Exploring Black Hills National Forest

While on your Mount Rushmore trip, it can be easy to miss this amazing national forest that, some might say, is even more impressive. Encompassing the southwestern part of South Dakota and covering parts of Wyoming and Nebraska, the Black Hills National Forest comprises 1.2 million acres of wilderness, streams, mountains and scenic byways. With 450 miles of hiking trails, you could spend weeks just exploring this vast recreation paradise.

Where is the Black Hills National Forest?

The national forest covers a large area of the state, so it depends on what part you are trying to access. The four ranger districts to access the park are the Bear Lodge, Northern Hills, Hell Canyon and Mystic ranger districts. The closest entrance to us is the Mystic Ranger District, which is only a 20-minute drive from your stay at the Lantern Inn or 25 minutes from Rushmore. If you're going to explore the farther reaches, Bear Lodge and Northern Hills lie at the far end of the park near the town of Spearfish, which is 45 minutes northwest of Rapid City.

Best Time to Visit Black Hills National Forest

Each season in the Black Hills offers a unique experience so it can be tough to pick the best season to visit. Spring can be a great time with the vegetation blooming after the winter. It is, however, better to visit later in the spring season to access more recreational opportunities.
Summer's warm weather makes this an outdoor paradise and the elevation keeps the temperature sitting pleasantly close to 80 degrees. Summer draws the largest crowds but most of them will be visiting Rushmore instead of the national forest. Many consider fall to be the best time to visit because of the beautiful changing colors, especially near Spearfish Canyon. There are no crowds and the temperature drops to mildly cool. Winter restricts certain outdoor activities but activities like snowshoeing, cross-country skiing and snowmobiling are available throughout the forest.

Black Elk Peak

Formerly named Harney Peak, Black Elk Peak towers at 1,469 feet making it the tallest peak in South Dakota. This 7.1-mile long hike is not for the faint of heart, but the summit and lookout tower are well worth the effort.

Highway 16 Scenic Drive

If hiking isn't your cup of tea, you can still enjoy spectacular views by taking Highway 16. On your way from Lantern Inn, you'll see giant granite spires poking out of the trees and along the way, there are certain points giving you a perfect view of Mount Rushmore from a distance. If you'd like to escape the crowds and see the carved mountain from afar, this is the place for you.

Horseback Riding in Black Hills National Forest

One of the most popular activities to do in the national forest is to take in the western wilderness scenery on horseback. There are several different horseback riding guides throughout the area but the highest rated guide is Rockin' R Trail Rides. Starting with rates as low as $50 for an hour-long trail ride, it can be a fun affordable date or family event.

Devils Tower

The hour-and-a-half long drive from Rapid City to Devils Tower is a long one but is definitely worth it. Devils Tower is culturally significant to six Native American tribes, but more specifically to the Lakota, as such, ceremonies are conducted at the tower every year (especially in June). Take a hike along the Tower Trail or the Red Beds Trail to see it up close. If you are a rock climber, this is one of the few national monuments that permits climbing.