Black Elk Peak, Trail #9 (the Hard Way)…My “White Whale”

Black Elk Peak trail, or trail #9, is a little confusing because the name is the same as the–much easier– trek to the peak from Sylvan Lake.  Be watchful for this (there are signs).  

In case you aren’t aware of it (and as I outlined in 

1st Attempt

We’re standing at Black Elk Peak, we’ve been on the trail for five hours, the guidebook we’d consulted said the trail was only around 8 miles long.  We now KNOW that can’t be right as our GPS says we’re well over 5 miles into the hike and we’ve only reached the summit.  It’s 5 o’clock in the evening and…it’s starting to drizzle…  

Fortunately, it was Memorial Day weekend so we had guaranteed daylight until 8:30 or so, and we had headlamps with us.  (This was one of the only, true, “uh oh” moments I’ve ever had on a trail.  The thought crossed my mind that we could be facing a long, cold night.)  We did, eventually, make it down safely, and with daylight remaining.  We even managed to save one set of dry pants, each, to change into when we got back to the car.  (After descending this trail in drier conditions, I’m somewhat impressed we made it down as safely and easily as we did.  The path is steep and technical enough on its own, in the rain and growing darkness, it can get muddy and slippery very quickly–portions of it literally turn into mini-waterfalls from water running down the slope.)  Water trickles over the large, boulder steps on sunny days, so, on rainy days, it can turn into a veritable river in spots!  I thank Mr. Trekker for supressing my tendency to rush…I hate this trail.  😝 

We had used the Lost Cabin trailhead off Palmer Creek Road for this attempt.  We weren’t sure if we’d make it the whole way or just turn back at some point, but at lunch time we were nearly four miles in and the book had said it was only an eight-mile trek so…this is a lesson in listening to your gut.  When your guidebook (and/or GPS) say one thing, but while looking at the map and using human logic your gut says another…ALWAYS listen to your gut!  😝  This trail system is a beast.  Mr. Trekker and I, actually, almost had a dead limb fall on us on the Lost Cabin Trail during another hike a few years ago, on a day that wasn’t particularly windy. 😳

This big guy is the one that almost fell on us!  
See the limb?  See the trail?  About five minutes before this fell we walked through this area.  We then stopped for some lunch and were startled by the *CRASH!* when it fell!

2nd Attempt

It’s a beautiful, sunny day.  We began hiking fairly early in the morning from the Willow Creek trailhead (near the Willow Creek Horse Camp, located across Route 244 from the Rushmore KOA.  The trailhead is located around three miles west of Horsethief Lake off of Route 244.). We took the shorter arm of the Willow Creek trail loop.  One problem with Trail #9 is its exposure.  It used to be fairly shaded…until the pine beetles had their way.  That and the resultant logging to lessen the danger of falling, dead trees has resulted in A LOT of sun exposure.  Fortunately, a breeze is often present…but not always…  

The heat got the Trekkers on this day (especially me).  I’ve mentioned before that I don’t do well with heat. We made it about halfway to the summit, to the point where it really starts to get difficult.  (I call this “the boulder section” because you have to clamber across a long length of boulders while negotiating a rather steep incline–this is the section that becomes mini-waterfalls in wetter conditions).  After this section comes the first phase of mind-numbing switchbacks (that’s right, I said FIRST!) 😝  Then, there’s a flatter section, before the final phase of switchbacks, which takes you to the junction with the Harney Peak summit trail (a short, spur trail).  About the time we reached this section, I started suffering from stomach cramps and nausea, similar to what I experienced when I became overheated hiking in Glacier National Park several years ago, so, we made the wise decision to turn back…have I mentioned that I HATE THIS TRAIL?! 

3rd Attempt

It’s a, fairly cool, July day (lower 80’s), this past summer.  Earlier that week we had returned from our 10-day trip to the Colorado high country that I outlined in these four posts.  Due to hanging out at 8000 – 10,000 feet throughout that time, we were especially acclimated to the altitude.  (Black Elk Peak, at a little over 7000 feet tall, is the highest peak in the Black Hills and the highest peak east of the Rockies).  I honestly felt in my gut that if I ever hoped to vanquish this monster, this was the time to do it.  All conditions were perfect, we were both feeling great and it was a beautiful day!  

We made it through the easy, early section with no difficulty.  We happily said “hello” to others on the trail, and avoided the occasional “remnant” from horses that had gone before us. 🤥  We reached “the boulder section”…my first nemesis.  We conquered that fairly easily as well!  Then, we reached the first section of switchbacks.  Fortunately, the shade was on our side at that time of the day.  It was starting to hurt…but we made it through…The next section traverses a ridge that parallel’s Black Elk Peak, so it is fairly flat.  This is beneficial as it’s also fairly exposed.  This area affords lovely views of the crags that lord over you from nearby peaks, and the panoramic vistas of the plains to the east (on clear days).  Buzzards soar on the thermals high above your head (waiting for beleaguered hikers to falter? 🤔)  There’s several, lovely, lookout points along the way that make for a great break/lunch spot.  We stopped at a couple, both on the trek up and down the mountain.

Then…we hit the final section of switchbacks.  Both of us had just started feeling the altitude a bit (we were pushing 7000 feet at that point).  This was the only spot where I started feeling ill.  Fortunately, it was still early afternoon and we were in a shaded, quiet area, so we were able to take some time to rest and recover.  And then…we began our final push…as we rounded one, final switchback…and crested one, final rise in the trail…we saw a brown sign appear in the distance, indicating our destination was just ahead…WE HAD MADE IT!!!  Seriously ya’ll, I almost broke down in tears.  I get emotional now, just thinking about it.  It had taken us three attempts to conquer this monster!  I maintain this is the toughest trail I’ve ever completed in the entire Black Hills.  It has the reputation for being “a doozy”.  It’s long, it’s difficult, it’s exposed, the weather can change at a moment’s notice.  Fog and rain can seep in, which is an experience unto itself.  (You won’t have the grand vistas that you’ll see on clearer days, but the granite columns materializing through the mist create a spooky gloom that is definitely worth experiencing, just watch your footing!)    

The Return Trip

On the way down…we ran out of water (seriously).  We have NEVER run out of water before…EVER!  We usually return with a liter, or so, left in each of our water bladders.  It was projected to be a fairly cool day and we wanted to limit weight as much as possible– due to the strenuous hike–so we didn’t fill our water bladders quite to their max fill line.  I will NEVER make that mistake, in July, again!  Fortunately, by the time we ran out, we were only about 1.5 miles from the trailhead, it was all downhill from there and we had reached the easier portion of the trail.  (Also, fortunately, a gas station in Hill City had LARGE gatorades for sale! 😜)  Have I mentioned that I HATE this trail?!  I don’t think I’ve ever said that about a trail before.  I am SO GLAD that we finally beat this brute, but seriously, I don’t know that I’d do it again.  I may consider it with two cars, one parked at Sylvan Lake so you can take the easy route up, and the other parked at Willow Creek trailhead as descending the hard route isn’t too bad…as long as it isn’t raining. 😝  (Or, find a nice friend who will shuttle you between the two points).  

Below are some pics from our day of achievement! 😁  (Thanks, as usual, to Mr. Trekker for some of these!)

Our first glimpse of the fire tower!
My Hills!  You can see the sparseness of the foliage in the foreground.
If you look closely, you can see the plains, far in the distance.  I “think” one of those rock faces may be the back side of Mt. Rushmore! 🤔 


My ray of hope, the sign at the top of the trail!
This view of the nearby crags is on the first set of switchbacks
Not really sure what happened here?!  Deer or elk perhaps?  Looks like somebody has been gnawing on it!

This trail had beaten us twice before, but we had finally defeated it!  If we hadn’t already been acclimated to the altitude, it may have won again.  This was a personal goal of mine that I had wanted to achieve for years.  This trail had made me sick, it left me with (several) blisters, it hurt me, it caused lingering anxiety to even think of attempting it again, and it pushed the limits of my endurance.  But…I beat it!  Reaching this goal was an incredibly empowering, inspiring experience.  This was, truly, my “white whale”.  It’s hard to express my sense of accomplishment for finally completing this hike.  I know others have done it and claim it “isn’t that bad”.  I know it’s not a 14-er, but so what?  I don’t hike 14-ers! 😉  This was a personal goal and desire I had set for myself and I had achieved it!  What could be more empowering than that!

I don’t mean to soundlike I’m bragging.  My point is just that, each person has their own, personal goals, whether they be to learn a new skill, to conquer a specific challenge, etc.  Don’t compare yourself to others.  Only be concerned that you push yourself to expand your comfort zone.  It doesn’t matter what the goal is, as long as you strive to achieve it and, perhaps, find a way to trounce a few personal demons along the way.  👊


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