We’ve been to a lot of places, but one of our all-time favorites has to be the Black Hills of South Dakota. We went to visit the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and ended up doing so much more. Indians, presidents, buffalo and badlands – the Black Hills have it all.
Less than a day’s journey from our home, our drive was a pleasant one. There are lots of campground choices in the area, but on the recommendation of some friends, we chose Rafter J Bar Ranch as our base camp. To this day, we compare every campground against it, to see they can come close to our experience at “Rafter J’s.”
Outside of Hill City, the location is beautiful, with rolling hills and mature pines all over the property. There’s a wide range of amenities and many sites have full hookups. We really liked the fact that we had lots of space and privacy at our site, and we were right across from the extremely well-maintained bathrooms.
Rafter J’s has a pool, a country store and a stable on site. They also offer a tasty outdoor pancake breakfast. When we weren’t sight-seeing, the kids spent their time on their bikes, in the pool or at the stable looking at the horses. There were lots of other families around us, and my daughter in particular made a friend that she still corresponds with to this day.
In and around Hill City there is so much to do. We started with Mount Rushmore and enjoyed it so much we went back two more times. The memorial itself is awe-inspiring, plus there’s a wonderful museum as well as talks and tours.
We spent most of our time in Custer State Park. If you take a drive along the Wildlife Loop and you can spy the largest privately owned buffalo herd in the country. We made the mistake of going in the middle of a very hot day, so the sights were scarce, but we still saw the buffalo, along with deer, elk and the funniest, friendliest burros around. The only word of advice: Don’t go in the heat of the day. Dawn and dusk are your best bets.
On another trip into the park, we took a tour of Wind Cave. Navigating the narrow path and low clearances was a bit challenging with a toddler, but so very worth it. WARNING: Spelunkers may never want to leave this incredible underground labyrinth.
I have to say our absolute favorite place inside Custer State Park was enchanting Sylvan Lake. A calm lake with a wonderful beach area, it’s a great old-fashioned swimming hole. If fishing is more your style, there are also boats available for rental lots of quiet fishing spots dotting the shoreline.
On our last day, we opted for a trip to Badlands National Park. It was amazing to see the stark difference between the hills and the prairie. Once in the Badlands, we felt like we were walking on the moon. The landscape and formations are truly out of this world.
When we first booked our trip, we were afraid the kids might get bored after a week in one place. But in the end we found there just wasn’t enough time to do all the fun things the area has to offer. Maybe next time we’ll take a ride on the 1880 train from Hill City to Keystone, visit Bear Country, the Crazy Horse Memorial or take a trip into Sturgis.
So if you’re looking for a family friendly place that offers beauty, history and lots of fun — the Black Hills of South Dakota are a must see.