Tuesday, November 27, 2018

In Search of Poet's Table

The Black Hills of South Dakota is a hiker's paradise.  Trails pass under impressive granite spires and wind through Ponderosa pine forests.  On my yearly trips back home, I've managed to cover many woodsy paths, some to high points, others following tiny streams, even some boasting Mt Rushmore views.  But one has eluded me - a hidden path to an alcove tucked behind Custer State Park's granite towers.  Beneath this tiny outcrop a table, chairs, and box full of poetry books are stashed.  One of the Black Hills' best-kept secrets, this place is known as the Poet's Table.

Lovely day for a hike!

Created nearly 50 years ago, this spot was intended as a secluded retreat for contemplation and creative writing.  The founder, a man named John Raeck, who called himself "the Vagabond Poet" placed a heavy wooden table, chairs and cabinet under a group of granite spires off one of the main trails.  Through the years hikers that happened to stumble upon this place often left written records in one of several spiral notebooks kept in the wooden cabinet.  In order to keep this place secret, directions to Poet's Table were purposely kept vague.  Local lore dictated that this special area could only be found if you were guided by someone who had been there before.

Straggler wildflower

Poet's Table existed in relative obscurity for several decades, until the explosion of social media.  Numerous Facebook and Instagram posts brought this local secret into the mainstream, spawning a huge increase in visitors.  And with this rise in popularity came trouble.

Last spring Poet's Table made the news when two young women sawed the table in half and stole the table, chairs and cabinet.  (See the story here)  Locals voiced their outrage on social media and the culprits ended up turning themselves in.  Because the thieves destroyed the original table, chairs, and cabinet, volunteers eventually built new furniture and placed it back in it's old location.

Tall granite towers

My sister learned of Poet's Table from a friend who'd hiked there with her family.  Last spring, determined to find it for herself, my sis and one of her daughters snooped around and eventually located the famous table by following another party.  Her timing was fortunate, as the furniture thefts took place just two weeks later.

Hardy hikers

During my annual early September visit, my sister suggested that my parents and I check out the new Poet's Table.  She recalled that the trail wasn't very far nor too strenuous.  (Although they are both in the "late 70s to early 80s" age range, my folks are in great shape and still enjoy moderate hikes)  So early one warm fall day we set out in search of this secret hideaway.

"Is this the right trail?"

Following a main trail my parents, sister and I admired the tall, granite towers that lined our path.  Autumn leaves were just beginning to turn on some of the trees, and a couple of tiny wilted wildflowers occasionally brightened the grassy forest floor.  The sky was a lovely shade of blue, with hardly a cloud.  It was a great day to be exploring the Black Hills - now if only my sister could remember where the secret path was located!

The beginning of fall colors

We hiked a good half mile before my sister spotted a faint trace parting the grasses up a slope.  Was this it?  Wanting to scout the route first, my sis and I left our parents at the main trail and bushwhacked steeply uphill.  After clambering over large boulders and a few fallen trees the route abruptly ended, and we both decided we'd followed the wrong path.

Rest break

My Dad thought we'd traveled too far.  He advocated for retracing our steps back along the main trail.  My sister agreed, so we headed back towards the parking area.  A few hundred feet later we passed by a well-worn user path that wound up another steep slope.  The trail was pretty defined - could this be it?

Trying to find our way

One way to find out!  My parents, sister and I started climbing the sketchy path.  The going was definitely tough.  We had to climb over fallen trees and around large boulders.  In some places several faint trails branched away.  And the slope was steep.  With the temperatures rising, we made sure to take several rest breaks.

Following a sketchy path

We came to the base of several tall granite spires.  Multiple trails branched out in several directions.  My sister decided to scout ahead and see if we were on the right track.  My parents and I waited below for several minutes.  Just when we were beginning to wonder what happened, my sister reappeared above motioning that she'd found the table.

Fantastic views of the Black Hills

Another steep climb over several large boulders brought us to a tiny shelf tucked beneath a huge granite wall.  A dreamcatcher dangling from a nearby tree alerted me that we'd reached our destination.  Peering behind the tree, I glimpsed a sturdy forest-green table.  This was the famous Poet's Table.  We'd found it!

We find the famous table!

I immediately realized why someone would place a table here.  The views were fantastic!  The dark green forests of the Black Hills spread out below.  In another direction, narrow granite towers rose majestically towards the sky.  It was indeed a lovely, serene place.

Victorious hikers

There was only one chair, so we took turns sitting at the table, gazing out at the blue sky and stunning scenery.  I could see why this spot had been chosen.  It was definitely an inspirational location.  (My nerdy, engineering self even felt like writing some poetry - for a short moment!)

A beautiful place for contemplation

But an unfortunate casualty of increased popularity, the place was covered in graffiti.  I was disappointed to see colorful scribblings etched all over the adjacent granite wall.  And the table, chair, and journal box, although only a couple of months old, were already defaced with hundreds of written names, dates, and anecdotes.  There wasn't a blank space to be had.

Reading the plaque

I can understand someone wanting to leave their mark - but there are many other ways to do this besides defacing natural objects.  Some folks left scraps of paper under rocks, while others placed painted rocks, coins, or other items on top of nearby boulders.  And the wooden cabinet was full of various notebooks, many containing poems, stories, or other deep thoughts.  The journals appeared to have plenty of paper left for anyone wishing to document their visit.

Lots of graffiti

I know posting about Poet's Table on my blog probably isn't helping the cause.  But since the theft of the original furniture this place has been all over the news, and people who hadn't heard of Poet's Table probably know about it by now anyway.  My message is this:  If you visit, enjoy the lovely scenery, take photos, but if you must leave your mark, write in the journals instead of making permanent imprints on the rocks.

Box of journals

My parents, sister and I rested, read some of the journals and graffiti, and marveled at the views.  We all agreed Poet's Table was indeed a special place.

Taking in the sights

But it was approaching noon, and the promise of lunch at our favorite restaurant in nearby Hill City convinced us to leave this peaceful little corner of the Black Hills.

Heading back down

It was a slow scramble back down the rocky trail.  Not wanting our parents to slip and injure themselves, my sister and I kept a watchful eye, ever ready to lend an extra hand.  Luckily my folks did just fine.  My sister later admitted the trail was a bit rougher than she remembered and now that we'd taken our parents there, she probably wouldn't do it again. 

Another fabulous day in the Black Hills

But my family is a hardy bunch.  We survived our quest to find Poet's Table just fine and enjoyed a beautiful day in the Black Hills in the process.  Now - time for some delicious German Food (and desserts) at Hill City's famous Alpine Inn.  We certainly earned it!

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Wild, Wonderful Badlands

It's a good thing my sister loves me.  Why else would she wake up at the crack of dawn and drive her big sis an hour to catch sunrise at the Badlands?

Morning in the Badlands

In early September I made my annual South Dakota trip to visit family.  The Black Hills, my childhood home turf, is full of spectacular sights.  In addition to catching up with my relations, I always try to sneak in a few trips to my favorite haunts.  Sitting on top of this list is Badlands National Park.

A bit of color

Badlands National Park is a wonderland of colorful eroded rock formations.  It boasts steep canyons, towering spires, and expansive grasslands - not to mention the plethora of wildlife that lives in this rugged, desolate corner of southwestern South Dakota.  Morning or evening light on the Badland's sculpted hills creates a photographer's paradise.

This bighorn sheep was right in the parking lot!

My sister has lived in South Dakota most of her life.  So I was surprised to hear her admit she'd never visited the Badlands.  Well....it was time to remedy that!

One of many overlooks

That's why my sis and I found ourselves driving down a darkened highway in the morning's wee hours, destination Badlands National Park.  We didn't quite make sunrise, but low-angle morning light on the first overlook was pure magic.  And bonus, a bighorn sheep was standing right in the parking area!


The Badlands were formed by water erosion cutting through layers of sedimentary rock.  The result - craggy hills striped with colorful horizontal bands.  These varying rock layers indicated sediments from different ancient ecosystems - from volcanic eruptions, to large inland seas, to tropical rainforests.  In many of these layers, fossils have been uncovered.  The Badlands are known for their abundance of fossilized mammals.

More color

Geologists estimate erosion began in the Badlands about 500,000 years ago.  Rivers carved fantastic shapes through the rock layers that had once been flat floodplains.  The Badlands are still eroding at a rate of about one inch per year.  Eventually, experts predict that the Badlands will completely erode away (but that won't happen for at least another 500,000 years!)

Road through the park

From the Pinnacles Entrance, Badlands Loop Road winds through the park's North Unit.  There's plentiful parking areas and overlooks to take in the surrounding scenery. 

Yellow mounds

I directed my sis to stop at several of the pull-outs and I emerged with camera in hand.  It was a beautiful morning, and row upon row of sculpted buttes rising from the prairie made for many fabulous images.

Winding creek cuts through the bottom

This year Western South Dakota enjoyed a wetter than average summer, as evidenced by the still-green grasses.  Unusual for early September, the vegetation here is normally dried-up shades of brown by then.

A rainy summer meant green grass in September

Why should you visit the Badlands?  I'll let the images speak for themselves....

Colorful hill

Round hills


Castle-like formations

Arid soil

Still not convinced?  How about a good probability of seeing some wildlife?

Bighorn sheep herd

My sister and I came around a bend, and there near the road was a large herd of Bighorn sheep.  The sheep were close enough that I could get decent photos with my 200 mm zoom lens.

Head male sheep guarding the herd

Not only Bighorn sheep, prairie dogs make their homes in the open grasslands.  Several prairie dog towns are located a stone's throw from the main road.  My sis and I stopped at one.  Walking out into the field we could see the little rodents standing atop their mounded holes.  When we got too close, however, one "dog" sounded the alarm, chirping and frantically jumping around until all the nearby prairie dogs leapt into their holes.

Craggy canyons

Visitors also often spot bison, deer, antelope, coyotes, rattlesnakes, elk and porcupine.  Prairie dog towns are also home to the rare black-footed ferret.  Numerous birds can be found swooping through the skies - hawks, falcons, eagles, and my favorite, the western meadowlark.

Tall grass prairie

Standing atop one grassy overlook, the views extended forever.

Classic Badlands

And tall, craggy hills rose from the prairie floor like castles.

More formations in the distance

One nice thing about this National Park, visitors are free to roam wherever they please.  Nothing is off-limits.  At one stop along the park road, my sister and I climbed atop a crumbly hill.  Faint user paths wandered in all directions and I had an amazing view of the main road curving between pointy spires.

Tiny people on top

On the very top was a large grassy plateau.  The main trail wandered through this flat, big-sky landscape, the grass blades blowing in the wind like ocean waves.  Although we could've trekked a couple miles, my sis and I decided to turn around and scramble back down.

Close up of the rock layers

The east end of Badlands Loop Road passes by the Visitor Center before climbing a hill past the final parking area of the Big Badlands Overlook and Window and Door Trails.

A short hike

Multi-colored grass

By now it was nearing noon and the park, mostly free of crowds all morning, suddenly became busy with numerous cars and buses.  The last parking area was full of tourists, cramming the trails and overlooks.  Time for us to make our exit!

Eroded peaks

My sister was happy to finally visit this elusive National Park so close to home.

Bright wildflowers

I think she'll be back.  Maybe even before her big sis visits again next year!

Sister shot!
A great day photographing one of my favorite places and spending quality time with my sister.

Monday, November 12, 2018

A Trip to Jefferson Park

In the shadow of Oregon's second-highest mountain lies a lovely alpine meadow full of tiny lakes and numerous wildflowers.  Jefferson Park, as the area is known, is a popular late summer destination for backpackers.  Although I'd dayhiked here once, an overnight trip was high on my bucket list.  Then a sunny, smoke-free weather window opened up the last weekend of August.  I made a spur of the moment decision to grab my gear and go.

First Mt Jefferson sighting

Bisected by the Pacific Crest Trail, access can be gained from several trailheads.  However, last summer's Whitewater fire came perilously close to this scenic paradise, and although it was luckily spared, the most common trail access was not.  With the Whitewater Trail closed, I researched my other options.  Number one - I could follow the PCT south from Breitenbush Lake over Jefferson Park Ridge, but reaching this trailhead involved a long drive over a truly terrible road.  Number two, I could access via the Woodpecker Trail, but that involved a perilous creek crossing.  Not wanting to sacrifice my car or my body, I instead opted for Number three - using the South Breitenbush Trail (not be confused with Breitenbush Lake) to hike in from the west.  Although road access to this trailhead was good, I faced a grueling 6 mile, 3000 foot climb.  Usually a dayhiker, I'd never carried a loaded overnight backpack this far.  Would I be up to the task?

Paintbrush along a tiny stream

Commitments that Friday morning meant an early afternoon arrival to the trailhead.  Shouldering my monster backpack (did I really pack that much stuff?) in the midday heat, I began to have my doubts.  Could I make it all the way to Jefferson Park?  Was I fit enough?  Apprehensions swirling in my head provided such a distraction that I walked right by the trailhead's wilderness permit box.  Luckily, I didn't get very far before memory kicked in and I doubled back to grab a permit.  (I'd be thankful later that I did!)

Lots of gentians!

The South Breitenbush Trail started out in lovely, shaded woods, and I enjoyed the first mile on a wide, well-graded path.  Then the track became steep and rocky.  But I took it easy, making frequent stops for water and snacks.  Slow and steady I reasoned, would get me to my destination.

Climbing through nondescript forest, this trail wasn't super-scenic.  It did follow a babbling brook, and about four miles in offered a few sweeping views of the surrounding mountains.  However I think lack of eye candy actually helped my progress.  I set my mind in climbing mode and kept powering upward.  Around mile 5, I passed a group of backpackers.  Three couples were resting beside the trail with packs off.  Both the men and women remarked how difficult the hike had been - much tougher than they'd realized.  As I strode by, still feeling strong, my ego swelled.

My sweet campsite at Russell Lake

However, by the next mile, I was ready to be done.  The terrain had flattened out into alpine tundra, so I knew I was getting close.  The scenery had become quite lovely - Mt Jefferson began to rise above the forest, and a few straggler wildflowers bloomed nearby.  But I was hot, tired, and my shoulders ached from carrying a heavy load.  Wandering through the meadows, I kept looking for the PCT junction.  My destination - Russell Lake - wasn't far from there.

Fantastic reflections at the lake's east end

Although several of the small lakes in Jefferson Park had designated campsites, I'd specifically picked Russell Lake.  Some lovely online photos of Mt Jefferson reflecting in this lake's waters had inspired me to come here for some images of my own.  There was only four campsites at Russell Lake, so I hoped to arrive in time to score one.  I really didn't want to walk any further.

Finally about 5:00, I came upon the PCT junction.  Yahoo!  A short half mile later Russell Lake's lovely blue waters came into view.  A large group was already set up at the campsite nearest to the trail and the second site was also taken.  After inquiring from the people at campsite number three, I was directed to the far end of the lake.  Lo and behold, site four was still available!  I'd made it!  My gps read 7.2 total miles, a new backpacking record.

Mt Jefferson reflections were nearly perfect!

Wearily, I dropped my pack and quickly set up camp.  After getting my tent up and gear unpacked, it was time to explore.  Grabbing my camera I started following a faint user trail around the lake.  As I walked, Mt Jefferson began to rise above the treeline, and by the time I'd reached the opposite shore towered above the lake.  And best of all - it was reflecting perfectly in Russell Lake's waters!  This was the image I'd come to capture.  Late afternoon sun was illuminating the mountain, lake, and surrounding shoreline in vivid hues.  Conditions couldn't have been more perfect.  (The photo above was barely edited)

Evening alpenglow

After prowling the shoreline and taking a zillion photos, a grumbling stomach sent me back to my campsite for dinner.  A fallen log made the perfect chair and I enjoyed my meal with a stellar view of the lake.  As I was finishing up a ranger stopped by, and after a bit of small talk, asked me for my wilderness permit.  Whew - good thing I'd doubled back to get one!  (Although in my haste to get back on the trail, I'd forgotten to sign my copy, which gained me a lecture)

The best reflections were at sunset

After the ranger finally left, I relaxed at camp.  Then I noticed the light beginning to fade.  Uh oh, I didn't want to miss the sunset!  Rustling up my camera gear once again, I quickly trekked back to the opposite shoreline.

Alpenglow on Mt Jefferson

The sunset was impressive.  Fading light illuminated Mt Jefferson in lovely hues of pink.  The lake's reflection was just as amazing as earlier (if not more).  Trying to keep my pack weight down, I'd opted to bring a monopod over a full sized tripod, and it stabilized my camera perfectly.  I stayed in place until the last bit of alpenglow disappeared from the mountain's summit.  I returned to my campsite by the light of a full moon.

Morning views from camp

Although I'm usually a terrible sleeper when camping, the day's exertions wore me out enough that I crashed early.  Except for a 1 am potty break, I snoozed through the night.  I was so tired, I ended up sleeping late and missing sunrise.  Crawling out of my tent, Mt Jefferson peeped through the trees, seeming to wish me a good morning.

Fall colors beginning to show

It was a chilly morning.  Clear skies quickly deteriorated.  Heavy clouds moved in and the wind kicked up.  Catching the weather report the day before, I'd heard rain was predicted by evening.  Although I'd considered spending two nights, the thought of packing up a wet tent was convincing enough that I decided to head back that afternoon.

Scenic meadow

But not before exploring more of this beautiful bit of wilderness!  After breakfast, I wandered the meadows near Russell Lake.  The huckleberry bushes and grasses were just beginning their fall color transition.

Meadow full of gentians

I took the PCT south a half mile to nearby Scout Lake.  Although the summer wildflower show was nearly over, the late-season purple-blue gentians were in peak bloom.  I passed by one meadow chock-full of their lovely flowers.

Scout Lake

Scout Lake, the most popular camping destination in Jefferson Park, had nearly all of it's dozen designated campsites claimed.  Following the lake's west shoreline, I gazed at the picture perfect views of Mt Jefferson (no wonder everyone wanted to camp here!).  Then I ventured over to neighboring Bays Lake.  Although the mountain views weren't as nice, this lake with it's numerous coves guaranteed more solitude.  On my way back to camp, I ran into the backpacking couples I'd met on the trail yesterday.  The group reported they'd survived the hike in - barely.

More lovely gentians

Well, it was time to see if I'd survive the hike out.  Packing up my camp, strong winds whipped my tent around, making folding and stashing difficult.  And for some reason, all my stuff didn't quite fit back into my backpack like before.  (How do thru-hikers do it?  I'm such a backpacking wimp!)

My muscles protested as I hefted my (heavier?) pack onto shoulders still sore from yesterday.  But there was only one way to get back to my car.  The trail was waiting, ready or not!

Bays Lake

The only thing worse than climbing 3000 feet is descending that same amount.  The rough, rocky trail which wasn't as bad going up, was much worse (for me anyway) coming back down.  The heavy weight on my back altered my center of gravity, so I had to be careful not to let momentum pull me down quicker than I wanted to go.  A fall on this rocky trail would most certainly cause injury.  My quads became tired after continually acting as brakes for my body.  And of course, I was weary from the previous day's hike in.

Late summer blooms

It was a long, tough slog but I made it back to my car in one piece.  After gratefully slipping off my monster pack, I congratulated myself on making it up and back down the longest, hardest trail I'd backpacked so far.  (Yes, some of you more experienced backpackers may scoff at me, but I was proud of myself!)  Not only had I gained confidence to try another trip, I had a camera full of lovely mountain photographs for my effort.  Russell Lake's magnificent sunset was worth every bit of toil.

(And I'm already plotting future backpacking adventures for next year......)