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I never get tired of hiking here in the Black Hills. The abundance of public land makes it an excellent area for hikers, though sometimes we compete with grazing cattle for the right of way. Recently Clarissa and I decided to head out to hike a trail we had previously completed with friends a few years back — Old Baldy Trail. After leaving the trailhead, we remarked at how different it seemed from our memories of the Old Baldy we had ascended with our friends Eric and Alicia. With just a little walking we realized that this was not the same trail, and that the Black Hills is home to not one, but two mountains named Old Baldy. Despite the same name, the two Baldy’s are quite different hikes.
The Old Baldy we hiked with our friends ends on a rocky granite scramble to the top. The summit of Old Baldy Trail switchbacks up to a small overlook, and is the taller of the two. Both are worth exploring, but in this post we’ll take on Old Baldy Trail #66.
Getting to the Trailhead
It’s easy enough to get to the Old Baldy Trailhead. It’s on Tinton Road (FSR 134), approximately 13 miles from Spearfish, or one mile north of where the road meets up with FSR 222. You’ll see signs for the trailhead, and follow a short turnout to a gravel parking area. It’s easy enough to find and while Tinton Road gets a little rough in a few spots, any vehicle should be able to make it. It doesn’t show up on Google Maps, but you can drop these GPS coordinates into your search — 44°20’30.2″N 104°00’19.2″W. That’s not an exact location, but it’ll get you pretty dang close.
What to Expect on Old Baldy Trail
The official description of Trail #66 refers to the trail as a 5.7 mile loop with a .7 mile spur to the summit of Old Baldy Mountain. The trail sign suggests that it’s 6.1 miles long. Portions of the trail have been re-routed and I think that if you include hiking the spur to the summit and back, you can count on a roughly 8 mile hike. The trailhead and the peak are actually roughly the same elevation, but you’ll drop about 250 feet to the bridges before climbing to the summit. Then of course, you’ll take on that elevation gain as you loop back to the trailhead.
For the most part, the trail is easy to follow as it winds through stands of aspen and birch, and ponderosa pine forest. There are a few spots where it’s easy to wander off onto old sections of trail or game trails and get headed the wrong direction. There also appears to be a new trail that intersects with Old Baldy Trail near the spur. We accidentally followed this trail for awhile, feeling a bit lost for awhile and adding to our overall mileage for the day. I’m not entirely certain what it is, but I’ve heard mention of a relatively new trail connecting Iron Creek Lake to Old Baldy — if anyone knows more, let me know!
Don’t worry about heading in the wrong direction — I’ll walk you through the tricky spots, and you’ll have no trouble enjoying the rest of the trail.
Hitting the Trail
From the parking lot you’ll head down a pretty clear area with the trail in the center. The woods don’t crowd you, and it’s a pleasant enough walk. Then you’ll come to a fork. Since Old Baldy Trail is a loop, you can take the East Route or the West Route. We opted for the West Route, for no reason in particular. If you choose to take the East Route, then this info still applies, just in reverse.
The West Route carries on much like the trail leading up to the fork — wide open on both sides. As you carry on you will come across a few spots where the trail seems to fork again. It doesn’t, at least not yet. You won’t have trouble following the right path for the most part. In may of the places where you might have trouble, you’ll see arrow signs pointing the (more or less) right way. If you don’t see a sign, pay attention to if branches and debris have been laid upon a trail. If so, the clearer path is almost always the right one.
You’ll pass through some aspen trees, and the trail will narrow, with ferns tickling your shins. Keep stepping and before long the trail will open up again. You’ll be treated to clear views of the sky and a more open space. We felt a cool breeze during our hike, but the weather varies and changes so quickly in the Black Hills, you may get gusting winds or no air movement at all. It’s part of the magic of the Hills.
The trail will stay relatively out in the open for awhile before going back into some thicker trees. You’ll still have plenty of space as you move among the trees, but you’ll have a bit more shade as well — nice to have depending on the weather. A few game trails and other paths break off of the main trail, but just keep following the arrows, trail signs, or the trail unblocked with debris. You’ll drop in elevation, stroll through another stand of aspens, and then everything will open up again as you walk across the Beaver Creek bridge.
You’ll start to pick up a little elevation here but nothing too crazy. You’ll enjoy some more beautiful landscapes, dotted with ponderosa pines. This part of the trail is pretty easy to follow, and very enjoyable. The elevation has a minor drop, and then you’ll start steadily gaining elevation. The trail opens up again, looking out across green meadows. Continue onward back into the woods and you’ll pass through another stand of aspens before stepping into a clearing.
Confusing Trail Intersection #1
Here is where the trail gets a bit confusing. I suspect that the Forest Service has rerouted this section but we had a little trouble understanding exactly where to go. I’ll try to make it as clear as possible for you, as well as illustrate with some photos.
As you exit the aspen grove, the trail will lead you to a downed tree. This tree sits on something of a crossroads on the trail. You know the direction you came from, but which of the three other trails should you take?
There’s a trail to your left, heading east. This is NOT the way.
The trail to the west — to your right across the downed tree — is NOT the way either.
I suppose you could take this path and get where you need to go, but you would miss the spur to the summit and you would have to cross this kind of mess a few times…
No, you want to continue to the north, or roughly straight from where you emerged from the aspens. This path also heads upwards — as in you’re gaining elevation. That’s a good thing, as you’re headed toward the summit.
Onward to the Summit
As you follow the trail you’ll come to a sign and a split in the trail — the loop continues to the right, but for now keep following the path you’re on. It’s the spur that will lead you to the summit.
So for the moment just completely ignore the trail sign and the branch to your right and carry on the direction that you’re headed. The trail continues much as it has so far, with plenty of space to walk. You’ll notice that you’re heading upward — it’s gradual at first, but in about a half mile you’ll start ascending switchbacks, and then a few steep climbs… And then you’ll arrive.
Congratulations, you’ve reached the top of Old Baldy. 6096 feet isn’t an exceptionally tall peak, but it’s absolutely tall enough to give you awesome views.
There are trees on the summit, so you wont have an unobstructed view in every direction, but take a little time to look around. I’ve no doubt that you’ll enjoy what you see!
Back to the Loop
Once you’ve rested, hydrated, and soaked up some summit joy, it’s time to head back down the spur. It’s easy enough, just retrace you steps the way you came, stopping at the sign we ignored earlier. The one by the trail that branches off the spur.
So it’s a bit confusing, since a giant arrow is directing you back to the way you originally came prior to summiting. Don’t follow that. Instead, take the branch that splits off of the spur. This is going to take you to the eastern section of the loop that you haven’t hiked yet.
It’s a pretty little section of trail that makes its way through a stand of trees before you come into a stretch where trees have fallen, giving you a broad view of a meadow and Baldy Lake — don’t worry if you don’t see any water, as the lake often seems more like a marsh than an actual body of water.
Confusing Trail Intersection #2
The trail will lead out of the trees and to a bridge crossing a small creek. Here’s where things may get a bit confusing again. We took a wrong turn here, adding a few miles to our hike.
After crossing the bridge the trail will fork again. One trail will lead to your left. It starts out pretty faint, but it’s noticeable and will quickly start to become easy to follow as it snakes through the trees. DON’T take this path. It’s clearly a maintained trail with bridges and infrastructure, but I have no idea where it leads.
Some friends have suggested that it’s a trail that leads to Iron Creek Lake, but the mile or two we walked on it gave no indication. A call to the Forest Service district office suggested that there is no trail there, but I assure you there is. If anyone knows what trail this is or where it leads, please let me know!
Instead of heading left, continue forward and to your right. There is a trail sign here, but it was knocked down and we didn’t notice it at first, since this trail also starts out faintly. Take this route to continue the loop.
This will lead you directly past Baldy Lake, the aforementioned depression in the meadow. Is there ever standing water in this lake? I imagine only after heavy rainfall or snowmelt. Still, it’s a pretty view if you ask me.
Past Baldy Lake you’ll reach the final bit of confusion as the trail forks once more. To the right, a faint bit of trail skirts the “lake” before eventually fading away into grass and trees. As you might imagine, this isn’t the right way to go. The left fork, which simply looks like watershed, will keep you on the eastern part of the loop.
Scramble up this bit of trail for what will now be a relatively easy hike back to the trailhead.
The Eastern Section of the Old Baldy Trail Loop
The eastern section of Old Baldy Trail is pretty similar to the western route. It starts out with more of the region’s limestone emerging from the landscape. Much like the other end of the trail, you’ll have some rerouted sections. More arrows to follow and more blocked paths. For the most part, they’re pretty obvious on the eastern route.
You’ll pass through similar landscapes and terrain as those you enjoyed on the other side of the loop. You will also steadily gain elevation as you head back toward the trailhead — since the trailhead and the summit sit at about the same altitude. The gain is largely gradual and doesn’t feel like too great of a strain. The last mile or so will be one long gradual climb over roughly 100 feet. You’ll barely notice.
And soon you’ll return to the beginning of the loop, the circle complete. All that’s left is the short walk back to the trailhead, a kind of victory lap at the end of your hike. Now that you’ve returned to where you started, take a moment and think of the strange incongruity that comes with knowing that you’re back at nearly the same elevation you were at on the summit. An oddity of hiking this spot in the Black Hills, but summits always feel higher than trailheads, regardless of actual elevation. Maybe have a laugh about that beside the trail sign, before passing back through the gate — closing and securing it behind you, of course — and leaving Old Baldy behind for the day.
Other Useful Old Baldy Trail Info
As a hiker you may find yourself sharing parts of the trail with grazing cattle, a not uncommon site in different areas in the Hills. We only ran into one steer along the way and, thankfully, no cow pies. What we did find were some spots that had seen grazing, and hoof prints trampled into muddy spots where water had collected in low points on the trail. Even these tell-tale signs were rare and did not distract from the beauty of the place.
You’ll also share the trail with mountain bikers and equestrians. The Rimrock Trail terminates at the Old Baldy Trailhead and some riders of both varieties will enjoy making a longer loop out of the two. Likewise, we came across cyclists on the unidentified trail that connects with Old Baldy Trail after the second bridge.
In addition to the trail markers and arrows, some of the trees have blazes, and there are a number of wooden markers on trees along the trail. They look like a lower case “i.”
Old Baldy Trail is a beautiful hike through the Hills, but without a doubt autumn will alter the scenery. As the leaves change color, the aspens and birches will contrast the still green ponderosa pines. The view from the summit will no doubt show the season’s changing colors like the scene in a Bob Ross painting.
Have Fun on the Trail
Now that you know the few spots where you may get turned around, you should have no problems spending a day hiking Old Baldy Trail. Keep you eye out for turkey, deer, and potentially elk and enjoy the beautiful landscape as you hike. I recommend setting aside the better part of a day for the trail — sure, you can do it faster, but why rush it? Enjoy the beauty, the views, and spending time in the great outdoors. That’s what trails like Old Baldy are for, after all.