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Among the many reasons we wanted to move to the Black Hills area, having the Black Elk Wilderness in our back yard was toward the top of the list. If you read my post on National Forests, you’ll know that Wilderness Areas remain fundamentally unaltered by modernity, providing the best opportunity to recreate in nature largely untouched by human hands. That’s what I was looking for when I set out on Iron Mountain Trail #16.
After all, sometimes you just want to disappear into the wilderness. Or at least I do. Anytime I’m stressed, overworked, anxious, or just troubled, it does me good to get a little solitude in nature. So I looked at my map of the Black Elk Wilderness, grabbed my Luzon daypack, loaded Inkling into the truck, and headed toward Iron Mountain Trail.
Iron Mountain Trailhead
Finding the trailhead is pretty simple. Head to the Iron Mountain Picnic Area off of Highway 16A (Iron Mountain Road), between Mount Rushmore National Monument and Custer State Park. You’ll see picnic areas, a vault toilet, and a trailhead for the Centennial Trail Bypass #89B.
Iron Mountain Trail is an out and back, so you could also head to the trailhead off of Forest Service Road 345. There’s less parking space and no infrastructure there, but it leads to the same trail. If you decide to hit the trail from that end, everything in this post remains valid… just in reverse.
That trail starts off as a paved path. When it forks, you’ll want to follow #89B to the left. Or you can take a brief detour to the right to explore some stone plateaus. This is as far as most visitors get, so you can expect to see a few tourists here. Enjoy scrambling over a bit of granite, and then follow your steps back to the fork and head left.
Right now you’re on the Centennial Trail Spur, which gives access to the 111 mile long Centennial Trail that crosses through six different public land areas, including the Black Elk Wilderness. We didn’t jump onto that trail, just used the spur to access Iron Mountain Trail.
Soon you’ll come to a Black Elk Wilderness self-registration station. Stop and fill out a Wilderness Use Permit. It’s all basic information; your name, everyone who is with you, what your plans are. Slip the white copy in the box and keep the cardboard copy with you while you’re on the trail. This registration ensures that all visitors know the Black Elk Wilderness user regulations (which are listed on the back of the cardboard copy) and provides important visitor use information for the forest service. Be aware that if you don’t register, or don’t have a copy of your permit on your person, you may face a $100 fine. Just take the five minutes to fill it out, snap a selfie with the sign, and enjoy your hike.
You’ll pass through a section where tall grass covers the trail, but you’ll have no trouble seeing where to go. The Centennial Bypass trail covers about 1.7 miles through Ponderosa Pine forest, but we’ll only be on long enough to meet up with Iron Mountain Trail . Breathe deep — these trees smell delightfully sappy. During peak tourist season you may see one or two people out here on the weekends, but most visitors don’t go past the paved section at the beginning. As a general rule, you can expect more solitude in wilderness areas.
After maybe a quarter of a mile or so, the trail will fork again. On your right, Centennial Bypass continues on to meet the Centennial Trail. Take the left fork to start Iron Mountain Trail. Now you’re on your way!
Now You’re on Iron Mountain Trail
Right away the trail narrows and goes through some tall grasses. We didn’t find any, but this is the kind of place where ticks enjoy hanging out and trying to hitch a ride, so make sure you protect yourself accordingly. You should also keep an eye out for Poison Ivy, especially in some of the tall grass sections that you pass through later on. Inkling, of course ran through a ton of it. It’s exceptionally rare for poison ivy to negatively affect dogs, but they can transfer the oil to you. We keep some dog wipes in our vehicles for situations like this, but she still gets a bath when she gets home.
The trail will open up again, and get a little rocky. You’ll also notice that you’re gradually gaining elevation. Nothing drastic, but it is noticeable in a few spots. Granite will begin to pop up around you — even taking over the trail at times. For the most part, you’ll have no trouble following the trail. The one exception might be where you cross over a large section of granite.
Don’t worry, just stay on your current trajectory and you’ll see the trail ahead, veering to the left. Then keep stepping. The trail will open up again and you’ll start to see large granite walls to the side of the trail. It makes for some damn good scenery.
The trail will continue to change as you hike. From sandy soil with glistening mica to wide swaths of granite, and then narrowing to a small cut through tall grasses. You’ll see those granite walls, ponderosa pine forest, and wooded meadows. For a short trail, you will see a lot of what the Black Elk Wilderness has to offer, making this a great introductory hike.
As you near the end of the trail, you’ll pass through another wooed meadow. This had the thickest and highest grasses we encountered on the trail, as well as more poison ivy than we had previously seen. Keep moving through this and you’ll see where you need to go. Soon you’ll find yourself back among the trees.
You’re on the last bit of the hike now and will have one final push upward before you come to some boulders. From there you’ll see the southern trailhead only a few steps downhill.
Iron Mountain Trail is an out and back, so you can just head back the way you came. Some hikers looking for a longer, more challenging outing will hike southwest on Forest Service Road 325 to Grizzly Bear Creek Trail #7, take that to where it connects with the Centennial Trail, then take Centennial north until meeting up with the Centennial Bypass which will lead back to the Iron Mountain Picnic Area.
Overall, the hike is pretty simple. There’s a few spots where the trail goes up or down, but nothing drastic. You’ll gain around 600 feet in elevation during the hike, but most of it is pretty gradual. Set a comfortable pace and enjoy the views of Black Elk Wilderness and the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve.
We saw no people on this trail, and the signs of humans were incredibly limited. Outside of some cleared trees and trail signs, we came across some horse manure and footprints, but absolutely no litter. Be warned, during the summer you will hear the occasional helicopter tour as they fly around Mount Rushmore. The come and go quickly, so don’t stress them.
You may notice that the weather seems to change a lot in my pictures. That’s because the weather changes very quickly in the Black Hills. We started out with sunshine, quickly got clouds, a few sprinkles and then the sun came back out. Then it got cloudy again before the sun stayed out. Come prepared for sun and rain, no matter what it looks like when you park.
Enjoy Your Hike!
That’s everything that you need to know to hike Iron Mountain Trail. It’s an easy but enjoyable hike that showcases much of what the Black Elk Wilderness has to offer. Despite its proximity to Mount Rushmore you’re not likely to run into many people, while you’re sure to have an amazing time.