Black Hills of South Dakota
The Black Hills rise from the horizon, an island in a sea of prairie grass. Its pine forests and granite peaks are an oasis born of silent centuries.
The Black Hills is one of the oldest mountain ranges in North America, its once-towering peaks eroded to perhaps half their original height. The result is spectacular beauty on an intimate scale. The mountains here are accessible and welcoming, the scenic attractions just minutes apart. It’s a place that begs to be explored, whether you’re here for the scenery, the abundant outdoor recreation, the family attractions – or a little of everything.
Things to Do in the Black Hills
Hike our trails – Harney Peak is the highest point between the Rockies and the French Pyrenees – or bike the 109-mile Mickelson Trail, a reclaimed rail bed that meanders through prairie and pine vistas. Fly fish our blue-ribbon trout streams or ski our back country.
You’ll be following in the footsteps of countless others, the earliest of whom came for far different reasons.
The Lakota Indians called this place Paha Sapa, or Black Hills, because its pine-covered slopes appear black from a distance. The Lakota viewed this as the center of the universe, home to spiritually significant sites such as Wind Cave and Bear Butte, where the Lakota still seek visions and guidance.
The Black Hills were forever changed when gold was discovered in Deadwood Gulch in 1876, prompting a gold rush that drew legendary characters such as Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane to the area. Gambling returned to the gulch in 1989 when gaming was legalized in Deadwood, bringing a new wave of people to seek their fortunes in the National Historic Landmark town. A portion of the money wagered there helps fund historic preservation in Deadwood and the state.
Low gold prices led to the 2002 closure of the Homestake Mine in Lead, long a major employer in the Northern Black Hills. Today the former gold mine is being transformed into the Sanford Underground Research Facility, where scientists can study dark matter and neutrinos.
In wintertime, outdoor enthusiasts can hit the slopes at Terry Peak and Mystic Miner resorts near Lead, head for the backcountry on a snowmobile, or explore the trails at Eagle Cliff and Big Hill on alpine skis.
The Northern Hills
The Northern Hills are also home to Spearfish and Spearfish Canyon, where locals and tourists alike flock in autumn to view the brilliant golds of the aspen forests. Fly fishermen can try casting a line in the cold clear waters of Spearfish Creek, one of several blue-ribbon trout streams in the Hills.
Farther north, near the agricultural town of Belle Fourche, the Belle Fourche Reservoir – known locally as Orman Dam – is popular for walleye fishing. Belle Fourche is renowned for being the Center of the Nation and for its annual Black Hills Roundup, an All-American Independence Day party that includes rodeos, parades, carnivals and fireworks.
Sturgis is world-famous for its annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The event began in 1938 and now draws hundreds of thousands of bikers to the area during the first full week of August. Rock concerts and celebrity sightings add to the party atmosphere.
Bear Butte dominates the horizon northeast of town, rising dramatically from the prairie. Hikers are welcome but are asked not to disturb the colorful prayer bundles tied in trees along the summit trail.
Nearby Rapid City is the hub of western South Dakota and the state’s second-largest city. Nestled at the junction of hills and plains, it’s home to a vibrant downtown and a thriving arts scene. Rapid City also offers a wealth of family-friendly activities, from the Journey Museum to Main Street Square to Storybook Island, a free children’s park that has been delighting families for generations.
Right next door, Ellsworth Air Force Base is home to the 28th Bomb Wing and Western South Dakota’s largest employer. Get a feel for local military impact at the South Dakota Air and Space Museum near the Base and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site east of Wall.
The Southern Hills
Travel south and the Black Hills take on a new personality. The high alpine meadows and spruce forests of the Northern Black Hills give way to granite spires and clear blue lakes.
Those rock outcroppings are what drew sculptor Gutzon Borglum, who began carving Mount Rushmore here in 1929. Recognized world-wide as a “shrine of democracy,” the national memorial attracts more than 3 million visitors each year.
Just down the road, the even-larger mountain carving of the Lakota leader Crazy Horse continues to take shape. Sculptor Korczak Ziolkowski died in 1982 but his family has carried on his dream, carving the mountain with no government funding whatsoever.
If you’re more interested in climbing rocks than carving them, you’re in luck. The granite spires of the Needles are a favorite with rock climbers.
And nearby Harney Peak, located in the Black Elk Wilderness Area, marks the highest U.S. point east of the Rocky Mountains. Well-marked trails lead to the 7,242-foot summit and views of four states.
Take a step back in time by boarding the 1880 Train in nearby Hill City. The vintage steam train winds its way through Black Hills National Forest and private land on a one-hour passage to the tourist town of Keystone and back again.
Two of the most spectacular drives anywhere lead south from here. Needles Highway features spectacular views and a narrow, one-way rock tunnel, while Iron Mountain Road boasts unique “Pigtail Bridges” and rock tunnels framing perfect views of Mount Rushmore.
Custer State Park
Both highways lead directly to Custer State Park – an oasis within an oasis. Pitch a tent or stay at one of four historic resorts, including the State Game Lodge, which served as Calvin Coolidge’s Summer White House. The 71,000-acre park is home to a herd of 1,300 bison, along with pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk and mountain lions.
Visitors can also relax at one of the park’s crystal-clear lakes or take in a summer performance at the Black Hills Playhouse.
Just outside the park boundary lies the town of Custer, named for Gen. George Custer, who led an expedition through the region in 1874 hoping to confirm reports of gold discoveries.
Today Custer serves as a southern hub for tourists visiting area attractions, including Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument. Jewel Cave is thought to be the third longest cave in the world, with more than 169 miles of mapped and surveyed passages. Wind Cave – where life originated, according to Lakota belief – is known for its outstanding display of boxwork, a rare cave formation.
Wind Cave is also the southern terminus for the 111-mile South Dakota Centennial Trail, which starts at Bear Butte State Park and is open to hikers, bikers and horseback riders.
The turn-of-the-century resort town of Hot Springs marks the southern end of the Black Hills. Named for its natural warm water springs, Hot Springs developed in the late 1800′s as a health destination. Today visitors of all ages can enjoy Evans Plunge, an enormous spring-fed indoor pool.
Hot Springs is also home to the Mammoth Site, an archaeological treasure trove where dozens of mammoths were trapped and died in a spring-fed pond more than 26,000 years ago. Discovered in 1974, today the site features exhibits, ongoing excavations and a research center.
Badlands National Park
Mammoths weren’t the only animals preserved in the Western South Dakota soil. Just east of the Black Hills lie the Badlands, named for their extreme temperatures, lack of water and rugged terrain. Fossil finds there include the remains of marine animals deposited 70 million years ago when the region was an inland sea.
Buried treasure continues to emerge from the rock. In 2010, a 7-year-old girl visiting Badlands National Park found a rare saber tooth cat fossil. Summer visitors can watch paleontologists at work in the park’s Fossil Preparation Lab.
The Badlands may be at their best in the off-season, when cooler temperatures make for better hiking. The park’s otherworldly rock spires and ridges are transformed by the play of light over days and seasons, shifting the landscape from fortress to fairyland and back again.
The Badlands are also the gateway to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where Lakota culture thrives. Visit the Wounded Knee Massacre Site, take in the Oglala Nation Rodeo and Powwow in early August, or try the slots at Prairie Wind Casino.
No Trip Here is Complete.
No Black Hills trip is complete without a stop at nearby Wall Drug. In 1936 its owners put up highway signs advertising “free ice water” to travelers, hoping to attract customers.
It worked. Nearly 80 years later the 76,000-square-foot drug store – which now includes restaurants, Western art galleries, shops and children’s activities along with a pharmacy – draws thousands of visitors each summer day. It’s worth a stop, if only for a homemade doughnut, a free glass of ice water, and the best view ever: the Black Hills rising on the western horizon, beckoning travelers to come explore all over again.