10 Best Hikes in South Dakota

10 Best Hikes in South Dakota

Posted by Paul Miller on Sep 18th 2018

With the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, and Badlands National Park, there is no shortage of great places to visit in South Dakota. Less crowded than other hiking destinations but no less beautiful, the Coyote State’s trails are numerous and range in difficulty, with something for everyone. So, grab your camera and hiking boots and get ready to hit the trails with the 10 best hikes in South Dakota.

1) The Flume Trail – Black Hills National Forest

The first hike on our list is a long one but isn’t overly difficult. The Flume Trail in the Black Hills takes you along the path of the 1880’s Rockerville Flume, which transported water from Spring Creek to the Placer gold mines 20 miles away. As you walk the trail, feel the history around you as you pass through old mining tunnels and find old mining equipment strewn besides the path.

This out-and-back trail is 11 miles long, each way, with an optional 3-mile loop add-on. While the distance may seem daunting, the trail is well-maintained and relatively flat, making it more than possible to do the entire thing in a day. This is a great hike to immerse yourself in the natural beauty of the Black Hills National Forest.

Custer State Park

A favorite with rock climbers, the Cathedral Spires stick out of the surrounding forest, begging to be climbed. Unless you are an experienced climber, it’s best to simply take the hike to their base and enjoy the view from solid ground.

The hike is only 1.5 miles, each way, but does have about a thousand feet of elevation gain, making is somewhat strenuous. Once at the Spires, take your time to wander around their bases and enjoy the spectacular views of Custer State Park and the prairies off in the distance. If you are feeling adventurous, there are several smaller spires that can be climbed without ropes and harnesses. To make it a full day of hiking, link up with the Harney Peak Trail, which is the next hike on our list.

3) Black Elk/Harney Peak Trail – Black Hills National Forest

Located right next to the Cathedral Spires, the Black Elk/Harney Peak Trail takes you to the top of the highest mountain in South Dakota. While the peak is now officially named Black Elk, the old name, Harney Peak, is still found on many of the trail markers and signs, so don’t worry if you think you might be on the wrong trail. The peak tops out at 7,242 feet and has the best views of the Black Hills anywhere in the state.

There are two routes to the top of the mountain, one a little more difficult than the other. For a longer, more scenic route, take the northern approach starting at Willow Creek Horse Camp. This trail is 5 miles each direction and gains 2,200 feet of elevation before arriving at the summit. For an easier ascent, take the southern route, which is 3.5 miles each way, gains 1,500 feet of elevation, and passes by the Cathedral Spires on the way up. Both trails bring you to the peak of Black Elk Mountain. Be sure to climb to the top of the old fire tower on the summit for unbeatable panoramic views.

4) Horsethief Lake Trail – Black Hills National Forest

To escape the crowds at Mount Rushmore, go a couple miles down the road and take the easy hike to Horsethief Lake. The trail is about 3 miles each way and is one of the most scenic hikes in all of the Black Hills. You pass through dense forest with the oldest and largest trees in the area. Granite spires poke through the canopy and can be climbed with proper equipment. Mountain goats are commonly seen grazing on the hillsides and other forest critters are abundant.

As a longer hike, you can leave directly from Mount Rushmore and hook up with the trail to add an extra 2 miles. This trail also links with one of the several trails that lead to the peak of Black Elk Mountain and makes for a great day of hiking. Bikes are also allowed in the area and fishing for trout in the lake is a favorite pastime of the locals.

5) Door, Window, and Notch Trails – Badlands National Park

While there are many great trails in Badlands National Park, doing the Door, Window, and Notch trails are by far the most popular and scenic. Put together, these hikes are about 3 miles each way and have you climbing ladders and traversing narrow ledges with great views into the rugged canyons and unique rock formations.

The Door and Window trails are the shortest and easiest. The Notch section gets more difficult, with a tough climb to an overlook of the White River Valley. All the trails do have steep drop-offs, so be sure to take your time and pay attention to each step so you don’t slide off the trail into the canyons below.

6) Castle Trail – Badlands National Park

For a longer hike in the Badlands, take the 10-mile round trip Castle Trail. It is the longest hike in the park and takes you along cliff walls, past delicately eroded canyons, and through forests, showcasing the unique landscape and providing opportunities to see some wildlife along the way. The trail ends at the Fossil Exhibit Trail, a quarter-mile boardwalk with replicas of and history about the long extinct animals that once lived in the area. All the hikes in the park can be combined for one epic day of hiking and be sure to finish around sunset to see the amazing landscape in a different light.

7) Sunday Gulch Trail – Custer State Park

Back in the Black Hills, the Sunday Gulch Trail is another local favorite exemplifying why this area is such a popular hiking destination. While this loop is only 3 miles long, it is no walk in the park. Passing by towering granite walls and tromping through several streams are only two parts of what make this trail great. To get into the gulch, the trail begins with a treacherous scamper down huge boulders, with only handrails to help you down. Despite the difficulty and wet shoes at the end, this loop is sure to leave you with lasting memories of the great beauty of South Dakota.

8) Devil’s Bathtub Trail – Black Hills National Forest

For something a little different, head to Spearfish Canyon and take the wet hike through a limestone canyon to pristine swimming holes, known as the Devil’s Bathtub. The hike is only about a mile each way but difficult in the fact that there is no marked trail. Simply trudge your way up the canyon, either alongside or in Sunshine Creek until you reach the stone pools. A small waterfall fills the pools and feeds the creek and taking a dip on a hot day is a great way to end this short hike.

9) Lover’s Leap Trail – Custer National Park

A difficult 3-mile loop, the Lover’s Leap Trail is not for those afraid of heights. Starting with a steep climb up to a ridge, the trail follows the narrow ridge before arriving at a Lover’s Leap, a rocky outcropping jutting out over the valley below. The rock got its name from an old Native American legend about two lovers who jumped to their deaths from this spot. The main reason to take this trail is the fantastic views from the rock. Black Elk Mountain and the Cathedral Spires are all visible. Be aware that as the trail loops back around and down into the valley, there are several creek crossing and, even when the water level is low, expect it to be slippery and wet.

10) Centennial Trail

If you can’t decide on what to see and which trails to take, why not do them all and hike for a week or two along the Centennial Trail. This 111-mile trail opened in 1989 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of South Dakota receiving statehood. The trail goes through rolling prairies into dense forests, and up and down mountain peaks. It begins in Bear Butte State Park, winds its way through the Black Hills and finishes in Wind Cave National Park.

Overall, the trail is pretty easy with only mild changes in elevation, but the distance makes it a challenge. If you are practicing for a longer hike, like completing the Pacific Coast Trail or the entirety of the Appalachian Trail, this is a great warm up. Be sure to plan your trip wisely and map out where you can get fresh water and refill your food supplies.