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The Best Ways To Experience Fall In The Black Hills National Forest

Raised in Rapid City and lucky to call it home, this outdoor enthusiast loves to explore the Black Hills with her husband and two dogs. When she’s not at work you’ll find her out hiking, at a local ice cream shop, or perhaps home taking a nap.

September 01, 2021

Accepting the end of summer is a difficult thing for most people, unless those people live near the Black Hills National Forest. Here, we embrace it with open arms, because fall in our area is one of the most beautiful times of the year. It’s more than pumpkin spice lattes and blanket scarves, although I do enjoy both of those. It’s cooler weather. It’s fresh, crisp mountain air. It’s more than just a forest, it’s a feeling that encompasses every stick, stone, stream and visitor. I would consider the Black Hills a place to play and explore year-round, but if you have an option, visit in the fall. Try out these activities and it will become your favorite season here too.

Go For A Drive

 

Driving through the fall colors in Spearfish Canyon

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway

 “You’re not supposed to drive here at 60 miles an hour. To do the scenery half justice, people should drive 20 or under; to do it full justice, they should get out and walk.” – Peter Norbeck

Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway was built to preserve the natural beauty of the area while providing a way for people to view it. This 66-mile double loop encompasses the famous Needles Highway and Iron Mountain Road which are both known for their outstanding views and sharp twists and turns. Roll down your windows and take it all in as you cruise (slowly) along this epic display of Black Hills beauty.

Vanocker Canyon

Taking you 17 miles deep into the heart of the Northern Black Hills is Vanocker Canyon Road. This drive is surrounded by colorful aspen, birch and pine trees, tall canyon walls and exhilarating sights around each turn. It is one of the lesser known drives to visitors in our area, but is a truly beautiful road to experience. Take time to get out and explore the views of this area up close by trying out some of the hiking options located along Vanocker Canyon Road like the Centennial Trail #89!

Spearfish Canyon

Spearfish Canyon is a place where you can discover wall to wall Black Hills beauty. The road weaves through large limestone canyon walls that is packed with ponderosa pines and aspen trees. While words can inspire you about a place’s beauty, images will do better. But also know that like many things in life – pictures don’t do this place justice. The drive alone will take your breath away and have your have your eyes searching every direction trying to soak up these views. But the hidden gems along this 20-mile stretch of road are what makes it magical. Despite what you've heard, in this canyon you’ll be chasing waterfalls. Bridal Veil Falls, Spearfish Falls and Roughlock Falls are mother nature’s master pieces. Gorgeous in every season, but glowing a little extra when surrounded by gold, red and orange during autumn.

Pack A Picnic

 

Man with dog relaxing in a hammock at Jenny Gulch at Pactola Lake
Jenny Gulch at Pactola


Spring Creek Picnic Area

I had to do a little digging to find the real name of this picnic spot. In my family we call it “Mom’s picnic spot”. Growing up we would grab some fried chicken, pile into the convertible and head up to this special spot to spend time as a family. It’s still one of my favorite places to visit because of those memories, but also because it’s a beautiful place to relax, take in the colors of fall and listen to the sounds of the creek.

Jenny Gulch Picnic Area

Jenny Gulch Picnic area is another favorite of mine because it overlooks the one-of-a-kind Pactola Reservoir. This picnic spot offers a tranquil retreat where you can enjoy the forest and views of the mountain lake. Walk the path along the shore line when you’re finished eating, maybe bring some fishing poles (if you have a South Dakota fishing license) or a pup that loves the water.

Dalton Lake Picnic Area

Now for the hidden gem, Dalton Lake. This tiny Black Hills lake is an isolated area that serves as the perfect spot for a peaceful picnic. Relax while enjoying the sounds, sights and smells of fall in the forest.

Go For A Hike

 

At the summit of the Crow Peak hike in South Dakota

Easy: Little Elk Creek Trail (5 miles out and back trail)

Little Elk Creek trail is a favorite leisurely hike of mine. My dogs love it too because the trail runs along the creek allowing them to play in the water and cool off every five seconds. When you combine the sounds of the creek with the fall colors it makes for one great trail.

Moderate: Boulder Hill Trail (3.3 loop trail)

Boulder Hill allows you to surround yourself with Black Hills beauty, as well as provides great overlook point. Parts of this trail walk you through rows and rows of aspen trees which radiate golden colors during the fall. It’s spectacular.

Moderate: Crow Peak Trail (5.9 miles out and back trail)

If you want a hike with great views that is a solid workout head to Crow Peak. This hike’s summit elevation reaches 5,760 feet and the view is outstanding. Enjoy the crisp and cool fall air as you make your way through the fall colors out onto a magnificent summit opening.

Th hills are my favorite place to be this time of year. The best time to view the fall colors in the Black Hills National Forest is late September to mid-October. If I still haven’t convinced you, spend the next three minutes and twenty-eight seconds watching this and maybe you’ll feel differently. Be sure to check out each spot you’re looking to explore on Black Hills National Forest’s website for any closures or updates. Not all trails and roads are open year-round so plan accordingly.