The Black Hills of South Dakota have long been famous for the days when men dug in its dirt looking for their fortune.
Those days are long gone but the dirt is no less prized today as a new group of explorers have discovered the Black Hills’ allure—the allure of off-roading on hundreds of miles of dirt trails and roads.
We spent two days last summer traversing the Black Hills and realized early into the first day we could have planned a week’s worth of riding and still not seen it all. Tack on to those days a few additional ones to see the sites not accessible by a side-by-side or ATV (like Mount Rushmore) and you can spend a lot of time in the Black Hills.
Thanks to our guide Curt Bauer, we did manage to hit some of the highlights of the Black Hills but certainly not all. And we spent our two days in the northern end of the Black Hills, basically north of Pactola Lake, leaving all the southern end of the Hills for a future ride(s). Our riding took place in the Northern Hills Ranger District of the Black Hills National Forest.
Seeing And Doing
When you explore the Black Hills, it’s as much about seeing (historical sites, mines, caves, etc.) as it is doing (riding). We were fortunate to experience what we think was the ideal combination of both. It really does pay to ride with the locals as Bauer helped us navigate the myriad of trails to maximize our time in the Black Hills.
Our 50-plus mile ride on Day 1 took us from Black Hills Off-Road Rentals, located right on U.S. Highway 385 south of Deadwood, east over to the Galena ghost town area and then back west to Custer Peak. Of course, we did a whole lot of exploring between those points, including down a steep grade, across a creek and up into a beautiful meadow surrounded by mountains, all this south of Galena.
We then backtracked just a little and hopped on to the Spring Run road and then Galena Road (Trail 534A), which runs along Bear Butte Creek. We rode through Galena, (elevation 4,790 feet), to Trail 172.1, which heads up Butcher Gulch (there are all sorts of cool names like this spread across the Black Hills). We made a small side trip to the China Walls, which are three impressive stone walls built in the 1940s to aid in mining but nothing really ever came of it and so they just sit there.
We then headed up Bear Den Mountain to an overlook that offers a great view of Galena below and all the surrounding mountains, including Custer Peak (elevation 6,804 feet), our destination later in the day.
Our ride took us on Galena Road (Trail 534A/534) to U.S. Highway 385, where we jumped on and rode down to Boondocks for lunch. From there we rode the highway a little farther to Custer Peak Road, where we headed west. We passed the Mystic Campground and turned north on Trail 213.1H so we could circle around Custer Peak on the north side. This was a great trail with amazing views off to the north when there were breaks in the trees. Those views included the lookout on Custer Peak. From 213.1H we merged onto 213.1 then 213.1C which leads to 216.2, which takes you up to a small parking area. From there it is a short hike up (and we do mean “up”) to the top of the lookout on top of the peak.
From the lookout are spectacular 360-degree views of the Black Hills as well as to the prairie to the east. We spent several minutes at the lookout, trying to soak in the views.
From Custer Peak, we took a meandering route back to Black Hills Off-Road Rentals, eventually ending up on 248.1 back to Highway 385. We got rained on a little on the way back but that helped knock the dust down on the trails so we were fine with that.
One thing that really struck us about the Black Hills on our first day of riding was how green and lush the vegetation was. And while we didn’t ride any trails that were particularly difficult, they were definitely fun and scenic.
Looking back at our 50 plus miles of riding and the area we covered it seemed like a good amount, until we were told there are about 650 miles of designated ATV trails in the Black Hills National Forest and when you throw in all the gravel roads you can also ride on, that number swells to about 2,000 miles.
Day two was a little more adventurous as we hit one of the more difficult trails in the area. We again rode from Black Hills Off-Road Rentals, heading south on U.S. Highway 385 to Trail 8089. We could have taken backcountry trails to 8089 but our time was a little limited on the second day so Bauer opted to ride Highway 385 to Trail 741.1 and then 8089.