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8 Unique Experiences for Your Black Hills Vacation Itinerary

unique experiences for your black hills vacation

If you’re planning a trip to the Black Hills, you likely have a hike or two planned or maybe a few wineries and breweries on your radar. It’s time to think outside the box and add a few unique activities to your Black Hills vacation itinerary! After all, the region itself is quite unique, filled with natural wonders, a rich history, and unforgettable experiences.

Whether it’s horseback riding through scenic trails or indulging in chuckwagon feasts under the stars, our guide unveils a number of hidden gems and immersive activities that will elevate your trip beyond the usual tourist attractions. From the depths of mysterious caves to the expansive sky accessible by hot air balloon and helicopter, prepare to uncover the secrets of the Black Hills and embark on an unforgettable journey!

Book your Black Hills lodging in advance. During the peak summer season, reservations are often made months in advance. Hinterwood Inn & Cabins is just 7 miles from Mount Rushmore!

Black Hills Hot Air Balloon Rides

Take your Black Hills vacation to new heights (literally) with a hot air balloon ride, giving you an aerial view of this scenic area — not to mention, an exhilarating experience you’ll never forget. 

For more than 35 years, Black Hills Balloons has flown guests over the Custer Valley, with Custer State Park the heart of the flying area. You’ll pass over mountains, valleys, lakes, and prairies, with a chance to spot elk, antelope, whitetail deer, buffalo, mule deer, and maybe even a mountain lion! Western Horizons is another reputable company offering year-round sunrise flights over the Southern Black Hills. Both experiences last an hour and include a celebratory champagne toast, light hors d’oeuvres, and a souvenir flight certificate! Pricing varies for each company, costing about $400 per adult and about $300 per child.

Black Hills Area Helicopter Rides

Photo via Black Hills Aerial Adventures

Another way to get a birds’ eye view of the area is via helicopter — and it can be a little more cost-effective, too.

Black Hills Helicopters has several different tours, including a quick 10-minute Mount Rushmore tour costing $89.99 per person, a 30-mile loop around Elkhorn Mountain for $169.99 per person, a comprehensive Black Hills Tour for $449.99 per person, and more. Tours are offered daily from May 1 to October 31, with the option to book by appointment outside of those dates.

Black Hills Aerial Adventures offers a variety of different tours, including a Discovery Tour, Mount Rushmore Tour, Black Elk Peak Tour, and more, ranging from $59 to $275 per person. They have three convenient locations, including the Mt. Rushmore Heliport and Badlands Heliport, which are both very close to Hinterwood, and Crazy Horse Heliport, which is almost an hour and a half away.

Rushmore Helicopters is the original and longest-operating helicopter tour service in the Black Hills, allowing riders to get an up-close-and-personal view of the massive granite faces of the four presidents on Mount Rushmore. They have a quick and affordable Discovery Flight ($49 per person) and a longer Ultimate Aerial Adventure ($399 per person), which takes you through the Northern, South, and Central Black Hills passing by Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Needles Highway — and many other tours in between.

Black Hills Area Horseback Riding 

With its diverse terrain and picturesque trails, the Black Hills provide an ideal backdrop for an unforgettable equestrian adventure as you meander through open prairies and navigate rugged, winding paths.

Immerse yourself in the splendor of the Black Hills National Forest with Rockin’ R Trail Rides, where you can witness the majestic Crazy Horse Memorial from the comfort of your saddle. Choose from an array of private riding tours, including the 1.5-hour Willow Creek Loop, the 2-hour Castle Rock ride, or the exhilarating 3-hour Crazy Horse ride.

For a truly captivating experience, The Stables at Palmer Gulch offer daily horseback riding tours through the breathtaking Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. In fact, they are the only barn of this kind to hold a riding permit in this stunning wildlife sanctuary! They offer both 1-hour and 1.5-hour riding tours, each tailored to guests.

For more experienced horseback riders, Sage Meadow Ranch offers private, personalized rides through varied terrain, including rolling hills with scenic outlooks and winding trails through ponderosa pine forests. Owners Holly and Dave go the extra mile to make this a memorable experience tailored to your group. Riders are expected to be able to confidently guide their horse independently, so this may not be the best option for first-time riders or young children!

Black Hills Boat & Watercraft Rentals

On a pleasant day, there’s nothing better than getting out on the water in a boat. Plus, you might get some exercise while you’re at it! There are two marinas just a short drive north of Hinterwood that offer boat rentals.

Pactola Marina has a variety of motorized and non-motorized options, including pontoons, fishing boats, kayaks, stand-up paddle boards, and a canoe. Prices vary by boat type, horsepower, and the amount of time you want to rent for. All life jackets are included in your rental rate and a $10 per dog fee can be added so your pup can join in on the fun!

The Marina at Sheridan Lake also has motorized and non-motorized watercraft available to rent, including pontoon boats, a Mastercraft Surf Boat, aluminum fishing boats, jet skis, canoes, kayaks, paddle boards, and hydro-bikes. They also have single-person flat top tubes, Lily Pads, Yeti coolers with ice, and water skis available for rent, and they welcome dogs with a $10 fee. Life jackets are included in the rental rate!

Black Hills Area UTV / ATV Rentals

Sure, you can drive around and get a feel for the area, but there’s nothing quite like exploring the Black Hills via ATV. With an ATV, you get to travel off the beaten path deep into the forest completely on your own terms — driving your own high-powered vehicle designed to maneuver all sorts of terrain. There are several ATV rental companies in the area, but we always recommend Black Hills Wilderness Edge, which is conveniently located just down the road from Hinterwood. They have several different vehicles with 2, 4 or 6 seats, available for either a half-day (8:30 a.m.–12:30 p.m.) or full-day rental (9 a.m.–5 p.m.). Simply pack a picnic lunch and some drinks to put in the cooler they let you use for the day! Your rental also includes helmets, fuel, and trail permits, and bags of ice, snacks and drinks are available for sale at the office.

Black Hills Gold Panning

Perhaps one of the most uniquely “Black Hills” activities you can do is pan for gold. The Black Hills Gold Rush took place in the Dakota Territory — which is now much of present-day Montana and Wyoming, North and South Dakota, and a small portion of Nebraska — from 1874 to 1877. You, too, can pan for gold at a few museums in the area!

Big Thunder Gold Mine in Keystone offers historic gold mine tours and on-site gold panning, which includes complimentary gold-panning lessons before you start. You’ll have the opportunity to sift through mineral-rich sand and gravel taken from the very creeks miners struck gold in the 1800s! Walk-ins are welcome, but you can reserve your gold planning experience in advance for just $13.95 per pan — or $11.95 if you add it to a mine tour.

Black Hills Mining Museum has an indoor panning tank, where you can discover your own collection of gold, with the helpful instruction from an experienced gold panner. You are guaranteed to find gold and keep what you find! It costs $14 per pan and the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

Black Hills Caves

Once you’ve explored the sky via hot air balloon or helicopter, the forest via ATV, and the water via boat, there’s only one way to go: underground. There are several caves worth exploring in the Black Hills, each providing an immersive and fascinating look at different rock formations and mysterious underground passages.

Wind Cave National Park is the first cave to be designated a national park, featuring the largest collection of rare boxwork formations in the world. Plus, on the surface, Wind Cave National Park contains 33,970 acres of forest and prairie acting as a natural sanctuary for wildlife. Cave tours usually sell out in advance so purchase your tickets in advance here!

Jewel Cave is one of the longest caves in the world, extending more than 215 miles of mapped and surveyed passages. Along the way, you’ll encounter fragile formations, brilliant colors, and a complex maze of passageways. They offer a variety of guided cave tours, including Historic Lantern Tours, Discovery Tours and Scenic Tours, and advanced reservations are recommended.

Wonderland Cave in Nemo offers tours passing by numerous formations of boxwork, stalactites, stalagmites, columns, several varieties of crystals, and even helictites. But what makes Wonderland Cave so special is its fascinating history, which you’ll learn all about on a guided tour! Plan to spend a couple of hours in the cave and dress appropriately with a light jacket and comfortable hiking shoes.

Rushmore Cave is the original attraction at Rush Mountain Adventure Park. The cave has been explored for more than 90 years, but cavers are continually discovering new passages and areas. The fun and educational Scenic Walking Tour explores subterranean passageways leading to large spectacular stalactite rooms. The tour lasts about 45 minutes to an hour, and no reservations are required. Tours leave regularly up until 1 hour before closing.

Custer State Park Hayride & Chuckwagon Cookout

Photo courtesy of Blue Bell Lodge Hayride & Chuckwagon Cookout

Experience the cherished tradition of the Hayride & Chuckwagon Cookout at Blue Bell Lodge in Custer State Park. Embark on a scenic 45-minute wildlife tour aboard an old-fashioned hayride, followed by a delightful dinner show in a mountain meadow canyon, with live folk music entertainment throughout the evening. Feast on your choice of an 8-ounce sirloin steak, burger, or black bean burger, accompanied by cowboy beans, cornbread and honey, potato salad, coleslaw, watermelon, and cookies, plus chuck wagon coffee and lemonade. Each paying guest receives a souvenir cowboy hat and bandanna, which will truly get you in the Wild West spirit. The entire experience takes about 3 hours and is available every evening, seven days a week, all season long!

But Where Will You Stay?

Cabins and hotels can book up fast in the Black Hills area during the summer months. If you are planning to spend several days here, be sure to reserve your accommodations a few months in advance. If you haven’t decided where your home base will be for these epic Black Hills adventures, Hinterwood Inn & Cabins is a centrally located option near each of these activities and more. It’s a small, modern resort located on 20+ beautiful acres, surrounded by Black Hills National Forest, with newly built cabins, free-ranging chickens, and wide open grassy areas. Book your unforgettable Black Hills vacation today!

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