Sunday, September 14, 2014


Picture a desolated, arid plain.  Brown brittle grasses, dry sagebrush, devoid of trees.  The hills eroded into numerous craggy spires and crooked dusty gullies.  Blistering hot in the summer, frigidly cold in winter.  A hard, lonely landscape.  Who would visit a place like this?

Why me, of course!

Obligatory park entrance sign photo

I've always had a fascination with the Badlands of Western South Dakota.  The artfully weathered hills, sculpted by wind and rain.  The colorful layers of rock uncovered by erosion.  The wide-open vistas.  There's beauty to be found in these "bad lands."

Lone tree amid endless grassland

The local Lakota people called the rugged moonscape Mako Sica, which means "land that is bad."  Early trappers and settlers steered clear of this dry, desolate area. 

The muddy gravel road

The Badlands were created eons ago when a large ocean covered the western plains states.  Over time, sediments deposited on the ocean bottom, creating the colorful layers that eventually became rock.  Volcanic activities created uplifting of the nearby Black Hills.  From these mountains, steams flowed, carrying more sediments that deposited over the old seabed.  Finally, wind, water and ice combined to erode the softer sediments, leaving behind tougher sandstones.  Nature sculpted the rocks into fantastic shapes - spires, pyramids, castles, and wrinkly gullies.

My mom takes in the view

But that's not all - within these colorful rock layers lie a wealth of fossils.  Three-toed horses, prehistoric rhinos and pigs, saber-toothed cats, and all kinds to sea life - the remains of these animals and more have been unearthed in the Badlands.

Amazing striped hills

Now, this wonderful area is a National Park (very deserving of its status IMHO).  It had been a couple of years since my last visit, so this time I was bound and determined to get out here.

Tiny yellow flowers still in bloom

My parents, brother, myself, and Denise all piled into my mom's car, and we drove east on South Dakota Hwy 44.  Shortly after passing the tiny town of Scenic, my dad turned onto minor road 590, a back way into the west park entrance.

Craggy, eroded slopes

This year, Western South Dakota has had a very unseasonable cool, rainy summer (it's like Oregon and SD switched weather patterns).  The day I chose for my Badlands visit was cool and cloudy with intermittent rain sprinkles.  By far not typical weather for late August!  But all that moisture did come with a silver lining - turning the adjacent plains a lovely shade of green. 

Well-placed overlook

Road 590 was a well-graded gravel track through wide open grassy rangeland.  On our way to the park, we passed a few farms, and a couple of huge sunflower fields.  Then the terrain began to get rougher, with scattered buttes and gullies.  And then we came upon a park entrance sign.

Colorful hills

The morning's light rain had softened the gravel road just enough to create a thin layer of mud.  Exiting my mom's car at the first viewpoint, I noticed the entire body was splattered with silt.  Usually this time of year the only thing that coated cars was dust. 

More colorful layers on display

We traveled along the park road, stopping at a couple of nice viewpoints.  I'd hop out of the car with my camera and start capturing the expansive landscape before me.  I wished the weather wasn't so cloudy and blah - I'd really hoped to photograph the Badlands against bright blue skies.

Another great viewpoint

At one of the pullouts I accidentally stepped into a small mudhole.  Thick, sticky clay clung to my shoes.  Try as I might, I couldn't quite knock all the mud off.  Now my poor mom's car was not only dirty on the outside, thanks to my shoes it got muddy on the inside too.  (Sorry mom!)

Lots of color in those hills!

Finally our endless gravel road intersected with Road 240, directly south of the town of Wall.  Here was the park's Pinnacles Entrance, and from this point we traveled east on smooth, newly-paved asphalt.  Most visitors enter the park via this road, and travel east to the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Family photo op

The first major overlook, appropriately named the Pinnacles Overlook, gave us an amazing view of the tiered, sculpted hills.  Their sides wrinkled from numerous rainstorm runoff, their tops shaved into thin fins.  They looked almost castle-like.  But the best part was seeing the various layers of colorful rock, each marking a different era in geologic history.

Very amazing sights

On photo overload, I spent lots of time wandering around, photographing the hills from as many angles as I could think of.

Don't worry - no snakes were spotted

Although the Badlands look desolate and incapable of supporting life, all kinds of fauna live in these hills and gullies.  Mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bison, coyotes, prairie dogs, and the endangered Black-footed ferret (thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in 1981, thirty-six ferrets were released in the park in 1994).  And, of course, slithery critters such as the rattlesnake also make the Badlands their home. (Luckily we didn't see any!)

These craggy hills go on forever

The Badlands do have several short hiking trails.  I was tempted to take a quick ramble on one of them, but after stopping at one parking area, I noticed the rain had turned things to muck.  I saw a family playing in the creek bottom, and all were head-to-toe covered in mud.  Not wanting to mess up my mom's car any more than I already had, I opted to get my photos from the parking lot.

Busy bee

Luckily, the park has several great viewpoints strung along the main park road (sporting mud-free wood boardwalks).  The road from the Pinnacles Entrance to Ben Reifel Visitor Center is a lovely scenic drive.  My dad stopped at a bunch of these pullouts so I could capture more of the amazing landscape.

Road through the ruins

Although the weather wasn't the greatest, I still managed to get a lot of images I liked.  Coming from Oregon I know full well that a cloudy sky is not always a bad thing when it comes to photography.  Although I missed out on blue skies, I did enjoy saturated colors and no shadows!

Mother nature is a great artist!

We ended our drive at the Northeast Entrance, and headed towards I-90.  But our day's exploration was not quite over yet - on the way home, we planned to stop by the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site.  I'll tell ya all about it in my next post.

Stay tuned!

Sharing with: Our World Tuesday.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Tour Through the Black Hills

If you read my last post, you know that a couple of weeks ago I traveled to South Dakota to visit family. 

My parents and of my three siblings live in the wonderful Black Hills of South Dakota.  Every summer I return, there's one place that I always visit - Custer State Park!

Sylvan Lake

The centerpiece of Custer State Park is scenic Sylvan Lake.  Of all the lakes in the Black Hills, this one is hands down the prettiest.  Surrounded by blocky granite formations and forests, this small blue body of water is drop-dead gorgeous.  When my folks asked what I'd like to see, this place was foremost on my agenda.

Sampling the dream desserts at Alpine Inn

But for an afternoon of sightseeing one must first fortify themselves!  Before beginning our grand tour of the "hills" (as the Black Hills are affectionately called by locals) my family made a lunch stop at the Alpine Inn, located in the nearby town of Hill City.

This small Bavarian-themed restaurant serves the best German food around.  A favorite of residents and tourists alike, the Alpine Inn is always packed, even during weekday lunch hours.  Yes, the food is scrumptious, but the best part of dining here is sampling their out-of-this-world yummy deserts.  Denise and I shared a German chocolate waffle, piled high with chocolate ice cream, chocolate syrup, and mounds of whipped cream. 

Lakeshore view

Bellies full to bursting, everyone needed to work off those calories.  My Dad drove to nearby Sylvan Lake, and me, my parents, sister, and daughter all rolled out of the car and made our way to the shoreline path.

Huge granite blocks line the lake

A well-graded trail follows the water's edge, encircling the entire lake.  Although a very short hike (probably about a mile in length) it packs a lot of scenery in such a small distance.  My family headed towards to the lake's dam, while I trailed behind, snapping loads of photos.

Bridge over the dam

Sylvan Lake was created in 1881, when a dam was built across steep, narrow Sunday Gulch.  A popular recreation area ever since, this place boasts boat rentals, swimming, fishing, rock climbing, a lodge and campground.  It's also the starting point for several well-known hiking trails, such as the Sunday Gulch Trail, and the trail to the top of Harney Peak (the highest point in SD).

Walking back across the rocks

The dam had a narrow bridge over top, offering visitors amazing views back across the lake, and down into Sunday Gulch.

Checking out the bridge

Of course, I had to go out on the bridge and see things for myself.

Fabulous lake view!

Yeah, the views were absolutely fabulous!  Now you can see why I love coming back here.

My family back on shore

And look - there's my family lined up along the bank.  Wonder what they're all looking at?

Couldn't pass up these neat reflections

Well....I wasn't able to tell what was so interesting.  But I did capture some nice reflections of everyone.

Climbing over the granite

Below the dam was a large crack in the rock, creating a tunnel for visitors to walk through.  One the other side was a long set of stone steps that took visitors down below the dam, into the head of Sunday Gulch.  I was really interested in hiking the trail through this gulch.  It's supposed to be very scenic.  But I'd just taken my parents up Bear Butte the day before, and they were definitely not ready for another strenuous trek. 

More wonderful lake views

So we stuck to the lakeshore.  From Sunday Gulch trailhead, we climbed up a huge granite slab.  On top was another lovely view of Sylvan Lake.

Heading around the opposite shore

From there, the dusty path wound around a field of huge granite boulders and scrawny ponderosa pines.  I could see many of these trees were brown and dying due to a bark beetle infestation that is decimating the forests here.

Grassy shoreline

Sylvan Lake was featured in the 2007 film National Treasure: Book of Secrets.  The funny part is, the movie made it appear that the lake was located directly behind Mt. Rushmore, when in reality it's about five miles southwest of the famous monument. (Oh Hollywood!)

Wonderful reflections on this side

Rounding the final side of Sylvan Lake, our path paralleled the main road and a lush grassy bank.  Afternoon light broke through partly cloudy skies, lighting up granite monoliths on the far shore, creating amazing reflections in the still waters.

The Needles highway

Returning to the car, I requested we travel one of my favorite roads in Custer State Park - the Needles Highway.  This narrow, twisty road winds through an area of tall granite spires known at "the Needles."  The road features hairpin turns, and a couple of narrow tunnels blasted straight through granite rock.

Granite spires everywhere

We stopped at an overlook called the "Needles Eye."  One of the attractions here is a very narrow one-lane tunnel.  Autos are required to honk their horns before entering, to alert any vehicles on the other side.  This system seems to work, as the short time we stopped, drivers were politely taking turns traveling through.

Narrow tunnel

If you're lucky and happen to be here at the right time, visitors will see full size tour buses squeezing their way through this tunnel.  It doesn't appear to be possible, but I've personally witnessed huge buses making successful trips, with nary a scratch.

Sadly, we missed seeing any buses.  But I did observe a group of classic Mustang sportscars, a few Harleys, a couple cars with Go-Pro cameras attached to their sides, and one vehicle with a kid sticking up through the sunroof holding an ipad, recording their journey.

Light at the end of the tunnel

After spending some time watching traffic at Needle's Eye tunnel, we loaded into the car and completed our trip through "the hills."  It was great to be back, and I enjoyed visiting some of the favorite places from my childhood.

But my sightseeing adventures weren't quite over yet.  I still yearned to see the Badlands, one of my favorite places in Western South Dakota.  Stick around for my next post - you won't be disappointed!

Sharing with:  Weekend Reflections.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Bear Butte

I didn't intend to take a "blogging break" but it kind of happened.  Between a 9-day vacation and trying to play catch up the week after, keeping up with my blog took a backseat.  (Nobody probably missed me anyway.....but if you did, know that I'm back in the saddle and will resume posting, blog visits, and comments.)

So where have I been?  Well, my daughter Denise and I traveled back to my hometown in South Dakota to visit family.  Knowing I like hiking, one the first things my parents suggested we do was to climb Bear Butte.

Bear Butte from afar

Bear Butte is a small mountain that rises above the plains near the town of Sturgis, SD (famous for it's yearly motorcycle rally).  The butte, which has an uncanny resemblance to a sleeping bear, is called Mato Paha or "bear mountain" by the local Lakota people.  Indians consider Bear Butte a sacred place of worship, and it draws native people throughout the US and Canada.

A sacred site to the Native Americans

The mountain is now a state park, a registered National Landmark, and has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  However the local government officials try hard to accommodate both religious and recreational uses.  Portions of the trail are sometimes closed for worship services.  As a matter of fact, the last time I attempted to climb Bear Butte (ages ago when I was a young Girl Scout) the very top was closed due to a Native American prayer ceremony.

Starting up the trail

But the Monday we chose for our hike, the place was deserted.  Also lucky for us, the weather was cool.  As most of the trail is without shade, it would be a hot and miserable trek on a typical summer's day.

Tobacco ties left by worshipers

My hiking companions for the day were my parents, my daughter Denise, and my sister.  Nothing like slogging up a mountain for spending quality family time!

Colorful prayer cloths were tied on many of the trees

From the trailhead, our path was lined with colorful prayer cloths that were tied on almost every tree.  Also, I noticed small red bundles, (which I later learned were tobacco ties) affixed to many small shrubs.  These items came from the the numerous prayer ceremonies that are held on Bear Butte.  The park officials ask that visitors not disturb any of these religious items.

Bear Butte Lake and the Black Hills in the distance

From grassy meadows at the mountain's base, our trail quickly climbed until we could begin to see the landscape below.  I glimpsed the dark wall of the Black Hills rising from surrounding plains.

Climbing higher

The trail began to get steep and rocky.  In steeper sections, switchbacks had been constructed to lessen the strain of the climb.  My parents, well into their 70s, seemed to be doing fine, but I hung back with my Dad just to be sure (well....that I stopped frequently to take pictures!)

Wood rails lined parts of the trail

About halfway to the top, my family and I paused for a breather.  A wooden bench had been strategically placed for visitors to soak in the amazing views.  In one direction, I glimpsed the craggy cliffs that form the bear's "head."  In another, I could look ahead to the summit's bare slopes.  And far below, green patchwork-quilt farmland covered the plains.

Prairie sunflowers

Bear Butte is actually not a "butte" but a small mountain.  Formed by an intrusion of molten lava from the earth's center, this lava pushed up the surrounding sedimentary rocks, causing them to rise.  Over time erosion has worn away the soft upper layers, exposing the mountain's igneous core.

An especially rocky section

From the halfway point, the trail began to get very steep and rocky.  We crossed a talus slope, and began to wind around the backside of the summit.  In a few treacherous spots, wooden railings and steps had been constructed.  I worried about my parents traversing these tricky areas, but both did just fine.

Denise and her grandpa

My dad began to tire a bit, and again I wondered about his ability to climb the rest of the way (he just turned 77).  But dad's a tough guy, and has kept himself in good shape.  After a quick rest and some water, he was ready to go.

Halfway to the top!

The lack of trees made for lots of great views (and photo ops) all the way up.  During later research, I learned that in 1996, a fire swept across Bear Butte's slopes, destroying 90% of it's vegetation.  That explained all the downed trees and bleached stumps I saw (kind of looked a bit like the Mt. St. Helens blast zone).

A few colorful flowers lined the trail

Finally my family and I came upon a very steep slope.  We could see the summit platform up ahead.  Below the platform was a crude set of wooden stairs, made of railroad ties sunk into the rocky soil.  It took big steps to traverse these stairs, and nearly all of us used our hands.  But everyone was able to hoist themselves up this final pitch.

Big views towards the top

And then we were on the summit!  And boy, oh boy, what fabulous views!

Family summit photo

The plains of western South Dakota spread out in all directions.  Green farmland, brown rangeland, and the distant Black Hills.  A wonderful panorama - totally worth the tough climb!  No wonder the Native Americans considered this mountain sacred. 

Steep descent from the summit

After resting, having a cliff bar and some water, and taking lots of pictures (okay, mostly me doing the photo-taking) it was time to head back down.  Climbing back down those steep stairs directly below the summit was kind of hairy, but once we got by that section, the rest of the way was a quick downhill cruise.

Heading back down

I think I enjoyed the descent even more than the climb.  Such wonderful views!  My mom and dad, despite sliding a couple times on loose rock, did great.  I'm so lucky to have parents that are still in such good health they're able to hike with me.

Prayer cloths

A great way to start my South Dakota vacation.  Bear Butte is a mountain I hadn't visited in many years.  A beautiful, sacred place, I'm glad for the opportunity to get reacquainted.

Stats for the hike:  3.75 miles round-trip, 1000' elevation gain.

Sharing with:  Our World Tuesday.