The Black Hills of South Dakota are most famous for the outdoor activity of sculpting mountains into memorials. Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse, two gargantuan feats of rock removal, are a big part of what encourages visitors from all over the country to add South Dakota to their travel agendas. What most folks don’t know until they get here is that the Black Hills are simply gorgeous. Rolling hills, big skies, craggy peaks and granite spires are surrounded by an ocean of plains. Much of the landscape remains undeveloped in the form of national grasslands, national forests, state and national parks. It doesn’t matter whether your aim is to relax and smell the flowers or to hike the highest peaks; the hills accommodate.

Every region from the Southern to the Northern Hills has its own special beauty and hidden places to explore.Sylvan Lake is tucked into the northwest corner of Custer State Park. Surrounded by ponderosa pines and granite boulders, it is a jewel of a lake. Kayaks, canoes and paddle boats can be rented from the small store. A trail circumnavigates the lake for a relaxing one mile walk. The more ambitious hikers tackle Harney Peak which at 7,242 feet is the highest point in the hills. The Sylvan Lake trailhead to Harney Peak is located across the footbridge near the swimming area. The hike is approximately 7 miles round-trip and is moderately strenuous. At the summit enjoy the panoramic views of the plains to the east and the hills to the west. When you return to the lake, cool off with a swim at the beach.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota.

Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota. Photo © Jesse Kraft/123rf.

The limestone and shale walls of Spearfish Canyon rise 1,000 feet above the canyon floor. In this scenic byway, the views are from the bottom of the canyon where the road follows the creek and the eyes are drawn upward. From the mouth of the canyon near Spearfish, along U.S Highway 14A, to Cheyenne Crossing near Lead, the byway climbs 2,000 feet in 22 miles. Home to wild rainbow, brown and brook trout, Spearfish Creek is a great small stream fly-fishing destination.

The roadway was designed with four foot shoulders on each side so that bicyclists can enjoy the canyon in safety. Stop in Savoy where Spearfish Canyon Lodge is located for hiking. Trailheads to Roughlock Falls and the 76 Trail are located near the Lodge. The trailhead to Spearfish Falls (a personal favorite) is across the roadway near the Latchstring Restaurant. The hikes to the falls are short and easy. For scenic vistas, the 76 Trail is a short but strenuous hike, rising 700’ to the canyon rim in just .8 miles. It is one of the few places you can see the world from the top of the canyon.

From Savoy it is a short drive to Cheyenne Crossing the endpoint of the scenic byway. Historically a stop along the Cheyenne/Deadwood stagecoach line, today it is a delightful place to stop for a great meal, a glass of wine and dessert.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for outdoor activities in the Black Hills. Every region from the Southern to the Northern Hills has its own special beauty and hidden places to explore. Bring a good pair of boots and sunscreen. Leave the dynamite and mountain carving to the experts.

Travel map of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills

Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills