Frequently Asked Questions
When was the Black Hills National Forest established?
Where does the name Black Hills come from?
How can I purchase maps?
How can I get a campground space?
Can I camp in areas outside developed campgrounds?
What is a "prescribed fire"?
What is a wilderness area?
Do I need a wilderness permit to enter the Black Elk Wilderness?
Where are the best places to see scenery while driving?
Where can I ride OHV's (Off-highway vehicles) in the forest?
I own or am looking at buying land adjacent to the National Forest and may need access. What do I need to do first?
Questions and Answers
When was the Black Hills National Forest established?
On February 22, 1897, President Grover Cleveland established the Black Hills Forest Reserve. This land was protected against fires, wasteful lumbering practices, and timber fraud. In 1905, the Black Hills Forest Reserve was transferred to the Forest Service, an agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Two years later it was renamed the Black Hills National Forest.
Where does the name Black Hills come from?
The name "Black Hills" comes from the Lakota words Paha Sapa, which mean "hills that are black." Seen from a distance, these pine-covered hills, rising several thousand feet above the surrounding prairie, appear black. The Black Hills are in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming, covering an area 125 miles long and 65 miles wide. They encompass rugged rock formations, canyons and gulches, open grassland parks, tumbling streams, deep blue lakes, and unique caves.
3. How can I purchase maps?
Recreation, Wilderness, and other maps are available and may be purchased at any Forest Office, by mail, or at www.blackhillsparks.org. Some sporting goods stores, outfitters, and map stores also sell these maps. United States Geological Survey (USGS) Maps are also good resources.
4. How can I get a campground space?
The Black Hills National Forest has 30 campgrounds with over 682 individual sites, including 3 horse camps. During the summer camping season, campgrounds have garbage service, vault or flush toilets, a table and fire pit, and most have potable water. Showers, electric, sewer and water hook-ups are not available. Fee campgrounds are operated by Forest Recreation Management (FRM) concessionaire and about half have on-site hosts. Daily fees range from $6 to $23. All campgrounds have a 14-consecutive-day stay limit. Fees are charged from about mid-May through October. Reservations are available online or by calling toll-free, 1-877-444-6777. A fee is charged to make and cancel reservations. Reservations are recommended for holiday weekends. The Forest has four low-service campgrounds, none with drinking water, where donations are accepted.
5. Can I camp in areas outside developed campgrounds?
You may camp outside of developed campgrounds in most parts of the Forest, at no cost, for a maximum of 14 days in any 60-day period. Potable water, toilets, and other amenities are not available. If you choose to camp outside developed areas, be sure to bring adequate drinking water or be prepared to purify spring water before drinking it. Water on the Black Hills National Forest may be contaminated with Giardia or other microorganisms. Campfires are not allowed outside of developed campgrounds; gas or fuel-powered (no wood, charcoal briquettes, etc.) fires are allowed unless a special fire restriction order is in effect because of fire danger. You should also obey any road closures that may be in effect. If you plan to camp in the Black Elk Wilderness, you will need to be aware of wilderness regulations.
6. What are "prescribed fires"?
A prescribed fire is any fire intentionally ignited to meet specific land management objectives (i.e., to reduce flammable fuels, such as the accumulation of brush, logs, etc. on forest floors; or to help restore ecosystem health). Prescribed fires are preplanned ignitions with predetermined boundaries. Prescribed fires take place when fuel and weather conditions (i.e., during periods of low wind) are favorable to meet the project objectives and when flame length and heat can be controlled. Burning conditions must meet all required standards to insure public and employee safety during and following such operations. Land managers must obtain approval of prescribed fire plans from applicable federal or state agencies before conducting planned burns. In addition, all applicable requirements under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) must be met on federal lands. Before federal land management activities (i.e., trail building, timber harvesting, use of fire, etc.) are conducted, NEPA requires that the environmental impacts of these activities be analyzed to assess their impacts on cultural resources, wetlands, soil, water quality, air quality, visibility, and other resources. While humans under controlled conditions ignite most prescribed fires, some natural fires are allowed to burn under specific pre-determined conditions to provide a variety of resource benefits consistent with fire's natural role in the ecosystem.
7. What is a wilderness area?
According to the Wilderness Act of 1964, wilderness areas are "where earth and its community of life remains untrammeled, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." Wilderness protection will never be gained simply by issuing a set of rules and regulations. It must come with love and understanding of the land. Wilderness protection is a personal ethic. Some mark is left in wilderness each time we visit, but each of us can make sure this mark is a small one. Minimum impact or no-trace camping should be considered common sense behavior in the backcountry, but many people are not aware of what they leave behind. The Black Hills has the 13,605-acre Black Elk Wilderness, which was established in 1980.
8. Do I need a wilderness permit to enter the Black Elk Wilderness?
Yes, you need to complete a wilderness self-registration form before entering the wilderness. Wilderness self-registration stations are placed at major portals just outside the Black Elk Wilderness, so the Forest Service can gain insight on the types and numbers of wilderness users. These stations will also be used to share wilderness-use regulations with the thousands of annual visitors that use the Black Elk Wilderness, especially those headed up to Harney Peak.
Each wilderness self-registration form asks for key information related to size of party, destination, length of stay, trails used, and dates of use, which are important parts of the monitoring effort. The registration form also asks for the visitor's commitment to abide by the wilderness regulations related to stock use, camping, pets, group size, campfire use, and sanitation.
Within the Black Elk Wilderness, group size is limited to a combination of 25 persons and stock, but group sizes of 10 or less are best. Motorized and mechanized equipment is prohibited, including chainsaws, hang gliders, and any type of wheeled vehicle such as motorbikes, bicycles, baby strollers, or handcarts. Certified weed-free hay is required, as it is throughout the Black Hills National Forest, and stock is not to be restrained within 100 feet of a water source. Due to the high use that occurs around Harney Peak, no camping is allowed within one-quarter mile of the lookout and the Sylvan Lake Trail. Overnight camps should be located at least 100 feet away from streams and other water sources to prevent damage to these sensitive areas.
9. Where are the best places to see scenery while driving?
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway follows Spearfish Creek and US Highway 14A between Spearfish and Cheyenne Crossing for a distance of 20 miles. The byway offers spectacular views of ancient limestone cliffs, pine clad hillsides, aspen-covered slopes, and creek-side spruce. Since the byway follows Spearfish Creek, road grades are gentle. The upper five miles of the route is narrower but is suitable for recreational vehicles and motor homes. The posted speed limit is 35 mph. Elevation ranges from 3,800 feet on the north end to 5,300 feet on the south end, so you can expect a variety of weather and driving conditions. The byway is a popular fall-color drive in late September and early October, so allow plenty of time for the traffic and photo stops.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway near Custer and Hill City consists of two loops totaling 70 miles of great scenery. The byway comprises parts of US Highway 16A and SD Highways 87, 89, and 244. Although the entire byway is paved, much of it is narrow, with a speed limit of 35 mph. There are numerous winding sections and some switchbacks where the speed drops to 10 mph. Shoulders are narrow as well. SD Highway 244 is the widest section of the byway, but the entire route is suitable for motor homes. There are several short tunnels, the narrowest being 10 feet wide. The Norbeck Byway includes the Needles Highway (SD 87) and the Iron Mountain Road (US 16A), which includes three pigtail bridges that circle a full 360 degrees. The route connects Mount Rushmore with Custer State Park and completely encircles the 13,605-acre Black Elk Wilderness.
10. Where can I ride OHV's (Off-highway vehicles) in the forest?
Please see the Motorized Vehicle Use Map webpage.
11. I own or am looking at buying land adjacent to the National Forest and may need access. What do I need to do first?
Before starting you should contact your nearest Forest Service office and ask the Lands Forester questions about your specific situation. General information is available by reviewing "Your Home in the Woods" brochure found on this website.