Dakota West’s Deerfield Trail

Custer Trails Campground at Deerfield Lake Recreation Area.  My finish line!

The Black Hills National Forrest has an incredible network of trails.  In the last month since moving to Keystone to work at Mount Rushmore for the non profit History Association I’ve had the chance to run and hike a bunch of them in South Dakota and Wyoming.

One of the newer trails is #40, the Deerfield Trail.  Established in 1992, the National Forest Service and Volunteer Groups have maintained 23 miles of pure trail running bliss.  While my favorite local trails are literally in our backyard in the Black Elk Wilderness I wanted to take on a little challenge that ended at a camp site with a lake view my better half didn’t mind waiting for me at.

We woke up at 4:30am to have breakfast and be on the road by first light.  Since my girlfriend Amy was dropping me off and proceeding to the finish we took a longer route so she was familiar with the dirt forest service roads which have a county road number also and makes map reading a challenge sometimes.

Small town USA! Rochford was a railroad town and is now a stop on the Mickelson Rail to Trail path.

I hit the trail around 7:30am from the Deer Creek Trailhead.  It was clear, sunny, and 34 degrees Fahrenheit.  Amy bid me a good run, reminding me to enjoy myself.  I forgot I was retired and told her I’d probably see her by noon.  The direction I was traveling was a net gain of about 2,000 feet from 4,000 to 6,000 feet above sea level.  Yes, South Dakota has hills!  The total vertical gain for the entire trail in the direction I ran was 4,000 feet of formitable climbs and 2,000 feet of quad busting decent.

The initial climb up from the Deer Creek Trailhead to the junction of Centennial Trail #89 quickly woke me up.  After I left the shared trail section I had to negotiate some downed trees but was rewarded with a ridgeline view of two mule deer to my left prancing and two white tailed deer to my right running.  The steepest descent of my day was down 1,000 feet to Pactola Resevoir before mile 3!

Kudos to the Black Hikls National Forrest Service for marking the trail appropriately!  The deer footprints are very fitting.

After a creek crossing by Jenny Gulch and another little climb I was rewarded with amazing views of Pactola to the east with birds flying overhead and chirping encouraging me along through the meadow.  At the edge of Silver City the trail joins the paved road into the tiny town for a short bit before traveling down a dirt road along Rapid Creek.

This section is flat following an old road and railroad bed.  There are about 3 concrete bridges circa 1965, 1962, and 1961 over Rapid Creek after the parking lot for the walk-in fishing access.  Schist Canyon walls towered above me as I continued upstream crossing a couple wooden pedestrian bridges.  This three mile stretch is known for cross country skiing in winter.  Every so often the sun would shine down over the canyon walls on the water helping make a motion picture with the soundtrack provided by the rushing water.  Birds continued to serenade me.  Geese and ducks took advantage of the grassy patches and slower moving sections of water.  Goose Pasture Draw no doubt takes its name from these waterfowl.  

After five miles of criss-crossing Rapid Creek on beautiful wooden bridges I came to the confluence of Castle Creek and Slate Creek where they become Rapid Creek.  I followed the muddy horse trail up Slate Creek.  Here the foot bridges were washed out or overgrown so I was mainly following the horse tracks.  This section would be difficult to mountain bike.  

Perhaps my favorite part of the day was running up to Flanagan’s Cabin.  This old wooden structure is miles from any developed road at the bottom of Spaw Gulch and without a doubt visited by more deer than humans.  

After the cabin, Deerfield Trail continues up Slate Creek for another five miles along an old Forest Service Road closed to motor vehicle traffic in 1999 to protect the fragile meadow ecosystem.  There are still some old brick line fords.  

The only section where I was confused enough to stop was along this route when the trail markings diverted me up a steep hill.  Since horse traffic doesn’t use this section and the beetel kill had left lots of ponderosa pine trees down across the trail, it wasn’t until I came across an old slate staircase that I knew where to proceed.

After a dozen newly installed narrow plank bridge crossings and another old cabin it stared to heat up.  There were some old mine shafts along Slate Creek.  I had started the run with two 24 ounce hand-held Ultimate Direction bottles and an INOV8 backpack with two more.  At the top of a steep climb up from Slate Creek I stopped to enjoy the view and swap empty bottles for full ones and put a couple Camelback Electrolyte dissolveable discs in one.  

This section of trail in the Mystic Ranger District was hot and dry with mostly Ponderosa Pines with a few quaking aspens mixed in.  I was happy to start the descent down Lind Gulch along Forest Service Road 245 to the Mickelson Trail.  I took a Power Bar double caffinated cappuccino flavored gel as I opened up my stride on this fast downhill.

The tunnel along this shared trail section brought some much needed shade and coolness.  I put a couple iodine tabs in one bottle and refilled from a stream near the Mystic / Daugherty Gulch Trailhead.  The climb up past Whitetail Gulch along Crooked Creek was tough for me. Numerous times I soaked my Run Steep Get High Trucker Hat in cold running water.  Evidence of logging and an active mine were the highlights of this section. 


By the time Deerfield Trail #40 intersected Forest Service Road 443 I was toast!  I kept moving forward thinking I was back in Flagstaff.  The single-track descent into the creek bed near Slate Prarie was amazing as were the open fields near Signal Knob at 6,200 feet above sea level.

By the time I reached my water stash near the Kinney Canyon Trailhead I was out of water.  I hid my pack and old white INOV8 Team racing singlet behind a tree.  I refilled two hand held bottles and chugged the remaining pint of water from my hidden glass growler.  Left in just a pair of UVU grey shorts I tucked my National Geographic Map #751 Black Hills North into a front pocket and took off into Deerfield Recreation Area.  

This section was around 6,000 feet above sea level and a cool breeze cut the sun’s intense rays against my skin.  Running without a pack sans singlet down to the junction of the Deerfield Lake Loop Trail #40L gave me hope of a finish.  I don’t run with a watch or GPS but knew I was twenty plus miles and four hours in based on my body’s feedback.  

Castle Creek begins below Deerfield Dam. It has been restored to it’s pre Dam chanel curves allowing for trout and waterfowl to thrive here again.

Crossing the grass bridge over Castle Creek with the giant earthen Deerfield Lake Dam in view gave me enough motivation to attack the final climb up to Reynolds Prarie.  I was treated to a wildflower covered tall grass open hilly field where Pronghorn roam!  The 2 miles to Custer Trailhead sign is a typical old wooden government one that rounds to the nearest whole number.  NatGeo shows 2.4 miles.

Final climb to Reynolds Prarie & Custer Trails Trailhead Campground.

At this point I was ready to be finished running.  Two weeks earlier I had run this loop in reverse so I knew I was close.  The high prairies are an ecosystem I haven’t run in much.  I am fascinated by these tall grass areas.  Reynolds Prarie is a trail runner’s dream.  Soft dirt!  As I coasted down the Forest Service Road into camp with Deerfield Lake behind Zoey, our Great Dane, and Amy, the wiser and better half, I was so happy to sit down and untie my Scott Trail Sneakers.  

It only took me a cold soak in the lake and two hours to recover enough to pop a cold can of Spearfish’s Crow Peak IPA, set up our tent, and grill some Johnsonville Chedder Sausages.  Although I didn’t race anyone it felt good to set a goal and accomplish it.  Amy said I finished around 1pm so I was only an hour off my race day effort.  She has been a great support for me the last couple years as I retired from competitive running.  Zoey, Amy, and I maintain a blog about our adventures we invite you to visit. #tinyhomegiantdog 
Run Strong!  

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About rundavejames

Two Time USATF 100 Mile National Champion Two Time Coastal Challenge Rain Forest Run Champion Team Red, White, Blue #CoachDJ www.rundavejames.com @rundavejames Premier Mozart100(r) Winner Athlete / Public Speaker
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