Hiking the Grizzly Norbeck
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So you’ve done Harney Peak and you want to dive deeper into the Black Elk Wilderness. And you prefer a loop because... who doesn’t?
While there are no stand-alone loop hikes in the BEW (though there is one short loop — Willow Creek — in the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve) you do have a couple design-your-own loop options off the Harney circuit in which to expand your experience of the Black Hills' only designated wilderness area.
Today’s winner is what I’ll just call the Grizzly Norbeck Loop, an amalgam of the Grizzly Creek (#7) and Norbeck (#3) trails, with a small section of the Centennial (#89) as a connector. You can do this a couple ways depending on which trailhead you start from. You could also do a variation that approaches from the west by adding the Little Devil’s Tower (#4) trail. Here, I’ll be focusing on the eastern approach. This is about a 13.1 mile hike, give or take.
Here's a rundown of the hike with some of the vistas and creatures you will/may see along the way.
To get to the trailheads for the #3 or this section of the #89, you’ll take the 87 to Camp Remington Road (FSR 345), just south of the 66 mile marker or north of the 65. If you’re northbound, turn right on the gravel 345, then in about a quarter mile turn left on Iron Creek Horse Camp Road, then it's another quarter mile or so to the horse camp area. (Or just proceed straight ahead to the #7 trailhead about a mile ahead on the left.)
Just before the campground area, you’ll see the trailhead for the Centennial on the right. You can park and jump on here or park in the camping area and start on the Norbeck for the clockwise version.
Here we’ll look at the counter-clockwise variation, which starts northbound on the Centennial. You’ll start by gaining a couple hundred feet in elevation through pine and aspen, cross Iron Creek, then quickly reach a point on your left with sweeping 360° views, the most panoramic you’ll see on the entire hike, so you might want to take a minute. Don’t worry, it’s not all down hill (visually) from here.
Moving on. To your right, you’ll pass a small meadow, dense now with thistle, and a thicket of beetle-killed ponderosa, another creek crossing, some gently rolling trail, then come to the junction with the Grizzly Creek Trail about 1 mile in.
Hang a left, and the trail follows an old FS road before narrowing. You’ll pass a series of small meadows and wetlands with cattails to the left, then a 4x4 bridge over Grizzly Creek. The trail is fairly easy through a thick aspen stand, several creek crossings brimming with brook trout, another thistle thicket and more aspen before you come to a bridged crossing right before the junction with the Horsethief Lake Trail.
As there are no woodland creatures bearing offering plates around here, at some point the trail will charge the price of all this communion with nature to your legs. This is that point. You’ll gain about 1K feet before the next junction.
The cardio pays off as after a few rocky switchbacks you begin closing in on views of Harney Peak. When you get to a meadow on the left, you’ll catch your first glimpse of the firetower. After a creek crossing, the trail comes to an unmarked Y. Right worked for me. The trail evens out through a densely forested area with several creek crossings, followed by some steep ascent with fantastic views of peaks to the south.
After the trail veers right at a steep ravine, you’ll duck back under canopy for a short descent along the creek, then some mild up-and-down through aspen and pine. Then some steeper ascent charges a little extra to get you to the junction with the 3 and the way back down. You’ve hiked about 6.8 miles.
You’ll have some nice views of Harney here, and if you’re feeling diesel you can hang a right instead of a left and be at the #9 trail to the top in less than half a mile. Otherwise, you can hang a left and you’ve got 6.3 relatively easy miles back to horse camp. The Norbeck runs concurrent with the Little Devil's Tower (#4) here for maybe one third of a mile. Watch out for a sharp left with a sign, to stay on the Norbeck.
You’ll catch some expansive views to the east, then begin a steep descent through a wide canyon with plenty of aspen. Chipmunks seem to like this area. You’ll pick up Iron Creek again (hello old friend) as as you duck beneath some shade of aspen and pine, then weave through tunnels of canopy and wide open canyon and over several creek crossings.
The trail joins another old FS road as it veers away from the creek, then narrows into a sandy path as it meets the creek again. You’ll start to cut a mile-or-so jaunt outside the edge of the BEW just before you reach a trailhead at the 87, then parallel the road awhile before it splits off to the southeast. You’ll pass a flat-topped peak and some aspen as the creek begins to widen and you finally pull into horse camp. Till the very end, there's really no substantial dip in the natural beauty index, though by now you may be daygreaming of woodland Hamburglar and Grimace.
The creeks may be dry, and if they aren’t they might have natural parasites, so prudent hikers will bring plenty of water. If you’re coming from Hot Springs, then of course you’ll want to fill up at Kidney Springs since that water will make you impervious to grizzlies or fatigue.
If you’re built like me (you work out enough to fit in with “regular dudes” without them instantly seeing that you have listened to 80s goth records and enjoyed them, but don’t really do much aerobics any more, because the pain) then your legs are fairly wobbly now and you’ll feel this one tomorrow. If you’re a Black Hills super hiker powering through on spruce tips and echinacea root, you’ll probably take the Harney detour. If you can’t remember the last time you put on your hiking boots, you might want to start with something shorter.
In any case, if you’ve made it back to camp, you just communed with 13 pristine miles of Black Elk Wilderness.