Black Hills South Dakota: itinerary among forests, scenic roads and western cities

Who I am
Martí Micolau
@martímicolau
SOURCES CONSULTED:

wikipedia.org, lonelyplanet.com

The region of Black Hills it is certainly one of the most fascinating areas of South Dakota, as well as one of the most interesting attractions of that vast territory commonly known as Real America. Among the great national parks where hundreds of bison graze, scenic roads that line natural wonders, landmarks of American and Indian patriotism and western towns, by organizing an itinerary in this area you will surely find something that is right for you.


So let's go and discover the most beautiful things to see in the Black Hills region.


Index

  • What they are and where they are
  • Custer State Park
    • Panoramic Roads
    • Sylvan Lake
  • Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
  • M
  • Crazy horse memorial
  • Jewel cave national monument
  • Wind Cave National Park
  • Badlands national park
  • Black Hills National Forest
  • George S. Mickelson Trail
  • The most important towns in the area
    • Rapid City
    • Historic Deadwood
    • Belle fourche
    • Sturgis
    • Keystone

What they are and where they are

Normally, when it comes to Black Hills, we refer to the homonymous mountain range of South Dakota, which actually extends into Wyoming as well, up to the Devils Tower area. On closer inspection, however, the term Black Hills means a real region, which includes a remarkable range of tourist attractions and natural beauty.

This territory is usually visited during a tour of Real America, then combined with a visit to Yellowstone and the surrounding areas. The closest airport is Denver, from which the Black Hills are about 6 hours away by car, but you can also reach them directly by domestic flight by getting off at Rapid City, the most important urban center in the area. Here are 2 articles that I recommend you read to better organize your trip to this region:



  • How to find and book a low cost flight to the USA
  • How to rent a car in the USA 

Custer State Park

This is one of the largest state parks not only in South Dakota but in the entire United States. Those who want to have the opportunity to observe specimens of animals in the wild insert it without hesitation in an itinerary because they will not be disappointed. Especially this is the realm of the bisonti (there are more than 1500 specimens) that roam the prairies regardless of cars and visitors.

The park is open all year round and it is necessary to access it pay 20 $ per vehicle. There are many visitor centers but the most important is the Custer State Park Visitor Center which is located near the intersection of the Wildlife Loop and Iron Mountain Road. Inside, in addition to being able to ask for more information about the area, you can also watch a video of about 20 minutes on the beauties of the park and its history.

Panoramic Roads

Take your car to the Wildlife Loop it is certainly the best way, and at the same time the simplest, to see bison, antelos, prairie dogs up close, and enjoy the views of the park without making any effort.

The kilometers to go are almost 29 but expect to take from an hour to an hour and a half. However, the time can vary depending on the number of visitors and the traffic that can be created when some bison decides to cross the road, putting all the calm of the world in it (if this happens, it is not advisable to rush them). The best time of day to watch animals roam the prairies without a lot of crowds is early in the morning.



Inside the park there are also two others scenic roads very famous that contribute to form the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, which we will discover later. So let's go and understand more in depth what they can offer to those who decide to follow them.

Needles Highway

It is also called the Impossible Highway due to the difficulties encountered in its construction given the particular conformation of the territory. It is just over 22 kilometers of road that branch off between switchbacks and tunnels nestled between rocks and forests. In fact, it owes its name to the rock formations, similar to needles, which can be seen driving along this road. Expect to take 45 to 60 minutes to complete it.

The tunnels dug into the bare rock are very scenic thanks to their small size compared to the mountains that surround them, but I do not exclude that they may, for this reason, intimidate someone (they are one-way so you will have to alternate with those coming from the opposite direction). Even if they are only two, they are still one of the main reasons why it is worth going down this path. Their names are: Iron Creek Tunnel e Needles Eye Tunnel.

The latter is certainly the most spectacular thanks to the presence in its vicinity of a rock formation that resembles the eye of a needle. In order to fully appreciate it there is also a small parking lot.

Be careful though, this road it is closed to traffic in winter, when the first snow begins to fall, and it usually doesn't reopen until April.


Iron Mountain Road

It is just over 27 kilometers that connect Mount Rushmore National Monument directly to Custer State Park. For this reason the initial part of the road with its tunnels is not really part of the park but of the Black Hills National Forest but I thought I'd describe it here for convenience.


It is practically an almost obligatory step, if you are planning an itinerary in the area, and it will give you some incredible views, thanks above all to three very scenic tunnels that incredibly manage to perfectly set the portrait of the four American presidents sculpted on the mountain.

These are, from north to south:

  • Doane Robinson Tunnel
  • C.C. Gideon Tunnel
  • Scovel Johnson Tunnel

This street is also famous for the so-called spiral bridges that allow you to gain (or lose) altitude quickly and safely, as well as being visually fascinating. If you intend to walk this road in its entirety, or in any case you do not intend to make an itinerary inside the park, you will not have to pay the entrance fee to Custer State Park.

Sylvan Lake

Sylvan Lake is one of the most beautiful and popular destinations within the park. If you visit it in the height of the summer season, finding a parking space can therefore become challenging. It is a lake inserted in one lovely scenery where, if desired, it is also possible to swim.

Numerous routes start from here, the most famous of which is the one that leads up to Black Elk Peak (also known as Harney Peak), which is the highest point in all of South Dakota and formally lies within the Black Hills National Forest. The Black Elk Peak Trail it is not a path to be taken lightly because it is 10 kilometers with an altitude difference of almost 500 meters, but if you are fit enough, and have time available, you will find an old restored fire observation tower waiting for you from which you can dominate the whole 'surrounding area.

If you don't want to take this walk, I recommend that you opt for the Sylvan Lake Shore which, in just under 2 kilometers, allows you to circumnavigate the lake in its entirety. Wishing this can be a great place to stay thanks to the Sylvan Lake Lodge, which should also be considered for a lunch or dinner if you are just passing through.

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

This is the scenic route that intersects some of the most beautiful views that can be seen in this part of South Dakota. Another positive factor is that along it you can visit the most important attractions of the state. It owes its name to Peter Norbeck who, among other things, was a US Senator as well as Governor of South Dakota.

It is basically a loop circuit that combines four different highways, two of which are the scenic roads of the Custer State Park that I described above:

  • the SD 87 also known as Needles Highway
  • SD 89
  • SD 244
  • US Route 16A also known as Iron Mountain Road

Le attractions the most important ones that are touched by this itinerary are:

  • Custer State Park
  • Mount Rushmore National Monument
  • Norbeck Wildlife Preserve

If you want to fully enjoy, at the right pace, the views you will cross, take into account at least three hours to make a complete tour without counting the stops in the various areas you will encounter. The suggestion for organize an itinerary could be to start from Keystone, make a stop at Mount Rushmore, travel the Iron Mountain Road and the Needles Highway and then return to the starting point.

This essential itinerary can be comfortably completed in a day, but if you want to add some Custer State Park trails or explore the area more carefully you will have to consider at least two days so as not to ruin your visit with the rush to see everything in a short time.

M

One of the most famous and representative attractions of the United States is located in this region. We are talking about Mount Rushmore with the profiles of the four American presidents carved along the back of the mountain.

If you want more information on how to get there and what to see you can read our in-depth study dedicated to how to visit Mount Rushmore.

Crazy horse memorial

Native Indian's answer to Mount Rushmore is this massive memorial to Crazy Horse, victor at the Battle of Little Big Horn. The project, which began in 1948, is still a work in progress that, in small steps, is traveling the road to become the largest monument carved in the rock in the world.

To find out all that awaits you when visiting this place of great symbolic value, you can read our article on the Crazy Horse Memorial.

Jewel cave national monument

If you are fascinated by the underground world you cannot miss this wonder. In fact, in this National Monument there is the third largest cave in the world with more than 325 kilometers of mapped routes.

It is located about 21 kilometers west of the city of Custer and, to access the cave, it is necessary to take part in a tour and obtain the relative ticket, which has a variable cost depending on the type you choose.

Tour tickets can only be purchased on site on the same day and, as they are therefore not bookable, they are sold with the classic first come first serve formula. During the weekends in high season it is therefore advisable to arrive early if you are interested in visiting the caves, otherwise waiting times can easily range between three and four hours.

Here are some examples of tours:

  • Scenic Tour ($ 12): it is about an hour and a half walk during which you will go up and down more than 700 steps along a path of almost one kilometer. This is the only tour that can also be booked online in advance.
  • Historic Lantern Tour ($ 12): This tour is even more demanding than the previous one, both in terms of the duration (one hour and 45 minutes), and in terms of the route (longer and more difficult), and is therefore only recommended for people in good physical condition. The peculiarity of this experience consists in making you relive in first person the ways of exploring the subsoil of the 900s, or armed only with a lantern. It takes place only during the summer months.
  • Wild Caving Tour ($ 31): the degree of difficulty rises again. The tour lasts almost 4 hours during which you will have to face some sections of the route that require climbing a rock, or crawling along very narrow and narrow passages. Practically it is recommended only for experienced speleologists who also have clothing suitable for this type of excursion with them.

These tours are too demanding for you? Or travel with gods children? Then you can consider participating in Discovery Talk ($ 4), which consists of an introduction to the history of the place with a visit to a large, easily accessible cave. All this lasts only 20 minutes, which makes it suitable even for those who have little time available.

Inside the caves the average temperature is about 9-10 degrees throughout the year, so bring suitable clothing. The times at which it is possible to take part in the tours vary according to the period and, for a complete overview, I refer you to the official page of the park.

Wind Cave National Park

Compared to the previous one, this national park is much larger and offers the possibility to explore it not only underground but also outside, thanks to numerous paths that develop along prairies and pine forests.

Entering the park with your own car and taking one of the many routes is free. Like what was said for the previous park, if you want to access the caves, however, you will have to participate in one of the tours available for a fee.

The types vary greatly depending on the difficulty of the route to be covered and the time it will take to complete it. The most popular ones are the Garden of Eden Cave Tour ($ 10), which represents the simplest and most immediate experience to discover the cave and is suitable for everyone, and the Natural Entrance Cave Tour ($ 12), recommended for those who want to go deeper without putting too much physical resistance to the test.

Find the details of all further tours and more information on timetables on the official page of the national park.

Badlands national park

Badlands National Park is one of those places that almost seem to be part of a other planet. Over time, atmospheric agents have given the mountain ranges curious and particular shapes, which take on a further charm thanks to the different stratifications of colors of the rocks.

The park is divided into two areas and, to better understand how to visit it and how to organize yourself for an excursion in the numerous paths present, I invite you to read our article dedicated to what to see in Badlands National Park.

Black Hills National Forest

It is a very large area that covers practically the entire west side of South Dakota, so much so that it is difficult to delimit it with precise borders, since in some cases it overlaps with areas, towns and scenic roads that can also be classified differently.

As for the latter case, in addition to the aforementioned Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, the other scenic route to take into consideration is the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, located in the north near the homonymous town of Spearfish. Some of the most photographed natural attractions along this route are certainly the scenic ones waterfalls. The most important and appreciated are the Bridal Veil Falls (not to be confused with the Yosemite Falls of the same name) and the Roughlock Falls.

The most important observation points within the National Forest are the aforementioned Black Elk Peak, Norbeck Overlook, which is located along the scenic Iron Mountain Road and from which the four presidents carved into the rock can be seen in the distance, and the Breezy point on Highway 244, a short drive from Mount Rushmore.

Some of the most visited buildings within this area are the old ones fire lookout towers, some of which are very particular and, over time, have become real historical places, as well as perfect locations for admiring the surrounding panorama from above. Among the most relevant I point out:

  • Cement Ridge Historic Fire Lookout
  • Custer Peak Lookout Tower
  • Warren Peak Fire Lookout

A little curiosity: a short distance from the town of Deadwood stands a particular tower called Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower, created in 1919 by the first sheriff of the city Seth Bullock, as an everlasting testimony of his fraternal friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt, to whom a national park in North Dakota is also dedicated: Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The aim was not only to create a memorial for its own sake, but to help people enjoy the views offered by the lands that the two friends had loved so much.

George S. Mickelson Trail

Can a trail be one of the main attractions of a region and not of a single park? In this case it is because the George S. Mickelson Trail extends for more than 175 kilometers, crossing a large part of the Black Hills National Forest region but not only.

The route connects the cities of Deadwood (which I will talk about later) and Edgemont. It can be traveled either on foot (perhaps choosing a shorter stretch depending on your itinerary) or by bicycle, crossing, among other things, dozens of bridges on which the railway once ran and four picturesque tunnels in the rock that we have come to know thanks to the panoramic roads described above. The trail in fact develops along the route of the former Burlington Northern section which, until 1983, connected Edgemont to the gold mines that stood near Deadwood.

The most important towns in the area

Among the many cities that can be found in the Black Hills area here is a selection of the most characteristic.

Rapid City

It is one of the most important cities not only in the Black Hills area, but also in the entire state of South Dakota. The city is famous for hosting some sort of Walk of Fame of politics American: along the main streets of its Downtown it houses the statues of all the US presidents. But you will also find more fun attractions (such as Dinosaur Park) and curious (such as Chapel In The Hills).

To know all the secrets of this city and advice on where to sleep, you can read our article entirely dedicated to what to see in Rapid City.

Historic Deadwood

If you are fascinated by western cities and the myth of the gold rush Historic Deadwood it is a stop that you cannot exclude from your Black Hills tour. Here you can witness street shootings, the trial of the murderer of the hero James Butler Hickok, visit the tomb of Calamity Jane and other historic houses. For more details, please read our guide to Deadwood.

Belle fourche

It is considered the gateway to the north of the Black Hills, but above all it is known for being nothing less than the geographic center of the United States. The city had to wait until 1959, when Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands officially became part of the USA, to be able to obtain this recognition which, as you can imagine, is proudly flaunted by all the inhabitants.

If you want to feel part of this local exceptionality you must necessarily visit the Center of the Nation Monument in which a large compass rose, entirely made of granite, makes a fine show surrounded by the flags of all the American states. Definitely a perfect place if you are looking for a special souvenir photo. A few steps from the monument is the Tri-State Museum, interesting to find out more about the history of the city and buy some themed souvenirs.

If you are particularly interested in these curiosities, you should know that the geographic center of the continental United States (therefore without Alaska and islands) it is found near Lebanon in Kansas.

Where sleeping in Belle Fourche

There aren't many accommodations in the town but these two options can definitely be considered:

  • Ace Motel: a classic American-style motel, ideal for those who do not have high demands and want to save a little while not giving up on good service.
  • AmericInn by Wyndham Belle Fourche: those who prefer to rely on the guarantee of a large hotel chain can opt for this structure with a large indoor pool, spacious rooms and a reasonable price.

Look for accommodation in Belle Fourche

Sturgis

This small town in the Black Hills has quite a national reputation for hosting a favorite motorcycle rally. In fact, every year in August it becomes the Motorcycle City d’America and hundreds of thousands of Harley Davidson enthusiasts flock to the streets of this city.

The souvenir shops and restaurants are practically all two-wheeled themed, as are the main attractions of Sturgis. In particular, if you are interested, I recommend that you take a look at the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame, where you can admire a small but fascinating collection of vintage motorcycles.

At the gates of the city is the site on which the historian stood Fort Meade, active from 1878 until 1944, originally created to provide a protective service to the miners in the area, who were attacked by the Sioux Indians. This place is most famous for being the first where, during official ceremonies, the notes of Star spangled banner, which only later will become the American anthem. Today you can visit the homonymous museum which traces the history of the fort and the area.

Near the city is the Bear Butte State Park (ticket costs $ 6 per vehicle) perfect destination if you plan to stretch your legs a bit. Here, in fact, you can walk along a path of about four and a half kilometers (round trip) that will take you to the top of the “sacred” mountain of Bear Butte, from which you will dominate the entire valley below. If you want, there is the possibility to take a relaxing walk following the path that surrounds the nearby Bear Butte Lake.

Where sleeping in Sturgis

In this city, if you want to play it safe, I recommend the hotel Baymont Inn & Suites by Wyndham, but before booking any hotel check when the big motorcycle rally is held, because the prices of the various structures (as you can imagine) are affected.

Search for accommodation in Sturgis

Keystone

Like many other towns in the area, Keystone was born as mining outpost during the gold rush years. Obviously, given its proximity to Mount Rushmore, most of the attractions are dedicated to this historic monument with some curious and amusing exceptions.

One of the recommended stops to find out more about the history of the most famous monument in this area is al Rushmore Borglum Story. It is a large museum entirely dedicated to the life and work of the sculptor who designed and created the faces of the presidents in the mountain. There you will find the models of the various attempts that then led to the final project, as well as a collection of the main works of Borglum.

If you want to take on the role of the legendary gold diggers who populated this area in search of fortune, visit the Big Thunder Gold Mine, a real mine where, among other things, you can test your skills in finding the precious nuggets.

Do you want to take two steps to stretch your legs? Then consider taking on the fascinating Historic Walking Tour in the Old Town, thanks to which you can learn more about the most important buildings of the city grouped in a few blocks. On this page you can consult a guide with the main points to visit.

La Rushmore Tramway it is the perfect combination of fun and nature. During the outward journey a chairlift will take you to admire Mount Rushmore from afar, as well as beautiful views of the forests and mountains of the Black Hills. The whole area is designed to relax thanks to paths that develop between flowers and scenic waterfalls. Thanks to the presence of a restaurant it is also possible to eat surrounded by this splendid natural setting.

To return to the valley you can reuse the chairlift or experience the thrill of using theAlpine Slide: A long slide to be covered with special sleds. You can choose between two parallel routes that differ only in the speed with which you can travel them. Surely, if you are traveling with children, it is a recommended stop.

Those who love historical trains, and want to continue living the experiences of the region's past, do not miss the opportunity to travel on the 1880 Train. It is a historic railway that connects the towns of Keystone and Hill city, crossing the Black Hills region and enjoying landscapes ranging from grasslands to forests. The duration of the journey is one hour each way, if you want to make a round trip, in most cases, you will have to add another 15 minutes for the necessary operations at the station. However, I invite you to consult the official website for all the updated information on timetables.

Finally, if you are looking for a place to buy some souvenir, I suggest you do not miss theHoly Terror Antiques and Keystone Mall where you will surely find a gift for all needs.

Where sleeping in Keystone

For some advice, I refer you to the hotels that we reported when we talked about where to sleep in Keystone, in the article dedicated to Mount Rushmore.

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