While solitude isn’t hard to find at any time in the Black Hills, it’s especially abundant in the fall. That being said, on a sunny, warm fall day you’ll still encounter other hikers on such popular trails such as those in the Harney system. If you’re really searching for solitude and introspection, hike the Deerfield Lake Loop.
Full disclosure, I haven’t hiked the entire 11-mile loop; I’ve done several sections in an out-and-back fashion. One of my fall plans, before much snow flies, is to hike the full loop in a day with my four-legged hiking buddy. When I’ve hit the loop trail, I have yet to encounter another person. It’s not surprising when looking at the trail, which while evident, is hardly that deeply trodden dusty singletrack we know so well from other, more-traversed trails.
First of all, in my totally unscientific opinion, the Deerfield Lake area is one of the coldest in the hills, sitting at around 6,200 feet in elevation. This usually means decent early-forming ice and decent snow cover. So if you hit it in the winter, you might end up snowshoeing, but that’s another post. However, in a nice fall like the one we’re having, there’s no ice forming yet, so if you want to bring a fishing pole, go ahead.
While there’s open water, your pooch can grab a drink from the lake, though the trail doesn’t follow the shoreline, it does lead away from the lake several times, so some water for Fido is a good idea in warm weather. However, just because the water is open in Rapid City or even Spearfish doesn’t mean Deerfield is ice-free (see my comments above).
The trail is an 11-mile loop around Deerfield Lake, built from 1942 – 1946 by 500 men who worked under the Mennonite Central Committee for alternative service during World War II. On average the lake is 30 feet deep, and up to 90 deep near the dam and boasts both brook and rainbow trout. The area is also well-known for wildlife, including deer, elk, and bald eagles. There are several nests in the area, so it’s a pretty good bet you’ll see the large raptors soaring around the lake.
Earlier this fall, we came across a pair right by the trail, inadvertently spooking them out the tree. Where’s the picture you ask? By the time I got my heart under control after it nearly stopped, the eagles had climbed well into the sky.
You can choose from three trailheads, Gold Run, North Shore or Custer Trails. Why is there a trailhead named after Custer at Deerfield? Lieutenant Colonel Custer’s expedition camped there in 1874; the town later founded was originally called Castle Creek (which is the name of the creek dammed to make the lake), but was eventually renamed Deerfield. The town’s buildings were moved when the dam was built.
If you’re used to hiking in the Black Hills, you may expect some serious elevation gain since many trails start lower and climb. However, Deerfield is high to begin with, so the hiking is fairly gentle rolling hills. Of course, since this up-and-down is still at approximately 6,000 feet above sea level, you’ll may still huff and puff. Be prepared for some downed trees across the trail; we encountered three so far this fall, and they’ll be there until spring.
The loop trail gives you both open prairie as well forest terrain, and many views of the lake. It’s perhaps one of the area’s most varied landscapes available in one trail. You may start in open grassland, but after a few miles, you’ll feel like you’re deep in the forest. But watch yourself or you could end up stopping to take hundreds of lake photos; I speak from experience.
If you plan to hike the full trail in a day, give yourself plenty of time and pack accordingly. There are no services along the trail, so you’re on your own. As stated above, don’t expect to run into anyone else on the trail either, so be sure to let someone know where you’re going and which trailhead you’ll use.
Getting there: Take Highway 17 (Deerfield Road) west out of Hill City for 14.6 miles to Forest Service Road 465; it’s just a few hundred yards to the Gold Run parking area. If you want to start from the North Shore trailhead, keep on Deerfield Road for another 4 miles to Forest Service Road 461 where you’ll see the trailhead parking area. The Custer Trails trailhead is about 20 miles from Hill City, staying on Deerfield Road until Forest Service Road 417; the trailhead is about 1.5 miles down FSR 417. For a map, click here.