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Ascent to Black Elk Peak-Intersection of Sylvan Lake & Willow Creek Trails on 2012-03-11

Climber: Lupe Lunde

Other People:Solo Ascent
Date:Sunday, March 11, 2012
Ascent Type:Unsuccessful - Turned Back
    Motorized Transport to Trailhead:Car
Point Reached:Black Elk Peak - Intersection of Sylvan Lake & Willow Creek Trails
    Location:USA-South Dakota
    Elevation:7150 ft / 2179 m
    Remaining Elevation:81 ft / 25 m (3% left to go)

Ascent Trip Report

Black Hills, SD Expedition No. 10: (Black Elk Wilderness) - Lupe set out this morning about 10:00 AM from the Horse Thief Lake trailhead on Horse Thief Lake Trail No. 14. Lupe's goal for the day was to explore a portion of the Black Elk Wilderness via Trail 14 and Centennial Trail No. 89 as far S as the Iron Creek trailhead. The weather was unseasonably warm with the forecast calling for a high in the 60's in Rapid City. This was the first of Lupe's expeditions which was not winter-like. It was a gorgeous day.

Lupe followed Trail No. 14 S for about 0.75 mile to the intersection with Centennial Trail No. 89. This stretch of trail is a pretty walk alongside a small stream in a narrow valley between large granite rock formations. The trail gains elevation at a modest pace as it heads S. At the intersection, Lupe left Trail No. 14 and headed S on Centennial Trail No. 89. The Centennial Trail lost elevation gradually while winding along up on the west side of a valley. Eventually the trail widened out where a portion of the trail followed some old jeep or logging trail. Lupe's human porter almost lost the Centennial Trail here. After a short exploration to the W, her human porter doubled back and explored further to the E where a Centennial Trail marker confirmed that this was the correct direction to go.

The Centennial Trail comes very close to Mt. Rushmore National Monument. In fact, Lupe saw George Washington's head from the Centennial Trail at one point. A spur of the trail heads NE and goes up toward a trailhead near Mt. Rushmore. Lupe did not take the spur, however, and continued S on the Centennial Trail. Lupe was now on the E side of the valley she was following S up on a ridge with more granite outcroppings. She passed a spur of the trail that goes E to Iron Mountain. Eventually the trail dropped down into the valley and Lupe came to a flat snow-covered field with a big mound or hill of granite in the middle of it. Grizzly Bear Creek enters this field from the S. (This area was the low elevation point for this hike used to calculate elevation gain.) The Centennial Trail continued S, but soon left Grizzly Bear Creek, which turned to the W. A short distance later, the trail left the Black Elk Wilderness and entered the Black Hills National Forest.

Lupe reached the Iron Creek Horse Camp about 4 miles from where she had left the Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14. The plan had originally been to just go on a short distance to reach the Iron Creek trailhead. However, Lupe had made such great time getting to the Iron Creek Horse Camp and it was such a gorgeous day out, that Lupe's human porter decided to make a big loop to the W and then N towards Harney Peak before heading back E to Horse Thief Lake again. So Lupe headed W through the Iron Creek Horse Camp to pick up Norbeck Trail No. 3 at the NW end of the camp. The Iron Creek Horse Camp looked like a pretty impressive base for anyone with horses. It was located in a broad flat valley with Iron Creek flowing through it. There were corrals and plenty of parking space. No horses were around this time of year though. No one was.

Norbeck Trail No. 3 wound its way around toward the W through the forest mostly gaining elevation at a moderate pace. It was pretty shady as the forest was fairly dense. There was some snow and ice on parts of the trail, more than Lupe had encountered earlier on Centennial Trail No. 89, but not enough to slow the progress of Lupe's human porter down much. After a while the Needles Highway No. 87 came into view about 500 feet S of the trail, but there was no traffic on it. There is no winter maintenance on the Needles Highway which is therefore typically closed to traffic all winter once snow accumulates. Roughly 2 miles from the Iron Creek Horse Camp, Lupe came to a deserted trailhead near the Needles Highway.

Lupe continued on Norbeck Trail No. 3 past the Needles Highway trailhead. The trail turned more to the NW and increasingly toward the N as it went on. The trail became snowier as it followed along the SW side of a small stream up into a deep valley. Lupe's human porter hoped Trail No. 3 would cross the stream over to the sunnier E side of the valley. Eventually it did, but although there was less snow for a while, the trail also began to climb more energetically. On the W side of the valley was a big steep ridge capped by rough granite cliffs that rose higher and higher to the N. As Lupe proceeded up Norbeck Trail No. 3, she came to a forest unlike any she had seen before. It had been ravaged by pine bark beetles so that the great majority of the trees were dead. Many had snapped in half and huge shattered trees lay blocking the trail in many places. Trying to work around all the obstacles on the trail slowed Lupe's human porter down a great deal. The hike became a long and difficult one. The sun sank below the high cliffs to the W.

As Lupe continued the climb, conditions became tougher and tougher. Quite a few times Lupe's human porter thought Lupe was approaching a ridge that the trail would cross over and then start down. However, each time Lupe neared a high point, her human porter discovered that the trail continued on upward ever farther. Lupe was gaining a lot of elevation. There was a huge view to the S back down the valley. Lupe struggled onward through snow that became deeper and deeper while Norbeck Trail No. 3 became steeper and steeper. Fortunately it couldn't go on like that forever, since Lupe was nearing the elevation of the tops of the surrounding mountains and ridges. Lupe was even approaching the elevation of the huge rock walls to the W that had been blocking the sun.

The last short stretch of Norbeck Trail No. 3 was the steepest and most difficult. Lupe valiantly tried hard to break a path through snow that was 3 feet deep or so. She had to leap from point to point and was not getting very far with each leap as she sank deeply into the snow. She soon got tired and fell back behind to let her human porter break the way. No one else had been this way to mar the pristine deep snow. It was difficult to even determine where the trail was. Fortunately this steep area of deep snow was not too long and represented the final push to easier territory. Finally Lupe reached a high area where the ground became more level, the snow wasn't quite so deep, and where she soon reached an intersection with another trail. Lupe and her human porter were both relieved. Others had been on this new trail and trampled the snow down to where the trail could be much more easily followed. Lupe's human porter suspected this new trail was the Cathedral Spires Trail No. 4, although there was no sign indicating that. Instead, a sign pointing N still said Trail No. 3.

The sun was very low in the W by the time Lupe reached this point, although it was still shining on the highest peaks. Lupe's human porter knew Lupe was still many miles from the G6. After just a brief pause to rest, Lupe and her human porter headed off to the N along the new trail in the direction of Harney Peak. This trail was much more level, although still climbing slowly. Soon the summit of Harney Peak came into view. It really wasn't that far away and did not look like it was more than a few hundred feet higher than where Lupe already was.

Even up here, the forest was a scene of devastation. So many trees were dead and snapped in half. There were tree trunks everywhere on the ground off the trail. The few trees that were still doing well were Black Hills Spruce, which the pine bark beetles do not seem to attack. Except for very young ones, the Ponderosa pines, which had comprised most of the forest were dead. Lupe came to points along the trail where she could see a long ways out to the E – clear out to the prairie, where the fading light of the sun was still shining for a bit longer. The back side of Mt. Rushmore was visible. It looked far off and Lupe seemed to be 2000 feet above it.

Although it wasn't that much farther to Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills, it was clear the struggle up Norbeck Trail No. 3 had taken so long there wasn't time for Lupe climb it. The sun was about to disappear below the horizon. The shattered snowy forest full of fallen timber felt desolate and forbidding with night coming on. Lupe's human porter needed to find Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7, which would start Lupe on her way back down from the Harney Peak area towards Horsethief Lake and the G6. It shouldn't have been more than 0.5 mile from the intersection of Trails No. 3 and No. 4, however, Lupe trotted along Cathedral Spires Trail No. 4 for what seemed like a long time. Her human porter saw no sign of Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7.

Finally Lupe came to a trail junction, but it was with Trail No. 9, the Sylvan Lake – Harney Peak – Willow Creek Trail. Lupe's human porter knew this trail. Lupe was very close to the Harney Peak summit. And it was for certain Lupe's human porter had missed Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7. After pondering the situation for a minute, Lupe's human porter decided the best thing to do was just go back and look for it again. The sun was already down. Darkness would soon be coming on. It was important to find Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 soon. Lupe turned and hurried back S along Trail No. 4. Lupe's human porter tried to keep a very keen eye out for any sign of Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7, while considering all the possibilities if it could not be found. Suddenly, Lupe turned and headed down to the left (E) off Cathedral Spires Trail No. 4. Lupe had found it! She was on Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7. It turned out there was a trail sign there, but it was parallel to the Cathedral Spires Trail No. 4, making it easy to miss. The steep snowy drop off to Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 had been hardly noticeable in the fading light. If one had been coming up Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7, one would have been staring right at the trail sign at the intersection “T”.

Anyway, the light was now fading fast and the snow was deep again as Lupe plunged on down Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7. The trail wound steeply down. Lupe's human porter wanted to lose as much elevation as quickly as possible anyway to get out of the deep snow. Before long, Lupe heard what her human porter thought was a coyote at first, but soon determined was a dog. Lupe then heard voices too. They seemed to be coming from off the trail to the NE not very far below. Lupe's human porter could not tell what they were saying, but despite the snow and the hour, they did not sound like anyone was in distress. There were at least 2 different voices. One wondered what they were doing out there at that time. Winter camping? It seemed unlikely in that steep snowy area. Other than her human porter, Lupe had seen only one other person since leaving the G6 many hours earlier - just one guy hiking on Centennial Trail No. 89. Although she heard them, she never saw the source of the voices or the other dog.

Lupe pressed on. The snow decreased rapidly as Lupe lost elevation, but the problem eventually became that the lack of snow just exposed the ice. For Lupe's human porter, the going was tricky and slow. The light faded fast. Finally the flashlight had to come out. Despite the snow and ice the weather was still amazingly warm. Lupe trotted on along the trail. Eventually she came to Grizzly Creek. The trail followed it for a while, crossing back and forth over it a number of times. It was pitch black out except for the flashlight light and the stars, which were brilliant above where they could be seen through the forest. The snow and ice diminished and finally pretty much disappeared. At last Lupe reached the intersection with Horse Thief Lake Trail No. 14. Lupe left Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 and took Horse Thief Trail No. 14 which would take her all the way back to Horse Thief Lake. She had lost a ton of elevation and the Horsethief Trail No. 14 started a long stretch uphill again.

At one point Lupe's human porter heard some scurrying in the vegetation to the right off the trail. Lupe heard it too. Shining the flashlight over there, Lupe's human porter caught a glimpse of a small animal, black and white, and pretty low to the ground. Likely a skunk, even though Lupe's human porter didn't smell anything and didn't get enough of a glimpse of it to know for sure. Lupe seemed pretty interested in checking out whatever it was, but her human porter was adamant that she should not.

Continuing on, Lupe reached Centennial Trail No. 89. For a short distance, No. 14 and No. 89 share the same path. Before long Lupe had traversed that section and left Centennial Trail No. 89 to take the final section of Horsethief Trail No. 14 back to Horsethief Lake and the G6. The going was slow again for Lupe's human porter due to all the ice along this section, which was trickier navigate in the dark. A very tired dingo finally reached the G6 and hopped in most readily to curl up for a long nap. The clock in the G6 said it was 10:30PM.
Summary Total Data
    Elevation Gain:2290 ft / 698 m
    Route Conditions:
Road Hike, Maintained Trail, Snow on Ground
    Weather:Cold, Calm, Partly Cloudy
Ascent Statistics
    Elevation Gain:2290 ft / 698 m
    Route:Trail 14, Trail 89, Trail 3, Trail 4, Trail 9
    Trailhead:Horsethief Lake TH, Black Elk Wilderness  4860 ft / 1481 m
Descent Statistics



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