Black Hills National Forest, SD, RV Boondocking – Camping with Cows!

July 2017 – The US Forest Service, which manages all the National Forests in America, dubs its land the “Land of Many Uses.” The uses we love most are camping with our RV, hiking, biking and photography. But when we are on public land, we share it with folks who hunt, fish, ride horses, graze cattle and extract various natural resources.

For urban and suburban folk who come out to America’s public lands to smell the pungent fresh air and see the stunning scenery, the omnipresence of cattle can be a bit of a surprise. In our many years of nightly boondocking, we have found ourselves sharing our back yard with cows quite a few times. It is, after all, open range.

Open Range Grazing Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

In the west, the public lands are Open Range. Literally!

Cattle ranching is very much alive today, and cowboys really do exist in the real world, far from the classic TV shows and western movies. The other day, as we were driving to town in Buffalo, Wyoming, we came across a cattle drive going right up the highway.

Cattle drive across highway

On the highway one day we came upon a cattle drive. How cool is that?!

We crept past and were amazed at the huge number of cows and calves. The cowboys herding them were on horseback.

Cattle drive on horseback

The cattle were being driven by cowboys on horseback.

Slow traffic for horseback cattle drive on highway

This is what a traffic jam in the big western states looks like!

As we went down the line of mooing cows and watched the calves trotting along to keep up with their moms, it was like stepping back in time. America has a rich history in cattle ranching, and in many ways it is a way of life that hasn’t changed all that much in the past 150 years.

But technology has definitely made deep inroads, and besides using ATVs to zip around the many square miles of a ranch, it helps simplify many other things too. Towards the end of the herd of cows we came across a cowboy riding his horse with a coiled rope in one hand and a cell phone in the other! How much easier it must be to coordinate the herding process when you can simply call your buddy cowboy at the other end of the herd!

Cowboy on cell phone during cattle drive

Modern day ranching: a coiled rope in one hand and a cell phone in the other!

In South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest we found a lovely spot to camp with our RV for a few days, and as we were first setting up, we couldn’t help but take a few photos of our idyllic little campsite.

RV boondocking and camping in the US National Forest

Finding a beautiful place to camp in the National Forest is one of the biggest highlights of our lifestyle.

Boondocking in the National Forest is always a treat for the senses. In the early mornings we spotted deer nearby.

White tail deer in Black Hills National Forest South Datkota

Hi Neighbor!

A wild turkey caught Mark’s eye on a solo hike he did at dawn another morning.

Wild Turkey Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

A wild turkey fluffs his feathers and shakes his tail.

He’s not a birder, but his camera managed to catch a woodpecker searching for bugs, a robin carrying a bug in his mouth, and a stunning Western Tanager.

Woodpecker in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota


Robin with bug in its mouth Black Hills National Forest


Western Tanager Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Western Tanager.

Flying Western Tanager Black Hills National Forest South Dakota


The nights were glorious. The Milky Way marched across the sky all night every night for a few days.

Milky Way with RV boondocking in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Starry, starry night!

Beautifully mysterious trail of clouds crossed the sky one night, and we were astonished later when Mark lightened his photos on his computer later and saw how much orange and pink lingered in those clouds.

RV under the Milky Way in Black Hills South Dakota

Wispy clouds cross the Milky Way.

RV under the Milky Way in Black Hills South Dakota

Clouds whirl past the stars.

But the most humorous and heartwarming aspect of this particular South Dakota campsite wasn’t the stars or the natural wildlife.

We were both jolted out of bed one morning by the raucous braying of a huge animal standing right under our fifth wheel’s overhang. Right under our bed! Good grief, what was that?

I jumped out of bed and poked my head out the door and found myself face to face with an enormous brown bull with a white face and an expectant expression. It was the ideal photo op. Our trailer and awning framed this huge bull’s head as he stared at me.

But I was in my PJs and was still wiping my eyes with disbelief, while my camera was tucked away in some safe place out of reach. By the time I got my hands on my camera, the bull was walking away to greener grass.

Cow by an RV in the US National Forest Black Hills South Dakota

This big bull stood under our bedroom and bellowed loudly to wake us up!

It turned out that his noisy braying — he sounded suprisingly like a very loud donkey on steroids — was a call to the herd to come check out our trailer. Before I knew it, our little buggy was surrounded with USDA Choice Grade A Grass Fed Beef!

Cows around fifth wheel trailer RV Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

Cows and calves check out our trailer.

Fifth wheel trailer RV boondocking with cows in the National Forest


Over the next few days these cows came by our campsite on a regular basis. They seemed to be fascinated by us. And we were fascinated by them. We’d be sitting quietly minding our own business in our trailer when suddenly we’d hear the sound of grass being ripped out by the roots and footsteps clomping around in the dirt. We’d look out the window, and sure enough, there they’d be.

Herd of cows surround RV boondocking in the National Forest

We’re surrounded!

On a few mornings we woke to the trailer rocking as the cows rubbed their shoulders and scratched their itches on its corners.

Cow outside RV window camping in Black Hills South Dakota boondocking

I look out the window to see a peeping Tom!

Cow outside fifth wheel trailer RV Black Hills National Forest South Dakota


Moms and calves would gather together and stare at us whenever they heard us come out of the trailer. The calves were skittish and would run away if we got too close, but the moms would stand calmly facing us, slowly grinding grass in their mouths and staring.

Cattle herd with fifth wheel camper RV in Black Hills National Forest


Fifth wheel camper with herd of cows in Black Hills National Forest

The herd moves in on us.

One morning we were both woken from a deep sleep when we heard another strange sound just outside the trailer. We ran outside to see what it was and saw a balloon floating past. The sound we’d heard was the balloonist firing up the gas flame. Every few seconds he’d do that and the flame would fill the balloon with hot air to make it rise.

Balloon over RV boondocking in Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

The sound of a balloonist filling his balloon with hot air woke us up at dawn.

But it was those darn cows that kept the smirks on our faces and gave our days a special funkiness. I began to imitate their mooing, and that would make them turn around and look at me. I had to laugh when Mark commented, “That’s pretty good. You sound just like them!”

Grazing cattle Black Hills National Forest

All ears perked up when I mooed.

Mark took out his guitar one day and sat on our steps and played for them. They seemed to like the music and began mooing. Just like howling dogs, they seemed to want to add their own melody to his tunes.

Playing guitar for cows in US National Forest

The cows responded to Mark’s guitar playing by adding their voices in a moo-along!

A few calves got bold and ventured close to our truck. They were very intrigued by it.

A calf visits our truck in the National Forest

A brave calf approaches our truck.

Baby calf sniffs our pickup truck US National Forest

Another calf sniffs our bumper.

One day I came out of the trailer to find myself facing a lineup of cows. If I hadn’t knowd better, they would have seemed a little intimidating. They looked a lot like a gang of thugs in the hood.

Herd of cows and grazing cattle Black Hills National Forest South Dakota

The gang’s all here — in the hood!

Mark got busy taking portrait shots of a calf one day, and it was hilarious to see the little guy’s mind turning as he approached the camera.

Cow checks out Nikon camera


Photography cow inspects Nikon camera


Closeup of calf face

By placing the camera so low, Mark got a neat angle on this calf’s face.

Suddenly Mark saw his big wet nose and thick black tongue going for his camera. Uh oh!!

cow inspects Nikon camera Photography_

What does that thing taste like?

He pulled his camera away just in time, but when we started to pack up to leave the campsite a few days later, he discovered that one of the cows had gotten into our barbecue and had damaged the latch on the cover. He did a quickie repair job on the fly before we hitched up to leave.

Mother cow and calf in US National Forest

Camping in the National Forest sometimes gives us close encounters with cows.
It’s most fun with moms and their calves in Spring!

After we arrived at our next campsite, we found gooey prints from cow lips in a few places on our truck and trailer. Oh well! That’s all just part of the unusual experience of RV boondocking in the National Forest.

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30 thoughts on “Black Hills National Forest, SD, RV Boondocking – Camping with Cows!

  1. Em,
    Who doesn’t love a good “moo along?” Rumor has it your fridge has a few extra steaks in it. 🙂

  2. Wow…..your timing and photos are so inspiring! We are newbies at full timing….waking up this morning on the River near Gettysburg……..headed to Sturgis for a night……and then hope to explore the area around Custer and the black hills. We do some limited boon docking ( usually at Harvest Host locations)…..we are in need of solar and battery upgrades for our Airstream. Our destination is Helena Mt. by next Thursday……. excited to discover some quaint towns and beautiful scenery on the way. So far have avoided the highway. Hope you are headed to Montana as well, and can guide us with your amazing photos! Many thanks!

  3. HI! Great to know you are camping in my backyard! I live in Rapid City and the black hills is my camping playground!

  4. This is such an interesting and funny post! I love the “open range!” The Black Hills sure are beautiful. Looks like you found a great spot there.

  5. What a great experience! Although we have only been full timing for a few months now I am loving the National Forest’s. Will be in two of them in KY and one in VA over the next month and can’t wait to see what we run in to. Love the Open range photo.

  6. As the Eagles once sang, “I get a peaceful, easy feeling” when I read this post about your latest adventure. I’ll bet it’s not often that you’ll ever combine cows and hot air balloons. I continue to be amazed at your night time photos of the Milky Way. I know you have really nice cameras, but do you know it there’s an easy way to capture pictures like that with an iPhone? We’ve not been to a really dark area when we boondock, so I don’t know what kind of natural pictures my iPhone 6 would take. Keep up the work that you do!

    • Thank you, David, we get a peaceful, easy feeling living these adventures too. What a life! As for taking Milky Way photos with an iPhone, you’ll need to get an iPhone mount for a tripod like this one (a companion tripod, if you don’t have one, is shown at the bottom). Then you need to set the iPhone up for long exposures. The exposures we use are typically 20-30 seconds long. There are several online articles and apps that might help too. Experiment and have fun!!

  7. Way cool and great company while camping. Obviously, those guys are used to people. Great photos. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Loved the article about the cows. Do you have an video coverage of the “moo along “? I’d love to see (and hear) that. Lol. If you guys are anywhere near Crazy Horse we strongly recommend you go there (if you’ve never been). That’s one of my favorite places to go to, just for the amazing story of how it came to be. While it won’t ever be finished in our lifetime, the history is enough to make for a great place to go.

    We have been out West (California and Utah), but we’re in Kansas now on our way home. We aborted the rest of our trip due to a hydraulic pump failure. We’ll get it fixed closer to home and that way we won’t be “stuck”. We need to be in GA by 8/5 for our granddaughter’s birthday so we don’t want anything hindering that.

    Happy trails to you and Mark!

    PS, we stopped at that Colorado Welcome Center a couple of days ago where we met you and Mark. We still love how that all happened. ?

    • Hi Janet! I didn’t catch any video of the moo-along but sure wish I did. We ended up leaving the Black Hills before we had a chance to do all the things that were on our list because it got really hot. So, although we saw Crazy Horse from a distance years ago, we didn’t immerse ourselves in it on this trip as I had planned.

      I’m so sorry to hear about your hydraulic pump failure. It’s so frustrating when trailer hiccups get in the way of fulfilling your travel plans. But just as the heat chased us out of the Black Hills and on to some incredible and unexpected thrills in Wyoming, I’m sure your changed plans happened for a reason, and along with your granddaughter’s birthday other unplanned good things are in store.

      Thanks for saying “hello” to the Colorado Welcome Center and remembering our fun escapade with each other on the way through, and enjoy this beautiful summer!!

  9. What a cute cow story, they were saying welcome to greener pastures!! The bird pictures are really great (love that tanager) and I never tire of any of the awe-inspiring sky pictures!! Thanks for sharing!! 🙂

    • You are so welcome, Deborah. Thank YOU for reading and fo your enthusiasm! That tanager was gorgeous. We both went back a few times to see if we could get more pics of him, but he played hard to get and we never saw him again. So it goes with wildlife photography. At least the cows showed up reliably, lol!!

  10. What a cool spot and experience! Would you mind sharing where it was? We spent about 6 hours driving around the forest roads west of Rapid City today and didn’t find a single spot that would work for our 24’ Class C.

    • We spend many days like that looking for camping spots, Benjamin, and sometimes we get lucky and find something and a lot of times we come up empty handed. We don’t share our boondocking locations for the reasons given here. In our experience, we’ve found you’ve gotta love the hunt as much as the catch to make boondocking a fun thing to do! Good luck and have fun with your search.

  11. Glad you got along so well with the cows. Personally, the smell of cow pies, aggressive cows charging my dog unprovoked and the omni-presence of flies has soured me on camping in grazing areas. Fortunately the Forest Service website provides maps of forest lands currently in use for grazing (sheep and cattle), so it is possible to avoid waking up to discover that your perfect camp site is now in the middle of a cattle yard. “Multipurpose Use” land is fine, but as a camper in grazing areas, you are second-class to the cattle industry. Best to camp in those areas not allocated for grazing.

    • It’s hard to avoid cows and cow pies on USFS land, as so much of it is used for grazing. Nice to know the Forest Service provides maps, but even if an area isn’t currently being used for grazing, the cow pies and accompanying flies will be there for a long time after the cows have left. Two of our most delightful encounters while boondocking have been with shepherds bringing in flocks of sheep to graze. We wrote about one of those experiences here.


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