Getting around the Black Hills can be a little challenging, which is why we offer you a detailed map of the Southern Black Hills, with all it's points of interest, campsites, restrooms, and road names. This is the map I use when plotting out a private tour of the Black Hills of South Dakota. There's so much to see, that you've got to have a plan on how to visit the Black Hills properly, or you could just hire me and I take the work out of it!
The Map of the Black Hills and Beyond
As you can see, for the first timer, navigating the Black Hills of South Dakota can be a little daunting. This is why we do it for you! Take a look at the map. Specifically the roads heading into the North and East of the Park.
Most smaller tours and individuals enter after visiting Mt. Rushmore at the top of the map. Then many take Iron Mountain Road from there until it meets up with 36, and then head west on 16A until reaching the visitors center. Here is where you should stop and get more information.
Black Hills Lakes and StreamsAt the bottom of the map Is the halfway point through the wildlife loop road. Continuing around the "U" you'll come out again at 16A. Turn right at 16 A and then left on Needles Highway. Now you'll be heading up the famous road of twists, turns, out-of-this-world rocks, trees, lakes and streams of the Black Hills until reaching the Needles Eye Tunnel. Take it slow and take it all in. This is one of the most beautiful roads in our Country.
Is the Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park Really Wild?
No. Surprised? The Wildlife Road Loop in Custer State Park meanders through 71,000 acres of parkland. While you'll be able to see all kinds of animals including Bison, Prairie Dogs, Pronghorn Antelope, Elk, Bighorn Sheep and more, the park is contained within that acreage. It's a fantastic place to see wildlife, but make no mistake about it, the park is fenced in.
A few gates exist with cattle guards to keep many of the animals in the bounds of the park, but the rest is wide open. When coming to the Black Hills of South Dakota this is a must-do on the bucket list. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people talk about Custer State Park, but when asked about the Wildlife Loop Road they look at me confused.
The reason for this is while there are many fine Black Hills van and bus tours, roads are restricted by vehicle type. This means that generally speaking, if you're on a 50-passenger bus, you'll miss some of the most important parts of South Dakota tours. Vehicles with high clearance and big windows area extremely important. The ability to go down winding, rolling dirt roads is a huge plus here. One way to make sure that you'll see everything you'd like is to book a private tour to the Black Hills.
The loop takes more than an hour to drive, given the speed limit. Keep your camera and binoculars ready and be sure to look along the tree line. There’s lots of animals up there that people miss. Experienced guides can help by spotting these creatures and stopping along the way so you can view, learn and even listen to their sounds. Prairie Dogs bark, or chirp while Bison grunt!
It’s my personal opinion that visiting the park in early summer is the best. You’ll see wildflowers everywhere, and the baby Bison (Red Dogs) playing with their newborn friends. If you decide to do this on your own, make sure you’ve got a map. The roads can be winding, narrow and confusing. It’s easy to make a wrong turn and miss some important places.
Either way you do it, the Wildlife Loop Road is fun and interesting for all ages. It’s a must do, and even though it’s not technically wild, you’ll not even know the difference. Come visit the mountains and prairies of South Dakota.
Make a wish! Fall is in the air here in the Black Hills. It's begun to cool from the unusually hot summer, and golden is the color of the prairies and hills. It seems to dominate whether it be grass, flower and now the beginning of the trees. Quaking Aspens are just beginning to change color in certain parts of the area, reminding me that seasons, just like life, change.
This morning I'm heading out to the Southern portion of the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park. Just about every day I've been here this summer, I've had the privilege to learn and share about geography, natural history, botany, Native American history, the people and places of the Black Hills. It's been quite a year, but putting one foot in front of the other seems to be the most important thing, even when distractions come along the way.
Like in the picture, it's often the small things that are missed. When you stop for a moment and just look carefully, there's beauty all around. It certainly is here. October 15 marks the end of a great season, and the beginnings of another. I've wished a few things to happen, and it looks like they have and are coming to be. Next year as well as 2023 are simmering on the stove and great things are about to happen. I hope that for you too. Make some plans to come out and see a part of the country that you've been missing all along, the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota.
The Mighty Ponderosa Pine. It's the dominant tree of the Black Hills National Forest. It's what makes the Black Hills, well, black. Other species thrive here, like the Quaking Aspen, named after the way their leaves shimmer in the breeze, but nothing dominates like the Ponderosa. The Black Hills are filled with this pine, but at one time this wasn't the case. Tinkering with nature, even with good intentions has it's consequence.
Looking at photos from 1878 compared to 1978 shows a dramatic increase in the Ponderosa population. It's due to forestry management and fire prevention. Traveling through the forest on Iron Mountain Road you might notice slash piles, dead timber piled in neat little cone shaped mounds. These slash piles are burned each winter when snow is present to rid the forest of the "fuel" it accumulates over the years. As a result, less fire = more pine. Ironically, this creates a situation where a forest fire can spread from one tree to the other fairly easy.
Another result of this management is the 1300 streams that descend from the mountains are severely impacted. The Ponderosa canvas catches a good portion of the rain, and the trees are taking more out of the water table than ever before. Since discovering this, the Forest Service has now begun a process of thinning the trees. While it seems like a good idea, this may also have other unintended consequences.
The Lakota's lived in harmony with nature, and as time goes by we're finding out this happens to be the best way. Lakota, and earlier indigenous people of the area used the pines for a variety of purposes. The inner bark provided sweetness and carbohydrates, essential to survive in a mostly meat eating culture.
Other uses are medicinal, such as remedies for bruises, eye sores and deodorant. You can still find older pines (some up to 700 years old) that bear bark harvesting scars. These are usually rectangular in shape, approximately 3 feet high by about 10 inches wide. This method of harvesting prevented the tree from dying, and provided a sustainable source of food. Visit Norbeck Overlook on Iron Mountain Road and you'll see one of the Ponderosas with a large scar. Smell the exposed wood and you'll notice essences of malt, vanilla, chocolate, butterscotch and even strawberry. Just don't get a splinter.
Ponderosa wasn't always the dominant species in the Black Hills. Lodgepole and Limber Pine were plentiful in this area, and small relict forests still exist. Limber Pine, named for it's flexibility can be found near the Cathedral Spires. The trailhead talks about their significance. Lodgepole can be found in the Northern Hills and near Rochford, a fun place to be while riding the Mickelson Trail on bikes.
Funny how a single tree can be so important to the area, and help shape it into what it is today. Come visit Rapid City and the Black Hills to learn about this sacred area and what makes it so special. Special enough to call my home.
Daniel Milks is a resident of the Black Hills and owner of My XO Adventures, providing tours of the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota.