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.
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.
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.
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.