The Custer State Park Trail Challenge
This summer we decided to take on the trail challenge put forth by Custer State Park. Each year the park challenges locals and tourists alike to hike eight trails within Custer State Park. On each trial there is a bronze medallion with a symbol and the name of the trail on it. The goal of the challenge is to either take a picture of each medallion or do a rubbing on the trail challenge handout they have available at any of the park’s visitor centers.
We picked a Saturday in July to head down to Custer State Park with a couple friends and start earning our pin! We decided to tackle the trails on two different days based on the geographic location of the trails. When we arrived at the park, mid-afternoon on a Saturday, it was pretty hopping with vehicles because all the bison were in one area of the park. It was really fun to see all the babies with their mamas so close to the road! Being locals, we were able to dodge the traffic jam and take a back road to the trailhead for Prairie Trail.
I have hiked this trail before and have always enjoyed it because there are a few stream crossings, which works well when hiking with a dog! In addition, there is a variety of elevation gain/loss but not a lot, so you get to enjoy a variety of views! On this particular day it was super hot so we were very glad when we climbed out of the trees and made it to the prairie portion on the hike. That strong South Dakota breeze never felt so good! We found the trail challenge marker in the prairie and we all had to stop and get a picture. Our dog, Pippie, was the model for the pictures and you can tell she loved it! After an enjoyable three mile loop, we headed back to the vehicle to drive to Stockade Lake.
Stockade Lake Trail
I didn’t know what to expect for a hike when we arrived at the Stockade Lake Trail but I was pleasantly surprised because there wasn't anyone else there except our group, and there were a ton of wild raspberry bushes! The one and a half mile loop hike actually took us a lot longer to complete because we kept on stopping to snack on the sweet berries! The trail itself has a couple magnificent views of the hills and has a bit of elevation gain/loss, more than I was expecting! From there we headed over to the Badger Clark Historic Trail.
Badger Clark Historic Trail
This one mile loop trail takes you through a walking history of Laureate Badger Clark, a South Dakota poet. There is a few spots with a little bit of elevation gain/loss, but overall the trail is easy and very informative!
Legion Lake Trail
The Legion Lake Trail was next on our list and is an easy one mile loop that takes you around Legion Lake, which is a popular spot for swimming! When we finished the quick loop, we headed into the restaurant to grab an ice cream cone! It was a cold, sweet treat on a hot day that was thoroughly enjoyed before we headed to our last hike for the day, Lover’s Leap!
This trail was, by far, my favorite hike of the day because of the amazing views you are awarded with once you make it to the top! It was really interesting to see the fire damage from the forest fire that happened in December of 2017. All along the trail there were burnt trees and holes in the ground where tree bases and roots used to be. The shapes were so interesting and some of the holes were pretty deep! I had never seen anything like it before.
This three mile loop trail is moderately strenuous but absolutely worth the hike! Be extremely aware of poison ivy when you are going by the creek in the tall grasses. We all had long pants on, besides my husband, and he ended up getting a little bit of poison ivy on his legs. When we made it back to the vehicle, I used wet wipes to wipe down his legs as well as our dog. We were camping out that night and we didn’t want any of the oil from the plant to end up on us or our gear. I wore rubber gloves (a staple in my first aid kit) when cleaning his legs and my dog so I would protect my hands. I didn’t end up cleaning near his sock line well enough and that is where he got the poison ivy.
The excitement on the evening was when we came across a HUGE bison in the middle of the trail right after dusk. He had left us a big, fresh, present in the middle of the trail, which is how we knew to look for a bison nearby. We were at a pretty steep spot so we had to down climb to go around him.
We made it back to the vehicles and headed to a beautiful spot to camp in the Black Hills National Forest for the evening!
The following Saturday we got up super early and headed down to Sylvan Lake to finish up the trail challenge. It had torrential rained the night before but I didn’t really think much of it. Well, we get to the Sunday Gulch Trailhead at that was where this little adventure began....a ranging creek was flowing along the first half of the trail, all down through the rock steps, on either side of the trail and was up to our knees in some spots!. Check out our YouTube page, Unnamed Adventures, for videos of the trail. It was scary in a few spots because the current was so strong I was afraid our dog would be swept off the trail and between the rocks. She was a little trooper though and made it through the 2.8 mile loop trail unscathed! We got into our vehicle and headed down the road a little ways to the trailhead for Little Devils Tower.
Little Devils Tower
Due to the absolutely stunning views from the top of Little Devils Tower, this is one of my favorite hikes in the Black Hills. Can you guess what the other one is? Black Elk Peak, of course!
This trail is strenuous and involves some scrambling over rocks to get to the top. The wind once we reach the peak was very strong so after taking some great pictures and more video, we hunkered down between some rocks for a quick meal.
The granite rock was harsh on Pippie’s paws so I put her booties on for the way down. People we passed kept on saying how cute she looked! She sounded like a little mountain goat though…*clippity clop, clippity clop*!
While hiking back down the trail, there is an adjoining trail for the Cathedral Spires. We took that fork in the road and headed down to finish off our trail challenge. We were rewarded with the antics of a few mountain goats high up on the spires! They were awfully cute and we enjoyed watching them for a little bit!
Once we reach the last bronze medallion, we cheered and headed back up the trail and back to our vehicle! We then drove to the visitor center to show them our pictures and rubbings so we each could collect a Custer Trail Challenge pin!
What to Bring when hiking in the Black Hills
A few things to note when going for a hike in the Black Hills: it is always a good idea to be prepared because you never know what you will come across. Having a day pack with plenty of water, at least two liters, snacks, an extra layer, rain jacket, first aid kit, headlamp, bear spray (it also works against other animals, like bison, or humans if danger arises), hat, and proper footwear. The weather can change so quickly and it is so important to be prepared. On one day of our hikes there was sweltering heat. On another day it had torrential rained the night before so everything was very wet and it was a bit chilly out. We were fine with a long sleeve shirt at lower elevation but as we climbed to the top of Little Devils Tower is became cold with the wind. So having a rain jacket and/or warmer layer was important!
If you are looking for a more comprehensive list of gear recommendations check out American Hiking Society.