French Creek Natural Area - Backpacking/Camping

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Summary

The French Creek Natural Area in Custer State Park is not for the faint of heart, but this pristine getaway is perfect for anyone looking to truly get in touch with nature.

Written by

Abbie Mood

Distance

24.0 miles

The trail is 12 miles point-to-point, so unless you have a friend pick you up at the other end, expect 24 miles round trip.

Destination Distance From Downtown

26.8 miles

Difficulty

4 of 5 diamonds

The terrain can be rugged, the trail is long and isn't really marked, and the stream crossings can be deep.

Time To Complete

1 days

If you are hiking point-to-point, it will take you most of a day. If you go out-and-back, plan to spend the night.

Seasonality

Spring, Summer, and Fall

Dog Friendly

Yes

Dogs must be on-leash at the designated campsites, and under control while hiking.

Fees Permits

Yes

The park entrance fee is $20 per vehicle, $10 per motorcycle, or $30 for an annual license. Camping is $7 per person per night.

Review

Intro

Custer State Park, in the Black Hills of southwest South Dakota, covers 71,000 acres of pristine nature. And yes, it was named after that Custer, Colonel George Armstrong. He also made the French Creek famous in 1874 when members of the Custer Expedition found gold. Today, most people visit the area around the French Creek for the hiking trail found in the French Creek Natural Area, though you can still look for gold if you want! Whether setting out on a backpacking adventure or just hiking out a couple miles and then turning around, the virtually untouched landscape is something you won't soon forget.

What Makes It Great

The things that make the French Creek Natural Area so challenging are also what make it so great. The trail is somewhat rugged, and there are no trail markings (though there is a natural trail to follow, or you can just follow the creek). The entire trail is 24 miles out-and-back, making for a solid couple days of backpacking, but even just a 12-mile point-to-point trek is a wonderful workout. According to the sign at the trailhead "you will get wet", and with a whopping 42 stream crossings, including a section where you have to climb over a 60 foot cliff or swim 100 feet down the creek, they aren't kidding. 

Keep an eye out for some of the park's wildlife while out on the trail, such the herd of 1,300 bison, pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, or a band of burros (we hear they are friendly, but you still shouldn't approach them). 

This is the perfect place to get your feet wet (literally) and challenge your backpacking skills in a breathtaking setting!

Who is Going to Love It

If you love a good backcountry adventure, put the French Creek Nature Area on the top of your list. Because the trail follows the creek and there is a natural trail most of the way, the French Creek Nature Area is a good place for beginners with at least a little experience to test their skills, but is also challenging enough for more seasoned backpackers. 

If you like to spot wildlife and take scenic photos, than it's even more of a reason to visit. It is also possible for a family to hit this trail, though most will probably want to stick to just the first couple miles and then turning around.

Directions, Parking, & Regulations

From the west, the area is three miles from Blue Bell Lodge on North Lame Johnny Road. From the east, it's 4 miles south of the State Game Lodge on the Wildlife Loop Road.

There are many important rules and precautions for the area, so be sure to visit the website before you head out, but the short list is: 

  • Bring water with you
  • Watch out for poison ivy and rattlesnakes
  • Stay away from bison
  • Camping is allowed anywhere as long as you stay 50 feet from the creek, and no open fires
  • Plan for unpredictable weather.

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Location

Custer State Park

43.726618, -103.451847

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