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BLACK HILLS National Forest: Epic Guide to South Dakota’s Crown Jewel

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The Black Hills National Forest Video we created for the US Forest Service & Travel South Dakota

The Most Magical Natural Wonder in All of America – Behold the Black Hills.

Of all the magical natural places I’ve traveled to in America (and beyond), the Black Hills National Forest tops the list. Maybe it’s just the dazzling rock formations, beautiful pine forests, incredible wildlife, mesmerizing magic hour, and insane amount of recreation opportunities that exist here. Or maybe it’s more than just that…

There’s something almost spiritual about this place (just ask the native tribes who’ve lived here for nearly 10,000 years). Sure the air is crisp, the forests are vibrant, and the land is serene, but there’s something intangible about the Black Hills that you just have to experience for yourself.

black hills national forest south dakota
The Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota

You can feel the magic of this place.

So, to properly capture the essence of the Black Hills, we partnered with South Dakota to create a breathtaking film on the forest.

The results are, well, magical.

About Our Travels to the Black Hills National Forest

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The Pattiz Brothers, Will (left) & Jim (right), atop Black Elk Peak | Black Hills

My first trip to the Black Hills was nearly a decade ago during a road trip with my brother Jim (pictured above) and some friends across America. We stopped into the region, like many folks do, for the sole purpose of seeing Mount Rushmore.

Rushmore was interesting but the real star of the show was the Black Hills National Forest. We were hooked. Since that trip we’ve returned many times, culminating (finally) in a to document the forest in partnership with the state and the US Forest Service.

We decided to feature the Black Hills during the fall season largely due to the breathtaking foliage displays that happen during this time of year.

Black Hills National Forest Guide

About the Black Hills National Forest

black hills national forest south dakota
Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota

Situated in western South Dakota, the Black Hills National Forest comprises 1.2 million acres of unparalleled beauty. Rising far above the surrounding prairie, the Black Hills even contains the tallest peak east of the Rocky Mountains.

Boasting over 13,000 acres of wilderness, 1,300 miles of streams, 450 miles of hiking trails, and 2 national scenic byways, it’s no wonder why so many consider the Black Hills a recreation paradise.

Recreational Opportunities

  • Horseback Riding
  • Mountain Biking
  • Climbing
  • Fishing
  • Hunting
  • OHV Driving (ATVs, Dirt bikes, etc)
  • Hiking
  • Camping
  • Boating (kayaking, canoeing, motors, etc)
  • and so much more

Things to Know Before You Visit the Black Hills

Map: We use this one.

Guide: We love this one.

Downloadable Visitor Guide (courtesy USFS)

Entrance Fees: There are no entrance fees to get into the Black Hills National Forest. This is pretty typical for national forests. Some areas are designated fee areas but by and large no fees are required here. If you’d like to be on the safe side you can purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks or online here). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee (annual pass).

Sunscreen: For many of us visiting national forests in the summer means lots of sun. Seriously, some of these parks can zap you if you don’t wear sunscreen. We happen to like this one because it works AND it’s not full of a bunch of chemicals.

Leave No Trace: We’re big fans of Leave No Trace, here at MTJP. Want to learn more? Read about the seven principals of Leave No Trace here.

Insect Repellent: You hope not to need it, but you want to have it. We typically bring an Eco-Friendly Insect Repellent with us just in case.

Dogs are allowed on national forests including the Black Hills.

Details About the Black Hills National Forest

Location: Western South Dakota & Eastern Wyoming

Closest City: Spearfish, Rapid City (among others)

Established: February 22, 1897

Size: 1,253,308 acres

Native Land: Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, Lakota, Omaha,

Entrance Fees: Free

Black Hills National Forest Maps (4)

Bear Lodge Ranger District Map

bear lodge ranger district map
Bear Lodge Ranger District Map | Black Hills

Northern Hills Ranger District Map

northern black hills ranger district map
Northern Hills Ranger District Map | Black Hills

Mystic Ranger District Map

mystic ranger district map
Mystic Ranger District Map | Black Hills

Hell Canyon Ranger District Map

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Hell Canyon Ranger District Map | Black Hills

Where is the Black Hills National Forest?

The Black Hills National Forest is located in Western South Dakota over 4 different ranger districts featuring different topography.

Ranger Districts

  • Bear Lodge Ranger District
  • Northern Hills Ranger District
  • Hell Canyon Ranger Districts
  • Mystic Ranger District

Getting to the Black Hills – Directions & Location

The Black Hills National Forest is massive at over a million acres. Getting to the forest depends on which part you’re trying to access.

Closest Airport (Rapid City): RAP – Rapid City Regional Airport (distance – 20 miles from the Mystic Ranger District)

The best way to get to the Black Hills is typically flying into Rapid City (RAP) and driving to the forest.

Depending on which part of the forest you are trying to visit will determine the drive time but typically somewhere from 30 minutes to the Mystic & Northern Hills Ranger Districts and about to 90 minutes to the Bear Lodge Ranger District.

RELATED: 20 (INCREDIBLE) Things to Do in Badlands National Park 2021

Black HillsVideo

WATCH: We produced this 3 minute visually stunning film on the Black Hills National Forest.

About the Black Hills Video

This film was created by the team at More Than Just Parks in partnership with Travel South Dakota in an effort to adequately capture the essence of the Black Hills National Forest.

In the making of this film we hiked nearly every trail, traversed most of the roads, rode horses, drove ATVs, went fishing, filmed hunting, boated, camped, biked, and so much more.

The film features the fall season because we feel like that’s the most impressive season in the forest.

RELATED: 14 BREATHTAKING National Park Videos to Inspire Your Next Trip

Seasons & Weather

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A cloudy day on the Black Hills National Forest.

The weather on the Black Hills National Forest is pretty variable with four very distinct (and wonderful) seasons. Spring is rainy but vibrant, summer is hot and dry with the occasional awe-inspiring thunderstorm, Autumn is cool and colorful, and Winter is cold and snowy.

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit the Black Hills National Forest is during Fall when the park is cool but not cold, crowd sizes are down, and the foliage is shocking.

I recommend visiting between late September and mid-October for the best chance at seeing peak fall foliage.

Black Hills Seasons

Spring on the Black Hills National Forest

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Black Hills in Spring

Spring is a pleasant and vibrant time to visit the Black Hills with all the deciduous trees slowly coming back to life.

As a rule of thumb, the later into Spring the better the weather will be which means more accessible forest recreational opportunities.

Summer on the Black Hills National Forest

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Black Hills in Summer

Summer is a great season to visit the Black Hills. Temperatures are warm but usually not too hot given the elevation. The full arsenal of recreational activities are available during Summer which makes it a great time to visit.

Summer is the most popular time to visit the forest so crowds will be up but still nowhere close to what you will see in the national parks.

Fall on the Black Hills National Forest

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Black Hills National Forest in Fall

Fall is the best time of year to visit the Black Hills National Forest. The foliage here is unexpectedly (at least to me) striking. The Spearfish Canyon region has especially beautiful color.

Temperatures are down and so are crowds as kids return to school and vacation season winds down.

RELATED: 10+ Must See National Parks This Fall (A Stunning Guide)

Winter on the Black Hills National Forest

Winter is cold and snowy on the Black Hills National Forest. If you love winter sports then you can find plenty of great winter recreation opportunities all over the forest.

Best Things to Do On The Black Hills National Forest

1. Saddle Up & Go Horseback Riding

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Horseback Riding in the Black Hills

One of the most popular and iconic activities in the Black Hills is horseback riding. Nothing feels quite so right for the setting or the western landscapes as soaking in the beauty via horseback.

Our favorite horseback riding vendor is Elk Haven which you’ll see featured here and in our Black Hills film.

2. Hike To the Highest Point In South Dakota, Black Elk Peak

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Black Elk Peak | Black Hills

Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) is the highest point in all of South Dakota at 7,244 feet elevation. Hiking to the top is a wonderful way to see the best views in the Black Hills.

Distance: 7.1 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,469 feet
Time Required: 4-5 hours

Be sure to pack plenty of water and snacks for the trail. The trail starts off in coniferous forests crossing a small creek before ascending above the tree line up a series of rocky stairs. The lookout tower is usually open and is a site to behold.

NOTE: This trail is primarily on the Black Elk Wilderness which is the highest level of protection on federal lands. Tread lightly and practice Leave No Trace.

3. Try Your Hand at Some World Class Fly Fishing

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A rainbow trout from Spearfish Creek | Black Hills

The Black Hills National Forest is home to some of the best small stream fly fishing on the planet with over 500 miles of streams. Rainbow, brook, brown, and tiger trout are mostly the types of fish you’ll find in these streams.

The setting amongst the epic canyons of the Black Hills makes for a magazine-esque experience.

For more fishing information visit Dakota Angler.

4. Soak in the Views (& History) at Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower

bullock lookout tower black hills national forest south dakota
Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower | Black Hills

For the history buffs and fans of the hit HBO show, Deadwood, the Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower will have special meaning for you. This tower was built by the famous Deadwood Sheriff, Seth Bullock, as a tribute to his good friend Theodore Roosevelt.

The tower was built in 1919 and is still standing strong today, albeit with a few structural improvements over the years.

5. Check Out The Gold Mountain Gold Mine

gold mountain mine black hills south dakota
The Gold Mountain Mine | Black Hills

The Gold Mountain Mine gives visitors a glance into what life might have been like as a Black Hills prospector. This site is significant as it is the only remaining gold mining site in the Black Hills.

Visitors can drive right up to the mine which has a few interpretive signs describing its history in greater detail. Please do not attempt to climb the structure.

6. See the Stunning Spearfish Falls

spearfish falls black hills national forest south dakota
Spearfish Falls | Black Hills

Spearfish Falls is an 80 foot waterfall located on the Spearfish Creek that is often overlooked by folks as signage is lacking and the falls are not visible from the main road.

To get to the falls, visitors should park at the Latchstring Restaurant and look at the end of the parking lot for the trailhead. The trail is only about .8 miles long round trip and descends gently into the canyon leading to the falls.

7. Drive the Incredibly Scenic Highway 16 Through the Black Hills

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A view from Highway 16 in the Black Hills

Highway 16 is an incredibly scenic drive that winds through the heart of the Black Hills National Forest. From the road you can see epic overlooks of the granite spires that rise out of the coniferous forests.

Several tunnels perfectly frame Mount Rushmore in the distance (by design). This is a lovely area to escape the Rushmore crowds and soak in the full beauty of the forest.

Where to Stay – Camping & Lodging

Camping & Campgrounds

black hills national forest south dakota

The Black Hills National Forest is home to 30 developed campgrounds with 682 individual campsites. The forest also has one rent-able cabin.

Central Hills / Rapid City
Northern Hills / Spearfish
Northwestern Hills / Sundance
Southern Hills / Custer

For more about camping on the Black Hills visit the USFS camping page.


cemetery ridge lookout black hills national forest south dakota
Cemetery Ridge Lookout Tower | Black Hills

Unlike many National Forests, there are no lodges located on the Black Hills National Forest. There is one rent-able cabin however – for more info on it visit the USFS cabin page.

If you’re looking for a hotel, there are a plethora to choose from within a stones throw from the forest. Rapid City, Deadwood, Keystone, and Spearfish are all great towns with lots of hotel beds.

Driving on the Black Hills

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Black Hills Roads & Driving

Some forests are designed for 4WD vehicles due to the sheer amount of roads they have to maintain and their relative remoteness. The Black Hills is more of an AWD or even 2WD national forest.

Don’t get me wrong, if you have a 4WD vehicle there are *some* spots where it will come in handy. But, by in large the roads are great in the Black Hills.

Black Hills National Forest Photos

Photos of the Black Hills National Forest

Nearby Attractions

  • Wind Cave National Park
  • Badlands National Park
  • Custer State Park
  • Jewel Cave National Monument
  • Buffalo Gap National Grassland

Summary | Leave us a Comment!

That’s a wrap folks! Hopefully you feel like you’ve got a good handle on your next trip to the Black Hills National Forest. Please leave me a comment below and let me know if you have any questions or comments.

Hope to see you on the trails sometime soon!

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Will Pattiz

Co-founder of More Than Just Parks. Husband. Conservationist. Currently living in NYC.

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