Monday, September 27, 2010

Iron Mountain Loop, Black Elk Wilderness, South Dakota

Distance: 5.1 mile loop (8.2 km)
Elevation: 4,950 - 5,350 feet (1,509 - 1630 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Season: May - October

Located in the heart of the beautiful Black Elk Wilderness of the Black Hills National Forest, the Iron Mountain Loop provides a relatively easy 5.1 mile loop, with little elevation gain, nice forested scenary, and interesting rock formations. It isn't a hike of spectacular vistas like Harney Peak, but rather a pleasant stroll through the landscape that you are looking down onto from Harney Peak's summit.

Hilina "resting" on the rock near the trailhead
To get to the trailhead, take US-16a south from Mount Rushmore NM about 3 miles or north from Custer State Park about 14 miles. Drive until you see Iron Mountain Picnic Area and park there. The trail initially starts out as trail 89b and heads through a forest of ponderosa pine. This area of the wilderness does not appear to have been hit as hard by the mountain pine beetle. As such, the trees are the largest and healthiest we have seen in this area.

After about 1.5 miles, the trail enters a lowland meadow with some beautiful aspen and birch stands. After almost 2 miles, the trail arrives at a T-intersection with #89 (Centennial Trail) heading left and right. Heading right will take you over to Mount Rushmore (via the Blackberry Trail) in 2 miles. If you head left, the trail will slowly descend down toward some really interesting rock formations.

Entering the "gauntlet"
All along the way, the trail glitters with sparkles from bits of mica and there are huge quartz crystals laying around everywhere, owing to the metamorphized granite formations of this landscape. You will follow the Centennial Trail 0.5 miles to the Grizzly Bear Trail #7 amongst some beautiful high rock walls. Follow the Grizzly Bear Trail until reaching the small dirt road. Turn left following the road 1 mile.
There must have been 10 beaver dams along this one mile stretch of creek
The dirt road is small enough that traffic is minimal and traveling very slowly, so no dust clouds. It is actually about the best section of the hike, as you continually cross over beautiful Iron Creek with its numerous beaver dams, rock formations, big spruce trees, and aspen/birch stands in full autumn splendor in late September.

Iron Creek meandering along the rock faces
Then you will encounter the Iron Mountain Trail #12 on the left and you follow up up slope for 1.7 miles. This is the hardest part of the hike, as you climb approximately 350 feet in elevation through a forest of ponderosa pines, including some of the largest I've seen in the Black Hills. When you reach Trail #89b again, you have completed the loop and you turn right and follow it back to the parking lot.

Spruce and Birch Mix along the creekside


Unknown said...

GPS coordinates of trailhead: N43.8547296, -W103.4373356. It's just off Iron Mountain Road. If coming from Rapid City, pass through Keystone and very soon you make left on Iron Mountain Road. You don't pass Mt Rushmore.

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