Why You Should Ride The Black Hills
Here at Wild ATV, we get around. We’ve had the opportunity to visit and explore a lot of beautiful places.
But some places really stand out. Not just for their natural beauty, but for the whole package – wildlife, big nature, awesome off roading, friendly people and charming small towns.
The Black Hills of South Dakota have really won us over. It has a permanent place in our hearts. We know that we’ll come back time and time again. It will be a part of our regular traveling adventures.
ATV Friendly Towns
Almost any town, any campground, any ATV resort in the Black Hills will give you excellent trail access. Also, ATVs can be made street legal in South Dakota, so you can easily get on the trails.
This is one of the most ATV friendly areas we’ve ever seen. ATVs/UTVs are prolific. Almost every house has an ATV parked outside. People drive their ATVs to the grocery store, to grab lunch or run around and do errands.
Dirt roads are everywhere. Basically all you have to do is drive out of any town, hit a dirt road and start exploring. It really is that easy!
If you don’t have your own ride, rentals are easy to find.
Best Time To Plan A Visit
The best season for hitting the Black Hills ATV trails is late Spring – mid July. This is our personal preference. We like it when the hills are green and lush.
Towards the end of July, things start to dry up and it definitely gets a lot browner. It’s still plenty beautiful, but we love the green. Barring an early freak snowstorm like in 2020, the weather is nice for riding into early October.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to ATV the Black Hills, be sure to put it on your bucket list. Just be sure to not visit during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. It’s a bit crazy, expensive and hard to get reservations.
Endless ATV Riding
There are 700 miles of Black Hills ATV trails, but also hundreds of miles of roads open to motorized traffic as well. All told, there are 3,600 miles of roads and trails open to motorized traffic. And, not only are the trails and roads prolific, but they’re also spread throughout the region with easy access.
At about 110 miles long by 70 miles wide, the 1.2 million acre Black Hills make up less than 2.5% of South Dakota. But, it’s the most beautiful part of the state and certainly the most popular part of the state for tourists.
Trails & roads are crazy dusty during dry periods
Things To See And Do In The Black Hills
The region is home to one national park, Wind Cave National Park as well as Custer State Park, Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse Memorial.
Deadwood South Dakota is a small old west town famous for the death of Wild Bill Hickok. The town has done a nice job of preserving it’s history by maintaining the old original buildings on it’s main street. Some of the buildings have been converted to casinos while others have the typical tourist draws – restaurants, bars, tee shirts, fudge and tchotchkes.
Calamity Jane was another famous part time resident of Deadwood. She is buried next to Wild Bill Hickok in the Mount Moriah Cemetery, a popular tourist stop.
If you have the time, be sure to check out the George S. Mickelson Trail. This trail runs 108.8 miles through the idyllic Hills from Deadwood to Edgemont. This is a non-motorized trail open to hiking, biking and horseback riding.
Plenty of vendors rent bikes (and electric bikes!) for the trail. Plus, the Mickelson Trail hosts several events throughout the year including a marathon and two bike rides.
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
By far, the most popular event in the Black Hills is the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. This event typically brings between 400,000-500,000 people to the area, but those numbers are on the rise. Although the event is centered in Sturgis, there are group rides throughout the region and motorcycle riders basically take over.
Not all locals love the rally. Local businesses love it for sure, but for others it’s a bit of a love/hate relationship. Crowds and craziness take over, but it does infuse over 800 million into the South Dakota economy, so it’s an essential part of the economy that would be hard to replace.
Should You Make Your ATV Street Legal?
It’s a fairly small fee and you get a lot of bang for your buck.
If you plan to off road in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a street legal vehicle makes it easy to get around and opens up a lot of travel options. With a street legal vehicle, you can ride on all roads and highways in South Dakota except for the interstate.
With some basic safety equipment such as a horn, lights, mirrors and a windshield/ eye protection, you can license and register your ATV.
In South Dakota, ATVs are registered according to current motorcycle laws, so you pay motorcycle registration fees which are significantly less than cars and trucks.
Registration fees depend on vehicle size as well as the age of the vehicle.
But, even without a street legal vehicle, you can still legally ride on Black Hills ATV trails designated specifically as OHV routes/riding areas.
You can review the street legal law here.
South Dakota ATV Rallys
Custer Off-Road Rally
Custer South Dakota
June 10-12, 2022
Black Hills ATV/UTV Rally
Nemo South Dakota
June 17-18th, 2022
Sturgis Off Road Rally
Sturgis South Dakota
September 8-11, 2022
Black Hills ATV Trails Map
These are the MVUM (motor vehicle use map) for the 4 regions of the Black Hills National Forest.
Black Hills ATV Trails
Custer State Park
- Trail Miles: +/- 20 miles
- Trail Number: Lower French Creek Rd, North Lame Johnny Rd, Oak Draw Rd, Fisherman Flats Rd and Swint Rd
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailheads: Stockade Lake
- Vehicles Allowed: ATV, SxS, motorcycle, full size
- Closest Town: Custer
- Custer State Park Entry Fees:
- 7 Day Pass: $20
- Annual Pass: $36
I love this ride so much that I have to include it here even though it’s not strictly an OHV route.
You will need a street legal OHV for this ride.
For such a big park, Custer doesn’t have a whole lot of roads; there is one main paved loop road, the Wildlife Loop Road. This is the only part of the park that most people ever see. Probably 99% of tourists travel this road and this road only.
They’re not aware that there’s a really cool dirt road network that travels right into the heart of the back country. Buffalo Safari Jeep Tours do take their guests back here, but I’ve never seen it crowded or busy.
This ride consists of Lower French Creek Rd (342), North Lame Johnny Rd (4), Oak Draw Rd (3), Fisherman Flats Rd (2) and Swint Rd (5). You can pop out of the park on the main road or backtrack the way you came – dealers choice.
Travel is on well maintained dirt roads and is very easy going. Roads close seasonally during the winter, but reopen late spring/early summer.
I’ve done this ride many times, but always in an SUV, never on an ATV.
So, I was super jealous and intrigued when I saw both ATVs and side by sides cruising past herds of buffalo as they traversed the rolling green hills. I made a note and put in on my bucket list.
The best time to do this ride is early summer, when the hills are still lush and green. As the summer heat wears on, the hills dry up and get a bit brown. It’s still beautiful country, but when it’s green, it’s truly magical.
Wildlife In Custer State Park
Custer State Park is abundant in wildlife. From busy colonies of prairie dogs to large herds of buffalo, you’re likely to see plenty of wildlife in Custer.
Whitetail and mule deer, antelope, mountain goats, elk, coyotes, burros, bighorn sheep and birds such as hawks, eagles and wild turkeys all make their home in this park.
Custer has a buffalo population of approximately 1,300, so your odds are good that you’ll see some. I’ve seen buffalo every time I’ve been, sometimes on the main loop and sometimes on these back country dirt roads.
Although elk frequent the park, I’ve only seen a small herd once. It was late in the season (maybe Nov/Dec) when they came down from the higher elevation for winter.
A small band of donkeys can be see most days in the summer near the buffalo corrals. They like to stand in the middle of the Wildlife Loop Rd begging for treats from the passing vehicles.
Although the park service usually discourages feeding wild animals, they seem to overlook feeding the donkeys, so it’s quite the tourist draw.
Big Horn Sheep On The Rebound
A good size herd of bighorn sheep also make their home in the park. Currently the herd is about 63+ animals strong which is an amazing rebound from 2004 when the entire herd was almost wiped out.
The park lost 70-80% of 200 bighorns due to mycoplasma ovipneumoiae, a pneumonia-causing bacteria, so this is a strong success story for the bighorns in Custer State Park.
I have about a 65% success rate seeing a good size herd of 15-20 bighorns. They’re always in the same area – near the Game Lodge Campground on the way out of the park. It’s a big park, so they have to be at other locations, but I’ve never seen them anywhere else.
Riley Hill & Merritt System
- Trail Miles: 100+ miles
- Trail Number: Multiple
- Difficulty: Easy
- Riley Hill Trailhead
- Merritt Trailhead
- Vehicles Allowed: ATV, OHV < 62”, motorcycles
- Closest Town: Rochford, Silver City
Riley Hill & Merritt OHV Riding Areas are two separate riding areas that are right next to each other. You can ride from one section to the other and even onto the Pilot Knob ATV trails.
This is a major trail network. Merritt has 41 trail miles for OHVs and motorcycles. The US Forest Service doesn’t provide trail miles for Riley Hill or Pilot Knob, but there are easily 100+ miles of Black Hills ATV trails in this area.
Most of the trails in the Riley Hill/Merritt OHV riding areas are easy, but some have gravel and small rocks, so you may get bounced around.
Enjoy a beautiful ride in the heavily forested rolling green hills north of Silver City and Pactola Reservoir. You’ll mostly be riding in the woods, but there some open areas where you can catch a view of the surrounding hills.
Ride Like A Local
No ATV trip to this area is complete without a stop in Rochford.
It’s hard to explain, but Rochford is a back-road mecca for off roaders and motorcycle riders.
It’s an inhabited ghost town and a throwback to South Dakota’s mining history. Honestly there’s not much here, but it’s perfectly located for off roaders and a great place to take a break.
You’ll see plenty of SxS and ATVs parked along the road with riders relaxing on the porch of the historic Moonshine Gulch Saloon.
So, head to Rochford to grab an ice cream or a cold beer with a burger at the saloon.
Motorcycle Only Trails
Merritt and Pilot Knob have an extensive network of motorcycle only dedicated trails. Also, just south east of Pilot Knob, motorcycle riders can tap into the Schroeder/Shanks OHV riding area which has additional motorcycle only trails.
Riley Hill has only one motorcycle trail, but motorcycles can ride on the <62” trails, so dirt bike riders can also enjoy dozens of miles of OHV trails.
While the <62” trails are easy, the motorcycle only trails may be a bit more challenging.
Roubaix Lake/Custer Peak Fire Tower
- Trail Miles: 7 miles (one way)
- Trail Number: 256.1 A, 8551 (< 62”) or 256.1 E (full size), 688.1, 216.3A
- Difficulty: Easy
- Trailheads: Roubaix Lake Campground
- Vehicles Allowed: ATV, OHV, motorcycles, full size
- Closest Town: Brownsville
Custer Peak is one of the most popular ATV trails in the Black Hills.
Not only is it popular, but it’s also right up the road from Mystic Hill Hideaway, a large busy campground and ATV resort, so expect company.
It’s possible to do Custer Peak on it’s own as a short sweet ride, but doing it from Roubaix Lake adds some mileage and makes for an quick easy family friendly ride.
This Custer Peak drive is very short, but an additional 100+ miles of ATV trails can be accessed from Roubaix Lake, so it’s an excellent base for an ATV camping vacation.
This region is home to several large interconnected off road trail systems that includes Riley Hill, Merritt, Boxelder and Pilot Knob.
Roubaix Lake has a nice little swim beach which is also great for kids or even adults who want to shake the dust and cool down. There is camping at the lake. No hook ups are available, but the sites can accommodate big rigs.
This route is on a well maintained forest service dirt road open to all vehicles. It’s smooth going until you get to the grade leading up to the lookout. At this point, the going is still easy, but there’s a lot more gravel and small rocks.
On the top, there is a good size parking area where you continue on foot to the lookout. From the parking lot it’s a short, but steep 4 minute hike to the lookout.
If your vehicle is street legal you can make this trip into a loop with roads east of Hwy 385. If your vehicle is not street legal, it’s an out and back.
This stone fire lookout was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1941 to replace older less structurally sound wood towers. In 1990, it was put on the National Historic Lookout Register for it’s cultural and historic importance.
Centennial Trail – Nemo SD
- Trail Miles: 13.7 miles
- Trail Number: 8089
- Difficulty: Moderate
- Dalton Lake Trailhead
- Pilot Knob Trailhead
- Vehicles Allowed: OHV < 62”
- Closest Town: Nemo
This ride is part of the South Boxelder/Nemo riding area. This region has some of the best ATVing in the Hills, so it makes a great base for a riding vacation.
Nemo is also home to the Black Hills ATV/UTV Rally.
It’s a beautiful area with dozens of miles of OHV trails. Interconnected large and small loops allow riders to customize a route.
The 111 mile long Centennial Trail is an amazing trail that passes through the Black Hills. This trail is primarily for non motorized use including hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking, but the section from Dalton Lake to Pilot Knob is open to motorized use.
Although this trail is not particularly difficult, it is narrow in parts with some small rocky bits to navigate. Most experienced driver’s will find it easy, but the rocky portions call for an overall moderate rating.
There is one short difficult technical section from the junction of 8251 to the junction of 8252, but you can bypass this section on 8089 B.
Like most of the hills, this trail is heavily wooded, but there are several clearings at the top with sweeping views of the surrounding hills. One section takes you along a steep rock wall with some interesting rock outcroppings that help mix up the scenery a bit.
This motorized trail is #8089 and has two access points, one at Dalton Lake to the north and Pilot Knob Trailhead to the south. Camping is available at Dalton Lake.
Video Of ATVing The Centennial Trail
Video Of The Difficult Section
Trail Miles: +/- 3 miles
Trail Number: 8276
Trailheads: Nemo Rd/Vanocker Canyon Rd or Nemo Rd/FS 144.11
Vehicles Allowed: OHV < 62”
Closest Town: Nemo
This trail can be done as an add on to the Centennial Trail
This fun short trail is one of the most popular rides out of Nemo.
It starts easy, but gets very rocky as it ascends to the top. Nothing technical, just a lot of rocks. (view the video to judge for yourself)
Not only do you get a patriotic picture opportunity, but it’s a lovely overlook with views of the forested hills and Nemo.
Martin ATV Trail System
- Trail Miles: 52 miles
- Trail Number: Multiple
- Difficulty: Easy
- Bluebird Trailhead
- Richardson Trailhead
- Hawkwright Trailhead
- Vehicles Allowed: OHV < 62”
- Closest Town: Pringle
One of the best things about the Martin ATV Trails is that they’re off the beaten path, so it’s not as busy as the northern part of the Hills.
The Hills from Deadwood all the way to Custer get quite a bit of tourist traffic, but these trails are south west of Custer, so not too many people other than locals make their way here.
Personally, I really enjoy the Custer (the town) area. It’s definitely a different look and feel from the narrow canyons up north. The scenery opens up a bit with rocky hills and interesting rock formations.
Comprised of 52 miles of multiple large and small loops, it’s perfect for an all day ride. Plus, three trailheads make access easy.
And, like all the OHV trails in the Hills, there are also literally endless Forest Service dirt roads open to licensed motorized vehicles.
The trails are easy on well maintained hard pack dirt and gravel. Forested travel through rolling hills with occasional lovely views of of surrounding hills and mesas.
- A Black Hills Motorized Trail Permit is required to ride on the SD motorized trail system and when riding an unlicensed OHV on a forest road designated “open to all vehicles.” Cost is $20 for a 7 day pass and $25 for an annual pass.
- A licensed street legal vehicle OHV, insurance, driver’s license and age 14+ are all required to ride on roads
- There are no license or age requirements on OHV designated trails
- Buy a permit online at BlackHillsBadlands.com/permits or any of the Forest Service offices
- South Dakota allows for street legal ATVs
- Weekends/holidays can be busy and hotels sell out
- Prices and crowds are through the roof during the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
- In South Dakota, state motorcycle law governs ATVs and UTVs.
Roads vs Trails Signage
Roads are generally numbered with three digits followed by a point and another number or letter.
Black Hills ATV trails have “TR” on the top and are numbered with four digits The first digit generally indicates the district the trail is administered by:
- 1 = Bearlodge
- 3 = Hell Canyon
- 6 = Mystic
- 8 = Northern Hills
Keep in mind that trails can start on one District and end in another.