If you’re one of the millions of people going to Mount Rushmore National Memorial this year, you’ll also be heading into the Black Hills National Forest. Grand as it is, Mount Rushmore is only a small piece of the 1.25-million-acre forest and all there is to see and explore. And there is a lot to see — more than just the hills and the forest that the name implies.
Extensive cave systems wind their way beneath the Black Hills, with some of the longest explored caves in the world hiding just below the surface. Wind Cave National Park is the densest cave system in the world and growing, with four new miles of cave being explored every year. Jewel Cave National Monument near Custer is the third-longest explored cave in the world, and they are continuing to find new passageways. Though the cave itself doesn’t have any precious gems, the calcite crystals that cover this cave make it as beautiful as any jewelry. Delve into South Dakota’s caves!
While there might not be any jewels in Jewel Cave, there’s definitely “gold in them thar hills.” Homestake Mine in Lead was the largest and deepest gold mine in North America until it closed in 2002. Surface tours are now available seasonally, and there is plenty to be discovered about this unique operation. Apart from gold, important scientific discoveries are also unearthed here, where observations can be made without interference from the sun. Bonus: for $5, you can smack a golf ball into the 1,200-foot-deep "Open Cut."
There are other waterfalls in South Dakota, but two of the grandest are in Spearfish Canyon in the northern Black Hills. Roughlock Falls and Bridal Veil Falls are both breathtaking stops along the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway, a must-take highway in the area. Be on the lookout for wildlife in the vicinity, as mountain goats have been introduced to the area and can often be found scaling the cliffs near the waterfalls.
When you think of the words “hills” and “forest,” wide open prairies probably don't come to mind. There are plenty of trees and hills, but some of the land in Black Hills National Forest is covered with grassland prairie. The grasslands of South Dakota are a hotspot for wildlife like bison, elk, deer, antelope, and prairie dogs.
In addition to all the native fruits of South Dakota, like plums, rhubarb and chokecherry, grapes have made their way into the forest. The “wine trail” along Highway 385 connects different wineries and tasting rooms for you to enjoy wines among the beautiful scenery. If you’re more of a beer aficionado, there are plenty of breweries in the Black Hills and in nearby Rapid City.
You can see stars anywhere, but not like this. It doesn’t take much driving to get away from the cities and towns. On a clear night, you’ll see thousands more stars in the sky, thanks to the low levels of light pollution. See everything you can’t see in the city: the Milky Way, planets and shooting stars. The forest cools down quickly, and sitting around a campfire while gazing at the stars above makes for a memorable experience. The night sky program in Badlands National Park (not far from the Black Hills) gives you the opportunity to get amazing views of objects in the summer sky through provided telescopes.
You’d think that with a name like “The Black Hills,” the hills would be, well, black. It’s not really the case; the name comes from how dark the hills look at a distance, rather than their actual color. The hills themselves are a mosaic of green pines, amber grasslands, and multicolored rock formations. Click here for images of just how beautiful things can get out here.