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The Ultimate Two-Day Black Hills Vacation Guide

Sylvan Lake Black Hills, SD

It’s no wonder more than three million people each year come to visit Mount Rushmore and the surrounding Black Hills. The area offers the perfect combination of rich history, unbelievable landscapes and rock formations, and activities to keep the whole family entertained.

Over the last few years we’ve hosted guests from all over the world, and the most common questions we get are related to 1.) how many days should we plan on staying to see it all?, and 2.) what are the must-see attractions while were there?

With so much to do and see it can be difficult to fit it all in with a few short days. Based on your own vacation plans, we put together a few guides to make it easier to plan your trip. Below you’ll find the Ultimate Two Day Guide — which is the schedule we would take friends and family on if we had only two days to show them it all. In the coming weeks we’ll also publish our four-day and seven-day guides. Stay tuned!


Day 1: Exploring the Monuments

What’s Included in Day One?

  • Mount Rushmore National Memorial
  • Hill City, SD / 1880 Train
  • Keystone, SD
  • Crazy Horse Memorial
  • Custer, SD

7:00-9:00am: Breakfast + Visit Mt. Rushmore National Memorial

Start your trip right with stop at Mount Rushmore National Monument! Get an early start and head to Keystone, SD for a quick breakfast first, or a grab-and-go option at Grapes and Grinds coffee shop in Keystone (which is on your way). Carver’s Cafe is located at the monument itself, so it’s a great way to grab breakfast with a view while you’re there. Most people spend anywhere from one to three hours at Mount Rushmore, but it all depends on how much time you want to spend at the museum and gift shop, and if you want to walk the Presidential Trail.

Other options for breakfast include: Peggy’s Place in Keystone, or Powderhouse Lodge Restaurant (just outside of Keystone).

9:00-11:00am: Head to Hill City and Aboard The 1880 Train

After Mount Rushmore head to Hill City, SD (~30 minute drive) where the 1880 Train Station is located. The 1880 train connects Hill City and Keystone, and runs along the (extremely beautiful) Old Hill City Road, winding through granite rock walls and views of Black Elk Peak, among others. The entire ride takes approximately an hour and drops you off back at Keystone. Get your tickets in advance to allow for this time slot, but know that times may vary by season — so plan accordingly.

PRO TIP: If possible and your group has more than one vehicle, have one car parked in Keystone so you can get a one-way ticket rather than taking the train back to Hill City. That will free up more time to see and do other things!

11:00am-2:00pm: Explore Keystone, SD and Grab Lunch

The 1880 Train will take you back to Keystone, which is a fun town to walk around and explore during the summer months. However, it’s extremely touristy — so you have to be in the mood for that type of experience. The town is filled with shops with souvenirs and restaurants — which almost entirely close down in the fall and winter months. It’s usually bustling with people and sometimes you can catch a western gun show in the streets. Particularly, the Red Gartner Saloon puts on live western entertainment regularly and is worth the trip if you find the time!

Our favorite restaurants in Keystone include: Himalayan Indian Cuisine, Red Gartner Saloon (for the entertainment!), Ruby House, and Boss’ Pizza & Chicken.

2:30-3:30pm: Take the 1880 Train Back to Hill City

We usually park a second car in Keystone so we can eliminate this part of the trip, but if you can’t the train is just as fun on the way back! Be sure to wave at all the cars and people you see along Old Hill City Road, and watch for deer and other wildlife along the way. The train ride is an hour on the way back as well.

3:30-6:00pm: Visit Crazy Horse Memorial

Crazy Horse Memorial is approximately 30 minutes from the 1880 Train Station in Hill City, SD. You can easily spend one or two hours at the monument, especially if you visit the museum and the gift shop. The monument is considered the world’s largest sculptural undertaking and you get to experience it as it’s being built. Depending on the time of year you visit, you might even be able to walk on top of the arm of Crazy Horse at the Volksmarch (see: Special Events).

6:15-30pm: Dine + Shop in Custer, SD

Custer is a beautiful town with a bustling main street filled with fun shops and restaurants. Pick a restaurant from the list below, get your name on the list, and spend some time exploring Custer’s main street shops either before or after dinner. If you’re craving something sweet post-dinner, be sure to check out Horatio’s Homemade Ice Cream. It’s AMAZING!

Our favorite dinner options for dinner in Custer (in no particular order):


Day 2: Exploring Custer State Park

Pack a picnic lunch for this excursion (and even a swimsuit if you want to take a dip in Sylvan Lake). The morning part of this day includes a couple hours of driving, but it’s worth it — BEWARE: the route is beautiful but it does include curvy roads through narrow single lane tunnels. Bring motion sickness pills if you or your kids get carsick easily.

The afternoon offsets this with a picnic lunch and hiking around an incredible lake in the Hills. While it may be tough to swallow so much driving (especially if you JUST drove to SD), it is simply impossible to avoid if you want to accomplish these iconic parts of the Black Hills. 

What’s Included in Day Two?

  • Iron Mountain Road
  • Custer State Park Visitor Center
  • Custer State Park Wildlife Loop
  • Needles Highway
  • Sylvan Lake Picnic Lunch
  • Sylvan Lake Area Hike

7:30-8:30am: Drive Through Iron Mountain Road to Custer State Park

Pack your picnic, jump in the car, and head toward Iron Mountain Road outside of Keystone (you pass by this road on your way to Mount Rushmore). This is a beautiful drive and our favorite route to Custer State Park. Enjoy the infamous “Pigtail Bridges” and the view of Mt. Rushmore through the Doane Robinson Tunnel.

FUN FACT: Doane Robinson is considered the “Father of Mt. Rushmore” and brought Gustom Borglum to the Black Hills with his idea for the carving. If you’re staying at Hinterwood, you actually drove past his old property on the corner of Leaky Valley Road and Old Hill City Road, and you can still see the “lean-to” built into the rocks where Gustom Borglum stayed on his initial visit to the Black Hills.

Continue on until you enter Custer State Park and the road “T’s”, taking a right to pay for your State Park Pass and continue on heading to the Custer State Park Visitor Center. We recommend stretching your legs and learning some more about the Park here. You will also be able to see where the buffalo are currently roaming in the park so you can be sure to see them!

8:30-10:30am: Drive the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop

From the Visitor Center, take the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop. We think you have a 99% chance of seeing the wild buffalo (North American Bison) on this loop, but you never know. The visitor Center will let you know where they are currently if you stop in. In the early spring, you can even see the little baby buffalo calves, which is always fun. In the winter months, the buffalo have been known to lick the road salt right off your car! And don’t forget about the burros — ask the Ranger at the Visitor Center where you might be able to see them and keep your eyes peeled (conversely, you may not need to look hard at all if they are blocking the road).

PRO TIP: Stash a few carrots in your picnic lunch, and you can feed them to the burros. They love it and are used to being fed.

Continue on to finish the Wildlife Loop, and if you need a break, stop at the Blue Bell Lodge General Store where you can grab a few souvenirs. 

10:30am-11:30pm: Needles Highway

At the end of the Wildlife Loop, take a right at the “T” to hop back on Hwy 16A for less than a mile, and then go left on Highway 87 to begin the Needles Highway (you’ll see a sign). This road is remarkable and a must-see! There are a number of hairpin curves and one lane (tiny!) tunnels through the granite rocks. The views from the top, along with the needle-like granite spires, are something you’ll want to experience while in South Dakota. We recommend stretching your legs once you get to the “eye of the needle” (there is a parking area there).

When you’re ready, continue on down Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake and park in the recreation area.

11:30-1:00pm: Sylvan Lake Picnic Lunch

Parking is usually tight at Sylvan Lake and you might need to make a few laps until someone leaves to find parking. It will be worth it to experience the lake and all it’s beauty. Take your picnic lunch to the beach area and enjoy! Post-lunch, you might want to take a dip in the lake or explore some of the hiking trails around the lake.

FUN FACT: Have you seen National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets?! Sylvan Lake is the lake they (for whatever reason) portrayed as being DIRECTLY behind Mt. Rushmore. As you have figured out by looking around, it’s not… but it is one of the most beautiful lakes in the Hills, so I suppose we understand why they wanted it in the film.

1:00-4:00/5:00pm: Choose Your Own Adventure Hike!

It’s been a long day of driving and Sylvan Lake has a few hiking options right from the lake. We broke them down into three options: Easy, moderately difficult, and a longer moderately difficult option. Choose your own adventure here.

  • Easy Hike: You can walk on the trail right around Sylvan Lake! It’s an easy, short, and flat trail that allows you to see the lake from all sides. It doesn’t take long, but it’s a nice option if you don’t have the time for a full hike.
  • Moderately Difficult Hike: The Sunday Gulch Trail is a 3.9 mile trail loop (2-3 hours) that starts off the backside of Sylvan Lake. It is somewhat difficult in certain areas (but a super fun family hike – us kids in my family called it the “Indiana Jones Trail” growing up because of the terrain and obstacles).
  • Longer Moderately Difficult Hike: From Sylvan Lake, you can actually hike Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), which, at just over 7,200 ft., is the highest point West of the Rocky Mountains.  This hike is 7.6 miles round trip. The bigger steps near the top are the most difficult part, since your legs are getting tired by then. How long it will take totally depends on your group.  It is not uncommon for very fit couples without kids to let us know they completed it in just over 2 hours. I like to take in the view at the top, so it takes us closer to 3-3.5 hours. With smaller kids or if you are going at a slower pace, it could take you more like 4-5 hours, so plan accordingly. 

PRO TIP: If you plan on going big and hiking Black Elk Peak, bring a jacket or sweatshirt for the top. Even if it’s warm at Sylvan Lake, it can be quite brisk at 7,200 ft. in elevation, especially with the wind you will normally experience. 

6:30pm: Choose a Restaurant for Dinner or Opt for a Fireside Dinner Back at The Lodge

There are plenty of dinner options in the Black Hills and we put together an entire Restaurant Guide to help you decide. Pick something off the list nearby, or (if you’re staying at Hinterwood) head back to the property to grill out, have a fire, and roast s’mores for dessert. What could be better? 


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