Ghost Towns in Southwestern Montana

In this post, I review several, cool ghost towns in southwestern Montana.

 

Montana IS the Old West!  It’s full of small, dusty, cowpoke towns where you can just imagine characters like Buffalo Bill Cody and Wyatt Earp walking its streets.  What better way to enjoy that experience than visiting an authentic ghost town?  We saw a few on a recent road trip to western Montana (though there are still plenty more on our list!)  See below for details!

Elkhorn State Park (Ghost Town)

Elkhorn is a tiny town located in the high mountains of southwestern Montana.  It is situated in a lovely valley with a mountain expanse that spreads out before you.  Technically this is a state park but the park portion only encompasses two buildings and a picnic area, the rest of the town is privately owned.  Feel free to walk the local roads though.  There are a number of signs that show where buildings used to be, what they were used for, etc.  

You can reach Elkhorn from the south by taking Exit 256, off of I-90, near Cardwell, Montana.  From here you will take Route 69 north.  After about 25 miles you will turn right on White Bridge Road (it’s literally just a short road that crosses the river on a small bridge.)  Once you cross the river turn right at the T-intersection onto Lower Valley Road.  You then take this road to the town.

There are a few signs for the Elkhorn mountains and Elkhorn state park but don’t rely on these to guide you.  It will be about 40 miles until you reach the town going this route.  As long as you stay on the main gravel road once you reach Lower Valley Road, you should be fine.  These roads are almost all dirt but they’re in good shape for basically any vehicle in good weather conditions. 

You can also reach the town from the north from I-15.  From Exit 164 on I-15 at Boulder, MT, take Route 69 south and then take a left onto White Bridge Road.  The town is about 20 miles from the I-15 exit going this route.

If you continue up the dirt road past town and follow the signs, you will end up at the old cemetery in the woods. (The road is in pretty decent shape in good weather conditions–though we admittedly had a 4×4 truck.  We did see a sedan up there but I’d be careful with any car other than a Subaru or something else with higher clearance.  There were a few ruts and rocks in the road that could damage a lower-clearance vehicle.).

The cemetery was really neat but also very sad.  There were SO MANY graves of babies and children (apparently there was a diphtheria epidemic in the town that killed many children).  You’d see families where multiple children died within just a few days of each other.  I always love visiting old cemeteries.  It’s always very sad to see how frequently young people died, but the histories of the area that you can gather are always so interesting. 

The mine in Elkhorn

Nevada City and Virginia City Ghost Towns

These two towns are also located in southwest Montana.  They are only about two miles apart.  The easiest way to reach them is probably from Three Forks, Montana.  Take Exit 274 off of I-90 for US 287 south.  Then take this road to the town of Ennis and turn right onto State Route 287 (yes, the roads are the same number. 😉)  This road runs right to the towns.  It is around 60 miles to the towns from I-90.

Related Info:  Activities in Nevada and Virginia Cities, Virginia City history, Nevada City history, Bannack HistoryHistory of Elkhorn; 6 Don’t Miss Places for your Western Montana Road Trip

Nevada City was our favorite site of the two.  It is an outdoor museum of sorts.  Once you enter you can then walk around the entire town.  There are many buildings that you can actually go inside that are modeled to look as they would have in their heyday (such as a barbershop, the blacksmith shop, the general store, etc.).  Many of the structures are not native to this exact location, rather they were saved by historical foundations and brought here from around the state to be preserved. (It reminded me a little of the 1880 town in South Dakota.)

Main Street Nevada City

Barber Shop, Nevada City:

One great part about this museum, it was Puppers friendly!

Puppers enjoyed the post office!

Virginia City was ok.  There were some decent sites to see but mostly it was a busy, commercialized town filled with shops, restaurants, and saloons.  Some people enjoy that atmosphere and that’s fine, but the Trekkers (and Puppers) prefer the quiet and solitude of the real ghost town. 😁  The town did offer some historical tours in horse-drawn stagecoaches that looked kind of cool, though we didn’t partake.

Main Street Virginia City (it isn’t quite so ghostly)

Bannack State Park (Ghost Town)

The easiest way to get to Bannack would be to take I-15 to Exit 59, near Dillon, Montana.  From here you will take Route 278 west.  After about 17 miles, Bannack Bench Road will break off to the south (left).  That takes you right to the state park.

Some of the roads to get to the park are gravel, but they were in great shape!  As long as you take it easy and don’t mind getting your car dirty, any sedan should be able to handle the drive in good weather conditions.

Main Street Bannack

The jails in Bannack
You can see where the prisoners were chained

Bannack is AWESOME!  It’s one of the better preserved, true ghost towns I’ve ever seen (meaning it’s still in its original location and the buildings are in fairly good shape.)  They let you just wander around the town on your own, you can go in the buildings (that aren’t locked) AND you can bring dogs!

A smoky sunset over wild Montana
Puppers and I searching for ghosts at sunset
Inside the schoolhouse

Rules for teachers written on the schoolhouse chalkboard:

My favorite are no wearing bright colors over that scandalous one petticoat! 🤣 

Not gonna lie, I couldn’t help imagining myself descending these stairs in a hoop skirt!

If you can make it work I STRONGLY recommend camping in the park, it’s about a half-mile walk from the campgrounds to the ghost town, and being there in the evening as the light wanes is AMAZING! (If you choose not to camp the park is open till 9 at night, in the summer).  The campgrounds are rustic (read vault toilets) but they were cute, well-maintained, and quiet.  This was our favorite stop of the trip and Mr. Trekker’s favorite campground (mostly because of the access to the ghost town.)

Our cute little campsite at the Bannack State Park campground
View of Bannack from the hill above the town
Sleepy puppy after chasing ghosts! (BTW that seatbelt harness she’s wearing is AWESOME!)

Though they weren’t nearly as good as the ones we found for Colorado, I did find a series of books that is helpful when visiting Montana ghost towns:  

This volume didn’t cover EVERY town we’d like to see but it did review many of them.  I’ll look into getting one of the other volumes when we go out for our next trip.  The book focused mostly on the histories of the towns (which is always interesting) but it did give a quick synopsis of how to find the town at the end of each section.  It even made helpful suggestions such as, “it is not advisable for any vehicles towing trailers to approach using the southern route.”

Bannack and Nevada/Virginia Cities are only about 80 miles apart.  While you can certainly enjoy Nevada City and Virginia City on the same day, I would encourage you to save one whole day for Bannack.  This will allow you to fully enjoy that park and give it the time it deserves.   

Ghost towns are such a great way to experience history and gain an appreciation of the “cushier” lives we lead today.  So if you find yourself in southwestern Montana, check out some of these cool destinations!

Have you been to any of these awesome ghost towns?  Are there others we should put on our list?  Let me know in the comments!

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Do you enjoy immersing yourself with the ghosts of yesteryear? Check out these cool ghost towns in southwestern Montana!

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6 Don’t Miss Places for your Western Montana Road Trip

In this post, I detail sites we saw on a road trip through western Montana.

It all started with some AMAZING huckleberry bear claws… 🤤  In 2016, on our trip to Glacier National Park, we visited Polebridge, Montana.  They are famous for their homemade, huckleberry bear claws that are baked at their Mercantile (for good reason, they are AMAZING and totally worth the drive!)  Mr. Trekker has been craving these delicious delicacies since that trip.  We decided our Pennsylvania road trip from earlier this summer didn’t involve enough camping to slack our urge 😉, and since we didn’t get many good road trips last year (thanks COVID 😝) we decided we deserved two this year! 😁  So we headed out for a western Montana road trip!

Places to Eat in Western Montana

We found some great places to eat on our trip!  I mention a few of them below:

Montana Wheat bakery (throughout the state):  this place has AWESOME cinnamon rolls and pastries that are made locally.

Lake City Bakery and Eatery (Polson, MT):  We acquired yummy pastries from this locale and then enjoyed them at Boettcher Park which sits on the southern shores of Flathead Lake.  It offers prime views of the lake (where we learned that Puppers is afraid of waves, even small ones. 😂)

Burrito Brothers (also in Polson):  We got another AWESOME breakfast from this small shop.  They offer a variety of burrito choices including both breakfast and lunch options and they’re open throughout the day!

Freestone Ice Cream (Hamilton, MT) and the Virginia City Creamery (found in the Virginia City ghost town!):  check out the yummy huckleberry ice cream at these locales!

Red Lodge Cafe and Lounge:  They make a great breakfast sandwich!

For more fun places to check out in this area, check out my post on Ghost Towns in Southwestern Montana!

Polebridge Mercantile in Polebridge, Montana

Despite a wildfire in the area, we made it to Polebridge and got our huckleberry bear claws…and yes, they were DELICIOUS! (For more info about this little piece of paradise, click here!)  Polebridge is a TINY hamlet that sits only about 20 miles south of the Canadian border. (For those keeping track at home, the Polebridge Mercantile is exactly 923 miles from our house! 😁)  They also have some great sandwiches that we enjoyed by the creek later!

Polson/Flathead Lake KOA Review

I struggled with whether to include this info.  I always try to keep this blog positive, however, this experience was so disappointing I felt like I needed to say something.  The campground was LOVELY.  It was set back from the road so it was fairly quiet, and it offered beautiful views of the lake and nearby mountains.  We were excited when we got there because it seemed SO NICE. 

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows we prefer to stay in national forest campgrounds.  They’re usually more secluded, quieter, prettier and you’re more likely to see wildlife.  However, western Montana is prime grizzly habitat (and since they scare the CRAP out of me, especially after this incredibly unfortunate incident) we decided to opt mostly for KOA’s this trip.  I will be the first to admit, KOA’s are basically the most “vanilla” camping experience you can possibly have (but the showers and flush toilets were LOVELY! 😉)

Unfortunately, the tent campsites were AWFUL!  The facility literally parked the tent sites onto a gravel parking lot.  It felt like whoever designed them had never tent-camped a day in their life. 😔 

The tent sites are on pebble tent pads (which are ok) but they are surrounded by gravel…there was only a small amount of lawn that we could reach next to us (and the sprinklers came on for that at midnight and sprayed half our campsite too, getting our chairs and towels wet and hitting the fence and waking us up. 😒)

The sites offered almost no shade so they just BAKED under the sun.  We avoided ours until at least 6 at night as it was so hot.  The first night the hot pebbles radiated heat into our tent all night. 🥵  To top it all off they wanted us to park our car elsewhere (not too far away, but still.)  Um, we are CAR CAMPING, all our stuff is stored in the truck so we go to it, A LOT!  KOA isn’t known for great tent sites but these were the worst we’ve ever had. 😕

I’m sorry but THIS is not worth $50/night. 🙁

I will say the showers and the Pet Exercise area were nice.  The views of Flathead Lake were also great and the mountains would have been gorgeous…if we could see them through the smoke. 😝 (This issue was obviously not the fault of the campground.).  Bottom line, if you want to be an RV resort, that’s fine, just tout yourself as such and don’t bother with the tent sites.  Or, if you want to offer options for all types of camping, PLEASE don’t make your tent campers feel like second-class citizens. 😡

Flathead Lake

On a much more positive note, Flathead Lake is situated in far, northwestern Montana, less than 50 miles southwest of Glacier National Park.  It’s the largest freshwater lake in the Continental US west of the Mississippi and it is AWESOME!  The view reminded me of Sebago Lake in Maine. (I reviewed a trip we took to that lake, several summers ago, here.)

Looking north from the southern tip of Flathead Lake
The sun rising over the haze-enshrouded Rockies (those would be the dark blur below the sun that you can barely make out through the smoke). 😝
The sun reflecting off Flathead Lake

*You may notice a lack of the beautiful, landscape, vista pictures, that I usually post.  That would be because on this trip, we could hardly see the mountains due to all the smoke and haze. 😩  The West is burning ya’ll! 😪  PLEASE pray to Whatever/Whoever you pray to, send positive vibes, good wishes, white light, or whatever your spiritual “thing” is, but we NEED RAIN out West.  It’s crazy seeing some of the flooding in other parts of the country/world while out here the landscape just BAKES under the hot sun. 😭  Climate change SUX!!! 😡  

I’m glad we’ve visited this area before so we know how beautiful the landscape actually is.  A few times we could barely make out tall, mountain shapes looming through the yellow-brown gloom. 😪 (We did get lucky that even though we drove through some very smoky areas, none of our campsites were inundated with wildfire smoke.)  The morning we woke up to the sound of rain on the tent it took me a while to remember what that sound was! 😯  And then I rejoiced!  It’s a beautiful sound and we didn’t even mind packing up a wet tent in the drizzle. 😁  

Hungry Horse Dam in Hungry Horse, Montana

We also saw the Hungry Horse and Kerr Dams.  The Hungry Horse Dam is located just south of Route 2 in Hungry Horse, just west of Glacier National Park.  It dams one of the forks of the Flathead River and creates the very scenic and very LONG Hungry Horse Reservoir.  The dam is over 500 feet tall and is one of the tallest ever built by the CCC (and is one of the largest of its type in the country).  It was cool to see!  If you stop at the Visitor Center there are even some tours available of the dam and its workings.

Hungry Horse Dam
View from Hungry Horse Dam

Word to the Wise:  The view in the picture above is similar to the one we saw from the Gunsight Pass Trail in Glacier National Park–the portion of the trail that starts from the Jackson Glacier Overlook which is found off the Going to the Sun Road. (I reviewed that trek here.).   Often, if you know where to look (and have a little bit of luck), you can see similar sites to those found in national parks just outside the park boundaries where there are fewer crowds.  After all, it’s all the same countryside!   

Kerr Dam in Polson, Montana

The Kerr Dam was REALLY neat, they had a great little boardwalk path down the canyon wall that offered prime views of the structure. (Be warned, the path was a little steep and could be HOT in the sun.  It could also be slippery if wet. We had a nice breeze and a rain shower when we were there at 6 pm so it was pretty nice, we also had the place to ourselves at that time of day.  This could also be a bit of an uncomfortable walk if you’re afraid of heights.  It didn’t bother me as there was a nice railing but you’re basically walking along a knife-edge cliff that drops off on both sides.)

The dam is on another fork of the Flathead River on land owned by the Flathead, Salish, and Kootenai tribal people.  The US government leases the dam from the tribes which provides them revenue.

Kerr Dam

Views from the Kerr Dam Overlook:

Traveler’s Rest State Park

Traveler’s Rest State Park is pretty cool!  It is located near the intersection of Routes 12 and 93 in Lolo, Montana.  This site’s claim to fame is that it is the only confirmed campsite of the intrepid explorers, Louis and Clark.  How do they KNOW this is the case, you may ask?  Well, the answer is kind of gross actually! 😂

A recreation of Louis and Clark’s camp!

The location of the camp was long suspected to be in this area.  An archeological study eventually found higher-than-normal amounts of mercury in soil samples gathered here.  It was known that the exploration party carried mercury pills to be used to help “expel sickness from the body”.  As it turns out, the soil the archeologists had found was the site of the camp’s latrine! 🤥  Once this spot was confirmed, the scientists were then able to locate other remnants of the camp using previously known camp arrangements.

Don’t believe me regarding the story of how they confirmed this was the site of the camp? Read the sign! 😁

Similar to the trees I discussed in my Gettysburg National Battlefield post, Witness Trees have also been identified at the site of the Louis and Clark camp! (These are trees that have been determined to be old enough to have been here when the camp was here.)

The camp’s three Witness Trees:

The Salish Tribe

One of the prominent, early tribes in this area was that of the Salish People.  I loved how many of the local signs are written in both English and Salish.  It is a beautiful language to see written.  It looks almost Cyrillic (Russian) but is actually completely unique to this tribe.  I found a neat book that gives a Salish glossary.

This is so neat! It’s one of those “wildlife bridges” on Route 93 between Missoula, MT and Polson (on the Flathead Reservation). Notice the Salish language included on the sign.

Our evening with the Hells Angels 😮

When we arrived in Red Lodge, Montana, one evening, near the end of our trip, we noticed LOTS of bikes (motorcycles).  We’ve always loved Red Lodge but have only been there in the early summer, it’s a bit busier during the prime season. 😝  We should be used to this living so close to Sturgis but we hadn’t anticipated all these bikers may want to ride the Beartooth Highway (duh!)

So, we were like, “oh, ok.”  Then we noticed, “Hey, that guy has a Hells Angels cut on…and so does that guy over there…and over there is a cop…and over there is another cop…those guys over there are wearing Hells Angels cuts too….and over there is another cop…”…yeah…the Hells Angels were apparently having their annual gathering in Red Lodge that week. *sigh* 🙄 (For the record we had no problems at all and the few HA’s we talked to were VERY friendly–they liked Puppers. 😉)

Beartooth Highway (Beartooth Pass)

On our final day in Montana we traveled up the Beartooth Pass a bit to see the view.

We were actually killing time until a local store, Lewis and Barks opened. (You’ll notice it’s a play on words of the two explorers mentioned earlier.)  As you may guess by the name, it’s a pet-based store.  We figured Puppers had done so well on her first real trip with us that she deserved a souvenir too! 

Finally, we took a nice, country drive on several back roads (Route 308 east out of Red Lodge, then picked up Route 72 north to Route 310 southeast.  We took that to Lovell, WY where we picked up Route Alt-14) to our final campsite of the trip in the northern Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming!

Puppers checking out the view on Beartooth Pass!
Puppers enjoyed the OVERLY FRIENDLY chipmunks at the Vista Overlook on the Beartooth Highway.

So there you go, 2000 miles and 7 days later…we saw some great sites, we ate some DELICIOUS huckleberry, bear claws and we had a fun time!  Check out some of these great locales for your next road trip around Western Montana! 

Have you visited any of these places?  Tell me about your experience in the comments!

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A land full of rugged beautiful, wild animals and wide, open spaces! Read on for 6 places note to miss on your western, Montana road trip!

 

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Wyoming’s Bear Lodge Mountains

In this post, I review a weekend we spent in the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming.

 

The Trekkers tried out a new spot recently, the Bear Lodge Mountains, also known as the Wyoming Black Hills.  We stayed at the Reuter Campground.  It is easy to reach, as it is less than two hours from Rapid City.  It is also just a short drive north of Sundance, WY (and I-90).

This was a typical, rustic, National Forest campground.  Potable water is available in-season, there are campfire rings and picnic tables at each campsite, and the campground offers vault toilets.

The campsites were decent, this was one of the first times we had an “inner “site so it was closer to other campers.  Usually, we go for “outer” sites but there were none available by the time we made reservations.  This meant we had to deal with more noise from other campers which is something we are usually able to avoid.

This campground wasn’t my favorite.  It was fine, the were plenty of large and shaded sites, but the host wasn’t as available or on top of things as we usually experience. (As an example, the trash DEARLY needed to be changed when we arrived.  It’s usually not a good idea to have full trash cans at a campground, at the START of the weekend, in the height of summer. 😝  She also seemed to have a hard time remembering who she had and hadn’t checked in already. 🙄)

We noted another campground in this local area was actually closed and was looking for a host.  It seems that campgrounds may be experiencing the same lack of available employees that so many other businesses around the country are right now.

Hiking in the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming

We enjoyed several different hiking trails in the area.  Though many were overgrown, they were very well marked with signs and markers.  Just watch out for ticks, snakes, and thistles in the tall grass. 😯

Carson Draw Trail including the Carson Draw Spur #1, the Carson Cut Across, and the Reuter Springs Trails

We made a loop out of a portion of the Carson Draw Trail, which we then took to the Carson Draw Spur #1, then went on to the Carson Cut Across, and then the Reuter Springs Trail…

The Carson Draw Trail offers a lengthy and groomed cross-country ski trail in the winter months that is around five miles long.  I think this would be a lovely area for skiing.  We may also return for a day trip this fall to check out the leaf colors.  We saw several aspen groves that would likely be lovely.

Looking down Reuter Canyon on the Reuter Springs Trail

Unfortunately, going in this direction means that the Carson Draw Spur #1 trail is almost completely an uphill hike.  It isn’t overly steep, it’s just a long hill.  It was a former forest road so it is plenty wide and graded though it was rather overgrown.

The Carson Cut Across was much nicer.  It was short (less than a mile) with only a small amount of elevation gain.  It was also nicely shaded and more like a typical, single-track, hiking trail.

Even though it meant a long uphill slog on the Carson Cut Across, I would recommend taking this loop counterclockwise as we did.  It means prettier views of the Wyoming prairie and grasslands opening up before you, on your way down the hill, as you exit Reuter canyon on the Reuter Springs Trail.  Also, portions of the Carson Draw Spur #1 trail were VERY STEEP as you went downhill shortly before it reached the Carson Cut Across.  I was happy we didn’t have to hike UP that!

Warren Peak Fire Lookout Tower

Warren Peak Fire Lookout

The Warren Peak Fire Lookout Tower works in conjunction with the Cement Ridge Tower, which sits to the southeast, on the border of South Dakota and Wyoming. (I discuss that lookout here).  It offers 360-degree views of the surrounding mountains and prairie.  On a clear day, you can see portions of Montana, Wyoming, the mountain Crow Peak in South Dakota, Devils Tower just a scant 20 miles away, all the way to the Bighorn Mountains much farther to the west!

Devils Tower as seen from the Bear Lodge Mountains:

Cliff Swallow Trail

So, I am NOT trying to be a Negative Nellie here but we did NOT see ANY swallows OR their nests on this trail! 😝  The only place we could have possibly seen them was one overlook fairly early into the hike where we saw some cliffs across the canyon.  They were probably a good half-mile away though and we couldn’t see any birds using the binoculars.  We’ve definitely seen more of these cool featherlings on other trails that don’t even advertise themselves as “Cliff Swallow” trails. 😝  So I’m gonna have to give this trail a rating of…FAKE NEWS! 😂

This trail can also be done in a loop.  I would again recommend taking it counterclockwise.  Going this route you start at the bottom of the canyon and travel along the bubbling, Beaver Creek.  The trail went through some very lush greenery, with lots of deciduous trees and ferns (this also meant it was VERY green…and humid. 🥵)  There was also little breeze down in the canyon and there were TONS of cobwebs strung amongst the greenery that spanned the trail (thanks to Mr. Trekker for taking one for the team on this one and going first, to knock them all out of the way.  See guys, THIS is how you woo a lady. 😉)

Cook Lake as seen from the Cliff Swallow Trail

As you continue down the trail you ascend some mild switchbacks that take you up the hill.  Here you will notice a transition to a drier, ponderosa-pine-forest-environment that is more typical of the Black Hills.  There was also a blessed breeze at the top and it was less humid (though there could be more sun depending on the time of day as you’re traversing the canyon rim at this point).  Our experience was the entire trail was a mix of sun and shade and we were there around the middle of the day.

Again, I strongly suggest you take this loop counterclockwise.  The ascent of the hill is more gradual and you’ll have nice views of the lake as you emerge from the canyon.  If you go clockwise the trail goes straight up the hill! 

This isn’t a bad trail at all, older kids could certainly handle it. It was definitely shorter and easier than the Carson Draw/Carson Draw Spur/Carson Cut Across/Reuter Springs loop (thankfully because it was also HOTTER that day! 🥵)  That trail wasn’t bad either, though.  I would probably give both a rating of “moderate”, just on opposing ends of the spectrum.

Cook Lake

To finish the second day of hiking, we took a back road out to Devils Tower, just because it was close and we could. 😉  Also, the Devils Tower General Store sells ICE CREAM! 🍦😀😀  

That monolith points to ice cream! 😁
Sleepy puppy after hiking!

In general, these Hills seem to be more lush and overgrown than is typical in the South Dakota Black Hills.  They reminded us more of the lusher ecosystem you find in the northern portions of our Hills.

Not sure if this may indicate they are wetter and may mean they have fewer wildfires here on average (as you don’t hear about them much.)  This could also explain why we found there were fewer good lookout/viewpoints here, many of our open spaces in the Black Hills come from burn scars. 😝

I found I didn’t like the Bear Lodge Mountains quite as much as the Black Hills we know and love.  They were more rustic and less developed.  They actually reminded me a bit of State Forest State Park in Colorado (you can read about that little-known location here and here!)  It seemed less organized, you were kind of left more on your own to figure things out.

It wasn’t nearly as busy and touristy as the South Dakota Black Hills though this also meant it was far less crowded. (Admittedly we only experienced a small corner of this area.)  It made me think of a green island rising from the sea of brown that is the dry grassland of eastern Wyoming. 😇

Have you ever been to the Bear Lodge Mountains of Wyoming?  Tell me about your experience in the comments!

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For a unique adventure, check out a little-known and lightly-traveled corner of the Black Hills, the Bear Lodge Mountains!

 

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Hiking Black Elk Peak, Trail #9: the Easy Way!

In this post, I detail the main route up Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills.

Black Elk Peak trail (Trail #9) is one of the most popular hikes in the entire Black Hills.  It summits Black Elk Peak, which is the tallest peak in the Hills (at over 7000 feet in elevation) and it is also the tallest mountain in the entire country east of the Rockies!

In this post, I am reviewing the route that traverses the south side of the mountain.  This is the easiest way up Black Elk Peak.  You can also attempt Trail #9 from the north.  For a review of that trail, which is only lightly traveled and is FAR more strenuous than the southern route (in my opinion it is one of the hardest trails in the entire Black Hills) click here.  

Where is the Black Elk Peak Trailhead?

The trailhead is located within Custer State Park.  It is adjacent to the picturesque Sylvan Lake.  You can reach it from the east side of the main parking lot at the lake, which is found just off of Route 87.

When is the best time of year to hike the Black Elk Peak Trail?

You can hike this trail any time of the year (weather-permitting that Route 87 is open so you can get to the trailhead).  Always remember that because this is the highest portion of the Black Hills, it tends to get more snow than the surrounding areas and that snow tends to stick around longer.  Also, this trail is VERY popular, even in the winter months, so the snow on it gets packed into very slippery ice.  At a bare minimum, traction devices such as Yaktrax are a MUST during the snowy months.

As with the majority of Custer State Park, you can take dogs on this trail.  Please keep them leashed though.  Unlike many other trails in the Black Hills, you should expect to have A LOT of company on your hike, at least during the busy season. 

Black Elk Peak is the new name for Harney Peak

Black Elk Peak is located within the Harney range.   The name of the mountain was changed from Harney Peak just a few years ago so many signs and maps still carry the old name.  The new name honors Black Elk, a Lakota, Holy Man who died in 1950.  The wilderness area that the peak is located within was named after him, as well.

*If you’re interested in learning more about this great man and the rich, Lakota culture, check out the book Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt.  Neihardt wrote this biography after interviewing Black Elk near the end of his life. 

The Holy Man had an incredibly rich life filled with diverse experiences from growing up in a nomadic tribe on the South Dakota Plains to traveling the world with the Wild Bill Hickok Wild West show!  Black Elk was even at the Battle of Little Bighorn where General Custer was killed.  In the book, he discusses how everything changed when “the yellow metal that makes white men crazy”–-his name for “gold”–was found in the Black Hills.

What is the Black Elk Peak trail like?

The trail is quite wide and graded, with very little rock-scrambling required (until you get to the summit).  Due to this, I would give it a rating of Moderate.  The only things that make this trail difficult are the length (it’s over seven miles long, out-and-back, and can easily take 4 – 5 hours to complete) and it sits at a high altitude.  Throughout the entire hike you never drop below 6000 feet, so expect to feel the lower oxygen levels present at this higher elevation.  You will get out of breath and tired more quickly and you may feel dizzy (or like your head is “swimming”.)

The summit can be a little daunting.  As with much of the rest of the Black Hills this area is left primarily to nature.  There are very few fences or barriers between you and the cliff edges that surround the summit of the mountain.  If you are responsible you can very safely enjoy this site.  Just be watchful with small children and pets.

All that being said, this trail is family-friendly as long as you know your limits and take your time.  I would recommend hiking boots (or at least sturdy shoes) for this hike but I’ve seen people do it in simple sneakers and even flip-flops or sandals. 😮

It’s a long way down!

The other concern here is the weather.  It can change incredibly quickly.  It can also be drastically different here than the lower elevations in the rest of the park or the surrounding countryside.  The peak is solely made of granite rock, there are no trees for shade or protection.

While the hike does meander through the Black Hills National Forest, this portion of it was decimated by the pine beetle epidemic just a few years ago so there are many areas that were left bare of trees. So don’t expect a lot of shade to hide you from the sun in the summer. 

There is also little protection from the wind.  If a thunderstorm pops up while you’re on the mountain (which can frequently be expected during the afternoon in the summer months) you should immediately trek back down the trail and get to an area with more trees and protection!

What will you see on the Black Elk Peak Trail?

The panorama that greets you at the summit is unrivaled anywhere in the Black Hills (you’re taller than everything else so there is nothing to block your view! )  We are talking a 360-degree vista of the entirety of Custer State Park, the town of Custer to the south, Rapid City to the north, and the plains that spread to the east of town!  On clear days you may also be able to spot the Badlands, which is almost 100 miles to the east (bring your binoculars!)

The view from 7000+ feet high!

Much like the rest of the park, this route is the perfect place to see the wide variety of flora (plants) and fauna (critters) that call Custer State Park home.  These include mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer (both whitetail and mule), elk, chipmunks, and the squirrels who will chatter at you along the way.  There are also coyotes, mountain lions, and bobcats, though you are less likely to see these shy animals. 

Harney Fire Tower

There is an incredibly picturesque fire tower at the top of the peak and to my knowledge, it still bears Harney’s name.  It was built in the 1930s and rumor has it the infamous burrows that can be spotted in other portions of the park are descendants of the pack animals who were used when the fire tower was in service.  The tower is no longer in operation, but it is still maintained and can be climbed!  For more info on the tower, click here!

First glimpse of the Harney Fire Tower!

This trail is not “easy” but it is quite doable for almost any able-bodied hiker.  Plan to spend an entire day at Sylvan Lake and hiking the Black Elk Peak trail, it is most definitely worth that much time!  Enjoy the trail, appreciate the summit and the splendid beauty of the Black Hills that surround you.  This is a fun trek with incredible views and I would encourage anyone who has even the slightest interest in hiking to try it out!  You’ll be glad you did!

 

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Looking to bag one of the most popular peaks in the Black Hills? Read on for details on hiking Black Elk Peak!

 

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Hike the Hell Canyon Trail in the Black Hills

In this post, I review the Hell Canyon trail located near Custer, South Dakota

The Hell Canyon Trail is found in a very scenic portion of the southern Black Hills.  It was once quite forested until it was decimated by the Jasper Fire in 2000 which was one of the worst fires on record, ever, in the Black Hills.  You can still see remnants of this damage (though they have begun reseeding this area, so hopefully it will be returned to the forest in a few years).

Funnily enough, the canyon was named BEFORE it was ravaged by the fire.  The ruins of that event do make it look a bit like a hellscape though! 😮

Puppers and I enjoying the trail along one of the canyon walls that was left bare as a result of the Jasper Fire.

Where is the Hell Canyon Trailhead?

The Hells Canyon trailhead is located in far southwestern South Dakota pretty much in the middle of nowhere. 😉   It is situated 25 miles east of Newcastle, Wyoming, or a little more than 10 miles east of the Wyoming state line.  It is also less than 15 miles west of Custer, South Dakota, basically a mile west of Jewell Cave, on US 16, on the north side of the road.

A word of caution:  if you just put “Hell Canyon” into your GPS it may try to take you to a remote spot south of the highway.  This area is beautiful, but these roads can turn into 4WD roads VERY quickly and easily, especially in snowy or muddy conditions.  You can certainly enjoy driving in this area but do so with caution and at your own risk.  The actual Hell Canyon trailhead can be reached by any vehicle as it is just off of US 16.  No 4WD required!

The paved road at the bottom of the canyon is US 16, you can see how easily accessible the lane to the trailhead is (the dirt road).

What is the Hell Canyon trail like?

Hell Canyon is a loop trail that is about 5.5 miles long and really only covers a small portion of land.  The right side, or eastern branch, of the trail traverses the floor of the actual canyon while the left side, or western branch, is found on the canyon rim.  In many places, you can see the lower portion of the trail from the upper portion.

You can really take the loop in either direction.  During the warmer months, the Trekkers prefer to go counterclockwise, starting with the climb to the top of the canyon wall.  This gets the only moderately difficult portion of the trail out of the way early.  This area also has little to no shade, due to the Jasper Fire, so depending on what time you set out, it may be best to try to do this section during the coolest portion of your hike.

A cool pic of the canyon wall!

The exception to this is if you’re attempting the hike during the colder months and you WANT the sun.  Also, the portion at the back of the canyon that descends the forested part of the canyon wall can become INCREDIBLY icy during the cooler times of the year.  We made the mistake of descending this way once and had to pretty much do the entire thing by crab-crawling and sliding on our backsides to keep from careening over the cliff edge (and this was WITH YakTrax traction devices on! 😮 )

What Will You See on the Hell Canyon Trail?

You will see a variety of ecosystems on the hike.  The canyon floor itself is forested and quite green and lush, with a creek running through it.  The upper canyon rim consists of dry, arid grassland.  This is the portion that was hit by the fire.

A placard at the trailhead that gives info on the fire

On the backside of the canyon (the north end), at around the halfway point through the loop, you will see the ruins of an old CCC camp.  There is also evidence of an old, paved road in this area, as well as some root cellars and small, cement foundations leftover from the camp days.

There are a few places along the canyon rim that can feel a little sketchy to people who are afraid of heights.  As long as you are careful there isn’t a lot of danger on this portion of the trail, but it can be disorienting as you’re basically just staring down a scree slope.

This is one of my favorite parts of the hike. The red rocks of the canyon rim make a VERY pretty contrast to the dark green trees that sit just below it.

If you’re looking for a fun, moderately challenging hike that isn’t very busy, check out the Hell Canyon trail!

 

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Hell Canyon is a lightly-trafficked, moderately-difficult hike that includes many unique ecosystems found in the Black Hills!

 

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Little Devils Tower, Cathedral Spires and Needles Highway Loop

In this post I review a loop hike made from two popular trails and a scenic road, all amidst the beauty of Custer State Park!

While there are many great hikes in Custer State Park, one of my favorites is an awesome loop trail that connects the Cathedral Spires to the Little Devils Tower trails and incorporates a portion of the Needles Highway.

You can do this loop any time of the year, but I suggest extreme caution if you try it in the summer.  It includes either a lengthy overlanding stretch which requires scrambling over steep, unmarked terrain, or it means you have to walk along the narrow, CROWDED Needles Highway.

Where are the Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires trailheads?

You can reach both of these trails from the Sylvan Lake area, which is found off of Route 87 in Custer State Park.  Both are accessible throughout the year (weather permitting) though you can’t drive directly to the trailheads during the winter months. (You can access them via a spur trail from Sylvan Lake or other connector trails in the local area.)  See below for directions to both trailheads:

Little Devils Tower Trailhead

This is found just past the turnoff for Sylvan Lake. (Continue on Route 87 a little less than a mile south of the turnoff for the lake.  You will see a sign for the trailhead on your left and will make a left-hand turn into the parking lot.)  You can’t reach this trailhead by car in the winter months as the road is closed in that area.  In this case, you can access the Little Devils Tower trail via an easy spur trail that is located on the western corner of the main Sylvan Lake parking area.   

Cathedral Spires Trailhead

This trailhead can be found less than one mile south of the Needle Overlook on the Needles Highway (Route 87). (Note, this is south of the turnoff for Sylvan Lake.)

Extreme caution should be practiced in this area.  The parking lot is small and is located at a bend in an extremely curvy and narrow portion of the Needles Highway.  It is necessary to cross the road to reach the trailhead and in the summer this area is frequently crowded with traffic.  The curves and rock walls can greatly reduce a driver’s visibility and cars are sometimes parked incorrectly as well, further exacerbating the problem.

As the Needles Highway is closed in the winter, that time of year you can only access this trail by car if you do it via a connector trail (such as the Little Devils Tower trail).

This is the junction where the Little Devils Tower trail meets the Cathedral Spires trail

What will you see on the Cathedral Spires/Little Devils Tower/Needles Highway loop?

The loop can be completed in any direction, or you can hike each section individually.  The Trekkers find it easier to start at either Sylvan Lake and take the spur to the Little Devils Tower trail or to just drive to that trailhead directly.

This route is especially enjoyable during the winter months (roughly November through April depending on the weather) because the Needles Highway is closed to all vehicles during that time.  You can still hike/snowshoe/ski it though!  It’s so cool to be able to slowly and calmly enjoy this route, and all the beautiful views it offers, in peace.

No offense tourists, we love you guys!  It’s just that during the busy, warm months, all the bustling of cars, busses, and motorcycles makes us miss our quiet, peaceful Hills. 😇   

See below for a description of each trail:

Little Devils Tower

This trail is around two miles long, in each direction.  It is fairly wide and smooth and isn’t overly difficult (it does ascend the entire way out but the grade is low).

If you know where to look, the fabled Poet’s Table can also be found in this area.  If you want a few hints on how to find it, click here.  

Near the summit, the last several hundred feet does require scrambling over large, steep boulders.  There are some absolutely gorgeous vistas on this trail, and from the summit, you can get great views of the Cathedral Spires…

Cathedral Spires Trail

You can reach this trail directly from the Little Devils Tower Trail.  At one-and-a-half miles in each direction, the hike is fairly flat, smooth, and well-marked.  At its terminus, you will find yourself in an amphitheater.  It is surrounded on three sides by rock spires that reach to the heavens as they tower overhead.  Sounds reverberate off the rock causing a cacophony of noise.  This is a prime area to stop for a quick lunch break and it is especially haunting in the fog when it creates a spooky, almost fairy-tale-like scene.

The Cathedral Spires!

Needles Highway

This connector section of the trail offers incredible views of Custer State Park and the town of Custer that sits directly to the south of the park.  On clear days you can also see the plains that stretch to the east and south.  It is truly a beautiful area!  Watch for mountain goats here too as they favor the rocky, granite crags that this part of the state is known for.

Can you spot the mountain goat?
Puppers and I entering the Needles Eye Tunnel! Can you believe full-sized busses fit through here?! True story!
The Needles Eye!

The entire loop is around 9ish miles in total length so it’s a little long.  However, there isn’t a lot of elevation gain as you’re already at one of the highest points in the Hills and the routes themselves aren’t difficult.  I would rate this as a moderate hike.

So, if you’re looking for a fun and scenic way to see well-known parts of Custer State Park, check out this loop trail made from the Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires trails, and the Needles Highway!

 

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For a great, off-season, hike in Custer State Park, check out this loop that combines Little Devils Tower/Cathedral Spires trails and the Needles Highway!

 

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Empire Mine, Black Hills of South Dakota

In this post, I review a trip to the “secret” site of the Empire Mine, found in the central Black Hills.

Author’s Note:  I struggled with whether or not to write this post.  I wanted to blog about this location because it is a cool place and I love sharing the history and beauty of our Black Hills with others.  However, it is a bit of a secret spot and I didn’t want to be “that guy” who gives away closely-held, local secrets.  My personal policy is to not offer more directions to these types of sites than are already available on Google.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much to be found regarding the Empire Mine…

My main goal with this policy is to protect the site from vandalism and/or destruction.  We have unfortunately had these types of issues in some local places such as the Spokane ghost town and the iconic Poet’s Table, as of late.  For this reason, my directions below are intentionally vague.  If you want clearer instructions on how to reach the site, you may contact me via social media as indicated below, or by using my contact form, and I may be able to help you a little more. (I got some helpful directions from a friendly and helpful local so I am willing to pay their goodwill forward and do you the same favor. 😀)

 

There is a somewhat well-known, secret location many people enjoy hiking to in the central Black Hills.  It is the site of the now-defunct Empire Gold Mine!  You can reach the ruins of this mine via the Samelius trailhead, which is part of the Black Hills Centennial Trail.

That’s it.  Those are my directions. 😇  I told you they would be vague! 😉  I don’t feel like these approximate instructions are giving anything away as this much is available on the AllTrails site.  That page also offers a little more information as to the whereabouts of the mine, including a vague map.  Also, I knew the mine could be reached from this trailhead for quite some time and that didn’t aid me in finding this secret locale (maybe I’m just not that bright? 😂 )

The storehouse at Empire Mine.  At one point in time trucks could drive here.

What is the trail to the Empire Mine like?

The trail to the Empire Mine is about 4.2 miles in total length, out-and-back.   You should be aware, a goodly portion of the route going out is downhill…you know what that means for a goodly portion of the path coming back?! 😝  The trail is also fairly obvious the entire way.  Much of it follows old forest roads and the portions that don’t are heavily used so they are well-trodden.

When is the best time of year to visit the Empire Mine?

The hike is a bit lengthy but it isn’t overly difficult.  Some of the trail sections could become quite icy during the colder months, especially as this route sees a lot of traffic that can pack the snow into hard ice.  If the weather has been particularly wet recently, or during the spring thaw when snow is melting, mud could also make this trail slippery.

Another ruin from the site’s mining days. You can see how dilapidated the buildings are becoming.

These factors could make the downhill portions of the route troublesome, so please use caution.  The hike is especially lovely in fall when the trees change color!  This is because along the way you walk near several aspen groves that turn a brilliant, golden hue (hey look, another clue as to the location of the mine! 😉)

What is there to see at the Empire Mine?

Some of the main ruins that remain of the mine are the brick loading area and a VERY large copper funnel.  Those are found at the bottom of the hill.  As you work your way up the hill you will encounter a number of buildings and mine equipment that still remain in the forest.

A WORD OF WARNING!  The mine was built in the late 1930s so these buildings are OLD!  They are made of wood that has weathered and has not been maintained in many years.  PLEASE do NOT enter them.  Also, watch your step throughout this area as portions of the ground (especially near some of the buildings) are degrading into sinkholes.

A large funnel that was used at the mine

This is a pretty neat site to visit.  It is also not that far from several nearby, Black Hills’ towns and it isn’t really that hard to reach IF you know where you’re going.  If you’re interested in some of the mining history of the Black Hills I encourage you to look into this secret locale.  Just please, treat it with the historical respect it deserves, and don’t ruin the site for those who come after you.  *stepping off my soapbox now* 😇 

Have you visited the site of the Empire Mine in the central Black Hills?  Share your experience with me in the comments!

 

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Looking for a historical, hidden gem of the Black Hills that is easy to reach and nearby? Check out the Empire Mine...if you can find it!

 

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Centennial Trail Between Bear Butte and Alkali Creek Trailheads

In this post, I review the northern portion of the Centennial Trail that runs between Bear Butte State Park and the Alkali Creek trailheads (this also includes Fort Meade) in the northern Black Hills.

The Trekkers have been taking advantage of our mild winter weather this year and have been ticking off more sections of our goal to hike the entire Black Hills Centennial Trail (in pieces, we’ve been working on this goal for the last decade. 😝)

This winter we’ve been slogging our way through the northern portions of the trail.  Today’s post is going to focus specifically on the sections that run between the Alkali Creek trailhead and Bear Butte State Park (Fort Meade is included in this).

Where can you find the Alkali Creek, Fort Meade, and Bear Butte trailheads of the Centennial Trail?

When hiking the Centennial Trail from these trailheads you can choose to start from whichever one you’d like and can travel northbound or southbound from any of them.  All of these are pretty easy to find as they are all close to populated areas (namely I-90 and Sturgis, South Dakota).  See below for specific directions to each:

    • Alkali Creek trailhead:  located adjacent to I-90 across the highway from the Black Hills National Cemetery at Exit 34.
    • Bear Butte trailhead:  found at Bear Butte State Park which is northeast of Sturgis, SD on Route 79.
    • Fort Meade trailhead:  located on the eastern edge of the Fort Meade historical site off of Route 34, just east of Sturgis.

What will you see on the Black Hills Centennial Trail in the Northern Hills?

This whole area sits in the shadow of Bear Butte, meaning it offers spectacular views of that unique formation.

Bear Butte is a “sister” volcanic plug to Devils Tower that is located in eastern Wyoming.  The American Indians who named this geological formation gave it this name as they thought it resembled a sleeping bear. (I think it more resembles a sleeping stegosaurus or dragon, but the tribal people probably wouldn’t have been familiar with these critters, so I’ll give it to them. 😀)

The idea of the bear plays into the American Indian legend of the giant bear who scored the sides of the Tower with his claws, leaving the large columns of igneous rock behind.

The Centennial Trail between Alkali Creek and Fort Meade trailheads

My favorite of these sections is the portion between Alkali Creek and the Fort Meade historical site in Sturgis.  As its name would imply, Fort Meade was originally built as a fort in the late 1800s.  It now features a museum, multiple historical buildings, and a VA hospital.

As you venture near the fort you start to see many historical buildings popping up along the hiking route.  One was just an old ( but beautiful) stone fireplace and chimney.  Another looked to be old, stone barracks.

On the Centennial Trail, looking towards Fort Meade from the north

On the Alkali Creek portion, we made a loop of the Centennial Trail and through the Fort Meade Recreation Area.  This place is awesome!  I had heard about it before but had never been there.  We’d definitely like to go back and do more of the trails.  They would be perfect for mountain biking or horseback riding, in addition to hiking.

We brought roads 11 and 12 back to the Alkali Creek trailhead to complete our loop.  They were much easier and quicker than the way out as they were mostly on old forest roads.  Be aware though, this section has no shade as it traverses the grassland portion of this trail.

The Fort Meade historical site

This section of the Centennial Trail is VERY pretty.  It is comprised of forested hills (much like the rest of the Black Hills) and prairie sections.  There are lots of different ecosystems and flora represented here, ranging from pine forests to prairie grassland.  It made me wonder if this is what Bear Butte looked like, before the fire in 1996?

Bear Butte, the sleeping bear (or sleeping stegosaurus, if you prefer. 😉 )

This portion of the trail is comprised of a bunch of up and down sections, but nothing too terribly steep or long.  It reminded us of some of the Devils Tower hikes in Wyoming where you are hiking through the trees but can still look out over the plains.

While one portion of this hike is VERY close to I-90 (the highway is maybe half a mile away?) it isn’t very noisy because you’re in the forest on the “other” side of the hill!  Yay science!

The Black Hills Centennial Trail between Fort Meade and Bear Butte trailheads

The rest of this section of trails is comprised mostly of just prairie and prairie dogs. 😊  We did spot a grass fire to the north as we were hiking along.  That was a little disconcerting as were surrounded by highly flammable material. 😮

We weren’t too worried as it was quite a ways off, we could see the authorities were already on scene, and the wind was blowing the fire away from us.  It did get us thinking about what we would do if a fire was to come racing across the grassland while we were hiking through it. 😝  There was a farmhouse nearby we could have run to or there were some small cow ponds scattered nearby.  These may not have been very clean or nice but they would have sufficed in a pinch! 😂

Take note that these portions of trails could be VERY warm in the summer (which is partially why we enjoyed them this winter).  Much of the Centennial Trail in this region traverses grassland with no shade to speak of anywhere.  While the brisk, South Dakota breeze usually accompanies you, you won’t be able to escape the unrelenting sun. (Between the hot sun and that breeze–plus the fact that the air is usually quite dry here–you can dehydrate quickly and easily.  Not only do they dry you out, but the constant breeze and dryness can make it so that you don’t even realize how much you are sweating.)

That being said, this portion of the Centennial Trail is a great hike!  It offers some amazing views and it is easier than many portions of the trail that are further south.  This is because the altitude is lower here and the elevation changes are far more minimal.  So if you’re looking for something fun to do, check out the Centennial Trail in the Northern Black Hills!

 

Have you tried out any of these routes?  What did you think?  Tell me about your hike in the comments!

 

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For an easier, yet still scenic portion of the Black Hills Centennial Trail, hike the Alkali Creek to Bear Butte section (which includes Fort Meade)!

 

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Barnes Canyon Trail in Custer State Park

In this post, I review a newer, not well-known trail in Custer State Park.

The Barnes Canyon Trail is a relatively new hiking option located within Custer State Park.  It is a great path as it is broad and easy to follow (being that it used to be a road). 😉  Because it is so wide and well-graded it is appropriate for almost everyone in your party.

Where in Custer State Park is the Barnes Canyon Trail?

The trailhead is located on the eastern edge of the park, near Custer State Park Airport.  It also connects through to the Badger Clark Memorial Trail which is located off of Route 16A, found farther west, and deeper within the park. (I discuss this portion of the trail in another post.)

How long is the hike?

The hike is around 10 miles in total length (4.7 miles in each direction).  You only have to traverse as much of it as you want, of course.  The road is out-and-back and was once used for forest and logging access. (It has now been closed to motorized vehicles.)

Many old maps show that the trail makes a loop. We didn’t see any obvious evidence of this on our hike.  We found on several websites that the loop can be difficult to follow as one of the sections is heavily overgrown, not well-maintained, and not well marked. If you want to try the whole loop be my guest, but be sure you have good maps and a compass with you as it may require some bushwhacking of your own trail.

This road is basically what the entire tail looks like
 What will you see on the Barnes Canyon Trail?

The route includes hills and dips, but traveling east to west it generally traverses uphill. It isn’t a very steep or difficult trek, however, so it should be appropriate for almost anyone.  In several places, it offers nice views of the surrounding prairies and wooded hillsides.  While the majority of the trail mostly runs through forestland, you do cross a few meadowy areas, as well.

One nice thing about this trail is that it allows you to get out into the middle of Custer State Park.  Here it is quiet and far from the many tourists that are frequently in the area.  You may spot many different wildlife on your trek including deer, buffalo, elk, and bighorn sheep, not to mention a wide variety of birds and other forest critters.  This is also a very quiet hike as the trail does not run near any major roads.  Use your time here to soak up the tranquility, peace, and natural sounds of the forest.

When is the best time of the year to hike this trail?

This trail is appropriate to use at any time of the year, though it could be difficult to reach in deep snow or very muddy conditions.  Also, if you attempt this hike during the colder months, you may want to bring traction devices, such as Yaktrax, to help you manage any icy sections that may form in shaded areas, especially on hills.

If you’re looking for a great trail that isn’t difficult but offers some beautiful views of the flora and fauna that make up the amazing scenery of the Black Hills, check out the Barnes Canyon Trail in Custer State Park!

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Want a great hike that is family friendly and will help you see the quieter side of Custer State Park? Check out the Barnes Canyon Trail!

 

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Willow Creek Trail Black Hills

In this post, I review the Willow Creek loop trail!

One shorter trail the Trekkers really enjoy in the Black Hills is the Willow Creek Trail (trail #8)!  I like this route so much because it isn’t super difficult.  Anyone can reach the trailhead with any vehicle (in good conditions).  It’s also fairly short with no lengthy or super difficult climbs, so anyone in decent condition should be able to manage it.  This trail is appropriate for all ages, children, adults, and four-legged friends! 

Related posts:  Hiking the Boulder Hill Trail; “Secret” Hiking Trails off Sheridan Lake Road; Coon Hollow Trail; Little Elk Creek Trail; Flume Loop TrailStratobowl near Rapid City

The trail also sticks to the lower altitudes in the Black Hills and doesn’t offer any major elevation changes, which makes it easier.  This route allows you to get out into the Hills, to experience their beauty, to view some of the more rugged parts of the Hills, and to really experience getting out into the wilderness, on an easily accessible and hikeable trail.  It’s almost perfect!

This trail is Puppers approved!
Where in the Black Hills is the Willow Creek Trailhead?

You will find the trailhead at the Willow Creek Horse Camp which is off of Route 244, almost directly across from the Mt. Rushmore KOA Resort at Palmer Gulch.  It sits about 6 miles to the west of Mount Rushmore and around 3.5 miles east of the junction of US 385 and Route 244.  There is a short lane to reach the trailhead that is dirt, but it is well-graded and appropriate for any type of vehicle (in good conditions.  It may be impassable in deep snow.)  There is also a large parking area with plenty of room for numerous vehicles.

This trail doesn’t “go anywhere” per se. It does connect to the Black Elk Peak trail (trail #9–the hard way!) which is the northern route up the tallest mountain in the Black Hills.  It also connects to the Lost Cabin Trail which is another fun hike in this local part of the Harney Range.

How long is the Willow Creek Trail?

This trail is a 2.5-mile loop, that you can take it in either direction.   I recommend trekking it counter-clockwise.  This means you will face the two steepest, uphill climbs earlier on in the hike when you are most fresh.  Also, if conditions are iffy at all–wet, snowy, or icy–it is usually easier to handle these while climbing rather than on the downhill. (It is better to work against gravity in these situations.)  This left (or east branch) of the trail does have a lesser amount of shade.  When the weather is cool this means it’s more likely to be warmer, though in the hotter months the sun can beat down on you in this section.  

What you will see on the Willow Creek Trail

While the entire trail is fun, the prettiest portion of it is on the right (or western) arm of the loop.  This area is one of the lowest and flattest parts of the trail.  It comprises mostly a riparian habitat (or one that is near a creek).  It’s lush, vibrant, fairly cool, and shaded during the summer months.

Willow Creek!

One of the prettiest parts of this section of the trail is a small waterfall that is formed by the creek.  A short side path will lead you to it.  It is especially pretty when it is frozen in the winter, though use care when walking on and around the ice.

Below is a video Mr. Trekker took of the frozen waterfall:

 

If you’re looking for a fun trail to hike in the Black Hills that is easy to reach and appropriate for almost anyone, check out the Willow Creek Trail!

 

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Looking for a fun trail, that is accessible and is a great way to enjoy the beauty of the Black Hills? Check out the Willow Creek Trail!

 

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