Misadventures in the Black Elk Wilderness, South Dakota

Backpacking is hard work. It’s dirty. There are bugs. The pack can feel heavy. It can be hot. Your legs will hurt. There may be blisters. I know all of this, and I love it. It is my absolute favorite thing, and usually when I’m out there–buggy, hot, dirty, and tired at an almost molecular level–I’m also planning the NEXT time I get to go.

So if you happen to be reading this rant about the rangers who failed to warn us about the trail conditions, please understand that I’m really not a total wimp who’s afraid of a little mud. I take my responsibilities as a hiker very seriously. I know my skill level, and I know my limits. I research trails pretty extensively before heading out, and I always call the ranger station to find out if there is anything I may have missed before I head toward the trail head.  I feel like there are a couple of key features Ranger Dixie could have pointed out when we spoke to her. For example, this

That's not a creek running across the trail. That IS the trail.
That’s not a creek running across the trail. That IS the trail.

Apparently, there had been a bit of rain in the area. Since there was no other path for the water to travel, at least sixty percent of the trail was covered in water at least ankle deep. I feel like Ranger Dixie should have been aware of this and could have given us a head’s up, I guess we could have looked at the weather for the weeks leading up to our trip rather than just the forecast for the time we would be there – But trails, even after a heavy rain are muddy. Water usually has a run off that CROSSES a trail, not a run off that IS the trail. However, that would not have prepared us for the next stage of the trail.

Hoping for a reprieve from the water, we decided to abandon the Centennial Trail and try our luck on the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail. Behold, in all its crotch-impaling glory!

Downed trees across Grizzly Bear Creek trail, Black Elk Wilderness Area
Crotch-impaler one
Downed trees across Grizzly Bear Creek trail, Black Elk Wilderness Area
Crotch-impaler two

 

At first, climbing over the downed trees was fun, like an obstacle course. However, after a few miles of this (The highest number of steps that could be taken WITHOUT having to climb over a downed tree was 190. I counted.) the fun faded a bit, and we entertained ourselves with drafting letters to Ranger Dixie. Letters including such phrases as “recklessly irresponsible” and “should be horse-whipped.” After 3 or 4 miles, we came across this helpful sign.

Downed trees across Grizzly Bear Creek trail, Black Elk Wilderness Area

Lovely sign! Bright red letters! “Attention Trail Users! Trail not cleared ahead. Multiple Trees down. Please consider turning around.” Unfortunately, there are TWO ends of the trail, and the lovely, helpful sign was only posted at one end–and not the end at which we started.

I really tried to make excuses for this. Perhaps it was recent storm damage. However, on day two in the Black Elk Wilderness, we ran into a local hiker who asked us if the Grizzly Bear Creek trail was still a jungle. He had hiked it over two months prior to our trip. While I get that trail maintenance can be expensive, and we were hiking fairly early in the season, I think two months is plenty of time to print up a second sign or throw an alert up on the website.

Alright, enough ranting! Time to bring on the pretty (of which there was plenty!).

Harney Peak Trail Black Elk Wilderness South Dakota hiking
A peaceful moment on the Harney Peak Trail.

 

Grizzly Bear Creek Trail Black Elk Wilderness South Dakota hiking

Harney Peak Trail Black Elk Wilderness South Dakota hiking

 

Grizzly Bear Creek trail Black Elk Wilderness South Dakota hiking

 

I don’t know if our experience backpacking in the Black Elk Wilderness was typical or not. I know next time I plan a backpacking trip, my pre-trip call to the ranger’s office is going to include a ridiculous number of specific questions!

 

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