The Black Hills National Forest is public land owned by the U.S. government and operated by the U.S. Forest Service.
The Black Hills National Forest is one of the most road-built national forests in the country. Due to the odd history of South Dakota, the forest service land is patchworked in and out with private land, state highways, forest service roads, etc., through the area.
The Black Hills of South Dakota are a lone series of mountains in the middle of the Great Plains. The nearest rocky mountains, the Bighorn Mountains, are about 100 mi (160 km) to the west. The nearest mountains to the east or south are several thousand miles away. It was formed by unknown means when some kind of 'uplift' occurred many millions of years ago.
The Black Hills are possibly named black because of the Ponderosa Pine trees that grow there; young trees have black bark that turns orange as the trees mature.
The Black Hills are sacred to Lakota people and were a refuge during harsh seasons on the plains. The hills unique ecosystem also provided many plants not found on the prairies that could be used for foodmaking or medicine. Nowadays the Lakota live mostly on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation a few miles to the south.
The hills' unique formation of limestone rocks being shifted by the 'uplift', and then eroded and deposited-upon by water, make wonderful conditions for caves to form, and the area is dotted with many that you can visit. The federal government has taken over two of these via the National Park Service; Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. You can go on guided tours through these. There are several commercial caves owned privately by companies that also give tours.
Tourism is a big business in the Black Hills. In summer the temperatures rise and tourists flood in for a variety of reasons. Thus there are many touristy type shops, restaurants, casinos and so forth usually with a western theme, banking on the 'Wild West' image of Deadwood and the surrounding area.
There are also lots of mountain climbers, and therefore several mountain climbing schools and equipment supply shops. Devil's Tower which is a famous climbing destination lies a few hours to the West of the area in Wyoming.
The hills are mostly populated lower income white people, farmers and ranchers, and Native Americans, but lots of people from California, driven out by high land prices, have moved into the area. Many of the old citizens have sold their land to incoming Californians for a good price and have moved farther from the hills.
The Black Hills stand in contrast to the wide sweeping prairies of western South Dakota, as they are covered with mostly Ponderosa or Lodgepole Pine. Stands of Aspen can also be found within the forest.
Most of the Black Hills gently roll from 5000-6000 feet in elevation, however many peaks in the south central hills are over 7000 feet above sea level. Harney Peak is the tallest mountain at 7242 feet, which is also the highest point of South Dakota. Several trails can be taken to the top which has an old CCC fire lookout tower at the summit.
Minerals of many types are found in abundance throughout the Black Hills, commonly found are: Granite, muscovite, and quartz. Gold and Silver were originally found in great amounts in the northern areas near the Wyoming South Dakota border.
Flora and fauna
North American Bison (buffalo), mountain goats, mule deer, cougar, and the occasional donkey can be found in abundance on the Wildlife Loop of Custer State Park in the southern-central portion of the Black Hills.
Prairie grasses, ponderosa pine, aspen, and numerous types of wildflowers such as prairie coneflower can be found within the Black Hills.
Fees and permits
Aside from camping fees and hunting permits, the national forest is free for all to enjoy.
There are quite a few amazing things to see in the Black Hills. There is Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Custer State Park, the Needles highway, Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, many scenic overlooks and bypasses, tours of a closed gold mine in Lead, gambling trying to cash in on western legends in Deadwood, the massive Crazy Horse sculpture, Spearfish Canyon, and so forth and so on.
- The Black Hills bicycle trail, the Mickleson Trail, is remarkable. It is gravel and runs along an old railroad track. It will have a very gentle uphill grade for several miles, and then a gentle downhill grade for several more miles. It stretches for 100 miles up through the hills hitting several cities such as Custer and Hill City, and passes right by the Crazy Horse monument.
- Custer State Park. Offers a number of nice hiking trails, including several routes to Harney Peak, highest point in the state of South Dakota. Several of the trails that start in the state park continue on into the national forest's Black Elk Wilderness.
- Sheridan Lake. A lake that is great for boating and camping. There are also hiking trails around the lake. For the young and adventurous there are cliffs at one far end of the lake to jump off of into the water.
Custer is pretty much the "hub" for the forest, if you can call it that, and is the best place to find lodging.
The Forestry Service operates 32 campgrounds within the forest, which bear nominal fees during the summer months. Potable water and toilets are available at each site, while RV hookups most often are not.
As with most any U.S. National Forest, you are free to pitch a tent pretty much wherever you like, provided you are at least 50 feet away from roads, streams, or trails; that you do not take any road marked private; and stay no longer than fourteen days (they don't want people moving in).
Wildlife poses the greatest threat in the Hills. Keep your distance.
- Bison roam free in the region, and herds frequently cross and block highways. They are temperamental and unpredictable; if you get stuck in a line of cars backed up by a herd, stay in the car, roll your eyes, and wait for them to cross. Do not leave the car to approach the animals. A docile-looking bison can turn into over a ton of enraged, fast-moving muscle and horns before you know it and with no obvious provocation.
- In the rare event you encounter a mountain lion, talk and make yourself look as big and scary as possible. Walk away backwards very carefully and slowly. Never show the back of your neck to a lion. Mountain lion sightings are becoming more prevalent.
- Rattlesnakes are not aggressive unless they are messed with. Be very careful not to surprise one when climbing. Encounters between hikers and rattlers are uncommon but not unknown, and the way to deal with an encounter varies according to circumstances. If you actually see the snake, back away from it a short distance (8-10 feet at most); rattlers can only strike about half their body length, so there's no need to go running in terror. If you don't see it but only hear it, best is to stop in your tracks until you know where it is, then back away. If you're hiking in a group, make sure your fellow hikers know the snake is there (say "Snake"), but there's nothing to get hysterical about. Pay extra attention when hiking at dawn or dusk, when the snakes are hunting (mice, not you).
- The best reminder for people is that wildlife is just that - wild. Even the more innocent looking animals of the Black Hills like the Prairie Dogs are not pets, and tourists should avoid trying to touch these animals or crowding their holes. Rabies is common.
- Deadwood is possibly America's most storied small town from the wild frontier days.
- Mount Rushmore National Memorial is a short drive away, and so is the even larger Crazy Horse Memorial.
- Rapid City is a transportation hub for the region. It has a few museums, and plenty of cheap hotels and restaurants (chain and local).
- Sturgis is the home of the famed Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August.
- Wall (South Dakota) has Wall Drug, whose ubiquitous signs will be more than familiar to any visitor driving on Interstate 90.
- Yellowstone National Park is just under 500 miles from Deadwood and 10½-hour non-stop drive.