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Kay2 Jul 22nd, 2009 10:14 AM

Where to hike & stay for Mt Rushmore, Custer SP & Black Hills
We hope to make a short stop in the Rapid City area in the next couple of weeks. We will fly into RC and rent a car for just a few days, then fly out of RC very early one morning. We are 50-year-olds who enjoy nature, history, easy to moderate hikes. This is our first visit to the area.

First priority--see Mt Rushmore (afternoon, evening). Second priorty--drive the Needles and Iron Mtn highways for views. Third priorty--drive wildlife loop in Custer State Park. Fourth priority--walking/hiking up to 6 miles or so in the woods and/or hills. Otherwise, too much sitting!

So, I am looking for walking/hiking trails in the area. A Black Hills NFS map shows a tangle of trails between Mt Rushmore and Custer SP, but I haven't found any info to go with map. Anyone familiar with these? I have read about Sylvan Lake loop and the hike up to the highest point in SD in Custer SP. How hot are these if it is sunny? Any other suggestions?

Knowing our plans, where would you suggest to stay? (Custer SP is not available) Rapid City would be the easiest in terms of uncertain time of arrival and early departure on last day, but seems like it wouldn't be as pleasant as staying in the hills and give us a later start to walks and wildlife viewing. Keystone or Hill City? Preference for one over the other in terms of access to our destinations and ease of return to RC airport?

Now, if the weather will just cooperate--last two times we have planned this trip heavy rain and thunderstorms forced us elsewhere.

kansasmom Jul 22nd, 2009 10:53 AM

Hi -- We stayed in Keystone last summer, and it seemed like a good central location. Right off the top of my head I cannot remember the name of the hotel, but if you look under my name on this board, you should find my trip report.

We did the hike to Harney Peak and really enjoyed it. We also did the buffalo jeep tour in Custer State Park, went to Mt. Rushmore, etc. Lots more detail in my trip report. Enjoy -- it's a beautiful area.

pafranke Jul 24th, 2009 08:40 AM

Hi kansasmom --- I'm new to the Fodor forum and tried to find your Keystone trip report under your name. I found your San Antonio report, but not Keystone. Am I looking in the wrong place? If so, could you direct me to the right spot? Kay2's and your trip sound exactly like the one I'm planning and would like to read about your experience. This is our first trip to South Dakota and am so excited about seeing the Badlands, Black Hills & Mt. Rushmore!

BlackHillsGuide Jul 24th, 2009 09:08 AM

One great suggestion, rent a bike at Presidents Park in Lead and ride the Michelson Trail.

LHS Jul 24th, 2009 09:44 AM

Either Hill City or Keystone are central to sightseeing. The Sturgis motorcycle rally is Aug 2-9 and makes getting lodging difficult anywhere in the northern or central Black Hills.

The Sylvan Lake loop is an easy hike and a portion of it is in the shade--behind the dam. Harney Peak (highest point in SD) is 6 miles round trip and steep in places. Make sure you take water with you. Little Devil's Tower is another nice hike, the trailhead just east of Sylvan Lake on the Needles Highway.

Here is a link to descriptions of the trails:

kansasmom Jul 24th, 2009 10:11 AM

pafranke -- My report was titled "Black Hills with kids" or something like that. I wrote it last September or maybe in August. We really enjoyed the area, and I hope you do too!!

bratsandbeer Jul 24th, 2009 12:25 PM Sylvan lake lodge or a cabin there would be fun.

glover Jul 28th, 2009 08:43 AM

Following this thread with interest, as we are contemporaries and looking to do something similar mid August.

We'll have even less time - i.e. just one full day in the Black Hills/Badlands area. Will need central lodging for 2 nights. Like moderate hiking, biking, birding - have never seen this area before. Need help prioritizing how to spend time!

Kay2 Aug 5th, 2009 09:14 AM

We now know why the Black Hills get such good reviews on this board! We had never visited because it is just so far from everywhere else and I didn't think of it as having enough for a destination trip. I was wrong--it would have been great just by itself.

We arrived in Rapid City around midnight on Wednesday and had to leave early on Saturday, so only 2 days. We ended up staying in Rapid City because of the late arrival and husband's desire not to change hotels after the first night. We booked ahead because of Sturgis, though rooms were available just at a higher price at the last minute.

We drove through Keystone (Yuk! It was just too crowded for us--husband said it reminded him of Gatlinburg. But central location.) to a lovely morning view of Mt Rushmore from the highway, then the profile view of Washington. We meant to find the Big Pine trailhead to Horsethief Lake Trail, etc. but came across Horsethief Lake first, so parked there and walked around the lovely lake and then uphill along a trail paralleling a stream to the Centennial Trail, then back down. The stream was great, the rock formations amazing, but the mosquitoes were vicious along the Centennial, so we didn't go as far as we might have otherwise. Just a nice climb through the woods. We drove on and saw the Big Pine trailhead and the Willow Creek area for which we had other listed hikes, but continued on to do some sightseeing.

We enjoyed Crazy Horse more than we expected, spending 2-3 hours watching the movie, watching activity up on the mountain, looking at all the old photos, checking out the jewelry being made. Sure glad we stopped in.

We lunched at the recommended Alpine Inn in Hill City for dessert. It was good. Town was crowded with bikers as were all the roads in the area. Couldn't get away from the noise unless alongside a stream to block it out.

We were having such a good time, we headed down to Custer State Park and the wildlife loop. We saw bison and pronghorn. Nice, but if you have been to Yellowstone there is no comparison. With our short time I think I would in hindsight have cut this. However, my husband enjoyed seeing the prairie. We enjoyed short rest by scenic Blue Bell lake.

We returned via the Iron Mountain Highway, so we drove both the Needles and the Iron Mountain in one day. Not what we had planned, but possible bad weather forecasted for the next day. It was tiring for the driver and would be better to drive one each day. The one lane tunnels were an experience and we stopped several times for photos, but we could not photograph Mt Rushmore because of the afternoon sun. Note: drive up the Iron Mountain highway from the south in the morning, not the afternoon. We preferred Needles to Iron Mountain highway.

We had time for the museum, walk, and food before the Mt Rushmore lighting ceremony. Again, I learned a lot and enjoyed seeing the carving. We were too late to see the sculptor's studio, but knew our parking pass would allow us to return the next day.

After a leisurely breakfast our second day, we drove more directly to Custer State Park (using our 7-day entry passes) and walked the Sylvan Lake and Sunday Gulch trails. After the leisurely walk around the lake, the Gulch trail descends down a series of boulders, stone steps, etc. with handrails. It was a great way to see the rocks up close. After a rolling trail through the woods, we started a steady climb back up the gulch with many pauses to catch our breath and drink some water. The sun was out and some of the trail is open fields (with wildflowers). Just don't start down the trail near the store at Sylvan Lake and end up returning up the stone stairs behind the dam! That would be a climb. Another short rest by such a gorgeous lake at Sylvan!

High winds were predicted for that afternoon and rain clouds were moving in--otherwise we would have gone to the Little Devils Tower trail and climbed up. We chose yet another route back to Rapid City to see different sights and had to shop for dinner and the return trip.

If we had more time, we would have hiked more trails, visited the museum at the air force base, and spent a day in the Badlands. I really enjoyed the hills, the interesting rock formations, and the woods. Just my kind of outdoors. It helped that temperatures were well below normal for July, even some record low temperatures at night. If you want to hike the trails in the national forest, I think you will want to stop at their visitors centers and get more detailed maps and information than I found on the website or that is posted on the signs on the trails. That is what slowed us down in finding the right trailhead and knowing where to go. The Custer State Park trails are much better described on their website and the booklet you receive when entering the park has a nice small map with the trail numbers and routes.

If I had just one day in the area and wanted to do hiking and outdoors, I would base myself in Custer SP Sylvan Lake or Hill City. The trails described are located in the NW part of Custer SP near the entrance close to Hill City. You can also reach Mt Rushmore and Crazy Horse from there. It is farther from the Badlands, though. You can't really see the Black Hills and Badlands in same day except by driving through and not stopping to hike or bike.

LHS Aug 6th, 2009 11:41 AM

Great trip report, I'm glad you enjoyed yourself.

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