Only have one day to spend in the Northern Black Hills but want to hit some trails? The area offers some diverse landscapes, and you simply can’t skip Bear Butte or Spearfish Canyon, so this itinerary offers both without terribly long trails that take the whole day.
Bear Butte – 7:30 a.m.
Sacred to Native American tribes of the Northern Plains, “Mato Paha,” or Bear Butte, rises out of the prairie north of Sturgis. It’s not technically part of the Black Hills, nor is it really a butte; Bear Butte is a laccolith, formed millions of years ago by an uprising of magma through the Earth’s crust. Over millions of years, the layers of earth have eroded away, leaving the igneous core. Because it rises out of the plains, it has been a landmark for travelers for thousands of years.
Bear Butte is a spiritual place for Native American tribes, including the Lakota and Cheyenne. So please remember to conduct yourself respectfully on your hike. Neither pets nor alcohol are permitted on the trail. Also, there is a buffalo herd at the base of the mountain; snap your photos from a distance. Buffalo are not good-natured creatures. Also, watch for rattlesnakes (not known for sweet dispositions either).
Starting from the trailhead at the visitor center, you can choose between two trails to start your hike, the Centennial Trail (Bear Butte is the northern terminus of the 111-mile trail) or the Ceremonial Trail. Both trails will take you to the Summit Trail which leads to the top. The hike is 3.75 miles round-trip and takes an average of 2 hours to get to the top. If you’re fast, you can do it in 1.5 hours. Though the mileage is short, it does take time to climb because the elevation gain is a whopping 1,026 feet! Coming down is quick. Make sure to bring plenty of water because you’re going to sweat it out climbing, believe me.
As you hike, you may see people praying or meditating—please do not intrude on their privacy. Also, you’ll notice colorful prayer flags tied to trees; please do not disturb or photograph them. This is a sacred space, so treat it as such. After you hit the Summit Trail, the real climbing begins, but the stupendous views are worth the work. It may be windy at the top, so hang onto your cap. The 4,426 summit has a viewing platform, and you can see four states on a clear day. But don’t tarry too long—you’ve got more hiking to do!
Down the trail and back to the car, it’s time to head to Spearfish. Head back into Sturgis via Highways 79 and 34, and then hit Interstate 90 west. It’s about 27 miles from Bear Butte to Spearfish; take Exit 14 and head west on Colorado Boulevard to US Highway 14A, the Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway. Get ready for some of the most spectacular scenery in South Dakota, but also some slow driving. Drive up the canyon 12.8 miles to Savoy and take Forest Service Road 222, then drive another 2 miles to the Rod & Gun Campground.
Rimrock Trail – 11:30 a.m.
There are two loops on this trail, an Upper and Lower Loop. For the purposes of this piece, I picked the Lower Loop, which is 3.5 miles. The Upper Loop is 4.5 miles, and you can do them together as one large loop (skipping the middle piece) for a 6.5-mile loop. It all depends on how much time you have. The Lower Loop will take about 2.5 hours. Plan 5 to 6 hours to do both loops. This is an easier hike than Bear Butte with only 720 feet of elevation gain on the Lower Loop, but you’re hiking at an elevation of 6,040 feet. This is a beautiful area with stunning limestone cliffs of the canyon and Little Spearfish Creek.
Roughlock Falls – 2:00 p.m.
Bonus hike! On your way up Forest Service Road 222, you will notice the sign for Roughlock Falls Nature Area. After you leave Rod & Gun Campground, swing into the parking area at the nature area. You’ll be glad you did! This level, one-mile trail to the falls is easy and affords you the chance to cool those hot feet in the icy waters of Little Spearfish Creek. Roughlock Falls is an Instagram-worthy stop, plus you can watch for a cute little bird called the American Dipper. It can run under water by grasping stones with its feet—a pretty neat trick! Plan to spend an hour at the falls, though it’s easy to fritter away a whole day there, which is why this is your last stop of the day.
Driving times may vary depending on traffic. The speed limit in Spearfish Canyon is 35 miles per hour. You’ll need a state park permit for Bear Butte as it is part of the South Dakota State Park system; passes are available at the park entrance station. A daily pass is $4 per person or $6 per vehicle.