Northern Black Hills of South Dakota

Northern Black Hills of South Dakota

Spearfish, Lead, Deadwood & Sturgis

Spearfish

On our trip of the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota, we started in Spearfish. It’s only a half hour drive from Sundance, Wyoming and is just a bit over the state line. We were finally in The Dakotas and I felt pretty excited. Our first stay at Spearfish / Black Hills KOA met all our needs, but there’s also a city campground right next to fish hatchery. We drove through it and were pleased with how large and well laid out it is. While we were partial to the KOA, the city campground is a great alternative.

Spearfish / Black Hills KOA

The KOA is close to Interstate 90, but not too close to be bothered by freeway noise. They seriously have the fastest WiFi we’ve experienced in any campground. It was awesome! Steve loved that the lady checking us in said we should have no problem streaming whateverwe like. What? Campgrounds never say that! She was right, too! We stayed about six nights while Steve did online “paperwork” for his parents & edited YouTube videos, while I started catching up on blog posts. This campground is conveniently located to everything you want to see in the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota. The Northern Hills loop is only about 143 miles and I’d easily use this as a home base for seeing all the sights.

During the summer, the town of Spearfish has free live music downtown. And the KOA has a nightly all-you-can-eat ice cream social ($4). Hmm, live music and all you can eat ice cream. Yes, please. Larry and Cindy, the owners, were delightful! She served us up a container of ice cream for $2. We had salted caramel, mountain blueberry and vanilla! Yep, food motivated…

We used the laundry and shower facilities, both were clean and nice. We also enjoyed the Mexican restaurant and the natural food stores, both within easy walking distance. The little store sold homemade sour dough bread. It’s to die for. There’s also a 7.5 mile nature trail, that takes you closer into town. It goes along by the creek and was a great walk. So yes, I’d definitely recommend staying at this campground to explore the Northern Hills of South Dakota.

D.C. Booth Historic National Fish Hatchery

This fish hatchery started in 1986 to propogate, stock and establish trout populations in the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming. Today, it still produces trout, but it also is a living fisheries museum. Of course, since we visited in October, all of the visitor spots were closed, but this is definitely worth adding to your list during the spring and summer seasons.

We did meet a gentleman who told us all about the hatchery. We aren’t sure if he was a volunteer, employee or what, but he did have baggies of fish food to give to children. He also took a picture of Steve and I together…one of the rare, non-selfie images of the two of us. Anyway, he told us the trails to take to the overlook and to the fish cemetery. We like trails, so off we went.

In the underwater viewing windows, we saw brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout. The fish in this large pond are year round residents of the hatchery. They’re not spawned or stocked, they just live here. Some of these huge trout are over eight years old and reach a weight of 14 pounds. They’re big!

Several older buildings still remain at the hatchery but are now used as exhibit halls. For instance, the 1899 hatchery building was once filled with water running through wooden troughs. Eggs incubated here. But now, it has exhibits regarding the history of fisheries management. Similarly, the Ice House (which is technically a replica of the 1899 original) stored ice cut from the ponds. But now, it serves as the Fish Culture Hall of fame to honor people who advanced the science of aquaculture.

Fisheries Railcar Exhibit

The Fisheries Railcar Exhibit caught our eye. It’s a railcar, Fish Car #3. Crews lived and worked in the train cars as they delivered fish to stock lakes and streams. The front of the car has a kitchen of sorts, and the workers slept on wooden bunks that lowered over the bins holding cans of fish. It’s neat to see, but of course as it turns out, neither of us snapped a photo!

The 1905 Booth House has period furnishings and tells the story of the hatchery families. It served as living quarters for hatchery superintendents and their families until 1983. Now the gardens behind the house host weddings and other events.

A bronze sculpture graces the lawns between the buildings and the fish ponds. It’s called Generations and was sculpted by Jim Maher of neighboring Belle Fourche, South Dakota to commemorate the hatchery’s 100th anniversary. Mr. Maher created another sculpture to honor the work of early hatchery workers. It’s called Spring Stocking, and it stands nearer to the fish ponds.

Fish Cemetery

One of the nature trails took us to the fish cemetary or “mort pit”, which really just looks like a depression in the ground surrounded by wooden fencing. Fish who died in the ponds and raceways were covered with lime and buried, in order to protect against any spread of disease. It’s my first visit to a fish cemetery and I rather liked it.

All the exhibits and the gift shop are generally open 9am-6pm May through September, but the grounds are open from dawn to dusk year round. I’d suggest visiting, even if you’re outside the window for the exhibits. It’s still fun to watch the resident fish in the big ponds and the smaller fish in the raceways. This free attraction is located right next door to the Spearfish City Park and Campgrounds.

The town of Spearfish

We honestly didn’t do a lot in town during our week here, as we mostly soaked up the KOA’s WiFi or walked next door to the Mexican restaurant for some day drinking. I also made some turmeric pickled eggs one day, I’ve just been obsessed with the idea of pickled eggs for a while now, and finally got around to making them.

We did see a movie in town, Dune, which was kind of a bust. It was good cinematically but they kept playing loud background music and then mumbling. Not my favorite movie. Anyway, there is a cute downtown, which looks like they’ve done a ton of work to revitalize. There’s the new normal selection of brew pubs and trendy-ish restaurants, which we see in most towns. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still awesome, but it does seem like the thing now…open a brewpub in a revitalized downtown.

At any rate, Spearfish has a Festival in the Park every July with over 200 regional vendors offering art, jewelry, food and furniture. There’s live music. It’s a huge open aire market, which draws thousands of locals and visitors alike.

Spearfish Canyon, a must see in the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota

For outdoor enthusiasts, Spearfish Canyon (Highway 14a) is a dream. With world class climbing, people flock here in the summer to scale the Black Hills. Fishing, hunting, hiking and camping are also huge sports here. We stopped at Bridal Veil Falls where we met Eric Roach, a local photographer. He showed us a family of seven mountain goats, which were literally in the background of photos we were taking, but we simply didn’t see them.

Eric showed us the way to eagle and osprey nests at Homestake Mining Company Hydro Electric Plant No. 2. Although we didn’t see any birds, it was still great to see their huge nests. He then took us down the road to the Kissing Rocks. It’s two huge boulders, which fell from the edge of nearby cliffs. It was a lot of fun for us to meet a local who knows so much about the area. He told us about a family of bighorn mountain sheep that live in Deadwood, and sure enough, we saw them when we got there! Thanks Eric, for a great afternoon!

You can check out some of Eric’s amazing photography here.

Further along the Spearfish Canyon, is the tiny hamlet of Savoy. The Spearfish Falls Trailhead is here, as well as the Native Botanical Gardens Trail. A little further down the road is the Savoy Pond and Roughlock Falls trail, which we explored for a little bit. There’s a good sized parking area with a pit toilet. The pond was originally used as an intake pool used by Homestake Mining. They’d pump the water in and create some power for their mining operations.

Then finally at the southern entrance to the canyon is Cheyenne Crossing. From what we could tell, this is a big convenience / gift store at the crossroads. Of course, we’re too late in the season and it’s already closed. But it looks like a fun place to stop for a cold soda during the summer.

Lead: Next in the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota

We continued around the Highway 14a loop of the Northern Black Hills to get to the town of Lead, South Dakota. It’s pronounced “leed”, like let me lead you along this trail. Not like the metal, lead.

I like this picture of Cupcake. She’s literally one of two vehicles on the main road! That is definitely not the case in the summer, especially during the motorcycle rally in Sturgis. Locals told us that the entire Northern Black Hills fill up with motorcycles and the towns just swell with throngs of humanity. Lead’s normal population is almost 3,000 residents, but we heard that about a half million riders come through these hills each summer. We certainly saw evidence of that invasion by the amount of motorcycle museums, sales centers and apparel shops we passed.

Cupcake in Lead

A huge attraction in Lead is the Black Hills Mining Museum. Closed during our visit, but generally open from May through September. Apparently there are winter hours by reservation, but since we didn’t plan ahead, it wasn’t an option for us. The museum has a simulated underground gold mine, constructed by over 130 Homestake miners. Guided tours teach about mining techniques and history, with many artifacts and historic pictures. Visitors can even pan for gold here. Seems like a great stop.

Local Shopping

The main street is lined with lots of tourist and gift shops, some were still even open during our visit! We spent time in the huge and wonderful oddity of a store called the Miners & Merchants Trading Post and Christmas Carol’s. This place is a delight and a little terrifying all at the same time. Here is where we learned that you can sip beer as you shop in South Dakota. They had cold offerings at the front counter for our enjoyment! The Trading Post is a family owned gift shop, clothing shop and Christmas village, all rolled into one. We kind of loved it!

Lead Trading Post

One benefit to touring in the off-season is that we have the luxury of time and space. We chatted with the clerk for awhile as she rang up our purchases. She and her family are recent transplants from Gilbert, Arizona. I can totally see the benefits of small town South Dakota living, and I have to say, I felt a little jealous of her family’s adventure. Of course, she’s not yet experienced the wildness of the summer motorcycle onslaught, but she was so delightful, that we’re sure she can handle anything! Stop by, drink a beer or some wine, and choose yourself a little bit of sunshine. There’s something for everyone here.

Related: Check out our trip to nearby Devils Tower and Sundance, Wyoming

Deadwood, South Dakota

As we continued our tour of the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota, we drove into Deadwood. Since it was later in the day, we opted to head towards our boondocking spot and leave our town exploration for the next day. Steve and I use the app iOverlander as a source for finding great camping off the beaten path.

On our way through town, we saw white spots on the cliffs above the buildings, so pulled off the road for a better look. Sure enough, it was the bighorn mountain sheep that Eric had told us about. We watched for a while as they hoped around the cliffs, marveling at their agility. Plus, is the grass on that tiny strip of rock really so much better than the grass at the top in the meadow? We had to wonder if part of the rock hopping was simply for fun.

Northern Black Hills of South Dakota
Bighorn Mountain Sheep

Deadwood’s Famous Citizens

Deadwood had its share of famous citizens back in the days of gold mining and the Wild West. HBO’s show based on the town takes some liberties with the truth, but gets others pretty close.

Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, Potato Creek Johnny and Seth Bullock are some of the better known names (to me) of the era. Each has their own colored history and each left their marks on the town, even today.

Seth Bullock was a prominent Deadwood citizen and the town’s first marshall. He lived there from 1876 until his death in 1919, operating a harware store and later a large hotel. The Bullock Hotel still operates today. Bullock came to town the week after Wild Bill Hickock was shot and killed in Saloon #10. Other accounts say he arrived the day before, so either way, the two likely never met.

Bullock did meet and develop a friendship with Teddy Roosevelt. When Roosevelt became our 26th President, Bullock took 50 cowboy/ horse riders along to Washington, DC to ride in the inaugural parade. The two remained friends throughout their lives, with Roosevelt sending his children out West to summer with Bullock’s family and to learn to live on the land. Bullock built a tower as a memorial to their friendship and was actually buried up on the hill with a view of the tower.

The Days of ’76 Museum brings all these figures to life. During the summer, Deadwood Alive also brings them to life with re-enactments of Hickock’s murder and the trial of his shooter. From all accounts, the summer is THE TIME to visit Deadwood. Steve and I see fewer crowds, but we also miss some excitement by traveling in the off-season.

Friendship Tower on Mt Roosevelt

The trailhead for the Friendship Tower Seth Bullock built to commemorate the life and death of his friend, Teddy Roosevelt, provided the perfect location for us to spend a night before exploring town the next day. We drove through town and headed north on Highway 85, as if heading back to Spearfish. A mile or so up, we took the road to the Friendship Tower. The road turns to gravel for the last half mile, but the grade is mild and it’s mostly smooth.

We hiked up the hill for 0.6 mile loop to the Tower. Saw a couple deer but otherwise had the place to ourselves. The Friendship Tower was constructed between March and July of 1919 with financial support from the Society of Black Hills Pioneers. Bullock died just three months after the tower’s dedication ceremony. We enjoyed the hike and the views, almost as much as we enjoyed the story of love and friendship. I told Steve I’d build him a tower if he could get me the land and a bunch of workers. Ha! Seriously though, what a memorial to a friendship.

Friendship Tower on Mt Roosevelt

Mount Moriah Cemetery

We started our morning with a very long uphill walk to Mount Moriah Cemetery. Warning signs say it’s a narrow and steep street, so RVs should park below and walk up. However, we easily could have driven Cupcake up there, but of course, we only knew that after parking and walking. Guess we needed the exercise!

Mount Moriah is home to Wild Bill Hillock, Calamity Jane and Potato Creek Johnny. Johnny’s claim to fame is that he found a 7 3/4 ounce gold nugget in 1929. One of the largest nuggets ever found in the Black Hills. Anyway, the three were originally buried in different places, but as the town grew, the cemetery was re-situated to sit up on the hill.

Northern Black Hills of South Dakota
Wild Bill Hickock

Many of the original headstones have been replaced by newer granite stones. While I understand wanting to preserve the history in better seeing who lies where, the new stones take away some of the intrigue of an old cemetery. If you’ve read some of our previous posts, you know we love visiting old graveyards. And this one is neat, but it kind of missed the mark.

Mount Moriah Cemetery does have this creepy statue going for it though! I’m rarely bothered by the memorials we’ve seen, but this one somehow takes the cake. She’s standing for a little girl and her brother who died in 1881. I didn’t really love it.

Creepiness

I did, however, really enjoy this stone and pebble memorial to Mr. Pouriea, who was faithful to every duty. At his foot was a smaller stone with his first name and dates. It’s the first time I’ve seen a homemade headstone and I did really love it! Maybe my kids can do a little mosaic for me!

Stone grave marker

We walked up even further to the burial site for Seth Bullock and his wife, Martha. They are indeed at the top of the hill, where likely, on a clear day, they have a view of the Friendship Tower on Mount Roosevelt.

As we came back down, we passed a couple potters fields and then this section dedicated to all the children lost to epidemics from 1878 to 1880. It reminded me of our situation today with Covid-19. Only I can’t imagine anyone in those days deciding not to take a politicized vaccine. They watched their children die, so I think they were all glad for cures for smallpox, scarlet fever and diptheria. To me, our society does not value our senior citizens, and since Covid has primarily killed older people, I think some of us have chosen to take a different stance on this disease than they have with others. Anyway, I’ll get off my soap box. But if you’re one of my kids and you haven’t gotten the vaccine yet, then dang it, go get it!

Epidemic deaths

Mount Moriah Cemetery is a good stop in Deadwood if you’re ready to stretch your legs after gambling for a bit. Or perhaps you need a little exercise after indulging at a casino’s buffet. The walk up to and around the cemetery will certainly add some cardio to your day. Plus the views are pretty and you can see the whole downtown. It’s a good morning activity before summer’s hotter afternoons.

Deadwood Gaming

One year round attraction in the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota is the gaming in Deadwood. After more than a century of gambling on the down-low, Deadwood became the third place in the US (after Atlantic City and the State of Nevada) to allow legal gaming. Card tables came out of backrooms in 1989 and took their place next to slot machines and the town hit the jackpot. The added revenue created funds for an historic preservation effort that continues today. We aren’t much of gamblers, so gaming doesn’t hold a huge appeal to us, but it’s clear to see the restoration efforts afford by the casinos. It’s big business and visitors can certainly take their pick of casinos, hotels and buffets in town.

Deadweird

So we were a week too early for Halloween in Deadwood, but we heard that it’s a huge party. People get all dressed up for Deadweird and costume parties and contests are everywhere. We’re kind of ramblers, so while this event held some appeal to us, we really wanted to keep moving to see as much of South Dakota as we could before winter really sets in. I’m mentioning Deadweird, because while the town sure comes alive in summer, there are year round events too.

Sturgis

In the larger loop of the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota is Sturgis. What we discovered about Sturgis, is there’s not much to the town when the motorcycles aren’t there. I’ve heard of the huge Sturgis motorcycle rally all my life, well since my early 20s at least and I felt severely underwhelmed by the reality of the town out of season. Maybe its that I didn’t know what to expect. Or maybe its that I expected a party atmosphere on a cold Wednesday afternoon in October. Maybe it’s just another small American town that we’ve driven through a hundred times. The downtown area isn’t built up like Deadwood, or even like Lead or Spearfish.

Instead, a few original buildings remain but mixed in with some newer gargantuan bars with huge empty parking lots. Makes sense that they’d need a lot of parking during the rally and have tons of empty spots during the off season. It all makes sense. But still.

I’d say, if you’re in the area, drive through and take a gander. Stop for a beer at one of the local biker bars. Get your picture at the Harley Davidson tourist stop. But then get back in your car and go back to Spearfish. Or Lead. Or Deadwood. Maybe I’m giving Sturgis a bum rap. If so, sorry to burst your bubble. But honestly, to me, outside the rally season, there’s just not much to catch my attention. I can imagine that with a half million motorcyclists cruising through the area, it’s a whole different ballgame. Probably pretty dang exciting. And I’d maybe come back for that. On my Vespa. With Steve on the back. Ha ha ha ha ha ha. Yep, I amuse myself.

Anyway, get yourself over to the Northern Black Hills of South Dakota. It’s beautiful. Next week, I’ll be chatting about more of our Dakota travels, so come on back.

2 Comments

  1. Heidi Halverson

    Interesting. We visited Wyoming last summer and drove through SD to get there, came back through Nebraska. But our experiences differ radically.

    I did not know of the Big Horn sheep on the cliffs above Deadwood. My first time in deadwood and enjoyed it, but was crowded, had to wait a couple hours at all restaurants, but they had music and did the shoot-out show on the street. It’s a neat town laid out in this narrow rock valley.

    Near Sheridan, WY is where the Fetterman massacre occurred at Fort Phil Kearny. Beautiful country. Little Big Horn is also a great destination (southern MT). We really enjoyed ND Fargo has a great museum with a viking replica ship that was built and sailed to Norway and back. Teddy Roosevelt Nat’l Park in ND is where he hung out and had a cabin – wild horses.

    Last summer we spent a week in Jackson, WY and did the Tetons – so much to see and do. Hiking, Biking, Rafting, Rock Climbing (they have a via Ferrata) good restaurants, but again really crowded. And beautiful country. Via Ferrata was super cool – it’s rock climbing for non rock climbers. My family were all unenthusiastic about the idea and then they all loved it and want to do more. Much easier than those climbing walls. This is more like climbing a ladder on a real rock face and you are harnessed in.

    Anyhow, and then South Dakota I hope you do Wall Drug and the badlands, and the Corn Palace – there’s a web cam on the balcony.

    If you come to WI Devil’s Lake is a beautiful state park with serious hiking if it’s not too cold and icy.

    And if you are still doing this next year, Albuquerque has largest Balloon Fiesta in early Oct. Lot’s of RVers head there. Have you seen the movie “Nomadland”? – Frances McDormand about RVers – truish story with real RVers playing themselves.

    Oh and in Rockford, IL has Anderson Japanese Garden, one of the best in the country, I think closed for season. Springfield, Il has fantastic Lincoln museums and presidential library including his house, when he lived there. St. Louis has Anheiser Busch factory which is in old German buildings with gargoyles, Botanical garden, zoo, and City Museum, which is great for kids – 3 story slides and climbing things. The Arch has a fantastic new museum. But you guys aren’t into cities that much.

    Reply
    • mcgarveysan

      Hi Heidi. Thanks for all your great suggestions. We actually went to a lot of the places you mentioned, just haven’t caught the blog up to it yet. I’m a little slow these days, so threw in some old compilation posts till I could catch back up! I loved Fargo and the Viking ship museum. We ate a “lodge” called Sons of Norway, kind of like Elks or Moose but Norwegians. Fantastic!
      We haven’t really been to the Tetons yet, just keep missing the weather window, but are hoping to get there.
      Definitely saw Wall Drug, Badlands, Corn Palace and a whole lot more of South Dakota. It took us by surprise by how much we loved the state. We did pass through Wisconsin, but mostly only to see some friends. We missed others because of Covid…dang it.
      The balloon festival seems like a really cool thing. We did see Nomadland and while that may be the reality for some RVers, it hasn’t proven to be the reality for anyone we’ve met yet. I’m sure we’ll come across more people in Arizona in January. It’s our current lose plan to head that way, anyway. We spent a bit of time outside Chicago visiting my sister this trip and actually spent time in Springfield last year. We loved the Lincoln museum and cemetery. We’ve previously spent so much time in St Louis that this time we simply did a drive through. We really like The Grove area which is close to Barnes Jewish Hospital.
      Thanks for all the good suggestions! Hope you and your family are doing well. Noelle

      Reply

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