If you’ve ever been told to “take a hike,” you might have responded defensively. Or, if you’re like us, you’ve simply laced up your hiking boots and hit the trail! But which trail? The Black Hills are full of possibilities, from short and sweet (Legion Lake, Rankin Ridge) to not-for-the-faint-of-heart (Black Elk Peak, Bison Flats). Ultimately, the hike you tackle will depend on your skill level and fitness ability.
Guidebooks are great resources, but the fine print can be misleading. To help you out on your hiking adventures, we’ve created a travelogue that incorporates key points of interest and a few insider’s tips. We’ve even included video highlights to help you determine whether the trail is one you’d like to conquer on your own, or simply enjoy from a more intrepid trekker’s Instagram feed.
Our first hike is right here in our own backyard – the Skyline Wilderness Trail.
Located just a few miles from downtown Rapid City, the Skyline Wilderness Trail was established as part of the “Trails for Everyone” project in 2014. Prior to that, the informal trail system was a little-known gem that attracted few hikers or mountain bikers. It parallels Skyline Drive atop the Dakota Hogback Ridge that divides Rapid City’s east and west sides and is part of the Skyline Wilderness Area, 150 acres of pristine forests and meadows donated to the city with the stipulation that it remains in its undeveloped natural state. Lucky for us! With prime views of both sides of Rapid City and easy access to the ever-popular Dinosaur Park, this hike should top the list of must-see local outdoor attractions.
The Skyline Wilderness Trail offers plenty of options for hikers of all skill levels; there are six different trailheads that allow you to mix-and-match to your heart’s content. Roundtrip distances range from 3 to 6 miles and there’s a maximum 891′ elevation gain.
PROS: Nice variety of trails; stunning views; crowds are sparse; close-in location is ideal for a quick lunchtime or after-work getaway.
CONS: Trails are narrow and can be muddy during the wet season; steep drop-offs in a few spots; signage can be confusing.
Insider’s tip: In the springtime, pasqueflowers are abundant. Start from the Petrified Forest Trailhead and work your way down to the Amphitheater for the best wildflower-spotting opportunities.
The Wow Factor
In addition to Dinosaur Park, a family-friendly attraction popular with locals and tourists since 1936, there are several areas of historical significance along the Skyline Wilderness Trail. The Stonewall Overlook is a beautifully-preserved stone wall that offers excellent views of the Black Hills. It’s a great place to park your car, and one of the trailheads is located here. The Amphitheater is a bit misleading as the structure, a WPA project in the 1930s, was never actually built, but if you look carefully you can see terraced notches carved into the hillside that would have served as seats. This bowl-shaped depression provides spectacular views of Rapid City and the prairie to the east. You might also be confused over the Petrified Forest Trailhead – namely, the lack of an actual petrified forest. A log-shaped structure once existed on the site, but burned down in 1965. There are still a few petrified logs and an impressive view of downtown, so it’s worth a stop (or a start if you want to kick off your hike here). Finally, there’s the infamous Hangman’s Tree, located just beyond the towering green dinosaur sculptures in Dinosaur Park. It’s nothing more than a gnarled trunk that is gated off and entombed in concrete, but legend has it the tree meted out frontier justice to three suspected horse thieves who were hung from its branches in 1877. Whether this is urban myth or actual fact is debatable, but Dinosaur Park’s original name was Hangman’s Hill and lynchings did take place in the vicinity. There are even tales of a ghostly cowboy and eerie sounds resembling a galloping horse, lending an ominous and solemn air to this part of Skyline Drive – at least after dark.
Odds & Ends
Before hiking the Skyline Wilderness Trail, keep the following in mind:
- Dogs are allowed, but must be kept on leashes.
- The trail is open to hikers and mountain bikers. Motorized vehicles and horses are prohibited.
- Sections of the trail bisect or run adjacent to private property. Be courteous and avoid trespassing.
- Stay on marked trails in order to prevent damage to native vegetation and soil.
- Cyclists must yield to hikers and downhill users should yield to uphill users.
Don’t forget these essentials: Sunscreen, mosquito repellent, and water!