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The Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota are unspoiled regions of the north-central United States where the combination of wildlife, geology, and Native American and early American history blend to create the perfect route for a birding and nature tour. Explore the region in detail as we offer a series of moderate to leisurely hikes and scenic drives through state and national parks.

As always, our focus is the rich natural history of the area; we look for mountain and grassland mammals such as Black-tailed Prairie Dog, Bison, Pronghorn, Elk, Mule Deer, and Bighorn Sheep. Our travels also provide an excellent opportunity to see a good variety of birds, including Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Black-billed Magpie, Lazuli Bunting, Western Tanager, Mountain Bluebird, and a mix of grassland species.

Wonders in rock, both natural and man-made, highlight our days. We visit Devil’s Tower, a massive butte created by an ancient volcano; the colorful and bizarre sedimentary rock formations of the Badlands; and the intricate underground features of Wind Cave. While in the area we also visit Mt. Rushmore, where we take a short hike for a close view of the amazing presidential profiles sculptured in the mountain face.

The local towns and lodgings we visit on this tour are rich in history from the days of mining ventures, the settlements of the great Westward Migration, and the distinguished culture of the Lakota Sioux. Join us to experience a host of natural wonders in this unique area where the prairie surrounds a mountain oasis as a great prelude to the Rockies!

Tour Highlights

  • Discover South Dakota’s fascinating Black Hills and Badlands regions, the start of our American West, with fascinating wildlife, history, and culture of the Lakota Sioux
  • Visit impressive Devil’s Tower National Monument in neighboring Wyoming
  • Enjoy great accommodations including two nights in the historic Alex Johnson hotel in Rapid City, two at Spearfish Canyon where “Dances with Wolves” was filmed, and three at State Game Lodge in the heart of Custer State Park
  • Stamp your National Park Passport multiple times, including Wind Cave National Park where we join rangers for a guided cave tour, Badlands National Park, and Mt. Rushmore
  • Learn geology and prairie ecology and walk in lush pine and aspen forests—multiple habitats promise us a great mix of birds and mammals including Bighorn Sheep and Bison

Trip Itinerary

Itineraries are guidelines; variations in itinerary may occur to account for weather, road conditions, closures, etc. and to maximize your experience.

Sat., Jun. 17 : Rapid City

Welcome to South Dakota! Arrive at your leisure today but those arriving early can enjoy time to explore this western city; browse the historic Prairie Edge Trading Company and have lunch at your leisure close to our hotel. Our accommodations are in a historic hotel built in the 1920s that showcases South Dakota’s rich history. The hotel—especially the grand lobby—combines classic European architecture with authentic Lakota art and treasured Native American artifacts.
At 1:30 PM we plan to meet in the lobby to take those that have arrived early over to the fascinating Journeys Museum and Learning Center. Bring your binoculars— the gardens here are lovely and may attract some interesting birds. Additionally, we make a few airport shuttles according to arrival times, as time allows going to the museum before checking in. Get settled, then at 6:30 PM meet in the lobby for our welcome dinner. Get to know your guides and travel companions and enjoy your guide’s overview of the journey.
Accommodations at Hotel Alex Johnson (D)

Sun., Jun. 18 : Devil’s Tower National Monument | Spearfish Canyon

This morning we pack up and drive two hours west into neighboring Wyoming to visit Devil's Tower National Monument, the first U.S. National Monument created by the passage of the Antiquities Act in 1906. This impressive geologic wonder is perhaps best known as a site in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In a remote prairie setting, this dramatic remnant of an ancient volcano promises a memorable experience. We circle the base of the tower on a three-mile trail.
Enjoy a picnic lunch and a chance to study the unique plants and animals of this high plains grassland. Listen for the bark of Black-tailed Prairie Dogs as we observe the antics of these engaging mammals in a huge "dog town." Golden Eagle may be patrolling above, while badger and coyote may be in the vicinity hunting prairie dogs. The calls of Black-billed Magpie, Common Raven, and Western Meadowlark ring out in the vast open space. Standing over 1,000 feet above the Belle Fourche River, Devil's Tower is an ideal perch for Prairie Falcon, and a prized destination for technical climbers we may see from our trail.

We also watch for colorful Mountain Bluebirds gathering in the sagebrush. The rich foliage of the cottonwoods and various shrubs decorate the river habitat that we inspect for songbirds.

From Devil’s Tower we then head to Spearfish to check in, freshen up and enjoy dinner at this lovely hotel.
Accommodations at Spearfish Canyon Lodge (B,L,D)

Mon., Jun. 19 : Local Birding Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway | Owl Prowl

This morning we hike to Roughlock Falls in search of American Dipper, one of the few places in the state to view this species, and perhaps observe recently fledged young learning how to navigate fast moving waters. Next we continue visiting scenic and birding highlights of Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway on a series of short walks and van stops including the local city park and a fish hatchery. Spearfish is a popular birding destination, hosting 220 species including some Black Hills favorites: Canyon Wren, Ruffed Grouse, and Clark's Nutcracker. Spearfish Canyon has been designated an Important Bird Area with Western Tanager and Lazuli Bunting always fun to encounter. We spend time looking for woodpeckers including Lewis’s, Three-toed, and possibly Black-backed as well as Red-naped Sapsucker. Osprey nest in the area, and Bald Eagle are possible too.

As driving distances are short today, we take a break for lunch at the lodge, and a siesta, then head out to some grassland habitats where we hope to find Eastern Kingbird, Mountain Bluebird, Western Meadowlark, and other species. Or if you prefer, you can opt to enjoy some downtime to relax at this lovely lodge.

Dinner is at the lodge, and we have time to tally up the day’s sightings and go out into the ponderosa pine and aspen habitats nearby for those that want to join an owl prowl this evening.
Accommodations at Spearfish Canyon Lodge (B,L,D)

Tues., Jun. 20 : Mt. Rushmore | Custer State Park

This morning we have breakfast and pack up to make our way to Custer State Park, visiting Mt. Rushmore en route. We get an early start to experience Mt. Rushmore in the morning light, then head out on the incredible Iron Mountain Road along the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway to reach Custer State Park.

Mt. Rushmore is often crowded at this time of year, but for many it can be a trip highlight. Upon arrival, you can choose to explore Mt. Rushmore in detail or walk a three-mile trail that winds through Quaking Aspen forests and pines. Here we look for Ruffed Grouse, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Red Crossbill, Blue Jay, and local Red Squirrels that are the color of toffee. Butterflies such as Painted Lady, Orange Sulfur, and Variegated Fritillary should still be active on late blooming asters and Indian Paintbrush. We have lunch near the Monument, then head out for 17 miles of winding road (314 curves) including three tunnels that frame the sculptures of Mt. Rushmore. We take the drive slow (speed limit is 35 mph) and make stops for photography and birding along the way.

Our lodge in the heart of Custer State Park is listed on the National Historic Register, one we know you will enjoy. Relax on the porch overlooking a peaceful meadow often visited by Mule Deer at dusk. We also keep an eye out for Wild Turkey and Bighorn Sheep that frequent the meadow as we check into our rooms with time to relax before we gather for dinner at the lovely lodge dining room.

Luxuriate in the lodge’s rustic elegance and enjoy a group dinner in its beautiful dining room. In 1927, President Calvin Coolidge used the lodge as his summer “White House,” and Teddy Roosevelt was another notable visitor.
Accommodations at State Game Lodge (B,L,D)

Wed., Jun. 21 & Thurs., Jun. 22 : Custer State Park | Wind Cave National Monument

We have two full days to hike and explore the 73,000-acre game refuge of Custer State Park in the isolated Black Hills, a mountain range often described as a prelude to the Rockies. In 1913, there was great concern over dwindling populations of Bison, Pronghorn, Bighorn Sheep, and Elk. Today they thrive, along with the non-native, but very popular Rocky Mountain Goats that frequent the rocky spires of the Needles and tall granite reaches of Harney Peak. In the park we have a good chance to see Northern Three-toed Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, and Black-capped Chickadee. One year we spotted a Pine Marten!

The Black Hills have large mammals in good number, and it’s interesting to see eastern tree species such as American Elm and Birch mingle with the Ponderosa Pines. Trails are numerous, and several can be combined for great days afield. We offer hikes to match the interests and abilities of the group, typically three to six miles per day. Birding should be excellent along the river courses—including the riparian zone of French Creek, where we may find Cooper’s Hawk, Pinyon Jay, or Lincoln’s Sparrow feeding amidst a background of brilliant fall color. With luck we may spot Ferruginous Hawk or Northern Harrier flying above scenic open meadows.

On one afternoon we drive the scenic wildlife route where we may find Bison, Pronghorn, Elk, White-tailed and Mule Deer, Coyote, Burros, Prairie Dogs, and more. Then we have the opportunity to join a national park ranger for a guided hike through spectacular Wind Cave, one of the oldest and longest caves in the U.S. The cave is well lit, with an excellent path that meanders through delicate box-work filigree, robust stalactites, flowstone, frostwork, popcorn features, and more! Protected since 1903, Wind Cave National Park is a gem in our National Park System. The underground geologic wonders are just one reason to visit; outside the cave, we also enjoy birding, wildlife, and, for those that chose, hiking to a lookout tower providing great vistas of the Black Hills.

We return to State Game Lodge for dinner and time to tally up our sightings.
Accommodations at State Game Lodge (B,L,D)

Fri., Jun. 23 : Badlands National Park | Rapid City

We make a big loop today. It’s about an hour and a half drive over to the Badlands, so we can have much of the day to explore one of the prettiest scenic byways in the region. We stop at the Visitor Center (stamp your national park passport once again!), take a variety of short walks, and scan the vast grasslands for resident birds and mammals. After a rewarding day here, its an hour back on the Interstate highway to Rapid City and we return to the delightful Alex Johnson Hotel for our final evening.
Accommodations at Hotel Alex Johnson, Rapid City (B,L,D)

Sat., Jun. 24 : Departures

You may depart at your leisure today. (B)

  • Black Hills Birding, Wildlife and Landscapes tour of South Dakota by Naturalist Journeys guided birding and nature tour of Black Hills

    Bison at Custer State National Park, Mytownblackhills via Creative Commons

  • Black Hills Birding, Wildlife and Landscapes tour of South Dakota by Naturalist Journeys guided birding and nature tour of Black Hills

    Custer State National Park, bartjuan via Creative Commons

  • Black Hills Birding, Wildlife and Landscapes tour of South Dakota by Naturalist Journeys guided birding and nature tour of Black Hills

    Devil's Tower, halfuur via Creative Commons

  • Black Hills Birding, Wildlife and Landscapes tour of South Dakota by Naturalist Journeys guided birding and nature tour of Black Hills

    Needles, Runner1928 via Creative Commons

  • Black Hills Birding, Wildlife and Landscapes tour of South Dakota by Naturalist Journeys guided birding and nature tour of Black Hills

    Orchard Oriole, Dan Pancamo via Creative Commons

  • Black Hills Birding, Wildlife and Landscapes tour of South Dakota by Naturalist Journeys guided birding and nature tour of Black Hills

    Red Crossbill by Peg Abbott

  • Black Hills Birding, Wildlife and Landscapes tour of South Dakota by Naturalist Journeys guided birding and nature tour of Black Hills

    Ruffed Grouse by Peg Abbott

  • Black Hills Birding, Wildlife and Landscapes tour of South Dakota by Naturalist Journeys guided birding and nature tour of Black Hills

    Sharp-tailed Grouse by USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Cost of the Journey

Cost of the journey is $3690 DBL / $4590 SGL, per person, based on double occupancy. Cost includes: accommodations for seven nights, meals as specified in the itinerary (B=breakfast, L=lunch, D=dinner), arrival airport-hotel shuttle, land transportation during the journey, professional guide services, park and other entrance fees, and miscellaneous program expenses.

Cost does not include round-trip airfare to and from Rapid City or items of a personal nature such as laundry, telephone, drinks from the bar, gratuities for luggage handling or personal services.

Travel Details

Please plan to make air travel plans only after the minimum group size has been met. We will send you a confirmation email as soon as the trip has been confirmed.

Please plan to arrive at your convenience on June 17. If you’ve arrived in the morning, we will meet in the hotel lobby for some local birding at 1:30 PM. Otherwise plan to meet up for a group dinner at 6:30 PM. Once we know your arrival times, we will organize with the hotel’s shuttle to pick you up to transfer to the hotel.

Please plan departures at your convenience on June 24. Your guide will make a morning group transfer to the airport based on the group’s flight times. If you depart in the afternoon, please plan to take a taxi or the hotel shuttle ($12 per person).

Map for Black Hills Birding, Wildlife & Landscapes

Essential Information +

This information is important for being prepared for your journey; we want you to have Read more

This information is important for being prepared for your journey; we want you to have the best experience possible. If you only read one section, this one is key!

Ahead of Your Tour

  • Please talk with your doctor about general health needs. It is a good idea to consult with your doctor about general vaccinations recommended for travel.
  • Please plan to make air travel plans only after the minimum group size has been met. We will send you a confirmation email as soon as the trip has been confirmed. After you make travel reservations, please send a copy of your travel itinerary to the Naturalist Journeys office at
  • Travel insurance in case of serious medical emergency is recommended. Full health coverage and repatriation is available through Allianz Travel Insurance.
  • Soft sided luggage/duffel bags are easiest for packing the vans. Remember to pack essential medications in your carry-on luggage, as well as one day of clothing and optics in case of luggage delay.

Health Information

We will share a copy of your health and emergency contact information with your guide. This information will be kept confidential but is very important in case of a medical emergency. In addition to bringing any prescription medications with you, we recommend that you have a copy of the prescriptions in case of loss.

Pace of the Tour & What to Expect

You will receive a Schedule-at-a-Glance and list of hotels (our eContact List) a few weeks before your departure. This will serve as an outline for each day and alert you to any recent changes made in the schedule or to our hotels, if needed.

Our journeys are set up to follow the rhythm of nature. Our focus is on birding and nature; we offer full, well-planned field days and often get up early for that magical time around dawn. We generally follow the published itinerary, but we stay flexible to the weather, wildlife opportunities and the interests of the group. Your guide will keep you apprised of the next day’s schedule at each evening meal, noting what to bring and what to prepare for. Questions and/or concerns are welcome.

The pace of our Naturalist Journeys tours is moderate; to fully participate you should be able to get in and out of vehicles several times a day, and walk 1-3 miles over uneven terrain. It is important to participate with a flexible attitude as adjustments may be made in our schedule to make the most of our time in the field or for other purposes at your guide's discretion. We are not a “listing” bird company that drills down on target species, but at times we do wait for those special species unique to the places we visit. During the day, we take time to stop for photos and for educational opportunities to learn about conservation projects, landscapes, and geology. We appreciate other taxa as well as birds, with mammals often the biggest draw but plants and butterflies are also very popular. Our clients often lend their own expertise to the mix.  

We like to make meals a fun and memorable part of the experience, too. Breakfasts are often at hotels, and we carry snacks, fruit, and water in the vans each day. Lunches are a mix of picnics in the field (weather dependent) and a chance to dine with locals at small cafes and restaurants. For dinner, we pride ourselves in our homework to keep up with the best choices for dining, choosing restaurants with atmosphere that specialize in local foods. On occasion we keep dinner simple to go back out in the field for sunset wildlife viewing or night walks. In some remote locations, our choices are limited. If you are tired, room service for dinner may be an option you can choose.

Food & Drink

We carry water and juices/cold drinks in the cooler each day, and sodas if people like them. Please also plan on bringing and filling your water bottle for hiking each day. We try to use as few plastics as possible!

Packing, Clothing & Laundry

Soft sided luggage/duffel bags are easiest for packing the vans. Please pack essential medications in your carry-on luggage, as well as one day of clothing and optics in case of luggage delay.

Dress is informal and is casual even at restaurants. Layering is a great way to stay comfortable. Protective clothing is essential, whether it be from sun, rain, cold, insects, or vegetation. You need closed toe shoes, and wear comfortable walking shoes with good tread. Hiking boots with good support for hiking and on rocky terrain can work well.

Spending Money

Many people ask how much to plan to bring as spending money. Part of that depends on how much you want to shop. Most shops will take VISA and MasterCard or American Express. Typical items people purchase include local souvenirs and T-shirts, caps, and natural history books.  You may want to bring cash for drinks with dinner (if available) or smaller local purchases.


Expect the normal tipping protocol to apply for hotel maids and bar service. If at the end of the tour, you would like to show your appreciation to your guides, tipping is entirely appropriate but at your discretion. We hope that you will be pleased with all professional services. Gratuities for group meals are included. For your birding tour guide, we suggest $10-$15 per day per guest. Note that if there is more than one guide, this amount can be split among them.

Cell Phones & Internet Service

Wi-Fi and cell phone service are available in most US destinations, although there are some exceptions in remote locations. Wi-Fi is generally provided in all hotels, lodges, and restaurants you visit, at least in public areas. Please refrain from taking or making cell phone calls in the vehicles when traveling with other passengers unless it appears to be an emergency as this disrupts other guests – please plan cell phone calls on your own time.


Smoking is not permitted in any vehicle or in any situation where the group is participating in an activity together, such as a vehicle excursion or a guided walk. Please respect all designated smoking areas at hotels and restaurants.


For this tour, your guides will drive travelers in either full-size or mini-vans or a combination of those two. We ask all attendees to please rotate your seating, so you ride with different drivers and alternate between front and back seats.

Photo Release & Sharing

We take many group photos and will share photos with the group. And after your tour, we will organize a chance to share photos via Dropbox or Google Photos. Please note that this is our policy and if you prefer to be excluded, we need to know ahead of your tour.

By registering for this tour, you agree to grant to Naturalist Journeys and its authorized representatives permission to record photos and/or video of your participation in the tour. You further agree that any or all of the material photographed may be used, in any form, as part of any future publications, brochures, or other printed materials used to promote Naturalist Journeys, and further that such use shall be without payment of fees, royalties, special credit or other compensation.


Please contact Naturalist Journeys by email at or telephone our office: (520) 558-1146 or toll free: (866) 900-1146 if you have any questions. Many thanks for traveling with us and we hope you enjoy your journey.


Photo credits: Banners, all via Creative Commons: Custer National Park, bartjuan; Sharp-tailed Grouse, USFWS Mountain-Prairie; Badlands National Park, Martin Kraft; Trumpeter Swan, Jacob W. Frank; Devil's Tower, halfuur; Bison herds, Mytownblackhills.


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