From its legendary Badlands to its wide-open prairies, South Dakota has endless opportunities for outdoor recreation and adventure. Of all the state’s natural wonders, the Black Hills are undoubtedly some of the best. Black Hills National Forest encompasses 1.2 million acres of diverse forests, rugged mountains, stunning canyons, pristine lakes, and expansive grasslands. The area has been a sacred site for thousands of years for many Indigenous Peoples, including the Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, and Lakota. And of course, the region is home to iconic places like Mt. Rushmore, Black Elk Peak, and more.
There are also tons of great opportunities for camping in Black Hills National Forest, including many scenic (and completely free) dispersed camping areas. Dispersed camping is a great option for those looking to get off the beaten path and enjoy the simplicity of being in the backcountry. In this post, we’ll cover everything you need to know about dispersed camping in Black Hills National Forest and share our recommendations for the best dispersed camping spots. Let’s get started.
In This Post…
- The Basics
- Top Five Black Hills Dispersed Camping Areas
Black Hills National Forest is located in the western part of South Dakota and the northeast corner of Wyoming. The closest major city is Rapid City. Black Hills National Forest is about an hour and a half drive from from Badlands National Park and just minutes from Mt. Rushmore, making it a great basecamp for exploring all that the region has to offer.
The best time to camp in Black Hills National Forest is between late Spring and early Fall. Springtime can be quite rainy, with drier weather moving in as summer arrives. The summers are warm, but the area’s higher elevation keeps temperatures from getting too hot. Fall is a gorgeous time to be in the Black Hills, as the temperatures cool and the colors change. Winters are cold and snowy, but hardy campers can stay for free at many of the developed campgrounds in the off-season.
What to Bring
Dispersed camping requires a certain level of preparedness to ensure you have a successful trip. You won’t have access to the amenities of a developed campground, so it is important to come prepared to be self-sufficient.
While we’re sure you’ll already have the essentials like a great tent, sleeping bags, and camp chairs, below are some of our favorite items specifically for dispersed camping in Black Hills National Forest:
- Coleman Camping Stove – This classic piece of gear is perfect for cooking up deluxe campsite dinners.
- Portable water container – None of the camping areas included in this guide have a potable water source so a portable water container is essential.
- Cooler – Keeping food and drinks cool is critical when camping. We can’t recommend Yeti enough!
- Map – We prefer downloadable GPS maps via the Gaia GPS app. You can get 20% off your annual membership here.
- Portable Toilet – This may be a new concept for some campers, but it’s a great way to ensure you leave no trace in the backcountry.
- Pop-up Canopy – Not only does a canopy provide welcome shade on hot summer days, but it also comes in handy for cooking and sitting outside when it’s raining.
Permits and Fees
It is free to visit Black Hills National Forest. In some areas of the park, permits are required for parking and the picnic areas require a day use fee. Permits are also required for hunting, fishing, boating, and OHV use. There are no permits or fees needed to camp in any of the dispersed areas described in this guide.
For dispersed campers, open fires are not permitted in the South Dakota portions of Black Hills National Forest at any time. This includes firepits and torches. Fires may be permitted in the Wyoming part of the National Forest, but it is important to check for seasonal restrictions ahead of time.
The Black Hills National Forest ecosystems are vulnerable to wildfire and it is important for campers to do their part in preventing uncontrolled burns. This website provides more information about how to recreate responsibly.
Rules and Regulations
Although dispersed camping is free and largely unrestricted in Black Hills National Forest, there are still some important rules to be aware of before setting out for your next trip.
- You must camp at least 100 feet from water sources (like steams and creeks) and 1/2 a mile from developed campgrounds and picnic areas.
- Vehicles are not allowed more than 300 feet from roads.
- Camping is permitted for a maximum of 14 days every 60-day period.
- Refer to the Motor Vehicle Use Maps (MVUMs) to see details about where vehicles and camping are permitted.
Leave No Trace Camping
One of the most important considerations when dispersed camping is to follow Leave No Trace principles. This will minimize your impact and ensure your campsite can be enjoyed by future visitors. Here are the seven principles of Leave No Trace camping:
- Plan Ahead & prepare: Have an idea of where you’d like to camp and always be sure you are camping in an area that permits dispersed camping.
- Travel & camp on durable surfaces: Never camp on fragile ground or create a new campsite.
- Dispose of waste properly: Pack out all of your trash and bury human waste away from water sources. Ideally, carry out human waste or use a portable toilet.
- Leave what you find: Never take anything from your campsite. Other than trash of course!
- Minimize campfire impacts: Never create new fire rings and only have fires if permitted.
- Respect wildlife: Properly store food at all times and be aware of the area’s wildlife.
- Be considerate of other visitors: Pack out your trash, don’t be loud, and leave your campsite in better condition than you found it.
Top Five Black Hills Dispersed Camping Areas
There are so many great dispersed camping areas in Black Hills National, making it difficult to choose just a few favorites! That said, we are sharing our top five picks below. These range from some that are close to attractions to others that are quite remote. We’ve included options for both tent campers and RVs. Use the map and descriptions to find your perfect campsite.
This beautiful free camping spot is primarily used by climbers, but is great for all types of tent campers. There are several established tent sites, but the area cannot accommodate larger RVs. Mt. Rushmore is less than three miles away, making this one of the closest dispersed camping areas near the monument. There are also several nice hiking trails nearby. Ge there early, as this popular site fills up quickly in peak season.
To reach this dispersed camping area, turn off Highway 16 on Calumet Road. This is the forest service road opposite from Cosmos Road. From there, continue up the road a bit until you see a large, relatively flat camping area. If you keep going a little ways further, you’ll see another open camping area. The first spot is large enough for two big rigs or several tents and the second spot can comfortably fit a couple of smaller campers. It’s important to note that the road can get quite muddy after rain, and campfires are not permitted.
Located just a half hour’s drive from both Rapid City and Mt. Rushmore, this dispersed camping area is well positioned for exploring the Black Hills. The lovely grassy meadow can accommodate tent campers and big rigs alike. There is enough space for several groups share and still have some privacy. Although it’s only a quarter mile from the paved road, the short stretch on dirt can be a bit rugged.
There are several beautiful campsites set along Castle Creek, but you’ll have to navigate a rough and narrow road to reach them. This peaceful dispersed camping area is in the heart of Black Hills National Forest and can be accessed from Hill City. To get there, take Deerfield Road to Mystic Road and continue straight until you reach Castle Peak Road (forest road 181). From there, the road should only be attempted by 4WD vehicles. The camping area can accommodate tents and smaller RVs.
There are plenty of great places to pitch your tent or park your RV on the road up to the Bear Mountain Fire Tower. The area has incredible views of the Black Hills, and you can see the Crazy Horse Monument from some spots, too. The road gets a bit rougher the further in you go, but is typically manageable for all vehicles. Due to its proximity to a cell tower, there is excellent service. Keep in mind that campfires are not permitted in the area.
Have a Great Trip!
Dispersed camping is the perfect way to fully experience all that the Black Hills have to offer. There are tons of beautiful and free places to camp throughout Black Hills National Forest, and we feel confident you’ll find the perfect campsite for your next adventure. If you’re looking for more great dispersed camping in South Dakota, be sure to check out these other posts: