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.


  1. Spectacular! But not for those who are afraid of heights.

  2. Great looking walk and very nice to see that the religious beliefs of others are being respected.

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  3. Fabulous place and history.. Glad you all made it to the top and back. I see where you get your love of hiking.
    Great post, Linda!

  4. How wonderful to do this as a family! You're very blessed. The prayer clothes are quite pretty, hanging from the trees. All of the views you shared are just awesome!

  5. Wonderful family hike! You've got lucky parents to still be able to do that!

  6. Wow, gorgeous and captivating, Linda! Thank you so much for sharing.

  7. I actually did notice that it had been awhile since you posted, so yes, you were missed. Lovely hike and how wonderful to be able to do that with your parents. Mine, now in their mid-80s, have been so active and are slowing down very quickly and it is painful to watch. Enjoy every moment you can while they are able. Sounds like you are!

  8. I am glad you could do this together with your family.
    A beautiful place for walking and the view is amazing.

  9. nice hike and lovely photos. I did wonder where you were but glad you had a good visit with family!

  10. Beautiful photos, looks like a great hike. I'm very impressed with your parents being able to take that hike, God bless them!

  11. What fabulous views, well worth the hike. I wish I were as fit as your parents!

  12. It's really cool that the park and tribe can work together to share such a beautiful place. How special that your family could join you too. :)

  13. Spectacular photos, and a gorgeous view. What a wonderful way to spend time together. Your dad is doing this at 77? That is great! He is obviously is great shape.

  14. amazing views from the top. Its beautiful country and your images are excellent. have fun on the rest of your vaca

    and yes I missed you.

  15. You told me when I met you that evening that it was a tough hike. Now I really understand. If your mom & dad can do it so can we. It's now on my bucket list. It was great to meet and visit with you and Denise.

  16. That looks like a great hike. I love the prayer cloths, I've never seen anything like that around here.

  17. By the way, that cog train about which I posted is still running, year-round (although it doesn't get to the top in winter). Our trip on it was just two weeks ago.

  18. We will be in the area in a couple weeks...don't know if we will have time, but I jotted it down!

  19. What an incredible place! Truly gorgeous views!! I am totally impressed with your parents by the way. Finally PLEASE tell me there will be more SD photos:)

  20. What glorious scenery!

  21. What a great way to spend time with your parents. I am more than impressed with their fitness and energy. The views must have been a wonderful reward for all the effort.

  22. I think your dad is amazing to have gone on that hike. It's easy to see who you inherited your energy from.

  23. I ALWAYS love hiking with you ,glad your back . I was getting out of shape.

  24. Love this, Linda. Way to go, to your Mom & Dad!

  25. I remember fondly hiking in the Black Hills. Have fun!

  26. Wow, sounds like a great hike. I love the Black Hills. I took a road trip there with my daughter a couple years back and we did the Harney Peak Trail by Sylvan Lake. Beautiful :-)

  27. Beautiful hike. It's nice to get back home and visit.

  28. Fun! I knew right where this was from the picture. I'm from that are too, RC. And, why have I not hiked Bear Butte? That's on my "to do" list for my next visit. Great post.

  29. Loved this hike description (and your photos of course) and the prayer cloths always make me remember our Native Americans and how much the land means to them too. Adding this one to my list, it looks very do-able and we like that area a lot. P.S. I would have missed you but I haven't checked anyone's blog in almost two weeks again!


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