Ways to Explore Black Hills National Forest

When you think of South Dakota’s Black Hills (derived from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, meaning “hills that are black”), you might think of Mount Rushmore or Devils Tower, but there are many other attractions that should be on the list of things to do in the Black Hills. One that shouldn’t be missed is the Black Hills National Forest: 1.2 million acres of timbered mountains, grasslands, canyons, and caves, as well as lakes and streams. Reasonably close to many Black Hills cabin rentals, you’ll find the forest one of the most family-friendly things to do in the Black Hills.

Let’s take a look at how you can see Black Hills National Forest from the air, by car, and on foot.

How to Explore Black Hills National Forest

Imagine soaring over acres of natural land to see towering pines, rock formations, and bodies of water from a bird’s-eye view. You can do so by taking a helicopter tour over this expansive forest and appreciate nature from a unique perspective. Put this on your Black Hills Things to Do list!

Helicopter Tours

Black Hills Aerial Adventures has tours leaving from three heliports. You can see Black Elk Peak, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains; a view of Crazy Horse Memorial, under construction and already touted as the Eighth Wonder of the World; and the beauty of Southern Black Hills.

From May 1st through October 31st, Black Hills Helicopters conducts tours to bring you up close to sites like Black Elk Peak, Grizzly Bear Creek, Horsethief Lake, Ingersoll Peak, Iron Mountain, and much more. There are seven tours in all, ranging in duration from 8-80 minutes.


Black Hills road in south dakota

If flying isn’t your thing, you can enjoy a scenic trip by car. Experience the views and even stop to visit some sites along the way.

Needles Highway

Stretching for 14 narrow, windy miles through the east-central part of Black Hills National Forest and beyond, popular Needles Highway—dubbed “The Impossible Highway” because many doubted it could ever be built—affords wonderful views of granite walls and tall pines and allows you to stop at Sylvan Lake and Cathedral Spires. The road is part of the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway, which traverses through Custer State Park and Black Elk Wilderness Area and passes near Mt. Rushmore.


You can’t get more up-close-and-personal with Black Hills National Forest than doing so on foot, and the forest has a few trails you might take on if hiking is what you love.

Cathedral Spires Trail

Located in Custer State Park, Cathedral Spires is about 1.5 miles of moderate hiking. You can also travel by car. It doesn’t take long into the trip to take in the majestic sight of the rock spires stretching into the sky.

Sunday Gulch Trail

A more strenuous hike, this three-mile trail includes navigating slippery boulders (with handrails) and stairs and even the possibility of walking through some knee-high water if you’re taking the trail in the spring or early summer (due to overflow from Sylvan Lake). Great views of moss-covered granite walls!

Plan Your Next Stay

The Black Hills of South Dakota have so much to offer in outdoor activities! Don’t wait to experience it for yourself, book your Black Hills vacation rental home today.

Horsethief Lake Trail

Another moderate trail in the Black Elk Wilderness Area, Horsethief Lake Trail, offers stunning views of the forest’s streams, granite spires, and even a waterfall. Rock climbers will love this trail, as will those who enjoy fishing.

Black Elk Peak

This moderately-rated trail, which could take up to four hours to complete, gives you a panorama of Black Hills as you’ll be at one of the highest points in South Dakota at over 7,000 feet. Reach the historic lookout tower at the summit, and you have views that are the next best thing to a helicopter tour you can enjoy without leaving the ground! 

Where to Stay

Many cabin rentals in the Black Hills are within 20 miles of Black Hills National Forest and provide stunning mountain views you can enjoy even while relaxing on your deck or porch. There are three-, four-, five-, and even six-bedroom rentals that are not far from so many things to do in the Black Hills. Amenities include fully stocked kitchens, gas fireplaces, firepits, huge TVs, and more. Contact us today to learn more!