Home TripsOn the Road Day Hiking in the Black Hills

Day Hiking in the Black Hills

by Grant

The Black Hills are one of the most overlooked destinations we have ever been to. Most visitors come here just to see Mount Rushmore, ignoring the amazing views to be found throughout this scenic area. One of the best ways to see those vistas is by hiking the Black Hills.

The Black Hills is a hodgepodge of private, Federal and state lands, including the Black Hills National Forest, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Devils Tower National Monument, Mount Rushmore National Memorial and Custer State Park. This patchwork of managers makes for some differences in how the trails are managed so make sure you are aware of the requirements of the particular trail you are on. 

The Black Elk Wilderness Area requires a free permit, ie the tag on Grant's backpack.
The Black Elk Wilderness Area requires a free permit, ie the tag on Grant’s backpack.

For example, hiking in the Black Elk Wilderness requires a permit. Some trails allow horses and dogs, some do not. 

Still, we love hiking the Black Hills. The area is full of natural beauty and history. We stayed in Custer, SD, so a lot of the trails we have listed are from the south end of the Black Hills. That’s not to say there aren’t some amazing hikes farther north, just that we ended up doing most of our hikes on the south end. 

Check out our full guide to visiting the Black Hills.

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Some Safety Tips for Hiking the Black Hills

While most of the hiking trails in the Black Hills are fairly well-travelled, there are some that don’t see a lot of folks and have no cell phone service to speak of. Make sure on those trails that you have the appropriate gear with you.

We are big proponents of taking the 10 essentials with us on the trail whenever we hike. Even on some of the shorter hikes we have done, you will typically find us lugging around our daypacks. 

Bonnie hiking Hells Canyon.
Bonnie hiking Hells Canyon. We saw several folks do this trail with little or no water on them.

Why?

Because that’s where we keep our water. We use CamelBak bladders for our water so we are always taking our packs with us so we have something to drink. 

Summers can get hot in the Black Hills. It is not uncommon to have some really hot, dry days, so having a good supply of water, even on shorter hikes, is a good idea. 

Also, the weather can be a bit unpredictable  and we have seen plenty of rough thunderstorms come rolling through quickly in the afternoons. Make sure you pack some rain gear, too.

Read more about our picks for the 10 essentials here.

Lastly, if you are hiking in Custer State Park or Wind Cave National Park, make sure you keep an eye out for bison! You never know when you are going to come across one (or a whole herd!) on the trail.

Bison herd in Custer State Park.
Bison herd in Custer State Park.

If you need maps, check out the AllTrails app. It will allow you to download a map to your phone which you can use without cell phone service. We have found it quite valuable at poorly marked trail junctions.

Short Hikes in the Black Hills

Sylvan Lake Shore Trail

Custer State Park

1.1 miles | 59 foot elevation gain

This is a simple, easy walk around Sylvan Lake, one of the prettiest spots in the whole of the Black Hills. Most of this trail is relatively flat. 

Our biggest recommendation on this hike is to get up to Sylvan Lake early during the summer. The parking lot tends to fill up quickly and you will have a hard time finding a place to park later in the day. 

Sylvan Lake
Sylvan Lake

Badger Clark Historic Trail

Custer State Park

.6 mile | 134 foot elevation gain

This trail is located right next to The Badger Hole, Badger Clark’s cabin. It follows a wooded loop through the woods behind the cabin.

What makes this trail special is the signs along the trail following the life and work of Badger Clark, South Dakota’s “Poet Lariat.” His cowboy poetry is nothing short of perfect. The trail begins and ends right at the cabin. 

One note of caution: the Centennial Trail runs through right next to this trail. Make sure you don’t accidentally end up on that trail by mistake.

Read more about visiting Custer State Park.

Grant reading up on Badger Clark, South Dakota's "Poet Lariat."
Grant reading up on Badger Clark, South Dakota’s “Poet Lariat.”

Presidential Trail 

Mount Rushmore National Memorial

.9 mile | 137 foot elevation gain

I would be remiss if I did not include this trail since most folks coming to the Black Hills are coming to see Mount Rushmore. This easy loop leads down to the base of the mountain, allowing up close and personal views of the carvings. 

There are a bunch of steps but it is not a tough climb. The biggest issue is the crowds. Get there early or go late to avoid the crowds. 

For more on Mount Rushmore, click here.

Walking the Presidential Trail is one of our favorite things to do at Mount Rushmore.
The Presidential Trail follows a boardwalk all the way to the base of the mountain.

Rankin Ridge Interpretive Trail

Wind Cave National Park

1.05 miles | 253 foot elevation gain

This trail starts with a steep uphill  but it levels out fairly quickly. It leads up to a fire lookout tower with outstanding views of the above ground portion of Wind Cave National Park to the east. 

The return trip follows the access road for the tower and is a pretty gentle downhill. Even for hardcore hikers, this trail is a must for the views.

Read more about visiting Wind Cave National Park.

Grant hiking down the Rankin Ridge Trail.
Grant hiking down the Rankin Ridge Trail.

Mount Theodore Roosevelt Loop

Black Hills National Forest

.8 mile | 164 feet of elevation gain

This quick, gently sloped loop trail leads out to one of the most unique lookout towers in the country. The views are pretty spectacular from the tower.

The tower was built by Seth Bullock as a gift to Theodore Roosevelt for the years for friendship between them. The story is pretty cool, so check out the interpretive signs along the way.

Bonnie walking up to the Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower, a monument dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt by his long-time friend Seth Bullock.
Bonnie walking up to the Mount Roosevelt Friendship Tower, a monument dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt by his long-time friend Seth Bullock.

The Roof Trail

Jewel Cave National Monument

0.4 mile | 82 feet of elevation gain

The Roof Trail is another easy but nice hike found in the Black Hills. Essentially, check out the visitor center at Jewel Cave National Monument, walk out the back door and to start your walk. 

This walk heads to a pretty overlook of the southern Black Hills and the takes you back to the parking lot through the Ponderosa pines. It’s easy but pretty.

Read more about visiting Jewel Cave National Monument.

The view of the Black Hills from the Roof Trail.
The view of the Black Hills from the Roof Trail.

Cold Brook Canyon Trail

Wind Cave National Park

2.8 miles | 200 foot elevation gain

This is a basic out and back trail in Wind Cave NP. You will quickly drop down out of the woods into open prairie and then into a wide, shallow canyon. It is mostly flat ’til you head back up at the end.

The trail is nice enough and crossing through a prairie dog town is pretty cool. That said, there is not a lot of shade so we recommend doing this earlier in the day to avoid the heat. Also, watch out for bison here. We saw plenty of wallows and chips along the way.

The Cold Brook Canyon Trail leads right through a prairie dog town.
The Cold Brook Canyon Trail leads right through a prairie dog town.

Moderate Hikes in the Black Hills

Lovers Leap Trail

Custer State Park

4.2 miles | 626 foot elevation gain

This loop is located right down the road from the State Game Lodge and is probably one of our favorite hikes in Custer State Park.

We took the trail clockwise, which we recommend, because it gets the uphill out of the way right off the bat. The views from the “leap” are great. Following the views, you get to hike through a small canyon along a creek, winding back to the trailhead.

Bonnie hiking on the Lover's Leap Trail in Custer State Park.
Bonnie on the Lover’s Leap Trail in Custer State Park.

Roughlock Falls and Spearfish Falls

Black Hills National Forest

3 miles | 225 foot elevation gain

For this, we joined two nearby trails together rather than moving our car. It was easy enough since a trail connects the two.

We started out by hiking the easy out and back trail to Roughlock Falls. It follows the creek up to the falls. The trail may be easy but the views are spectacular, with great views of Spearfish Canyon surrounding you as you hike to the scenic falls.

Roughlock Falls
Roughlock Falls

From there, head back to the junction, cross the road and head left to go down to Spearfish Falls. There is a little bit of steep incline here but nothing most folks can’t handle. The falls themselves are more dramatic than Roughlock but the Roughlock Falls Trail is prettier. 

It makes for an easy stop if you are driving the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway.

Roughlock Falls Trail
Roughlock Falls Trail

Iron Creek Trail

Black Hills National Forest

4.9 miles | 318 foot elevation gain

This out and back trail has a very gradual incline and there is nowhere on the way out that you will find a steep grade. What makes this trail cool are the water crossings. This trail crosses Iron Creek many times and there is something scenic at each one. 

Be sure to look upstream and downstream at each of the crossings. There is a bridge there but it might be out of sight. We accidentally crossed on a log when we didn’t have to. Still, it’s a fun trail.

Grant admiring Iron Creek.
Grant admiring Iron Creek.

Lookout Point and Centennial Trail Loop

Wind Cave National Park

5.2 miles | 515 foot elevation gain

This hike is probably one of our absolute favorite hikes… Not because of the hike itself but because of the experiences we had on this trail back in 2012. We got to watch as a coyote chased down and killed a fawn, all while the mother bleated helplessly. It was like being in an episode of Wild America right in front of us. 

Read about our hike on this trail in 2012 here.

A bison carcass along the Lookout Point Trail.
A bison carcass along the Lookout Point Trail.

In terms of the hike itself, this combines the Lookout Point Trail and a section of the Centennial Trail into a really nice loop through the prairie atop Wind Cave. If you take the trail counter clockwise, you will avoid the worst of the incline. 

What I love about this trail, aside from the experience, is rugged beauty, half in the Black Hills, half in the plains. This trail truly gets to the heart of Wind Cave National Park above the ground.

You can turn the Lookout Point Trail into a loop by coming back on the Centennial Trail.
You can turn the Lookout Point Trail into a loop by coming back on the Centennial Trail.

Difficult Hikes in the Black Hills

Hell Canyon Trail

Black Hills National Forest

5.6 miles | 853 foot elevation gain

Located right down the road from Jewel Cave National Monument, this trail presents an interesting choice: when do you want to do your uphill?

Bonnie hiking up the steep first part of the trail.
Bonnie hiking up the steep first part of the trail.

We chose to do this trail clockwise, getting most of the steep climb out of the way first and we are glad we did. Once we got to the top, we were rewarded by great views of the canyon that just got better as we followed the trail along the canyon wall. 

Eventually, the trail turned down into the canyon and followed the creek out, descending gently as we went, with gorgeous canyon views all around. There were a few creek crossings that did not have bridges. I’ll admit, we got our feet wet trying to get across a couple of them. For this reason alone, I’d suggest hiking clockwise. The hike would have been miserable had we done the water crossings first and then spent 5 miles hiking in soaking wet shoes.

One bit of warning: there are plenty of ticks on this trail, so douse yourself with bug spray before heading out.

You can see the return trail winding through the canyon floor.
You can see the return trail winding through the canyon floor.

Sunday Gulch Trail

Custer State Park

3.9 miles | 797 foot elevation gain

This loop trail drops in behind Sylvan Lake down into the Sunday Gulch and then follows the creek back up, crisscrossing the creek and using hand rails to climb some pretty steep scrambling. 

Sunday Gulch Trail
Sunday Gulch Trail

We took this trail counter-clockwise, which we recommend. The views to start are fairly open with the ability to see parts of the Needles Highway as we descended. Coming back up, the creek leads you back to Sylvan Lake. We were glad to have the handrails for the way up and while it seems counterintuitive, going up these steep sections is easier than going down.

When you get to the top, you have a choice of going back the way you came or completing the Sylvan Lake Loop as part of your hike. We recommend the latter.

Read more about hiking in Custer State Park.

The Sunday Gulch Trail was a fun hike at Custer State Park.
Grant pushing up near the end of the Sunday Gulch trail.

Joyner Ridge, Red Beds and Devils Tower Trail

Devils Tower National Monument

7.2 miles | 1,017 foot elevation gain

This is a loop trail comprised of three separate loop trails that all join together. Start at the Joyner Ridge Trailhead located well away from the crowds at the visitor center and head right at the trailhead. The trail will eventually link up with the Red Beds Trail, which loops around Devils Tower itself. You can also take the paved Devils Tower Trail to get closer to Devils Tower and then pick the Red Beds Trail back to rejoin you with the Joyner Ridge Loop. 

Grant climbing up the uphill on the Red Beds Trail.
Grant climbing up the uphill on the Red Beds Trail.

The trails are mostly in the open, so bring plenty of water, but the views of Devils Tower and the surrounding valley are gorgeous. It took us about three hours to hike the whole of the three loops and this is the best way to experience Devils Tower.

Read more about hiking at Devils Tower National Monument.

Black Elk Peak and Little Devil’s Tower Loop

Custer State Park | Black Elk Wilderness Area

9.1 miles | 1,798 foot elevation gain

This is the big daddy of the trails in Custer State Park and the Black Hills. We spent a bit more than five hours hiking this trail, including eating lunch and pictures. And it was worth it!

This trail takes you to the tallest point in South Dakota, Black Elk Peak, which is 7, 244 feet. This is also the tallest point east of the Rocky Mountains all the way to the Pyrenees in France. The view at the top is suitably amazing. 

The fire lookout tower atop Black Elk Peak.
The fire lookout tower atop Black Elk Peak.

The trail starts in Custer State Park but soon enters the Black Elk Wilderness, part of the Black Hills National Forest. You will need a free permit to finish hiking the trail, so be sure to grab one for your group.

You have three options when it comes to this peak: hike from the Black Elk Peak trailhead, hike from the Little Devil’s Tower trailhead or do the loop, like we did. We recommend the loop trail but know it adds three miles on to the trail. 

One of the most strenuous hike in Custer State Park is Black Elk Peak.
Bonnie looking out at the Needles along the Black Elk Peak Trail.

Pro Tip: If you plan on hiking Little Devil’s Tower itself, hike it first. That ascent is brutal if you are already tired from summiting Black Elk Peak. Seriously, it is a lot of scrambling up steep rocks to get to the top.

Final Thoughts on Hiking the Black Hills

It doesn’t matter if you are a serious hiker or a beginner or anything in between, the Black Hills offers a lot in the way of great hiking.  From idyllic mountain lakes to the rugged intersection of the prairie and the hills, these trails are some of our favorites anywhere. 

Grant hiking the Roughlock Falls Trail.
Grant hiking the Roughlock Falls Trail.

We can’t recommend getting out on the trail in the Black Hills highly enough. You should definitely build in time on your vacation to experience all this area has to offer, especially the trails.

Headed east to Badlands National Park? While the hiking opportunities are limited, there are still some great hikes of all difficulty levels. Be sure to check out our Badlands NP hiking guide.

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