Accepting the end of summer can be hard, unless you can visit the Black Hills National Forest. Because the end of summer here means the start of one of the best seasons in our area - fall. Our autumn season brings more than pumpkin spice lattes and blanket scarves, although I do enjoy both of those. Here, fall means the perfect temperature of weather. Fresh, crisp mountain air. An explosion of stunning colors.

The Black Hills are a place to play and explore year-round, but if you have an option, visit in the fall and enjoy these activities. 

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 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. In this canyon you’ll be chasing waterfalls. Bridal Veil Falls, Spearfish Falls and Roughlock Falls are mother nature’s master pieces. It's a place 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 lake. Walk the path along the shoreline 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 small Black Hills lake is in 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)

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. 

Moderate: Boulder Hill Trail (3.3 loop)

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)

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 to the summit opening.

The 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 you're looking for other unique things our area offers in the fall season - check out these events. They make a great addition to the outdoor experiences this season offers.

Make sure to check out each spot you’re planning 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.