Black Hills National Forest

Black Hills National Forest can be found in southwestern South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. The forest has an area of over 1.25 million acres and is managed by the Forest Service. Forest headquarters can be found in Custer, South Dakota. There are local ranger district offices in Custer, Rapid City, and Spearfish in South Dakota, and in Sundance, Wyoming.

Mainly ponderosa pine, the forest also includes hard woods like bur oak, aspen, and birch. The lower elevations include grassland prairie, but the National Forest System lands also include most of the mountainous region known as the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming. Within the confines of the forest is Harney Peak which is the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains in the United States.

After a series of devastating wildfires in 1893, United States President Grover Cleveland created the Black Hills Forest Reserve on February 22nd of 1897. Upon the creation of the Forest Reserve in1905, the reserve was transferred to the new agency under the United States Department of Agriculture and redesigned as a National Forest two years later. Lakota words paha sapa, meaning “hills that are black”, may be one of the factors in naming of the region. Early settlers and explorers called the Laramie Range the Black Hills prior to Lt. G. K. Warren’s expedition in 1857. Before the exploration by the La Verendrye brothers in 1742, many tribes frequented the Black Hills including Ponca, Arapaho, Apache, Kiowa, and Cheyenne for at least the past 10,000 years. The small pox epidemics of 1775-1781 broke the wall of the Arikara who, prior to that time, held the Sioux east of the Missouri. American Horse’s winter count of 1775-1776 interpreted as depicting the Sioux discovery of the Black Hills. The mountains and other key traits in and around the Black Hills and now within the forest were considered sacred to native peoples and many came here on vision quests, hunting, and trade.

The forest is located in some parts of seven counties in South Dakota and Wyoming. In lies in Pennington, Custer, Fall River, Crook, Lawrence, Meade, and Weston counties.

It is located immediately west and south of Rapid City and can be accessed from Interstate 90. The forest headquarters are located in Custer, South Dakota. The Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway passes through the forest in proximity to Mount Rushmore and along with the Spearfish Canyon National Forest Scenic Byway, provide two of the more scenic drives within the country.

Although it is surrounded by Black Hills National Forest, both Jewel Cave National Monument and Mount Rushmore National Memorial are separate areas administered by the National Park Service. Wind Cave National Park, which is another region administered by the National Park Service, borders parts of the forest in the southeast. Black Elk Wilderness is a wilderness within the forest and no motorized transport is allowed. Outside of the wilderness, logging, mining, and ranching are allowed on public lands through land leases with companies and private parties, referred to as “permittees”.

While ponderosa pine is the most common species of tree found in the forest, spruce can be found in the higher elevations. Mule deer, elk, pronghorn, and white tailed deer are commonly seen. Black bears have been spotted in the Black Hills as well. As a result of prolific herds of deer and elk, mountain lions are dramatically increasing. Coyote, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep are frequently seen also. Hawks, bald eagles, osprey, and the peregrine falcon, in addition to another 200 species of birds, can be found in the forest, especially along the streams and near water sources.

30 campgrounds are located within the forest along with 11 reservoirs that are well stocked for sport fishing. There are 450 miles of hiking trails that provide access to more remote destinations and to the summit of Harney Peak. With more than 5,000 miles of Forest system roads, the forest is also a haven for motorized travel.

Image Caption: The Needles as seen from the top of Harney Peak. Credit: Jake DeGroot/Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)