“It’s too hot to hunt.”
I never thought I would be saying these words two weeks into a pheasant season. But when the weather forecast called for highs in the upper-70s, I decided not to risk overheating my dogs. It would be smarter to wait until the temps returned to something resembling fall.
However, I wasn’t about to forgo a weekend of hunting just so I could stay home and work on the yard. I believe the good Lord frowns on people who waste perfectly good days raking leaves.
I had an idea—maybe I could drive to the Black Hills and do some much-needed wandering. My family had their own plans for the weekend, so there really wasn’t a good reason for me to hang around the house.
By the time I talked myself into going, it was already 7:00 on a Friday night. I threw a few essentials into a daypack, along with my camera, and headed west. With a narrow 48-hour window, I chose a destination that would allow me to see more wildlife, hike more trails and enjoy more fall colors without wasting valuable time—Custer State Park.
By Saturday morning I was driving through the park’s east entrance where the Wildlife Loop begins. The first thing I wanted to do was hike into the French Creek Natural Area, a 12-mile backcountry trail that cuts through the heart of the Loop. During the peak days of summer, I would expect to see three or four cars parked at the trailhead, but this late in the season I had the whole Natural Area to myself.
I made it half a mile down the trail before I was forced to stop. There was something big moving slowly about 50 yards ahead of me. It was a young male bison. Following close behind him was a small heard of 25 more bison. And they were coming my way. My only choice was to get off the trail, climb up a hill and tuck behind a large pine tree. From that vantage I was able to watch the herd pass by me from a relatively safe distance.
The only thing more impressive than the sight of a bison herd on the move is the sound. I could hear heavy breathing and deep grunts along with the rumble of hooves pounding against the forest floor. Eventually, the herd turned off the trail, breaking limbs and cracking through the underbrush like a steady parade of tractors.
I made a point to look at my watch and note that I had been in the park for less than an hour.
With my hike interrupted, I returned to my truck and continued north through the park.
My plan (which seemed to be changing by the hour) was to scout a location for a sunset photo around Sylvan Lake. However, the sun wouldn’t be setting for another five or six hours, so I decided to take an impromptu hike to the top of Little Devil’s Tower.
Most visitors are familiar with the Harney Peak trail that starts at the Sylvan Lake trailhead, but fewer people seem to take the three-mile hike to Little Devil’s Tower—probably because the last quarter-mile requires a fairly strenuous scramble over, through and around open granite.
Standing atop Little Devil’s Tower at 6,950 feet, the view of the Cathedral Spires to the east and Harney Peak to the north was spectacular. I gave myself a good half hour to relax and take in the 360-degree panorama before descending back to Sylvan Lake.
I returned in plenty of time to catch the sunset at Sylvan Lake. Unfortunately, there was a wedding ceremony taking place in the same location I had scouted earlier. So, once again, I had to change my plans.
The last remaining light of day was starting to fade and I still hadn’t picked a place to sleep for the night. I was hoping the State Game Lodge would have an available room. Its close proximity to the Wildlife Loop, where I started the day, would put me in the best position to get a nice sunrise photo the next morning. As it turned out, getting a room so late in the season was easier than I thought. I might have been one of only 10 other guests that night.
Solitude seemed to be the theme for the weekend.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Custer State Park is one of the most popular destinations in the Black Hills. By mid-October, the park is host to just a handful of rock climbers, hikers and wildlife watchers—and the occasional stray hunter from Sioux Falls.
The time alone allowed me to think about how fortunate I was to live in a state with so much outdoor diversity. Seventy degrees may have been too hot to hunt, it was just right for a hike in the Black Hills.
You just have to be willing to ignore all the leaves in your yard.