Tag Archives: South Dakota

Black Hills National Forest

Black Hills National Forest

South Dakota, Wyoming

Managed by U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region

1,534,471 acres (1,253,308 federal/ 281,163 other)

Website: https://www.fs.usda.gov/blackhills

Overview

Straddling the Wyoming-South Dakota border is a region known as the Black Hills, where a gold rush took place in the mid-1870s.  The area was a traditional hunting ground for American Indians and site of the sacred Bear Butte, which led to numerous conflicts.  The hills may be called black because of the ponderosa pine forests that dominate the rocky landscape that rises above the surrounding prairie.  Explore some of its 353 miles of trails on foot, drive the miles of back roads, and be sure to keep an eye out for wildlife. 

Highlights

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, Black Elk Peak, Pactola Reservoir, Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, Bridal Veil Falls, Centennial Trail, Old Baldy Trail, Flume National Recreation Trail, Buzzards Roost Trail

Must-Do Activity

In Wyoming, scenic Bear Lodge Road cuts through the forest between Sundance and Alva, east of Devils Tower National Monument.  In South Dakota, we love Black Hills National Forest because it offers tranquil dispersed camping not far from the hubbub that surrounds Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse Memorial, Roughlock Falls, and Deadwood.  To escape the crowds, hike a portion of the 111-mile Centennial Trail or 108-mile George S. Mickelson Rail Trail (which is free to hike or bike, but requires a parking fee at its official trailheads). 

Best Trail

Rising in the center of the Black Elk Wilderness is 7,242-foot tall Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), the highest spot in South Dakota and the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains.  Trails to the summit start from near Mount Rushmore National Memorial (4.7 miles one-way) and Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park (parking fee, 3.8 miles one-way).

Watchable Wildlife

Elk can be found spread throughout Black Hills National Forest, but these nocturnal ungulates are elusive.  Mule deer, white-tailed deer, bighorn sheep, pronghorns, prairie dogs, and turkeys are more commonly sighted.  While driving past Mount Rushmore National Memorial keep an eye out for mountain goats that were introduced to this area.  Both Wind Cave National Park (free) and Custer State Park (entrance fee) have herds of bison, but fences keep them out of the National Forest.

Instagram-worthy Photo

West of Rapid City, South Dakota on Highway 44 is the trailhead for the Buzzards Roost trail system.  Loops of different lengths connect to the scenic overlook at Buzzards Roost Lookout, the shortest option being 1.1 miles one-way.

Peak Season

Summer, plus Buffalo Roundup weekend (late September)

Fees

None

Road Conditions

Iron Mountain Road (Highway 16A) is part of the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway where you will discover the meaning of the term “pigtail bridges.”  Although it cuts through Custer State Park, you do not have to pay the entrance fee if you are driving straight through.  We have found the dirt roads in Black Hills National Forest to be well maintained throughout the year.

Camping

The U.S. Forest Service operates 32 campgrounds (no RV hookups) with nominal fees, especially compared to Custer State Park.  There is also a campground at Wind Cave National Park, but we prefer dispersed camping along Forest Service roads although you have to be careful of private property boundaries.

Wilderness Areas

Black Elk Wilderness

Related Sites

Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota)

Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)

Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

Nearest National Park

Wind Cave (South Dakota)

Conifer Tree Species

ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, limber pine, white spruce, Rocky Mountain juniper

Flowering Tree Species

quaking aspen, paper birch, boxelder, green ash, American elm, eastern cottonwood, red osier dogwood, bur oak, hophornbeam

Explore More – When was the stone fire lookout tower atop Black Elk Peak built by the Civilian Conservation Corps?

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Overview

Completed in 1941 after fifteen years of work, this granite outcrop had the 60-foot tall faces of four prominent American presidents blasted and chiseled into its façade.  The mountain is named for a New York attorney who visited the Black Hills to inspect mining claims in 1885.  Sculptor Gutzon Borglum originally carved Thomas Jefferson over George Washington’s right shoulder, but the granite there had flaws and the figure was blasted away.

Highlights

Grand View Terrace, Avenue of Flags, Sculptor’s Studio, Evening Lighting Ceremony

Must-Do Activity

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is inspiring to see during the day, but for the full effect do not miss the Evening Lighting Ceremony offered May to September.  Held in the outdoor amphitheater, this audiovisual presentation is one of the most patriotic events held at a National Park Service (NPS) site. 

Best Trail

Leaving from the Grand View Terrace, the 0.6-mile Presidential Trail forms a loop with 422 stairs that gets closer to the carvings for a unique perspective and access to the Sculptor’s Studio.

Instagram-worthy Photo

If you keep a sharp eye, you may spot mountain goats around the park.  Not native to South Dakota, they were introduced to the Black Hills in 1924 and have successfully adapted to their new environment. 

Peak Season

Summer, especially 4th of July weekend

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/moru/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

No admission fee, but there is a $10 parking fee (America the Beautiful Pass not accepted)

Road Conditions

All access roads are paved, but there are size limits on the Norbeck Highway due to tunnels.

Camping

There are campgrounds in Wind Cave National Park, Custer State Park, and Black Hills National Forest.

Related Sites

Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site (South Dakota)

Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

Explore More – In the 1920s, who was the most controversial inclusion of the four presidents featured: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Roosevelt?

Wind Cave National Park

Overview

The seventh-longest mapped cave in the world, Wind Cave was discovered in 1881 by Black Hills settlers who noticed a whistling sound coming from its narrow natural entrance.  It was named a national park in 1903 and is famous for its boxwork calcite formations.  The National Park has a herd of approximately 400 bison, in addition to pronghorns, prairie dogs, turkeys, coyotes, white-tailed deer, and elk.

Learn more in our guidebook A Park to Yourself: Finding Adventure in America’s National Parks (available on Amazon).

Highlights

Museum, cave tours, Rankin Ridge lookout tower, Highland Creek Trail, wildlife

Must-Do Activity

The interior of Wind Cave is a constant 53°F, so bring a jacket if you sign up for one of several tours.  For first-timers we recommend the Natural Entrance Tour, which involves entering a vapor lock revolving door and stair steps, not squeezing through the actual tiny natural entrance.  On the Candlelight Tour you carry lightweight metal candle-lanterns, just like 19th-century tourists.  It is only offered in the summer and explores an unlit section of the cave, but no cameras are allowed due to the open flames. 

Best Trail

There are several good trails that traverse the prairie and canyons that can be connected in a variety of loops.  We enjoy backpacking (free permit required) on Highland Creek Trail, where we always see bison.

Instagram-worthy Photo

We have always loved the view of this bridge on Highway 87 over Beaver Creek.  There is also a wooden trestle “Pigtail Bridge” further down the road.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/wica/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None for entry, but $12 per person for each cave tour ($30 for Wild Cave)

Road Conditions

The main roads are paved, but bison are most commonly spotted along Road 5, a graded dirt road through the scenic eastern section of the park bordering Custer State Park (admission fee).

Camping

The NPS runs Elk Mountain Campground or you can backpack camp with a free permit from the visitor center.  The surrounding Black Hills National Forest offers campgrounds and dispersed camping.

Related Sites

Jewel Cave National Monument (South Dakota)

Mount Rushmore National Memorial (South Dakota)

Badlands National Park (South Dakota)

This design we created to celebrate Wind Cave National Park is available on a variety of products at Cafe Press and Amazon.

Explore More – Wind Cave contains what percentage of the boxwork calcite formations discovered in the entire world?

We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites.

Missouri National Recreational River

Overview

Forming the border of Nebraska and South Dakota, the Missouri National Recreational River was originally designated in 1978, but only 300 of its 34,128 acres are managed by the National Park Service (NPS).  Its lower segment runs 59 miles from the Gavins Point Dam to Ponca State Park.  More than a decade later, a 39-mile stretch was added from the Fort Randall Dam to Niobrara State Park, and includes 20 miles of the Lower Niobrara River (which is itself designated a National Scenic River upstream).  The section of river in between is a 29-mile long reservoir known as Lewis and Clark Lake, named for the explorers that led the Corps of Discovery up this section of river in August-September 1804.

Highlights

Lewis and Clark Visitor Center, Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium, boating, fishing

Must-Do Activity

Most visitors come for the boating and fishing opportunities along the Missouri River.  If you are well-prepared, canoeing can be a fun way to experience these two relatively free-flowing sections of river.  The NPS and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (COE) manage the Lewis and Clark Visitor Center near Yankton, South Dakota, which, in addition to dam tours, offers the Gavins Point National Fish Hatchery and Aquarium.

Best Trail

The 4,400-mile long Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail tracks through here, but since the Corps of Discovery used the Missouri River as their path, there is no hiking trail to follow.

Instagram-worthy Photo

There are several great museums along the Missouri River section of the Lewis and Clark National Historical Trail.  Our favorite is the NPS headquarters for the trail in Omaha, Nebraska, which has the beautiful Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge across the river connecting to Iowa.  If you drive over to Council Bluffs, do not miss the free museum at the Western Historic Trails Center.

Peak Season

Summer

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/mnrr/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

None for the NPS unit, but the state parks charge admission.

Road Conditions

Roads to the state parks and visitor centers are paved, but there are many dirt roads that access boat launches along the river.

Camping

Niobrara State Park and Ponca State Park both have more than 100 campsites with running water.  The COE also operates campgrounds near its dams.

Related Sites

Niobrara National Scenic River (Nebraska)

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (North Dakota)

Lewis and Clark National Historical Park (Oregon-Washington)

Explore More – In the aftermath of several devastating floods, when did Congress enact the Flood Control Act to construct five dams along the Missouri River?

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site

Overview

During the Cold War, there were 150 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) silos in South Dakota.  Start your visit at the thought-provoking museum in the National Park Service (NPS) visitor center on Interstate 90, located at Exit 131 (the east entrance into Badlands National Park).  It can be hard to get onto a tour of the Delta-01 launch control facility that same day without reservations, but you can always stop at the Delta-09 missile silo at Exit 116.

Highlights

Museum, Delta-09 missile silo, guided tours of Delta-01 launch control facility

Must-Do Activity

Guided tours of the Delta-01 launch control facility have very limited space and a nominal fee, but are no longer solely first-come, first served thanks to an online reservation system.  Guided tours are also available of the Minuteman II training silo at Ellsworth Air Force Base down the road on Interstate 90 at Exit 67, which is home of the free South Dakota Air and Space Museum (that is definitely worth a stop).

Best Trail

Located off Interstate 90 Exit 116, you can walk around the Delta-09 missile silo, which has interpretive signs around a deactivated Minuteman II ICBM.

Instagram-worthy Photo

Stop to read the quote by the front door to the NPS visitor center.  It is a sobering reminder of the brutal logic behind “nuclear deterrence” and “Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).”

Peak Season

Summer and the September weekend of the Custer State Park bison roundup.

Hours

https://www.nps.gov/mimi/planyourvisit/hours.htm

Fees

No fee for the main visitor center or the Delta-09 missile silo, but there is a small charge for the guided tour of the Delta-01 launch control facility.

Road Conditions

Access to the multiple sites is by paved or good gravel roads.

Camping

Campgrounds and free backcountry camping are allowed in nearby Badlands National Park.

Explore More – A single Minuteman II missile has a 1.2-megaton warhead, which is equivalent in power to what percentage of all munitions used throughout World War II?