13 min read

The Black Hills (It's Unbelievable 🎶)

The Black Hills (It's Unbelievable 🎶)

South Dakota doesn't get enough love!

It definitely wasn't on our "must-see" list until we started hearing and reading more about the state while planning. I'd heard that Badlands was a really cool and underrated national park, but didn't know much about the Black Hills until reading the book Where Should We Camp Next? which raved about the beauty of this area. Since it's only a couple hours west of the Badlands, we decided to spend a week there.

Black Hills National Forest covers a large section of western South Dakota and a small area of eastern Wyoming. Part of it is rolling green grasslands where buffalo herds graze, part of it is rocky, pine-forested mountains, and all of it is beautiful.

It's also a fun and popular camping / vacation destination with a handful of touristy old-west towns, the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a small national park (Wind Cave), Devil's Tower (right across the border in Wyoming, still part of the Black Hills), and, of course, Mt Rushmore.

We spent the week of July 16 in the Black Hills, and it's definitely on our "visit again later" list. Here's a recap of our time there!

South Dakota Black Hills

Sturgis & Rapid City

Our campground Sunday–Friday was Bulldog Creek Campground in Sturgis, SD, near the northern Black Hills. It was basically a big field off the highway, but it was still pretty scenic and very quiet – most of their business each year comes from the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August, so it was only us and a few other campers the whole week. And it was inexpensive for full hookups, so we decided to make it our base camp for exploring the area.

The downside was that it was kind of far away (an hour or more) from all of the main destinations in the southern Black Hills. I didn't think this would be too big of a deal at first, especially since we both had the week off work, but driving that far every day got old. Next time, we'll stay further south, preferably in or near Custer State Park.

The upside was that our campground was close to Rapid City, which was a nice town and had all the usual big stores where we could restock and shop for things we needed. After being basically in the middle of nowhere in the Badlands for a couple weeks, it kind of felt like a return to civilization. Shoutout to Puerto Vallarta, a restaurant in Rapid City where we absolutely stuffed ourselves on chips & salsa, Mexican food, and margaritas our first night.

I bought new hiking boots in Rapid City too – I'd had my old ones for almost ten years, and they were starting to hurt my feet. And we stocked up on some boondocking supplies like extra water containers at Scheel's, an outdoors & sporting goods store. I'm mentioning them because it was a really nice store with the friendliest and most helpful employees!

We drove through downtown Sturgis one day, up the road from our campground, and it was all set up for the motorcycle rally in a few weeks with banners hanging over the streets. The main street was lined with bars and restaurants that would soon be overflowing with bikers. We saw a photo of a previous rally where the main street was absolutely jam-packed with people. If you’re not a biker, I don’t think you’d want to be anywhere near Sturgis on rally week!

Wind Cave National Park

Our first full day was spent checking off another national park: Wind Cave. The park is small and, as you can probably guess, centers around a cave. You have to book a guided tour to go into the cave, and they offer different options with varying lengths and difficulties. We chose the most popular one that takes you through all the main areas.

Our tour group was about 30 people. As we gathered outside the entrance to the cave, there was a piece of fabric tied to a tree branch right outside it, and it was blowing in the wind — but the wind was coming from inside the cave. The cave “breathes” to equalize air pressure inside and outside (when the pressure inside is higher than outside, air flows out of the cave). Wind Cave is sacred to the Lakota and other native people, and is the third longest cave in the US.

The tour took us on a narrow pathway through the cave, single file, descending several stories. It got cooler as we went down. Wind Cave doesn’t have stalactites or stalagmites, but it does have a rare cave feature called box work (I don’t really know how to describe it, but you can see it in the pictures). You aren’t allowed to touch the walls, which was hard not to do. Occasionally the narrow pathway opened up into larger rooms, with lights highlighting the features on the walls and the high ceiling above.

Box work on the cave wall

Overall, Wind Cave was pretty cool and interesting, and it’s crazy to think about how much of it is left unexplored. And the area around the cave is really pretty, with rolling green hills and buffalo (we saw one walking along the road as we left — the first of many up-close buffalo encounters we’ve had on the trip so far!)

Custer State Park

Custer State Park is in the heart of the Black Hills. The book Where Should We Camp Next? mentioned that it rivals many national parks, and we’d definitely agree. It includes great hiking trails as well as some amazing scenic drives. Black Elk Peak is the highest mountain east of the Rockies. There are towering gray rock spires and formations everywhere, shooting up among the dark pine trees and narrow winding roads.

We visited Sylvan Lake one afternoon. If you’ve seen National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets, this is the same lake toward the end of the movie that’s supposed to be behind Mt. Rushmore (it isn’t in real life, but it’s not too far away). This lake is stunning, with kayakers enjoying the calm blue water, surrounded by tall pines and huge gray rocks along the shore. As we walked the trail that goes around the lake, it almost felt like we were in Disney, like the whole area was perfectly crafted.

After that, we hiked the Cathedral Spires trail, a short (3-ish miles) but scenic hike that climbs up into a beautiful valley area where you’re surrounded by tall rock spires. We saw mountain goats! The next time we visit, there are so many other trails I want to do, which will be easier if we stay in the state park.

One day, we splurged on a 4-hour Slingshot rental to do all the scenic drives in Custer State Park. This was totally worth it. Joey had a blast zooming this thing around, and it was an awesome way to take in the views.

The first scenic drive was the Wildlife Loop Road, which takes you through open grasslands. It’s supposed to be a great place to see buffalo, but we didn’t see a single one. However, we did see wild burros, which were right next to (and on) the road and don’t mind people at all. Everyone was just going right up and petting them. They were super cute and funny.

Next we did Iron Mountain Road, which was probably our favorite. It was the least busy, winding through forests and up and down mountains, and includes a few narrow tunnels — one of which has a view of Mt. Rushmore from inside the tunnel. There were a couple other great Mt. Rushmore overlooks on this road, too. It looks small from far away but still really cool to see. Eventually, the road gets pretty close to it and you get a great profile view of George Washington. Iron Mountain Road also has these fun “pigtail” bridges, where the road goes over a bridge and then immediately loops back around right under the bridge.

We ended with the Needles Highway, which is probably the most popular one. The road winds through the rock spire area of the Black Hills, with some beautiful overlooks of the mountains. It also has a famous, ultra-narrow rock tunnel that’s only 8’9” wide by 9’9” tall — we were able to take Tex (our truck) through it, but folded our mirrors in. The Slingshot was much easier.

(The first time we were about to go through the tunnel, there was a U-Haul moving truck stopped a little down the road. The owner realized he wasn’t going to be able to take it through and had to turn the big truck around on a narrow, curvy part of the mountain road. We don’t know why he was up there to begin with lol).

Renting the Slingshot was a blast and we totally recommend it, but these scenic drives are amazing no matter how you do them. Custer State Park has a ton to see and do, and I can’t wait to go back and camp in the park. The town of Custer itself is also cute, with some good shops and restaurants. We ate at a place called Buglin’ Bull, which had these delicious buffalo steak bites and parmesan fries.

Mt. Rushmore

Finally, the thing that most people go to when visiting the Black Hills: Mt. Rushmore. I have to admit, this has never been very high on my bucket list, but I was actually pretty excited to see it now that we were there. I didn’t know it was in such a beautiful part of the country.

We went in the evening because we wanted to see the Evening Lighting Program — they do this daily at 9pm in the summer. So we got there a couple hours early to explore before it started. When you first enter, Mt. Rushmore is right in the center of the Avenue of Flags: a long walkway lined with the flags of every US state and territory. When you reach the end, you’re overlooking a huge amphitheater and stage, with the mountain looming in the background. It’s a pretty great view — Mt. Rushmore looks a lot more impressive up close.

After buying a couple souvenirs at the gift shop, we walked the Presidential Trail, which gets you basically right to the bottom of the mountain for an even closer view of the carvings. Then we had some time to kill before the program began, so we got a couple beers and a snack and watched the sun set behind the mountain. I waited in line for TJ’s ice cream, which is made from a recipe Thomas Jefferson brought over from France, but they ran out. :(

I definitely recommend doing the Evening Lighting Program if you’re visiting Mt. Rushmore. It starts with a ranger talking about the history and importance of the area, then they play a short film about each of the presidents in the carving and why they’re included, and finally, as they play “America the Beautiful” huge spotlights light up the mountain. The program ends with the ranger inviting veterans in the audience up to the stage for recognition. It all felt very patriotic.

Devil’s Tower

It was time to leave South Dakota and check off another new state: WYOMING!

Devil’s Tower is technically still in the Black Hills, just a couple hours west of our Sturgis campground. We didn’t have a campground reservation, but drove there early Friday hoping to get a first-come, first-served spot at the Belle Fourche River Campground, which is in the park right below the tower.

The landscape around Devil’s Tower surprised me. I don’t know why I always pictured the tower just rising above a totally flat, desert-like landscape. The area was actually very hilly, a mix of open grassland and dark forest like the rest of the Black Hills, with red and orange rocks along the hillsides. And the tower itself sat on top of a big hill overlooking the surrounding land.

You can see why Devil’s Tower is sacred and important to native people, and why it’s the site of the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It’s such a weird and otherwordly formation, this massive rock jutting up out of the earth with nothing like it around. The story from one tribe is that a group of sisters were running away from a bear, and the rock rose up out of the ground and carried them high up into the sky, where the bear couldn’t reach them. But the bear clawed at the tower, which is why it has those vertical marks running down the sides. Some of the tribes call the tower “Bear Lodge”.

Luckily, there were plenty of sites available at the campground, and we grabbed a sunny spot with a great tower view. New to our RV setup was a set of portable solar panels, and we finally got to test them out in this no-hookup spot. They were awesome! As long as it was sunny, they kept our batteries charged, helping us run the fan and water pump, charge our electronics, etc.

The tiny “town” of Devils Tower, WY, right outside the park, is basically a KOA campground and store/restaurant, another general store/souvenir shop, a gas station, and a restaurant that was closed for the weekend. We could bike to all of that easily from our campground, and the trip took us right next to a prairie dog town.

The Belle Fourche camp host told us about a great place to watch the sunset, so we packed up our camera and drove there. It was an AWESOME view of the tower from a trailhead parking lot. We set up our chairs and camera, took in the sunset, and since it was a clear night, stayed to do some astrophotography. The stars were incredible; we could easily see the Milky Way above the tower.

We met some interesting people: a woman living and traveling in her minivan (who was nice but seemed a little bit crazy, or maybe just lonely), a couple other women who also came to do astrophotography, and a guy from Raleigh (!) who was living in a camper van, traveling around and rock climbing. He was getting up super early to climb Devil’s Tower in the morning.

We also got up early to hike to the tower before it got too busy, since it was a Saturday. We hiked out of the campground, walked across the road and found the Red Beds Trail, which rose up the hill toward the tower. It was a couple miles long and a steep climb at first, but then evened out as it traversed around the hillside to the visitor center. The view of the surrounding valley in the morning light was beautiful.

When we got to the visitor center, we hiked the Tower Trail, which is paved and goes all the way around the tower. It was really cool seeing all four sides up close, and seeing all the prayer flags tied to trees surrounding the tower. We could see tiny climbers making their way up the side; we weren’t sure which one was the guy from Raleigh, but hopefully he made it up!

(Fun fact: the fastest climb ever of Devil’s Tower is 18 minutes! That seemed unbelievable to us. The average climbing time is a few hours. It’s crazy that someone did it that fast).

After the hike, we waited for the visitor center to open so we could get our obligatory magnet, sticker, and pin (what we’ve been collecting at all the parks) and then hiked back down. We spent the rest of the weekend just relaxing at the campground, taking advantage of the sun and the views before it was time to begin the next drive.

That’s all for the Black Hills! Don’t sleep on this one-of-a-kind part of the country — it was so beautiful and fun, and I’m really glad we spent time there.

(If you made it this far and are wondering why we included "It's Unbelievable" in the title... while hiking around Sylvan Lake we heard this little kid singing the chorus of that song over and over. It was in our heads the rest of the week lol).

We’ll be back soon with our Wyoming adventures, which I’m so excited to share. Over the past few weeks we've had an incredible time exploring two bucket-list national parks: Grand Teton and Yellowstone!! Stay tuned and thanks for following along! :)