Black Hills National Forest

South Dakota
Gorp.com
Black Hills National Forest, South Dakiota (courtesy, South Dakota Tourism)
Black Hills National Forest

Contact Details
US Forest Service
Black Hills National Forest
1019 N. 5th Street
Custer, SD 57730
Phone: 605-673-9200

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Seen from a distance, the Black Hills, rising several thousand feet like sentinels above the surrounding prairie, do appear to be black. But enter these hills and a world of color and variety unfolds.

The Black Hills cover an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. They include rugged rock formations, canyons and gulches, open grassland parks, tumbling streams, deep lakes, and caves. Trees and plants from the Rocky Mountains, eastern woodlands, northern forests, and the Great Plains converge at this biological crossroads. The forest cover and forage sustain a wide variety of birds and four-legged animals, including yellow-billed cuckoos, Lewis’s woodpeckers, elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats.

These mountains have power; or, as South Dakota conservationist Peter Norbeck puts it, they have value beyond gold. For many people, from past and present Native Americans to today's visitors, the Black Hills have been a special place for physical and spiritual renewal.

The name "Black Hills" is a translation of the Lakota Sioux Paha Sapa. But that is only the surface translation. The deeper translation is "the heart of everything that is."

Hike the Harney Range
At 7,242 feet, Harney Peak is the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains. A lookout tower at the summit gives hikers an extra boost to absorb views of four states and the granite cliffs and rock formations of the Black Elk Wilderness. Below the summit, many trails crisscross the mountain and its craggy granite peak. All are worth following, for each route threads through different terrain. The Black Elk Wilderness is the most popular hiking area. Its 17 miles of hiking and horse trails lead to Harney Peak from almost any direction.

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Bike the Centennial Trail
The Centennial is one of the gonzo routes of America, with downhills rocky as the faces of Mount Rushmore, which the trail passes within a mile of. You might even see some bison along the way. Not all sections are so wild. The Centennial's 111 miles run the length of the Black Hills, from Bear Butte State Park in the north to Wind Cave National Park in the south. So there's a goodly range of routes. But if you're looking for a challenge, steer for the Badger Hole to French Creek section. If your taste in trails runs to the nice and easy, the George Mickelson Trail is a recently completed rail trail that serves up easy grades and first-class scenery.

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Commune with Large Critters
If the Black Hills are, as the Lakota Sioux thought, the heart of the world, the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve is the left ventricle. It is home to a variety of wildlife, including elk, deer, and mountain goat. It also contains rugged granite formations, small lakes, and lively grasslands with about 36 miles of hiking trails winding through it all. It all adds up to the best place to follow the doctor's order to commune with nature. Adjacent Custer State Park is home to the largest bison herd in the United States.

Ski the Eagle Trail
The Eagle Cliff Trails were started by local skiing buffs in the mid-1980s. They form a self-guiding loop trail system totaling about 25 miles. Much of the system winds through stands of ponderosa pine and up shaded draws lined with Black Hills spruce. Trailheads are approximately eight miles west of Cheyenne Crossing on U.S. 85. The Bear Mountain ski trails wander among picturesque pine and spruce stands along the limestone rim and plunge through draws lined with aspen. This is a good trail for winter wildlife. White-tailed and mule deer share the area with elk. You may glimpse sharp-tailed grouse, ruffed grouse, wild turkeys, coyotes, or even an occasional mountain lion.

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Drive Spearfish Canyon
Grab a postcard at a filling station along the way, then bypass the crowds at Mount Rushmore. Nearby Spearfish Canyon's scenery is always close, always upward, and always diverse. Trees and plants from the Rocky Mountains, eastern woodlands, northern forests, and the Great Plains areas collide here. Every season has its charms, especially fall. The swaths of eastern deciduous forest, which is more commonly found 400 miles east, means plenty of fall color. Waterfalls, tumbling brooks, and far-reaching views are yours—without the traffic jams.

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Horseback Ride Old Baldy
Horseback riders thrill to the legends—and the views—of the Black Hills. The trail network on 6,100-foot Old Baldy Mountain is a favorite among the equestrian set. The winter scenes from the movie Dances with Wolves were filmed here. Three trails—Baldy, Rimrock, and Little Spearfish—create a flexible mix-and-match network for trips of varying lengths. From the top of Old Baldy, the view on a clear day takes in Ragged Top, Terry Peak, Cement Ridge, and Crow Peak. Indeed, most of the trails in the Black Hills are open to horses. And two National Forest horse camps—Willow Creek and Iron Creek—offer convenient starting points for rides into the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and Black Elk Wilderness.

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Camp Under T.R.'s Nose
This peaceful little campground is a scant two miles from Mount Rushmore National Monument—the closest of any in the national forest. Tenting purists will find a section of the campground devoted to them only. You'll find fishing and canoeing in ten-acre Horsethief Lake. With a little bit of luck, you'll land rainbow trout and perch. Trailheads include Centennial and Black Elk Wilderness trail systems, and the three-mile Horsethief Lake Trail. Sounds like prime layover to us...

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Published: 6 Oct 2008 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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