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Best Attractions in the Black HillsIn an area with dozens of attractions and things to see, you may have trouble deciding where to spend your time. Here are a few of the top things to do in the Black Hills, as chosen by AAA editors. GEMs are “Great Experiences for Members.”

Memorials and Monuments Worth a Trip

“America will march along that skyline,” said sculptor Gutzon Borglum, gazing up at Mount Rushmore's rugged summit in 1924. Four American presidents now preside over the Black Hills, their likenesses carved into the mountainside. George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln symbolize the first 150 years of U.S. history at Mount Rushmore National Memorial , a AAA GEM point of interest. The Presidential Trail affords closer views of the mammoth structure while the Sculptor's Studio brings you closer to the artist who created it.

Man and nature meld at Crazy Horse Memorial , a AAA GEM attraction in Custer City . Only the head of the proposed 563-foot-high mountain carving is complete, so work continues, with explosive blasts routine. A 6.2-mile organized hike to the memorial's peak attracts nearly 15,000 visitors every June and again in October. The statue representing Crazy Horse, chosen for his modesty, courage and dedication, venerates the “land where [his] dead lie buried” as a tribute to Native Americans.

Take a Hike or a Scenic Drive

Custer State Park and the vicinity are named after Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who found gold on the banks of an area creek. Situated in the southeastern portion of the Black Hills, the AAA GEM attraction is teeming with activity, from mountain bikers to mountain lions. Whether you stay a few hours, a full day or a week, such activities as fishing, hiking and rock climbing kindle a far-reaching love of the outdoors.

AAA GEM attraction Needles Highway Scenic Drive stretches 14 miles as it winds through the state park along SR 87. The route leads to Sylvan Lake and links such geological formations as the Cathedral Spires and the Needles Eye, an approximately 40-foot-tall granite spire with a slit down its center.

Wind Cave National Park , a AAA GEM point of interest, blends mixed-grass prairie, ponderosa pine forest and the fourth-longest cave in the world. Native American legends refer to the cave as a “hole that breathes cool air.” Leading tours through its delicate passages and grottos, rangers highlight calcite formations known as boxwork and frostwork. Thirty miles of hiking trails reveal sensational views from Lookout Point and such wildlife as eastern kingbirds, upland chorus frogs and mule deer.

Black Hills National Forest covers more than 1.2 million acres, offering more than 450 miles of trails, 30 campgrounds and two scenic byways. Visitors interested in fishing will find brown, brook and rainbow trout as well as northerns, perch and crappies. The forest holds several boating options, including rentals and launch sites at Sheridan Lake and Pactola Reservoir marinas. Though it's doubtful you'll run out of recreation ideas, rangers and a visitor center provide information about the forest's history and leisurely pursuits.

Check Out a Dig Site

Nature also lent a hand in forming The Mammoth Site , a AAA GEM attraction in Hot Springs . After being trapped in a sinkhole more than 26,000 years ago, such animals as Columbian mammoths and pronghorns remain preserved at the paleontological dig site. Visitors tour the research facility year-round to view excavations, a working paleontology laboratory, educational films and ice age exhibits.

Make a Splash at a Water Park

Slides, pools and other fun attractions make visitors feel young at heart at Evans Plunge , a Hot Springs water park. First welcoming swimmers in 1890, the attraction sits atop a collection of mineral springs once praised for their alleged healing properties. Spring water flows to a warm, indoor swimming pool at a rate of 5,000 gallons per minute. A health club, Jacuzzis, a steam room and a sauna also are available.

Learn Local History and Science

The Borglum Historical Center in Keystone interprets the life of Gutzon Borglum with a gallery of his paintings, sculptures and tools. At age 60, Borglum started work on Mount Rushmore, suggesting a national, rather than regional, theme. While gaining a reputation as a tempestuous, stubborn perfectionist, he frequently met with politicians to gain funding for the carving. In the end, the federal government doled out $836,000 of the total $989,999.32 bill.

Linking Hill City and Keystone, the 1880 Train affords scenic vistas to guests traveling aboard the restored locomotive. Creeks, pines, canyons and bridges adorn the Black Hills backcountry viewed during the approximately 2-hour, round-trip tour. The AAA GEM attraction is one of America's last steam trains in service, appearing on several TV shows and in film.

The Museum of Geology , another AAA GEM attraction in Rapid City, houses a collection of nearly 350,000 vertebrate fossils and minerals at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology. Fossil specimens indigenous to the Black Hills are emphasized at the teaching and research facility, though its global mineral collection is also impressive. Other fossil exhibits include an oreodont, a hoofed mammal; a mosasaur, a serpentine marine reptile; and a plesiosaur, a carnivorous aquatic reptile.

Immerse yourself in Black Hills history at The Journey Museum and Learning Center in Rapid City. Traveling 2.5 billion years into the past, visitors discover how dinosaur bones are recovered; why the Black Hills were the Lakota's center of the universe; and how the discovery of gold shaped the region. Four collections, including The Museum of Geology and The Sioux Indian Museum, display artifacts from the last 10,000 years.

Old Fort Meade Museum recalls the military post's past units, including a regrouped 7th Cavalry after the Battle at Little Bighorn, the African American 25th Cavalry and the 3rd Cavalry's all-Lakota troop. The attraction displays letters written by soldiers, uniforms, guns and photographs. An Army National Guard training facility is nearby, as are seven original 19th-century buildings and a historic cemetery.

See Animals Up Close

Nearby Rapid City features Bear Country U.S.A. , a 250-acre wildlife park toured via a 3-mile drive. The AAA GEM attraction houses elk, bighorn sheep, arctic wolves and many other creatures that visitors can safely watch from inside their vehicles. Home to 11 bears at its inception in 1972, it now boasts the world's largest collection of privately owned black bear, with nearly 100 furry beasts roaming the park.

Walk through an indoor jungle filled with lizards, parrots and tropical plants at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City. Highlights include a 1,200-pound saltwater crocodile, three educational shows and tribal art from Papua New Guinea and Indonesia. The AAA GEM attraction possesses the only rough-scaled pythons outside of Australia. In addition to its assortment of pythons, mambas and cobras, it also houses the planet's most venomous snake, the fierce snake.

U.S. law declares free-roaming horses to be “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.” Complementing this belief, 11,000 acres of grassland, forests and valleys shelter unwanted mustang horses at Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in Hot Springs. Guides discuss the site's ecosystem and history during a 2-hour bus tour. At one stop, visitors examine Native American prehistoric rock drawings believed to be 10,000 years old.

After filming the Academy Award-winning “Dances With Wolves” in South Dakota, Kevin Costner added his own touch to the Black Hills— Tatanka: Story of the Bison . At the Deadwood attraction, visitors learn about the millions of bison that once inhabited North America. Not counting the 14 bronze sculptures featured at the center, about 400,000 tatanka exist today after facing extinction in the early 1900s.

Go Underground in Caves and Mines

In the southwest, Jewel Cave National Monument attracts visitors with its educational tours, hiking trails and more than 390 plant varieties. Bird-watching is also popular at the AAA GEM point of interest, as 120 species of birds, including the red-breasted nuthatch and the bald eagle, frequent the park. Declared a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt, crystal-lined Jewel Cave is the second-longest in the world, with many of its passageways still undiscovered.

Experts re-created one of the world's largest mines at Black Hills Mining Museum in Lead ; one-hour guided tours through the simulated Homestake Mine elaborate on the local industry. The AAA GEM attraction also showcases photographs, a hands-on gold panning display and a video presentation detailing mining changes since gold fever first swept the Black Hills in 1876.

See all the AAA recommended fun things to do and attractions for this destination.

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Black Hills, SD

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