One of our favorite loop hikes in the Black Hills is found at the Big Pine trailhead which is located about 30 minutes from Rapid City on Route 244, approximately 3 miles west of Mt. Rushmore and 1/2 mile west of Horsethief Lake. If you’re traveling west on 244, you’ll see the parking area for the trailhead on your right shortly after passing the entrance to the Horsethief Lake Campground. This loop encompasses part of the larger Centennial Trail which actually travels both directions from this trailhead. We usually travel south on the Centennial Trail (#89) until it connects with the Horsethief Lake Trail (#14) which we then take back to the Horsethief Campground–the middle portion of the trail also runs along with the Willow Creek Trail (#5).
This loop does require you to walk along Route 244 or through the Horsethief Lake campground and hike offtrail through the forest for about 1/2 mile to return to the Big Pine Trailhead, but either are very doable. I would suggest staying off the road as it winds a good deal through this area and has no real shoulder so drivers’ views can be impaired. You can easily hike through the forest though while keeping the road in sight so as not to lose your way. The entire trip runs a little over 3.5 miles and takes 2 – 3 hours depending on your speed, how often you stop, etc.
This lovely trail can be enjoyed throughout the year. Note that near the starting point, there has been considerable logging done in the area to deal with the residual dead trees due to the recent Pine Beetle infestation. The trail is usually well marked, but there are some points where it’s easy to lose your way as markers have fallen with the removal of the trees they were anchored to. The loop can be completed in any direction, though traversing it counterclockwise and ending with the Horsethief Lake portion of the trail seems to allow for the least amount of climbing, so that route is the option we prefer.
The trail starts with an uphill climb, but then levels off as it parallels a creek for a peaceful jaunt through a narrow canyon with imposing rock ledges looming high overhead. I always imagine spotting a big cat sunning itself on the ledges, though we’ve never seen one (we have seen tracks near the creek, however.) Near the path’s end, the hike takes you through picturesque, rocky outcroppings before you descend with the creek back to Horsethief Lake. Be warned, much of the Horsethief Lake Trail is in a shaded area. The descent of the creek makes for a delightful frozen waterfall environment that lasts well into Spring, but the nearby rocks that the trail traverses also become layered with ice and can be VERY slippery. This is not a difficult trail but the ice can make it hazardous even into late spring. We always bring Yaktrax! with us when enjoying this trail that time of year.
The canyon and creek portions of the trek are mostly shaded so they allow for a cooler hike in the summer months and offer lovely color viewing opportunities in the fall. This trail can also be combined with others in the local area including further portions of the Centennial and Horsethief Lake Trails and the Willow Creek Trail that traverse farther into the Harney Wilderness.
Get out and enjoy this nearby trail!