The Black Hills are home to a spectacular and diverse range of rock climbing. The setting here is magical and calm compared to other climbing destinations, while the climbing itself remains world-class. For experienced climbers, casting off into the unknown in a new place can be intimidating. But for people new to the sport, it can feel impossible. That’s why I would recommend that inexperienced climbers refer to the “Indoor and Guided Climbing Options” below before striking out on their own. Regardless of skill level, Rapid City makes a great jumping-off point for all visitors, as it boasts the area’s best indoor facility and lies directly between the state’s two main climbing areas: the Northern Black Hills and the Southern Black Hills. These two areas offer polarized differences in the rock, commitment level, and historical legacy. Here’s how it breaks down:
NORTHERN HILLS – SPEARFISH CANYON
Skills Required: Gym Experience, A dozen quickdraws
Tip: Many of these routes were bolted with a stick clip in mind.
The mouth of Spearfish Canyon is about a 45-minute drive Northwest of Rapid City and is the place where most beginners will want to have their first climbing experience in South Dakota. Spearfish Canyon is almost entirely made up of pocketed limestone and the routes here are plentiful and bolted. These are relatively new climbs that emphasize physical difficulty and safety. Most of the climbing here can be reached with a 10-minute approach from the road that snakes through the canyon bottom. You will find an abundance of safely bolted and easily accessible routes, but there are few options for leaders under 5.10. They do however exist, and a good place to start is the Sunshine area. “Sunshine” is a half-mile-long cliff with 14 individually named walls and a variety of easy, intermediate, and difficult routes. As the name implies, this area makes for a warm winter destination, but these walls will also see shade after 4pm in the summertime. Mike Cronin’s “Spearfish Canyon, The VC & other Black Hills Limestone” is an invaluable resource for route identification and the specifics of parking and trail finding, as is Mountain Project website (though neither are exhaustive).
For anyone just getting started, the requisite skills and gear required here are pretty minimal. A 60-meter rope and a dozen quickdraws will see one to the top of most routes assuming they have the basic lead and belay technique to climb any route. Those looking for an introductory day out at “Sunshine” should drive south down the canyon from Spearfish following Highway 14a for 14 miles past Savoy and another 5 miles to Cheyenne Crossing. Then, continue south on Highway 85 and drive another 1.1 miles to a large pullout on the left. The climber's trail for “Sunshine” is directly across the road from the pullout and is a quick five minutes from the cliff. Hike up the steep hillside via the climber's trail and follow the cliff band leftwards passing many bolted walls. The second wall from the end of the cliff is black, slabby, and slightly elevated from the trail. This is the Bunny Slope wall and it contains around eight moderate routes suitable for a new leader. “Bugs Bunny”, a classic climb for the area, is the second route from the right on this wall and comes in at 5.8 with seven bolts and a cold-shut anchor.
SOUTHERN HILLS – NEEDLES OF MOUNT RUSHMORE
Skills Required: A good head, Standard Rack with lots of nuts
Tip: Offset cams can often help with finicky crystal placements
The sea of granite that makes up the Southern Black Hills is staggering in size and sprawl, with a rich history to boot. Many climbing legends and pioneers graced the Southern Hills in the golden age of climbing and left their mark in the form of bold, daring routes up improbable formations. This terrain offers a bit of danger and a true sense of adventure. The whole of Southern Hills climbing (think of it roughly as the triangle formed by Custer, Hill City, and Keystone) is a mixture of traditionally protected and run-out bolted climbing with some areas offering more beginner-friendly commitment levels.
The Mount Rushmore area is one of just a few areas in the Needles that offer consistently protectable routes and a casual day out for passing climbers. Climbers can park at the Wrinkled Rock Climber’s campground, just past Mt. Rushmore proper, and walk out into the loads of small formations (The “South Seas”) that surround the parking lot. This area is full of moderate and well-bolted crystal-pinching and is a safe introduction to Needles style climbing. Unfortunately, the best guidebook for this area (“Needles of Rushmore”) is out of print and can be hard to find. Fortunately, knowledgeable partners are easy to come by thanks to the free dispersed camping around the parking lot.
From Rapid, a fun day out in the “South Seas” is only 30 minutes away. To get there, follow Highway 244 northwest past Mt. Rushmore for 1.5 miles and park in the Wrinkled Rock Campground parking lot. Then, take the obvious climber’s trail beginning at the kiosk and wander down through the various fins and formations. When intersecting the old gravel road on the right side of the trail, follow it to a second kiosk and a long angling arete. This arete is “Second Hand Rose Arete” and it’s a classic climb for the area at 5.6. Suitors for this climb will need eleven quickdraws and a 70-meter rope for the rappel. A 60-meter rope will deposit one safely on the ground but with only inches to spare.
INDOOR AND GUIDED CLIMBING OPTIONS
Rapid City has gone through several iterations of indoor climbing gyms, but Black Hills Basecamp finally found the right recipe. Basecamp is a boutique bouldering gym that offers thoughtfully crafted problems and an atmosphere that suits both seasoned climbers and total beginners. For visiting climbers, a trip to Basecamp could mean a workout, an active rest day, or a place to meet partners and glean information from local climbers and staff. Basecamp also partners with Sylvan Rocks Climbing School & Guide Service, which is a great avenue for visitors without knowledge of the area to experience the magic of climbing in the hills. Sylvan Rocks is AMGA accredited and their guides are well connected within the community of local climbers. A guided outing for a total beginner typically entails four to eight hours of tailored instruction and adventure in Custer State Park or the Mount Rushmore area. This is a great option for prospective climbers who need help choosing gear and developing essential skills. Once you have an idea of the gear you’ll need, Rapid City’s local outdoor retailer Roam’n Around has the largest collection of climbing products in the area including an extensive guidebook selection and an array of new and used shoes.
LEAVE NO TRACE
The Black Hills are seeing more traffic than ever and, like many places, are in danger of being loved to death. As climbers, we can help protect this island in the prairie by following the simple principles of Leave No Trace. Popularizing respect for the natural places we visit is crucial to the viability of vacation and travel in general but climbing especially. Climbing often lures us into the wildest and purest parts of nature and this privilege comes with big responsibility. The Black Hills contain delicate microcosms among the hardy pines and even some rare plants and animals that can be found in few other places. Here’s what you can do to help keep this ecosystem pristine:
- Participate in Human Powered Activities - Most visitors can attest to how the noise of sight-seeing helicopters, motorcycles, and photography drones drown out bird calls, waterfalls, and creaking pines.
- Reduce Waste - Prepare for the day at base camp before heading out into the boonies. Bring human waste disposal bags or plan to climb near a primitive toilet. Keep a trash bag handy for snack wrappers, remnants of used tape gloves, and other waste that doesn’t belong in the environment.
- Tread Lightly - The area’s ferns, mosses, and lichens seek shade from the sun in many of the same nooks and passageways that appeal to climbers. Be considerate of where you walk and flake out your rope.
Rock Climbing Grades:
- 5.1 – 5.4 Easy
- 5.5 – 5.8 Intermediate
- 5.9 - 5.10 Hard
- 5.11 – 5.12 Hard to Difficult
- 5.13 – 5.15 Very Difficult
After a day on the rocks, some of the best post-climb digestifs are just a short drive away. Horsethief Lake, a 5-minute drive from the climbing at Rushmore, is picturesque at sunset and can be just the right way to cool down as the sun sets behind the granite. Miner Brewing Company is just 20 minutes away in Hill City and offers a great patio atmosphere to share tall tales from the day’s exploits. Or make your way back to Rapid to explore the beer and wine scene and refuel at one of the local restaurants. All in all, those willing to make the short trip to the hills will be rewarded with adventure enough to fill anyone’s itinerary.