In the same amount of time it takes to unload the dishwasher, vacuum the living room or fold one load of laundry, you can drive from Downtown Rapid City to the edge of the Black Hills National Forest. South Dakota’s favorite 1.2 million acre playground is a short ten minute drive from the heart of town and is brimming full of year-round adventure. If you’re like me, you’re up for anything that gets you out exploring - hiking, biking, climbing, kayaking, skiing, and motorized off-road vehicles. I can’t say that I am skilled in all of these things, but I am always down for an adventure.
For a good chunk of the year, my family and I enjoy off-roading through the hills on ATV’s. With over 700 miles of trails for motorized travel, it would be impressive to say that we’ve explored it all, but we haven’t even scratched the surface. Many avid riders suggest that summer is the best time for this mode of adventure. However, spring and fall are equally as fun with fall being my favorite. Sure, the weather is a little more crisp requiring a few more layers of clothing, but off-roading in the fall offers first-look at an entirely new color palette amongst an endless landscape of evergreen.
With so many trails to explore, it can be hard to know what to choose. Here’s a few gems that lie just outside of Rapid City!
Trails to explore
Our friendly neighbor Piedmont packs a punch when it comes to ATV exploration. Conveniently located off I-90, don’t let first glimpse of the trail access deceive you. There’s plenty of elevation gain and you’ll reach some of the most stunning vistas in the Black Hills.
South Boxelder Trailhead
Continue on the Piedmont Trailhead and soon enough you’ll run into a local favorite. Also known as Blue Draw, South Boxelder Trailhead provides access to the Centennial Trail, the longest trail in the Black Hills. While this trail is made for all skill levels, keep in mind there are some steep grades and extreme bends. Look for a few Black Hills hidden treasures on your ATV journey including caves, creeks and striking rock walls. I have to say this has been one of my favorite trails to explore because of the variety of eye candy it offers.
Hop on the Victoria System just southwest of Rapid City, which is our go to for a quick and easy access ride. It holds roughly 28 miles of trail and offers a unique destination known as Sandstone Ridge. If you ride far enough on this trail system, you’ll find yourself at Pactola Reservoir - a beautiful lake that hides a once-prosperous town. But that’s a story for another time. Pause and soak in the view.
Shanks & Schroeder System
This system, composed of Shanks Trailhead and Schroder Trailhead, gives riders a fun mix of trail types. Traverse numerous roads and explore Cross River running through the terrain. Riders will find everything from a wide two track to narrow and windy. Note that it can be rougher in certain areas because of exposed limestone, which is one of the six rock types that formed the Black Hills.
Get your fun from one of the more challenging trails. The Merritt System offers a 41-mile route that connects the Northern Hills - an area identified as the origin of the gold rush and the old west - to the Central Hills - a region known for famous Black Hills landmarks such as Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial®.
What You Should Bring
Water and snacks:
Fuel up before you get hangry! While there are places to stop, eat and recharge throughout the hills, you never know when hunger will strike. Plus, that bag of trail mix does taste better paired with a view.
Rapid City is the banana belt of South Dakota (our weather can be unpredictable). Ensure you're prepared for whatever Mother Nature sends your way and pack layers no matter what season you ride in.
Closed toed shoes:
Summer is for sandals, but not something you should choose for an ATV adventure! Save that pretty pedicure.
Bag with a zipper:
Keep your belongings nice and clean. You are bound to pack on some dirt when off-roading in the hills.
A.K.A. clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. There’s no such thing as best dressed in the forest.
Or some form of eye protection. Again, dirt. Even if you have a windshield on your motorized vehicle, it’s not enough. You’ll thank me later.
Many ATV’s are equipped with a USB port. Bring along a cord and plug in your favorite beats when cruising. ATV’s are loud, so you really won’t be missing any sounds of nature.
Many trails in the Black Hills are easy to moderate. Off-roading is family friendly and suited for all ages. When driving a four-seat ATV, we often bring our toddler along and buckle her in a car seat for peace of mind when riding on bumpy trails. Plus, you wouldn’t want your little one to miss out on a one heck of a family vacation, would you?!
Know Before You Go
A majority of Black Hills area ATV trails are open May through December. Depending on the elements, trail closures can be expected throughout the year for the health of the forest and safety of its guests. Visit the Black Hills National Forest website before planning your route for up to date trail conditions.
Cell phone coverage in the Black Hills can be spotty. Download the free mobile app, Avenza, at your App Store or Google Play for offline use on smartphones and tablets. If a printed map is more your style, check out the Motor Vehicle Use Map at the Black Hills National Forest website or visit any local Ranger District office for a hard copy.
A trail permit to use the forest trails is a must. You can purchase one through local vendors, at any local Black Hills National Forest office or, for pure convenience, online. Trail system permit fees are $20/week per vehicle or $25 for an annual pass. ATV’s are allowed on city streets, but they do have to have insurance and a plate.
All motorized trails are suited for vehicles 62” or less. This includes UTV’s, ATV’s and motorcycles. If you don’t bring your own toys, there are several places to rent throughout the hills.
Operating an off-road vehicle is a skill. If you are a beginner, use caution and take it slow. Or if you’re like me, opt out of driving and leave it to someone else with more experience (you’ll get to concentrate on the scenery).
Lastly, but equally as important, please be kind to the forest and those who live there. Stay on the trails and treat wildlife with respect - do not approach a wild animal. Be mindful of your surroundings so we can sustain the forest for generations to come.
The Black Hills area offers plenty of ways to get outside and explore! If you're looking to enjoy more than just ATVing in the area, you can enjoy the beauty of the hills from these top ten area hiking trails, or relax and cast a line in these top fishing spots.