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How to Ditch the Tourist Crowds in the Black Hills of South Dakota

By , August 29th, 2018

You don’t have to be Native American — or even spiritual — to understand why indigenous people consider the Black Hills to be sacred ground. The landscape is resonant, the stillness profound. There are mazes of caves under my feet, hidden waterfalls murmuring in the distance and quiet forests where the night falls dark and thick. The tall pines and rocky peaks of this isolated mountain range reach skyward, silent and still under a canopy of stars.

The Black Hills are the most visited corner of South Dakota, a landscape alternately green and verdant and almost alien in its strangeness. The hills hold active worship sites, gold mines, and troves of dinosaur and mammoth bones. Secluded trails give way to startlingly scenic vistas and the dynamited faces of four granite presidents and a war chief peer out from the mountains. Even though southwestern South Dakota attracts travelers from all over the world, there are still ways to see the region’s major attractions, and all the caves, forest trails, byways, quirky little towns and historical sites in between, without spending your entire vacation elbow to elbow with other travelers.

Here’s how to slip away from the crowd and lose yourself in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

 

Things to Do in the Black Hills and How to Ditch the Crowds

[caption id="attachment_56850" align="aligncenter" width="800"]fly-fishing-spearfish-canyon Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

The locals divide the region into the southern hills and the northern hills. Most of the Black Hills’ postcard attractions – Mount Rushmore National Monument, Crazy Horse Memorial, Rushmore Cave, Wind Cave National Park. Jewel Cave National Monument and Custer State Park — are located in the southern hills. The northern hills are a bit wilder, a place where Gold Rush history, biker rallies, Wild West legends, Native American religion, and rugged beauty collide.

Cities in the region are small and accustomed to accommodating travelers from around the world (I heard five languages and four English dialects in one afternoon) but the Blacks Hills themselves (named for a Lakota phrase that describes how the pines make the mountain range appear black when viewed from a distance) are the main attraction. The Black Hills National Forest itself is roughly 110 miles long, 70 miles wide, and contains 1.2 million acres of forest that spill over the Wyoming border.

There’s no way to cover all that ground in a short trip, so choose the attractions that speak to you and leave plenty of time for taking in the scenery in between. This is a place best experienced slowly.ck

“You’re not supposed to drive here at 60 miles an hour,” said Peter Norbeck, a South Dakota Senator and Governor throughout the early 20th Century and prominent conservationist in the early days of the movement. “To do the scenery half justice, people should drive 20 or under; to do it full justice, they should get out and walk.”

This is excellent advice. Even the ordinary roads offer forest views that’ll make you gasp and the routes that have earned scenic byway status, including one named for Norbeck (more on that later), definitely live up to that distinction, offering easy access to impressive overlooks, waterfalls and picnic spots. The 109-mile George S. Mickelson Trail (named for another nature loving South Dakota governor) whisks hikers, cyclists and horseback riders off of the highways and into the hills.

 

The Southern Hills: Famous Faces and Scenic Spaces

[caption id="attachment_56846" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Mount Rushmore Mount Rushmore, Ronda Darby – Unsplash[/caption]

Mount Rushmore National Memorial is the most famous attraction in the Black Hills, so get there early (and ideally on a weekday) to beat the crowds. We walked right in the main gate a few minutes before the buildings opened at 8 a.m. on a Monday, took a few photos and ate a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, biscuits and surprisingly flavorful gravy on the patio outside Carver’s Marketplace (which has a view of the monument’s four Presidential faces), all while encountering about 30 other people.

Get photos of the faces from the Avenue of Flags and the Grand View Terrace before they get crowded, then head down the stairs or elevator to see the short film and museum. Learning about the creation process which gives you a little context as you take the short hike down the Presidential Trail to see Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson, and Roosevelt from below. The carving process demonstrated incredible precision, ingenuity, and destruction — 90 percent was done with dynamite — which makes this mountain both an artistic masterpiece and a creation that stands in opposition to traditional indigenous land use practices.

This tension between development and treading lightly on sacred ground has existed in the Black Hills since gold was discovered here in 1874. It’s a lot to ponder as you slowly cruise the curves, switchbacks and one-lane tunnels on the scenic, 17-mile Iron Mountain Road. You’ll be miles down the road and back in nature by the time most Mount Rushmore visitors make it to the parking lot.

 

Keystone

Keystone and Hill City are the closest communities to Mount Rushmore and you can travel between the cities in historical style on the 1880 Train. The narrated vintage steam train tour takes an hour and 20 minutes each way. Select a later departure time to stroll through both towns.

Mount Rushmore enthusiasts flood the National Presidential Wax Museum and the Rushmore Borglum Story (which honors the monument’s sculptor), but Keystone’s most notable attractions can be found outdoors. Rushmore Cave is one of South Dakota’s smaller caves, but its walking tours and flashlight tours are accessible introductions to the state’s subterranean world.

[caption id="attachment_56761" align="aligncenter" width="1616"]stalactites-in-rushmore-cave- Rushmore Cave, Lindsey LaBarge Photography[/caption]

If you’d rather be above ground – up to 400 feet above ground — head to Rushmore Tramway Adventures for aerial ropes courses through the forest, a 2,000-foot alpine slide, zip lines that take you screaming over the tops of the Ponderosa pines. Mountaintop Grille offers meals with sweeping views of the Black Hills and Mount Rushmore.

 

Hill City

[caption id="attachment_56838" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Hilly City Main Street South Dakota Hill City, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

Hill City offers quieter pleasures. As I browse the gauzy kimonos, buttery soft buffalo moccasins and elk antler jewelry at Doc & Alice, owner Erin Burmeister sends me off with a list of “not quite as touristy” shops like hers so I can skip the T-shirt emporiums (which are ubiquitous in the Black Hills as scenic vistas) and zero in on local products.

First up is the Jon Crane Gallery for watercolors, fine art prints and bronze sculptures that reflect the local landscape, then on to Jewels of the West for little luxuries like silk scarves, leather journals, and intricately tooled cowboy boots. Dakota Nature and Art glitter with gemstone jewelry, cool quartz bowls, and petrified wood bookends, as well as original art and carvings.

Don’t leave town without sampling the local beer and wine. Prairie Berry Winery’s tasting room is usually busy since you can sample up to five of their wines for free, but Miner Brewing Company next door is sometimes a bit quieter.

Extend your sampling at Naked Winery and Sick-N-Twisted Brewery, located side by side just down the road. The tasting rooms are family-friendly but the drinks on the menu can be as cheeky as the establishments’ names suggest, so order loud and proud if you’re traveling easily mortified teenagers.

 

Where to stay in Hill City

Hill City’s Lodge at Palmer Gulch offers bike rentals, horseback rides, a poolside restaurant, a flapjack breakfast in the morning and movies at night.

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Custer

[caption id="attachment_56832" align="aligncenter" width="800"]crazy-horse-memorial Crazy Horse Memorial[/caption]

The crowds at Crazy Horse Memorial tend to be smaller in the evenings, so arrive in time to see the 563-foot tall sculpture of the legendary Lakota war chief painted with sunset light. When finished, Crazy Horse will be the largest mountain carving in the world, dwarfing the 60-foot faces on Mount Rushmore. Chief Henry Standing Bull had originally advocated for Crazy Horse’s inclusion in that monument. When denied, he began searching for a sculptor to memorialize the indigenous leader in the granite of the Black Hills.

Admission includes the monument (which is viewed at a distance — hike the bi-annual Volksmarch to view the face up close), The Indian Museum of North America and Native American Education and Cultural Center, which feature indigenous dance performances, art, and artifacts from tribes throughout North America. A short (and kind of quirky) laser light show starts at dusk.

The charming town of Custer is close to both monuments and home to one of the best dining scenes in the Black Hills. Try Mt. Rushmore Brewing Company for a great craft beer line-up and specialty pizzas and Buglin’ Bull Restaurant and Sports Bar for South Dakota specialties like bison, pheasant, and elk. Skogen Kitchen is a foodie favorite for artful breakfasts like walleye with mint emulsion and farm fresh eggs and dinners of homemade ravioli or suckling pig with toasted buckwheat.

[caption id="attachment_56762" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]purple-pie-place Purple Pie Place, Alicia Underlee Nelson[/caption]

Don’t miss Bobkat’s Purple Pie Place (housed in a historic home painted an eye-popping shade of violet) for a thick slice of best-selling strawberry rhubarb pie. Many restaurants are closed Sunday, so run by Calamity Jane Winery & Mercantile (where the gunslinger herself is said to have worked as a waitress), grab an espresso and cinnamon roll as big as your head and take in the area’s natural wonders right after breakfast.

Custer State Park

If you only see one outdoor attraction in the Black Hills, make it Custer State Park. The 71,000-acre state park is a showstopper, home to sparkling mountain lakes, craggy granite peaks, world-class hiking trails, abundant wildlife and one of the most visually striking scenic byways in the Midwest.

[caption id="attachment_56764" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Cathedral Spires Trail Cathedral Spires, Alicia Underlee Nelson[/caption]

The Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, named for the aforementioned outdoorsy governor who personally mapped out his namesake 70-mile byway on horseback, is actually a loop of several scenic roads, including the Iron Mountain Road that runs by Mount Rushmore and The Needles Highway (SD 87) in Custer State Park. This startlingly beautiful route pulls motorists higher into the hills, around hairpin curves, along a series of jaw-dropping scenic overlooks before squeezing them through several narrow tunnels in the rock, scarcely over a car width wide.

Hikers should scramble up the rocks of the Cathedral Spires Trail, a deceptively strenuous (and occasionally quite vertical) route that brings you to the foot of the granite peaks that reach into the sky like alien architecture. To climb the spires (or to try bouldering in the park), employ the experts with Sylvan Rocks Climbing School and Guide Service. For a less strenuous hike, a paddle in a kayak or a pretty picnic spot (which you might recognize from the film National Treasure: Book of Secrets), head to Sylvan Lake. A resort, gift shop and public restrooms make it a popular rest stop.

[caption id="attachment_56760" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]sylvan-lake-custer-state-park Alicia Underlee Nelson[/caption]

“From Sylvan Lake, you can begin the Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) Trail, which is the hike to do,” says South Dakota photographer Lindsey LaBarge. “There is an old fire watchtower at the top that is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees.” (Geologists in Texas and North Carolina are currently debating the specifics of that claim, but for now, the bronze plaque at the summit declaring the statement remains.)

The peak, which was recently renamed for the Lakota spiritual leader Nicholas Black Elk, can be approached from the south or the north. Both routes require a hike of about seven miles, but the southern route is a bit easier (and therefore, more popular), but still gains over 1,100 feet of elevation. The view from the summit — 7,242 feet above sea level – is worth the effort.

For a comprehensive Black Hills experience, go from South Dakota’s tallest mountain to its largest cave. Jewel Cave National Monument is actually the third largest cave system in the world, It contains 195 miles of mapped passages and jewel-like calcite crystal formations that give it its name. During July and August, the wait between your purchase time and tour time can top four hours, so buy tickets online in advance, explore the hiking trails outside or plan a break in Custer so you’re not wasting valuable time waiting.

Where to stay in Custer

Gold Camp Cabins

gold-camp-cabins

If campfires, stargazing and log cabins are your thing, bunk in the charmingly rustic Gold Camp Cabins in Custer. There’s even a little fishing pond on the premises.

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Bavarian Inn

bavarian-inn

The Bavarian Inn in Custer charms guests with quirky freebies (a pancake and parfait bar, espresso, cookies, and milk), a shaded patio, tennis courts and two pools.

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Hot Springs

[caption id="attachment_56839" align="aligncenter" width="800"]wind-cave-south-dakota Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

See more underground spaces at Wind Cave National Park near Hot Springs, the first national park to include a cave. Tour options range from an easy walking tour to a very strenuous crawling tour – which is exactly what it sounds like. If you’d rather stay upright, look for the bison herd as you hike 30 miles of mixed-grass prairie trails above ground. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are busy, so come in the morning or on the weekend for shorter waits.

See the remains of 61 Columbian and wooly mammoths preserved at The Mammoth Site, an active dig site where paleontologists excavate the largest concentration of mammoth remains in the world. You can watch them at work when you tour the site and even learn excavation techniques yourself.

Then relax in the medicinal waters of Evans Plunge, a wellness travel destination since 1890. Hot Springs is built on top of six natural hot springs. The largest floods the gravel bottom pool at Evans Plunge with 5,000 gallons of 87-degree water a minute.

“It’s got an old school feel to it,” explains Peter Schott, a Fargo, North Dakota resident who has soaked in the mineral waters here since he was a kid. “It’s a no-nonsense, refreshing break on a hot day.”

 

Rapid City

[caption id="attachment_56844" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Art Alley Rapid City South Dakota Art Alley, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

The downtown street scene is lively; Travelers pose for photos with life-size bronze statues of past Presidents and learn Lakota history through public sculptures and historical plaques, while kids splash in the fountains before movies and concerts in Main Street Square and diners and shoppers spill out onto the sidewalks in the long summer evenings.

Cross through the Art Alley between 6th and 7th Streets to get a few street art photos before savoring a locally sourced, multi-course tasting menu at Tally’s Silver Spoon, listening to the live band on the bustling Firehouse Brewing Company patio or taking in the Black Hills sunset with a cocktail on the roof at Vertex Sky Bar.

 

Where to stay in Rapid City

Hotel Alex Johnson

hotel-alex-johnson

Opt for historic luxury at Hotel Alex Johnson, a (possibly haunted) downtown Rapid City landmark since 1928. Get a shot of the hotel’s signature sign from the roof.

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The Northern Hills: Sacred, Scenic, and Historic

[caption id="attachment_56758" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]waterfall-in-spearfish-canyon-greg-harlow-media Greg Harlow Media[/caption]

Spearfish Canyon is picturesque, a place of colorful, towering limestone rock formations, side canyons to tempt hikers and three waterfalls. The 22-mile Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway between Spearfish and Lead offers motorists and road cyclists easy access to Bridal Veil Falls and Roughneck Falls. Little Spearfish Falls is located just up the road, near Spearfish Canyon Lodge in Lead.

“If you would like a great little hike for a family, you can park right behind the Spearfish Canyon Lodge and hike the mile in and back to the falls,” says Valerie Thoennes of Apple Valley, Minnesota, who visits the Black Hills almost every summer. “Where you park at the top is a beautiful little stream where you can sit and put your feet in the water.”

If you end in Spearfish, make sure you’re hungry. I opted for an excellent (and gigantic) chorizo breakfast burrito topped with local produce at Barbacoas Burritos and Wraps. I was off to Sturgis, so I grabbed a couple of six packs from Crow Wing Brewery Company on the way out of town. Next time I’ll grab a seat on the patio and stay awhile.

 

Where to stay in Spearfish

Spearfish Canyon Lodge

spearfish-canyon-lodge

The Spearfish Canyon Lodge in Lead offers exclusive hiking, biking and fly fishing packages to help visitors experience Spearfish Canyon. Take a short hike to the waterfall.

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Sturgis

[caption id="attachment_56841" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Bear Butte South Dakota Bear Butte, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

Depending on your cultural background, you may recognize the city of Sturgis as the home of a massive motorcycle rally or the location of Bear Butte, a major Native American worship site. The imposing igneous landform stands guard over Bear Butte State Park just outside of town.

Leaders like Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull have all made a pilgrimage here, but artifacts recovered at the site date back 10,000 years. That’s a lot of history to ponder as you take the Summit Trail to the top of the butte. The summit marks the beginning of the 111-mile Centennial Trail, which reaches south through the Black Elk Wilderness to Wind Cave National Park.

Mato Paha (“Bear Mountain” in Lakota) or Noahvose to the Cheyenne, is an active ceremonial site, so stay on the marked trails and don’t carry or consume alcohol east of Highway 79 as a sign of reverence for the ceremonial grounds. Don’t disturb or photograph the prayer flags and tobacco offerings you see tied to trees and respect the privacy of worshippers participating in religious ceremonies.

[caption id="attachment_56842" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Sturgis Motorcyle Rally, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum of human behavior. Bikers pour into Sturgis for 10 days of concerts, camping, pub crawls, group rides and 24/7 entertainment. The rally caters to the biker subculture, not average tourists, so motorcycles get the best parking spots, speed limits are lowered, and both men and women have been known to go shirtless (even in town), so avoid Sturgis during early August if you want to avoid the crush of people — and potentially awkward family road trip conversations.

To get a taste of biker culture without attending the rally, check out the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, browse the black leather and bling in the shops or rent a motorcycle from EagleRider Sturgis and head up into the hills. If you need to cool off after the ride, The Knuckle Saloon and Brewing Company makes a red ale that packs a hoppy punch.

 

Belle Fourche

[caption id="attachment_56843" align="aligncenter" width="800"]belle-fourche Tri-State Museum, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

The sleepy western town of Belle Fourche (pronounced “Bell Foosh”) is the Geographic Center of the Nation. Well, technically the actual location is 21 miles away on private pastureland, but the city limits fall within the margin of error and the granite compass marker set in the middle of all 50 state flags makes a pretty compelling photo.

Belle Fourche boasts one of the oldest rodeos in the state, the Black Hills Roundup, which will celebrate its centennial anniversary in the summer of 2019. It’s also home to PaleoAdventures, where guests 10 and older can help paleontologists uncover dinosaur bones.

 

Lead

[caption id="attachment_56845" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Terry Peak Ski Area Terry Peak Ski Area, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

The modest city of Lead is perched more than 5,200 feet above sea level and perfectly positioned to serve outdoor enthusiasts in all seasons. It’s right off the Mickelson Trail for summer recreation and the Terry Peak Ski Area and several snowmobile trails bring people to town all winter long.

The area is also a fly fishing hot spot that is just as good as the creeks of Montana or Wyoming, but not as well-known – or crowded. Book a guided fishing excursion through Deadwood Springs Fly Fishing located (somewhat confusingly) in Lead or bring your own gear and wade into Whitewood Creek. This former mining creek between Lead and Deadwood is bursting with trophy trout.

Lewie’s Burgers and Brews is a popular stop for all those nature lovers — and motorists and motorcyclists too. Go a little off the beaten path and try a beer brewed in Lead at Dakota Shivers Brewing.

Take a surface tour of the former Homestake Gold Mine, where scientists at Sanford Lab Homestake now study dark matter deep below the earth’s surface. With a depth of 8,000 feet, this was once the deepest gold mine in the world. Depth and elevation are deeply entwined in Lead’s gold rush history and it’s interesting to see how the city is evolving.

 

Where to stay in Lead

Town Hall Inn

town-hall-inn

Lead’s Town Hall Inn served as a city hall, jail and courtroom before offering cozy suites and breakfast to travelers. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Deadwood

[caption id="attachment_56834" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Deadwood, South Dakota gun fight Deadwood, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

The city of Deadwood is another gold rush town with a very different legacy. It sprung up in 1876 and unlike Lead, Deadwood’s historic buildings from this a are preserved as if in amber (the entire city is a National Historic Landmark) and its turbulent gold rush, gambling, and gun-toting history is brought to life on the street as historical re-enactors stage public shoot-outs in homage to the city’s Wild West roots.

Tourists flock to Saloon No. 10 to learn who killed Deadwood’s most famous resident, Wild Bill Hickok, as he sat at the poker table – and to sample over 170 varieties of whiskey. Hickok hadn’t been in Deadwood long when he died, but he’s a legend here now and a resident here indefinitely, interred at the Mount Moriah Cemetery along with other colorful characters like Calamity Jane.

[caption id="attachment_56835" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Mount Moriah Calamity Jane Grave Mount Moriah Cemetery, South Dakota Tourism[/caption]

A self-guided walking tour takes you to their graves, and along the brick paved streets to the Victorian homes and handsome downtown businesses, so you can explore the city at your own pace. (Grab a brochure at the Deadwood Visitor Center.) Experiential tours take you on a candlelight walk through the Broken Boot Gold Mine and a stroll through the history of the brothels, bars, and gambling dens of Deadwood’s notorious past.

Deadwood still draws gamblers to the Black Hills. The city’s casinos operate 24/7, tempting travelers with slots, poker, craps, roulette, keno and blackjack in historic properties where crystal chandeliers and stately staircases echo an earlier age.

When you’ve had enough of the other tourists at the tables, duck out of the din and head back into nature. Deadwood is the northern trailhead of the Mickelson Trail, the perfect place to hike or bike back into the serenity of the Black Hills. On the trail, motorized vehicles are irrelevant and people on horseback have the ultimate right of way, just as it’s been in the Black Hills for centuries.

Where to stay in Deadwood

Martin & Mason Hotel

Martin & Mason Hotel

The fully restored Martin & Mason Hotel in historic downtown Deadwood transports guests back to the 1890s. The elegant building also contains a casino and popular breakfast spot.

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