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"Black Hills National Forest offers visitors a multitude of recreational opportunities   
throughout all seasons. Hiking, fishing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and riding
off-highway vehicles are popular in summer and early autumn . . . Hundreds of miles
of miles of trails and roads offer a variety of terrain for mountain bikers." 
~ from the Horsethief Lake Campground webpage
And even more trails in the Black Hills are open to hikers/runners than to cyclists, so both Jim and I have a bunch from which to choose.

Today I chose to hike on four trails that were new to me. Two have trailheads at Horsethief Lake, located off SD 244 about two miles west of the famous Mount Rushmore National Monument. I reached the third one, near the midpoint of the 111-mile long Centennial Trail, from the Horsethief Lake Trail.

View of Horsethief Lake from the campground

The fourth trail, located nearby inside Custer State Park, is a loop in the hills above Stockade Lake. 

In this entry I'll show photos from those trails and the scenic road that goes past Mount Rushmore. In Part 2 I'll describe the rest of my driving tour though Custer State Park and Wind Cave National Park, where I saw lots of bison, pronghorns, white-tailed deer, prairie dogs, a friendly burro, some longhorn cattle, and other critters.

Baby bison at Wind Cave

Cody liked the pop-up prairie dogs the best! They are truly fun to watch and quite a temptation for a curious Labrador retriever.


This was a beautiful day for my hikes in the Black Hills and Jim's bike ride on base. It was perfectly sunny all day with temps in the mid-60s F. in the Hills and mid-70s in Rapid City.

Cody and I left the campground about 8 AM and spent all day in the Hills. I didnít get back until about sunset (~6:30 PM). Jim preferred to remain on base to ride his bike, run some errands, and do some maintenance on the camper.

I took US 16 south of Rapid city to US 16A through the historic town of Keystone, where I stopped briefly to check out two historic buildings. This is the town's first schoolhouse, a cabin built in 1895:

Next to it is the newer school built in 1899, a handsome Victorian building that is listed on the National Register of Historical Places:

Now a museum, I was hoping to see inside but I got there before it opened.

I also snapped a photo of this old Victorian train depot built in 1880 and still used as a gift shop and place to buy train tickets for rides through the Black Hills:

South of Keystone I turned west on SD 244 past Mount Rushmore and made my first stop to hike at Horsethief Lake a couple miles past the monument.

It was a serendipitous find. Iíve never been to this lake and hadnít even read anything about it before seeing it this morning. My original goal was to hike from the trailheads at Willow Creek, farther to the west.

Here's a map section of this area, which shows part of the Harney Range trail system:

Click here for a larger version of the whole map or here for a map of Custer State Park.

Mount Rushmore is the green section on the right. SD 244 is the wavy black line near the top of the map. I highlighted Horsethief Lake, Willow Creek CG, Harney Peak, and the three trails I hiked at and below the lake.

I've been to Mount Rushmore previously but had forgotten about all the views visitors can get from the road. Here's one as you approach from the east:


Quick -- name all four of these presidents . . .

I don't remember ever driving on SD 244 west past the entrance to the monument. The highway continues for several miles through scenic park and national forest lands.

I was delighted to go around a bend on the left side of the statues and see this profile of George Washington from the road! I took the next picture from inside the truck, then parked at the overlook to read the interpretive panels and take more pictures:


Profile in granite:  Washington's head is 60 feet tall.

That was my first neat surprise of the day. There would be lots more.

I continued driving down the road and came to Horsethief Lake soon after exiting Mount Rushmore park property.

Driving west toward Horsethief Lake


I could see Horsethief Lake on my paper map of the Harney Range trail system. When I got there I decided to drive back the half-mile dirt road to see what was back there.

That was a good decision. It's a very pretty little lake, there is an interesting path around half of it with wooden bridges and fishing decks, and there is a nearby trailhead for a path that connects to other trails in the Harney Range.

In addition, Cody and I had the lake to ourselves for half an hour. There was only one other vehicle in the two parking areas I passed. I never saw anyone else around the lake or on the Horsethief Trail, which intersects the Centennial Trail in less than a mile.

This manmade lake, formed in the 1930s when the Civilian Conservation Corps dammed Pine Creek, is smaller than Stockade Lake but just as scenic. The CCC built many roads, bridges, dams, lodges, and picnic shelters in the Black Hills. Its legacy also includes forest conservation projects.

There are very nice dirt trails and wooden walkways, bridges, and piers with seating on the south and east sides of Horsethief Lake:


The highway is on the north side, with two pullouts and interpretive signs. I stopped there later when I was done hiking in this area.

From the higher overlook I was surprised to see a Cameo 5th-wheel coach drive over the dam:

If you don't have time to drive back to the rather small parking area on the south side of the lake -- or you're in a large RV that would have difficulty turning around back there -- you can enjoy great views of the lake from the two large pull-offs on the highway:

A handsome arched footbridge crosses Pine Creek on the other side of the lake.

I followed a wide dirt trail uphill to the Horsethief Campground, which has closed for the season:  



This campground is run by the National Forest Service. The sites I saw were all rather small but had magnificent views of the lake and excellent access for fishing. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout every year and also supports yellow perch and golden shiner.

Cody and I did about 1Ĺ miles of walking around the lake. He was happy to get in the water a couple of times.


I moved the truck closer to the Horsethief Lake trailhead before I began my second hike. I didnít know about this trail, either, until I drove back to the lake parking area.

The 2.7-mile Horsethief Lake Trail is in the Black Elk Wilderness Area so I had to fill out another form and put it in the box like I did when I went up Harney Peak.

This trail is just a few miles north of the 7,242-foot peak but I couldnít see it from any point on my hike today.

I did see lots of neat rocks, though. The trail weaves around tall granite rock formations and passes through beautiful, shady terrain with towering ponderosa pines and colorful stands of aspens and birch that light up the forest in autumn:





The Horsethief Lake Trail surface is mostly rocky, although there are some smooth places. It gains about 300 feet in elevation over 3/4 mile to its intersection with the Centennial Trail.


The trail follows a little creek that had water in it for Cody:

This part of Horsethief Lake Trail is in a watershed so horses and bikes aren't allowed on it. Equestrians may ride on the remainder of the trail after its intersection with the Centennial Trail.

The total length of Horsethief Lake Trail is only 2.7 miles but it connects to other trails in the Harney Range from the Willow Creek trailhead so folks can ride their horses a good distance in this area.

Continued on the next page . . . 

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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© 2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil