The name Black Hills comes from Sioux Indian words, Paha Sapa, which mean "hills that are black." Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills, rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie, appear to be black. The Black Hills are in western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming and cover an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide. They encompass rugged rock formations, canyons and gulches, open grassland parks, tumbling streams, deep blue lakes, and unique caves.

The Black Hills National Forest Visitor Center, located west of Rapid City at Pactola Reservoir, is recommended as an early stop for travelers to enhance their knowledge and enjoyment of the Black Hills. The Center is open from the Memorial Day through the Labor Day weekends. Forest Service employees are there during the day to answer questions and provide materials. There is a short self-guiding nature trail to help visitors learn about trees and forest management.

Several airlines service the Black Hills through the Rapid City Regional Airport. Taxi, limousine and car rentals are available at the airport or through other dealers in Rapid City. The Black Hills area is served by interstate highway I-90 which runs east-west across the state of South Dakota.


The Black Hills area has a rich and diverse cultural heritage. Archeological evidence suggests the earliest known use of the area occurred about 10,000 years ago. Later Indians, such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Sioux, came to the Black hills to seek visions and purify themselves. The Black Hills were also a sanctuary where tribes at war could meet in peace.

Exploration of the Black Hills by fur traders and trappers occurred in the 1840s. In 1874, General George A. Custer led an Army expedition into the area and discovered gold. Settlement of the Black Hills rapidly followed the discovery of gold. The need for wood to build mines, railroads, towns, and for use as a fuel, increased demand for timber. As settlement continued, agriculture and livestock grazing added to the area's economic diversity.

A series of large forest fires in 1893 focused attention on the need to protect the timber resource. On February 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland established the Black Hills Forest Reserve. This land was protected against fires, wasteful lumbering practices, and timber fraud. In 1898, the first commercial timber sale on Federal forested land in the United States was authorized in Jim and Estes Creeks. Cutting began around Christmas time in 1899. In 1905, the Black Hills Forest Reserve was transferred to the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years later it was renamed the Black Hills National Forest.

Norbeck Wildlife Preserve was established by Congress in 1920 for the "protection of game animals and birds and to be recognized as a breeding place therefore." The Preserve covers about 35,000 acres, and 28,000 are managed by the Black Hills National Forest. Most of the remainder is under the jurisdiction of Custer State Park. It is home to a variety of wildlife, including elk, deer, and mountain goat. It also contains rugged granite formations, small lakes, scenic drives, and hiking trails.


Recreational opportunities abound on the 1.2 million acres of the Black Hills National Forest. Outstanding scenery and a mild climate combine to provide an unforgettable outdoor experience year-round. Summer is the most popular vacation season in the Black Hills. The National Forest provides 108 developed recreational sites which include camp and picnic grounds, swimming beaches, boat launches, scenic overlooks and trailheads.

Most of the Forest's campgrounds are between 4,500 and 6,400 feet above sea level. Visitors may enjoy warm temperatures during the day for hiking, fishing, boating and sightseeing, and cool nights for comfortable sleeping. Typical summer daytime highs are between 75 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit with nighttime lows of 50 to 55 degrees.

During the summer, from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekends, daily use fees are charged at most of the campgrounds. At campgrounds which are open after Labor Day and before Memorial Day, campers must provide their own water and trash disposal.

Most National Forest campgrounds have water and toilet facilities, but there are no hookups for water, sewer or electricity at any campgrounds. Camping is also permitted outside developed campgrounds, in the National Forest, except around highly developed recreational areas such as Bismarck, Deerfield, Pactola, Roubaix and Sheridan Lakes. Although open fires are not permitted in the South Dakota portion of the Forest, fires may be built in grates which are provided in campgrounds and picnic areas.

Black Elk Wilderness is in the center of the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. The 9824-acre Wilderness was named for Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux holy man. Congress established Black Elk on December 22, 1980.

Harney Peak, at 7242 feet above sea level, is the highest point in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. From an historic lookout tower on Harney Peak, one has a panoramic view of four states (South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana) as well as the granite formations and cliffs of the Black Elk Wilderness. Forest Service trails lead to the top from almost any direction.


Other public attractions are administered by the National Park Service and the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks. The National Park Service manages Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming; and Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument and Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. Custer State Park, with the largest buffalo herd in the United States; and Bear Butte State Park, an outstanding geologic and cultural attraction, are managed by the State of South Dakota.


If you'd like more information or detailed maps of the Black Hills National Forest, please contact: FOREST SUPERVISOR

Black Hills National Forest