Black Hills National Forest Overview
The Black Hills National Forest is located in southwestern South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming on 1.2 million ponderosa pine-studded acres ranging in elevation as high as 7,242 feet. Amid the splendid scenery are 11 reservoirs, 30 campgrounds, 26 picnic areas, 2 scenic byways, 1,300 miles of streams, 13,426 acres of wilderness, over 450 miles of trails, and much more.
As the forest is managed for multiple use, visitors will see mining, logging, cattle grazing, and summer homes on their travels.
Some of the more spectacular features nestled among the hills are seen from the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway with its one-lane tunnels that frame Mount Rushmore and curly pig-tail bridges along the Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway.
Breath-taking views of waterfalls, sheer cliff walls, springs, a roaring stream, and plenty of wildlife can be enjoyed along the Spearfish Canyon National Forest Scenic Byway.
On February 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland established the Black Hills Forest Reserve. This land was protected against fires, wasteful lumbering practices, and timber fraud. In 1905, the Black Hills Forest Reserve was transferred to the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years later it was renamed the Black Hills National Forest.
The name ‘Black Hills’
The name “Black Hills” comes from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which mean “hills that are black.” Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills, rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie, appear black.
The Black Hills are in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, covering an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide.
They encompass rugged rock formations, canyons and gulches, open grassland parks, tumbling streams, deep blue lakes, and unique caves.
General Visitor Center for the Black Hills
On I-90, Exit 61 (Rapid City)
Material about the Black Hills region and information about attractions and parks is available here.
Visitor Center in Custer State Park
Peter Norbeck Visitor Center off US16A. Another Visitor Center is located at the ‘Wildlife Loop’.
Sightseeing & Attractions of the Black Hills Region
- Black Hills Scenic Byways, see further below
- Custer State Park, see further below
- Mt. Rushmore
- Crazy Horse
- Wind Cave National Park & Jewel Cave National Monument
- George S. Mickelson Trail, see further below
Custer State Park
Custer State Park in the Black Hills encompasses 295 qkm (73,000 acres) of spectacular terrain and an abundance of wildlife.
Favorite outdoor activities include hiking 7,242-foot (2.207 m) Harney Peak, mountain biking, horseback riding, rock climbing, fishing, chuckwagon suppers and jeep rides to see the bison.
The park boasts scenic drives such as the Needles Highway (SD 87), which twists and turns its way past towering rock formations and through narrow tunnels. At the end of one tunnel stands the Needles Eye, a granite spire with a slit only 3 to 4 feet wide but reaching 30 to 40 feet in the air. History and culture also abound. Walk the banks of French Creek, where Custer’s expedition first discovered gold in 1874.
Or, visit the log cabin that was home to Badger Clark, South Dakota’s first poet laureate.
Don’t be surprised if you encounter a roadblock of grazing bison in Custer State Park. A herd of 1,500 bison roams freely throughout the park, often stopping traffic along the 18-mile Wildlife Loop Road. The herd is one of the largest in the world. Bison can weigh as much as 2,000 pounds. Historically, the animal played an essential role in the lives of the Lakota (Sioux), who relied on the “tatanka” for food, clothing and shelter. Besides bison, the park is home to wildlife such as pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros.
Camping in Custer State Park
Seven campgrounds offer a variety of scenic sites.
Set up camp along a flowing stream, in the midst of pine forest, or near a mountain lake.
Detailed information on the official Custer State Park website
Black Hills Scenic Byways
The best places to see scenery while driving…
The Peter Norbeck and Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byways showcase 90 miles of the Black Hills’ most scenic highways. Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway is renowned for its natural beauty and history framed by towering Paha Sapa limestone canyon walls. The byway follows an old railroad grade that was abandoned after massive flooding in 1933. Vegetation from four distinct plant regions grow in the canyon. Spearfish Creek supports trout brought to the Black Hills from Colorado in 1899. Homestake Mining Company built a power plant and a 12-mile water diversion at Maurice. Old rail stops and mining camps include Savoy and Elmore. Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls add to the canyon’s charm. The byway is a favorite fall tour with many people when the aspen turns in September.
Named for South Dakota’s former governor and US Senator, the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway offers 70 miles of outstanding sights including Mount Rushmore, The Needles Highway, Iron Mountain Road and Custer State Park. Visitors may spot mountain goats, bison, deer, elk, bighorn sheep and turkey.
Favorite sights along the Byway include the Needles and Cathedral Spires, pigtail bridges and rock tunnels, historic resorts including the State Game Lodge and Sylvan Lake Lodge, several lakes, and Norbeck overlook with views of Harney Peak and Mount Rushmore. Several of the trailheads lead into the backcountry of Norbeck Wildlife Preserve and Black Elk Wilderness
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
follows Spearfish Creek and US Highway 14A between Spearfish and Cheyenne Crossing for a distance of 20 miles. The byway offers spectacular views of ancient limestone cliffs, pine clad hillsides, aspen-covered slopes, and creek-side spruce. Since the byway follows Spearfish Creek, road grades are gentle. The upper five miles of the route is narrower but is suitable for recreational vehicles and motor homes. The posted speed limit is 35 mph. Elevation ranges from 3,800 feet on the north end to 5,300 feet on the south end, so you can expect a variety of weather and driving conditions. The byway is a popular fall-color drive in late September and early October, so allow plenty of time for the traffic and photo stops.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
near Custer and Hill City consists of two loops totaling 70 miles of great scenery. The byway comprises parts of US Highway 16A and SD Highways 87, 89, and 244. Although the entire byway is paved, much of it is narrow, with a speed limit of 35 mph. There are numerous winding sections and some switchbacks where the speed drops to 10 mph. Shoulders are narrow as well. SD Highway 244 is the widest section of the byway, but the entire route is suitable for motor homes. There are several short tunnels, the narrowest being 10 feet wide. The Norbeck Byway includes the Needles Highway (SD 87) and the Iron Mountain Road (US 16A), which includes three pigtail bridges that circle a full 360 degrees.
The route connects Mount Rushmore with Custer State Park and completely encircles the 13,605-acre Black Elk Wilderness.
Black Hills National Forest Website
George S. Mickelson Trail
Created from an abandoned Burlington Northern Rail line, the George S. Mickelson Trail in the heart of the beautiful Black Hills, was completed in September 1998.
Imagine a path where the ghosts of Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane still roam. A path where bicyclists, hikers and horseback riders can explore spruce and ponderosa pine forests. And, a path accessible to the very young, the very old and people of all abilities.
Its gentle slopes and easy access allow people of all ages and abilities to enjoy the beauty of the Black Hills.
There are more than 100 converted railroad bridges and four hard rock tunnels along the trail. Much of the trail passes through National Forest Land, but there are parts of the trail that pass through privately owned land, where trail use is restricted to the trail only. It is vital to the future of the trail that users respect the land and others on the trail.