You’ve bought your plane tickets, booked your stay, and rented a car for your trip to the Black Hills — but now what?
Before you arrive, you’ll need to start crafting your itinerary to get the most out of your time here, as there is so much to do, see and experience in the Black Hills. But after investing in the abovementioned expenses, you may be looking for some more budget-friendly options to keep costs to a minimum.
Thankfully, there are so many incredible free or inexpensive things to do in the Black Hills, from concert series to outdoor adventures and museums to art displays. And of course, there are many activities — like shootout reenactments and graveyards for western legends — that are especially unique to the Black Hills.
Add a few of these free and budget-friendly activities to your itinerary!
Keystone and Hill City Area Free or Budget-Friendly Activities
When you think about South Dakota, you’re likely picturing Mount Rushmore — and thankfully, visiting this renowned national monument is free (although you do have to pay a small fee to park). Here, you can get an up-close-and-personal view of the towering figures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, surrounded by stunning natural scenery. Here’s everything you need to know about visiting Mount Rushmore!
Brothers Jarrett and Jordan Dahl are award-winning, internationally known chainsaw artists creating original masterpieces out of ponderosa pine and other woods sourced from the Black Hills. They have a massive outdoor display of their art, ranging from Bigfoot to a 36,000-pound archway, in both Keystone and Hill City. This is a fun activity for kids, who get to explore the art while spending time outdoors. You can take a family photo in the big chair at the Keystone location or in front of the giant Smokey Bear (the mascot of the Hill City Schools Rangers!) in Hill City.
Cosmos Mystery Area is a truly unique place, combining science, mystery and fun — all on the site of a summer cabin dating back to 1952. Here, you can embark on a guided 40-minute walking tour through the Mystery Area, where the laws of physics appear to be suspended. It’s a place where water flows uphill and heights change on perfectly level surfaces — but you have to see it yourself to believe it! Experience these mind-bending optical illusions April through October. Admission is free for kids 5 and under, $6 for kids ages 5–11, and $12 for those 12 and over.
Rapid City Area Free or Budget-Friendly Activities
Rapid City’s Main Street Square is the place to be no matter what time of year it is! In the summer months, it’s a free water splash park for little ones, and in the winter, it turns into a free ice skating rink. Just keep in mind that you’ll need to pay to rent skates! The square also hosts a number of events, like concerts, movies and festivals, so check their calendar to see what’s coming up. While you’re there, be sure to explore Art Alley, which is just around the corner. Here, you’ll find colorful murals created by a variety of artists in varying styles. The artwork lining the alleyway is constantly changing, so there’s always something new and exciting to see!
If your visit falls during the summer, make sure you make plans to go to Summer Nights in Rapid City! This free weekly concert series runs every Thursday night from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Enjoy happy hour from 5–6 p.m. and entertainment from 6–9 p.m., all in the heart of downtown Rapid City. Check out the schedule to see who’s playing next!
Free and open to the public since 1936, Dinosaur Park is one of the area’s oldest attractions — but it is still wowing dinosaur fans to this day, with seven massive dinosaur sculptures situated on a hill overlooking the city. Dinosaur fossils and footprints were found not far from this park and there’s a visitor center to learn more about the area’s history from a paleontological perspective. After you explore the park, be sure to visit the surrounding Skyline Drive Wilderness Area, which encompasses 150 acres of undeveloped forest and meadows. Here, you can traverse miles of trails by foot or bike! There is an access point along Skyline Drive and one at Dinosaur Park — so be sure to bring your hiking boots. However, if you’re more interested in a leisurely drive, the route offers unbeatable views of Rapid City!
Storybook Island is “where magic happens.” This 8.5-acre park is a wonderland for kids, who will love riding the train, going around and around on the vintage carousel, exploring the gift shop, and more. The best part? Admission to Storybook Island is completely free — all you have to pay for is the ticketed train rides and concessions. The park is open seven days a week from Memorial Day through Labor Day.
There are several museums in Rapid City, covering a wide range of interests. And two of our favorites offer free admission! Located on the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology campus, the Museum of Geology has several compelling exhibits focused on paleontology, or study of ancient life, and mineralogy, or the study of minerals, including gems, crystals, and the rocks they form. The South Dakota Air & Space Museum is an aviation museum near the Ellsworth Air Force Base that contains more than 30 indoor and outdoor aircraft!
A visit to Fort Hays Old West Town Square is an immersive experience! Step back in time as you explore the set for the 1990 movie, Dances With Wolves, with a free self-guided tour. You can also take a stroll along the boardwalk, eat all-you-can-eat cowboy pancakes for just 99 cents (before 11 a.m.), and explore the gift shop, where you’ll see craftsmen creating handmade tools, ropes, bricks, and more. You can also purchase tickets to the Chuckwagon Supper and Music Show, which includes a complete chuckwagon meal accompanied by a foot-stompin’ musical variety show!
Historic Deadwood Area Free or Budget-Friendly Activities
A cemetery? Just trust us. Your trip to Deadwood wouldn’t be complete without a stop by Mount Moriah Cemetery, which is where a number of western legends, murderers, madams and other notorious folks are buried, including Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. But it’s more than just a graveyard! This site is packed with fascinating history — and you can learn more about the cemetery in the Mount Moriah Cemetery Visitor Center. You should set aside at least 30 minutes to explore Mount Moriah, and some more time if you’re going to the visitor center. There is just a $2 entrance fee to visit the cemetery.
Three times a day, six days a week during the summer, gunshots can be heard on Deadwood’s Historic Main Street. Deadwood Alive puts on Main Street Shootouts, a free, historically accurate reenactment of the gunfights — but don’t worry, they use blank bullets! Check out the daily activities schedule to see what’s happening the day you’re visiting Deadwood. PRO TIP: The shooting of James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok is held daily inside Saloon No. 10 at 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.
The Adams Museum was founded in 1930 by pioneer businessman W.E. Adams, who wanted to preserve and display the history of the Black Hills. The museum displays some of the area’s greatest treasures, including Potato Creek Johnny’s 7.346 troy ounce gold nugget, N.C. Wyeth’s pencil sketch drawing of “Wild Bill” Hickok, a rare one-of-a-kind marine reptile called a plesiosaur, and more. Admission to the Adams Museum is free, but there is a suggested donation of $5 for adults and $3 for kids.
Lead Area Free or Budget-Friendly Activities
The Homestake Mine was a massive, deep underground gold mine in Lead that produced more than 40 million troy ounces of gold during its lifetime. When it closed in 2002, it was the largest and deepest mine in North America! The Sanford Lab Homestake Visitor Center was built to share the history of the mine, plus other fascinating scientific discoveries being uncovered at the Sanford Underground Research Facility. Immersive experiences at the visitor center include an observation deck, the Davis Ring (a portion of a Nobel Prize-winning experiment hosted almost a mile underground), a virtual cage ride to the underground, and much more. General admission is free but donations are gladly accepted.
Spearfish Area Free or Budget-Friendly Activities
Dating back to 1896, D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery and Archives is one of the oldest operating hatcheries in the country dedicated to fish culture and resource management. The property contains a variety of noteworthy historic attractions, including the Von Bayer Museum, the Railcar, the Booth House, and the Yellowstone Boat. Visitors are welcome to stroll the grounds (which contain stunning gardens) from dawn to dusk all year long, but the historic buildings on site are only open during the summer season, from mid-May through the end of September. You can take a historic tour June–August from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with shortened hours in September. PRO TIP: Don’t miss the underground viewing area where you can feed the fish!
Other Free and Budget-Friendly Activities In The Region
Go for a Scenic Drive
When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with a classic scenic drive — and you can even incorporate this on your way to any of the abovementioned destinations! Some of the best in the area include Spearfish Canyon (includes plenty of nearby hiking options), Iron Mountain Road, and Needles Highway. Keep in mind that Needles Highway requires a Custer State Park pass.
On a hot day, we’re all searching for the nearest swimming hole — and we have plenty to choose from in the Black Hills. Horsethief Lake, which has parking on the side of the highway, and Hippie Hole, a local swimming and cliff-jumping spot, are both free. Or you can buy a $6 day pass for Pactola Reservoir and Sheridan Lake, and a Custer State Park pass for either Sylvan Lake or Legion Lake.
Go on a Hike
Our rugged terrain and stunning natural scenery creates the optimal conditions for hiking! There are so many excellent hikes to choose from in the Black Hills, varying in difficulty, length, and features you’ll find along the way, like streams, historic sites, waterfalls, rock formations, lakes and more. Most of them are free, while some require a Custer State Park pass.
Check out the Free Entrance Days into the National Parks
Did you know there are several days where you can get into all national parks for free? Free Entrance Days include MLK Day, National Public Lands Day, Veterans Day and more. Check out all of the dates here to see if your visit overlaps! If so, make plans to visit Badlands National Park for free! The fee is normally $15 for an individual (for hiking, biking, etc.) and $30 for a private vehicle, so the savings are pretty significant!
PRO TIP: If you’re not visiting on one of the free entrance days, keep in mind that admission to Wind Cave National Park is always free to drive through or hike around the park. However, you will need to purchase a ticket to tour the cave.
We’d love to hear your “2 cents” on what free activities you enjoy doing in the Black Hills!