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    The 1880 Train in South Dakota: Should you ride it? (Honest Review)

    1880 train at Hill City Depot
    1880 Train at Hill City Depot

    All aboard! The 1880 Train in the beautiful black hills of South Dakota is a popular and iconic attraction that sells out during the peak season of summer. After taking my own trip, it wasn’t hard to see why.

    The 1880 Train is an authentically restored Steam engine train, transporting you back in time as you travel from the charming town of Hill City, South Dakota, to the old mining town of Keystone, home of Mount Rushmore. This is the oldest continuously operating tour railroad in the nation and operates five steam engines, two diesel engines, and multiple passenger cars all beautifully restored to carry you throughout the hills.

    If you’re unsure if you should book a trip, keep reading and I’ll tell you about my experience to help you decide.

    inside of passenger train car
    Inside of restored passenger car “Oreville Coach #112”

    What do you see on the ride?

    There is so much to see along the ride and every trip will be uniquely different. Seasonally the landscape will vary, but no matter the season you can be sure it will look stunning.

    scenery

    Wildlife

    You may have the treat of viewing some wildlife such as turkey, deer, woodchucks, rabbits, and birds.  The host pointed out an Osprey nest as we left the Hill City station and encouraged us to yell out any animals we see along the journey for all to witness.  

    Structures

    There are homes peppered throughout the route, as well as some historical buildings, and old mining camps.  It is said that the owner of the Black Hills Glass Blowers never misses an opportunity to come out and wave to the train. We were not disappointed.

    Scenery

    I can’t mention enough how beautiful the Black Hills are.  From the get-go, every inch of the journey was visually pleasing and the views of the rock formations and meadows were my favorite.  

    meadow view outside the train window

    You can even catch a glimpse of Black Elk Peak which is the highest point between the Rockies and the Alps.  If you are an adventurer and time allows, I would suggest hiking up to it for incredible views of South Dakota. On a clear day, it is said that you can see 5 states.

    How long does it take?

    Going only 10 miles per hour, the 10-mile ride from Hill City takes roughly 55 minutes and the ride from Keystone takes about an hour. The reason being the ride back has more uphill sections.

    Has the train ever derailed?

    Yes, the train has derailed only a handful of times in the many years of operation but as mentioned above, going only 10 miles per hour means this is more of an inconvenience than a major event.

    How much does it cost?

    As of 2022, prices are as follows:

    • $34 adults
    • $17 children (2 and under free)
    • $4 guide book “All About The 1880 Train” which is useful to read on the journey as it points out many of the sites you will see with a little bit of history.  It also details much of the history of the train. 

    Is it worth it?

    I think so!  This train is an adventure and a piece of history all in one. I felt like a little kid as I pulled up into the parking lot and witnessed the steam billowing out of the engine as they prepared for departure.  

    The train whistle is a magical sound that will resonate with you. It brought forth a sense of nostalgia for a time period long gone. The host we had was a hoot and she had been riding the train for 23 years sharing her knowledge of the route along the black hills.

    Be sure to pay attention to all of the details while on the train. The lighting fixtures, windows, and adjustable seats were captivating and my pictures just couldn’t do them justice.

    How do you book tickets?

    Online

    You can book tickets online at the 1880 train website. This way you can choose exactly where you want to sit but make sure if you book a round trip ticket that you sit on the opposite side on the way back to see everything.

    In-person

    You can walk into either station and purchase tickets but note that availability may be limited on short notice.

    Call

    If you’re like me and like to talk to a person, you can call 605-574-2222 and have them book your tickets for you.  They will also book you on the opposite side of the train for the ride back.  

    When to book tickets

    As soon as possible.  In the summertime, the busiest days are midweek and they do book up fast and sell out on the earlier rides. 

    When school is back in session, the weekends begin filling up fast and the midweek rides are easier to book, but keep in mind the train makes fewer trips this time of year.

    Hill City train departure sign
    Departure Schedule

    The first trip out of each depot is typically the most popular and will sell out.  The last trips of the day are underrated because they can be cooler in temperature on the hot summer days and less crowded.  

    Don’t hesitate to grab a final trip out!

    Is it air-conditioned?

    No, the train is not air-conditioned but has many windows for the air to flow.  You can open and close them as you please. 

    summer train car
    This is one of the summer cars parked for the winter, as you can see the windows can fully open

    If the day is going to be a warm one then I would opt for the earliest or latest trip times.

    Can you take food on the train?

    Yes, you may take food and drinks on the train that are bought on the property.  Both depots have snacks and some fresh-made food options for purchase.  The gift shop had some nostalgic candy I hadn’t seen since I was a kid.

    candy at the gift shop

    Hill City’s High Liner Eatery is located next to The 1880 Train (and run by the same company). It’s an excellent restaurant inside a World War II-era heavyweight hospital car and is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.

    Adults can purchase a glass of wine to enjoy on the train.  Check out the “hobo meal” for the kids.  Cleverly wrapped in a red bandana it includes a sandwich, fruit cup, a small snack, and a drink for a reasonable price.

    Are there bathrooms on the train?

    No bathrooms are on the train but both stations have very clean and sanitary bathrooms.

    Are dogs allowed on the train?

    Only certified service animals are allowed on the train. 

    Is the train wheelchair accessible? 

    Yes, the train can accompany wheelchairs, however, a reservation is required to ensure availability.

    When does the train run?

    The train runs from mid-May to mid-October for the summer season 7 days a week.  Some additional run dates will happen off-season for “special events.”

    Special Events

    Mothers Day

    Come get pampered and receive a special gift including a custom 1880 train champagne flute, a single-serve bottle of orange juice, champagne, a sweet treat, and bottled water.

    Old West Shootouts

    Every Sunday at 5 starting in June the train gets “held up” midway to Keystone.  A fun and entertaining shootout takes place as cowboys board your train. 

    Get your tickets early before it sells out.  The best seats are in the center of the train so don’t wait to book! Make sure you’re on the Hill City departure to participate in this event.

    Wine Express

    Only one day each September does the 1880 Train offer a relaxing fall trip where you can sip local South Dakota wine and have it paired with delicious food. As expected this does book up fast, so get your tickets as soon as possible.

    Oktoberfest

    For a unique adventure join the German-inspired event and taste some food, drink some seasonal beer, and listen to live polka music.  Invite some family and friends and get your seats together now.  Definitely, something you won’t forget!

    Holiday Express

    Can you get more magical than a train to the North Pole?  This trip is only an hour long but features Santa Claus at the North Pole where he will board the train and visit with each child.  

    Everyone will enjoy comforting hot cocoa and a sugar cookie while listening to a special story along the way.  Each child will be gifted a bell from Santa!  

    First-class seating is also available with very limited availability.  All of these events fill up and sell out fast.  Don’t wait to reserve your tickets.

    Hilyo coach, 1 of 2 left in the U.S. used for ranchers to accompany cattle. Also used for First class events

    Is there parking?

    The Hill City Depot has its own parking lot and it is free.

    Keystone does have a free lot within walking distance but it has a 3-hour limit.  For $5 you can park at the Borglum Story museum all day.  

    The Hill City depot has two available parking spots for electric vehicles. You can charge for free if you purchase a train ticket. 

    Explore

    Give yourself time to explore whichever city you take your trip to.  Get off the train and have lunch, grab an ice cream or some homemade fudge and browse the novelty shops.

    Keystone

    Keystone depot
    Keystone Depot

    Home to Mount Rushmore, Keystone has its own old west charm that will match the vibe you felt on the train.  You can grab a legit sasparilla on the wooden sidewalk or eat at Ruby House Restaurant as you’re surrounded by memorabilia from the early 1900s. 

    A glimpse of Keystone
    A glimpse of Keystone

    If you have kids or are a kid at heart you can do some adventures such as zip lining, riding an alpine slide, or playing a round of miniature golf.  

    This small town holds so much charm and is close to my heart.  I never tire of walking up and down the street taking in the beauty and nature, or stopping by Dahls Chainsaw Art for a picture with the world’s largest Big Foot.

    Dahls chainsaw art
    Dahls Chainsaw Art

    Hill City

    Hill City has a charm of its own and has one of my all-time favorite restaurants in the entire Black Hills the  Alpine Inn. This historic landmark was built in 1886 and features house-made German Cuisine.

    This is something you can’t miss. The train has even adjusted its schedule to make sure you can make it in time for lunch OR dinner.  Of course, if you do miss the meal time window there is plenty of places to eat in town. 

    There is plenty of shopping and even a dinosaur museum all within walking distance from the depot.

    Before you jump back on the train or get in your car, consider checking out The South Dakota State Railroad Museum.  It’s on the property of the Hill City Depot but is a nonprofit organization. They offer a $2 discount with a train ticket.

    Railroad Museum
    Railroad Museum

    It’s a small but wonderful museum with lots of exhibits, memorabilia, and replicas.  The staff was so friendly and genuinely concerned that we had all our questions answered.

    Cons

    Here are a few drawbacks to consider.

    Price point

    At $34 per adult and $17 for kids, the price is a little steep if you have a large family or are on a budget. You could save a little money by only riding the train one way, but you’d have to have someone in your party shuttle you back.

    Time

    This will take a good chunk of time out of your itinerary if you are trying to see and do a lot of things in the Black Hills and there are a lot of things to do. You can save time by only riding one way or booking the soonest return trip back.

    Sitting too long

    This could be a problem if you have children who get bored easily or have a hard time sitting still for a long time as you cannot get up and walk while the train is in motion.

    Temperature

    If it happens to be a really warm or cold day then it could get uncomfortable so make sure to watch the weather and dress accordingly. Bring a blanket in the winter and get cozy!

    Final thoughts

    I had an extremely pleasant trip and would definitely recommend it and do it again! I had the opportunity to get an in-depth tour of the Hill City Depot and learned so much about how they purchase and restore these old trains, and work on them on-site year-round to keep them going!

    steam engine 110
    Steam engine #110 was built in 1928, capable of pulling 7 passenger cars.

    The staff and crew of the entire facility were knowledgeable and very happy to serve and answer all questions. If you have little ones or are train enthusiasts, you can say hello to the engineer and buy a train-inspired souvenir in the gift shop!

    Resources

    ABOUT US

    We’re Matt and Cheryl, and we’re in the Rockies. :) We are both teachers. Cheryl teaches special ed, and Matt teaches American history. We love the American West and the national parks. We want to help you have a great vacation on your next trip to the Rockies.

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