Exploring the famous Black Hills By Lane Lindstrom
South Dakota’s Black Hills are famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for a myriad of reasons—from well-known characters (good and bad) to hills once laden with riches to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse to awesome landscapes to games of chance (read: gambling).
We would add off-roading to that short list of what makes the Black Hills such a popular year-round haven for visitors. Long gone are Calamity Jane, Wild Bill Hickok, Al Swearengen and Wyatt Earp. But, the opportunities to explore and roam the same Black Hills those characters did are nearly endless today.
Exploring from the seat of your ATV or side-by-side (or on a rental one) is perhaps the best way to see the spectacular scenery and experience the rich history of the Black Hills. You can access amazing vistas, cross creeks, get a closer look at the Hills’ past, attack technical trails, visit caves and go places traditional four-wheeled vehicles find tough. There are more than 700 miles of off-road trails crisscrossing the area.
We tried to hit as many points of interest in the northern Black Hills as we could on our two-day excursion, but it wasn’t long into our first day that we realized we didn’t want to rush the experience. Rather, we wanted to soak it in. When you explore the Black Hills, it’s as much about seeing (historical sites, mines, caves, creek crossings and unique scenery) as it is doing (riding).
Doing some homework before you hit the Hills will allow you to navigate the myriad of trails to maximize your time in this section of mountains that hugs the western South Dakota/eastern Wyoming border. That may seem like common sense before heading out on any ride in less-than-familiar territory. It’s especially important in the Black Hills because there’s so much to see and experience.
Here are some highlights from our first day of riding in the Black Hills.
GALENA GHOST TOWN
A few buildings still stand in this former mining town, which was settled in 1876. Actually, there are a few families still living in Galena (4,790 feet elevation), which sits in a very scenic gulch/canyon along Bear Butte Creek. Nearby is Butcher Gulch (there are all sorts of cool names like this spread across the Black Hills), which we rode up before taking a little side trip to China Walls. The Walls are three impressive stone walls built in the 1940s to aid in mining, but nothing every really came of it, so the Walls just sit there.
BEAR DEN MOUNTAIN
The mountain (5,642 feet) sits above Galena and is one of many vistas that offer impressive views of the Black Hills. From our vantage point we looked down on Galena, could see Custer Peak in the distance, and viewed the numerous gulches, hills and valleys of the surrounding area. One particularly fun stretch of trail was in this area south of Galena, where we went down a steep grade, across a creek and up into a beautiful meadow surrounded by mountains.
There are a couple of different directions from which you can access Custer Peak (6,804 feet). We came from the north, using part of Trail 213.1, so we could circle around Custer Peak. There are great views to the north when there were breaks in the trees, as well as a great peek at the lookout on Custer Peak. There is a small parking area at the end of the trail up to Custer Peak. From there it is a short hike up—and we do mean “up”—to the top of the lookout on top of the peak. From the lookout are spectacular 360-degree views of the Black Hills, as well as the prairie to the east.
All during the first day’s ride we were struck by how green and lush the vegetation was in the Black Hills. And, while the Black Hills are certainly popular, we saw very few people on the trails that day in June. There were a few people at Custer Peak, but only a handful.
ONE MORE TIME
Day two was a little more adventurous as we hit one of the more difficult trails in the area, as well as some unique highlights we were looking for.
Starting off day two, Centennial trail, also known as Trail 8089 on the U.S. Forest Service map, was definitely a highlight of our two days of riding. It’s the longest trail in the Black Hills and provides access to a vast array of the Hills’ best and most famous features. We liked it because it had lots of character (i.e., ups and downs, difficult stretches, rocks, and, of course, offered some great views of this section of the Black Hills). On the Nemo side of Trail 8089, it is particularly scenic, and there is a very cool bridge crossing over Boxelder Creek. At one point on the trail there is a sign posted by the Forest Service that reads, “Rocky, narrow, steep trail ahead. Assess your skill level before proceeding.” That was a fun stretch to navigate.
The overlook is above the quaint and somewhat idyllic small town of Nemo. Someone has posted a U.S. flag on the overlook, which sits at about 5300 feet. The overlook is a rocky outcropping that offers awesome views to the north and northwest. You could see for miles from up there.
There are several caves in the Black Hills, but you can drive right to this one in your off-road vehicle. From the Nemo overlook, we took Trail 8276 to 144 to 8283 to 8284 to the cave. Horsethief Cave is caved in, but there are some small areas that can still be explored; however, extreme caution should be used before you head off into some parts of the cave. The cave is very near the eastern edge of the Black Hills, maybe four or five miles from Interstate 90; although, you would never know you were that close to a major interstate.
These handful of highlights are a drop in the bucket to what is all available in the Black Hills. We didn’t even explore the southern part of the Hills, nor did we make it over to the Wyoming side of the Black Hills. Maybe another trip.
We did manage to dial up 110 miles in our two days of riding, and while we wished we had more time to explore the Black Hills and see more of what they have to offer, we had a great time and are sure we got a good feel for the famous riding there.
Elevation: 4500–7000 feet
Trails: 700 miles
Full-service town: Lead, Deadwood, Spearfish (northern end of Black Hills)
Nearest airport: Rapid City (56 miles)
Getting started: Lead Area Chamber of Commerce, (877) 428-5590 or www.leadmethere.org
Getting there: Our base camp in the Black Hills was Lead, which is located on U.S. Highway 85 and U.S. Alternate Highway 14. From there, it’s a short drive to several trailheads
Getting around: There are several side-by-side rental agencies in the Black Hills. The Lead Chamber of Commerce can help you locate one.
Bedding down: There are numerous options for lodging in the Black Hills. The Chamber of Commerce is a good source of information for lodging.
Eating out: Lead, as well as nearby Deadwood, offers a variety of restaurants. Again, check the Chamber website for more information. We had dinner one evening in Lead and one evening in Deadwood, and both were excellent.