Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children. We do not inherit the Earth from our Ancestors, we borrow it from our Children.
Having visited 47/50 states (sorry Hawaii, Alaska, and North Dakota), I often receive the question “Well, which one is the best”. The true answer is that there isn’t one, there may be a worst which I won’t get into, but as far as the best, that would be nearly impossible to determine. So normally, in this situation, I would talk out-loud to myself as I answer the question, “Texas is pretty spectacular, same with Colorado. Utah is gorgeous, but so is Wyoming, there’s always South Dakota, California has to be up there..” I don’t get much farther before they interrupt saying, “South Dakota?” in shock. It is no mistake, South Dakota ranks above many, many others on my personal “best state leader boards”.
My ratings are heavily favored towards the natural landscape, and environmental beauty of the state, making South Dakota is one of the most beautiful I have seen. I suppose, with fierce competition from the heavy hitters like Colorado and California, South Dakota might be easy to overlook, but I encourage some extra consideration when looking for natural beauty.
South Dakotans can brag about having two amazing national parks, the Badlands and Wind Cave, but there is more to the state, much more. Somehow, the entire Black Hills National Forest area avoided national park status, despite having some areas within the forest that give many national parks a run for their money.
The Black Hills are a massive, 5,000 sq mile swath of land, covering much of the South West corner of the state. The Hills are an isolated mountain rage, rising from the Great Plains and spilling into Wyoming. They are covered in looming pines, pristine ponds, and spectacular stone formations - giving the area a perfectly unique natural landscape unlike any other in the United States.
So what is there to do in the Black Hills?
There is a surprisingly long list of attractions within the Black Hills. From colossal monuments and world-class state parks, to simmering lakes and scenic roads, I guarantee you will not have enough time to do it all. Having only three days, I only managed to cross off a few items from my bucket-list, so I’ll take to just those places, them being; Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, and Black Elk Peak.
Crazy Horse Memorial
Normally, I would shy away from ‘touristy area’ like Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse, but my curiosity and interest in Native American history got the best of me. I couldn’t visit the Black Hills and not learn about the Native Americans who once lived in the area, and I felt that Crazy Horse might be the best place to satisfy my curiosities.
To explain, Crazy Horse is well… crazy, at least the idea is. The dream is to carve a Mt. Rushmorian like monument of the Sioux warrior, Crazy Horse, riding a horse and pointing into the side of an enormous mountain. The idea, from my understanding after having visited, is to show all the ‘red people’ that ‘white people’ aren’t the only ones with heros - a noble idea in my opinion.
The statue is far from complete, even with construction having started all the way back in 1948. The memorial is planned to be massive, final dimensions have the entire memorial being 640ft high by 560ft wide - the largest statue in the world currently under construction. The head of Crazy Horse is an insane 87ft tall; the Mt. Rushmore heads stand at only 60ft tall, in comparison. With ambitions goals like that, it’s no wonder why the memorial doesn’t even have a completion date in mind. One of the ladies working joking said, “it sure as hell isn’t going to be finished in my lifetime”.
Even so, you can still visit Crazy Horse and see the progress being made, and the vision slowing coming to life. There is also a museum and a school at the foot of the mountain worth visiting. The museum was packed with beautiful relics and artifacts from the tribes that once populated the area.
Crazy Horse was a good first stop to put everything into a cultural perspective as we explored the rest of the forest. After all, the glory of nature is enhanced with a historical understanding of the land. While you hike, you can imagine people living on the environment, using the resources available to live their lives in a remarkably similar way, at least in the form of emotions and worries, that we live today.
As many of you know, I am always on the lookout for scenic byways to break up the monotony of interstate highways. I have been prove, time and time again, that amazing environments can be seen through the window of a car, and Needles Highway, in the Black Hills, was just another example to add to the ever-growing list.
The highway climbs into the Black Hills and takes you for a ride along the rim of some of the taller mountains in the area. There are dozens of pull-offs for you to get out and stretch your legs or explore a little further off of the road.
The highway literally cuts through the mountain at a certain point and places you among massive pillars of granite, called The Needles. This is a particularly beautiful area.
Keep in mind that the highway is very popular, and if taken North to South, it will lead you right to Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake, and entrance to the trailhead leading to Black Elk Peak. I would recommend driving The Needles highway as early in the morning as possible to avoid traffic and to get the most out of the experience.
The Needles Highway drops us off right at one of the most picturesque lakes I have ever seen, Sylvan Lake. You may even recognize this lake from the movie National Treasure 2. The lake acts as a little resort, and you must pay to enter. I want to say it was around $25, a steep price for a state park, but as you will see, it is well worth the cover charge.
The park was empty when I arrived early in the morning, but it quickly filled, to the point where there was nowhere to park anywhere I could see, so again, make sure you get there early. The lake offers a ton of family friendly activities, including swimming and boat rentals. There is even a visitor’s store that sold burgers (including bison burgers), sandwiches, and fries. It is a perfect place for the family to hang out if they aren’t interested in hiking Black Elk Peak.
Black Elk Peak
There is a large dirt lot in the far back corner of the park for extra parking, not too far from there is the Black Elk Peak Trailhead. Black Elk Peak is the highest point in the Black Hills, and South Dakota, additionally, standing at 7,244ft, it is the highest point in the United States east the Rockies.
Recently renamed Black Elk Peak from Harney Peak in 2016, it is easy to confuse this hike with others. While the name change is required on all federal maps, it takes time for state maps, private websites, and permanent signage to catch up to the new verbiage - keep that in mind as you plan your trip.
Black Elk Peak resides within the Black Elk Wilderness Area, meaning you must fill out a self-permit at a kiosk on the trail, you will find it on your way up. This also means that camping and backpacking are options in the area. Camping is permitted within the wilderness except within ¼ mile from Black Elk Peak.
The trail is a 6.8 mile loop, or you can do an out-and-back hike, cutting off a mile or so, leaving the way you entered. The trail is very well maintained, and fairly easy despite the mileage. I saw people of all ages at the summit, from toddler to senior, so don’t be afraid to try and summit, because as far as they go, this is totally doable for all.
At the top of the trail, there will be a turn off for an observation area, I found this to be misleading because often times observation areas are not part of the actual hike, however, this is where you will find the summit. Follow the path to a staircase built into the side of the mountain, the stairs will lead you to the top, and the old firehouse that sits on the summit.
In an almost Game of Thrones fantasy way, the summit is make of stone, and looks like a castle overlooking the entire Black Elk Wilderness. It offers impressive views of the surrounding landscape. There is also a man made dam at the summit, which is something I had never seen.
Custer State park and Black Hills National Forest is, in my opinion, the premiere example of a national forest and state park in the country. Unique, beautiful, large, and diverse, the park can impress anyone, and is even more impressive than some national parks I've seen. It goes to show that national forests should not be overlooked.
Also, some national parks allow dogs. And dogs are awesome.