Petrified Forest Trail – Skyline Wilderness Area, Rapid City, SD

It was to be the sixth day of a nine day stay in South Dakota and the plan was to keep things local in the Rapid City area. Previously we had spent significant time in the car getting to the Badlands, Mount Rushmore, and Devil’s Tower, and we set the goal for a low energy day.

Online research revealed reports of the 150 acre Skyline Wilderness Area that was located on Dakota Hogback Ridge, a prominence that bisects Rapid City into eastern and western halves. The ridge also hosts Skyline Drive which features pocket parks that offer outstanding views of the city, which were of interest to the photographer.

What caught my attention were references to a Petrified Forest Trail, part of the Skyline Wilderness Trail system. There was not a lot of formal information available and some anecdotal accounts downplayed the site and the amount of petrified wood to be seen. We left the hiking boots in the VRBO, thinking that our loafers would be adequate.

While Google Maps got us to the general area, signage for the specific trailhead was non-existent, and numerous trails were seen on the landscape of exposed stone. One report mentioned that “it starts near the house with the solar panels”. We found a house with solar panels and then criss-crossed Skyline Drive on foot several times trying to find the correct trail. About 75 yards onto a receding slope I found the prominent piece of petrified wood seen in the title photo. Once we were attuned for what to look for amongst the dried out grass, many more pieces were noted.

Most of these were 2 to 6 feet long, except for those in the title photo and below, which were much larger.

At first glance it can look like any other exposed rock, but when studied, woodgrain striations can be seen.

Petrified wood forms when a tree gets rapidly buried by mud, volcanic ash, or other sediment, shielding it from oxygen. The lack of oxygen greatly slows decay. Then mineral containing water seeps into the tree’s tissue pores. As the organic matter of the tree slowly breaks down it is replaced by silica and other minerals. What is left is a rock as such, that mimics the structure and tissue planes of the original tree. For any given specimen this process would take at least 5,000 to 10,000 years.

The wood like structural detail can be seen in this photo.

In addition to the petrified wood this short stretch of trail offered some lovely wildflowers:

Hairy Golden Aster

Panicled Aster

Blazing Star (Liatris)

Other notable color was contributed by low lying roses with rose hips,

and the understated contrasting beauty of what I believe is a small Black Hills White Sage plant. I should have rubbed its leaves to check for sage scent.

And the adventure continued when we got back into our car, rounded the corner on Skyline Drive, and found ourselves at the very kitschy Dinosaur Park. I love the fact that it was a WPA project.

The Brontosaurus was one of many concrete dinosaur statues in the park.

The outing was a fun balance of outstanding views, problem solving, science, nature, and Americana.

In summary, this was the classic case of you can not always trust what you read. Sometimes you just have to investigate things for yourself. The Petrified Forest Trail delivered way more than we expected. We enjoyed the challenge of finding the correct trailhead and then discerning the petrified wood from the other hardscape. It was like a geologic Easter egg hunt. Our “low energy” outing was a tremendous success with up close exposure to petrified wood and quite a few laughs. posts are released every Sunday morning and some bonus content is added periodically. Please click on a social media icon above to follow for future posts and to make sure that you catch all our reflections on, and adventures with, the great outdoors.

Photo credits to Peggy Juengling Burns.


Location – 1412 Skyline Drive, Rapid City, South Dakota

Parking – Asphalt lot for 8-10 cars.

Facilities – None

Trail Conditions – Bare clay and loose gravel. We were only on this trail for approximately 300 yards.

Print Map Link – None.

Benches – There was one at the trailhead from which the photographer and Ellen watched my initial scouring of the area. It had a nice view of the valley below.

Picnic Tables – None.

Kids – Kids over 6 should do fine on the short segment of trail that we hiked. There was one significant drop down/step up on the trail.

Dogs – Welcomed.


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