Norbeck Trail in Custer State Park

I review the Norbeck Trail, a low-use trail in the higher elevations of the Black Hills, near Custer State Park.

The Norbeck Trail is located within the Black Elk Wilderness.  This is situated within the boundaries of Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

How do you get to the Norbeck Trail in Custer State Park?

To reach the trail, take Route 87 to Forest Road 345 (Camp Remington Road), then take Iron Creek Horse Camp Road (which will be on your left).  Watch for signs for the Iron Creek Horse Camp and the Iron Creek Centennial Trailhead as they’re both, also, found on this road.  You will actually park at the horse camp, or just outside of it if the gates are closed (when we were there in mid-April the campground was still closed for the winter.)

What you will see on the Norbeck Trail, in the Black Hills

The trail is comprised of picturesque, rolling terrain.  It’s well-marked and wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side in some places.  There are several water crossings that are small enough that they’re easy to cross but big enough to offer relief and respite on a hot day.  The ecology found along the length of the trail varies greatly from moist, almost temperate rainforest near the base, to dry, alpine forest near the top.  As you trek through these various ecosystems take note of the abundance of spruce trees in certain areas–usually on the northern slopes–that denote a wetter climate (you usually only see this variety in wetter locations in the Hills.)  

What is the difficulty level of the Norbeck Trail?

The route is steep in parts, but the elevation changes are fairly moderate until you near the end of the trail.  Here, it joins with the Little Devil’s Tower Trail and gets rather steep.  This more difficult area is beautiful, though, as it snakes through a canyon complete with rocky, craggy overhangs and caves.  You’ll see the backside of the Cathedral Spires towering over you to your left, and if you turn around you will be treated to beautiful views of the Southern Hills and plains to the south.

A word of advice: never let your focus on completing a trail keep you from looking around–and behind you!  You never know what incredible views you may be missing if you’re solely focusing on the trail in front of you.

The rear view of the Cathedral Spires.

This trail doesn’t really “go” anywhere, per se, it’s more of a connector to other notable trails.   It can be combined with different routes to form various loops depending on how long you wish to spend in the wilderness.   From the trailhead to the junction with the Little Devil’s Tower Trail, the route is a little over five miles (one way), so plan for a full day’s hike when considering this option. 

We really enjoyed the hike as it was not too strenuous (with the exception of the last mile or so) and the ever-changing scenery was beautiful.  There were some gorgeous vantage points and numerous opportunities for wildlife sightings.  This trail is less well-known and, therefore, more secluded.  We did not see another person throughout our 10-mile hike, though a portion of the trek runs near Route 87, for a time, so the summer months may be busier.  Certain areas of the trail also traverse old burn scars so, if traveling in the summer, be prepared for lack of shade and a hot hike in some parts.

You can see the sparseness of the shade in some areas.

As with many other areas in the Black Hills, be watchful for deadfall as well as dead trees that remain, precipitously, standing (and their hanging, broken branches).  These are remnants of the recent pine beetle infestation, and they can fall at any time, even on not-so-windy days.    

Damage from the recent pine beetle infestation

If you’re looking for a fairly easy day-hike, with nice views and few people, consider the Norbeck Trail!  

Have you ever hiked this more lighter-use trail?  If so, tell me about your experience in the comments!

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Looking for a quieter day hike near Custer State Park? Check out the Norbeck Trail, which is located in the Black Elk Wilderness.


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