Well, it’s better late than never, I guess. I’ve taken almost a 3 month hiatus away from my blog with a stint in the hospital (I recommend not getting acute pancreatitis) and a not very smooth move into my townhome. Then the holidays came and my blog on Hill City, South Dakota had to wait!
Now Hill City is covered in snow, but my soccer peeps and I visited while the black hills glowed in beautiful fall colors at the beginning of October. It was my second time to the area, the first being 11 years ago during my year-long road trip across the USA. I liked the Black Hills so much I have wanted to return. I finally made it back and already want to return again!
Several small towns pepper the Black Hills, but Hill City was one of my favorites and great base for visiting Crazy Horse, Mt. Rushmore, and more. We spent five days in Hill City, not only exploring the sites nearby, but also driving up to Spearfish and spending some time around there.
We rented a house on VRBO with a great location outside of Hill City and adjacent to the Mickelson Trail. It had great views of horses, fall colors and sunsets. While I very much liked the location, if I had to do again, I’d stay longer and split the stay between Hill City and Spearfish because there is so much to see and do and it eliminates a lot driving.
Things to Do in Hill City
Below are the best things to do in Hill City.
Visit Crazy Horse
The Crazy Horse Memorial has been under construction since 1939 and is the largest mountain carving in the world. At 563 by 641 feet, it is as long as a cruise ship and taller than a 60-story skyscraper. The memorial remains under construction because the Crazy Horse Foundation has not accepted any government funding. It is paid for by parking fees, sales, and donations. See my Badlands and Black Hills post for what the memorial looked like 11 years ago.
Visitors may easily spend a few hours at the complex, as the memorial includes more than just the mountain carving. It features two museums as well as the sculptor’s house.
At minimum, I recommend checking out the movie at the museum. It will provide the backstory to the project which was hand carved by Korczak until his death when his family took over with more advanced technology.
Be sure to pay the few dollars for the bus ride to the base for a closer look. And be aware of rare special events that take place at the Crazy Horse Memorial. There are a couple of times of year they allow visitors to climb to the top of this Lakota warrior best known for the Battle of Little Bighorn, commonly referred to as Custer’s Last Stand.
Stroll Downtown Custer
After visiting Crazy Horse, continue South to Custer. Stroll the quaint downtown and stop in for a drink at Gold Pan Saloon, a meal at The Custer Wolf, or a dessert at the Purple Pie Place. We did two of three, but the Purple Pie was closed for the season, so get to South Dakota by the end of September for more options.
Drive the Needles Highway
Also, south of Hill City and near the Crazy Horse Memorial is the Needles Highway. Definitely take the time for the 14 mile scenic drive along this twisting road through the Black Hills especially during the fall. Golden aspen dot the hillside beneath pointed, granite peaks that look like needles.
Caution: the low tunnels and tight curves on Needles Highway (Hwy 87) are not RV friendly and even tall Sprinter vans are suspect.
Take a Hike
Along the way, be sure to stop for a hike. There are many listed on AllTrails. We only had time for a short one, so we opted for Cathedral Spires Trail. We snagged the last spot in the small parking area located on a hairpin turn.
The 1.6 mile out-and-back trail gains nearly 500 feet. The path climbs through intermittent pine forest and aspen groves and affords magnificent views of the surrounding needles. Keep an eye out for mountain goats upon nearing the top. We saw two which was very exciting.
Watch of Wildlife at Custer State Park
The Needles Highway squiggles its way to Custer State Park, known for its Wildlife Loop. We visited mid-morning and were pleasantly surprised by all the wildlife sightings. We were equally lucky to bypass a few slow-moving tourists as late in the season it was not too congested.
During our one to two hours in the park, we first stopped to admire a single buffalo before coming across a giant herd. We also spotted pronghorn in the distance as well as wild turkeys and wild burros on the side of the road. The burros approach cars for food, but we did not oblige.
There is a buffalo roundup at Custer State Park at the end of September which would be a great time to visit Hill City and the surrounding area.
Visit Mount Rushmore
Of course, most people venture to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore. Mount Rushmore National Memorial was completed in 1941. The sculpture, carved in mountain granite, depicts 60-foot faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.
The memorial features a grand entrance with the flags of each state, a museum, a gift shop and a paved trail which offers multiple viewpoints of the presidents between trees and boulders. The walk is nice and does not take too long.
A National Parks pass is not necessary to visit as the entry is free. Additionally, it does not cover the $10 parking fee. Be sure to check the weather before you go. On our first attempt to visit, the memorial was fogged in, so we ended up spending the rainy day in Rapid City.
Drive Iron Mountain Road
Fortunately, we took advantage of sunny skies later in the week, visited Mount Rushmore and took another scenic drive along Iron Mountain Road (Hwy 16A). Iron Mountain Road travels between Mount Rushmore and Custer State Park’s East Entrance.
This twisting scenic byway affords beautiful views of the memorial through several tunnels! Take advantage of the small pullouts for a photo op!
Take a Side Trip
As I previously mentioned, we ended up in Rapid City one day, due to the crummy weather. Rapid City is only about a 30 minute drive from Hill City. It’s a little further to the airport which is the closest to the Black Hills Region.
Rapid City features a fun downtown with many restaurants, bars, and shops. It also features an art alley and a City of Presidents walk. Life size bronzes of each president dot the corners of Main St. and St. Joseph St. between 4th and 9th. The art alley full of graffiti may be found between 6th and 7th.
If you need a break from the cold stop in a brewery or try out Tally’s Silver Spoon.
Another side trip worth mentioning is a drive through Spearfish Canyon to explore Spearfish, Deadwood, and Sturgis. See my post, Top Things to Do in Spearfish, for more information.
Stroll the Streets of Hill City
Finally, just as with strolling the streets of Custer, be sure to stroll the streets of Hill City. While more people have probably heard of Custer, Hill City is cuter and has more to offer in my opinion. Stop for a photo with the world’s largest Smokey Bear, pop into the Bumpin Buffalo for a warm meal, and check out the shops. They sell more than just a tourist T-shirt!
As I mentioned above, the Black Hills warrant much more time than five days. But if you only have a short time to visit the memorials, I’d definitely make my base near Hill City! ETB