Horseback Riding in South Dakota- The Badlands and Beyond
Horseback riding in South Dakota offers diversity to discover! Founding member of Black Hills Backcountry Horsemen of South Dakota Renee Bechen highlights Badlands National Park, The Black Hills and beyond for the Equitrekking 50 State Trail Riding Project.
by Renee Bechen
South Dakota’s landscapes offer outstanding scenery for riders that enjoy diversity. Many individuals do not consider South Dakota as a destination for scenic trail riding. However, there is treasure here in South Dakota for those who want to discover the wide array of landscapes available for horseback riding.
South Dakota’s Badlands
Western South Dakota is famous for the Badland areas including Badlands National Park managed by the National Park Service (NPS). Sage Creek Trailhead offers a primitive campground (first come first serve basis) with a geological wonderland to explore while trail riding. Horse corrals are available onsite, constructed by the Black Hills Backcountry Horsemen of South Dakota (BH BCH SD) in partnership with NPS – Badlands National Park personnel.
The area is both historic and scenic country typically recommended for riding in the spring and fall seasons due to extreme summer heat. It is a great destination to see west river prairie habitat with wildlife including; buffalo, antelope, prairie dog towns and other native prairie species. Information can be found about Sage Creek primitive campground on the Badlands National Park website. Look under “things to do” and “campgrounds” for additional information about Sage Creek Campground. Please also contact Badlands National Park personnel for current and additional information on equine riding in this area. Shoes/ boots for equines remain optional. Water availability can also be limited.
BH BCH SD with NPS personnel installing corrals at Sage Creek primitive campground.
The Black Hills of South Dakota & the #89 Trail
The Black Hills of South Dakota is where the mountains rise from the western prairie landscapes. The Black Hills offers exemplary trail riding opportunities with available camping amenities for equine enthusiasts. Several trails, including the #89 or Centennial Trail, are available for riding in the Black Hills area.
The #89 trail travels for over 100 miles crossing Bureau of Land Management (BLM), South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, NPS and United States Forest Service and Black Hills National Forest (BHNF) lands. Several state and federally operated horse camps are available for those that prefer to ride on accessible public land trails. Privately owned horse camps are also available throughout the Black Hills. The BHNF has established a website for trail riding information regarding the #89 trail.
Additional trail riding and horse camp information can also be located on the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks website (SD GFP). The BH BCH SD organization has partnered with the BHNF to assist on projects while ensuring trails are available for equestrian use on the Black Hills National Forest (BHNF).
The well-known #89 Trail or Centennial Trail begins outside of Sturgis, SD winding 100 miles north to south through the Black Hills. The #89 trail commemorates South Dakota achieving statehood in 1889. The #89 trail offers premier trail riding in the Black Hills area and is highly recommended by local trail riders. The #89 trail is well marked with carsonite posts along the total length of the trail.
The #89 trail begins near Bear Butte Lake with a SD GFP established trailhead designated for day-riding. It winds across the prairie from Bear Butte Lake until it crosses Hwy 34 near Fort Meade Veterans Administration Medical Center. The Ft Meade Recreation Area, managed by BLM, established a trail head on the northern end of the #89 trail for day-riding with amenities such as; hitching rails and water tanks. A BLM horse camp is also available at Alkali Creek with tie-lines, campsites and water for human/livestock. Alkali Horse Camp is immediately accessible to the #89 trail.
Available information can be found at www.blm.gov for the Fort Meade Recreation Area.
The Fort Meade Recreation Area offers additional trail riding with historical significance. Fort Meade Recreation Area was a significant military post for infantry and US Cavalry soldiers during the late 1870’s through 1944 in the Black Hills. Cavalry training jumps for horses, old cavalry barns, parade grounds, wagon trails and formal military outbuildings can be seen while touring the Fort Meade Recreation Area. See www.fortmeademuseum.org for additional history and information of the area.
The #89 trail winds through a ponderosa pine forest with aspen intermingled.
The #89 trail continues to wind north to south crossing under I-90 through ponderosa pine in aspen laden draws and drainages. Vantage points with vistas of Bear Butte, western prairie landscapes and the surrounding Black Hills can be seen along the #89 trail. Equine users can decide to day ride from various trailheads noted along the #89 trail. Other recreation users can be found along the #89 trail including hikers, mountain bikers and other equestrian users. Several areas of caution should be noted near Nemo, SD where access is available to Off Road Vehicles (ORV) that includes four wheelers and dirt bikes. Please review trail access areas and be aware that other users may or may not have access to that specific section of the #89 trail.
The #89 trail is over 100 miles long and specific segments of the trail are noteworthy including the Iron Creek Horse Camp to Mt Rushmore section. Iron Creek Horse Camp is maintained by the BHNF. Iron Creek Horse Camp offers a semi-primitive camp with corrals, water tanks and a flowing stream, marked pull through camping sites and pit toilets. See recreation.gov for reservations and site availability.
Iron Creek Horse Camp provides accessibility to the #89 trail through Custer State Park. Iron Creek Horse Camp also offers primary trailhead access for the Harney Peak area including the Black Elk Wilderness. A local favorite is riding from Iron Creek Horse Camp to Mt Rushmore National Memorial where horses can be tied up for viewing the famous four faces of Mt Rushmore. The homemade ice cream at Mt Rushmore Memorial concessions is a favorite enticement during a warm summer day of horseback riding.
Black Hills Backcountry Horsemen of South Dakota members pictured with Craig Bobzein – Black Hills National Forest Supervisor and Cheryl Schreier – Mt Rushmore National Memorial Superintendent supportive partners for equine trail use.
Vistas of the Needles area from the #89 trail.
The #89 trail continues through Custer State Park (SDGFP) and into Wind Cave National Park (NPS). Custer State Park offers trail riding diversity with excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing. Custer State Park is noted for French Creek Horse Camp which is maintained by SDGFP. The amenities at French Creek Horse Camp include; level campsites, showers, electricity, corrals and French Creek for equine watering. Reservations for French Creek Horse Camp can be made through the SDGFP website. Travelers are encouraged to make reservations early in the year due to the popularity of French Creek Horse Camp.
Trail riding along French Creek in Custer State Park outside of French Creek Horse Camp with Doug Bechen, Mark Kirkeby and Sheryl Kirkeby, pictured.
Doug and Renee Bechen pictured along French Creek in Custer State Park. Renee Bechen is the author of this article for South Dakota.
Trail riding over hills with scenic vistas or easy riding through prairie grassland meadows is what the #89 trail highlights through Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. Trail riding in these areas provides backcountry experiences with phenomenal opportunities to see buffalo, elk, antelope, big horn sheep and prairie dogs in their native prairie habitat. The 100 mile #89 trail ends at Norbeck TH near the entrance of Wind Cave National Park outside of Hot Springs, SD. Riders are encouraged to shoe/boot equines for riding the #89 trail due to rocky locations throughout the trail. Water can also be limited along the #89 trail. Encounters with wildlife, especially buffalo, are considered dangerous and precautions/education should be heeded by all trail riders in Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park.
The Badlands and Black Hills areas offer excellent trail riding opportunities in diverse landscapes for those willing to discover South Dakota!
Buffalo are often seen in Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park while trail riding.
You never know what might show up in camp or out on the #89 trail through Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park. Pictured Big Horn Sheep at French Creek Horse Camp.
About the author: Renee Bechen lives near Whitewood, SD and is a founding member of Black Hills Backcountry Horsemen of South Dakota. Renee enjoys riding/packing for fun or completing trail work projects with spouse Doug Bechen for the BH BCH SD. Doug and Renee Bechen enjoy riding/packing in the backcountry on public lands in South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana.
For additional information regarding trails and horse camp information, please contact: USDA – Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks, recreation.gov, blm.gov, Fort Meade Recreation Area, Old Fort Meade Museum