I’ve visited the Black Hills many times, but my trip to the area in 2021 was the first alone and I can’t wait to go back. Not only did I drive every single road I could find in the Black Hills National Forest, I saved coordinates of places to park and relax for a few hours. And although I’m keeping those locations to myself, I did discover several new sites that I’m more than willing to share…..and which I am listing here, alongside more popular sites like Mt. Rushmore and Needles Highway. The Black Hills, as I see it, are not to be overlooked as a mere stop on the way to other locations further west…..but a destination in and of themselves. I’m so glad I took the time to get to know this area better and I encourage others to do the same.
Sylvan Lake and Pactola Lake Reservoir
If you’re like me, no trip to the Black Hills region would be complete without a visit to at least one of these lakes. There’s just something about water that really gives pause to hectic vacation schedules and plans.
Located along state highway 87 just northwest of highway 89, Sylvan Lake offers those driving the famed Needles Highway a great place to get out and stretch their legs. Nestled among giant rocks and boulders, the small lake offers a paved foot trail, small docks along the water’s edge to sit and relax, a novel foot bridge with a view, picnic areas, canoe/kayak rental, and a general store. Parking can be a chore during busier times, but well worth the wait for a spot.
More north along U.S. 385, you’ll find the much larger Pactola Lake Reservoir, which also offers a scenic trail and great views. Visitors can pull off the highway just before the bridge/dam to walk the .7 mile Veterans Point Loop Trail or view and access the lake via a pull out on the dam. Additional information on the reservoir, including recreational opportunities, can be found here.
Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse monuments
Both the Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorials have been highly commercialized the past twenty or thirty years, with Mount Rushmore (specifically) being turned into a concrete parking garage/lot. As a result, I chose to skip official entry into this particular park and instead viewed the national memorial from various points within Custer State Park and the drive along Needles Highway. Because the Crazy Horse Memorial is still privately funded and NOT a national monument, I did pay for entry to view this gigantic and impressive work in progress. At 87 feet tall, the head of Crazy Horse, alone, is 27 feet taller than all of the heads of Mt. Rushmore stacked on top of one another. So they say…
Spearfish Canyon and Peter Norbeck Scenic Byways
If you visit the Black Hills, you will no doubt drive some portion of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, since many other sites like Sylvan Lake, Needles Highway, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial will all take you along some part of the route. However, for those with the time, I also recommend a drive along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, which winds through Spearfish Canyon alongside a creek with the same name. Boasting spectacular views of the canyon and two waterfalls (Bridal Veil Falls and Roughlock Falls,) this scenic drive offers visitors even more features of the area’s varied landscape.
Needles Highway and Custer State Park
Driving Needles Highway is a must with any visit to the Black Hills and while it may seem ridiculous to have to pay $20 for entrance into a state park, Custer State Park is well worth the fee. With tunnels carved out of rock, views of Mount Rushmore, various rock formations, and scenic overlooks, both Needles Highway and Custer State Park pack a lot of beauty and fun into a drive. I personally recommend that visitors take a minute to relax and soak in the views/smell of pines along the various routes, as I found myself not wanting to leave this area on more than one occasion.
More information on the Black Hills can be found by visiting this link.