The Black Hills

The Black Hills in South Dakota are part of a very ancient Earth—their geological core has been dated to around 1.8 billion years old. By contrast, the Himalayas are only about 10 million years old—mere babies, really.

While I’m sure the Himalayas are inspiring in their own daunting way, the Black Hills have an air about them that always has fascinated me. In certain places, people instinctively seem to hush their voices, and lose themselves in these old, old woods.

Deadwood. Photo by Hubert Bonnet. Prairie Berry Winery. Photo by Heidi Fellner

If you never have been there before, tourist-friendly destinations like Mount Rushmore, Custer State Park, Wind Cave, Crazy Horse Monument, and the Badlands definitely should be on your agenda. But if you only have seen Western South Dakota in brochure highlights, it’s time you went again.

The Black Hills are a veritable hiker’s paradise, offering approximately 450 miles of trail systems. Centennial Trail alone is 111 miles long, running from Bear Butte (the sacred mountain of the Sioux tribes) to Wind Cave National Park.

“Unofficial” trails exist as well, such as the path locals have cut to a uniquely-formed natural waterslide and wading spot known as Devil’s Bathtub, off Highway 14 and Cleopatra Road.

In Spearfish Canyon, the rugged ’76 Trail is particularly scenic, tracing Potato Creek Johnny’s route from two primary gold mines to his sales point at Latchstring Inn. It’s a steep climb up, with no easy way down, but the summit offers amazing views of the canyon below.

An easier hike just across the road leads to Roughlock Falls. This gentler manicured trail has been entirely redesigned in order to preserve the falls area. Along the trail, you can find evidence of resident beavers and other wildlife, but on a beautiful, sunny weekend, it’s full of families and their ecstatic dogs. If you haven’t been to this area before, you still may recognize it from the last few, very-picturesque scenes of Dances With Wolves. Its star, Kevin Costner, so fell in love with the Black Hills that he bought a casino in nearby Deadwood.

Limited-stakes gambling in Deadwood was legalized back in 1989, about nine years after the last operating brothel was closed. Gambling has changed the appearance of the town, but perhaps it is more accurate to say gambling has renovated the town, brick and spirit, to what it always was. I never have been a big gambler, but many tourists are gamblers. That has led to the restoration of the once-crumbling Victorian buildings to their former glory, give or take a flashing slot machine light or two.

In the spirit of the Wild West, you may smoke and drink while you gamble. Beer and wine are free while you play, served by costumed Wild West saloon gals.

Apart from the casinos, impulse shopping is excellent if you’re in the market for Black Hills gold or silver; leatherwear and gear (biker or cowboy); or Native American handiwork.

Hill City is more sedate, but also features a historic main street and shops where you can buy anything from fine art to kitsch. It is also the starting point for the steam-powered 1880 train, which runs from Hill City to Keystone and back. The ride through the Black Hills pine forest is an exhilarating experience all by itself.

However, the train also offers special events in conjunction with the nearby Prairie Berry Winery. This establishment only has been in Hill City since 2004, but its wines are unique, and tastings are complimentary. It also offers an impressive gourmet lunch menu, giving even Hill City’s lunch hotspot, The Alpine Inn, a run for its money. When the weather is kind, as it often is in the Black Hills, a glass of wine with an open-faced avocado and hummus sandwich best is enjoyed on Prairie Berry’s partially-shaded patio.

The Black Hills offer so much to see and do that a central location, such as Rapid City, is especially helpful. Hotels are plentiful there, but because you just won’t find a number of attractions published in a guide, a bed-and-breakfast stay is ideal for discovering them.

Eileen Rossow, co-owner of idyllic Peregrine Pointe, explains, “That is the difference between a bed-and-breakfast and a hotel or a motel. [At the latter,] you don’t have the proprietor sit down at breakfast with you, and tell you about things to see and events coming up. You get personal service, and that’s very important.”

Peregrine Pointe is one of the few bed-and-breakfasts in the Black Hills listed with With five bedrooms, a spacious common area, and a sun-drenched patio, guests can enjoy a degree of privacy for the duration of their stay. For more information, visit

It’s often hard for me to leave, because even after 15 years in the Twin Cities, my heart never really left the Black Hills. Despite everything our culture has imposed, it’s still a place of the soul, and when you’re there, you’re home.

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