Take a Hike: Horse Thief Lake

Horse Thief Lake is one of the most scenic spots in the Black Hills, and its close proximity to Mount Rushmore makes it a popular getaway—especially on summer weekends. The lake isn’t the only draw; a 2.7-mile out-and-back hike (Black Hills trail #14) parallels a gently trickling creek and takes you past towering rock formations. Along the way, you’ll see glimpses of some pretty spectacular scenery.

The Lowdown

The trailhead can be accessed from the parking lot at Horse Thief Lake; head for Granite Tower, the tall rock spire that is impossible to miss. Don’t forget to fill out your backcountry pass; failure to do so can result in a fine.

You’ll encounter a gradual incline for most of the hike, but the elevation gain is only about 600′ spread out over three miles, so it’s not too strenuous (though a few short inclines can make for a tricky scramble, especially when there’s snow or ice on the ground). Trail #14 offers cool relief during the summer thanks to the thick stands of Ponderosa pine found along much of the route. Colorful wildflowers are abundant in some of the meadows you’ll encounter beginning midway through the hike. The stream is never particularly wide, but there are a few sections you’ll have to cross that can be muddy.

As you gain elevation, you’ll be treated to views of the surrounding spires in a couple of clearings. You might also encounter climbers traversing a few of the rugged rock outcroppings during the first third of the hike. There’s always a chance you’ll run across deer, mountain goats, foxes, marmots, or other wildlife, but the creature you’re most likely going to have to contend with is mosquitoes. Thanks to the slow-flowing creek and ample shade, they are particularly thick along the trail.

Horse Thief Lake isn’t a “destination” hike; the trail comes to an abrupt halt at a junction with the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail (Black Hills trail #7). If you are so inclined, you can continue along this trail—the western route leads to Black Elk Peak. Another option is to take the Willow Creek Trail (Black Hills Trail #8) for a short trek to Mount Rushmore. You’ll pass the junction shortly after leaving behind the granite rocks.

PROS: Gradual incline is easy to traverse; plenty of shade; great views.
CONS: LOTS of mosquitoes; a few muddy stretches.

Insider’s tip: Fall is an excellent time to visit; crowds are sparse, mosquitoes aren’t as bothersome, and you’ll find some colorful foliage.

The Wow Factor

Granite Tower and several other rocky outcroppings allow for up-close exploration. In the winter, you’re likely to find some impressive icicles in this area as melting snow from the rocks above refreezes overnight. Two distinct saddles provide views of the surrounding forest and Black Hills. Lots of wildflowers in late spring and early summer.

Odds & Ends

  • The trail is rated moderate, but aside from a couple of brief scrambles, should be fine for hikers of all skill levels.
  • For a longer hike, use Trail #14 as a starting point and make a loop by continuing along the Grizzly Bear Creek trail. Free wilderness maps are available in many visitor’s centers in the Black Hills.

Don’t forget these essentials: Mosquito repellent, camera, binoculars.