Black Hills

The Black Hills of South Dakota area, covered by majestic pine, with a rich cultural heritage.

Custer City, South Dakota


The Black Hills area, covered by majestic pine, has a rich cultural heritage. Tribes such as the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Dakota and Lakota, have always considered these hills as sacred.  Paha Sapah Exploration of the Black Hills trappers began in the 1840s. In 1868, a peace treaty was signed recognizing that the Black Hills belonged to the Sioux in perpetuity.  But in 1874, General George A. Custer led his 7th Cavalry into the hills for exploration, and discovered gold, which created a gold rush into the hills.  Custer's historic campsite is located just east of Custer.  At the time of first European contact, Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara, and Sioux lived in the area. The French Verendrye brothers explored the region, 1742-43.         The U.S. acquired the area, 1803, in the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis and Clark passed through the area, 1804-6. In 1817 a trading post was opened at Fort Pierre, which later became the site of the first European settlement in South Dakota. Gold was discovered, 1874, in the Black Hills on the great Sioux reservation; the Great Dakota Boom began in 1879. Conflicts with Native Americans led to the Great Sioux Agreement, 1889, which established reservations and opened up more land for white settlement. The massacre of Native American families at Wounded Knee, 1890, ended Sioux resistance.

Tourist attractions
Mt. Rushmore
Needles Highway
Harney Peak, tallest E. of Rockies
Deadwood, 1876 Gold Rush town
Custer State Park 
Jewel Cave Natl Monument

Badlands Natl. Park 
Wind Cave Natl. Park
Crazy Horse Memorial, mountain carving in progress.

Famous South Dakotans. 
Sparky Anderson, Black Elk, Bob Barker, Tom Brokaw, Crazy Horse, Thomas Daschle, Myron Floren, Mary Hart, Cheryl Ladd, Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence, George McGovern, Billy Mills, Allen Neuharth, Pat O'Brien, Sitting Bull.

Today, the major city in the Black Hills is Rapid City, with an incorporated population of over 70,000 and a metropolitan population of 125,000. It serves a market area covering much of five states: North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana. In addition to tourism and mining (including coal, specialty minerals, and the now declining gold mining), the Black Hills economy includes ranching (sheep and cattle, primarily, with buffalo becoming more common), timber (lumber), Ellsworth Air Force Base, and some manufacturing, including jewelry (Black Hills Gold Jewelry), cement, electronics, cabinetry, guns and ammunition. In many ways, the Black Hills functions as a very spread-out urban area with a population (not counting tourists) of 250,000. Other important Black Hills cities include Belle Fourche, a ranching town; Spearfish, home of Black Hills State University; Deadwood, a historic and well-preserved gambling mecca; its twin city of Lead, home of the now-closed Homestake Mine (gold); Keystone, outside Mount Rushmore; Hill City, a timber and tourism town in the center of the Hills; Custer, a mining and tourism town and headquarters for Black Hills National Forest; Hot Springs, an old resort town in the southern Hills; Sturgis, originally a military town (Fort Meade, now a VA center, is located just to the east); and Newcastle, center of the Black Hills petroleum production and refining.

The region is home to Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, Harney Peak (the highest point east of the Rockies), Custer State Park (the largest state park in South Dakota, and one of the largest in the US), Bear Butte State Park, Devils Tower National Monument, and the Crazy Horse Memorial (the largest sculpture in the world). The Black Hills also hosts the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally each August. Started in 1940, the 65th Rally in 2005 saw more than 550,000 bikers visit the Black Hills; the rally is a key part of the regional economy. Motorcycle riders are also attracted to the Black Hills simply for the many miles of awe-inspiring scenery.

The George S. Mickelson Trail is a recently opened multi-use path through the Black Hills. It follows the abandoned track of the historic railroad route from Edgemont to Deadwood. The train used to be the only way to bring supplies to the miners in the Hills. The trail is about 110 miles in length, and can be used by hikers, cross-country skiers, and bikers. The cost is two dollars per day, or ten dollars annually.

American Indians have inhabited the area since at least 7000 BC. The Arikara arrived by 1500 AD, followed by the Cheyenne, Crow, Kiowa and Pawnee. The Lakota arrived from Minnesota in the eighteenth century and drove out the other tribes, claiming the land, which they called HeSapa, Black Mountains, for themselves. Early settlers found the less guttural Paha Sapa, Black Hills or Bluff, easier to pronounce, and so reduced the mountains to hills.

After the public discovery of gold in the 1870s, the conflict over control of the region sparked the last major Indian War on the Great Plains, the Black Hills War. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had previously confirmed the Lakota (Teton Sioux) ownership of the mountain range. The Sioux and Cheyenne claimed rights to the land saying that in their culture it was considered the axis mundi, or sacred center of the world.

Although rumors of gold in the Black Hills had circulated in North America for decades (See Thoen Stone and Pierre-Jean De Smet), Brevet Major General George Armstrong Custer of the 7th US Cavalry led an expedition into the Black Hills in 1874 and discovered gold inFrench Creek in the Southern Black Hills. An official announcement of the presence of gold was made through newspaper reporters who accompanied the expedition. The following year, the first detailed survey of the Black Hills was conducted by the Newton-Jenney Party. The surveyor for the party, Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy, was the first white person to ascend to the top of Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills, reaching 7242 feet above sea level.

During the 1875–1878 gold rush, thousands of miners went to the Black Hills; in 1880, the area was the most densely populated part of Dakota Territory. There were three large towns in the Northern Hills: Deadwood, Central City, and Lead. Around these lay groups of smaller gold camps, towns, and villages. Hill City and Custer City sprang up in the Southern Hills, and railroads were already reaching the previously remote area. From 1880 on, the gold mines yielded about $4,000,000 annually, and the silver mines about $3,000,000 annually.

Following the defeat of the Lakota and their Cheyenne and Arapaho allies in 1876, the United States took control of the region from the Lakota in violation of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. The Lakota never accepted the validity of this purchase, and the area remains under dispute to this day.

On July 23, 1980, in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that the Black Hills were illegally taken and that remuneration of the initial offering price plus interest — nearly $106 million — be paid. The Lakota refused the settlement, as they wanted the return of the Black Hills instead. The money remains in an interest-bearing account which now amounts to over $757 million, but the Lakota still refuse to take the money on principle that doing so would validate the theft of their most sacred land.

Scenic roads in the Black Hills

  • Spearfish Canyon (US 14A) between Cheyenne Crossing, South Dakota and Spearfish, South Dakota
  • Gutzon Borglam Highway (SD 244) between US 16-US 385 and Mount Rushmore National Memorial, also known as a portion of the Forest Highway.
  • Rimrock Highway (SD 44)between Rapid City, South Dakota and Pactola Lake.
  • Nemo Road (various county numbers) between Rapid City, Nemo, South Dakota and Brownsville, South Dakota.
  • Iron Mountain Highway (US 16A) between the east edge of Custer State Park and Mount Rushmore.
  • Sylvan Lake Road (SD 87-89) also known in part as the Needles Highway, northeast of Custer, South Dakota.
  • Wildlife Loop, located in eastern and southern Custer State Park.
  • Skyline Drive, located in Rapid City.
  • Hearst Highway, portions of US 385 in the central Black Hills, connecting Custer, Hill City, Three Forks and Lead-Deadwood.
  • Sheridan Lake Road or Drive, connecting Rapid City with Sheridan Lake.
  • Boulder Canyon Highway, US 14A, connecting Sturgis, South Dakota and Deadwood, South Dakota.
  • Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway composed of portions of U.S. Route 16A, South Dakota Highway 244, South Dakota Highway 87, and South Dakota Highway 89.