Whether you’re new to hiking with your baby or toddler, or you’re looking for a new trail to explore, the Hike it Baby community is a valuable resource for finding family-friendly hiking trails around the country. In this article, we share three beautiful hikes in South Dakota to explore with babies and young children.
What does the great outdoors in South Dakota bring to mind? The Great Plains, the Badlands, the Black Hills? Arid or semi-arid and forbidding landscapes where a person can get lost and never be found? It is a big state, with plenty of space to get lost in, but getting away and lost for a while isn’t always a bad thing. Also, Hike it Baby members know that the Badlands aren’t bad at all. With this in mind, they’ve chosen three perfect South Dakota trails for families with young children. Parents and kids of all ages are sure to love these, so enjoy hiking Dakota country!
Trail 9 to Black Elk Peak (Rapid City, SD)
Trail 9 is a moderate difficulty trail with an elevation gain of 1,630 feet. That said, the incline is not bad, and this is the easiest and most traveled way to Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak. Cell reception may be spotty, but for better or worse, you will not be alone on this hike. Pick up the trailhead at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park for the 7-mile roundtrip and allow 5 hours or more, depending on breaks and toddler speed. Despite uneven terrain and some drop-offs, kids can walk a lot. There are also a lot of great places to stop and play.
On Black Elk Peak itself, there are spots to sit, rest, eat and explore. Just mind the drop-offs. Along the way you’ll be able to glimpse the peak. In particular, stop at the bench on the first section of the trail, which is opposite the peak and gives you an excellent view. However, it’s from the peak where you’ll get the best view. Even the kids will find it breathtaking!
This was our first peak as a family, and it was perfect! The trail isn’t overtly technical. It’s well maintained and beautiful. We made it to the top of the peak and enjoyed the view. While the peak was great, on the way down, we stopped and had a picnic lunch. Sky loved walking near the edge and exploring around the mountain. She was able to walk most of the way down without help since the path is well worn and not technical. As we were walking, we noticed that the path seemed to shimmer and shine in the sun due to the minerals there. – Jessica Featherstone
- A Vehicle Pass costs $20 and is good for seven days, or get an annual pass for $30.
- There is plenty to do at the Sylvan Lake day use area, making it the perfect area to start and end in. Activities include swimming and boating.
- Toilets and drinking water are available at Sylvan Lake, but do bring plenty of drinking water on the trail.
- Dogs are allowed on leashes.
- Watch for ticks.
- Don’t forget the sunblock!
Door, Window and Notch Trails (Interior, SD)
Door, Window and Notch Trails are three out-and-back trails near the Ben Reifel Visitor Center in Badlands National Park. Together, they make for an easy-to-moderate 2.5-mile roundtrip in three sections from their shared parking lot. Each trail has its own unique character that you will not find anywhere else in your travels, which will fascinate both kiddos and adults.
Starting with Door Trail, this hike begins from the northernmost trailhead. It gets its name from the “door” in the Badlands Wall at the end of the first quarter-mile of flat boardwalk. At this overlook, you’ll find benches, interpretive signs and the Badlands stretching out before you. From the end of the boardwalk, there is a step down to the hard cracked mud of the Badlands and the start of the best part of the trail. Numbered markers lead you out and away from the crowds for another half-mile. Feel free to wander a bit – you’ll feel like you are walking on the moon! However, getting lost is not impossible, so it’s best to keep a numbered marker in sight.
Returning to the parking lot, Window Trail is the next in line. Wonder how it got its name? You won’t have long to wait for the answer. The quarter-mile roundtrip is on a flat boardwalk leading to an opening in the Badlands Wall looking out over a canyon and the craggy formations of the opposite wall. Benches are available here for resting, nursing and snacking. And if you’re still wondering how the trail got its name, take your time here!
The third and final trail from the parking lot is Notch Trail. (Guess how it got its name!) At the end of the trail, like the other two, there’s a view across the White River Valley. However, Notch Trail is more strenuous and is considered moderate in difficulty. It includes a climb up a steep log ladder, but you can make the base of the ladder your turnaround point for an easy and still worthwhile hike. At the base of the ladder is an open area with some great large rocks for toddlers to climb on. In addition, the first section of this hike follows a creek bed that has water in the rainy season, making a small oasis with the most plant life of the three trails. Beyond the ladder, the trail follows a ledge with drop-offs, so putting kiddos in a carrier is an excellent idea, and if you’re afraid of heights, you may want to join them.
The Badlands is one of our favorite destinations. It is compact and accessible enough to be a great half-day detour on a road trip and varied enough to be worthy of a longer stay. Wildlife and overlooks are plentiful, and many of the trails are great for toddler legs. If you venture far enough, you will feel like you have been transported to the moon or Mars, and you do not have to go far to find solitude with an eerie quiet. If you have the chance to camp here, the night sky is not to be missed. – Jennifer Bradwin
- A Vehicle Pass costs $25 and is good for seven days.
- There are restrooms at the parking area.
- Drinking water is only available at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. Bring plenty with you! Same goes for sunblock, a hat and sunglasses. The park is hot, dry and exposed.
- Do not count on cell reception. Do count on getting lost if you wander too far off trail. Bring a map!
- A stop at Wall Drug as you exit the park is a must.
Iron Creek Trail (Spearfish, SD)
Iron Creek Trail in Black Hills National Forest poses a stark contrast to the Badlands above. It’s easy to moderate as well, but there’s plenty of vegetation along Iron Creek, which generally has running water year-round. First, find the trailhead between Spearfish and Savoy. It’s not marked, but driving from Spearfish, there will be an area on the right to pull over after Bridal Veil Falls (another great place to go see, hint, hint!) and just before Iron Creek Bridge.
The hike follows the creek for most of its length at approximately 2.5 miles. Imposing cliffs look down on you from above, while giant boulders litter the creek below. It’s sobering to think that those boulders must have once also been high above, but the kiddos won’t be thinking about that. They’ll be having fun exploring. At the end of the trail is Iron Creek Lake, a great place to swim, rent a kayak or canoe, or simply relax. Or if you want a longer hike, add a mile by going around the lake. Heading eastward on the way back, be on the lookout for Iron Creek Arch, a natural rock formation that can only be seen on the return trip.
It’s a beautiful and peaceful hike. It’s a fairly easy hike even though it’s 3 miles one way. The scenery can’t be beat! First, you’re in the canyon with the beautiful creek and rock walls, and then the scenery keeps changing, and it’s breathtaking. If you hike 3 miles from the start, you’ll end up at the beautiful Iron Creek Lake, where you can relax, fish or take a swim. – Ginger
- Iron Creek Lake Store rents kayaks and canoes and sells some supplies.
- Bring plenty of water, snacks or other food, and anything else you know you’ll want.
- Dogs are allowed at Iron Creek Lake, but they must stay on a leash and off the swimming beach.
- As always, don’t forget the sunblock!
MORE RESOURCES FOR FAMILIES WITH YOUNG CHILDREN
South Dakota offers an abundance of trails for families with young children. For more family hike ideas, see:
- Hike it Baby calendar (or connect with the local branch)
- Hike it Baby Family Trail Guide
- South Dakota Game, Fish, & Parks Hiking page
- Hike it Baby: 100 Awesome Outdoor Adventures with Babies and Toddlers – by Hike it Baby Founder Shanti Hodges
If you’re in South Dakota and need more information or recommendations on trails or would like to join a group hike, the nearest Hike it Baby branch is in Rapid City.
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- 3 Trails in Nebraska Young Children Will Enjoy Exploring
What are your favorite hikes in South Dakota for families with babies, toddlers and young children? Leave a comment below!