Why the Black Hills Should Be on Your Adventure Radar

If the Black Hills of South Dakota aren’t on your short-range adventure bucket list, it’s time to put this destination toward the top. Covering approximately 1.25-millions acres of western South Dakota, Black Hills National Forest lends a lifetime of adventure. And between the caves to explore, pinnacles to climb, and gold rushes to be rushed, plus those stoic faces carved into the stone, the Black Hills are a true gateway into the American West. The Black Hills serves up its own distinct flavor of adventure, set against pinewood surroundings and western ambiance, where every explorer can find their own path to follow.

The George S. Mickelson Bike Trail
Stretching for 109 miles from Deadwood to Edgemont, the George S. Mickelson Bike Trail spans the entire length of the Black Hills National Forest, giving a taste of just about everything the Black Hills has to offer. Lush pine forests, wispy prairies and towering horizons are all featured on the route, as well as ghost towns, rock tunnels and plenty of wildlife. There are 15 trailheads where you can access the George S. Mickelson Bike Trail, each stemming from and leading to the many exciting attractions found throughout the Black Hills.

Rock features jutting from the shore at Sylvan Lake—@Iowanderound
Rock features jutting from the shore at Sylvan Lake—@Iowanderound

Spearfish Canyon and Sylvan Lake Rock Climbing
Between the scenic vertical pursuits at Sylvan Lake and the real limestone smorgasbord of routes in Spearfish Canyon, climbing can be found all year round in the Black Hills. The pinnacles of Sylvan Lake top out as the most stunning surroundings, and feature some of the sates most notorious boulder problems and teeth-clenching traditional spire routes. Spearfish Canyon on the other hand has miles of climbs available leading up the limestone, where sport climbing reigns supreme and can cater towards nearly all levels of climbers.

Custer State Park
Encompassing 71,000 acres of Black Hills scenery, Custer State Park is one of the largest state parks in the country, and routinely grants access to a wide variety of adventure activity. Wildlife lovers will appreciate the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Scenic Byway often speckled with bison. There are nine campgrounds to choose from at Custer, included the coveted Sylvan Lake Campground and its namesake attraction. With plenty things to check out at Custer, including campfire cookouts, buffalo round-ups and miles of hiking trails to explore, more than one night is recommended on your next visit.

Bison line the edge of the Wilderness Drive in Custer State Park @Iowanderound
Bison line the edge of the Wilderness Drive in Custer State Park—@Iowanderound

Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument
The excitement doesn’t stop above ground in the Black Hills, and this already adventure-dense area of the country also hosts two mind-boggling subterranean cave systems. Both Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument are in proximity to Custer State Park in the southern Black Hills. Wind Cave itself is one of the longest and most complex cave systems in the world with only 123 miles of maze-like passageways explored, and a lot more to be discovered. The only way to discover what’s inside either of these two cave systems is through a guided tour from a National Park Ranger, which are offered almost every single day of the year.

Black Elk Wilderness
Serving as the only designated Wilderness within the Black Hills National Forest, the Black Elk Wilderness is the perfect place to get away from the summer crowds at the usual attractions. Spanning for over 13,000 acres, the Black Elk Wilderness is often frequented by backpackers who want to spend the night in nature. Most routes into the Black Elk Wilderness begin and end at the Willow Creek Horse Camp, and avid explorers choose their adventure from there on a variety of trails, with a popular option including a hike up to the top of Black Elk Peak, best known as the highest point in South Dakota.

Traveling through the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway @Iowanderound
Traveling through the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway—@Iowanderound

Scenic Drives in Spearfish Canyon and Beyond
From the Needles Highway and its panoramic spired views to the corkscrew construction of Iron Mountain Road framed by Mount Rushmore, one of the best scenic drives in the Black Hills can be found cruising down the center of Spearfish Canyon. Also known less excitingly as Highway 14A, the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway provides 22 miles of serene forest setting alongside the meandering Spearfish Creek, providing the right incentive to roll down the windows and slow down the speed a bit.

Historic sign in Deadwood @Iowanderound
Historic sign in Deadwood—@Iowanderound

Not just inspired by the Wild West but rather the embodiment of it, the city of Deadwood is a blast from the past with plenty of modern comforts. Serving as the fateful site where “Wild Bill” Hickock met his fate, and where the 19th century Black Hills Gold Rush really sprung to life, the traces of this earlier age are still heavily found in Deadwood today. In part known for its gambling and nightlife establishments, staged in-street shootouts and costumed characters, Deadwood is also a great place to learn about the vibrant history of the region, including the time before any gold was discovered in them thar hills.

A crowd gathers beneath Mount Rushmore @Iowanderound
A crowd gathers beneath Mount Rushmore—@Iowanderound

Mount Rushmore
And of course you can’t forget about Rushmore, the four immortalized faces in the stone that overlook the adventure-rich land and all the people who visit. Truly a marvel of engineering, Mount Rushmore is one of those things that if not more, is at least worth one visit in a lifetime. Whether you’re interested in the history behind the chiseled work, or the architecture that put it all in place, a good complimentary visit can be found nearby at the Crazy Horse Memorial. Both sculptures tell a story with the backdrop of the Black Hills, and each can add a real nice touch to any South Dakota vacation.