This is my favorite running trail, bar none. I try to run this at least once a year, more often if I can. It’s also a great trail for walking or even bicycling if the kiddos are just finding their cycling legs.
The trail begins at the Custer State Park Visitor Center parking lot, and runs along Galena Creek and U.S. Highway 16A to Grace Coolidge Campground. Along the way, you’ll be treated to several landmarks.
I always take the shady route through Game Lodge Campground rather than the trail by the highway. You can catch glimpses of the creek and avoid the sun if you want.
Next, you’ll run by State Game Lodge. Built in 1920 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it served as the “Summer White House” for President Calvin Coolidge in 1927. President Dwight D. Eisenhower visited it in 1953.
The meadow beyond takes you near Peter Norbeck Education Center, named for former South Dakota Governor, U.S. Senator and conservationist Peter Norbeck. Norbeck is credited with the creation of Mount Rushmore and the state park system. The CCC built the Center as the Park Museum in the early 1930s. It then became the Visitor Center before its current use today as an Education Center. The CCC also built the fire towers on Mount Coolidge and Black Elk/Harney Peak, as well as many other improvements in the Park. For more information about the CCC’s efforts, check out the CCC museum just east of Hill City.
The trail runs by an old one-room school house; the trailhead for Lover’s Leap, a popular 4-mile hike to a stunning view of the park; and a favorite wallowing spot for Custer State Park’s renowned buffalo herd. If you see a bison, do not approach and give them a very wide berth. You will also go by the recently-renovated Game Lodge Chapel, which offers non-denominational services each Sunday throughout the summer.
After that, Coolidge General Store was first built to house President Coolidge’s White House staff when he used the State Game Lodge as his summer residence. The trail runs through the parking lot around the back side of the laundromat, meandering along the creek through the woods. The store was built by shipwrights, and its roof is an inverted ship hull.
As you reach the the current State Park Office, note that is the former site of the Warren-Lamb Lumber Company, which provided timber for the Rapid City mill. A sawmill sat near the current location of the State Game Lodge until the timber stands were depleted.
The trail then runs up a small hill - up which you may need to walk the bikes - then through a beautiful wooded area graced by granite, wildflowers and pine. Running in the early morning, I’ve seen deer and Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep along this part of the trail near Grace Coolidge Campground. The trail concludes at the far end of the Campground. For a full 5 miles, run back to the Visitor Center parking lot.