With Mt. Rushmore bringing over 2 million visitors every year, the tourist industry in the Black Hills has grown tremendously under such a continual downpour of people. Unfortunately, like all things blessed with ample resources, many weeds have sprouted. Being a short-term guest of the Black Hills makes it very difficult to differentiate between what is worth your time and what is rightfully known as a “tourist trap.” Listed below, you’ll find many of the attractions available in the Hills, along with a personal recommendation of whether to indulge or avoid:
Mt Rushmore – Easy one. There is a reason why so many people flock to see “the Faces” every year; they are amazing. Insiders tip: the park’s constitution does not allow it to charge for admission; they get around this by charging for parking. If you want to take advantage of the founders’ intended generousity, simply drive past the Monument and look for a spot to pull off and park. There are a few within a couple hundred yards.
Crazy Horse – Interesting and worth supporting. Even if Crazy Horse never gets finished, it is worth going to read of its story and to be inspired by its ideals. Due to their desire to remain fully autonomous from the Federal government, its founders are attempting to complete the project solely on private donations, which will ultimately include a Native American university.
Custer State Park – Absolutely incredible. From its Wildlife Loop with buffalo, antelope and deer (most days) to its Needles Highway with unbelievable engineering through an even more unbelievable natural setting. Definitely worth the price of admission. I’d recommend splitting the park into two days.
Wind Cave and Jewel Cave – if you’re going to see a cave, these are the ones to choose. The Black Hills are full of private caves (Sitting Bull, Rushmore, Crystal Cave, Wonderland, etc.), which are okay. But beware of higher prices and teenage tour guides reciting a script. If you want to get a quality (and factual) tour in one of the biggest caves in the world, head to one of the national parks.
Bear Country – Pricey but unforgettable. At $15 a pop, the price of admission should make you wince. Once inside, however, you’ll surrounded by so many different types of animals that you’ll have forgotten all about the hefty price tag. If, however, you have a sensitivity to animal captivity then I’d steer clear. Insiders tip: go earlier in the day (8am-10am) before the heat makes the animals lethargic.
Reptile Gardens – Reptile lovers paradise. People complain about the $12 admission, which I can understand, but it will grant you access to one of the strangest and most fascinating collections of reptiles.
Cosmos – worth missing – If you are into fun houses at carnivals then this place is perfect for you. Don’t expect much more, though.
The Maze, the Rushmore Waterslides and the Ranch – You see what you get. Too pricey for my liking.
Thunderhead Falls – Beautiful setting but a waste of money to go inside.
1880 Train – Extremely expensive but a unique experience. You can drive the route by car and still see the gorgeous scenery without lossing almost $30 per person.
Keystone – a novelty with little of actual worth. You’re better off going to Hill City. In terms of restaurants, Hill City or Rapid City are your best bets. With so many one-time customers, food quality can be suspect for the price they charge.
Bottom line – if you want to have a vacation that you will look back on for years to come, get Outside. Go hiking, fishing, boating, kayaking, canoeing, climbing and biking. By sticking to the natural attractions, you’ll experience one of the truly beautiful parts of the world