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Badlands National Park

5 Black Hills Towns to Base your South Dakota Vacation

The western corner of South Dakota is filled with a string of quaint, charming towns that light up during the summer with live theater performances, lively restaurant scenes and Wild West re-enactments. Here are five to base out of for your Badlands and Black Hills adventures.

1. Hot Springs

Waterfall at Long Fall River Freedom Trail.
Waterfall at Long Fall River Freedom Trail in Hot Springs, S.D. Courtesy Hot Springs S.D.

If it weren’t for the “wiwila kata,” this valley tucked in the southwestern corner of South Dakota would have just been another dusty clearing at the gateway to the Black Hills. Instead, what the Lakota referred to as the “warm waters” gave rise to a mecca of health and hospitality unrivaled in the Midwest.

The sacred healing waters of the Native Americans were discovered by settlers in the late 1800s, and the 87-degree waters flowing from a series of springs quickly became a sought after cure-all. In 1890, Fred Evans built his namesake Plunge over a collection of springs, turning Hot Springs into a destination, and the largest resort until you reach California. Today, Evans Plunge is still a mecca for rejuvenation and recreation featuring a collection of pools (refreshed with 5,000 gallons of fresh spring water every minute) and a number of water slides.

Tens of thousands of years ago, woolly mammoths took advantage of the fresh ponds in the area. More than 61 beasts were trapped and buried only to be unearthed as fossils in 1974. Check out the Mammoth Site to see the sinkhole still riddled with mammoth bones, as well as a museum with a full-sized mammoth.

2. Custer

Custer County Museum
Custer County MuseumCourtesy Custer

Just up the road from main entrance of the spectacular Custer State Park lies the town of Custer, a hub for the outdoor attractions surrounding it, including Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. The historic downtown is a hive of restaurants, shopping and museums, including the 1881 Courthouse Museum housed in an original Dakota Territory Courthouse.

At the museum, you’ll discover the history of Custer, which was illegally settled by gold prospectors in 1874. At the time, the Black Hills were closed to white settlement under the Treaty of Fort Laramie, an agreement between the U.S. government and the Lakota, Cheyenne and Arapaho. Conflict between the prospectors and Native Americans led the U. S. government to seize the Black Hills, opening it up to white settlers and leading to the near-overnight growth of Custer to a town of 10,000 settlers. Today, a little more than 2,000 people live in vibrant Custer year round.

Sample homemade pies, enjoy chuckwagon suppers and sip coffee at a cafe. In the evening, head to Black Hills Playhouse in Custer State Park for a Broadway-caliber performance. The professional actors put on everything from musicals and comedy to dramas.

3. Keystone

Keystone's Welcome Sign
Keystone’s Welcome Sign touting free parking and restrooms.D Convertini via Flickr

Take a break from the oversized sculptures of presidents at Mount Rushmore to see the evolution of the nation’s democracy through life-sized wax figures of all 44 presidents at the National Presidential Wax Museum.

Just three miles from Mount Rushmore, the closest town in the Black Hills to the iconic sculptures, Keystone is a former gold-mining town that offers a ton of activities and 32 restaurants. If you are looking for thrilling adventures, check out Rushmore Tramway Adventures, home to a 800-foot zipline and a chairlift. Or put your putting skills to the test at Holy Terror Mini Golf where a 50-foot steep hillside offers an “elevated” experience.

When you are ready for a new perspective on the area, board The 1880 Train or get a birds-eye view of the area with Rushmore Helicopters, offering aerial tours of Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial and more.

4. Hill City

The 1880 Train in Hill City, SD.
The 1880 Train in Hill City, SD. Photo courtesy of Hill City

Surrounded by towering peaks and lofty pine forests, Hill City is a charming small town with a distinct style.

Find locally owned bed and breakfasts, brand-name hotels, timber lodges, secluded cabins and some of the area’s largest campground resorts. Main Street offers an eclectic blend of restaurants, stylish stores, outdoor outfitters, boutique shops and fine art galleries and museums. You’ll also find South Dakota wineries and homegrown breweries with unique tasting rooms.

Discover The 1880 Train, a 2-hour, 20-mile ride aboard a historic train that runs between Hill City and Keystone, S.D. Narrated for all ages, the train is popular, so book early. In addition, don’t miss the beauty of the 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail and the stunning scenery along the 12-mile drive to Mount Rushmore National Memorial.

5. Deadwood

Downtown Deadwood, S.D.
Historic streets of DeadwoodCourtesy Deadwood Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau

Roulette is one of the many games you’ll find in historic Deadwood — a Wild West town famous for taking chances. In 1876, fortune seekers took their chance when they came looking for gold and settled in the rough and tumble camp of Deadwood. For many, just walking down the street was taking a chance.

Today, visitors to this national historic landmark will find plenty of the Wild West without the danger. Walk the cobblestone-lined Main Street where you’ll meet Old West re-enactors who bring history to life. Visit Mount Moriah Cemetery to learn how western legends met their end. It’s the resting place of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane.

There’s always something new in this Old West town. You’ll find plenty of 24/7 casinos, unique shops and award-winning restaurants.