This trail is one of our favorites, especially if we only have a couple of hours. This 4-mile loop gives you a great sampling of the best the Black Hills have to offer: old pine, beautiful rocky outcroppings, a terrific view, and a pretty brook winding through lush deciduous woods.
The trailhead is located behind an old school along Highway 16A between Game Lodge Campground and Coolidge General Store. We always go to the left, tackling a steep rocky climb through old pine forest to the rocky outcropping called Lovers Leap. Along the way, keep an eye peeled for glimpses of the meadow along 16A, as we frequently see buffalo grazing along the road. You can also catch breathtaking views of neighboring summits through the trees.
The eastern half of this hike also tells a story. In 2017, the Legion Lake Fire swept through 54,000 acres of Custer State Park, destroying thousands of trees, dozens of buildings, and leaving behind scars for years to come. The fire was started when a strong wind blew down a tree that hit a power line and caused sparks to ignite the pine-beetle-devastated forest. Today, you can see where the fire charred the trunks of old pines. These trees are still struggling to survive, with their top halves still sporting new growth each year. There is some deadfall here, where foxglove and Russian sage have moved in to claim the area razed by fire. As you continue up to the summit, some large areas of the forest were left untouched, showing you how fickle Mother Nature can be.
The summit is named Lovers Leap because, according to legend, two Native American lovers leapt to their deaths there. At that point, you have a spectacular view for miles around – including Mount Coolidge, Harney Peak and Cathedral Spires.
The trail continues down to a draw that follows the gurgling Galena Creek for a mile or so. Keep an eye out for poison ivy here. It encroaches on the trail and reaches out for bare ankles and legs – so long pants or long socks are recommended. There are several water crossings that offer opportunities for dogs that like a short wallow in a cool creek. Almost all of them have makeshift bridges, so are usually easy to navigate – unless it’s a year with heavy rains, which tend to wash out the bridges and leave you wading through the water or hopping from rock to rock.
The last mile of the hike heads back up the hill behind the staff quarters through the old pine forest. Watch for buffalo here – they like to hang out in the tall grass carpeting the hill.