Thursday, October 20, 2016

Devils Bathtub

(One more hike recap from my early September South Dakota trip)

Ahhh....Devils Bathtub.  The trail that made me break two of my cardinal rules:  1. Don't go to a popular place on a Saturday, and 2. Get an early start.

First of many creek crossings

But it was my last day in South Dakota.  I really wanted to spend time with my sister and my high school friend Nancy, both who only had weekends free.  And it'd been years since I'd visited Devils Bathtub.  So, against my better judgement, that Saturday I arranged for us to meet in the nearby town of Spearfish at the late-for-me hour of 12 noon (practically hiker midnight!)

Tall limestone cliffs

Devils Bathtub is an eroded rock formation located in Spearfish Canyon.  A small stream meanders through an area of tall limestone cliffs.  Over time, this creeklet has worn a channel through the rock, creating several small pools and waterfalls.  It's an incredibly beautiful spot, and a great place to escape the summer's heat.

My sis finds a huge tree burl

Devils Bathtub's location used to be secret, known only to a few locals.  It didn't show up on any maps.  The only way to find it's trail was through word of mouth.  The last time I'd visited, way back in the mid 80s, Devils Bathtub was still relatively unknown.

Walking over a rocky ledge

Well, boy was I in for a surprise!  After meeting up with Nancy, my sister drove us down the scenic road that winds through beautiful Spearfish Canyon.  Nearing the unofficial trailhead, I was shocked to find the highway lined with parked cars.  As there was no hope of scoring a spot at the tiny trailhead parking area, my sis maneuvered her SUV onto the shoulder, joining the fast-growing line of vehicles.

The canyon narrows

We girls crossed the highway and hopped over rocks to the other side of gorgeous Spearfish Creek.  A smaller stream converged with this creek, leading up a small side canyon.  We noticed other people following a well-worn footpath through the trees.  This must be the way!

Water-carved rock

Nancy, my sister, and I ducked through the thick brush.  There were several user trails, and at first it was difficult to determine which one to follow.  But another hiker coming the opposite direction assured us they all ended up at the same place.

Little bat trying to hide

So picking a path, off we went!  The canyon walls began to get taller, and the creek banks narrower.  Several times the three of us had to jump over the creek, only to recross several steps upstream.  Hopping over downed trees, balancing on rocks over the creek, scrambling up a rocky ledge - choosing our route became a fun challenge.

The place was swarming with people!

To say we weren't alone would be an understatement - I've never seen so many people on a trail in South Dakota!  The crowds rivaled those of the Columbia River Gorge on a sunny summer's day.   The warm weekend had brought people out in droves.

Nancy and I - high school friends reunited!

About a mile upstream, the banks narrowed until they were merely rocky shelves above the creek.  Instead of hiking, my friend, sister, and I climbed and hopped our way over these ledges.

My sister is having fun

We came upon the first pools, a series of small waterfalls separating them.  It was incredibly lovely, but the place was swarming with people.  Lots of little kids in swimsuits were having a ball sliding down smooth rocky chutes carved by the creek.

Nancy squeezes between rocks

My friend Nancy studied wildlife biology in college, so she was the first to spot a small bat flying around the pools.  It zipped right in front of one lady, and gave her quite a fright.  The tiny bat ended up attaching himself to a nearby canyon wall and sliding into a crevice.  I was able to get  a couple of good photos before the little creature disappeared entirely.

Lovely pool

Finally reaching the large pool, known as Devils Bathtub, Nancy and I stood on the edge and watched a parade of people splashing around in it's waters.

Another tall cliff

But there was way too many folks for our taste, and the three of us agreed we'd had enough.  Time to turn around, my sis led us back down the canyon, away from that mass of humanity.

Walking on the eroded rock

Still, it was a splendid trek back.  I enjoyed the views, especially all the terraced rock formations created by flowing water.  Although the sun/shade combination made photography difficult, I tried to capture the scenery anyway.

More rock channels

Back at the trailhead, I admired the fall colors starting to show on some poison ivy plants (but was smart enough not to touch!) 

Poison ivy leaves wearing fall colors

Back at the trailhead, we met several more groups of people heading towards the canyon.  No longer a secret, the internet and social media have revealed the location of this special place.  I felt a pang of regret that hidden spots such as these have vanished in this age of information.  (Although I suppose bloggers like me don't help the situation either.....)

Later, going through an old photo album, I found some photos from a mid 80s hike into Devils Bathtub.  As you can see, my husband and I had the place to ourselves back then.  Sadly, it seems those days are now long gone.

Devils Bathtub in a quieter time

Despite the crowds, it was fun to revisit an old favorite trail from my past and reconnect with both my sister and old high school friend.  Hopefully we can hike again when I'm back next year (although I'm choosing a less popular trail!)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A Trip Through the Hills

When I'm visiting family in South Dakota, there's one place I always put firmly on my agenda - Custer State Park.

Buffalo buddies

In my opinion, it's the best state park in the US.  Not only boasting wonderful scenery, there's also beautiful lakes, unique scenic drives, incredible hiking trails, and a plethora of wildlife.  But most of all, Custer State Park is known for the 1,300 buffalo that roam freely throughout the park - the largest publicly-owned herd.

Eyeing the photographer

My parents love touring "the Hills," (as the locals affectionately call the Black Hills) and happily offered to drive me to Custer State Park.  First stop, a trip down the Wildlife Loop road to look for the buffalo.  Although you never know where those shaggy beasts might be, we got lucky.  A short drive brought us face-to-face with the main herd. 

Just grazin'

These giant creatures were grazing right next to the road!  No need for a super zoom lens - I could get some great photos by merely shooting out the car window.  And, believe me, that's the only way to observe a large group of buffalo.  (Although I did see a couple of clueless tourists leave the safety of their vehicles to get a closer look.  Not smart!  That's how people get injured)

My folks make a cute couple!

After filling my memory card with way too many buffalo pics, my dad pointed the car towards Hwy 16A, that traverses the heart of Custer State Park.  We passed the Game Lodge and Peter Norbeck Visitor Center before deciding to stop at Legion Lake.  It was here I got my parents to pose for a photo.  Married over 55 years, aren't they a cute couple?

Late season asters

We took a short stroll along the lake.  Although not very large, the scenery was mighty pretty.  I spotted some late-blooming wildflowers decorating it's shoreline.

Wildflowers on the shore of Legion lake

Not sure what these yellow flowers are, but they combined nicely with the purple asters and darker purple thistles.


I kept trying to capture an image of a cute chipmunk dodging amongst the vegetation.  But the little guy (or gal?) was being shy and would scamper away the instant I got close enough.  I did finally catch the critter on the boat dock and was happy with this image.

Boats for rent

Legion Lake Resort offered many different types of watercraft for rent.  But on this cloudy, chilly gray day, all the boats sat idle at the dock.

Black Hills tunnel

Custer State Park has several scenic roadways that wind through the park.  Hands-down my favorite is the Needles Highway.  This spectacular drive passes through birch and aspen forests before threading through tall granite spires.  But best of all - you also get to pass through several tunnels!  And if you've followed my blog for any time, you know how I love these Black Hills tunnels.  It's a South Dakota tradition to honk your horn while driving through.

Needles Highway

The drive starts out passing through a few open meadows (where a lone buffalo was spotted), before climbing into the forest.

Granite spire

Tall granite pinnacles begin to rise above the trees.

Interesting sky

Some of them form a wall along the mountaintops.  At this overlook, the sky was starting to look ominous.

Another tall granite pinnacle

As one climbs higher, granite pillars become more numerous.  Some of them get so close to the pavement the highway has to curve around them.

Rock lined road

Or sometimes the rock just intrudes into the roadway.  No big deal, the windy nature of this road keeps vehicle speeds low.

Sylvan Lake

The Needles Highway ends at scenic Sylvan Lake, always a favorite stop on my Custer Stark Park tour.  Although the dark cloudy skies didn't make the greatest photographic conditions, it was still a beautiful place.  And the cloud formations were kind of interesting.

Wonderful spot for a wedding

Sylvan Lake is a popular place for weddings.  I've often spotted them set up along the lake's beautiful shoreline.  This time I came across a cute sign for Liz and Jake's wedding.  Awwwww!

"Love everywhere.."

My parents and I ended our Custer State Park loop with a drive-by of the famous Mt Rushmore, before heading back to Rapid City.  Buffalo, wildflowers, granite mountains, and two lovely lakes - just another great day in the Hills!

More information about Custer State Park can be found here.

Sharing with:  Saturday's Critters.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Bloggers Hike Harney Peak

The planets aligned big time during my annual family visit to South Dakota.  A long time blogging buddy, Pam from Nomadic Newfies, planned to vacation in the Black Hills the week before Labor Day.  Our trips just happened to coincide - how lucky was that?

Time to hike!

Pam lives in Wisconsin, and blogs about hiking, travel, and photography - basically the same stuff as me (minus the skiing).

So of course we had to get together for a hiking, photography extravaganza!

Havin' fun with Pam at the first overlook

After meeting up in Rapid City at the Chubby Chipmunk (our love of their fabulous truffles yet another common interest) Pam and I decided to tackle the trek up Harney Peak. 

Granite spires of the Black Hills

Hands-down my favorite Black Hills hike, this 3.5-mile trail takes one to the very top of 7,242 foot high Harney Peak - the highest point in South Dakota.  An iconic fire lookout tower, built with native rock by the CCC, graces this scenic summit.

Lovely forest path

Early morning light is best for photography, so I convinced Pam to meet me in the nearby town of Custer at sunrise.  After waiting for the coffee shop to open, we made the short drive to Custer State Park's Sylvan Lake trailhead, and were hiking by 8 am.

Pam admires the scenery

Although the trail starts out fairly mellow, it soon begins climbing through grassy clearings and Ponderosa woods.  A few straggler aster blooms lined our path.  The low level morning light filtered through the forest, making for some great photography conditions.

Little Devils Tower

That's the great thing about hiking with other photographers - they understand the frequent need to stop and capture something interesting! 

Wild raspberries!

After a half mile or so, we arrived at the first overlook, atop a granite outcrop.  The views were marvelous - forested vistas spreading out below punctuated by granite spires.  A wall of granite towers rose before us, Harney Peak's stone lookout a tiny bump atop the tallest one.

Raspberry plant

A perfect place for a few group photos!  After setting up my tripod, Pam and I mugged for the camera.

Berry picking time

Beyond the overlook, we wound through the forest, passing frequent clearings where more views awaited.

"Are we there yet?"

An unexpected surprise - Pam discovered a few wild raspberry bushes with still-ripe berries.  Ummm.....delicious!

View through the Ponderosa Pines

We were by no means alone on the trail.  First were were passed by a couple of men planning to do repairs on the lookout tower, and later we met up with a group of Forest Service workers on their way to do trail maintenance.

Women at work

We came upon the Forest Service staff again, just a mile from the summit, as they were clearing downed trees from the trail.  Pam and I were proud to watch the all female crew making short work of a fallen log.  Women power!

One of the many photo breaks

Now the real climbing began.  The trail gets steep here, on the way up to Harney Peak's very summit.  But the frequent panoramic views provide some instant rewards (not to mention photo opportunities).

A little floral color

Although Pam later admitted in her blog post she was dying about then, I had no idea.  Pam was a trooper and followed me up the final steep climb.

The lookout tower is in sight!

A first glimpse of the lookout tower was a great motivator!

The views are getting even better

Winding through a set of stairs (with more fabulous views) we finally rounded a corner, and there was the famous stone tower!

Another photo break!

As many times as I've climbed Harney Peak over the years, it's still a breathtaking sight.

Harney Peak lookout

Completed in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), this tower replaced an older structure.  All the building materials, stone, cement, and sand, had to be hauled up the mountain by 2-wheeled carts pulled by horses and mules.  The tower served as a fire lookout until 1967.  Now it's only used by hikers as a shelter and viewpoint.

Love the tower's stonework

Pam and I ducked inside the tower, only to be met by a volunteer crew hard at work on a restoration project.

The sign gives all the stats

Years of harsh weather and abuse from clueless hikers have resulted in lots of reconstructive efforts over the years.  I'm glad there's people who are taking care of this historic treasure.

Granite peaks as far as the eye can see

Pam and I walked out onto the observation area and soaked in the spectacular views.  The Black Hills stretched out before us in all directions.  I'm told you can see four states on a clear day, but not knowing landmarks, I remarked to Pam there's no way to know which state you're looking at.

We made it!

A rocky plateau stretched out below the lookout tower, and we could see people walking around it.  Pam wanted to explore further, so we climbed down another staircase to check it out.

Checking out the rocky plateau

More grand panoramas awaited!  Cameras clicked, and oohs and aahs were uttered.

Views are incredible

Pam noticed tiny colorful fabric strips tied to some nearby trees.  We discovered they were prayer ties left behind by local Native Americans.  The peak is sacred to many Native tribes, and they often hold religious ceremonies here.

Prayer ties left by Native Americans

Although Pam and I did take photographs, we were careful not to disturb these colorful ribbons.

Back to the tower

After wandering around the rocky outcrop for the better part of half an hour, Pam and I decided it was time to head back down.  As we passed back through the lookout tower, it was swarming with workers, and we exited just as they were closing it to the public.  Lucky us! 

Heading down

Our high point of the trip down, we encountered a mule train bringing construction supplies to the tower, which was exciting to see.

Mule train

Otherwise, our trip back to the car was a mostly uneventful trudge back through the woods (the trail seemed so much longer this time around!)   We met lots of people heading up the mountain, and I was thankful for our early start. 

Girls just wanna have fun!

So much fun to finally meet Pam and share a hike to one of my favorite places!  From reading her blog I suspected Pam and I would hit it off, and we did.  Too bad we live so far apart.....guess it's time to scheme a plan to meet up again (wink, wink!).

Check out Pam's blog, Nomadic Newfies.

(A side note.....About a month before my trip home, the U.S.Board of Geographic names officially changed the name of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak.  However, as an ex-South Dakotan with many fond memories, I choose to continue calling it Harney Peak)