BLACK HILLS, S.D. (KELO) — There are hundreds of miles of roadway within the Black Hills, nearly all of it scenic. Some have the privilege to live in or around the Hills, heading out on afternoons and weekends to explore to their heart’s content. But many others travel to the area for just a short period of time. If you’re looking to hit the roads, here are the ones you should drive.
Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway
Admittedly, this is a bit of an overstatement, as the Peter Norbeck National Scenic Byway (PNNSB) is nearly 70 miles long, encompassing many other individual scenic drives.
According to Stephen Keegan, a Forest Landscape Architect with the Black Hills National Forest whose brain we picked to come up with these various routes, the PNNSB is special.
“The interesting thing about the Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway — it is one of the few byways in the country that was built purely to showcase the scenery of the landscape,” Keegan said.
That landscape is absolutely packed with scenery. Tunnels; Mt. Rushmore; Crazy Horse; lakes; overlooks; Custer State Park; The Needles — all this and more lies along the byway. The downside is that with such a long route and so many things to see, do and experience — you may not have time to do it all…
Thankfully, Keegan had some suggestions.
Suggested Peter Norbeck Loop
With kid-friendly stops!
Due to the aforementioned length of the byway, you might not have the time to see the entire thing.
Here’s how to maximize your time.
“Where are you starting from, and how much time do you have,” Keegan prompted.
If you’re coming out of Rapid City, Keegan noted, your best bet is to head south toward Keystone. “Continue on 16A and go with what they call Iron Mountain Road,” he said. “If you do go in that direction, just make sure that you take the time, once you go through a tunnel, to stop and then turn around and look back, because Mt. Rushmore will be framed in the tunnels.”
This section of the byway will take you from Keystone, up through the pigtails — a stretch of looping bridges — and past a number of scenic overlooks.
Leaving Iron Mountain Road, you’ll next turn west and enter into Custer State Park. You’ll continue west through the park until you reach SD-87; the start of The Needles Highway.
Taking this route will lead you to bypass a handful of sights and attractions, such as Legion and Stockade Lakes, the town of Custer and Crazy Horse Monument.
The Needles, however, which bisect the larger loop of the PNNSB, cannot be missed.
Traveling the Needles Highway will take you past a series of overlooks, towering spires of rock, the Needles Eye tunnel and will finally dump out out at the scenic Sylvan Lake.
From here you’ll continue on SD-87 winding north through the Hood Tunnel and down a series of switchbacks with views of a distant Black Elk Peak.
Reaching the end of the Needles Highway at US-16, you’ll have a choice. You can head north into Hill City for shopping, dining and more before winding your way back to Rapid City, or you can jump right back onto SD-244 which will wind its way back east to Keystone, passing by Mt. Rushmore.
This latter route will also take you past two kid-friendly spots highlighted by Keegan.
“Just outside of Mt. Rushmore — on the west side — there’s Wrinkled Rock Climbing Area,” Keegan explained. “There’s a trailhead bulletin board. Once you park, go back to that bulletin board, and the old original highway is right there. You walk that toward Mt. Rushmore, and there’s large pillars, columns of large rocks towering over you.”
The next spot is just a bit farther down the road to the west; Breezy Point Picnic Area.
“This one is particular has concrete walkways and all,” Keegan said. “What’s really cool about this one is there’s two short trails — I mean like 100-yards — and they kinda curl up the hill and when you get to the top, there’s this panorama of the wilderness.”
From this point, Keegan says you can see all the way to Black Elk Peak in the distance. There is one warning to accompany this stop however.
“You want to go there early in the morning. I wouldn’t say any later than 9 o’clock or so,” Keegan declared. This is due to the dust that will rise into the air once cars start pouring through the forest, creating a haze in the sky that will dampen the views from the picnic area.
Hill City Loop
This is a smaller but much more off-the-beaten-path route out of Hill City. Warning: portions of this route include gravel roads.
This route will begin and end in Hill City, though it offers plenty of opportunities to branch off to other places.
Begin by taking Deerfield Road northwest out of Hill City. Reaching the junction with Mystic Road, keep left and stay of Deerfield Road.
This route will take you through winding wilderness and by Deerfield Lake. From here you’ll head north, winding through Reynolds Prairie.
“Here you are in Hill City, and you’re going over rolling hills, then you see Deerfield Reservoir and then turn north and go through Reynolds Prairie, a huge large natural native prairie,” said Keegan.
Terrain gets steeper again once you head north from the prairie toward Rochford before looping back east, following along the Mickelson Trail, down through Mystic and back into Hill City.
One additional detour Keegan mentioned is a trip up Flag Mountain.
To get here you’ll hop off of S. Rochford Road onto Flag Mountain Road and follow it west. Do not take the first right turn off onto Flag Mountain Lookout Road. Instead, you’ll continue on past it about half a mile to the second right turn onto a forest service road which will wind its way up the mountain to the overlook.
North to South Routes
If you’re in an area of the northern Hills, such as Sturgis or Deadwood, you can easily type in a destination of Keystone or Hill City and get an easy, quick direct route down on I-90 or US-385. But if you want to take a bit more of a backroad route, here are some suggestions.
The first of our routes begins in Deadwood and will take you south to Custer and even to Hot Springs.
Head west out of Deadwood, through Lead on the CanAm Highway. Turn off as you near Terry Peak, heading south onto N. Rochford Road.
“That’s still a paved road, and it’s not going to see the traffic of 385,” said Keegan.
This route will feel similar to the Hill City loop, as you’ll take this road south to Rochford before following along east through Mystic and down into Hill City. You’ll head South out of Hill City on US-16 and will get a chance to pick up where we left off on the PNNSB. Instead of heading east to Rushmore or southeast along the Needles Highway (which may take some willpower) you’ll continue on south.
This will take you past Crazy Horse and down into Custer. If you’ve a mind to, you can then continue on south to Pringle and eventually Hot Springs.
Route number two will take you south from Sturgis on one of my personal favorite routes toward either Rapid City or Hill City/Keystone.
You’ll start by heading south out of Sturgis on Junction Ave. onto Vanocker Canyon Road.
“Vanocker Canyon is gorgeous, particularly in the fall,” Keegan said. “It’s a beautiful route that curves around, gives you views of distant hillsides as well as open meadows.”
Vanocker Canyon will take you south toward the village of Nemo, but before that, Keegan noted one turn off opportunity. “Turn off and go down the gravel road to get to Dalton Lake to fish or have lunch,” he said.
“Once you get to Nemo, you’re on Nemo Road heading south,” Keegan continued. “It’s a two lane road and you get some views of distant rock forms.” One stop in particular he mentioned was Steamboat Rock, a recreation and picnic area just south of Nemo.
Just across the road from Steamboat Rock is a formation tucked into the woods called Rock Maze, in intriguing little rock ridge with deep cracks and gaps between the rocks.
Eventually, Nemo Road will turn into Canyon Road, which will take you east into Rapid City.
Alternatively, you can hop off Nemo road, going south onto Norris Peak Road to Rimrock, where you’ll go west on SD-44 to reconnect with US-385, which can take you south to Hill City or Keystone, passing by the Pactola Reservoir and Sheridan Lake on the way.
Spearfish Area Loops
If you’ve spent any time in the northern Black Hills, you’ll have at least heard of Spearfish Canyon.
It is absolutely worth driving up the canyon from Spearfish and then turning right around to drive back down, with beautiful views of waterfalls and plunging cliffs all around.
However, if you’d like to branch out, there are two options we’d recommend.
The first is a rather basic loop, heading up the canyon, winding your way through until you reach Cheyenne Crossing and the CanAm Highway. From here you can turn east, driving up into Lead, through Deadwood and then heading back north to drive along I-90 back to Spearfish.
For a bit more of an out-of-the-way trip, Keegan suggests dipping out of the canyon a little early. This will also be a gravel route.
“Turn off at Savoy and go up [Roughlock Falls Road], Keegan advised. After winding up the road, you’ll be able to swing south on forest road 223. Hang a right onto Timber Gulch Road, and then a left onto forest road 734.
After following along that, you’ll swing north onto Tinton Road, which will take you up past Old Baldy Trailhead and Iron Creek Lake. Branching off west from Tinton Road at Big Hill Trailhead will take you over to Higgins Gulch Road, up past Crow Peak. Following this road will eventually take you all the way back into Spearfish from the west.
Safe travels everyone!