SPHP parked the G6 at the Big Pine trailhead for Centennial Trail No. 89 (9:50 AM, 49°F). The road to the Horsethief Lake trailhead had been closed, but this was close enough. Lupe crossed Hwy 244, followed Centennial Trail No. 89 a short distance, then left it to cut down through the forest to the Horsethief Lake campground.
The stroll through the campground was easy – a paved road wound between tall pines past campsites all the way to some sites right on Horsethief Lake. No one was around. The campground was closed. Tourist season wouldn’t start for another month. Only 2 or 3 miles from Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Horsethief Lake campground is a really nice place to stay when it’s open.
Lupe wasn’t staying, of course. She was here for her 200th Black Hills Expedition! She did go down to the lakeshore at a couple of spots on her way to the Horsethief Lake trailhead.
An extensive trail system leads into the Black Elk Wilderness, some of which sees heavy traffic while the majority of it sees relatively little use. Trail No. 9 from Sylvan Lake to Black Elk Peak (7,231 ft.) (formerly Harney Peak) and Trail No. 4 to Little Devil’s Tower (6,960 ft.) are the most popular, but Lupe wasn’t headed to either of those places today.
A short walk S from the lake up a gravel road brought Lupe to the trailhead for the 2.8 mile long Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14. SPHP stopped briefly to register, and Lupe was on her way!
Lupe entered the Black Elk Wilderness. Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14 went S in a narrow valley featuring a small stream. All around were massive granite formations, many with nearly vertical sides towering far above the creek. Lupe drank from the stream and watched for squirrels in the trees, while SPHP paid more attention to the impressive rocks.
The first 0.75 mile of Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14 followed the stream and led to a junction with the 111 mile long Centennial Trail No. 89. Near the end of this first stretch, Lupe saw a couple of women. They were watching children scrambling around on nearby rocks. Lupe would see no one else the rest of the day.
Getting to the junction with Centennial Trail No. 89 was easy and hadn’t taken long.
At the 3-way junction with Centennial Trail No. 89, Lupe took the trail to the R. For several hundred feet or more, Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14 and Centennial Trail No. 89 share the same path. It only took Lupe a few minutes to reach another intersection where the trails divided again. Lupe went L, staying on Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14.
She was now headed into the heart of the Black Elk Wilderness.
Two miles of Horsethief Trail No. 14 remained after it separated from Centennial Trail No. 89. For the first mile, the trail continued winding S, gaining elevation at a slowly increasing rate. The small creek was sometimes nearby, and the trail crossed it again. Lupe still wandered among huge granite formations.
The sky had clouded up by now. Rain threatened, but only a few drops fell. Small patches of blue sky here and there showed that nothing serious was in the works.
The small stream eventually disappeared. Lupe was approaching a pass. When she got there, a fallen tree was wedged in place over the trail.
The forest in the Black Elk Wilderness has been devastated by pine bark beetles in recent years. Dead trees have broken and fallen in tremendous numbers over much of the landscape. However, the trail had been clear so far. Lupe had only begun encountering limited quantities of deadfall timber actually on the trail as she drew near the pass.
On the S side of the pass, the situation deteriorated steadily. The farther Lupe went, the more deadfall she had to navigate over, under, or around. Most of the trail was still clear, though. She was still making good progress.
The trail lost elevation heading SW into the Grizzly Bear Creek drainage. After a brief climb to a lower pass, Lupe’s peakbagging objective came into view for the first time. Peak 6735 was almost dead ahead, but still more than 2 miles away as the crow flies.
Beyond the lower pass, Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14 lost elevation the rest of the way to where it ended at a junction with Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7. Grizzly Bear Creek was flowing across No. 7 just S of the intersection.
Lupe was now 2.8 miles from the trailhead at Horsethief Lake. She had lost 300 feet of elevation coming down to Grizzly Bear Creek from the pass. She still had to gain nearly 1,400 feet from here to reach the summit of Peak 6735.
So far, Lupe’d had an easy time of it. Now she needed to follow Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 upstream. Right next to the intersection, two trees had fallen over the trail the way Lupe needed to go. A couple of signs were taped to the trees. What did they say?
Turn around? Hah! Not a chance. The truth was, Lupe had climbed Peak 6735 once before, almost 3 years ago in June, 2014 on Expedition No. 92. Lupe had come this same route back then. So what, if the trail hadn’t been maintained in a while? Lupe was going to leave Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 pretty soon anyway. Whatever deadfall was on the trail ahead was only a hint of what was in store off-trail.
Lupe and SPHP went right over the signs and started up Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7. The trail went NW following Grizzly Bear Creek upstream.
Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 had a lot of deadfall on it. Lupe’s progress was slowed considerably, since SPHP couldn’t keep up with the agile American Dingo. Lupe didn’t need to follow Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 very far. SPHP watched for a field to appear on the opposite (SW) side of the creek. When it came into view after 0.25 mile or so, Lupe left the trail and crossed Grizzly Bear Creek.
From here on, there was no trail. Lupe traveled W through the tall grass field. This was as easy as it was going to get, but wouldn’t last long. She stayed in the field, gaining elevation gradually as long as possible.
The field ended. Lupe entered the forest. The hard part of Expedition No. 200 was about to begin. Peak 6735 was an unseen fortress in the sky defended by huge rock formations, a long steep climb, but most of all by a never-ending jungle of deadfall timber. Lupe’s ordeal began in earnest.
At first, the terrain Lupe was on seemed unfamiliar. This was actually a good thing. The plan of attack was to stay NW of a rugged ridge leading SW up to High Point 6411. It would be best if Lupe could avoid High Point 6411 entirely, and not reach the ridgeline until she was beyond it at a saddle leading to Peak 6710.
On Expedition No. 92, the plan had been the same, but Lupe had wound up following the ridgeline quite closely, which meant she had climbed clear up to the top of High Point 6411. That feat was unnecessary, since she then had to find a way down, losing 130+ feet of elevation in the process.
The deadfall had been bad on Expedition No. 92. It hadn’t improved one bit since then. If anything, it was worse. Lupe climbed and climbed. She went over and under countless dead trees. Progress was excruciatingly slow. The higher Lupe went, the tougher things became. Lupe started coming to large rock formations separated by steep stretches of devastated forest.
Gah! Gradually it became apparent that, once again, Lupe was on the NE ridge.
Eh, Looper, looks like all reasonable routes from this direction lead naturally to High Point 6411. Guess we’re going to get stuck going all the way up there again.
No worries, SPHP. I’m doing fine, if we can just stop for a few water breaks now and then. Jumping over all this mess is hard work! When does the fun begin?
Heh, this is the fun! At least, in a way it is. The ultimate reward will be the views from the top of Peak 6735.
You know SPHP, there’s something sort of wrong with you. Yeah, this is better than all the cactus on recent expeditions, but not that much. Could we please go on some expeditions to easy terrain where the trees are alive and full of squirrels? Do you ever even think about that?
I’ll try to remember to prioritize squirrels more in the future, Loop.
Promises, promises, but that would be nice!
Slowly, slowly, up and up. The rock formations on the ridgeline became larger and larger. They were too big to go over. Lupe had to go around them. Sometimes it was easiest on the NW side of the ridge, sometimes on the SE side. SPHP kept expecting Lupe to arrive at High Point 6411, but she didn’t. How many of these rock formations would she have to work her way around? SPHP couldn’t remember.
Meanwhile, the views were improving as Lupe gained elevation. Everything in the distance now looked familiar. Lupe was in one of the most rugged parts of the Black Hills here. Beautiful large granite formations were all around. Peak 6735 to the SW remained hidden from view most of the time, but Black Elk Peak (7,131 ft.) was often visible to the NW.
As expected, it finally happened. Lupe reached the top of High Point 6411. She’d had several water breaks on the way up, but now it was time for a longer break. Lupe had Taste of the Wild. SPHP ate an apple.
SPHP consulted the topo map. It seemed like it had taken a long time to get here, but Lupe had covered a depressingly short distance from Grizzly Bear Creek. On the bright side, she had gained a lot of the elevation required to reach Peak 6735. Unfortunately, she would have to give some of it back getting down off High Point 6411.
Since Lupe had come all the way to the top of High Point 6411, she might as well have a look around. Peak 6735 was in view, but still nearly a mile away.
The views were great from High Point 6411, but would be even better on Peak 6735. Onward! A first attempt to get down off High Point 6411 going WSW proved a little too steep for comfort. Ugh! Lupe climbed back up. SPHP couldn’t remember how Lupe had gotten down on Expedition No. 92.
A foray to the WNW didn’t look promising at first, but worked out just fine. Lupe made it down to the saddle leading to Peak 6710. Once across the saddle, she started climbing again. For a while, the terrain forced her to head directly toward Peak 6710, but this time she wasn’t going to go virtually all the way to the summit like she had on Expedition No. 92.
Once Looper made it past some more big rock formations, and was about as high as the saddle leading from Peak 6710 over to Peak 6735, she turned S and headed for the saddle. She wound up higher on Peak 6710 than she needed to be, but skirted the summit a little way off to the SE. Struggling through a thick forest of young pines choked with the endless deadfall, she finally got past Peak 6710. The saddle to Peak 6735 was now close by.
Across the saddle and straight up the N ridge. Lupe was getting close! Near the end, the terrain wasn’t as steep, the deadfall a little less troublesome. Suddenly Lupe was there! Despite the mountain’s deadfall defenses, the plucky Carolina Dog stood at the top of Peak 6735.
Well, almost. A dead tree with many annoying branches was leaning against the very highest rock at the summit, preventing Lupe from getting up on it.
Oh, no! No way! Lupe had gone over, under, or around hundreds, maybe thousands, of dead trees to get here. The whole mountain was covered with and surrounded by wretched deadfall. All those jillions of dead trees could stay exactly where nature placed them, except this one. This one had to go!
Fortunately, the offending dead pine tree was smallish. SPHP managed to drag it away from the summit rock and push it over the edge. It fell only 10 feet, but at least it was out of the way. The summit rock was clear. Lupe stood on top!
At the top of Peak 6735, a short uneven ridge of rock ran for 30 feet in a line oriented roughly E/W. The ridge sloped a little up toward a rock at the true summit near the E end. The greater summit area was much larger and sloped down toward the SW, where a massive, but lower, granite platform ran along the SE edge.
When Lupe had been here nearly 3 years ago on Expedition No. 92, Peak 6735’s summit had many large dead pines still standing. Some of them still were, but many had fallen over by now. The fallen trees made it harder to move around, but the views were more sweeping and open now than they had been back then. From seldom visited Peak 6735, Lupe had fantastic views of more than half of the entire Black Elk Wilderness!
After a suitably long rest break at the true summit, it was picture time. Naturally, Lupe toured the entire summit area.
Conditions were beautiful on Peak 6735. Lupe and SPHP lingered up here for quite a while, and would have loved to stay longer. However, even though the sun wouldn’t set for at least a couple of hours yet, it was time to go.
Already it was way too late to try to go back the way Lupe had come up. Traveling all that way through the deadfall took many hours. Getting stuck out here away from the trail when night fell would have made it nearly impossible to do anything other than wait for dawn. Even a deadfall-covered trail would be extremely difficult to follow at night.
On Expedition No. 92, Lupe had taken a shortcut back to Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 by going around the E side of Peak 6710 and continuing N. This shorter route back down to the trail had been very steep, but had worked.
SPHP wondered if Lupe shouldn’t try to avoid such a steep descent this time? By heading beyond Peak 6710 towards Peak 6920, she wouldn’t have to lose much elevation before reaching Norbeck Trail No. 3 not too far from its junction with Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7.
The advantage was, this might be the easiest route out of here. The disadvantage was, Lupe had never tried it before.
Lupe enjoyed a little more time up on Peak 6735 while SPHP pondered the best course of action.
The final decision was made on the way down Peak 6735’s N ridge. Lupe would try going W of Peak 6710 and heading for Peak 6920. Hopefully, she would reach Norbeck Trail No. 3 well before sunset.
It was hurry up time, if possible, but the deadfall made the going dreadfully slow. By the time Lupe got over the ridge SW of Peak 6710, close to an hour had gone by. After crossing the ridge, the terrain and deadfall did not improve, but then they weren’t expected to. The only solution was to get to a trail. Any trail would do.
Once she was over the SW ridge, Lupe lost some elevation before having to regain it to get up on the next ridge to the NW. This ridge went W from Peak 6710. Lupe and SPHP followed it a short distance, but within 5 or 10 minutes it was apparent a deep valley was ahead. This wasn’t going to work. Where to now?
Loop started back E toward Peak 6710. SPHP noticed a saddle off to the NE. It led to the NW, the way Lupe needed to go, and was every bit as high as where she was now. That was the route! Puppy, ho! Lupe maintained elevation and headed for the saddle.
It took a good 10 minutes to get there. The saddle wasn’t terribly wide or long. It led to a large rock formation immediately to the WNW. Climbing up there looked possible, but time consuming. Instead, Lupe crossed the saddle and turned NW to go around the high point.
Lupe was now way up in the upper Grizzly Bear Creek drainage. Somewhere down below was Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7. For a while, Lupe tried simply maintaining elevation and going NW. The plan was still to look for Norbeck Trail No. 3. A high ridge came into view to the NW. That had to be where Norbeck Trail No. 3 was, but it was still a considerable distance away and a bit of a climb.
SPHP debated whether Lupe should try simply cutting down through the forest directly to Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7, or getting on top of the ridge she was following? She tried a little of both, but didn’t lose all that much elevation going down, and never made it all the way to the top going up, either. The varied terrain kept changing SPHP’s mind on which way she ought to go.
A 50 foot deep ravine appeared ahead. Lupe had to kept going NW, so there was no choice, but to go down into it. Loop led the way down the slope. Suddenly SPHP realized she was standing on a trail! Odd, surprising. SPHP hadn’t thought she was anywhere close to a trail yet. Whatever works, though! The trail was good news!
The trail Lupe had found had to be Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7. SPHP wondered how far Loop was from the intersection with Norbeck Trail No. 3? Didn’t matter. The sun would still be up for a while. Best to make tracks, and use the available daylight to get past as much deadfall on the trail as possible. Without the slightest hesitation, Lupe and SPHP followed Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 going E.
The sun was still shining on the high peaks and would be for a while, but Lupe had a lot of elevation to lose. The trail went on and on. Fortunately, this upper section of Grizzly Creek Trail No. 7 trail was not choked with deadfall. In fact, there was very little of it. Lupe made great progress, but the sun had set by the time she made it all the way down to Grizzly Bear Creek.
The trail crossed Grizzly Bear Creek a number of times, but the creek was low enough so the crossings weren’t a problem. Deadfall on the trail became a problem again and slowed things down, but was no big deal compared to what Lupe had been through already.
The forest was dim and the sky pale, by the time Lupe reached the intersection with Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14 again. The race to make as much use of the fading light as possible continued. Lupe didn’t stop for a break until she was beyond the upper pass. SPHP could hardly see the trail now. The flashlight came out.
Stars had been shining above for a while. No worries, though. Lupe knew the rest of the trail ahead had little deadfall. It would be easy enough to follow.
A short break, then onward, but now at a relaxed pace through an inky black forest with incredibly bright stars above. What a gorgeous evening!
Well, Looper, Expedition No. 200 wasn’t a bad day’s adventure, was it?
No, not at all, but I still say it needed more squirrels!
End (9:42 PM, 38°F)