The Best Camping in Black Hills National Forest

Granite cliffs hang like hard hats from the velvet green forests that pour over the mountains and lean in on the small towns that make up this southwestern most corner of South Dakota. From Mount Rushmore to Crazy Horse, biker gangs to buffalo, there is so much to explore in the Black Hills.

Many a westbound traveler has gone hands-off-the-wheel straight as they leave the populated Eastern United States to traverse our Great Plains and the relatively, flat, straight roads with far and few between, only to see signs for the Black Hills and — curiosity piqued –venture into what may be the nation’s most enjoyable national forest experience.

Were it not for the multitude of small communities and privately owned land that populate the interior of the forest itself, this entire region may well have earned national park status, but the mix of state land, main street and national forest (and park!) go together like chili and a bowl, and provide the buffet of options for the most minimalist tent campers to those of us who just want to plug in and chill out.

National Forest Campgrounds in Black Hills National Forest

One would find themselves forgiven at any ultralight backpack convention if they didn’t realize that there was more to the national forest than the woodlands themselves, but we’d be utterly remiss not to mention, first and foremost, that camping in the national forest can certainly happen under the rugged escarpments of these ponderosa pine and spruce laden cliffs are under US Forest Service control.

If you’ve come to the forest for absolute serenity, many of these campgrounds will leave you absolutely WiFi–and at certain times of the year, monetarily–free, while others will still eek out a bar or two, such as Bismarck Lake and Oreville Campground for those of us who need to at least pretend like we’re checking our email as the ospreys and falcons that live in the area put on displays of relax-your-days-away and let the wildlife do the working.

State Park Camping in Black Hills National Forest

If hookups, bathrooms and things like picnic tables and big ol’ rocks to jump off of are more of your idea of camping, a handful of spectacular state parks and state recreation areas in and around the Black Hills are well-stocked with campgrounds of all shapes and sizes.

Should you find your meander tends to mosey more through the northern end of the Black Hills, where Deadwood plays time machine to a cowboy casino fantasy world and Sturgis hosts motorcycle enthusiasts by the hundreds of thousands every year, Bear Butte State Park is affordable, has cell service, and–though no hookups–offers a vault toilet and a few other little amenities that can make all the difference when dodging crowds but not necessarily wanting to get lost in the wilderness.

Near Hot Springs, SD, places like Sheps Canyon Recreation Area provide a possible alternative from the crowds that summer naturally draws to the area, or stick close to the springs and still score a reservoir-front site at Angostura Recreation Area.

Above all else though, Custer State Park reigns supreme as far as sheer number of campgrounds and options. Sylvan Lake boasts large rock formations that form a playground of an island in the middle of a pristine piece of water with a coming of age story where Crazy Horse–the famed Native American who’s own likeness is being resurrected Mt. Rushmore-style in the Black Hills at this very moment–accompanies his father on vision quest.

This and more, such as the routes in and out of the various places to camp along the Needles Highway, the immaculate condition and natural appearance of the lands, and the centrality the state park system gives you to just about anywhere you’d like to be in the Black Hills, makes them a great choice for a basecamp or starting point to explore more.

The Best RV Park Camping in the Black Hills

There are absolutely no shortage of private RV parks in the Black Hills, and when you want a place that has it all, your biggest problem might be narrowing down the choices.

When it comes to the region in general, the best of the best continue to shine through by keeping the experience naturally rustic, stocked with little amenities like WiFi and laundry, but still keep you in the middle of all of the action.

While it’s not tough to make your way around the entire Black Hills region via day trips, knowing what corner of the national forest you’ll want to explore the most will give you an idea of where to start looking.

The Hot Springs KOA tends to win out in the Hot Springs corner of the forest, with a more or less tried and true experience we’ve come to expect from the national chain.

For Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, those RV parks in and around Custer, South Dakota will put you within a 20 minute drive of the Wildlife Loop, the caves themselves, and arguably the best experience the national forest has to offer. Custer itself is a cute little village and French Creek RV Camp is your best best if you want to be able to walk to town. Otherwise,

For a “bigger city” experience, Rapid City will have more conveniences but will put you a little farther away from the action. The southwestern route from the city into the Black Hills will minimize your commute time from the closest big box stores and all of the natural joys just to your west, and several are stocked with amenities and quite well-received.

Spearfish can be that perfect middle ground for those who have no idea where to begin. Nearby historic Deadwood, hog heaven Sturgis and blending plenty of stores and a not-terribly-far drive into the national forest into one sunshiny day of an experience in the Black Hills makes this a great basecamp.

Finally, if you’re just dying for a small town full of big history, Hill City is a little bit of everything. You’ll find bikers on the front deck of a main street bar as the local band pits their classic rock against the highway running through town; young hikers finding that perfect piece of gear for their next overnight journey; determined dads plotting family activities that will once-and-for-all end the screen time they’ve planned their vacations to break and locals trying to keep up with the madness all the while. The town also lives more or less right in the heart of the entire Black Hills National Forest, making it the easiest way to see as much of the park as possible without committing to every-day-long drives.

The Black Hills are easily one of the most enjoyable places–certainly east of the Rockies–to find a ton to do in a relatively small patch of America. You can dine big or fish bigger, relax in a spa or a hammock, and easily spend an entire summer here leaving no stone unturned (just remember to turn it back once you’re done!)