Why the Black Hills Should Be on Your Adventure Radar

If the Black Hills of South Dako­ta isn’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 states 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 of 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 is 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 real­ly nice touch to any South Dako­ta vacation.