Canoeing in the Black Hills

canoeing black hills sylvan lake
A family canoes on Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

The Black Hills of western South Dakota are known for their beauty, their wildlife, Mount Rushmore and Sturgis. Did you know there are also multitudes of lakes and rivers in the area?

Both motorized and non-motorized boats are allowed on most lakes in South Dakota, including within the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park (which is part of the Hills, on the south end).

With great water clarity (in fact, scuba diving is popular there) and some gorgeous shorelines, you could spend many days canoeing these parts and not see it all.

Two of the most popular lakes to paddle are Pactola Lake and Sheridan Lake. They’re both on the east-central side of the Black Hills (you can see a map here) and offer rentals there at the lakes.

pactola lake black hills canoeing
Beautiful Pactola Lake (photo courtesy of

Pactola Pines Marina and Sheridan Lake Marina offer canoe, kayak and SUP rentals on their respective lakes for $30/2 hours or $50/day (2017 prices).

Both Pactola and Sheridan are popular with motor boats, water skiers, and anglers, too. And at 785 acres and 383 acres respectively, they’re quite large. Deerfield Lake is also large, but is a no-wake lake, so its also great for canoeing. (There are no rental facilities there, however, so bring your own boat.)

My family’s favorite Black Hills lake is Sylvan Lake.

Part of Custer State Park, Sylvan Lake is only 17 acres, and has one of the most dramatic shorelines we’ve ever seen. Sylvan is known as Custer’s “Crown Jewel”—very fitting!

sylvan lake black hills canoeing
Sylvan Lake, part of Custer State Park (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)

Canoe, kayak and SUP rentals are available there at the lake at $22/person per hour (2017 prices).

There’s plenty more to do while you’re at Sylvan Lake, too—swimming, hiking, picnicking and bouldering. Our kids have loved climbing the rocks there whether they were 10 (like the first time) or 19 (like our most recent trip)!

It’s accessed by the equally dramatic Needles Highway, which is another reason to visit this lovely spot.

So whether you haul your own canoe along or rent when you get there, consider the Black Hills the next time you’re looking for a new place to launch.

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