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Black Hill National Forest

The Black Hills of South Dakota is the perfect spot for your next vacation. The area is jam packed with things to see and do no matter what the budget is for your trip.

The name, Black Hills comes from the appearance of the hills covered in pine trees. They appear black from a distance and are actually a rich green color when you get close. It’s an amazing sight and a nature lover’s paradise.

Getting to the Black Hills

The Black Hills are in the Southwest corner of South Dakota and are the foot hills to the Rocky Mountains. The easiest way to access the Black Hills is through South Dakota’s second largest city, Rapid City. Rapid City has an airport so you can catch a plane directly to your destination. Otherwise, you can get to Rapid City by car from Interstate 90 which runs east to west through the state.

Rapid City is considered the start of the Black Hills, but the region encompasses the entire southwest corner of the state. You’ll find several small towns throughout the area known as the Black Hills.

Best time to take a vacation in the Black Hills

The best time to visit the area is typically the summer months, between Memorial Day and Labor Day. I will add an exception here though. There’s about a week and a half during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally that I would avoid, unless you’re in to that.

During the summer months all the attractions will be open, easily accessible, and the weather will be the best for outdoor activities.

The winter months see the area covered in snow with many of the roads closed or impassable. Winter time in South Dakota is unpredictable at best.

The Sturgis motorcycle rally is in early August for one full week. This is when the region is overrun with motorcyclists. My advice, unless you’re a motorcycle enthusiast, is to avoid the area for the entire week of the rally, several days before it starts, and a couple of days after it ends.

During the rally you can expect to find hundreds of thousands of people on motorcycles crammed into an area that is otherwise sparsely populated. Wait times for everything increase, menus at eateries shrink, and prices for food and lodging sky-rocket.

If you’re traveling on a budget, looking for a quiet get away, looking for a family friendly vacation, this would NOT be the time to visit.

What to do on your vacation in the Black Hills

No matter how long you’re planning to stay, there’s plenty to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here are some of my favorites.

Lady standing on a stool

The Cosmos

The Cosmos Mystery Area is arguably one of the coolest attractions in the area. This is where gravity doesn’t work right. OK, while that may not be true, there is definitely a different force at work here. When you visit you can experience it for yourself.

You can see the phenomenon in the way the trees grow out of the ground before you even get to the mystery house. Once you begin the tour the experience continues. Witness chairs that fall backward against gravity or see what it’s like to grow several inches in height for yourself. All this and so much more when you visit The Cosmos Mystery Area, just outside of Rapid City.
Seriously, this is one of my favorite paid attractions in the area.

Mount Rushmore

Mount Rushmore

https://www.nps.gov/moru/index.htmThis is a short stop. Someplace that won’t take much time. If you’ve never been, it should be a stop on your list. No visit to the Black Hills would be complete with a stop at the iconic Mount Rushmore.
We stopped in a couple weeks ago as we passed through the area. In and out, including parking and the time to walk up to the view point, was right around 1/2 hour. We didn’t do any hiking, obviously, and there are some trails inside the park. Taking a hike once you’re there is a great way to get the maximum value out of your parking fee.

Crazy Horse

Crazy Horse Monument

The monument may still be under construction, but the massive carving, visible from the road, is worth a stop. Here you will learn about the rich history of the Native American tribes in the area. You’ll also get to see a close up of the monument from an angle that is not visible from the road while diving by.

Herd of Big Horn Sheep

Wildlife Loop Road

If you’re looking for a place to see wildlife in their natural habitat, this is the place to be. This 18 mile stretch of road is where you’re likely to see a wide variety of wildlife. It’s not guaranteed since this is natural habitat, but it’s likely. I don’t think I’ve ever made this drive and not seen wildlife. Pronghorn, deer, buffalo, elk, coyotes, prairie dogs, and many species of birds are among some of the possibilities on this drive.

Needles Highway

This narrow and winding road has some of the best views the Black Hills has to offer from the road. This infamous highway winds in, around, and through the beautiful scenery with one lane tunnels carved into the hills.

This is an absolute must do activity. A word of caution though, if you’re like one of my travel companions, you may need someone to drive you. The tight turns, steep sides, and narrow roads can be a bit nerve wracking.

Sylvan Lake

This lake, made from spring water, is chilly; even in the summer. It feels refreshing on a hot day when you’re looking for a swimming hole. Even if you’re not, the lake has a bevy of activities to choose from. Rent paddle boats, canoes, paddle boards, or kayaks. Free options include lounging on the beach, hiking a trail, or several other nearby activities.

Fun fact, scenes from the Movie National Treasure were filmed at this lake. Any Nicolas Cage fans out there?

The Tower At Black Elk Peak
Selfie of a Guy and Girl with a view of the black hills

Take a hike to Black Elk Peak

Formerly called Harney Peak, Black Elk Peak is the highest point in South Dakota and one of the most popular hikes in the state. There are several different hiking trails that will take you to the top of the peak, and the most common trail head is accessible from Sylvan Lake. 

The most traveled trail to the top is an easy to moderate rated hike, approximately 7 miles long round trip. Plan on spending about 1/2 day enjoying this outing.

Remember to take layers. It’s much colder at the top of the peak than it is at the bottom. You’ll want to be prepared for that. It’s also important to bring water along on your trip. A hydration backpack is a fantastic way to carry everything you need and stay hydrated while you’re moving.  Snacks can also be helpful to keep your energy up.

Historic Deadwood

Maybe you’ve heard of Deadwood? This quaint little town has a population The death of Wild Bill Hickcock in Deadwood SD is what the town is most famous for. This is an iconic piece of American history where you can grab a bite to eat or visit the historic casinos that are open 24/7.

a stream running over rocks in spearfish canyon
Spearfish Canyon landscape

Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon is an 19 mile scenic by-way that’s worth the detour. Filled with waterfalls hiking trails and beautiful views, it’s a detour I make every time I pass through the area. One of the popular hikes through the canyon would be the 1.1 mile hike to the Devil’s Bathtub where you will find a waterfall that doubles as a natural water slide. Another popular hike is the Iron Creek hike.

Several scenes from Dances with Wolves were filmed in the Canyon. It’s always fun to see the natural settings for the movies we love.

Wind Cave National Park

Another jewel of the area is Wind Cave National Park. The cave and cave tours are closed right now due to COVID-19. Be sure to check for the latest updates before planning your trip. Even with the cave itself being closed to visitor, the hiking trails are open. You can explore the grasslands and the forests on over 30 miles of trails through the park.

All in all the Black Hills of South Dakota is an ideal vacation spot with activities for the entire family. When you’re ready to plan your trip, make sure to grab your free copy of The Ultimate Road Trip Planning Guide here to get the most out of your next road trip!

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