On Easter Sunday, 2012, I hiked from Willow Creek Trailhead to Harney Peak, going past Elkhorn Mountain and along the Elkhorn-Harney ridge. I hadn't taken this particular hike into the Black Elk Wilderness in probably 50 years, and I was eager to see the progress of the recent mountain pine beetle outbreak. A slideshow of photos taken on this hike can be found here (click the View Slideshow button for easiest viewing).
The ongoing renewal of the Norbeck Preserve and the Black Elk Wilderness from the recent pine beetle outbreak is very evident along this route. The outbreak itself moved northeast through the Preserve from an origin southwest of Harney Peak, largely avoiding the southeast portion of the Norbeck Preserve (Grizzly Bear and Iron Creek drainages) and Mount Rushmore.
Around Harney Peak, the spruce forest has been consolidated by removal of encroaching pine. The same pattern is taking hold near Elkhorn Mountain, although the red needles of the dying pines are still very prominent in this area. In a few more years, this transition will be completed in the Elkhorn area as well.
Along the Elkhorn-Harney ridge, the dense dog-hair stands of 5-7" pines are being heavily thinned, yet many trees will still remain for the future. Rather than the grass/seedling structural stages "predicted" by the Forest Service to justify their logging intervention in this beetle outbreak, much of the Wilderness will still be medium-to-dense pole-size Ponderosa pine stands. For the first time in many decades, however, significant sunlight is now reaching the forest floor in many areas of the Wilderness. The explosion of new life that will follow this successional change will be fascinating to watch on future hikes.
The normally busy Trail #9 was virtually empty, with only a couple hikers encountered during the entire 6+ hour hike. Usually the trail at this time of year would have had many patches of snow and ice, but this year there wasn't even any muddy areas. I had the summit all to myself, except for a large mountain goat that was startled by my appearance at the lookout tower.