The national parks of southwestern South Dakota—along with the state park and two national memorials nearby—deliver a surprising variety of sights: the swaying grasses and abundant wildlife of one of the country’s few remaining intact prairies, the complex labyrinth of passages and unique geologic formations in one of the world’s longest caves, and some of the richest fossil beds on Earth.
DAY 1: RAPID CITY AND WIND CAVE
The closest commercial airport is Rapid City Regional Airport, about 70 miles northeast from Wind Cave. Arrive in the morning to pick up your rental car and make the 1½-hour drive to Wind Cave National Park, with more than 33,000 acres of wildlife habitat aboveground (home to bison, elk, pronghorn, and coyotes) and one of the world’s longest caves below.
Take an afternoon cave tour and a short drive through the park. Spend the night in Hot Springs, about 10 miles from the park’s southern boundary.
DAY 2: CUSTER STATE PARK
Spend today at Custer State Park, which is adjacent to Wind Cave; it’s about 36 miles or a 45-minute drive northeast from Hot Springs. The 71,000- acre park has exceptional drives, lots of wildlife (including a herd of 1,400 bison), and fingerlike granite spires rising from the forest floor (they’re the reason this is called the Needles region of South Dakota).
While you’re in the park, be sure to visit Limber Pine Natural Area, a National Natural Landmark containing spectacular ridges of granite. If you have time, check out the Cathedral Spires trail, 3 miles round-trip. Overnight in one of five mountain lodges at the Custer State Park Resort.
DAY 3: JEWEL CAVE AND CRAZY HORSE
Today, venture down U.S. 16 to Jewel Cave National Monument, 13 miles west of the town of Custer, an underground wilderness where you can see beautiful nail-head and dogtooth spar crystals lining its more than 195 miles of passageways.
After visiting Jewel Cave, head back to Custer and take U.S. 16/385 to Crazy Horse Memorial (about 7 miles north of Custer), home to a colossal mountain carving of the legendary Lakota leader, and the Indian Museum of North America. Afterward, head 12 miles north to the former gold- and the tin-mining town of Hill City, where you’ll spend the night.
DAY 4: MOUNT RUSHMORE
This morning, travel 12 miles or about a 30-minute drive northwest from Hill City to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, where you can view the huge carved renderings of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Lincoln.
Afterward, head northwest for 23 miles back to Rapid City, the eastern gateway to the Black Hills. Spend the night here.
DAY 5: BADLANDS NATIONAL PARK
Begin your day early and drive east (via Interstate 90) to Badlands National Park, a 244,000-acre geologic wonderland. The Badlands Highway Loop Road (Highway 240) wiggles through the moonlike landscape of the park’s north unit for 32 miles. Stop in at Ben Reifel Visitor Center, at the far eastern edge of the park, to pick up a trail map and head out on a hike.
The Notch Trail, 1½ miles round-trip, offers spectacular views of the White River Valley but is definitely not for anyone with a fear of heights. The Cliff Shelf trail, ½ mile round-trip, is a more mellow option that showcases rock formations and juniper forest, as well as occasional wildlife sightings. After you leave the park, head back to Rapid City to spend the night.
DAY 6: BEAR BUTTE AND RAPID CITY
The airport in Rapid City is about 10 minutes southeast of town. If you have time to pass before your flight out, head about 30 minutes out of town to Bear Butte State Park for an epic hike. The trail to the top of the mountain is just under 2 miles in length.
The top of the mountain has great views of the Black Hills to the southwest. If you have time, there’s also a 2½-mile trail around Bear Butte Lake.