caution anyone who has claustrophobia on taking a Wind Cave tour. We saw a woman abruptly leave on her way in, and she was having a panic attack. We later learned another person left the tour as well. The steps inside the entrance were quite “close,” and I could see how they could bother some people.

From Wind Cave, we headed up the Needles Hwy. The sights are focused in the northern part of the drive and include the Cathedral Spires and Needles Eye. We snapped some pictures and headed to Sylvan Lake.

At Sylvan, we took a short walk around the shore before heading back to our hotel around 7 p.m. We had a full day, but we accomplished all we set out to do. The sights of the Black Hills are always incredible.

July 28

Today, we took a ride out to the Badlands. First, we stopped at the Minuteman Missile Site, but the 1st available tour was at 1:30 p.m. (we arrived around 9:15), and honestly, we really didn’t feel like going back for the tour. They could only take 1 of us at 1:30, and we would have needed 2 more tickets. I had hoped to be able to do a tour, but sometimes things just don’t go as planned. I think it’s easier to nail a tour if you are staying in Wall or at the Badlands. In the Badlands, we stopped at many overlooks and trails. DD and dh loved the Window and Door Trails, climbing all over the rocks. Our daughter remembered her last visit to the Badlands when she was younger. The colors and formations were gorgeous. We spent around 3 hours here, taking pictures and doing short hikes/walks. We picked up supplies at the Walmart in Rapid City on our way back.

We decided to head to Rushmore via Iron Mountain Rd. We took Rt. 79S, which put us in great position to drive Iron Mt. Rd from the south. We had some great views of Rushmore, but we had hoped to see a little more wildlife. This time, we didn’t find bison or burros. We arrived at Rushmore around 5 p.m. and opted to not stay for the lighting. We did see another mountain goat grazing. We walked out to the Sculptor’s Studio and made our way back. One of the original sculptors was at the gift shop signing his book. We had another full day but were anxious for one more in the Black Hills.

July 29

This morning, we met one of our regular SD posters, Mountainmama52, at the Powder House Lodge for breakfast. She was staying in the area for the week, so we decided to meet. She is an awesome person with a vast amount of knowledge of the area as evidenced in her posts. I had a breakfast sandwich there, and it was absolutely delicious. I would opt to return for dinner next time. Mt. Mama says it’s really the best restaurant in Keystone, and I can see why. We had some great conversation, and I loved hearing her talk about her love of the Black Hills, along with stories about our families. After around 90 minutes (a much too short meeting!), we said our good- byes and headed toward Spearfish Canyon.

We decided to stop at the DC Booth Hatchery, as Mt. Mama highly recommended it. It was a well maintained complex, really “park-like.” We saw many different sized trout, a fish railcar that transported fish in the early days, the Booth home, and a small museum. We enjoyed the house tour and railcar. The grounds were immaculate, and I might mention the attraction is free. We found it a tremendous value and spent around 90 minutes there.

Next, we headed to Spearfish Canyon, where the waterfalls were running at full flow. We saw Bridal Veil Falls from its new viewing platform. We did the hike to Spearfish Falls (highly recommended). You can find the trail at the Lachstring Inn restaurant across from the Spearfish Canyon Lodge. There is a bridge that is out, so you are best suited to take the trail to the right side of the inn and go down that way. It normally loops around, but the bridge went out back in June, and I’m not sure when it will be replaced. The fall is extremely pretty. After, we took the Roughlock Falls trail, which is a mile one way, but these falls are even more beautiful and larger, as there are different levels. Both trails are very easy and worthwhile. Spearfish Canyon is a gorgeous place.

Thanks to Mt. Mama, we stopped at Cheyenne Crossing for a late lunch. What a find! We tried her highly recommended Indian Tacos. They were absolutely delicious, and we had to also try the carrot cake, which was out of this world! We also got a piece of strawberry cream pie, which was good, but the carrot cake trumped it! Although this restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside, the food is outstanding.

We returned to Keystone and browsed the “touristy shops.” Our teenage daughter enjoyed it, since she is now into t-shirts!

The next legs of the trip will be posted in the Estes Park and Colorado Springs forums.

Albeit short, we had a wonderful time in South Dakota and plan on returning again to spend more time! There’s never enough time in the Black Hills!

Atlanta, Georgia
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for Road Trips
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1. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

Sounds like a great trip. Thanks for sharing with us. So glad you enjoyed the buffet at the State Game Lodge- it is very good!!!

South Dakota
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2. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

Great trip report! Thank you for sharing.

Chicago, Illinois
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3. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

As always, I enjoyed your trip report. Meeting you and your family was very special and I agree the 90 minutes

was too short and went very fast.

Pitman, New Jersey
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for Rapid City, South Dakota
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4. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

Mt. Mama,

We loved meeting you. Our meeting and the entire time in South Dakota went way too fast! I hope you enjoyed the rest of your time there. I am working on organizing my pictures as we speak. I took close to 700! Colorado was great, but as you say, time in the Black Hills is very special. When we left Tuesday morning, I felt sad.

Thank you so much for the Cheyenne Crossing recommendation! We REALLY enjoyed it. Can you believe Ken ordered a large Indian taco? He finished it too. lol. Holly and I had the small ones, and they are huge. I agree with you on the carrot cake. I think Holly ate most of it.

Apple Valley...
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5. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

You got a lot accomplished of course! Enjoyed your trip report, thanks for sharing!

I have always been impressed with MtMama's knowledge! :-) Some of her posts are so detailed they would be great as Top Question bookmarks, especially the ones regarding cabins and such.

South Dakota
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6. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

Ditto what Iowa Girl said!

Nebraska
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7. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

Great review, thank you! I did have a question. You mentioned not seeing much wildlife,but it wasn't the ideal time. We are going to SD in a couple of weeks & I just wondered when exactly is the right time? Morning, night? And where is the best place to see wildlife? I presume the loop for buffalo & burro's, anyplace else?

Cedarville, Ohio
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8. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

We saw at lest 100 buffalo in one herd south of the airport right along the road three weeks ago. It was in mid afternoon. Mind blown. (In custer state pk just miles from the iron mt road entrance.)

Pierre, South Dakota
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9. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

Early mornings just after the sun comes up and late evenings just before dark are both ideal times for observing wildlife. That holds true almost anywhere, not only CSP

Apple Valley...
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10. Re: Black Hills Trip Report

I was at the park between 8-9am and experienced a bison traffic jam on the wildlife loop rd last summer. What she means by wrong time of day is that it was hot, mid-afternoon, and that meant they were more likely off the road resting or maybe seeking shade or something.

Stop at the visitors center when you get to the park and ask the rangers where the herd has been seen last if you have trouble finding them on the main loop rd. There are other roads that go off the loop rd that some people choose to take as well. Some people have taken the CSP Wildlife Jeep Tour and mentioned not getting to see them either, no guarantees.