Custer State Park’s Lover’s Leap Trail: Pit Viper in a Poison Ivy Patch

Custer State Park. Never heard of it? Me neither. That was my bad. South Dakota’s first and largest state park, Custer contains the most beautiful small lake I’ve ever seen, which I will write about in the weeks to come. This post is about the first hike we took in this gold-star Dakotan state park.

We (me, Lisa, and our daughter Nichole who was vacationing with us) arrived at the trailhead just before noon. The day was a comfortable seventy-five degrees and mostly sunny as we started this counter-clockwise loop in the black-mountain hills of Dakota. The trail rose gently through grassy, pine forest dotted with wildflowers. Yarrow, bellflower, wood lily, and cinquefoil flecked the mountainside with color, and the tall grass tickled our legs as we hiked. Fluffy clouds floated serenely through the azure sky as we tramped the trail, occasionally crossing small brooks via simple log bridges. All was right with the world.

Soon we found ourselves in denser forest, following Calena Creek southwest through a valley. Suddenly the trail moved in front of me, and I heard a sound I had heretofore only heard in movies and on TV. I stopped short just in time to see the tail end of a massasauga rattlesnake slither into a patch of poison ivy to the right of the trail. Pit viper in a poison ivy patch! Double danger! Pair o’ poisons! Twin terrors! Whatever you call it, it’s not a winning combo – at least not for a hapless hiker. Still, it’s better than a pit viper with its fangs in your leg. I was able to get a couple of ivy-obstructed shots of the venomous varmint as it beat a hasty retreat into the brush. Fortunately my pictures were adequate to identify the species. I was elated – it was my first rattlesnake in several thousand miles of hiking. The fact that I had nearly stepped on Mr. Massasauga was less than ideal but soon faded into the yeah-but-I-didn’t folder in the no-harm-no-foul file drawer. We hiked on.

Shortly after the rattlesnake incident, the trail turned east away from Calena Creek and began to climb. We gained a respectable three-hundred feet over the next mile and I was feeling pretty good as we climbed. I was wheezing less and moving steadily upward.

At the apex of our climb we were welcomed by a wooden sign.

Badger Clark was the son of a minister and South Dakota’s first poet laureate. A conservationist by nature, Clark was, for reasons that remain unclear to me, allowed to build a cabin on state-owned land within the park, where he lived until his death in 1957.

From the sign there was a pleasant view, but the real prize required a climb (and maybe a little light scrambling) up a rock outcropping nearby. Once atop the crag, the views were extensive and the Black Hills stretched in all directions. The view spanned a full 180 degrees, and the south Dakotan landscape faded from rich green and beige to deep blue and grey. What wasn’t blue anymore? The sky. To the northwest, it had transitioned to an angry-looking grey. Rolling thunder could be heard in the distance. When we quit the crag, we turned our boots toward the trailhead with a hastened pace and one eye on the approaching storm.

As the sound of thunder grew closer, we told ourselves that we would soon be off the ridge and under cover of thick pine forest. Unfortunately, although we were losing elevation, we remained on the ridge for the next three quarters of a mile, passing repeatedly through exposed areas of what was clearly fire damage. Probably from lightning. Yay.

Eventually we plunged off of the ridge and down into healthy green forest. The sky darkened. We wound our way downward on a bed of soft, green pine needles, which cushioned our hurried footfalls. Lisa was about fifty yards in front of me and just emerging from the woods when the rain began. Large droplets tugged at the leaves around me and pitter-pattered onto the trail. When I stepped out into the open, it was to be pelted by a steady rain. Our hasty daughter, Nichole, reached the parking lot minutes before either of us. Moments later, after we were all in our cars, a downpour ensued. Our timing had been nearly perfect; Nichole’s was spot on.

The Lover’s Leap Trail was a solid hike – four and a half miles of wildflowers, wildlife and wide-angle views. It also proved to be a great warm-up for some future hikes that offered more elevation. While Custer State Park was previously unknown to me, it was Travel + Leisure’s pick for “Best State Park in South Dakota”. Their blurb on the park mentions the hiking trails and then teases, “If you’re lucky, you might even spot a bison.” In our experience you’d have to be blind to not see a bison here – we followed this guy through the park entrance:

Any way you slice it, Custer State Park is a great place to hike. If you are visiting the other attractions in the area, carve out some time for this gem. And if you go hiking – keep your eyes an ears open and stay alert. You never know when you’ll run across a pit viper in a poison ivy patch! ♦

Date: July 7, 2022
Location: Custer State Park, SD
Trailhead: 43.763986, -103.382605
Distance: 4.3 miles
Elevation Gain: 482 feet
Difficulty: Moderate

BIT|Hiker acknowledges the indigenous peoples who are the original inhabitants of the lands on which we hike. Our research for this post indicated we were on ancestral lands of the Tséstho’e (Cheyenne), and the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.

3 thoughts on “Custer State Park’s Lover’s Leap Trail: Pit Viper in a Poison Ivy Patch

  1. What a great account of a beautiful trail! I would love to go there sometime. What’s weird is we have a lot of the exact same flowers in our woods here in AZ, but I didn’t know their names until I started following you, so thanks! And of course, we also have a lot of different kinds of rattlesnakes — yay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such a beautiful park! Thanks for a captivating description of this gorgeous trail. Bonus points for all the fantastic wildflower photos!! And what a treat to see the often shy and reclusive Massasauga!


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