No. 1, Jenny Gulch
Jenny Gulch is one of the lesser-known hideaways at Pactola Reservoir. The area features two entrances to the water, one right next to the parking area (which is ideal to launch kayaks and canoes or to do some on-shore fishing), and one just over a small hill that is ideal for swimming and cliff jumping.
Like all of Pactola, the area features numerous scenic hikes, most of which require little athletic skill. If you're swimming, be aware that even on the warmest summer days, the water stays very cool.
Getting there: From Rapid City, take Jackson Boulevard toward Pactola Reservoir. Jackson will turn into S.D. Highway 44. Continue until the road dead ends, about 15 miles. Take a right onto U.S. 385. After 1.5 miles, take a left onto Silver City Road. Travel about 3 miles, turn left onto the gravel road for Jenny Gulch.
Expert tip: If you're heading out in the heat of summer, be prepared to encounter pontoons holed up on the larger Jenny Gulch inlet. While they don't limit swimming opportunities, the music is often loud, people are drinking and the tranquility of the area can be compromised.
No. 2, Devil's Bathtub
Devil's Bathtub, in Spearfish Canyon, won’t be found on any official tourist destination list, but it’s not necessarily a well-hidden local secret, either.
Visitors should count on getting wet even without plans to take a dip in the “tub,” which is actually a pool made from swirling erosion of the rock formations. Breathtaking stands of aspen and birch trees highlight the pines along the trail. The pool used to be deep enough for diving from the surrounding rocks, but sediment has left the water only about 4 feet deep.
Getting there: From Rapid City, take Interstate 90 to the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway exit, then proceed south on Highway 14A. A few miles past Bridal Veil Falls, look for a turnoff called Cleopatra Place. There is a small gravel parking lot before a bridge. Hike across the bridge over Spearfish Creek and follow the trail to the right. The hike, on well-worn trails along Sunshine Creek, takes about 45 minutes and crosses the creek several times, so plan on at least getting your feet wet.
Expert tip: The land around the parking area is private property, so park properly and tread lightly as you start the hike. Watch for brown trout jumping their way up the creek and also watch for the Wedding Tree, a birch and pine that have grown together.
No. 3, Meeker Ranch
Meeker Ranch is part of a historic homestead nestled in a scenic green valley 5 miles east of Custer. Frank Cunningham Meeker homesteaded the area near Willow Creek in the 1880s and the cabin was completed in 1916. The 127-year-old ranch house is one of the few remaining examples of historic ranching from the era, and is worth a trip to feel the force of history that washes over visitors.
Getting there: From Rapid City, take U.S. 16 West to Custer. Turn east onto Montgomery Street and continue driving until the name changes to Willow Creek Road. As you continue driving, the road will eventually turn into a dirt road. Park at the locked Forest Service gate at the end of the road and hike in half a mile to get to the ranch.
Expert tip: Although the ranch house is one of Meeker Ranch’s largest draws, the 278-acre area has several other structures scattered across the valley. Talk a walk around the grounds to see other examples of historic ranching.
No. 4, Victoria Canyon
Victoria Canyon features towering limestone cliffs that provide onlookers with a unique setting below the walls of a narrow limestone canyon. Victoria Creek cuts through the canyon, creating small waterfalls to add to the limestone walls, which can reach up to 80 feet in height. It's a super spot for rock climbing, but also for just feeling like a small part of a great big natural world.
Getting there: From Rapid City, take Sheridan Lake Road west out of Rapid City and turn north on Norsemen Lane. Take this road for about 100 yards until you get to National Forest Service Road 150. Stay on the dirt road for about a mile and a half, then turn right at Road 1E. Stay on the road past the meadow for about 3 miles. From there you will have to hike the trail into the canyon.
Expert tip: Victoria Canyon is often regarded as a premiere destination for rock climbers, but the routes can be quite difficult and dangerous. It is best to try to climb the canyon only if you’re an advanced climber. Also, be prepared to get wet. The creek flows through the canyon in the spring and summer, so you might get wet getting to the climbing routes in the canyon.
No. 5, Poet's Table
Poet’s Table is a well-kept local secret, one of those places that intentionally doesn’t get a lot of publicity to protect the pristine spot in the southern Black Hills from overuse or desecration. It’s well worth the effort to find this unsung gem, where one can drink in a breathtaking view of the Needles formation, hear and feel the wind wafting through the fragrant pines, and then leave your feelings of the moment in an informal “guest register” of spiral notebooks.
Getting there: From Rapid City, Take U.S. Highway 16 west 37 miles west to Sylvan Lake. At the furthest southeast corner of the day-use parking lot, find the Harney Peak Trail 4 trailhead. The Little Devil’s Tower spur is located along Trail 4. About five minutes along the Little Devil’s Tower Trail, look for a leaning birch tree that points up the slope. Follow the gully up the slope, while staying to the right of the highest peak. At the top, climb over some rocks on the left and the green-painted wooden table, cabinet and chairs should be visible in a small alcove in the rocks.
Expert tip: The writings of those who have been there before, some dating back many years, are left in a simple wooden bureau accompanied by a table and chairs where you can rest, enjoy your packed-in lunch and recover a bit from the hike.
No. 6, Hippie Hole
It’s easy to imagine what drew the hippies for whom the Hippie Hole is named: seclusion, a waterfall, and a natural pool below. Today, it’s not uncommon to see families and people of all ages enjoying the Hippie Hole, which is off the beaten path.
Getting there: From Rapid City, drive U.S. Highway 16 for about 12 miles to Rockerville and take the exit onto Main Street. Turn left (south) onto South Rockerville Road and follow that to Foster Gulch Road, a gravel road where you’ll turn left. Keep driving and stay to the right through a couple of forks, and eventually you’ll arrive at a parking area. Hike the dirt trail from there for about 15 minutes to reach Battle Creek, and then go left (south) to find the waterfall.
Expert tip: Reaching the Hippie Hole requires an adventurous spirit and can involve scrambling over some boulders and dodging poison ivy. Be patient and careful when walking in. Many people like to cliff dive into the pool, but it is dangerous and not recommended.
No. 7, Cathedral Spires
With a view that could be categorized as creating a religious experience, the Cathedral Spires in Custer State Park couldn't have been given a more fitting name. Massive gray spires poke through the forest landscape in Custer State Park and stand together in a glorious granite-filed ridge line.
The rocky outcrops here serve as a wonderful backdrop for hikers looking to get out of the car while traveling the Needles Highway and offer some of the best traditional-style rock climbing the Black Hills have to offer.
Getting there: From Rapid City, take U.S. 16 south to Hill City, and continue to Sylvan Lake. Turn onto the Needles Highway (S.D. Highway 87) and go 2.5 miles east to a small parking lot for the trail head.
Expert tip: Stretch your legs on the steep 1.5-mile hike from the Needles Highway up to the spires. The hike ends in a lush valley surrounded by behemoth granite rocks. Don't forget to take your camera.
No. 8, Cement Ridge
If you want to enjoy one of the best views of South Dakota’s Black Hills, you need to take a trip just across the border to Wyoming. From Cement Ridge Lookout, there are clear views of Crow Peak, Inyan Kara Mountain, Spearfish Peak, Terry Peak, Old Baldy Mountain and Custer Peak.
This may be one of the prettiest spots in the Black Hills; in spring and summer, it explodes with colorful wildflowers, and in fall, the aspen leaves put on a dramatic show of yellow and orange that cannot be beat.
Getting there: Due to its remote location, U.S. Forest Service officials suggest getting a map before traveling to Cement Ridge. But from Rapid City, go north to Interstate 90 to Spearfish. Exit onto U.S. Highway 85 and go south to Alternate 14A, and head south on Forest Service Road 134, then go west (right) on 105, turn north (right) on 804 and north (right) again on 850.
Expert tip: Due to its lofty status, a two-story wooden tower was built there in 1921. The Civilian Conservation Corps built the current tower in 1940-1941. In 1993, the Cement Ridge Fire Tower was listed in the National Historic Lookout Register. It is still manned during fire season.
No. 9, Timon Cave
Timon Cave is a see-through cavern overlooking a canyon in the Black Hills near Spearfish. Visitors crawl through a small entrance hole and at the back of the cave is a much larger hole with a spectacular view.
Finding the entrance is difficult enough, but then there’s the hike up the steep hill it sits atop. Going back down is not exactly easy, either, but the view out the back door makes it all worth it — it is one unique and memorable view.
Getting there: From Rapid City, take Interstate 90 about 40 miles to Spearfish, Exit 14. Turn left onto North 27th Street. Turn right onto East Colorado Boulevard. Turn left onto Spearfish Canyon Highway. Follow the highway to Roughlock Falls Road; turn right. About 4 miles from Roughlock Falls is Timon Campground. The hill to climb to get to the cave is across the road from the entrance to the campground.
Expert tip: Be careful on the hike back downhill from the cave; it is steep and more challenging than walking up. But bring your lunch, sit back, and relax after that climb. You can recall the incredible vista while sipping a cold drink.
No. 10, Flume trail
A trek through the central Black Hills historic Flume Trail hearkens back to the 1880s gold boom of the region.
Some 130 years ago, the earthen Rockerville Flume channeled water along a 20-mile stretch of the Black Hills, from Spring Creek west of Sheridan Lake to several booming placer mines near Rockerville, on U.S. Highway 16.
Now, the 11-mile Flume Trail — trail number 50, a National Recreational Trail that includes a 3-mile loop — follows much the original flume bed, which operated until 1885 and allowed miners to collect more than $20 million in gold. Artifacts still dot the long-abandoned mining operation, and visitors are asked to leave them be.
Getting there: From Rapid City, take Sheridan Lake Road west to U.S. Highway 385. Take 385 south to the Sheridan Lake campgrounds. Follow the Flume Trail signage to the southeast shore of the lake.
Expert tip: Afternoon thunderstorms often come on unexpectedly in the area. Hike early in the morning and don't forget to pack rain gear.