Panning for gold at Big Thunder Gold Mine in Keystone, SD in the Black Hills

The best family adventures in the Black Hills South Dakota

Our trusty family vacation Bound for South Dakota with my 3 boys and mom, we opted to drive on this family vacation as we were camping ⛺️ and the drive from Wisconsin to the Black Hills, SD is only 12 hours (with the exception of our numerous stops for bathrooms, gasoline, coffee, sightseeing and food!) Our vehicle was a 4X4 SUV (seats 7) loaded with our possessions including a waterproof fabric car top carrier and a small trailor with more of our vacation gear (bedding, camping stove, food, chairs, etc.)

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The first day of our family travel adventure we drove out of Wisconsin through southern Minnesota to Sioux City, SD where we enjoyed accommodations at the Dakota Lodge hotel. We capped the night on the water slide and swimming at our hotel and then I put the boys down to sleep and walked to the Crooked Pint Ale House which had 18 local craft brews on tap. The Dakota Lodge of Sioux City, South Dakota, was excellent and the Crooked Pint has a full menu of not-so pub grub, healthy food too.

On our second day of our family vacation, we were greeted by a huge statue “DIGNITY of Earth and Sky” at a rest stop in Chamberlain, SD off I-90 westbound.

After a few more hours of driving, which included Ollie using his Lonely Planet Kids foldout map to follow along as we crossed US States, we made our way West to The Badlands, Rapid City, SD and Custer State Park where we had our campsite and cabin reserved for 8 days at Game Lodge Campground, with the best campsite in the whole State Park.

Ollie with our Lonely Planet Kids travel books

We’re happy to partner with Lonely Planet Kids (Amazon link FYI) to feature a handful of our favorite travel books for the kids (and kidults) on our South Dakota vacation.

On Friday, our first day at Custer State Park, we drove the Wildlife trail which wound around to Mount Rushmore. It was fun but tiring with lots of walking but magnificent.


After Mount Rushmore, we traveled down the highway to Keystone, SD where we road an Alpine slide and had ice cream.

We had planned to visit Bear Country USA near Rapid City, South Dakota but unfortunately our truck broke down and so we made arrangements for a tow to a local mechanic; a taxi to pickup a car rental which we drove back to our campsite at Custer State Park.

On Saturday we bummed around the campsite, played in the creek at our site and then drove the Needles Highway to Silven Lake where we hiked and swam and Keller, my oldest son, jumped off tall rocks into the water.


We were there all day and everyone got lots of sun, so we took the fast route back to camp and made grilled cheeses sandwiches and crashed out early as we had to get up early for our tour of the Big Thunder gold mine in Keystone, SD.

Much of South Dakota was originally set aside for the home of the Lokata’s but when Custer’s crew came to map out the area for the US government records, gold was discovered. This news spread and hundreds of mining camps were illegally setup, too many for The US Army to kick out. So mining was made legal and to this day, South Dakota has some very unique laws which exist including, you can be shot for claim jumping, aka found exploring a mine.

Big Thunder Gold Mine in Keystone, SD was one of the favorite destinations on our South Dakota vacation as it combined fun, mystery, excitement, participation from those of us on the gold mine tour, lots of history from our tour guide who is a local and we ended our tour with panning for gold! The panning was a small extra admittance fee but was the highlight after our amazing goldmine tour from Liz at Big Thunder Gold Mine.

We also tried panning for gold and everyone found some gold too after a few lessons from our tour guide Liz and another friendly employee at Big Thunder good mine. We also enjoyed lunch and takeout, camping, from the Big Thunder gold mine Restaurant.

Read more about Big Thunder Gold Mine on Facebook and Trip Advisor.

After the gold mine, we enjoyed a driving tour of a zoo like space called Bear Country USA which included wildlife from the area for viewing.

Monday, I hooked up to WiFi at the Game Lodge at Custer State Park Resort where I worked very early in the morning. I love the public WiFi; front porch with panoramic mountain vistas; restaurant and bar and gift shop at the Lodge which was originally build by US President Collidge morning in 1918 and was his Summer White House as well as US President Eisenhaur in the 1950’s.

We also visited Wind Cave National Park and drive back on a NPS gravel road where we drove through a Hurd of Buffalo while connecting with the Wildlife Loop Rd.

Other stops in the Black Hills that we checked which I recommend include the Black Hills Institute in Hill City, SD and the rodeo in Mitchell, SD. We’ve decided there is too much to do in the short 10 days that we’re here and I’d love to come back! Our family favorites included: our campsite and the lodge at the Game Lodge campground in Custer Hills State Park; the drive to Mount Rushmore, the panning for gold at Big Thunder good mine and the tour their and the Badlands!