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Photo by Amy Thomson

First-Timer’s Guide: Black Hills National Forest

This hidden gem to our north is full of lush mountains, nearby desert canyons, and one of the world’s longest caves.

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When the red rocks of Colorado and Utah heat up, the high peaks become even more enticing. And while the Rocky Mountains will always hold our hearts, there’s another range to add to your adventure-filled bucket list: The Black Hills. These sloping, verdant mountains, stretching across South Dakota and Wyoming, provide a fresh spectacle compared to our jagged Centennial State summits. It’s an outdoor adventure destination with activities for all ages and skill levels, from mountain climbing to stunning scenic drives. Within the national forest is Custer State Park and a few idyllic towns, including Custer, Hill City, and Keystone, which are a short drive from each other and lend a host of reasons to visit.

The Odometer: 350 miles from Denver, about 5.5 hours, one way

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Get Outside

Black Elk Peak, the highest peak between the Rocky Mountains and the Swiss Alps. Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

If you leave Denver early in the morning, you will make it to Black Hills in time to stretch your legs along the 1.6-mile Cathedral Spires Trail. This hike is perfect for the whole family (including your canine companions) and will orient you to the area’s beautiful topography—vegetated hills and towering rocks that look like dripping sandcastle columns.

For a longer and more elevated adventure, the 7.6-mile Black Elk Peak trail takes you to the 7,242-foot summit—the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. As you reach the lookout, you’ll be level with the clouds for breathtaking views into the valleys. Atop the peak, you’ll also find a historic stone fire tower that was used by the U.S. Forest Service in the early 1900s. To rest your legs in the afternoon, take a scenic drive through Custer State Park to see the bison and other wildlife.

And if you packed your rock climbing gear, the Black Hills area offers plenty of sport climbing and crack climbing routes for thrill-seekers of all levels. Sylvan Rocks Climbing School & Guide Service has a host of tours available, whether you are an experienced climber, you want to give climbing a try for the first time, or you want to learn the basics to incorporate the sport into your regular workout routine. All the tours are led through Custer State Park’s Needles climbing area, considered the best in the region.

Eat & Drink

You’ll likely notice the glass display case brimming with pastries at the Baker’s Bakery and Cafe while you’re strolling down the main strip in Custer, and that’s usually all it takes to choose this breakfast spot. Only open for breakfast and lunch, you’ll be satisfied by the haunt’s classic diner fare, but don’t skip ordering a pecan roll or other specialty treat for the table.

If you find yourself in Keystone, grab a pastie—a traditional hand pie filled with meat and potatoes at Palomino’s. This regional classic honors the traditional eats of South Dakota’s mining days in the late 1800s; it was an easy lunch to survive a long shift. Palomino’s, however, cooks up a vegan option, which we can guess wasn’t as popular back then. Even today, vegan menu items are few and far between in the Black Hills, but Palomino’s serves them up. If you’re not picking up a to-go order, add a smoothie or local craft beer to your order—they keep a rotating selection of the state’s suds on tap—and enjoy the outdoor patio.

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After visiting the 1880 Train, a historic steam train in Hill City, grab an early dinner at the Bumpin’ Buffalo Bar & Grill for a buffalo or brisket sandwich. After dinner, take a stroll through one of the oldest cities in the area, and swing by Cream, an ice cream shop with homemade delicacies like pistachio-toasted almond ice cream and blueberry lemon glazed donuts. The best part? This joint offers ice cream flights, the perfect excuse to try four flavors at once. Just outside of Hill City is Prairie Berry Winery. Although the massive sign off the side of the highway screams tourist trap, this all-in-one winery is worth the trip. The staff is lovely, the tasting experience is free, and the wine is so good you’re likely to bring a bottle home. Keep in mind, Hill City establishments, including the winery, close up shop early with nearly every eatery locking the doors by 8 p.m.

Stay

Kayakers on Sylvan Lake. Photo courtesy of Travel South Dakota

To snag a spot at one of Custer State Park’s centrally located campsites, you’ll need to plan ahead. Reservations open exactly one year in advance and they fill up that day, but if you play your cards right you can nab a spot at the coveted Legion Lakeside site, with beautiful views and access to all the park’s offerings including water sports rentals and hiking trails.

If you’re not planning so far in advance, try Rafter J Bar Ranch between Custer to the south and Hill City to the north. Settled on almost 200 acres of land, these campsites are nicely dispersed and you can decide how close you want to be to the Ranch’s amenities, including a pool and volleyball area. About 30 minutes north of Hill City, the Whitetail campground in the Black Hills National Forest is nestled next to Deerfield Lake, a stunning reservoir with picnic areas and hiking trails along the shoreline.

Looking for a softer place to rest your head? Many of the cabins and hotels can accommodate last-minute bookings, as well. Locals will recommend you plan a trip in September just past Labor Day, when the tourist population cuts in half and the weather is just as nice. We recommend Black Hills Vacations to book your lodging—and they offer trip packages and activities, too. This group has many cabin options including the Lazy Pines Cabin, an oasis hidden among the trees north of Hill City, with hiking trails and several lakes for fishing, like the Pactola Reservoir, nearby. In Keystone, the Roosevelt Cabin includes a wraparound porch and hot tub, perfect for cooler summer nights.

Day Trips

The popular scenic tour is available year-round and takes visitors through a one-half mile trek into Jewel Cave. It offers platforms and bridges, as well as 723 stairs, making it a moderately strenuous tour. Photo by Eric Dodd

While a quick pit stop to see our forefathers’ heads carved into stone at Mt. Rushmore may already be on the itinerary, there are a few less-popular day trips in the Black Hills area that are worth exploring. One of the longest caves in the world, the Jewel Cave National Monument offers a walking tour that appeals to more than just geology nerds. This unique underground ecosystem will leave you appreciating the fascinating calcite crystals, stalactites, stalagmites, and other wondrous rock formations.

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Just a two-hour drive from the Black Hills area, you’ll find a starkly different geography and climate in the Badlands National Park. Here, you can walk on what was once a marine environment 70 million years ago and is now a dry desert with layers of sedimentary rock formations towering into the sky. The area is extremely exposed, so don’t forget your hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen.

If you have time to cross the western state border to Wyoming’s Devil’s Tower National Monument (pictured above), you won’t be disappointed. America’s first national monument, named by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, is truly breathtaking. As you approach the monument by both car and foot, you’ll see the tower—more than 1,000 feet tall—rising into the sky. Geologists are still uncertain how it exactly it formed, which makes the landmark a mystery to all who visit.

If You Do One Thing

Kayak around one of the area’s beautiful lakes. Custer State Park’s Sylvan Lake and Legion Lake are some of the most notable destinations, and both offer plenty of outfitters where you can rent kayaks, canoes, boats, or paddleboards. North of the park in the Black Hills National Forest, you’ll find the less trafficked Sheridan Lake water recreation and picnic area; the Pactola Reservoir also has a designated swimming area with a sandy beach for lounging.

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