Backpacking Grizzly Creek-Norbeck Loop | Black Elk Wilderness | Black Hills National Forest

Backpacking Grizzly Creek-Norbeck Loop | Black Elk Wilderness | Black Hills National Forest

There’s a nice two or three day loop in Black Elk Wilderness of the Black Hills National Park in western South Dakota, depending on how fast you hike. This hike provides a nice variety of terrain, including low valleys with leisurely hiking trails, to steep strenuous switchbacks bringing you up a couple thousand feet really quickly. There’s a variety of wildlife in the area including mountain goats, bison, and mountain lions to name a few. It makes for a really nice weekend backpacking adventure.

Backpacking: Bison in the Black Hills National Forest Backpacking: Stream crossing on Centential Trail Backpacking: Veiw from ledge along Centential Trail

The trail loop starts out just outside of Iron Creek Horse Camp at a trail head for Centennial Trail No. 89. This trail was rather muddy when I was there, and had some small stream crossings. So, having some waterproof hiking boots might be a good idea if you normally hike with trail runners or something like that. It was possible to make it over the streams by hopping from rock to rock, and walking over a couple logs that a previous hiker had propped across the stream, but I wouldn’t count on them always being like that. Horses are allowed on the Centennial Trail, so you have to share this trail with the occasional group of trail riders, and dodge the mounds of poo that litter the trail. The trail brings you up onto a nice little ridge where you can take in some nice views and photo opportunities a long the way. After the first mile, there isn’t any real water access until you get to the Grizzly Creek Trail. So, fill up before you start heading upwards the second time.

Backpacking: Bridge Crossing a Stream on Grizzly Creek Trail Backpacking: Trail cut through the rock on Grizzly Bear Creek Trail Backpacking: Grizzly Bear Creek Trail

Centennial Trail intersects with Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 which you take west through a low valley with lots of little streams and descent places for camping. This trail has bridge crossings on any significant streams and the trails are well marked and easy to follow. I would camp before you get to the switchbacks, unless you plan to hike all of the way to the summit before nightfall. There aren’t any good places to camp between the two. I made that mistake and was forced to camp in spot that wasn’t very hospitable, to say the least. There’s good stream access for refilling your camelbak in the low areas, and a couple after the switchbacks. The switchbacks themselves, and the last couple miles of this trail are dry though. The topo map that I had did have the stream crossing marked pretty accurately though, so it proved to be a valuable asset for that point alone even though the trails were really well marked. I really liked Grizzly Creek Trail. It was fun to explore, with easy low areas and challenging uppers. I saw some wildlife along the way, which enhances the experience. There were some nice views along the way too, especially in the uppers. And, it was rather novel to hike parts of the trail that were cut through large sections of rock.

Backpacking upper Grizzly Bear Creek Trail Backpacking to Harney Peak in the Black Hills Backpacking: Cathedral Spires view from Harney Peak

Grizzly Creek Trail T’s off with Harney Peak Trail No. 9. You have two options here. You can go left to continue on the loop, or you can take a right and head up to Harney Peak on a little side trip. I recommend taking option number 2 and checking out Harney Peak. It’s not far out of the way, and well worth the trip. The summit is at an elevation of 7,242 ft, making it the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and west of Pyrenees Mountains in Europe. Harney Peak is the home of an old fire lookout station which offers you long gazing views of the surrounding Black Hills including the Cathedral Spires, and the back side of Mount Rushmore. Harney Peak Trail is quite busy with day hikers and horse back riders, but that’s just a small part of your day. After you’re done taking in the fruits of your climb to Harney Peak, you can backtrack down Harney Peak Trail to Norbeck Trail No. 3 and regain your solitude.

Norbeck trail has kind of a sketchy descent, with a fair amount of loose gravel and rock on the way down. Once you’ve made it down, however, you have nice leisurely trails for the rest of the loop. A good chunk of them appear to run on top of an old railroad bed making it as easy as walking down the road. Once you get to lower altitude, there’s some nice areas to camp for the night, as well as streams to refill your water supplies. A short part of it runs near a highway. So it does kind of throw a little unwelcome dose of reality in your face in the middles of your escape, but it isn’t too bad. Horses are allowed on this trail too, but I only saw two people the entire time I was on it. It actually really lets you wind down after the more strenuous part of the climb, and finish up your hike just taking in nature. The trail dumps you out into a Iron Creek horse campground about a couple hundred yards down the road from the trailhead you started on, making it easy to finish up the loop and wrap up your adventure.

Hwy 87 in SD cut through the mountain A mountain goat along the highway in the Black Hills of South Dakota A view along Hwy 87 in SD

After your hike, I would recommend taking 87 west on your way out. It’s a beautiful drive with the roads cut right through the rock, and some excellent places to stop along the way to take in the views.

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  • jason rhoads

    Thanks for the information. I’ll be looking deeper into the loop you took and any changes we might like to make. We are going to Wasatch in Utah, so NE corner. Won’t make it south this time to Utah. I’ve seen all the hiking Utah offers; it’s just not for this trip. Thanks again.

  • jason rhoads

    I was reading and enjoying your post. My family and I are going to Utah to meet family for vacation July 2014. I was looking for a trip before we meet with them. I didn’t notice any mileage listed? What maps did you use? What to avoid? What is a must see that didn’t make the article?
    It’s 2-3 days? Depending on mileage could it be 3-4? We are a backpacking family having logged a couple hundred miles in WA cascades, Olympics, Alaska, Yellowstone etc. We prefer low mileage 5-7 per day so we can enjoy time at camp sites and explore without packs.

    1. Greg Kjono

      Hi Jason,

      Sorry for the delayed response. I was doing some backpacking in North Carolina last week 🙂

      The loop that I did was about 18 miles if I remember right, including the side hike to Harney Peak. It can easily be stretched out if you wanted to make it a longer trip. There’s a lot of trails in the area that tie together to easily craft a bigger loop, or add on another side hike. I think Cathedral Spires would be a cool day hike too, but the trail is pretty short at 0.9 miles so that would be more of a side hike. They looked pretty cool from Harney Peak any way, so I imagine they would be worth the short hike there as well. There a lot of great viewpoints along the way, so there’s no shortage of things to see. Harney Peak is probably the biggest attraction along the trails I took though. When driving, I would make sure to take a trip down highway 87 (a.k.a. Needles Highway) which is a fun mountain road with lots of great views as well.

      The biggest thing on the loop that I did is that you will want to camp in the lower areas unless you are using a hammock or something like that. There’s some wildlife that may be of concern as well including mountain lions, and wild buffalo. I’ve heard rumors of bears being in the area as well, but I think they are pretty scarce if they are.

      I used a National Geographic map when I hiked it, but the scale on that one is probably a little tight. I did run into some other hikers that picked up a better map at the ranger station that was a more appropriate scale. Here is a low res map that can give you a general idea of the trails in the immediate area though

      If you are going to Utah, there’s a lot of great hiking there too. I would highly recommend Wire Pass if you make it down there. Toadstools is worth checking out too, but it’s not much of a hike. Probably less than a mile. You also have Arches NP, Canyonlands, etc. which are a little further north.

      I hope you guys have an awesome time!

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