Black Elk Wilderness, South Dakota
  • Location: Black Hills National Forest, just north of Custer State Park near Mt Rushmore National Memorial, South Dakota
  • Access: From Custer, head north on Hwy 89, then turn east onto Hwy 87 (Needles Highway) and enter Custer State Park. Head west on Hwy 87 past two tunnels, then take FR 345 towards Iron Creek Horse Camp. Pass by Remington Summer Camp, and shortly after come to the Grizzly Creek Trailhead on the west side of the road. 
  • Maps: Forest Service Trail Map; USGS 1:24K map: Iron Mt (does not show most current trails)
  • Trail: A very nice network of trails allows for lots of unique loops and routes. We hiked a loop beginning on Grizzly Bear Creek Trail to Horsethief Lake Trail, then south on Centennial back to Grizzly Bear Creek, a distance of approximately 10 miles.
  • Fees: If you approach the wilderness via Custer State Park, you have to pay the $12/car entrance fee. The wilderness itself has no fees for entry.
  • Dogs: In the wilderness, leash or strict voice control is required
  • Weather: National Weather Service spot forecast

Saturday  July 11, 2009

As part of an effort to diversify our hiking experiences beyond the Colorado Front Range, Andra and I loaded the dogs in the car Saturday morning and drove 5 hours northeast to the Black Elk Wilderness in the Black Hills of South Dakota, just north of the touristy town of Custer. We arrived late in the afternoon at the Grizzly Creek Trailhead, and packed our backpacks with enough stuff for two nights. Makenzie and Henry, the two pointers, were with us also, and chomping at the bit to get out of the car and frolic in the woods. The trailhead was quiet, and the pine-shaded parking lot next to it only large enough for about 4 cars. Iron Creek shuffled by unseen, but not unheard, on the other side of the gravel road, and Andra took the dogs over for a drink while I finished strapping everything to my pack. By 6:00 we were ready to go. 

The afternoon was cloudy. The air was still and humid. Mosquitoes swarmed around us, and we quickly had to stop to apply bug spray. We need more bats in this world to eat all these darn mosquitoes. Evidence of recent trail work was everywhere in the form of efforts to rehab an old two track down to a single foot trail, as well as removal of all steel culverts over creeks and gulches. Everywhere the soil was wet and water flowed in the gulches and creekbeds. It took the dogs no time to coat themselves in grit and mucky black sludge, just the sort of stuff dogs love. The forest was typically Black Hills: open Ponderosa pine forest with a few spruce mixed in and aspen, paper birch, maple and chokecherry in the lower, wetter places. Very peaceful and enjoyable.

At the junction with the Centennial Trail, we headed straight, keeping along Grizzly Creek, which was a very slow-moving, ox-bowed creek pocked with beaver dams and such tall grass that the water was only rarely visible. Henry took his first ever swim in one of the beaver ponds, probably by accident after thinking the water was much shallower than it was. He swam very well for his first attempt. 

About ¼ mile after the trail junction, we broke off to the right of the trail and hiked uphill through the ponderosa to the ridgetop and found a nice flat hill top with a light covering of pine trees to set up camp. From the hilltop, we could see large granite rock formations to the east, and a short walk to the west brought us to a vantage point where we could observe the Cathedral Spires and Harney Peak. After setting up the tent, we made bean and cheese burritos and then took a short walk with the dogs around the area to check things out. The sky was still overcast, and the air was unusually warm and sticky. This made bedtime less than pleasant because it was just so darn hot. I left the rainfly off to facilitate air movement when we went to bed at 9:00. At 11:30, Andra and I both woke up at the same time as powerful lightening flashes lit up the sky. At first, since there was no sound, I wondered if it was simply lights from a nearby wind farm or radio tower, so regular was the lightening. But soon, the storm approached and peals of thunder convinced me to hurry up and get the rainfly clipped on. That done, I got back in the tent as the storm loomed closer, and even the pine covering over our tent started to feel vastly insignificant against so much lightening. I contemplated moving us all downhill for awhile, but that would mean sitting out in the inevitable rain, and anyway, the danger really wasn’t that great. We were pretty low down on the ridge, and the main storm seemed to be tracking south of us. I drifted off to sleep in the hot tent. 

Sunday July 12
At 3 in the morning, a powerful thunderstorm moved in from the west and rained like mad on us, complete with lightening and thunder. I was tired enough that I slept through most of it, but it continued raining until after sunup, and we lazed in the tent while it rained and rained. Hikers in the west will see how unusual it is for a thunderstorm to be going full-force at 6 in the morning, and I was at a loss to explain it. Usually, thunderstorms gear up the in the afternoon, then dissipate overnight, but we just hit this lucky, I guess. Finally, the rain slacked off around 7:30 and we were able to get up and around outside the tent. 

The mosquitoes were back at it in the cool, wet air, and we had to slather ourselves with greasy deet to prevent the thousands of bites that would surely come otherwise. I wouldn’t mind mosquitoes so much if their bites didn’t itch. Seems like it would be an evolutionary advantage for a mosquito to not make their victims itch at all – then they wouldn’t mind as much and mosquitoes could bite more often. We ate a quick breakfast of Pop Tarts and then hit the trail. 

We hiked under cloudy skies along the wet Grizzly Bear Creek trail where everything was coated in water. This trail is not very-well traveled, is narrow and overgrown. Consequently our clothes got soaked in no time in the beautiful, lush vegetation lining the trail. Mud everywhere, and lots of water crossings. The dogs loved it. In the cool and wet grass, they seemingly had no end of energy. 

We broke off north onto the Horsethief Lake trail, and after a short bit the sun came out to dry the vegetation and our pants. The upper portion of the Horsethief Lake trail runs through granite fins and spires, has a few small waterfalls with lots of moss and ferns and is crazy with aspen. Really enjoyed this spot. At the Centennial Trail, we headed southeast, and stopped shortly after for a snack break of Clif bars. Andra napped in the shade, while Henry and I shimmied up the closest rock outcropping for a really fantastic view of the surrounding terrain. An ocean of green conifers in all directions was broken frequently by gray granite blobs, spires and craggy peaks. Harney Peak was just a couple of miles to the southwest, and the old fire lookout on top was clearly visible. 

The trail began to head downhill and we briefly entered Mount Rushmore National Memorial before the routes divided and the Centennial Trail took us south out of the park. The trail followed Grizzly Bear Creek for a short ways, and we stopped to filter water, swatting furiously at mosquitoes the whole time. The rest of the hike was a celebration of sweat, with still air and burning sunshine that never quite hid behind the pines lining the trail. We stopped near the Centennial By-Pass trail and found a shady spot off the trail with minimal poison ivy to have crackers and tuna, before making the final push back to camp. 

Andra napped in the tent, but I found it too hot inside to sleep, so I sat out in the shade reading a book. I sauntered down to the creek nearby and filtered water, sustaining hundreds of mosquito bites on my back, and then, mercifully, the clouds rolled in around 3:00 and shaded everything. I took a nice, long nap in the tent at that point, where it was still hot but not roasting. 

Andra nudged me awake later in the evening so I could help make dinner, an easy little production of adding boiling water to a foil package of chicken cashew curry rice, which turned out to be pretty ordinary, and we ended up with leftovers that we fed to the dogs, our ever-eager cleanup crew.  It rained again that night, with plenty of lightening and thunder. I slept soundly through it all. 

Monday July 13
Makenzie’s tail, wagging against the nylon tent wall, woke me up around 7:00. For her, daylight was meant for running outside. We got up to another wet morning, although the sun was out this time and things weren’t quite as soggy. We made tasty egg and cheese burritos for breakfast, then packed up camp and hiked out by 9:30. 

Black Elk WIlderness
Andra on the Grizzly Creek Trail

Black Elk WIlderness
Cinnamon-colored Ponderosa pines along Grizzly Creek

Black Elk WIlderness
A nice lily along the Grizzly Creek

Black Elk WIlderness
Henry & Makenzie, wet and happy

Black Elk WIlderness
Lush aspen glade along Horsethief Lake Trail
Black Elk WIlderness
Cool, mossy grotto along Horsethief Lake Trail

Black Elk WIlderness
Ferns and moss along the Horsethief Lake Trail

Black Elk WIlderness
Looking west towards Harney Peak

Black Elk WIlderness
Henry, Andra and Makenzie at camp

Black Elk WIlderness
The woods near camp at Grizzly Creek

Black Elk WIlderness
Happy dogs on the Centennial Trail

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