Friday, August 14, 2015

1997 Backpacking South Dakota's Black Elk Wilderness

The Black Hills National Forest's name comes from the Lakota Sioux Indian words "Paha Sapa" which mean "hills that are black," referring to the dark green, nearly black color of the ponderosa pine as viewed from the surrounding prairie, for the BHNF is literally a 69 mile by 125 mile "island in the plains." It has more than 1.2 million acres and 515 miles of trails, 175 of which are designated for hiking (300 are used for snowmobiling and 40 for cross country skiing.)

The national forest is best known for including Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Devils Tower National Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, and Custer State Park. Within the national forest is the 9,824 acre Black Elk Wilderness which has 17 miles of hiking trails and also contains Harney Peak, The 111 mile Centennial Hiking Trail passes through the wilderness area.

The 13,426 acre Black Elk Wilderness, named for an Ogala Lakota holy man, encompasses the Harney Range, and is on the "backside" of Mt. Rushmore. The 35,000 acres Norbeck Wildlife Preserve surrounds the wilderness. One of the trailheads accessing the wilderness is from the Mt. Rushmore parking structure, which is where I parked.

This is one of the many beaver ponds along Grizzly Bear Trail. In several spots, the beaver ponds have swallowed the trail, requiring a detour and making you walk atop the often precarious beaver dam in order to get to the other side. One such pond necessitated a lengthy detour and a bushwack over a ridge to reacquire the trail. It is a bit disconcerting to hike on top of branches and twigs with water on one side of you much higher than the other side.

A section of South Dakota's 111 mile long Centennial Trail runs through the Black Elk Wilderness. The trails are quite scenic and fairly easy, though these are mountains and there is the usual up-and-down of mountain trails. Grizzly Bear Creek Trail as it approaches the Sylvan Lake/Harney Peak Trail is quite steep and also had many trees down across the trail when I was there.

My first campsite was very nice but caused me some mild panic. I was looking for a site in a section that was gradually gaining more and more elevation, each terraced area 10 or 15 feet higher than the one before. The predominant land formations were granite outcroppings and lovely trees. So I leaned my pack against a tree and headed up, looking for the perfect site. And I kept climbing up to the next terrace and then the next.

After a few minutes I realized I had gone quite a bit farther than I had anticipated and I started heading back down, but as I looked below, it all looked the same -- lots of granite boulders and lots of tall green trees -- and I couldn't see my blue pack anywhere. I began getting panicky because everything I needed to spend the night was in the pack and it would quickly get dark. There was no chance to get back to the car before dark, and my flashlights were in the pack, too. So I sat on a granite boulder and forced myself to carefully scan the area below, and after a few minutes I spotted a tiny speck of blue below. I kept my eye on it as I treaded down a terrace, and then down another terrance, and soon I had reached my pack and took it up to a nice site and pitched the tent, relieved all was well! I fear that if I hadn't forced myself to calm down and sit down and look below carefully, I could have would up out of sight of the pack and never located it!

My second day, I hiked to Harney Peak which at 7,242 feet is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe. The stone lookout tower atop the peak was built by the CCC in 1939 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Below is a panoramic view from the top of Harney Peak. That approaching storm hit me just before I reached camp.

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