South Dakota has been on my bucket list for quite a while, but unlike most places on my bucket list, South Dakota isn’t filled with massive peaks and alpine environments. Yet still, the wide-open spaces, lush green hillsides, and vast regions of forests to go explore in the Black Hills drew me in.
To top off the beautiful nature, the sustainable, thriving small-town culture here is something you don’t see too often and we loved spending our time off the trails enjoying cities like Spearfish, Custer, and Sturgis.
So while South Dakota surely doesn’t compare to the Tetons or the Alps, there’s something so incredibly stunning, quaint, and peaceful about the Black Hills of South Dakota.
This blog compiles the best hikes we experienced on our 3 week trip to South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest. If we missed one of your favorites, be sure to let us know in the comments below!
Black Elk Peak.
The Black Hills are located on the west side of South Dakota near the Wyoming border. It includes Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore National Park, and the towns of Custer, Keystone, and Deadwood. Rapid City lies just outside the Black Hills and has an airport making it easy to fly in and out of.
We love camping in Custer State Park because the bison walk right through the campground! There isn’t much of a cell signal there though so sometimes we stay at Pactola Reservoir instead. Click here for a list of all our favorite campgrounds in the Black Hills.
We love staying at Spearfish Canyon Lodge. While this isn’t in the center of the Black Hills, you are nestled in the beauty of the Black Hills and there are a ton of adventures right outside your front door.
1 | Little Devils Tower + Black Elk Peak
Distance: 8 miles
Difficulty + elevation gain: Strenuous, 1700′
Just 4 miles away from the beautiful bustling outdoor hub of Sylvan Lake, lies the highest peak between the Rockies and the Pyrenees (Yes, for reals!). Black Elk Peak, formerly known as Harney Peak, sits at 7,242 feet in elevation alongside a historic fire lookout that gives expansive panoramic views of all the beauty the Black Hills has to offer.
What’s even better about this hike in the Black Hills is that not only do you get to summit South Dakota’s highest peak, but you also get to scramble up the even more beautiful, more under the radar summit, of Little Devils Tower. At 6960′ and just a few miles beyond Black Elk, these two peaks can be experienced in 1 epic day hike from Sylvan Lake. And for those willing to put their legs to the test, it’s a day hike that can’t be missed.
Bonus: Truly hardcore hikers can even combine this hike with Cathedral Spires and Sunday Gulch for an ultimate Sylvan Lake exploration.
For details on how to hike Black Elk Peak and Little Devils Tower, click here and read our blog guide.
After tackling this strenuous hike, be sure to grab a delicious beer and burgers at The Custer Wolf in the nearby town of Custer.
2 | Devils Bathtub Trail
Distance: 3 miles
Difficulty: Easy, 250′
This under the radar gem in Spearfish Canyon is an adventure that involves more than just a walk along the river.
To reach the Devils Bathtub, you’ll head upstream for 2 miles but you’ll also have to cross the river about 10 times each way. Come prepared with hiking sandals or get ready to soak your shoes (trust me, we tried hiking barefoot on the way there and it wasn’t worth the work).
The endpoint of this hike can be confusing and unclear. When you get there, you’ll first reach a small pool with a natural waterslide. Then, just 2 minutes past this, you’ll reach what we believe is the actual Devils Bathub which was a waist-deep fall flowing into a long, sloping waterfall. This is a great place to go for a polar plunge or try the waterslide at the pool below.
Related: 15 Things to Do in the Black Hills
3 | Roughlock Falls + Spearfish Falls Loop, Spearfish Canyon
Distance: 3 mi
Difficulty + elevation gain: Easy, 250′
Located among the stunning Spearfish Canyon, Roughlock and Spearfish Falls are local favorites easily accessed from the town of Spearfish.
From the parking lot of Spearfish Canyon Lodge, combine both small trails by first heading to Roughlock Falls directly across the Highway on the left side of the lodge. An easy path will bring you to 3 different viewing platforms of the two-tiered waterfall. Next, head back the way you came, and this time, when you reach the parking lot, head around the left side of the restaurant to the Spearfish Falls Trail which is only a brief quarter-mile hike down to the base of the falls.
I think Spearfish Falls is even more spectacular than Roughlock and the powerful spray of water ions from the fall hitting the river makes it a magical experience in my opinion.
After your explorations, grab dinner at The Latch String, which is located at the Spearfish Lodge, or head to Spearfish Brewery for beer and burgers in town.
Related: Spearfish Canyon Lodge: The Perfect Getaway Destination in South Dakota (COMING SOON)
4 | Crow Peak, Spearfish, Black Hills
Distance: 6.5 miles
Difficulty + elevation gain: Strenuous, 1600’
Crow Peak, second in elevation only to Black Elk Peak, is the most strenuous trail in Black Hills of South Dakota. Beginning just north of Spearfish, this trail weaves its way up a steep hillside on the edge of the Black Hills. This hike is a great challenge for experienced hikers and the expansive views from the top are worthwhile.
From the summit at 5760’, you’ll have views of the prairie land to the north, Wyoming to the west, and the endless forested hillsides of the Black Forest to the east.
5 | Sunday Gulch Trail, Sylvan Lake
Distance: 4 miles
Difficulty + elevation gain: Moderate, 800’
Sunday Gulch is a trail that surprised me with its beauty. With a name like Sunday Gulch, I expected an unspectacular trail that descends into a condensed forest and the such, but no. Sunday Gulch is actually really epic and isn’t just a walk in the woods.
Sunday Gulch is a steep gulch with boulders towering all around you, almost like a mini rock canyon, and a river running through it. This towering boulder field creates fun rock features that must be descended or ascended with the help of handrails and occasional parkour moves. Overall, this may be the coolest moderate hike in the Black Hills, and its a hike you won’t forget.
For details on how to best hike Sunday Gulch, scroll to the bottom of our Sylvan Lake trail guide here.
6 | Cathedral Spires, Needles Highway
Distance: 1.5 miles
Difficulty + elevation gain: Easy, 500’
Cathedral Spires is one of the coolest natural features this region of South Dakota has to offer. These tall and iconic rock spires are a beautiful sight that can’t be missed (bonus: trad climbers will rejoice for the awesome routes that ascend these peaks).
It’s important to note that RVs will not be able to reach the Cathedral Spires trailhead due to low clearance tunnels. Fortunately, that’s not the only way to see these awesome spires. You can see equally, if not more, beautiful views of the Cathedral Spires from the Black Elk + Little Devils Tower hiking loop we mentioned earlier. Read more about it here.
7 | Flume Trail + Spring Creek Loop, Sheridan Lake
Distance: 4 miles
Difficulty + elevation gain: Easy, 400’
Starting from the popular campground and outdoor hub of Sheridan Lake, Flume Trail is no epic summit trek but its unique trail feature around mile 2 makes it worthwhile and a great family-friendly exploration.
This path loops two different trails and we recommend starting on Flume Trail. Do this by staying on the high path when you reach the dam at the end of Sheridan Lake.
After a little less than an hour of total hiking, you’ll come to an awesome little mine that you get to walk through. The mining tunnel is only about 50 meters long but it’s super dark and just scary enough to make it entertaining for adults along with kids. After enjoying the mine, keep hiking until you hit a trail junction then loop your way back down the river on Spring Creek trail.
8 | Lovers Leap, Custer State Park
Distance: 3-4 mi
Difficulty + elevation gain: Moderate, 600’
Located in the wildlife rich sector of Custer State Park, Lover’s Leap is an uncrowded gem that takes you to a lovely viewpoint where you can see the expansive layers of the Black Hills and Black Elk Peak off in the distance. The rocky ledge that gives the hike its name is a comfortable place to sit and take in the views in peace and quiet.
What’s even better than the views on this hike is the abundant wildlife. At the trailhead, we spotted a group of pronghorn sheep, many deer, and 2 big buffalo chilling in the grassy fields (one even came through our campsite later in the day).
You can hike Lovers Leap as an out-and-back for 3 miles round-trip, or make it a loop which may involve many river crossings early in the season for 4 miles roundtrip.
Custer State Park Trail Challenge
Hiking in the summer? Not all of the Black Hills are located within Custer State Park however A LOT of them are and every year from Memorial Day to Labor Day you can participate in the Custer State Park Trail Challenge. Each year features a different combination of Custer State Park trails that signify completion of the challenge.
Signs and medallions are scattered throughout the State Park. Collect rubbings of the required trail medallions to complete the challenge. If you complete all of the trails, turn in a form and show your rubbings at a visitor center for a cool hiking pin. Learn more about the 2020 challenge here.