Our Backyard: Black Hills National Forest

Explore the wildest corner of the Great Plains.

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1. Highpoint Solitude

“Most visitors hike the Sylvan Lake-to-Harney Peak Trail,” says Dan Daly (below). “But you can get to Harney on the Lost Cabin or the Willow Creek Trails (3.2 and five miles, respectively)—and not see a soul until you reach the 7,242-foot top.”

2. Best Dayhike

Sunday Gulch Trail in Custer SP is the essence of the Black Hills with three miles of sky-high stands of pine and spruce, roaring falls, and spiky granite towers. Close second: The Narrows through the French Creek Natural Area, a 12-miler with boulder hopping beneath 60-foot-high walls.

3. Best Weekend

Cross into Wyoming to hike the 47-mile Sundance Trail system in the Bearlodge Mountains. You’ll find acres of solitude in remote canyons leading to long, exposed ridges. Set out from Sundance Campground through Tent Canyon, climbing to 6,087 feet on the Richardson Fire Loop then dropping into Ogden Canyon for water and camping.

4. Favorite View

It’s not the highest peak here, but 6,971-foot Little Devils Tower in Custer State Park offers the sweetest scenes of the Black Hills’ granite-shocked carpet of green. Daly says, “A few steps from the top is a flat, grassy spot that’s perfect for a night under the stars.”


5. Best Swimming Hole

Known as Hippie Hole (don’t let that dissuade you), this 40-foot-wide pool lies beneath Big Falls along Battle Creek, a half-hour hike from SD 40 dead between Keystone and Hermosa. Take the plunge off the 15-foot cliff into the deep end of the drink.

6. Best Hike near water

The Black Hills’ mostly dry terrain usually requires packing water. Not so on the 6.3-mile Grizzly Bear Creek Trail through Black Elk Wilderness. “It traces Grizzly Bear Creek where my dogs and I can get a drink anytime,” says Daly. From the trailhead off SD 345, link to the Norbeck Trail for views of Mt. Rushmore.

7. Favorite Basecamp

Eighteen miles west of Rochford, nine shady sites at Black Fox Campground put you within fly-casting distance of Rapid Creek and minutes from hiking around White Tail Peak. “And the burgers at Moonshine Gulch Saloon in Rochford are the best,” Darsha Cecil-Smith (bio below) advises.

8. Best Posthike Brews

Crow Peak Brewing Co., in Spearfish, serves mountain views with its roster of homebrews. “I relax on the second-floor deck with a pint of 11th Hour IPA while watching the sun sink behind nearby Crow Peak,” says Daly.

9. Best Mountain Bike Trail

The Tinton Trail near Spearfish stealthily gains around 1,200 feet of elevation in just under eight miles—so riding up is as good as flying down. “Plus,” says Daly, “a sweet, swooping downhill leads all the way back to town.”


Dan Daly, 54, a Black Hills blogger and former newspaper reporter, has been hiking these mountains since he was a teenager. His current outdoor project is to tag the summit of all seven of the Black Hills peaks that rise higher than 7,000 feet. “Not as impressive as Colorado’s Fourteeners,” he admits, “but still fun.”


Darsha Cecil-Smith, 38, a Rapid City native, spent her childhood camping, hiking, and fishing here. “The Black Hills are like my church,” she says. “In autumn, the Old Baldy Trail from Keystone Road is my favorite. We had a family of mountain goats following us on our last hike.”

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