Saturday, September 30, 2023


You haven’t seen South Dakota until you’ve roamed the Black Hills

Bison herd, Custer State Park, photo courtesy South Dakota Tourism

By Bob Difley

Having spent months trudging across endless miles of prairie grasslands in the mid-1800s, westward-heading settlers spotted the looming dark mountains on the horizon with a sense of visual relief, like seeing an oasis in the desert. They called them the Black Hills for the pine-covered mountains that from the distance appeared more black than green.

Today’s RV explorers will find the Black Hills a wildly rugged range of mountains where you will find a couple of underground wildernesses, shaggy bison, herds of Harleys (if you are there at the right time of year), killer scenery, a quartet of giant old guys looking down from a granite mountain and, of course, black hills, part of the 1.2-million-acre Black Hills National Forest.

August is a busy month for travelers to the Black Hills, not only for the area’s attractions but also because 600,000+ bikers roar into Sturgis for the world’s largest biker rally and party including hundreds of live concerts and events. Running from August 2-11, it is now in its 79th raucous year.

Thirty National Forest campgrounds and plenty of boondocking space provide opportunities within the forest, as well as eleven fish-stocked reservoirs and more than 450 miles of hiking trails – including a trail to the top of Black Elk Peak (known as Harney Peak until 2016) in the Black Elk Wilderness Area (no motorized or wheeled vehicles permitted). The 7,242-foot peak is the highest mountain in the state and the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains. The National Forest also surrounds Mt. Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Par, and Jewel Cave National Monument.

The 68-mile long Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway should be on everyone’s bucket list. Looping through the forest, it skirts Mount Rushmore, winds around Needle’s Eye and Cathedral Spires rock formations, meanders through Custer State Park, follows Sylvan Lake’s shoreline, accesses trailheads to tumbling waterfalls, passes through six rock tunnels, and climbs several pigtails. Pigtails? These are spiral-shaped bridges designed to gain altitude on “a road they said couldn’t be built” while keeping the road incline gentle.

You will find bison herds and pronghorn on Wildlife Loop Road, a huge mountain being carved as Chief Crazy Horse, and several lakes and campgrounds. These drives may not be suitable for larger rigs – one tunnel is only 10’ 4” high by 11’ 6” wide with no bypass, so check the driving restrictions against your rig’s size before venturing out. A tow or toad would be preferable.

The Norbeck byway and the drive up Spearfish Canyon, a National Forest Scenic Byway (US 14A) outside the city of Spearfish, provide two of the most scenic byways in the country. While you are up here around Spearfish, turn off the I-90 and head south to Deadwood, the town where Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane fooled around.

If you were a mole or coal miner in a previous life, you will love the underground wilderness of Jewel Cave National Monument, the second-longest cave in the world with 141 miles of mapped passageways. (Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave is the longest at 367 miles.) Nearby Wind Cave National Park, the seventh national park, has 125.76 miles of mapped passages (the fourth longest cave in the world), especially known for the calcite crystal structures known as boxwork (a honeycomb type formation that forms boxes on the cave walls).

Mount Rushmore National Memorial features the 60-foot-tall heads of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln gazing solemnly down upon you. The granite carvings, which took from 1927 to 1941 to complete, are dramatically visible at some places through the tunnels of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway.

Mountain carving is a popular pastime in this part of the state, and the Crazy Horse Memorial, eight miles from Mount Rushmore, is a non-profit privately-owned tribute to the Oglala Lakota warrior. When completed it will be 641 feet wide and 563 feet tall. Crazy Horse’s head alone will be 87 feet tall.

South Dakota’s first and most prominent state park, named for General George Armstrong Custer, spreads out over 71,000 acres and is a wildlife watcher’s paradise, home to bighorn sheep, elusive mountain lions, mule and white-tailed deer, Rocky Mountain elk, mountain goats, marmots, bobcats, bald eagles, badgers, pronghorn, friendly and gregarious feral burros, and 1,500 American bison that wander freely (often creating “bison jams” as they leisurely cross the roads). And slow down. You can’t do this park fast if you want to fully enjoy it.


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4 years ago

The annual fall bison round-up in the fall at Custer State Park is a fun and unique experience, too. Check the state park website for dates, purpose, and history of the round-ups.

David & Linda
4 years ago

We recently spent some time in and around Custer State Park. By far, our favorite day was spent hiking down a Forest Service road (right from our campground) to the top of a nearby mountain. We had the place all to ourselves, unlike the crowds you’ll find at Mt. Rushmore, Needles Hwy, etc. Those are spectacular places, for sure, and should be seen.

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