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Make the Most of a Ride Aboard the 1880 Train

Make the Most of a Ride Aboard the 1880 Train


avatar   Stacy
Trip Date 07/30/2020
Posted On 01/25/2021 09:19:29

Destinations | Camping | South Dakota | Custer | Keystone | Hill City | Black Hills | Mount Rushmore | Black Hills Central Railroad | Battle Creek | 1880 Train | Steam Train | Old West Shootout | Alpine Inn



Over 1 million areas of land in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming are home to the Black Hills National Forest. Within the forest lies a mountain range known as the Black Hills. No matter the time of year, but especially during the spring and summer months, people from all over the world "head for the hills"!

The tallest mountain in South Dakota, Black Elk Peak, is there, but, that's not all. So is Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, two national parks, a state park and Custer, the oldest city in the Black Hills. It's the outdoors that's the biggest draw to the hills, so there are options for camping and RVing, but there's plenty more traditional lodging choices as well.

There's so much to see and do in each of these destinations that it can be hard to find enough time (and money) for everything. Riding aboard a historic steam train is the perfect way to relive days gone bye in the Black Hills. With one-way or round-trip service offered between Keystone and Hill City, the 1880 Train makes for a fun adventure for both the young and not so young. The train tracks run alongside Battle Creek, popular with the gold miners of yesterday.

Today's train operator, the Black Hills Central Railroad, even offers an Old West Shootout and other special runs allowing you to make the most of your journey. Before they say "Welcome Aboard!", be sure that you've read all of our helpful tips in this article - lunch or dinner at Alpine Inn, anyone?

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1880 Train

A ride aboard the 1880 Train will take you from Keystone to Hill City in one-hour. If you make the city of Custer your home base for exploring South Dakota's Southern Black Hills like we did, the drive to the train depot is just under 30 miles.


1880 Train Arriving into Keystone Depot

1880 Train Arriving into Keystone Depot

Tip for Making the Most of your Day: Start your day at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. After you are done exploring the Presidential Trail, grab a scoop of ice cream made according to the original 1780 recipe created by the third president of the U.S. and then drive less than 5 miles to Keystone. You can even return to Mount Rushmore for the Evening Lighting Ceremony after your round-trip train ride!

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History of the 1880 Train

Operations of the 1880 Train, the oldest continuously operating tourist train in the United States, started in 1957. Credit goes to William Heckman for making his vision of offering rides aboard a steam locomotive (just like those that operated in the Black Hills in the 1880s) become a reality.


Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Steam Train Engine

Black Hills Central Railroad 1880 Steam Train Engine

Predecessors in the Black Hills date back to 1879 when the first steam engine began operations in the mining town of Lead, SD. A narrow-gauge rail was introduced to the area just two years later followed by Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad's standard-gauge train operations which commenced in 1889. It was the growing popularity of diesel engines which were replacing many steam engines during the 1940s that gave birth to Heckman's dream.

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What to Expect Between Keystone and Hill City

The ride aboard the 1880 Train between the cities of Keystone and Hill City is a 20-mile round trip journey. Today's route mirrors that traveled over 100 years ago by Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. The original route followed along Battle Creek in order to service the mines and mills between the two cities. Landmarks along the way include the remains of some of those original mining sites.


Our Rail Journey Begins

Our Rail Journey Begins

Battle Creek

Battle Creek

In addition to passing historical points of interest, when the weather cooperates, the ride provides some stunning views of the natural beauty within the Black Hills National Forest. Even with an upcoming rainstorm, we had a fairly good view of Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak). On the wildlife front, we saw both mule and white-tail deer, and others have reportedly seen rabbits, turkeys, wood chucks and more!


Chugging through the Black Hills National Forest

Chugging through the Black Hills National Forest

You'll know that you are approaching an intersection with another road when you hear the train's whistle blowing! Speakers in each rail car, coupled with a host providing live narration, enhance the journey. With a total of five different trains traveling the route, the guides share their knowledge about the actual train on which you are riding.

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Of the five trains, two are operated by diesel and three have steam engines. One of the steam trains is approaching 100 years of service! Guides also point out both natural and man-made landmarks along the way.


History Along the Way

History Along the Way

Do you think this was a Miner's Cabin?

Do you think this was a Miner's Cabin?

Tip for Making the Most of your Trip: A very limited selection of food (drinks and light snacks) is offered for sale aboard. Food can also be brought on board. Snacks can be purchased in both train depots as well as in a variety of shops in the two cities serviced by the train. It's important to plan ahead as restrooms are available in the train depots only - there are no restrooms on the trains!

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Planning Your Ride

Standard daily runs between Keystone and Hill City generally operate between mid-May and mid-October. The time period between late June and early August tends to have the greatest number of daily departures. Passengers have the choice of departing from either Hill City or Keystone, and can opt for a one-way or round-trip journey.

Tip for Making the Most of your Trip: While many people choose an "immediate round trip" (15 minute layover before returning to their point of embarkation), we highly recommend choosing a later return time. It's easy to explore your initial departure city either before or after your journey, so don't miss the chance to also disembark at the mid-point of your trip. Depending on your interests, allow at least 2 - 3 hours before returning to have time to see the sights, do some shopping and maybe even enjoy a meal!

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Before making a round-trip reservation, review the 1880 train schedule to select your departure and return times, as both are required to complete a purchase. (We chose the 2:30 PM departure from Keystone, arriving into Hill City at 3:30 PM. After 3 hours of exploring Hill City and eating a yummy dinner, we boarded the 6:45 PM return to Keystone. We still had enough time to make it back to Mount Rushmore for the Evening Lighting Ceremony.)


Hill City Depot

Hill City Depot

Tip for Making the Most of your Trip: To have the opportunity to see the scenery on both sides of the tracks, select seats on the opposite side of the train for each direction of travel. (The trains do not actually turn around - the engine moves from the front to the back. Moveable seat backs also allow passengers to switch their seat direction, if desired.)


Prepping the Steam Engine for a Keystone Departure

Prepping the Steam Engine for a Keystone Departure

Find additional information about car and seat types online at Seating Options. Reservations can be made online or by calling 605-574-2222.

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The Old West Shootout and Other Special Events aboard the 1880 Train

If you are lucky, your visit to the Black Hills may coincide with one of the unique rides available throughout the year. A ride to celebrate Mother's Day or the Christmas Holiday season could be a fun addition to a family vacation. If it's an adults only trip that you are planning, maybe the Oktoberfest Express or Wine Express sound appealing.

During the summer months, several journeys include an Old West Shootout aboard the 1880 Train. The shootout can only be experienced on the final departure from Hill City, and only on select days. The additional charge for the shootout is only $5.00 per ticket - and is sure to be a fun memory for both adults and kids.


Getting Ready to Depart the Hill City Depot

Getting Ready to Depart the Hill City Depot

Shortly after our departure from the Hill City Depot, we noticed that the narrator's tone had changed from our ride earlier in the day. She began sharing the town's concern about payroll for the miners. It was apparently a stagecoach that usually carried the payroll, but we were told that our train was carrying the money instead.


Calling Upon the 1880 Train for Assistance

Calling Upon the 1880 Train for Assistance

Once we arrived into the town of Oblivion, about half-way to Keystone, there was a shootout on the side of the train. In the end, we learned that the payroll actually did travel by stagecoach - the story was a decoy so that the money would arrive safely!


Look Out - He's Got a Gun!

Look Out - He's Got a Gun!

Old West Shootout

Old West Shootout

All's Well That Ends Well in the Town of Oblivion

All's Well That Ends Well in the Town of Oblivion

Tips for Making the Most of your Trip: Once you have an idea of the dates that you will be in the Black Hills, be sure to take a look at the 1880 Train Schedule of Special Events. You may be able to arrange your days to include one of the "limited edition" rides into your itinerary!

If you choose the Old West Shootout, we recommend that you make your reservations via phone and request seating on the side with the best view of the "performance". (On our journey, the shootout took place on the left side of the train.)

If you are purchasing tickets for young kids (or even adults), consider letting the shootout be a surprise for your fellow travelers!

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Keystone

Today, Keystone, South Dakota is known as the tourist town nearest Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Even those who choose other nearby cities for their home base tend to visit Keystone in conjunction with their time at Mount Rushmore.

Due to Keystone's location, it became the heart of mining within the Black Hills in the late 1800s. As more and more people moved west, Keystone eventually became the largest town in the county. In addition to the influx of miners, others came as well once Keystone was serviced by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. With easy access by rail, as would be expected, some of the town's residents were able to gain employment with the carving of Mount Rushmore.

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Upon completion of the carving, it was tourists that began (and never stopped) coming to the mining town. Present day Keystone has plenty of lodging and dining (even a selection of food trucks) plus shopping, museums and even options for the more adventurous traveler or families traveling with young ones.


Main Street in Downtown Keystone

Main Street in Downtown Keystone

Tips for Making the Most of your Time in Keystone: Depending on whether you have just a few hours, the better part of a day or even more to spend in Keystone, you may want to pay a visit to Rushmore Borglum Story to learn more about the sculptor and the "blasting" that took place to create Mount Rushmore. Consider touring the mine and museum (and maybe even panning for gold) at Big Thunder Gold Mine or possibly spending some time exploring the National Presidential Wax Museum. Some visitors to the city also fly overhead on helicopter tours, get their thrills at one of the adventure parks (yes, there's more than one!) or even play a competitive game of miniature golf.

While on vacation, it seems as if there is never enough time to thoroughly explore every city, and Keystone was no exception for us!

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Hill City

Second only to Custer, Hill City touts itself as being the next oldest town in the Black Hills. With its central location, the city is often advertised as being the "Heart of the Black Hills". It's location is a big reason for tourism and timber being the primary income sources for local residents.


Welcome to Hill City

Welcome to Hill City

A stroll down Hill City's Main Street confirms that the city is known for art. In addition to both fine art and western art galleries, you'll find wood carvings and metal sculptures adorning the downtown streets.


"Iron Star" Sculpture by John Lopez on Main Street

"Iron Star" Sculpture by John Lopez on Main Street

"Patriarch" sculpted by Peggy Detmers

"Patriarch" sculpted by Peggy Detmers

The downtown streets are also filled with retail shops. From clothing for yourself, gifts for others, souvenirs, jewelry and even antiques, it's easy to fill your time with shopping. When it comes to museums, both the South Dakota State Railroad Museum and Museum at Black Hills Institute seem to come highly recommended.


Dahl's Chainsaw Art

Dahl's Chainsaw Art

Those with time to eat or drink during their visit to Hill City will also find plenty of options. Tour and sample at local wineries and breweries or find your favorite cuisine at the large variety of restaurants.


A Rainy Stroll Down Hill City's Main Street

A Rainy Stroll Down Hill City's Main Street

Tips for Making the Most of your Time in Hill City: Plan enough time for lunch or dinner at the Alpine Inn. Originally built in 1886, the landmark hotel has been owned and operated by the same family since 1974. Although a variety of menu items are available for lunch, the dinner menu is simplified with two options for adults and two for kids.

Everyone in our group of four chose the bacon wrapped filet mignon and not a one was disappointed. Before leaving, dessert is a must - it will be hard to choose just one, so hopefully you can share to get a taste of at least two of the homemade creations! (Make sure that you have cash or an ATM card as the Alpine Inn does not accept credit cards.)


The Alpine Inn Restaurant

The Alpine Inn Restaurant

Alpine Inn Dinner Menu

Alpine Inn Dinner Menu

Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon Dinner, Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream Pie & Apple Cheese Strudel

Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon Dinner, Chocolate Peanut Butter Ice Cream Pie & Apple Cheese Strudel

Searching for Lodging in the Black Hills?

When planning a vacation to the Black Hills of South Dakota, it's important to choose a convenient place to stay. Our six nights in Custer, SD was perfect for easy access to everything on our itinerary in the southern hills. Check out our article, "Amazing Week at the Gulch in Custer, SD" to see photos of and read about this central location offering tent and RV sites as well as cabins.

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Favorite Cities in the Black Hills

Which cities within the Black Hills are your favorites, and what is it that makes them appeal to you?



Make the Most of a Ride Aboard the 1880 Train







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