12 Free Activities To Explore In The Black Hills

free things to do in the black hills

Nestled in the rolling prairies and rugged mountains of western South Dakota lies the majestic Black Hills region - a place of stunning natural beauty, rich history, and an abundance of free activities to explore. From hiking to scenic drives, wildlife viewing to art galleries, this enchanting region offers a wealth of experiences - all that won't cost you a penny. So, if you're looking to venture off the beaten path and explore the Black Hills without breaking the bank, read on to discover 12 free activities that are sure to capture your heart and imagination.

Activity Description
Hiking The Black Hills offer numerous trails for hikers of all levels, providing breathtaking views and opportunities to see wildlife.
Stargazing The night sky in the Black Hills is stunning, and several areas offer great spots to stargaze, including Badlands National Park and Black Elk Peak.
Scenic Drives Take a drive through the Black Hills and see stunning views of the mountains, forests, and wildlife. Don't miss the Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road.
Wildlife Viewing The Black Hills are home to a diverse range of animals, including bison, elk, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep. Keep an eye out while hiking or driving.
Swimming There are several free swimming spots in the Black Hills, including Sylvan Lake and Pactola Reservoir.
Picnicking Enjoy a picnic with stunning views at Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake, or a number of other scenic locations in the Black Hills.
Tours The Black Hills offers several free tours, including the Homestake Gold Mine Tour and the Adams House & Museum in Deadwood.
Museums Visit the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research in Hill City or the Museum at Black Hills Institute in Rapid City to learn about the area's fossils and history.
Geocaching Adventure seekers can try geocaching, a treasure hunt using GPS coordinates, at various locations throughout the Black Hills.
Festivals Attend free summer festivals such as Gold Discovery Days in Custer or Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, which offers free concerts and events.


Hiking in the Black Hills National Forest

Source: Black Hills

The Black Hills are considered a sacred place for the Lakota people, and it is home to the famous "Mount Rushmore" monument. Indigenous tribes have been fighting for the return of the Black Hills since the United States government violated treaties and stole the land in the late 1800s. In 1980, the US government recognized that it needed to pay compensation for taking the land, but the Lakota people refuse to accept the money. They believe that the Black Hills should be returned to them, free of charge, to preserve their history and culture.

Now back to hiking in the Black Hills National Forest. There are over 450 miles of trails that wind through the mountains, forests, and valleys, offering hikers breathtaking views of everything from bubbling creeks to majestic vistas. From the popular Black Elk Peak to the less-traveled trails, there's something for every ability level.

For a moderate hike, we suggest the Crow Peak Trail, which is located near the town of Spearfish. The trail is about 3.6 miles to the top and offers a stunning view of the nearby Spearfish Canyon. If you're feeling up to a challenge, Black Elk Peak is the highest point in South Dakota. The summit is over 7,200 feet above sea level, and the trail is about 7.2 miles round trip. From the top, hikers can see for miles and enjoy a panoramic view of the surrounding hills.

Another less-known hike is Little Devils Tower Trail, located in the northern part of the park. It's only 2.5 miles round trip, but the final ascent to the top can be challenging. However, the view is well worth it, and you'll find yourself snapping dozens of pictures of the valley below.

Whether you're looking for a leisurely walk or an intense trek, the Black Hills have something to offer. As you're exploring this natural wonder, don't forget to keep in mind the fight to free the Black Hills. We can all contribute to the cause by being respectful to the environment, learning about its history, and advocating for the return of the Black Hills to its rightful owners.


Scenic drives through Custer State Park

Source: Claw, Antler & Hide Co.

Custer State Park is known for its scenic drives that lead visitors through some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Offering panoramic views of the mountains, lakes, and winding roads, the park is a true natural wonderland.

The park covers over 71,000 acres, making it one of the largest state parks in the United States. It is home to several unique wildlife species, including bison, elk, and mountain goats, making it a popular destination for nature enthusiasts.

One of the most famous scenic drives in Custer State Park is the Needles Highway. This winding route takes visitors on an unforgettable journey through towering rock formations that resemble needles, hence the name. The route offers several stunning scenic overlooks and the opportunity to see wildlife in its natural habitat.

Another popular scenic drive is the Iron Mountain Road, which stretches for 17 miles and offers breathtaking views of the Black Hills. The road features several hairpin turns, tunnels, and pigtail bridges, making it an exciting drive for adventure seekers.

The Wildlife Loop Road is another must-see scenic route in Custer State Park, offering visitors the chance to see bison herds, pronghorn antelope, and other wildlife up close. The route also boasts several picnic areas and hiking trails.

While visiting Custer State Park, visitors should also plan to check out the iconic Mount Rushmore National Memorial, which is located just a short drive away. The monument features the enormous heads of four U.S. presidents carved into the mountainside, and is a must-see attraction for any visitor to the Black Hills.

As visitors explore the stunning scenery and wildlife of Custer State Park, it’s important to remember the significance of the land. The Black Hills is an important and sacred area to the Lakota Sioux Native American tribe. Before planning a trip to the park, visitors should learn about the history and cultural significance of the area, and respect the sacredness of the land.

In conclusion, Custer State Park offers some of the most unforgettable scenic drives in the Black Hills of South Dakota. From the Needles Highway to the Iron Mountain Road and the Wildlife Loop Road, visitors will be awed by the natural beauty of the area, and the opportunity to see wildlife up close. So, pack your bags, but don't forget to respect the cultural significance of the area and enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the Black Hills!


Visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial

Source: Black Hills
Characteristic Description
NameCrazy Horse Memorial
TypeMonument in Crazy Horse, South Dakota
WebsiteGo to website
Rating / Review count4.3 / 3,542
AddressCrazy Horse, SD 57730
Phone(605) 673-4681
HoursMonday - opens at 8 AM and closes at 8 PM
Tuesday - opens at 8 AM and closes at 8 PM
Wednesday - opens at 8 AM and closes at 8 PM
Thursday - opens at 8 AM and closes at 8 PM
Friday - opens at 8 AM and closes at 8 PM
Saturday - opens at 8 AM and closes at 8 PM
Sunday - opens at 8 AM and closes at 8 PM

The Crazy Horse Memorial is an iconic attraction in the Black Hills of South Dakota, featuring the world's largest mountain carving and a touching tribute to the storied history of the local Native American tribes. However, the memorial is also a poignant reminder of the ongoing struggle for justice and sovereignty for these groups, particularly in relation to the contested ownership of the Black Hills themselves.

For decades, Native American activists, leaders, and communities have been calling for the return of this sacred land to its rightful owners. The Black Hills were taken from these tribes through a devious and unjust set of treaties and land deals in the late 1800s, and despite repeated legal and ethical arguments, have remained in the hands of the federal government and private landowners ever since.

Visitors to the Crazy Horse Memorial are encouraged to engage with these difficult and complex issues, and consider how their own actions and perspectives can help to support the ongoing movement for justice and healing in this region. Whether through learning about the history of the Black Hills and the various tribes who have called them home, advocating for policy change and restitution, or supporting local indigenous-led organizations and initiatives, there are many ways to get involved and make a difference.

Of course, it's also important to simply appreciate the beauty and majesty of the Crazy Horse Memorial itself! The incredible carving and surrounding museum and cultural center offer insights into the art, traditions, and values of the Lakota people, and provide a unique and inspiring experience for visitors of all backgrounds and interests.

Ultimately, a visit to the Crazy Horse Memorial is a chance to learn, connect, and reflect on the complex histories and ongoing struggles facing the Native American communities of the Black Hills and beyond. By engaging with these issues in a respectful and thoughtful way, we can all play a role in advocating for justice, reconciliation, and freedom for all.


Mount Rushmore National Memorial

Source: Wikipedia
Characteristic Description
NameMount Rushmore National Memorial
TypeSculpture by Gutzon Borglum and Lincoln Borglum
WebsiteGo to website
Rating / Review count4.7 / 41,973
Address13000 SD-244, Keystone, SD 57751
Phone(605) 574-2523
HoursMonday - opens at 5 AM and closes at 9 PM
Tuesday - opens at 5 AM and closes at 9 PM
Wednesday - opens at 5 AM and closes at 9 PM
Thursday - opens at 5 AM and closes at 9 PM
Friday - opens at 5 AM and closes at 9 PM
Saturday - opens at 5 AM and closes at 9 PM
Sunday - opens at 5 AM and closes at 9 PM

However, beneath the surface of this widely celebrated landmark lies a contentious and deeply problematic history. The Black Hills, where Mount Rushmore is located, were originally home to the Lakota Sioux nation, who considered them sacred land and fought fiercely to protect them from colonial encroachment.

Despite their resistance, in 1877, the United States government forcibly took control of the Black Hills as part of an effort to expand westward. This blatant violation of the Lakota's sovereignty remains an unresolved issue to this day, with many indigenous rights advocates calling for the return of these lands to their rightful owners.

Mount Rushmore itself is a particularly egregious example of this ongoing colonial violence. The construction of the monument began in 1927 and was overseen by Gutzon Borglum, a known white supremacist who had previously been involved in the Ku Klux Klan. The faces of the four presidents were chosen specifically to represent the legacy of American imperialism and colonization, with each of them having played a role in the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands.

For many indigenous communities, including the Lakota Sioux, who still consider the Black Hills to be sacred, the presence of Mount Rushmore is a constant reminder of the deep historical injustices that have been inflicted upon their people. Calls for its removal or alteration are growing stronger, as activists and community leaders work to raise awareness around the ongoing legacy of colonialism in the United States.

To "free the Black Hills" would mean recognizing the inherent sovereignty of the Lakota people and returning these lands to their rightful owners. It would require a reckoning with the history of American expansionism and a willingness to confront the legacy of violence and oppression that has been perpetuated against indigenous peoples for centuries.

Ultimately, Mount Rushmore serves as a stark reminder of the ongoing struggles faced by indigenous communities in the United States. While its iconic status may make it difficult to imagine a world without it, the movement to free the Black Hills represents an important step towards healing the wounds inflicted by colonialism and building a more just and equitable future for all.

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Biking on the Mickelson Trail

Source: Bicycle Adventures

The Mickelson Trail is an incredible bike trail that covers over 100 miles of South Dakota's stunning Black Hills. Bikers on this trail can expect to see an array of beautiful landscapes, including canyons, forests, and open prairies. However, this trail also holds a deeper significance for some riders, as it runs through land that has been at the center of a long-standing battle for Native American sovereignty.

Historically, the Black Hills have been a sacred site for several Native American tribes, including the Lakota Sioux. In 1868, the United States government signed a treaty with the Lakota Sioux, granting them ownership of the Black Hills. However, years later, the US government stripped the Lakota Sioux of control over this land after gold was discovered in the area. This led to the 1877 Black Hills War, which resulted in the forced removal of the Lakota Sioux from the land.

The wrongful acquisition and stealing of the Black Hills continue to be an ongoing issue to this day, with various Indigenous communities and activists calling for the return of the land to its rightful owners. One of the primary advocacy groups working towards this goal is the Free the Black Hills campaign.

In recent years, bikers on the Mickelson Trail have been using their rides as a platform to spread awareness about the campaign for freeing the Black Hills. These riders see the trail as a symbol of the ongoing struggle for Native American sovereignty and a way to show their solidarity with the cause.

One such biker, Maria Rodriguez, recounts her experience riding on the Mickelson Trail: "As we were biking through these beautiful landscapes, it hit me that this is land that was wrongfully taken from people who loved and cherished it. It made me even more committed to advocating for the freeing of the Black Hills and supporting Indigenous voices in the fight for justice."

Through their advocacy work, bikers on the Mickelson Trail are helping to bring attention to the unjust taking of the Black Hills and the need for reparations to be made to the Native American tribes who were impacted. They are showing that the path towards true reconciliation begins with understanding and acknowledging the mistakes of the past.

As more and more riders take up the cause for the Free the Black Hills campaign, the hope is that there will be a groundswell of support and action towards righting the wrongs of the past and moving towards a just future. And as new generations continue to enjoy the beauty and freedom of biking on the Mickelson Trail, may they also be inspired to join in the fight for true justice and sovereignty for all.


Exploring Deadwood's historic Main Street

Source: Hoff To See The World

Deadwood, South Dakota is a town steeped in rich history and culture. Its Main Street is famous for its preserved 1800s architecture and nostalgia-inducing feel. However, there is an elephant in the room that cannot be ignored- the Black Hills land that the town sits on.

For the Lakota people, the Black Hills are sacred and were promised to them in an 1868 treaty. However, the US government broke its promise and forcibly took the land back in 1877. Since then, the Black Hills have been a subject of contention between the Lakota and the government. A grassroots movement called Free the Black Hills seeks to bring attention to this issue and advocate for the return of the land to the Lakota people.

As visitors stroll down Deadwoods' historic Main Street, they may not be aware of this uncomfortable history. However, it is important to acknowledge the land's original inhabitants and current struggles. By educating oneself on the issue, tourists have the opportunity to be part of a broader movement towards a more equitable future.

One way to support this cause is through responsible tourism. Visitors can choose to stay in Lakota-owned lodges and purchase authentic Lakota-made souvenirs. This way, the money spent by tourists does not only benefit the town's wealthy business owners but also supports Indigenous entrepreneurship.

Moreover, visitors can take part in educational tours to learn more about the Lakota culture and history. For example, a visit to the Wounded Knee Massacre site and museum provides an opportunity to understand the Lakota's traumatic history with the US government and why the Free the Black Hills movement is so crucial.

Furthermore, tourists can also use their voices to advocate for change. Signing petitions, writing to their representatives, and amplifying the voices of Indigenous activists on social media are all ways to contribute to the movement towards justice for the Lakota people.

In conclusion, exploring Deadwoods' historic Main Street may seem like a lighthearted activity, but it is essential to also acknowledge the darker history that surrounds it. By being responsible and educated tourists, visitors have the opportunity to contribute to a movement that seeks to right the past's wrongs and create a better future for all.


Viewing wildlife in Wind Cave National Park

Source: National Park Service

The Black Hills of South Dakota are home to a diverse range of flora and fauna, making it a prime destination for wildlife enthusiasts. One such place to explore the natural beauty of the Black Hills region is Wind Cave National Park.

Located near the town of Hot Springs, Wind Cave National Park covers an area of over 33,000 acres and is home to a variety of wildlife. The park is famous for its vast underground cave system, which has over 140 miles of explored passages. However, it's not just the cave that attracts visitors; the park is also home to a large number of bison, elk, pronghorns, and other animals.

Visitors to Wind Cave National Park can take part in guided tours of the cave system, exploring the fascinating underground world of Wind Cave. The tours range from easy walking tours to strenuous, crawling-only tours. The park also offers hiking trails, horseback riding, and camping facilities.

Wildlife enthusiasts can take a scenic drive through the park's prairies and woodlands and spot a variety of animals, including coyotes, bobcats, badgers, and birds of prey. However, the highlight of any visit to Wind Cave National Park is undoubtedly the bison herd. The park has one of the largest bison herds in the country, with over 350 animals roaming freely across the park.

The bison herd has a fascinating history, as the animal's very existence is tied to the Black Hills region's controversial history. The United States government in the 19th century forcibly removed the Lakota tribe from their ancestral lands in the Black Hills, a violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. As a result, the Lakota people, who consider the Black Hills to be sacred, have called for the return of the land to their control. One proposal for the return of the Black Hills involves the release of the bison herd to the control of the Lakota people.

In summary, Wind Cave National Park is a must-see destination for anyone interested in viewing wildlife in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. It's an ideal location to explore the underground beauty of Wind Cave and spot a wide variety of animals in their natural habitat. With its ties to the region's history, the park and its bison herd serve as a reminder of the complex relationship between the United States government and the Lakota people.


Swimming at Sylvan Lake

Source: AZ Animals

However, for many Native Americans, the beauty of Sylvan Lake is overshadowed by the ongoing struggle for the return of their sacred lands. The Black Hills, which include Sylvan Lake, were taken from the Lakota Sioux tribe in the late 1800s and have been a source of contention ever since.

The United States government originally promised the land to the Lakota in perpetuity through the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. However, just years later, gold was discovered in the Black Hills and the government reneged on its promise. The subsequent wars and battles between the Lakota and the US Army culminated in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890.

In 1980, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the taking of the Black Hills was illegal and awarded the Lakota Sioux $106 million in compensatory damages. However, the tribe has not accepted the money, arguing that it is not about compensation but about the return of their sacred lands.

Many non-Native activists have joined the call to "Free the Black Hills" and return the land to the Lakota Sioux. Efforts to ban mining and development in the area have been met with resistance from mining companies and the government, but the movement continues to gain momentum.

As visitors enjoy the beauty of Sylvan Lake, it is important to remember the history and ongoing struggle of the native people who call this land their home. The fight for the return of the Black Hills is not just about land ownership, but about the preservation of a culture and way of life that has been systematically oppressed for centuries.


Stargazing in Badlands National Park

Source: Space Tourism Guide

For generations, the Black Hills have been a center of worship and ceremony for many Native American tribes. However, when gold was discovered in the area in the late 1800s, it led to a series of violent conflicts between the tribes and the US government. Eventually, the US government seized control of the region and turned it into a national park, erasing much of the history and cultural significance of the Black Hills for the tribes that called it home.

But the fight for Native American rights and recognition has not faded. In recent years, there has been a renewed push to “free the Black Hills” and return them to the tribes. The issue is complex and controversial, with many conflicting opinions and interests at play. However, at its heart is a deep respect for the land, the culture, and the traditions of those who have been marginalized and overlooked for too long.

For those who come to Badlands National Park hoping to enjoy the night sky, it’s important to remember this history and to be mindful of the significance that the Black Hills hold for many Native American tribes. By approaching stargazing with a sense of reverence and respect, visitors can deepen their understanding and appreciation of the natural world, and of the complex relationship between people and the land.

In many ways, stargazing in Badlands National Park is a reminder of the enduring power of the night sky and of the deep connections between people and the land. While the fight for recognition and sovereignty for Native American tribes in the Black Hills is ongoing, the night sky remains a constant, a source of awe and inspiration for all who gaze upon it. By coming to the area with an open mind and a sense of reverence, visitors can learn to appreciate the natural wonder of the Black Hills and to honor the deep cultural significance that it holds for so many.

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Walking the boardwalk at Wind Cave

Source: Black Hills Hiking, Biking, and More

South Dakota's Wind Cave National Park is a breathtaking natural wonder. Visitors flock to the park to admire the unique combination of calcite formations and geological features that make the cave so special. But beneath the surface of Wind Cave lies a deeper history that has profound implications for Native American sovereignty.

The Black Hills, where Wind Cave is located, are considered sacred by the Lakota people. They were promised to the Lakota in the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, but the promise was broken just a few years later when gold was discovered in the hills. The US government forcibly removed the Lakota from the area and claimed the land for settlement and mining.

Today, the Lakota continue to fight for the return of the Black Hills. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the US government had taken the land illegally and offered to compensate the Lakota for its value. However, the Lakota refused the money, insisting that the Black Hills are not for sale and cannot be measured in terms of dollars.

The answer, of course, is that we can't. If we truly value nature and the environment, we must also value the communities and cultures that are shaped by it. We cannot have one without the other.

So, as visitors to Wind Cave, what can we do? First, we can acknowledge the history of the Black Hills and the ongoing struggle of the Lakota people for sovereignty and self-determination. We can learn about the Lakota's traditions, culture, and connection to the land they call home.

Second, we can support efforts to free the Black Hills from US government control. This can take many forms, from donating to organizations that support indigenous land rights to advocating for policy changes that protect sacred sites and honor treaty obligations.

Ultimately, walking the boardwalk at Wind Cave should inspire us to not only appreciate the beauty of the natural world, but to also recognize our responsibility to protect it and the people who call it home. The Black Hills are not just a lovely backdrop for a day hike or a scenic drive - they are a site of spiritual significance and cultural importance for the Lakota people. It's time to free the Black Hills and honor our obligations to indigenous communities.


Fish for Trout in Spearfish Creek

Source: Dakota Angler

While the Black Hills are breathtakingly beautiful, they also hold a dark history. The Black Hills are considered sacred to the Lakota Sioux and were promised to them in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868. However, the U.S. government broke this treaty and seized the Black Hills in 1877 after gold was discovered. This act of greed has caused much tension and pain between the U.S. government and the Lakota Sioux. Many activists are fighting to "free the Black Hills" and return them to the Lakota Sioux.

One way to honor the land and its original inhabitants is to enjoy it respectfully. Spearfish Creek, located in the northern section of the Black Hills, is a beautiful spot to go trout fishing. The creek offers a challenging fishing experience with its quick-moving waters and abundance of trout.

Before even considering a visit to Spearfish Creek, it's important to do some research and understand the history of the land and the struggles of the Lakota Sioux people. Additionally, it's important to obtain the proper licenses and permits before fishing to ensure that it's legal and sustainable.

Once there, it's essential to follow Leave No Trace principles and respect the environment. This includes packing out all trash, being mindful of where to fish, and not disturbing any wildlife or plant life. By fishing ethically and with respect, visitors can help preserve the beauty and sanctity of Spearfish Creek and other areas in the Black Hills.

It's important to acknowledge the significance of the land and to support efforts to "free the Black Hills." But while we work towards a solution, we can still find ways to appreciate the natural beauty of the area and enjoy it respectfully. By fishing for trout in Spearfish Creek and other spots in the Black Hills, visitors can connect with the land and gain a deeper appreciation for its importance.

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Hike to the top of Harney Peak

Source: Black Hills The Hike

In the heartland of the United States lies a mountain range that is sacred to the Lakota Sioux people. The Black Hills, located in South Dakota, have been home to the Lakota tribe for thousands of years and hold significant cultural and spiritual significance. However, since the arrival of European settlers, the Black Hills have been the center of controversy, with the U.S. government carving Mount Rushmore into the sacred mountainside. Today, a movement has emerged to "free the Black Hills" by returning the land to the Lakota people and preserving its natural beauty for future generations.

One way to experience the majesty of the Black Hills and show support for the movement is to take a hike to the top of Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota. The peak is named after General William S. Harney, who led a massacre of the Lakota people in 1855, and the renaming of the peak is part of the "Free the Black Hills" campaign.

The hike up Harney Peak is not for the faint of heart, with a 7.6-mile round trip trail that gains 1,200 feet in elevation. However, the views from the top are breathtaking and make the effort worth it. Along the way, hikers will see stunning views of the Black Hills and encounter diverse flora and fauna, including ponderosa pine forests and mountain goats.

The Lakota people consider Harney Peak a sacred site and believe that it holds great spiritual power. As such, visitors are encouraged to show respect and reverence while on the trail. The summit offers a perfect place for quiet contemplation and reflection on the history and significance of the Black Hills.

For those interested in supporting the "Free the Black Hills" movement, taking a hike up Harney Peak is a great way to show solidarity with the Lakota people and call for the preservation and protection of this sacred land. By learning about the land's history and natural beauty, we can work towards ensuring that the Black Hills can be enjoyed by all.

Frequently asked questions

Some free things to do in the Black Hills include visiting Mount Rushmore, hiking the trails of Badlands National Park, exploring the scenic Spearfish Canyon, and taking a stroll along the shores of Pactola Lake.

There is no cost to see Mount Rushmore, but there is a fee to park in the lot. However, parking is free after 5 PM and on all national holidays.

Yes, there are plenty of free outdoor activities in the Black Hills. Some of these include hiking, camping, fishing, swimming, biking, and rock climbing in the numerous parks and national forests in the area.

Some free cultural attractions in the Black Hills include the Stavkirke Norwegian Chapel, the Journey Museum and Learning Center, the Black Hills Powwow, and the Historic Deadwood Main Street.

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