Lover's Leap Loop

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Trip Date: Thursday, September 20th, 2018
Last Updated: Wednesday, December 5th, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Moderate
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 3 miles roundtrip
Time 2 hours
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

The Lovers' Leap Trail is so named for the rocky outcropping with a sheer drop where two Native American lovers jumped to their deaths once upon a time. (I can't seem to find more to the story than that statement, so let's pretend it was a Romeo and Juliet forbidden love situation that led to a suicide pact). Whether or not the story is true (it is coincidentally similar to most other stories about the myriad other places dubbed "Lovers' Leap" in the U.S.), there is no denying that Lovers' Leap has a fantastically romantic view of the Black Hills and the canyon that U.S. Highway 16A runs through. Unlike other hikes to a major overlook, the beauty continues as you descend into a narrow canyon with a picturesque stream filled with granite rock formations and the delightful deciduous trees and shrubs that make this a premier fall color hike. Thanks to this wonderful scenery and the challenging but short trail, this is one of the most popular hikes in the park.

From the parking area outside the Peter Norbeck Education Center, use the crosswalk to reach the paved path on the other side of the highway and turn left (heading east). After crossing a footbridge, cut across the grass to find the trailhead behind the small building -- the trailhead is clearly marked with a map. Start the hard climb uphill and follow the path as clearly marked with blue arrowed diamonds posted on the trees, as pictured below.

Blue blazes help you navigate the trail

Blue blazes help you navigate the trail

When the trail splits, go left to complete the loop in a clockwise direction, saving the best part of the hike for last and allowing you to enjoy the creekside scenery without trudging uphill. The trail will continue climbing until you reach a curve, revealing a slight view through the wildfire-charred trees, pictured below. Now the trail levels out and climbs only gradually up until the final push to Lovers' Leap.
Views through the pine forest scarred by past fires

Views through the pine forest scarred by past fires

After a final bit of uphill, you'll reach a sign about Custer State Park with a view of the sheer granite cliff known as Lovers' Leap. Take the side trail to the right of the sign and carefully ascend the steep, rocky incline to to earn tremendous unobstructed views of the Black Hills, as shown in the two pictures below. On a clear day, you can see far across the rolling Black Hills, but unfortunately it was cloudy and hazy during my visit.
The view across the canyon into the Black Hills

The view across the canyon into the Black Hills

Looking southwest past the rocky ledge of Lovers' Leap

Looking southwest past the rocky ledge of Lovers' Leap

Continue on the trail after you've enjoyed the view, and you'll be happy to know it's all downhill from here! The trail winds through more ponderosa pine forest into the canyon where you'll encounter the stream and craggy granite formations pictured below. The environment down here is incredibly lush, filled with overgrown grasses and deciduous plants that make this scene especially vibrant in fall. Wandering next to the stream is the most enjoyable part of the hike, even moreso than the view from Lovers' Leap in my opinion.
The stream at the bottom of the canyon

The stream at the bottom of the canyon

Previously (and as the park's website incorrectly states about this trail), the several stream crossings had no bridges and risked your feet getting wet. As the picture below shows, you can now choose your own adventure at each crossing, either taking the plank bridge or hopping across the rocks. Every single crossing has a bridge of some sort, but it may not be obvious since that newer path is less traveled.
You can choose to cross the bridge or ford the stream

You can choose to cross the bridge or ford the stream

Eventually the trail veers away from the stream and reenters a grassier, more open version of the pine forest in the beginning of the hike, as in the first picture below. On the left, you'll soon see the road, some park buildings, and a cluster of RVs. While this is one of the least scenic portions of the hike, the trail's location on the edge between the forest and the grassland at the bottom of the valley is an ideal environment for deer. I was lucky enough to find a mother and child pair, shown in the second picture below.
The meadowy forest on the last stretch of the trail

The meadowy forest on the last stretch of the trail

A mother deer and her child lurking in the forest

A mother deer and her child lurking in the forest

Near the end the trail's loop closes on itself, and you'll turn left to descend back into the valley on the same route you took here. I hope you enjoy this hike -- with a towering rocky overlook and such lush streamside scenery, it's no wonder that this is one of the most popular hikes in Custer State Park! Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Dogs are allowed on leash anywhere in the park except for inside buildings or on designated swim beaches. The strenuous uphill nature of this hike makes it too difficult for young children, but older kids will definitely appreciate the views and the fun stream crossings in the latter portion of the hike. Unfortunately, the hilly nature of Custer State Park leaves few family friendly alternatives, but there are options in the other nearby parks: Wind Cave National Park and Black Hills National Forest. You can access this hike all year. Winter conditions may obviously make the hike more difficult, but navigation needn't be a concern with blue blazes in the trees to mark the trail. The ever present shade of the pines makes this hike great even on a hot summer day. This is one of the most popular hikes in Custer State Park, so expect to see plenty of people.

Directions

From Custer, take U.S. Highway 16A east to enter Custer State Park. Just after the Coolidge General Store, turn left to park at the south end of the lot for the nature center.

From Rapid City, take South Dakota Highway 79 south, then turn right onto South Dakota Highway 36 in Hermosa. Continue straight to continue on U.S. Highway 16A. Just past the State Game Lodge, turn right to park at the south end of the lot for the nature center.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Entrance into the park is $20 per vehicle for a weekly pass or $30 for an annual pass. The Peter Norbeck Education Center has flush toilets, water, and (of course) educational exhibits.

External Links

Nearby Hikes

Norbeck Overlook

Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota
★★★★☆(4/5)

Presidential Trail

Mount Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
★★★★☆(4/5)

Breezy Point

Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota
★★★☆☆(3/5)

Black Elk Peak Loop (South Dakota State Highpoint)

Custer State Park, South Dakota
★★★★★(5/5)

Comments