Thursday, January 8, 2015

Best trails for seeing Black Hills’ wonders

Trail through Badlands. Photo courtesy of Badlands NPS.
Among the best ways to see the major sights of South Dakota’s popular Black Hills is via a day hike. Just seven short trails allow you to enjoy the region’s highlights – the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, caves, the Crazy Horse carving, the Wild West, prairie wildlife, and fossils.

The 1.5-miles out-and-back Notch Trail runs through the eroded buttes, pinnacles and spires that this corner of South Dakota is known for. The rock making up the formation were deposited from 75 million to 34 million years ago; they only started to erode away about half a million years ago. The trail begins at the south end of the Door and Window parking area. If you have a fear of heights, avoid this route and instead do either the Door or Window trails.

Mount Rushmore
Four hundred workers spent 14 years carving the faces of four presidents out of a granite mountain, creating one of America’s iconic images. To get close up and personal with the monument, take the 0.5-mile looping Presidential Trail.

A number of caves can be found in the Black Hills, with Wind Cave National Park the crown jewel of them. Try the park’s Natural Entrance Cave Tour, a ranger-led 0.5-mile walk where you’ll see the mysterious “boxwork” – thin sheets of calcite that form honeycomb-like patterns on the cave ceilings.

Crazy Horse carving
The world’s largest granite monument carving – of the great Native American Chief Crazy Horse – is an ongoing project in the Black Hills, which are sacred to the Lakota Indians. A section of the George S. Mickelson Trail heads past and to the carving; take the Mountain Trailhead (at MP 49.6 on U.S. Hwy 385) north then follow a spur trail uphill to the monument for a 6-mile round trip.

Wild West
Once the stomping ground of Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and gold miners, the Northern Hills section of the Black Hills is full of Wild West legends and myths. Many miners and pioneers to the area walked what is now the Crow Peak Trail, a 6.4-mile round trip in the Black Hills National Forest with great vista at top.

Wildlife viewing
A number of native prairie animals as well as a wild burro herd can be spotted at Custer State Park. A great trail for wildlife sightings is the park’s 6-mile round trip Grace Coolidge Walk-In Fishing Area, with its many ponds along a stream, off of Hwy. 16A. Wildlife are most active during early morning and dusk.

Thanks to heavy erosion, a number of fossils have been found throughout the Black Hills. The 30-minute guided tour at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota, takes you over and around an active dig of Ice Age fauna that has yielded more than 55 mammoths. Kids can sign up for digs on specific days of the year.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.