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Badlands, Black Hills, and Devils Tower in 8 Days

Map tips: each color represents a different day. Click a marker to learn more about the spot, and click the star in the map header to save the entire map under Your Places in Google Maps.

Day 1: Sioux Falls and Badlands part I

  • Falls Park
  • Big Badlands Overlook
  • Window Trail
  • Wall Drug Store

The previous day we drove from Ohio and stayed in an Airbnb in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Woke up and went to Falls Park, which is a nice place but not a must-see. Sioux Falls was the furthest we were willing to drive on day 1 and we spent about an hour walking around. If you’re passing through and need a break, this is a good spot.

Falls Park in Sioux Falls
Falls Park, Sioux Falls

Then drove 4 hours to Badlands National Park. We got there around 1 PM and it was packed. We went through the north entrance and Big Badlands Overlook is right after you enter the park. This was possibly the best overlook/pulloff we visited (more on the others later) and shouldn’t be missed.

Big Badlands Overlook
Big Badlands Overlook

Next is a large parking lot for the major hiking trails in the park. We did the 1/4 mile Window Trail, which is as easy as they come and worth it. The Window itself is just ok; you’ll know you’re there when you get to a railing. Walking towards it and climbing around is the highlight. We wanted to do more of the trails but had another 2+ hours to drive and needed to pick up groceries so we stopped at a couple more picturesque spots, went to the famous Wall Drug Store for ice cream, picked up groceries in Rapid City, and got to our cabin in Nemo.

Window Trail in Badlands National Park
The Window Trail
Near the Window Trail
Exploring the area around the Window

Day 2: Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore

  • Sunday Gulch Trail
  • Iron Mountain Road
  • Mount Rushmore

Drove to Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park (1 hour from where we stayed) and learned that all the trails were closed except Sunday Gulch. We planned on doing that and Cathedral Spires but had to settle for the Sylvan Lake Loop and Sunday Gulch.

The Sunday Gulch trail starts halfway around Sylvan Lake, so you pretty much have to go around the lake. Sunday Gulch plus the lake loop is just over 4 miles total. We did the loop clockwise, which most people said was better but I don’t think there’d be much of a difference. If you do it clockwise you’ll be ascending the part with railings to help you on the slicker, steeper rock section. Since the trails were closed, no one was allowed in the water, either, and it was a perfectly still day so we got a great reflection of the rocks on the lake. Sylvan Lake is pretty much always packed so get there early if you can.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park
Awesome reflection on Sylvan Lake
The far end of Sylvan Lake
This rock path leads to a dead-end but is definitely worth it
Sunday Gulch Trail in Custer State Park
Near the high point of the Sunday Gulch Trail
Overlooking Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake from the top of the rocks – so many places to climb and explore

Since we couldn’t do the Cathedral Spires hike, we drove the rest of the Needles Highway (Route 87). This is an awesome drive and you’ll definitely pull over multiple times to take pictures.

Needles Highway in Custer State Park
Along the Needles Highway

We took the highway to South Playhouse Road and then Iron Mountain Road (16A) to Mount Rushmore. There are several tunnels on Iron Mountain Road that frame Mount Rushmore as you get closer to it – pretty neat. We paid to park at Mount Rushmore ($10) for a closer look, which I don’t think is necessary; you can see it fine from the road.

Mount Rushmore from Iron Mountain Road tunnel
Mount Rushmore from one of the tunnels on Iron Mountain Road

Day 3: Devils Tower and Spearfish Canyon

  • Devils Tower
  • Spearfish Canyon
  • Roughlock Falls
  • Spearfish Falls

Drove 2 hours to Devils Tower in Wyoming. Did the 1.3-mile Tower Loop that goes around the base of the tower then the 2.8 mile Red Beds Loop that gives you views from farther away.

Devil's Tower up close
Take the Tower Loop for up-close views

Both were worth it because the tower looks different from all sides, but if you’re short on time you can start the Red Beds Loop in a counterclockwise direction and the best view of the tower is about 5 minutes away from the start.

Devil's Tower from Red Beds Loop trail
What I thought was the best view of the Tower, from the Red Beds Loop close to the start
Devil's Tower along the Red Beds Trail
The other side of the Red Beds Loop

Another place you want to get to early – we arrived at 8:30 and were able to get pictures with no one in them. When we left around noon, there were people all over the rocks at the base and there was no way to get a picture without a bunch of other people in it. I’d say at any time you can get good photos without the crowds on the Red Beds Trail, though. There’s a cool view of the tower from the road to the Joyner Ridge Trail, too, which would take only a few minutes to see on your way out of the main parking area.

Devil's Tower from the road to the Joyner Ridge Trail
The road to the Joyner Ridge Trail

Ate a picnic lunch near the parking lot and drove to Spearfish for some ice cream at Leones’ (just ok, but came highly recommended by locals). The drive down Spearfish Canyon is very pretty. You’ll pass Bridal Veil Falls (can see it from the road, not worth a stop nor picture) but will want to see Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls. There’s a parking lot for Roughlock and an easy 2-mile RT trail to the falls, or you can drive all the way to the top of the falls and then take a short trail and bridge to the bottom of the falls where all the pictures are from. You’re probably better off parking at the top and making it a quick stop.

Roughlock Falls in South Dakota
Roughlock Falls

The trail to Spearfish Falls (from everything I could find, Little Spearfish and Spearfish falls are the same) starts behind the Latchstring Restaurant. There is conflicting information about how long the trail is, but it definitely is not the 1.5 miles RT that the trailhead sign says – it’s shorter than that and you can get there and back in about 15-20 minutes easily. Both trails were easy and pleasant. Long day but a great one.

Spearfish Falls in South Dakota
Spearfish Falls

Day 4: Cathedral Spires hike

Back to Custer State Park for the Cathedral Spires hike since we didn’t get to do it earlier. Was nice to drive the Needles Highway with less traffic because there are lots of areas where you want to stop in the middle of the road and take a picture. If you can only do one hike in the area, this is the one. About 2.5 miles RT and pretty easy with an amazing payoff. You’re surrounded on all sides by the coolest part of the entire park – cannot recommend enough. Spent the rest of the day at the cabin.

Cathedral Spires in Custer State Park
At the end of the trail
Cathedral Spires Trail, South Dakota
Also at the end of the trail, looking the other direction. What a payoff.

Day 5: Black Elk Peak/Little Devils Tower Loop

View the in-depth Hike Guide for this trail here!

Back again to Sylvan Lake to hike to the highest point in the US east of the Rocky Mountains: Black Elk Peak (FKA Harney Peak). We took trail 9 up, which is 3.3 miles and about 1,100 feet of elevation gain. There were a lot of people on the trail and at the top – very popular.

View from Black Elk Peak
The view from Black Elk Peak. Little Devils Tower is the outcropping right in the center towards the top of the photo.

We then took trail 3 to trail 4 to tack on Little Devils Tower. That makes for a 7.8 mile loop and it was a lot with kids on our backs for much of it. The best part was between Black Elk and Little Devils Tower, so I’d recommend doing it clockwise like we did instead of counterclockwise.

Along the Black Elk Peak and Little Devil's Tower Loop
On the way from Black Elk Peak to Little Devils Tower
Looking out from Little Devil's Tower
Atop Little Devils Tower. Those are the Cathedral Spires in the distance.

Black Elk Peak was nice but I wouldn’t say it was stunning or an absolute must-do. More to be able to say you did it. Little Devil’s Tower was better in my opinion. Swam for a little bit at Sylvan Lake afterwards and then had dinner and drinks at Miner Brewing Company. The Mexican pizza and Kolsch beer were absolutely perfect after that hike.

Day 6: Kayaking on the Pactola Reservation

Rented a couple kayaks from the Pactola Pines Marina to paddle on Pactola Reservation in the morning. It started to rain just as we were getting done, and continued to thunderstorm the entire rest of the day.

Pactola Reservation in South Dakota

Day 7: Rapid City

  • Chapel in the Hills
  • Bear Country USA
  • Dinosaur Park

Was showing rain and potential for flash floods starting at noon so we set out for Chapel in the Hills early. Very neat, exact replica of a Norwegian wooden church.

Chapel in the Hills in South Dakota
Chapel in the Hills

Our VRBO host recommended Bear Country for a rainy day, which we hadn’t heard of and ended up loving. You drive through and there are all kinds of animals that are basically roaming all around: elk, wolves, bears, bison, and more. They all walk right around your car and both adults and kids thought it was great. Was perfect for a rainy day so you could go at any time. $18 per adult, kids under 5 are free.

Bear Country, South Dakota

Drove to Dinosaur Park – got about a 5-minute break from the rain to walk around. That’s about all you need. I wouldn’t go too far out of the way to see it, but it’s free and pretty unique. Back to the cabin in the rain.

Dinosaur Park in South Dakota
Dinosaur Park

Day 8: Badlands National Park part II

  • Pinnacles Overlook
  • Panorama Point
  • White River Valley Overlook
  • Notch Trailhead
  • Door Trailhead

Time to head back home with another stop at Badlands National Park. Entered through the Pinnacles entrance and stopped at a few of the overlooks. Pinnacles and Panorama Point were just ok, but White River Valley Overlook was awesome. There are a lot of ridges you can walk out on and it’s up there with Big Badlands as the ones with the best views. 

White River Valley Overlook in Badlands National Park
White River Valley Overlook
Pinnacles in Badlands National Park
A random stop, not an overlook. So many cool spots along the drive.

The Notch and Door Trails are on opposite ends of the large parking lot where the Window Trail starts, too. The Notch Trail is one of the things I wanted to do most on this trip and it was great. 1.5 miles RT, lots of people even at 10 AM. There’s a ladder that really isn’t that bad but might be questionable if you’re not comfortable with heights. Awesome landscape from start to finish.

Ladder on the Notch Trail in Badlands National Park
The ladder on the Notch Trail (this angle makes it appear much more sketchy than it really is)
Notch Trail in Badlands National Park
Other-worldly landscape along the Notch Trail

The Door Trail is .8 miles RT and another must-do. There are 11 yellow pylons that mark the trail and it’s definitely worth going all the way to number 11. There’s a sign that marks the end of the trail, but you can go further if you’d like (we did not). Lots of people on this trail, too, but it’s so spread out and you can kind of go wherever you want.   

Door Trail in Badlands National Park
Near the beginning of the Door Trail
End of the Door Trail in Badlands National Park
Near the end of the Door Trail

Final thoughts

This area of South Dakota and Wyoming is a great destination for a family with young kids. There are a ton of attractions, many of them free, and lots of shorter hikes. Some of the other places we had on our radar were Storybook Island (free), Reptile Gardens (cost), and Jewel and/or Wind Cave (both cost and both closed due to Covid-19). Staying in Nemo was ok as our base, but there’s a lot of driving no matter where you stay. 

Year traveled: July 2020

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