Hiking Black Elk Peak, Trail #9: the Easy Way!

In this post, I detail the main route up Black Elk Peak in the Black Hills.

Black Elk Peak trail (Trail #9) is one of the most popular hikes in the entire Black Hills.  It summits Black Elk Peak, which is the tallest peak in the Hills (at over 7000 feet in elevation) and it is also the tallest mountain in the entire country east of the Rockies!

In this post, I am reviewing the route that traverses the south side of the mountain.  This is the easiest way up Black Elk Peak.  You can also attempt Trail #9 from the north.  For a review of that trail, which is only lightly traveled and is FAR more strenuous than the southern route (in my opinion it is one of the hardest trails in the entire Black Hills) click here.  

Where is the Black Elk Peak Trailhead?

The trailhead is located within Custer State Park.  It is adjacent to the picturesque Sylvan Lake.  You can reach it from the east side of the main parking lot at the lake, which is found just off of Route 87.

When is the best time of year to hike the Black Elk Peak Trail?

You can hike this trail any time of the year (weather-permitting that Route 87 is open so you can get to the trailhead).  Always remember that because this is the highest portion of the Black Hills, it tends to get more snow than the surrounding areas and that snow tends to stick around longer.  Also, this trail is VERY popular, even in the winter months, so the snow on it gets packed into very slippery ice.  At a bare minimum, traction devices such as Yaktrax are a MUST during the snowy months.

As with the majority of Custer State Park, you can take dogs on this trail.  Please keep them leashed though.  Unlike many other trails in the Black Hills, you should expect to have A LOT of company on your hike, at least during the busy season. 

Black Elk Peak is the new name for Harney Peak

Black Elk Peak is located within the Harney range.   The name of the mountain was changed from Harney Peak just a few years ago so many signs and maps still carry the old name.  The new name honors Black Elk, a Lakota, Holy Man who died in 1950.  The wilderness area that the peak is located within was named after him, as well.

*If you’re interested in learning more about this great man and the rich, Lakota culture, check out the book Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt.  Neihardt wrote this biography after interviewing Black Elk near the end of his life. 

The Holy Man had an incredibly rich life filled with diverse experiences from growing up in a nomadic tribe on the South Dakota Plains to traveling the world with the Wild Bill Hickok Wild West show!  Black Elk was even at the Battle of Little Bighorn where General Custer was killed.  In the book, he discusses how everything changed when “the yellow metal that makes white men crazy”–-his name for “gold”–was found in the Black Hills.

What is the Black Elk Peak trail like?

The trail is quite wide and graded, with very little rock-scrambling required (until you get to the summit).  Due to this, I would give it a rating of Moderate.  The only things that make this trail difficult are the length (it’s over seven miles long, out-and-back, and can easily take 4 – 5 hours to complete) and it sits at a high altitude.  Throughout the entire hike you never drop below 6000 feet, so expect to feel the lower oxygen levels present at this higher elevation.  You will get out of breath and tired more quickly and you may feel dizzy (or like your head is “swimming”.)

The summit can be a little daunting.  As with much of the rest of the Black Hills this area is left primarily to nature.  There are very few fences or barriers between you and the cliff edges that surround the summit of the mountain.  If you are responsible you can very safely enjoy this site.  Just be watchful with small children and pets.

All that being said, this trail is family-friendly as long as you know your limits and take your time.  I would recommend hiking boots (or at least sturdy shoes) for this hike but I’ve seen people do it in simple sneakers and even flip-flops or sandals. 😮

It’s a long way down!

The other concern here is the weather.  It can change incredibly quickly.  It can also be drastically different here than the lower elevations in the rest of the park or the surrounding countryside.  The peak is solely made of granite rock, there are no trees for shade or protection.

While the hike does meander through the Black Hills National Forest, this portion of it was decimated by the pine beetle epidemic just a few years ago so there are many areas that were left bare of trees. So don’t expect a lot of shade to hide you from the sun in the summer. 

There is also little protection from the wind.  If a thunderstorm pops up while you’re on the mountain (which can frequently be expected during the afternoon in the summer months) you should immediately trek back down the trail and get to an area with more trees and protection!

What will you see on the Black Elk Peak Trail?

The panorama that greets you at the summit is unrivaled anywhere in the Black Hills (you’re taller than everything else so there is nothing to block your view! )  We are talking a 360-degree vista of the entirety of Custer State Park, the town of Custer to the south, Rapid City to the north, and the plains that spread to the east of town!  On clear days you may also be able to spot the Badlands, which is almost 100 miles to the east (bring your binoculars!)

The view from 7000+ feet high!

Much like the rest of the park, this route is the perfect place to see the wide variety of flora (plants) and fauna (critters) that call Custer State Park home.  These include mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer (both whitetail and mule), elk, chipmunks, and the squirrels who will chatter at you along the way.  There are also coyotes, mountain lions, and bobcats, though you are less likely to see these shy animals. 

Harney Fire Tower

There is an incredibly picturesque fire tower at the top of the peak and to my knowledge, it still bears Harney’s name.  It was built in the 1930s and rumor has it the infamous burrows that can be spotted in other portions of the park are descendants of the pack animals who were used when the fire tower was in service.  The tower is no longer in operation, but it is still maintained and can be climbed!  For more info on the tower, click here!

First glimpse of the Harney Fire Tower!

This trail is not “easy” but it is quite doable for almost any able-bodied hiker.  Plan to spend an entire day at Sylvan Lake and hiking the Black Elk Peak trail, it is most definitely worth that much time!  Enjoy the trail, appreciate the summit and the splendid beauty of the Black Hills that surround you.  This is a fun trek with incredible views and I would encourage anyone who has even the slightest interest in hiking to try it out!  You’ll be glad you did!

 

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Looking to bag one of the most popular peaks in the Black Hills? Read on for details on hiking Black Elk Peak!

 

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Hike the Hell Canyon Trail in the Black Hills

In this post, I review the Hell Canyon trail located near Custer, South Dakota

The Hell Canyon Trail is found in a very scenic portion of the southern Black Hills.  It was once quite forested until it was decimated by the Jasper Fire in 2000 which was one of the worst fires on record, ever, in the Black Hills.  You can still see remnants of this damage (though they have begun reseeding this area, so hopefully it will be returned to the forest in a few years).

Funnily enough, the canyon was named BEFORE it was ravaged by the fire.  The ruins of that event do make it look a bit like a hellscape though! 😮

Puppers and I enjoying the trail along one of the canyon walls that was left bare as a result of the Jasper Fire.

Where is the Hell Canyon Trailhead?

The Hells Canyon trailhead is located in far southwestern South Dakota pretty much in the middle of nowhere. 😉   It is situated 25 miles east of Newcastle, Wyoming, or a little more than 10 miles east of the Wyoming state line.  It is also less than 15 miles west of Custer, South Dakota, basically a mile west of Jewell Cave, on US 16, on the north side of the road.

A word of caution:  if you just put “Hell Canyon” into your GPS it may try to take you to a remote spot south of the highway.  This area is beautiful, but these roads can turn into 4WD roads VERY quickly and easily, especially in snowy or muddy conditions.  You can certainly enjoy driving in this area but do so with caution and at your own risk.  The actual Hell Canyon trailhead can be reached by any vehicle as it is just off of US 16.  No 4WD required!

The paved road at the bottom of the canyon is US 16, you can see how easily accessible the lane to the trailhead is (the dirt road).

What is the Hell Canyon trail like?

Hell Canyon is a loop trail that is about 5.5 miles long and really only covers a small portion of land.  The right side, or eastern branch, of the trail traverses the floor of the actual canyon while the left side, or western branch, is found on the canyon rim.  In many places, you can see the lower portion of the trail from the upper portion.

You can really take the loop in either direction.  During the warmer months, the Trekkers prefer to go counterclockwise, starting with the climb to the top of the canyon wall.  This gets the only moderately difficult portion of the trail out of the way early.  This area also has little to no shade, due to the Jasper Fire, so depending on what time you set out, it may be best to try to do this section during the coolest portion of your hike.

A cool pic of the canyon wall!

The exception to this is if you’re attempting the hike during the colder months and you WANT the sun.  Also, the portion at the back of the canyon that descends the forested part of the canyon wall can become INCREDIBLY icy during the cooler times of the year.  We made the mistake of descending this way once and had to pretty much do the entire thing by crab-crawling and sliding on our backsides to keep from careening over the cliff edge (and this was WITH YakTrax traction devices on! 😮 )

What Will You See on the Hell Canyon Trail?

You will see a variety of ecosystems on the hike.  The canyon floor itself is forested and quite green and lush, with a creek running through it.  The upper canyon rim consists of dry, arid grassland.  This is the portion that was hit by the fire.

A placard at the trailhead that gives info on the fire

On the backside of the canyon (the north end), at around the halfway point through the loop, you will see the ruins of an old CCC camp.  There is also evidence of an old, paved road in this area, as well as some root cellars and small, cement foundations leftover from the camp days.

There are a few places along the canyon rim that can feel a little sketchy to people who are afraid of heights.  As long as you are careful there isn’t a lot of danger on this portion of the trail, but it can be disorienting as you’re basically just staring down a scree slope.

This is one of my favorite parts of the hike. The red rocks of the canyon rim make a VERY pretty contrast to the dark green trees that sit just below it.

If you’re looking for a fun, moderately challenging hike that isn’t very busy, check out the Hell Canyon trail!

 

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Hell Canyon is a lightly-trafficked, moderately-difficult hike that includes many unique ecosystems found in the Black Hills!

 

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Little Devils Tower, Cathedral Spires and Needles Highway Loop

In this post I review a loop hike made from two popular trails and a scenic road, all amidst the beauty of Custer State Park!

While there are many great hikes in Custer State Park, one of my favorites is an awesome loop trail that connects the Cathedral Spires to the Little Devils Tower trails and incorporates a portion of the Needles Highway.

You can do this loop any time of the year, but I suggest extreme caution if you try it in the summer.  It includes either a lengthy overlanding stretch which requires scrambling over steep, unmarked terrain, or it means you have to walk along the narrow, CROWDED Needles Highway.

Where are the Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires trailheads?

You can reach both of these trails from the Sylvan Lake area, which is found off of Route 87 in Custer State Park.  Both are accessible throughout the year (weather permitting) though you can’t drive directly to the trailheads during the winter months. (You can access them via a spur trail from Sylvan Lake or other connector trails in the local area.)  See below for directions to both trailheads:

Little Devils Tower Trailhead

This is found just past the turnoff for Sylvan Lake. (Continue on Route 87 a little less than a mile south of the turnoff for the lake.  You will see a sign for the trailhead on your left and will make a left-hand turn into the parking lot.)  You can’t reach this trailhead by car in the winter months as the road is closed in that area.  In this case, you can access the Little Devils Tower trail via an easy spur trail that is located on the western corner of the main Sylvan Lake parking area.   

Cathedral Spires Trailhead

This trailhead can be found less than one mile south of the Needle Overlook on the Needles Highway (Route 87). (Note, this is south of the turnoff for Sylvan Lake.)

Extreme caution should be practiced in this area.  The parking lot is small and is located at a bend in an extremely curvy and narrow portion of the Needles Highway.  It is necessary to cross the road to reach the trailhead and in the summer this area is frequently crowded with traffic.  The curves and rock walls can greatly reduce a driver’s visibility and cars are sometimes parked incorrectly as well, further exacerbating the problem.

As the Needles Highway is closed in the winter, that time of year you can only access this trail by car if you do it via a connector trail (such as the Little Devils Tower trail).

This is the junction where the Little Devils Tower trail meets the Cathedral Spires trail

What will you see on the Cathedral Spires/Little Devils Tower/Needles Highway loop?

The loop can be completed in any direction, or you can hike each section individually.  The Trekkers find it easier to start at either Sylvan Lake and take the spur to the Little Devils Tower trail or to just drive to that trailhead directly.

This route is especially enjoyable during the winter months (roughly November through April depending on the weather) because the Needles Highway is closed to all vehicles during that time.  You can still hike/snowshoe/ski it though!  It’s so cool to be able to slowly and calmly enjoy this route, and all the beautiful views it offers, in peace.

No offense tourists, we love you guys!  It’s just that during the busy, warm months, all the bustling of cars, busses, and motorcycles makes us miss our quiet, peaceful Hills. 😇   

See below for a description of each trail:

Little Devils Tower

This trail is around two miles long, in each direction.  It is fairly wide and smooth and isn’t overly difficult (it does ascend the entire way out but the grade is low).

If you know where to look, the fabled Poet’s Table can also be found in this area.  If you want a few hints on how to find it, click here.  

Near the summit, the last several hundred feet does require scrambling over large, steep boulders.  There are some absolutely gorgeous vistas on this trail, and from the summit, you can get great views of the Cathedral Spires…

Cathedral Spires Trail

You can reach this trail directly from the Little Devils Tower Trail.  At one-and-a-half miles in each direction, the hike is fairly flat, smooth, and well-marked.  At its terminus, you will find yourself in an amphitheater.  It is surrounded on three sides by rock spires that reach to the heavens as they tower overhead.  Sounds reverberate off the rock causing a cacophony of noise.  This is a prime area to stop for a quick lunch break and it is especially haunting in the fog when it creates a spooky, almost fairy-tale-like scene.

The Cathedral Spires!

Needles Highway

This connector section of the trail offers incredible views of Custer State Park and the town of Custer that sits directly to the south of the park.  On clear days you can also see the plains that stretch to the east and south.  It is truly a beautiful area!  Watch for mountain goats here too as they favor the rocky, granite crags that this part of the state is known for.

Can you spot the mountain goat?
Puppers and I entering the Needles Eye Tunnel! Can you believe full-sized busses fit through here?! True story!
The Needles Eye!

The entire loop is around 9ish miles in total length so it’s a little long.  However, there isn’t a lot of elevation gain as you’re already at one of the highest points in the Hills and the routes themselves aren’t difficult.  I would rate this as a moderate hike.

So, if you’re looking for a fun and scenic way to see well-known parts of Custer State Park, check out this loop trail made from the Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires trails, and the Needles Highway!

 

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For a great, off-season, hike in Custer State Park, check out this loop that combines Little Devils Tower/Cathedral Spires trails and the Needles Highway!

 

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Empire Mine, Black Hills of South Dakota

In this post, I review a trip to the “secret” site of the Empire Mine, found in the central Black Hills.

Author’s Note:  I struggled with whether or not to write this post.  I wanted to blog about this location because it is a cool place and I love sharing the history and beauty of our Black Hills with others.  However, it is a bit of a secret spot and I didn’t want to be “that guy” who gives away closely-held, local secrets.  My personal policy is to not offer more directions to these types of sites than are already available on Google.  Unfortunately, there isn’t much to be found regarding the Empire Mine…

My main goal with this policy is to protect the site from vandalism and/or destruction.  We have unfortunately had these types of issues in some local places such as the Spokane ghost town and the iconic Poet’s Table, as of late.  For this reason, my directions below are intentionally vague.  If you want clearer instructions on how to reach the site, you may contact me via social media as indicated below, or by using my contact form, and I may be able to help you a little more. (I got some helpful directions from a friendly and helpful local so I am willing to pay their goodwill forward and do you the same favor. 😀)

 

There is a somewhat well-known, secret location many people enjoy hiking to in the central Black Hills.  It is the site of the now-defunct Empire Gold Mine!  You can reach the ruins of this mine via the Samelius trailhead, which is part of the Black Hills Centennial Trail.

That’s it.  Those are my directions. 😇  I told you they would be vague! 😉  I don’t feel like these approximate instructions are giving anything away as this much is available on the AllTrails site.  That page also offers a little more information as to the whereabouts of the mine, including a vague map.  Also, I knew the mine could be reached from this trailhead for quite some time and that didn’t aid me in finding this secret locale (maybe I’m just not that bright? 😂 )

The storehouse at Empire Mine.  At one point in time trucks could drive here.

What is the trail to the Empire Mine like?

The trail to the Empire Mine is about 4.2 miles in total length, out-and-back.   You should be aware, a goodly portion of the route going out is downhill…you know what that means for a goodly portion of the path coming back?! 😝  The trail is also fairly obvious the entire way.  Much of it follows old forest roads and the portions that don’t are heavily used so they are well-trodden.

When is the best time of year to visit the Empire Mine?

The hike is a bit lengthy but it isn’t overly difficult.  Some of the trail sections could become quite icy during the colder months, especially as this route sees a lot of traffic that can pack the snow into hard ice.  If the weather has been particularly wet recently, or during the spring thaw when snow is melting, mud could also make this trail slippery.

Another ruin from the site’s mining days. You can see how dilapidated the buildings are becoming.

These factors could make the downhill portions of the route troublesome, so please use caution.  The hike is especially lovely in fall when the trees change color!  This is because along the way you walk near several aspen groves that turn a brilliant, golden hue (hey look, another clue as to the location of the mine! 😉)

What is there to see at the Empire Mine?

Some of the main ruins that remain of the mine are the brick loading area and a VERY large copper funnel.  Those are found at the bottom of the hill.  As you work your way up the hill you will encounter a number of buildings and mine equipment that still remain in the forest.

A WORD OF WARNING!  The mine was built in the late 1930s so these buildings are OLD!  They are made of wood that has weathered and has not been maintained in many years.  PLEASE do NOT enter them.  Also, watch your step throughout this area as portions of the ground (especially near some of the buildings) are degrading into sinkholes.

A large funnel that was used at the mine

This is a pretty neat site to visit.  It is also not that far from several nearby, Black Hills’ towns and it isn’t really that hard to reach IF you know where you’re going.  If you’re interested in some of the mining history of the Black Hills I encourage you to look into this secret locale.  Just please, treat it with the historical respect it deserves, and don’t ruin the site for those who come after you.  *stepping off my soapbox now* 😇 

Have you visited the site of the Empire Mine in the central Black Hills?  Share your experience with me in the comments!

 

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Looking for a historical, hidden gem of the Black Hills that is easy to reach and nearby? Check out the Empire Mine...if you can find it!

 

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Centennial Trail Between Bear Butte and Alkali Creek Trailheads

In this post, I review the northern portion of the Centennial Trail that runs between Bear Butte State Park and the Alkali Creek trailheads (this also includes Fort Meade) in the northern Black Hills.

The Trekkers have been taking advantage of our mild winter weather this year and have been ticking off more sections of our goal to hike the entire Black Hills Centennial Trail (in pieces, we’ve been working on this goal for the last decade. 😝)

This winter we’ve been slogging our way through the northern portions of the trail.  Today’s post is going to focus specifically on the sections that run between the Alkali Creek trailhead and Bear Butte State Park (Fort Meade is included in this).

Where can you find the Alkali Creek, Fort Meade, and Bear Butte trailheads of the Centennial Trail?

When hiking the Centennial Trail from these trailheads you can choose to start from whichever one you’d like and can travel northbound or southbound from any of them.  All of these are pretty easy to find as they are all close to populated areas (namely I-90 and Sturgis, South Dakota).  See below for specific directions to each:

    • Alkali Creek trailhead:  located adjacent to I-90 across the highway from the Black Hills National Cemetery at Exit 34.
    • Bear Butte trailhead:  found at Bear Butte State Park which is northeast of Sturgis, SD on Route 79.
    • Fort Meade trailhead:  located on the eastern edge of the Fort Meade historical site off of Route 34, just east of Sturgis.

What will you see on the Black Hills Centennial Trail in the Northern Hills?

This whole area sits in the shadow of Bear Butte, meaning it offers spectacular views of that unique formation.

Bear Butte is a “sister” volcanic plug to Devils Tower that is located in eastern Wyoming.  The American Indians who named this geological formation gave it this name as they thought it resembled a sleeping bear. (I think it more resembles a sleeping stegosaurus or dragon, but the tribal people probably wouldn’t have been familiar with these critters, so I’ll give it to them. 😀)

The idea of the bear plays into the American Indian legend of the giant bear who scored the sides of the Tower with his claws, leaving the large columns of igneous rock behind.

The Centennial Trail between Alkali Creek and Fort Meade trailheads

My favorite of these sections is the portion between Alkali Creek and the Fort Meade historical site in Sturgis.  As its name would imply, Fort Meade was originally built as a fort in the late 1800s.  It now features a museum, multiple historical buildings, and a VA hospital.

As you venture near the fort you start to see many historical buildings popping up along the hiking route.  One was just an old ( but beautiful) stone fireplace and chimney.  Another looked to be old, stone barracks.

On the Centennial Trail, looking towards Fort Meade from the north

On the Alkali Creek portion, we made a loop of the Centennial Trail and through the Fort Meade Recreation Area.  This place is awesome!  I had heard about it before but had never been there.  We’d definitely like to go back and do more of the trails.  They would be perfect for mountain biking or horseback riding, in addition to hiking.

We brought roads 11 and 12 back to the Alkali Creek trailhead to complete our loop.  They were much easier and quicker than the way out as they were mostly on old forest roads.  Be aware though, this section has no shade as it traverses the grassland portion of this trail.

The Fort Meade historical site

This section of the Centennial Trail is VERY pretty.  It is comprised of forested hills (much like the rest of the Black Hills) and prairie sections.  There are lots of different ecosystems and flora represented here, ranging from pine forests to prairie grassland.  It made me wonder if this is what Bear Butte looked like, before the fire in 1996?

Bear Butte, the sleeping bear (or sleeping stegosaurus, if you prefer. 😉 )

This portion of the trail is comprised of a bunch of up and down sections, but nothing too terribly steep or long.  It reminded us of some of the Devils Tower hikes in Wyoming where you are hiking through the trees but can still look out over the plains.

While one portion of this hike is VERY close to I-90 (the highway is maybe half a mile away?) it isn’t very noisy because you’re in the forest on the “other” side of the hill!  Yay science!

The Black Hills Centennial Trail between Fort Meade and Bear Butte trailheads

The rest of this section of trails is comprised mostly of just prairie and prairie dogs. 😊  We did spot a grass fire to the north as we were hiking along.  That was a little disconcerting as were surrounded by highly flammable material. 😮

We weren’t too worried as it was quite a ways off, we could see the authorities were already on scene, and the wind was blowing the fire away from us.  It did get us thinking about what we would do if a fire was to come racing across the grassland while we were hiking through it. 😝  There was a farmhouse nearby we could have run to or there were some small cow ponds scattered nearby.  These may not have been very clean or nice but they would have sufficed in a pinch! 😂

Take note that these portions of trails could be VERY warm in the summer (which is partially why we enjoyed them this winter).  Much of the Centennial Trail in this region traverses grassland with no shade to speak of anywhere.  While the brisk, South Dakota breeze usually accompanies you, you won’t be able to escape the unrelenting sun. (Between the hot sun and that breeze–plus the fact that the air is usually quite dry here–you can dehydrate quickly and easily.  Not only do they dry you out, but the constant breeze and dryness can make it so that you don’t even realize how much you are sweating.)

That being said, this portion of the Centennial Trail is a great hike!  It offers some amazing views and it is easier than many portions of the trail that are further south.  This is because the altitude is lower here and the elevation changes are far more minimal.  So if you’re looking for something fun to do, check out the Centennial Trail in the Northern Black Hills!

 

Have you tried out any of these routes?  What did you think?  Tell me about your hike in the comments!

 

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For an easier, yet still scenic portion of the Black Hills Centennial Trail, hike the Alkali Creek to Bear Butte section (which includes Fort Meade)!

 

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Barnes Canyon Trail in Custer State Park

In this post, I review a newer, not well-known trail in Custer State Park.

The Barnes Canyon Trail is a relatively new hiking option located within Custer State Park.  It is a great path as it is broad and easy to follow (being that it used to be a road). 😉  Because it is so wide and well-graded it is appropriate for almost everyone in your party.

Where in Custer State Park is the Barnes Canyon Trail?

The trailhead is located on the eastern edge of the park, near Custer State Park Airport.  It also connects through to the Badger Clark Memorial Trail which is located off of Route 16A, found farther west, and deeper within the park. (I discuss this portion of the trail in another post.)

How long is the hike?

The hike is around 10 miles in total length (4.7 miles in each direction).  You only have to traverse as much of it as you want, of course.  The road is out-and-back and was once used for forest and logging access. (It has now been closed to motorized vehicles.)

Many old maps show that the trail makes a loop. We didn’t see any obvious evidence of this on our hike.  We found on several websites that the loop can be difficult to follow as one of the sections is heavily overgrown, not well-maintained, and not well marked. If you want to try the whole loop be my guest, but be sure you have good maps and a compass with you as it may require some bushwhacking of your own trail.

This road is basically what the entire tail looks like
 What will you see on the Barnes Canyon Trail?

The route includes hills and dips, but traveling east to west it generally traverses uphill. It isn’t a very steep or difficult trek, however, so it should be appropriate for almost anyone.  In several places, it offers nice views of the surrounding prairies and wooded hillsides.  While the majority of the trail mostly runs through forestland, you do cross a few meadowy areas, as well.

One nice thing about this trail is that it allows you to get out into the middle of Custer State Park.  Here it is quiet and far from the many tourists that are frequently in the area.  You may spot many different wildlife on your trek including deer, buffalo, elk, and bighorn sheep, not to mention a wide variety of birds and other forest critters.  This is also a very quiet hike as the trail does not run near any major roads.  Use your time here to soak up the tranquility, peace, and natural sounds of the forest.

When is the best time of the year to hike this trail?

This trail is appropriate to use at any time of the year, though it could be difficult to reach in deep snow or very muddy conditions.  Also, if you attempt this hike during the colder months, you may want to bring traction devices, such as Yaktrax, to help you manage any icy sections that may form in shaded areas, especially on hills.

If you’re looking for a great trail that isn’t difficult but offers some beautiful views of the flora and fauna that make up the amazing scenery of the Black Hills, check out the Barnes Canyon Trail in Custer State Park!

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Want a great hike that is family friendly and will help you see the quieter side of Custer State Park? Check out the Barnes Canyon Trail!

 

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Willow Creek Trail Black Hills

In this post, I review the Willow Creek loop trail!

One shorter trail the Trekkers really enjoy in the Black Hills is the Willow Creek Trail (trail #8)!  I like this route so much because it isn’t super difficult.  Anyone can reach the trailhead with any vehicle (in good conditions).  It’s also fairly short with no lengthy or super difficult climbs, so anyone in decent condition should be able to manage it.  This trail is appropriate for all ages, children, adults, and four-legged friends! 

Related posts:  Hiking the Boulder Hill Trail; “Secret” Hiking Trails off Sheridan Lake Road; Coon Hollow Trail; Little Elk Creek Trail; Flume Loop TrailStratobowl near Rapid City

The trail also sticks to the lower altitudes in the Black Hills and doesn’t offer any major elevation changes, which makes it easier.  This route allows you to get out into the Hills, to experience their beauty, to view some of the more rugged parts of the Hills, and to really experience getting out into the wilderness, on an easily accessible and hikeable trail.  It’s almost perfect!

This trail is Puppers approved!
Where in the Black Hills is the Willow Creek Trailhead?

You will find the trailhead at the Willow Creek Horse Camp which is off of Route 244, almost directly across from the Mt. Rushmore KOA Resort at Palmer Gulch.  It sits about 6 miles to the west of Mount Rushmore and around 3.5 miles east of the junction of US 385 and Route 244.  There is a short lane to reach the trailhead that is dirt, but it is well-graded and appropriate for any type of vehicle (in good conditions.  It may be impassable in deep snow.)  There is also a large parking area with plenty of room for numerous vehicles.

This trail doesn’t “go anywhere” per se. It does connect to the Black Elk Peak trail (trail #9–the hard way!) which is the northern route up the tallest mountain in the Black Hills.  It also connects to the Lost Cabin Trail which is another fun hike in this local part of the Harney Range.

How long is the Willow Creek Trail?

This trail is a 2.5-mile loop, that you can take it in either direction.   I recommend trekking it counter-clockwise.  This means you will face the two steepest, uphill climbs earlier on in the hike when you are most fresh.  Also, if conditions are iffy at all–wet, snowy, or icy–it is usually easier to handle these while climbing rather than on the downhill. (It is better to work against gravity in these situations.)  This left (or east branch) of the trail does have a lesser amount of shade.  When the weather is cool this means it’s more likely to be warmer, though in the hotter months the sun can beat down on you in this section.  

What you will see on the Willow Creek Trail

While the entire trail is fun, the prettiest portion of it is on the right (or western) arm of the loop.  This area is one of the lowest and flattest parts of the trail.  It comprises mostly a riparian habitat (or one that is near a creek).  It’s lush, vibrant, fairly cool, and shaded during the summer months.

Willow Creek!

One of the prettiest parts of this section of the trail is a small waterfall that is formed by the creek.  A short side path will lead you to it.  It is especially pretty when it is frozen in the winter, though use care when walking on and around the ice.

Below is a video Mr. Trekker took of the frozen waterfall:

 

If you’re looking for a fun trail to hike in the Black Hills that is easy to reach and appropriate for almost anyone, check out the Willow Creek Trail!

 

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Looking for a fun trail, that is accessible and is a great way to enjoy the beauty of the Black Hills? Check out the Willow Creek Trail!

 

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Grizzly Bear Creek Trail in the Black Hills

In this post, I review the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail which is located in the Black Elk Wilderness near Custer State Park!

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy hiking in the Harney Range and the Black Elk Wilderness area of the Black Hills.  Well, the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail is one of my favorite routes in that locale.  Because it is located in the wilderness area, it isn’t maintained as much as the surrounding national forest.  There isn’t a lot of logging here and ranchers aren’t able to use this land to graze their herds, so you don’t have to worry about the “leavings” of cows.  There also aren’t any people living nearby.  Therefore, it’s really just left to Mother Nature.  It’s natural, beautiful, and rugged.

What will you see on the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail?

This path is interesting because it doesn’t really “go” anywhere, per se.  It’s really just a connector trail that meanders through the lower-lying areas of the Wilderness.   This trail isn’t one of the more popular ones in the Black Hills so it’s rarely busy, no matter the time of year.  It also tends to be VERY pretty, as it traverses canyons and valleys.  A bubbling creek also accompanies you along much of the route’s length, which makes a pleasant accompaniment to your hike.  It usually has water in it which can be rare in this part of the country (many local waterways dry up at certain times of the year).

The constant presence of water means this is a more verdant part of the Hills in regards to foliage and it’s a beautiful and colorful area to visit during the fall.  This is also one of the easier trails found locally, with just simple rolling hills to challenge you.  In addition to the lovely foliage, you will also be treated to views of the towering spires and imposing rock walls that the granite the Black Hills is known for, creates.

Puppers and I enjoying the trail!
The aspen trees were lovely!

Where is the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail?

The Grizzly Bear Creek Trail does have a trailhead of its own.  You will find it off of Forest Road 345 after it branches off of State Route 87 (also called the Needles Highway) in the northern portion of Custer State Park.  As it is a connector trail you can also access it from a number of other routes in the Black Elk Wilderness, including the Black Elk Peak (formerly the Harney Trail), the Centennial, the Horsethief Lake, and the Norbeck Trails.

How long is the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail?

The trail is about 13 miles in total length.  If you just want to hike portions of the route, you can do out-and-back treks, or you can connect this path with several other trails in the local area to make a variety of loops.  These can be shorter, day hikes or longer, multi-day backpacking trips.  All of them make for a great way to see the rugged beauty of the higher elevations of the central Black Hills.

Related posts:  Great Hikes in the Black Elk Wilderness; Black Hills Blackberry Trail, near Mt. Rushmore

When is the best time of year to hike the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail?

While the Grizzly Bear Creek trail can be enjoyed at any time of the year, the warmer months are a better time to access it.  It would be beautiful in the winter, though it would be difficult to get to the trailhead as neither the forest road nor the Needles Highway is maintained during the snowy season.  As this is one of the highest elevation areas in the Black Hills, you should also expect to encounter, potentially, feet of snow throughout much of the winter.

This trail is Puppers approved!

Because you are so close to the creek for much of the trail’s route, there are also a number of water crossings along its length.  You should be prepared for this and have either waterproof shoes or footwear you don’t mind getting wet.  Some of the crossings have rocks you can hop across, though the availability of these will depend on the depth of the water, which can vary greatly throughout the year.  These stones can also become mossy and slippery so you should use them with caution.

A bridge across the creek!

If you’re looking for a less traveled but beautiful hike in the Black Hills, check out the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail!

Have you ever hiked this trail?  What did you think?  Tell me about it in the comments!

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Are you looking for a beautiful hike in the Black HIlls that is also lightly traveled? Check out the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail!

 

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Cement Ridge Lookout Tower

In this post, I review the Cement Ridge Lookout Tower in extreme, eastern Wyoming.

The Cement Ridge Lookout Tower is located in extreme eastern Wyoming, almost on the border with neighboring South Dakota.  It is a National Forest Service fire lookout that is still in active use today.  This is a prime place for 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside and is especially picturesque during the fall.

Puppers and I enjoying the lookout!

From the lookout point, you can see portions of four states, South Dakota, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Montana.  Expect the weather to be different here than in much of the rest of the Black Hills as this is one of the higher elevations you will find in the Hills.  It is frequently windy here and is usually cooler than the surrounding areas due to its altitude.  It can also be cloudy/foggy, even when the surrounding areas are not.

Mr. Trekler and I once attempted to take Momma and Poppa Trekker here to view leaf colors.  It was a lovely day and we were raving about the view the entire way.  When we reached the tower, however, it was sacked in with fog. 😕 

The view from the lookout tower! This is looking north towards Montana/North Dakota.

How do you get to the Cement Ridge Lookout Tower?

There are a number of different routes you can take to the lookout tower.  Some of them require driving on high-clearance, 4WD roads so I won’t be discussing those here.  The easiest way to reach the tower is via Forest Route 222 (also called Roughlock Falls Road) that traverses Little Spearfish Canyon.  This will take you to Tinton Road and eventually Cement Ridge Road.  In recent years the Forest Service has actually put up signs directing you to the lookout, so it is much easier to locate than it used to be.

You will take Roughlock Falls Road west, towards Wyoming, past the turnoff for Roughlock Falls.  Continue until this road meets a T-intersection with Tinton Road.  You will then take a right onto Tinton Road and a short time later make a left onto Schoolhouse Gulch Road. Follow that to the intersection with Cement Ridge Road and follow the signs.

Drivers should be aware that ALL of these roads are dirt.  They are graded, however, and are in quite good condition.  As long as you don’t mind your car getting dirty, any sedan should be able to handle them in good weather.

It should also be noted that in the winter, most of these dirt roads become impassible to all vehicles other than snowmobiles as they are usually not maintained. 

Another pretty fall picture from the Black Hills!

If you’d like to skip the business of Spearfish Canyon, you can access Tinton road from the north from Spearfish (take I-90 to Exit 8 for Mcguigan Road.  Then take that road to the south until you reach the T-intersection with Tinton Road.)  You can also access it from the south.  Take US 85 west out of Lead (towards Wyoming) for about 18 miles.  Tinton Road will be on your right.

This is a fun place to visit almost any time of the year, which also offers amazing views.  Why not check it out?

Have you been to the Cement Ridge Lookout Tower?  What did you think?  Tell me about it in the comments!

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Looking for a great place to view the northern Black Hills that almost anyone can reach? Check out the Cement Ridge Lookout Tower in Wyoming!

 

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Hiking in the Bighorns

In this post, I outline some great day hikes in the northern portion of the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming!

Usually, the Trekkers go camping in the Bighorn Mountains, in northeastern Wyoming, over Labor Day weekend.  However this year, thanks to Coronavirus, Mr. Trekker’s school schedule has been altered and that wasn’t an option, so we picked a random couple of days in July instead! 😎

We started our trip with two nights in the Porcupine Campground, which is located off of Route 14A, in the northern portion of the national forest.  It is not far from the ancient Medicine Wheel that we visited several years ago.  We drove in from the east, from the Sheridan and Ranchester area.

This is a MUCH easier drive than coming in from the west, near Lovell.  That way is far steeper with much sharper turns.  When we drove the road from that direction several years ago we both agreed we wouldn’t want to have to do it pulling a 5th wheel.  We talked to someone in the campground who had accomplished this feat, and he confirmed it was quite difficult. 

Climbing the mountains from the west you do get some nice views of the Bighorn Basin, but it was a lovely drive through a canyon coming in from the east, as well.

Porcupine Campground, Bighorn Mountains

Porcupine Campground is very nice as far as those in the national forest are concerned.  The sites were large and flat, and also well-spaced apart, some even appeared to be wheelchair-accessible. They also gave you lantern hooks! (I’m easily impressed, what can I say? 😉)  This was nicer than the national forest campground we visited in South Dakota recently.  There was a goodly amount of shade and some of the sites offered fantastic views from the hillside.  The mosquitoes weren’t quite as bad as what we experienced in the Black Hills earlier in the summer either, though they still gave us a few good bites.   

Sunset from the campsite!

Waterfalls in the Bighorns!

Porcupine Falls

For our first hike, we visited Porcupine Falls.  It isn’t on all of the maps but it is easy to find.  It’s located off of Route 14, the same road as Bucking Mule Falls (which IS on most maps) and there is a sign at the turnoff.  The road to the trailhead is short but it does get rather rough.  We saw people in RVs and regular sedans who made it through though.  In good conditions, most vehicles shouldn’t have too much trouble as long as you are watchful and take it slow.

The trail is short, less than a mile each direction, but it is STEEP!  We were prepared for this but I strongly recommend GOOD walking shoes with strong tread if you’re attempting this hike.  In dry conditions, it was a little slippy heading down.  If it was muddy or snowy/icy this trail could be downright treacherous!  It’s a downhill hike the whole way to the falls, so you know what that means for your return trip! 😮  Another thing that makes the trek back so difficult is the altitude, you’ll find yourself above 5000 feet in elevation when attempting this hike.

It becomes extra fun when you meet an unleashed, less-than-friendly dog along the trail with no owner in sight, who insists on getting in your pup’s face and growling.  PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT:  Please be responsible for your pets and respectful of everyone else on the trail.  No one else knows your dog, or if the growls he emits are casual, or a prelude to something more aggressive–this is especially concerning when you have a pup who thinks EVERYBODY just wants to play with her! 🙄

Porcupine Falls!
Doesn’t that pool look inviting?
A view down the canyon, past the waterfall and pool!

The view is definitely worth the challenge of getting to the site.  The roaring cascade plummets into a pool at your feet from over 200 feet above you. On hot days, this makes for a perfect place to take a cool dip, but be warned, the water is COLD!

Bucking Mule Falls

After that adventure, we continued down the road to Bucking Mule Falls.  There were numerous horses and campers at this location and before you ask, yes, there was also a mule!  Poor Puppers didn’t know what to make of the ungodly noise that emanated from him in response to some nickers from other horses. 😂

You get extra points if you know what a mule actually is (hint, it’s a hybrid).  You get EXTRA, extra points if you know a unique characteristic that this hybridization causes…🤔 **(answers at the end)

I was in absolute heaven, I LOVE the smell of horse (yes, really 😝).  I blame my childhood, growing up on a hobby farm, with horses, in Indiana.  But seriously, there is something cool about those animals.  They’re REALLY intelligent, for one thing, and their smell is divine!  It isn’t anything like other barnyard animals, it’s sweeter. (The only time I’ve ever known a horse to stink is when they’re super sweaty after a hard ride.)  Even their manure smells better than other animals.  That’s right, you heard me!  I like the smell of horse poop! 🤣

Related posts:  West Tensleep Trail, Bighorn Mountains, Wyoming; Bighorn Medicine Wheel in Wyoming; Camping in the Bighorns

This was a great trail!  It was about four miles round-trip, but there wasn’t a large amount of elevation gain.  The route mostly rolled over the lower-lying hills in the local area.  It traversed a beautiful, wooded forest with the pine needles cushioning your footfalls, as well as some more craggy outcrops.  The trek was fairly well shaded, on a graded path, without a lot of roots or boulders to trip you up.

At the end, you come to a lookout point over Devil Canyon, where you look DOWN on the falls from high above (it emerges from the opposite canyon wall).  It was really cool!  The canyon was HUGE and beautiful, not what I was expecting at all.  It reminded me of the canyon that Green River formed at Dinosaur National Monument, in Colorado, that we visited last fall.  It leads to the west and opens onto the expansive, hazy plains of Bighorn Basin.

Devil Canyon, isn’t it GORGEOUS?!
Bucking Mule Falls!
Shadow Trekkers at the falls!

There is also a Paradise Falls in this area.  I didn’t see it on the map and we didn’t know it existed until someone told us about it.  Apparently it’s a bit of a secret. 🤫  It does show up on Google Maps though and looks rather easy to reach if you want to research this location on your own… 

Later, we drove a loop from 14A to Route 15, to Burgess Overlook.  Then we returned back to our campsite via 14A. This allowed us to FINALLY see a moose (she ended up being the only one we saw the entire trip! 😕)

It’s highly unusual that we see so few moose in the Bighorns.  Usually, we are there in early September so I’m not sure if this is a result of the hotter weather keeping them at higher elevations or the crowds encouraging them to stay more isolated.  The babies would still be smaller and younger at this time of year which may explain why the mommas may want to keep them further from people. 

Dinosaur Tracksite

On the third day of the trip, we took Shell Canyon to the west on Route 14.  We’ve traveled this road before but never in this direction, so we got a different perspective on it.  Later we got to view the rain shafts hammering the canyon as we looked up at it from the west.  It was a very cool sight! 

Then we took Red Gulch Road to the Dinosaur Tracksite.  This was very cool and something I had just happened to stumble upon on the map.  They think this location was a beach on the edge of an inland sea during dinosaur times.  The “terrible lizards” would walk in the mud next to the water and leave tracks.  These eventually hardened and were fossilized!

Fossilized shrimp holes at the Dinosaur Tracksite!
Dino footprint!

This attraction is small and free, it’s a nice place to visit for lunch and to let the pup run a bit.  I can imagine it being quite hot on a warmer, sunnier day.  They had nice picnic facilities, though.

We then finished this backcountry byway that we had completed the other leg of on another trip.  Ya’ll know how I LOVE finishing things that I start! 😁  This portion of the road was quite rutted and rough too, so it’s not really fit for a typical sedan (though a higher clearance SUV could handle it in dry conditions–we saw some CRV’s do it!)

If you’re looking for some great day hikes in the northern Bighorn mountains, check out some of these cool options! 

Have you visited any of these sites?  Tell me about your experiences in the comments!

 

**Mules are a hybrid of a male donkey and a female horse.  You can usually spot them because they’re the size of a horse, but with GIGANTIC ears.  And the other characteristic that makes them unique?  Because they are a hybrid, rarely can they reproduce…The More You Know 🌈 😉 !

 

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Looking for some great hikes in the northern Bighorn mountains? Check out Porcupine and Bucking Mule Falls!

 

Like what you read here today?  Please feel free to leave a comment, like or share this post!  Add your email at the bottom of the page, or the sidebar to the right, to be notified when a new post is published.  By signing up for the email list, you will also receive a free copy of the Tranquil Trekker’s Top 10 Tips of Trekking Do’s and Don’ts!

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