The sun glistened off the Formica in the trail. Our anticipation and adrenaline made our packs feel almost weightless. The beauty and serenity of the area around us was breathtaking. We were embarking on a journey through the heart of the Black Elk Wilderness in South Dakota. Our ultimate goal, to summit Harney Peak, the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains.
It all started with an email from Julie Jones, our friend at the Rapid City Convention and Visitors Bureau. She had recently met world renowned hiker and outdoor enthusiast Peter Potterfieldat a travel show in Chicago. He mentioned an upcoming project to feature hikes of North America, and expressed interested in the Black Hills and Badlands. After a quick phone call, and months of planning, Peter was on his way to Rapid City, and ready to join myself and Joey Hockett on one of the greatest hikes imaginable.
After picking up Peter from the Historic Alex Johnson Hotel, we traveled south to Custer State Park for an evening at the Custer State Game Lodge. Recently revamped, the Game lodge now offers a large dining area with the same great cuisine that it is famous for. Before or after a great hiking trip, this is the place to relax and unwind with friends. After a good night sleep and a great breakfast, we were ready to head off into the wilderness.
The trip to the trailhead was full of mixed emotions. Joey was giddy, like a kid in a candy store. If he were to die and go to heaven, this is probably were he would be. Peter was preparing. Like an all star forward before a big game, Peter was in this for the story and was ready for the experience ahead. And I was in my usual place, questions running through my head. Had I forgotten something? (Of course I had forgotten the sunscreen) Where would we camp the first night? Would Peter get the shots he needs?
The trailhead was quiet. One vehicle with Minnesota license plates beat us to the punch. We had guessed that we would be the only hikers on the trails that day. Can’t always be right I guess. Our adventure into the heart of the Black Elk Wilderness had begun.
The Black Elk Wilderness makes up the center of the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve. Originally established by Congress on December 22 1980, the Wilderness encompassed around 10,000 acres. It wasn’t until 2002 when a piece of legislation increased its size to 13,605 acres of pure wilderness area. Nearly 50 miles of trails weave their way through the wilderness, almost all of which offer very intimate encounters with the Black Hills. Harney Peak Trail #9 from Sylvan Lake is the most traveled route, and very popular in the spring and summer months.
Our starting point was Iron Creek trailhead/horsecamp on the Centennial Trail. Despite Mother Nature’s best efforts to delay the trip months prior, the trails were in great condition. Now, all that stood between us and Harney Peak was a two day hike and spectacular scenery.
Our route was simple. We would follow the Centennial Trail #89 north to Horse Thief Lake Trail #14. We would follow that south where we met up with the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail #7. We would then take this west where we would eventually meet up with the Norbeck Trail #3 which we would follow up to Harney and back down to the vehicle, completing a very scenic loop of the Wilderness.
The sun shined through the ponderosa pine trees as we ventured along the Centennial Trail on day one.
Viewpoints, pristine streams and numerous photos opportunities filled the morning trek.
As we continued north, we began to wonder what type of view we would have of Mount Rushmore National Memorial from the trail. Originally, we had planned on hiking the Blackberry trail up to the Memorial to look around, but time constraints
suggested otherwise, and made for an amazing experience.
We continued to climb the Centennial as it meandered through the granite spires and pines of the rugged Black Hills. Through the trees we could see an opening, off the trail about 100 ft. We followed a rough trail to the end of a granite cliff where the faces of two past presidents looked right back at us. Hoping for a better view of all four faces, Joey headed east. While he didn’t find a view of all four presidents, what he did find was just as amazing.
Having the chance to see the Shrine to Democracy from a distance without the people, vehicles and commotion really added to the experience. While standing on that granite spire in the middle of the Black Elk, it was just me and “the boys”, an amazing feeling of solitude and a great chance to reflect on the morning.
After departing our amazing viewpoint we met up with the Horse Thief Trial. This was one of my favorite portions of the hike. The scenery and topography changed dramatically. An amazing contrast to the first stretch of the Centennial.
Peter and I backtracked for water, while Joey continued up the trail another ½ mile to find a campsite with a view like no other.
Day one ended with great conversation over a hot meal. We were all still excited about the view of Mount Rushmore and the campsite that provided for amazing shots of the Black Elk. Sometimes things just work out, and day one had just been one of those days that I will remember for years to come. Here are a few more photos that ended off the day. And this trip only got better…
Day 2 later this week.