Wide open spaces

This gorgeous campground sits on a 160-acre tract of land nestled in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota. From what I can gather, the original owners acquired the land through the Homestead Act, which encouraged Western migration by providing any adult citizen who headed a family with 160 acres of public land in exchange for a small registeraton fee. The act also required that the homesteader live on the land continuiously for five years. The first settlers on the land the campground lies on apparently raised cattle, using Rafter J Bar as their cattle brand.

In July of 1874, the 7th Calvary, led by Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, was ordered to travel to the Black Hills to scout a suitable location for a fort, find a route to the southwest, and to investigate the possibility of mining for gold, in what was known as the Black Hills Expedition. Custer and his men purportedly passed through the Rafter J Bar Ranch one night that July.

During the Gold Rush that followed Custer’s expedition, the ranch became one of the stagecoach stops along the Cheyenne to Deadwood trail. Three buildings were built for the stagecoach stop: a barn and stable, which included a saloon; a log cabin; and the owner’s cabin. The barn and stable still stand on the grounds of the old ranch.

In 1886, the land became known as the Walker Placer Mining Claim. Mining tunnels and shafts still exist around the perimeter of the property, which borders the national forest. The stagecoach stop came to an end when the railroad came to Hill City.

The Rafter J Bar Ranch continued in operation until 1964, when the land was sold and developed into a campground.

Facility: 4.5/5

The campground is divided into seven sections: Base Camp; Cabin Camp; the Island; Line Camp; Main Camp; Ranch Camp; and the Lower Ranch Camp. The Ranch Camp is bordered by the Black Hill’s National Forest. Each section offers different amenities. The sites are spacious, and the campground has expansive green space. Only the main road is paved. The roads leading to the different sections of the park are gravel, as are all the sites. You can unhook your toad in front of the office or on the road in front of your campsite. We stayed at the last site in the Line Camp, which overlooked a meadow. Every evening at dusk, without fail, about twenty-five mule deer showed up to forage and frolic in the grazing land.

Restrooms: 5/5

There are three bathhouses at the campground, and all of them were very clean.

Amenities: 3.5/5

The park features a basketball court, a volleyball court, a pool, and a playground. Each bathhouse has a laundry mat with coin operated washers and dryers, folding tables, and a laundry cart. The only downside to this campground is that the only place where you could get free WIFI is at the office. There is no cable TV in the campground. However, the Base Camp offers free satellite TV. Beginning Memorial Day, the campground serves a complimentary pancake breakfast each weekday morning.

Location: 5/5

The campground is conveniently located close to Mt. Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer State Park, the 1880 train, and the Mickelson Trail. 

Pet Friendly: 5/5

The campground is pet friendly, and dog poop bags are located in several areas of the campground. Dogs must be kept on a leash at all times, but there are plenty of wide open spaces to exercise your fur baby.

Overall Rating: 4.6

Summary: Rafter J. Bar Ranch has pretty much everything you could ask for in a campground with the exception of WIFI and cable. The sites are nice and long, and we were able to park our Jeep in front of our motorhome. The RV Sites are a little pricey—$63.95 per night for 50 Amp service during the regular summer season, but they do offer a 10% Good Sam Discount.

Cell Phone Signal: We were only able to get two bars with both AT&T and Verizon.

Conclusion: Would we stay at Rafter J Bar Ranch again? Absolutely. Despite the price and the lack of WIFI and cable, this is an idyllic location. And after all, isn’t the whole idea of camping to get away from it all?

Our campsite


Some of the mule deer who came to graze ever evening
The barn built for the stagecoach stop

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