Free and Frugal Staycation Ideas in the Black Hills

by Merissa on May 21, 2013

in Frugal Living Tips

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Another year and the price of gas keeps rising and rising. Not to mention the costs of hotels, camping, and other activities. The idea of the Staycation keeps on becoming more and more appealing to those with families that want to go on vacation but don't want to spend a lot.


As many of you know, I've lived here in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota my entire life. We are so lucky here since we live in a tourist town there are plenty of activities we can do in the summer to keep us busy! In my post today you will find some ideas of how to create an inexpensive Staycation for your family in the Black Hills.


Reptile Gardens

Reptile Gardens is a cool little gem hidden at the entrance to the Black Hills right off Highway 16 on your way to Mt Rushmore. It's only a few miles outside of Rapid City so it's easy to drive to. Reptile Gardens offers many fun exhibits like Prairie Dog Town, the Giant Tortoise, the Sky Dome and much more. If you are a local Black Hills resident, make sure you ask for a Resident Pass when you pay for your first ticket of the season. The Resident Pass will allow you to visit Reptile Gardens for the rest of the season for free after you pay for that first ticket!


The Outdoor Campus

The Outdoor Campus is a rather new feature in the Black Hills, on the west side of Rapid City. They are open 7 days a week from dawn to dusk so you have plenty of time to explore what The Outdoor Campus has to offer. Outdoor Campus provides 32 acres of trails, habitats, and other areas to explore and learn, both indoor and outdoor. Make sure you check out the Community Program Flyer on their website to learn about the free programs and activities they offer so you can plan your visit around them. The best part is the Outdoor Campus is free!


Keystone Walking Tour

Just outside Rapid City to the south down Highway 16 you can find the tourist town of Keystone. Instead of heading into the main shops part of the town, turn left right when you get into town and head into Old Keystone. Simply follow the numbered signs around town and learn all about the historic buildings there and who lived in them. If you visit between June and August make sure to also stop in the Keystone Schoolhouse as part of your tour. It's free to visit and features many historical photographs and memorabilia from the area along with a large collection of Carrie Ingalls items. (Carrie lived in Keystone!)


Dinosaur Park

Located right in Rapid City up on the beautiful Skyline Drive overlooking the city, Dinosaur Park is another great free attraction. There are 7 large concrete dinosaur exhibits and the exhibits are open until 10pm. Kids are free to play and climb on the dinosaurs.


Museum of Geology

The School of Mines Museum of Geology is another great free attraction located right in Rapid City. The museum features many full mounted skeletons of various dinosaurs, mammals, marine reptiles, and fish. There are many local displays with local minerals and gems along with local fossils found in the Badlands. The museum is free and open daily, including holidays.


DC Booth Fish Hatchery

One of my favorite places in the Black Hills for a free activity is the DC Booth Fish Hatchery. The fish hatchery features many areas where you can look at and feed the fish, plus several historical exhibits throughout the grounds. Every exhibit on the grounds is free to check out and the fish hatchery is located right next to the Spearfish Park, a great place for a picnic!


Storybook Island

Storybook Island is a place that I've been visiting since I was a little girl and I can't wait to take my son there now. Storybook Island is a free park featuring life size exhibits of your favorite storybook characters. Enter the park by walking into Cinderella's Castle and then tour each of the dozens and dozens of sets. Storybook Island also features a theater and you can catch free plays during the summer.


South Dakota Air and Space Museum

The Black Hills is home to Ellsworth Air Force Base and also the South Dakota Air and Space Museum. The outdoor museum features dozens of full size flight craft exhibits that you can tour and learn about. The museum is open daily and is free for all (no military id required, it's located right outside of the base gate).

Of course the Black Hills is also filled with a plethora of lakes, streams, trails, ghost towns, parks, and much more outdoor activities.

Now that you've got all kinds of ideas of what to see and do while you are Staycationing in the Black Hills, here are some other pointers on how to make the most of your Staycation!

Cheap Eats in the Black Hills

  • Pack lunches. There are so many parks in the Black Hills it's fun just to bring your lunch along to your destination. Roads like the one that goes up Spearfish Canyon and around Mt Rushmore have many roadside tables next to the creek for a fun picnic.
  • Go out for lunch, not supper. Most fancier restaurants offer much cheaper lunch specials so if you do decide you want to eat out, plan on eating out for lunch and be home for supper.

Another option to consider is to watch the local deal sites such as Half Off Black Hills and clickBIGdeals to get half price food and activity vouchers. A few months ago we were able to purchase a full year membership to The Journey Museum for half price!

What places would you recommend to visit in the Black Hills? Are you planning on a Staycation this year?


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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Penny May 21, 2013 at 7:30 am

It’s been a long time since I was in SD, but if I remember right… Isn’t there some type of ocean world or sea world next to Reptile Gardens? And up the road is the Cosmos? And Mt Rushmore and Rushmore Cave. Jewel and Wind Caves too? The ten days we were there are a blur of activities. We plan on taking the family out one of these days.


2 Merissa May 21, 2013 at 7:50 am

The sea world attraction closed down years ago, I remember going there when I was a very little girl.


3 Penny May 21, 2013 at 10:21 am

Aw, that’s too bad. It was about 30 years ago when I was there so I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised at changes.
I guess that one will have to come off the list of things to do, but you’ve given me lots to replace it with that I didn’t know about.
Thanks for sharing this information.


4 Kristy Gonyer May 22, 2013 at 2:10 pm

I have been following you for several months and I somehow entirely missed that you were a SD girl! My husband and I are originally from Hill City but we transplanted to Oregon several years ago for college and it looks like we will be here for a few more years since we both managed to find decent employment here. I miss the Hills though!

It has been great to read more about your story (especially your RV living goal). My husband and I are also trying to find ways to living simply/frugally so that we will eventually be able to buy our own homestead. I look forward to reading more about your adventures!

For anyone visiting the Black Hills don’t forget all the wonderful hiking opportunities. Also, the Forest Service has monthly moonwalks (if your kids are a little older), which are guided evening walks. They often are in little known areas and they have short talks by experts on different topics from history to biology.


5 Pam May 22, 2013 at 5:59 pm

I recently found you thru the Amish Cook website.
My mom was from North Dakota……we visited your area almost every summer when I was growing up. A few years ago I took my husband to MtRushmore he had never been there….and boy has it changed since I was a child……still breath taking though.
I live in the shadow of the Golden Dome on the Notre Dame campus. I always recommend that people visit their University or college campus. At ND there are lots of free things…..swimming….the art museum….tours… can picnic near one of the two lakes…. Go fishing………or eat in one of the many restaraunts on campus.

I’m enjoying your blog……God Bless


6 Liz May 24, 2013 at 3:22 am

Thank you for these great ideas ~ we don’t live in the Black Hills, but our Air Force son is stationed there & we plan to visit him soon : )


7 Merissa May 24, 2013 at 9:11 am

Have fun Liz! If you need any more tips just let me know!


8 Leonor B. Goff May 27, 2013 at 4:46 pm

We’re easy to find – on the north side of Interstate 90 at Exit 61 in Rapid City, near Cabelas. And inside our spacious facility you will find brochures and free travel guides, free reservation phones, road reports, weather radar, and snow conditions. a video theatre and a list of today’s events. Check out our retail shop for a great selection of regional books, jewelry, pottery and one-of-a-kind gifts. Pick up state park passes, fishing licenses and free maps – area, state and region. Have a question or need detailed directions? Our travel experts have all the answers – and if they don’t, they’ll find the person who does.


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