Explore South Dakota’s Hidden Adventure Paradise
Find bigger adventures (and smaller crowds) in America’s most under-the-radar national forest
The Black Hills, a sprawling national forest in western South Dakota, has it all: rugged ridgelines, forests, canyons, grasslands, creeks and more. Like many public lands in the country, the Black Hills provides endless opportunities for exploration. But unlike other American adventure epicenters, the Black Hills retains a quiet, primitive feel. As a result, the forest remains steeped in wild mystery. You might say the Black Hills is America’s best-kept secret.
Climb 300-foot rock spires that pierce the forest canopy like granite incisors. Zip down singletrack trails and paddle whitewater creeks that twist out of sight at every turn. The more time you spend here, the more the Black Hills reveals itself. “The Black Hills is a sacred place to many local Native tribes, and you can really sense that,” says Patty Ressler, executive director of the nonprofit Black Hills Parks and Forests Association. “When people visit the Black Hills for the first time, they really feel that connectedness and a sense of awe and wonder.” Here’s how to capture the feeling for yourself, no matter your sport of choice.
Looking for an adventure-climbing experience? Head straight for the Needles in Custer State Park. This area is filled with dozens of 200- to 300-foot freestanding towers. “It really does feel like you’re climbing in the mountains,” says Brandon Emery, owner of Sylvan Rocks, a Rapid City–based climbing guide service. “There are these tight, narrow corridors in the rock and no signs or markers. It’s just this wild adventure experience.” The climbers’ trails are usually empty, and navigation skills are a must. Often, the only way down is a tandem rappel: climbers lower off opposite sides of the spire, using the tiny summit as a fulcrum. “Most folks hire a guide for the first day of their visit just to get oriented,” Emery says. After that, he adds, people usually fall in love with the place and stay for weeks to climb on their own.
Of course, Custer’s runouts and tandem rappels aren’t for everybody. If cragging is more your jam, head to Spearfish Canyon State Nature Area. Known for techy routes on high-quality limestone, Spearfish Canyon is fast becoming a world-class destination. Grades here tend to be stout, so make sure you can lead at least 5.10 before you arrive (and bring a stick clip). Must-dos include anything on the Dark Side wall, recommends Emery. The cliff offers a number of classics in the 5.11 range.
Plan your trip: Get beta on rock climbing throughout South Dakota.
Thanks to an active local mountain biking community, you’ll find an abundance of mountain bike trails in the hills between Rapid City and Spearfish. If you want to get in a few hours of riding before beer o’clock, head to Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park, north of downtown Rapid City. This nonprofit park maintains a tight network of fun, flowy lines. Farther west of the city, the Victoria Lake Loop offers about nine miles of intermediate-level riding on impeccable singletrack.
Ready to take on a more adventurous ride? Ressler recommends the Centennial Trail, a 125-mile traverse that extends from Wind Cave National Park to Bear Butte State Park. “It’s lesser known, but it goes through some really beautiful areas,” she says. The route has recently been expanded and rerouted, so Ressler recommends asking local shops for the most up-to-date trail info. These bike shops can also set you up with a rental for the day.
Plan your trip: See more options for mountain biking in South Dakota.
The rolling topography of the Black Hills is interlaced with narrow creeks, making this corner of South Dakota a paddler’s wonderland. In the northern Black Hills, Spearfish Creek and Redwater River offer Class II–III paddling. While conditions tend to be best from late spring through mid-summer, local boaters hit the Redwater as late as December, zipping into wetsuits and drytops when snow covers the ground.
For a longer run, try Rapid Creek, which typically maxes out around Class III. The creek feeds out of Pactola Lake near Custer State Park and shoots east, winding through forested gorges and small towns before curling into the serpentine bends of Dark Canyon. (There are two Class IV drops in Dark Canyon; consider scouting before you drop in.) Paddle all four sections and you’ll be looking at a respectable 19 miles on the water. Ready to ramp up the intensity? Head to Battle Creek or Whitewood Creek. Both lie east of Custer State Park and boast rapids up to Class V. Rentals are easy to come by. Grab boats at Sylvan Lake, Sheridan Lake, or local paddling shops.
Plan your trip: Explore South Dakota’s lakes and rivers.
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