First stop in our west mountain road trip: The Black Hills, South Dakota
Updated: Oct 18, 2020
When to go? What to hike? Where to stay? How long to visit? Well, you have options. Lots of options. But in an effort to help you plan your trip, we will give you a rundown on the places we visited with helpful tips to plan your next trip.
When to Go
Honestly, this will be subjective. We took our trip to the Black Hills the end of July which was enjoyable, but still hot- and I don't particularly like the heat. Personally, I think that the Black Hills would be gorgeous in the fall (and from what I read less crowded!), but I have yet to experience it during that time.
So in order to give you the best information on the time of year to visit based on your personal taste, I suggest visiting the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota's webpage which gives a great rundown of what activities are available and the weather you can expect during each season.
What to Hike
The Black Hills covers 5,000 square miles and is comprised of the north and south hills that are home to Black Elk Peak, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Crazy Horse Memorial, Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, Spearfish Canyon, Deadwood. The Black Hills also stretch into Wyoming where the Devil's Tower National Monument is located.
Because we only stayed in the Black Hills for one night, Ash and I stuck mostly to the hikes in and around Custer State Park. The afternoon we arrived we tried to complete the Lover's Leap Trail, a 4-mile route with views including Black Elk Peak, Cathedral Spires, and Mount Coolidge. Unfortunately about a mile in we encountered a herd of big horn sheep that did not want us to pass, so we were forced to turn around and head back to our car (bonus, we saw big horn sheep up close). We chose to end our evening driving the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road which did not disappoint.
Our favorite hike, and as we learned a very popular attraction, was Black Elk Peak. The highest natural point in South Dakota, the peak rises 7,244 feet above sea level. Black Elk, Heȟáka Sápa in Lakota, was an Oglala medicine man who came from a long line of medicine men including his father and uncles. He was also second cousin to 19th century Oglala war leader Crazy Horse, or in Lakota Tȟašúŋke Witkó, who fought against the U.S. federal government to stop white settlers from taking the Lakota land. The hike to the summit of Black Elk peak can be done from two different trail heads. We chose to use trail #4, as trail #9 was less strenuous and therefore way more crowded. An out-and-back trail starting south of Sylvan Lake on Needles Highway and totaling 6.5 miles, took us through forests, past cliff-side overlooks, and culminated at stone structure with 360 degree views of the landscape.
One of the really cool things that Custer State Park offers is a magazine containing a trail flow chart. It asks you 3-4 questions, and gives you your "ideal hike" based off of your answers. I recommend grabbing this magazine if you plan to hike in this park.
An online list of all the Custer State Park trails with fun facts can be found here. An online list of the trails found in the Black Hills can be found here.
Where to Stay
The Black Hills was the only place on our 10-day trip that we did not pre-book a campsite. We decided to take a chance on a first-come-first-serve site at Bismark Lake, just outside the west entrance of Custer State Park. We highly recommend this campground as there were only a handful of sites with plenty of space and privacy. Each site offered a fire ring, picnic table, and a large space for your tent set up. There were also pit toilets and firewood for purchase.
Because we only had one morning at this site, we woke early so we could sit lakeside and drink our coffees. Ash and I were both pleasantly surprised to find we were the only two there, so we enjoyed the peace and took in the beautiful scenery as small wildlife prepared for the day around us.
The Black Hills and Custer have numerous camping or lodging areas to choose from:
How Long to Visit
This depends on the type of visit. Is this one stop on a longer road trip, or a vacation destination?
For us, it was a resting point between Minneapolis and Bozeman. Despite our attempts at packing as many hikes as we could into our short time here, we were only able to see a very small portion of the National Forest. If we visit again we will plan to stay for at least a few nights. If you are a really ambitious hiker, you could easily fill up a week exploring various trails - as many have confirmed online - there is so much to do here! My recommendation: Look through all available trails, monuments, and drives, and cherry pick your must see's to determine the time you will need to get your full experience.
What else can you expect?
There are a few things we noticed during our time at the Black Hills that I feel are important to note. First, it is very conservative. For some this may not be a big deal, but I was not ready for all of the trump imagery that I saw here. We don't experience much - if any - of this propaganda in Minneapolis, so it did shock me slightly and at times put a damper on our spirits (it's hard to hike peacefully when a group of people are waving a big ass trump flag and taking photos on land belonging to native tribes).
This brings to light a second observation: taking time to seek out the history of this area is important. The history put out there for tourists to read was whitewashed, giving little to no information on the native lands prior to white settlers. Without digging deeper to learn the full context of this area's timeline, we'd have had no idea about the sacred importance of these lands to native tribes, how treaties broken by the federal government stripped tribal members of their homes, and the trauma that this has caused.
Third, it costs an extra $20 to enter Custer State Park. Getting into the Black Hills National Forest is free, but if you plan to utilize any of the trails, drives, and lakes in the state park you will have to pay for a pass - luckily this one-time purchase lasts 7 days.
The hikes are what brought us to the Custer State Park area of the Black Hills, but there are two driving routes that you can't miss. The Wildlife Loop offers the opportunity to get a close up view to the bison herds (safely while staying in the car and avoiding any interaction). After seeing some videos of car tires being popped only weeks after we left, we recommend driving the Wildlife Loop before or after mating season. Needles Highway was another highlight and one of the coolest roads we've driven. Our car weaved in and out of the enormous hills. Strange and wonderful rock formations towered over the road, and trees would part ways every so often offering views of the landscape below.
Lastly, keep a look out for animals! Big horn sheep, bison, antelope, deer, and herons were just some of the wildlife we saw during our time here. The park has guidelines for tourists to follow to ensure that wildlife and their surroundings are respected, so please read these closely.