With autumn just a few days away, it’s time to prepare for the change in seasons. For some this means breaking out the cold weather gear (scarves, gloves, and blankets), while others gravitate toward hearty stews and pumpkin-flavored everything. One of the most popular pastimes is hopping in the car for a scenic fall foliage tour. South Dakota might not have the vibrant explosion of colors found in the Northeast, but there is plenty of beauty to behold in the Black Hills. Stands of birch, aspen, oak, and ash provide a stunning palette of gold, crimson, and orange, complemented by deeper hues from shrubs like chokecherry, dogwood, and service berry. The colors really pop against the ponderosa pines that grow abundantly throughout the hills. Peak fall colors usually occur during the first week of October but are dependent upon seasonal weather conditions.
Your exact route depends on where you start from and how long you plan to be out and about. Be sure to hit as many of the locations below as you can for a perfect day of leaf-peeping in the Black Hills!
Spearfish Canyon Scenic Byway
The 22-mile drive along Route 14A, winding through Spearfish Canyon, is hands down the most popular spot for fall foliage in the Black Hills. Locals flock here beginning in mid-September to marvel over the colorful aspen, birch, and box elder as they paint the landscape in dramatic shades of yellow and orange. The rugged limestone cliffs and famed waterfalls only add to the natural beauty. A local resident keeps a canyon color log updated regularly to let you know when the colors are at their peak.
Peter Norbeck Scenic Byway
This 70-mile stretch of road, with its famous pigtail bridges and tunnels carved through granite, encompasses Iron Mountain Road, Needles Highway, and Wildlife Loop Road in Custer State Park. The scenery is exceptional year-round; while the fall colors aren’t as dominant as they are in Spearfish Canyon, you’ll still find splashes of yellow, orange, and red in the forested landscape. In addition, you’ll be rewarded with views of Mount Rushmore and the Cathedral Spires, are are likely to spot bison, antelope, burros, and other wildlife along the way. Look for mountain goats in the vicinity of the Needles.
Less crowded than many of the region’s other popular drives, Forest Service Road 26 through Vanocker Canyon does not disappoint. Make the winding, 17-mile drive from Sturgis to Nemo (or vice-versa) and you’ll be rewarded with a colorful show put on by aspen and birch trees. This route is especially popular with motorcyclists.
Black Hills Parkway
Route 385, known as the Black Hills Parkway, is a 59-mile stretch connecting Custer and Deadwood, and is the longest road through the Black Hills. In addition to vibrant fall colors, Sheridan Lake and Pactola Reservoir are scenic spots to stop and stretch your legs. There are plenty of great places to grab a bite to eat or do a little shopping, as well.
Looking for a few other things to do while you’re out and about? Here are some suggestions!
- Take a hike. For a more up close and personal fall foliage experience, go for a short hike. It’s a great way to break up the monotony of being cooped up in a car all day. Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires in Custer State Park, and Roughlock Falls in Spearfish Canyon, are fairly short treks that offer great scenery.
- Visit a monument. If you haven’t been to Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse in a while, take advantage of the opportunity to visit during the offseason. Crowds will be lighter and you can take your time admiring these impressive mountain carvings.
- Tour a cave. Both Wind Cave National Park and Jewel Cave National Monument offer cave tours suitable for all ages and skill levels. If the weather is blustery, the subterranean tunnels might feel refreshingly warm in comparison!
- Cast a line. Bring along your rod and reel and try your luck fishing one of the many lakes and streams you’ll encounter on your drive. Fall is a great time to fish for trout, walleye, perch and crappie.
- Go wine tasting. The 50-mile Black Hills Wine Trail connects wineries in Hill City and Custer with tasting rooms in Deadwood. A glass of crisp chardonnay or hearty merlot are a great way to take the edge off the chill in the air. If you prefer beer, there are plenty of local craft breweries in which you can grab a pint or try a flight.