Friday, August 6, 2010


This is another easy hike that the whole family can enjoy within minutes of Rapid City, and right off of a major highway. A great short hike, with a little history, which can be done in less than an hour, round trip. A local favorite!

Stratobowl is a natural bowl-shaped valley, formed by a river canyon and a limestone cliff. It was the launch-site of several scientific hot-air balloon flights in the 1930s, coordinated by the National Geographic Society and the Army Air Corps. Until the advent of space flight in the 1960s, these were the highest manned flights ever made. Several monuments provide a comprehensive history for anyone interested in the history of these missions.

A wide, well maintained and fairly flat trail leads form the small parking area to the overlook. To get to Stratobowl from Rapid City, take Mount Rushmore Road into the Black Hills (16). Stay on 16 past Reptile Gardens and Bear Country USA. Just past the service station is a small parking area on the right hand side (westbound), marked by powerlines as well. (YDS Class 1)

Saturday, April 3, 2010


For an easy hike just outside of Rapid City, a minimum of effort can still pay off big with a great view. A round trip hike from the highway to the lookout takes less than an hour, and the view overlooks Dark Canyon, all the way to the water tower on Rushmore Road (16) from Hisega. At 4,682, the gain is mostly done on the highway there, and a few short uphill climbs followed by relatively flat meanders makes this accessible for most hikers and walkers.

There are several pinnacles named "Buzzard's Roost" throughout the Black Hills (another notable one is located in Savoy, in Spearfish Canyon), but this one is the closest to Rapid City. To get there, take 44 West (Rim Rock Highway) past Canyon Lake and up onto the Limestone Plateau. The pull-off for Fire Road 596 is easy to spot on the left (Westbound from Rapid) just a mile or so before Hisega. There is a small parking lot and a sign describing the mountain biking trails accessible from there. Simply follow the main trail due south (FR 596) uphill to the ridgeline, then follow the trail west. The prominent hill jutting out from the ridge is the Buzzard's Roost (above, as seen from the ridge). Make a left onto the side trail which leads along the ridge to the lookout. Harney Peak can be seen to the south, Thrall and Scruton Mountain are visible to the west, and to the east the view encompasses Dark Canyon all the way to Route 16 and Rapid City, partly visible to the north-east. The lookout also boasts a great view of Hisega, just below to the northwest. (YDS Class 1)

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Roughlock Falls is a short, easy hike through the southern end of Spearfish Canyon. The improved trail and and parking lot make this a great mini-hike for a family, or anyone looking for short and easy, with a nice view of a waterfall at the end.

To get to Roughlock Falls, drive through Spearfish Canyon (or from Deadwood-Lead through Cheyenne Crossing) to Savoy. At Savoy, turn down the dirt road past the Inn (going South). About 100 feet past the parking lot is another parking area with access to the trail. The trail is well marked and improved, and is less than a mile to the waterfall. There is no trail fee, and it is open all year. If you drive further up the road, another turnoff allows direct access to the Falls from the road. (YDS Class 1)

Sunday, January 17, 2010


Bear Butte stands alone in character - a laccolith, set apart from the Black Hills just north of Sturgis, it is one of the most sacred places for the Lakota. At 4,426 feet it is not very high relative to other mountains in the Black Hills, but since it is on the plains the view is spectacular.

Bear Butte is part of a State park, so there is an entrance fee if you don't have a SD Park Pass. There is an exemption for tribal members; just have proof of enrollment and it's free.

A well-established and maintained trail leads to a wooden viewing platform at the top. Stairs lead up the final few yards. It is steep in places, but the improvements keep the hike easy. Prayer flags are everywhere, as many tribal members come here for their hanbleciya (vision quest) or just to offer prayers. Wildlife is abundant, sometimes subtle, but ever present. Bison roam at the base, deer hide among the trees near the base, hawks and eagles are frequently circling above. There is a sense of other-worldliness to this trail; it is the closest thing I can imagine to a natural cathedral. (YDS Class 2: improved trail)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Yosemite Decimal System (YDS Class)

I've decided to rate the difficulty of the mountains and trails using the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS), which is generally used by rock climbers. The class is applied to the most difficult part of the trail or route recommended, and usually only applies to certain parts of the hike. Here is the general breakdown of the class descriptions as I'm applying them here:

Class 1: walking only
Class 2: steeper scrambling, occasional hand use for balance; little potential danger
Class 3: steep scrambling, increased exposure (eg. talus); falls are not generally life threatening
Class 4: simple climbing, with exposure; unharnessed falls are potentially fatal
Class 5: technical free-climbing, requires ropes and belaying; falls are generally fatal

Examples of Class 5 climbs would include Cathedral Spires and Devils Tower. I'm not planning on covering technical rock climbing on this blog.

For a good overview of the YDS (and a healthy sense of the general disagreement as to what constitutes each Class), I recommend this site:


At 6,365 feet, Elkhorn Mountain has no established trails, although it is reachable from two different trails that wind past its base on different sides. There are two reasonable approaches, offering magnificent views near the top. Reaching the summit itself requires a YDS Class 4 climb, and is not recommended without proper safety equipment.

From the Willow Creek Trail head, you can take either the Willow Creek Rushmore Trail and approach Elkhorn up the northern side, or you can follow the Sylvan Lake/Harney Peak Trail 9 and approach from the southern side (pictured here). Once you're near the base, you'll have bushwhack from either approach. The northern side offers a more straightforward route, until you reach the ridges near the top. From the southern approach, follow Trail 9 until it winds its way about half-way up the saddle of Elkhorn. The trail meanders through beautiful granite spires, making this the more scenic of the 2 routes. Once you're about 2/3rds of the way up the side on the trail, you'll have to head North off the trail, bushwhacking your way along the base of huge granite sills until you reach one of several chutes providing access to the South ridge line near the top. Prepare for a Class 3 or 4 scramble, depending on which chute you choose. Once you're over this, you can work your way to the summit approach from the northern side. (YDS Class 4)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


Located just north of the town of Custer, Buckhorn Mountain (6,330 ft) is accessible and little-hiked at once. No established trails exist, but following the topography makes it difficult to get lost, and bushwhacking through the open forest (BHNF land) makes for a moderately challenging hike with excellent views of Crazy Horse Monument and the southern side of the Black Hills Core region as a reward.

Two routes (from opposite sides of the mountain) provide access to Buckhorn Mountain, and both are less than 5 minutes driving time from Custer.

The western approach is reached via the Mickelson Trail trail head just North of Custer on 385. Leave the trail and proceed directly up the western slope of the Mountain, or you can meander through huge granite canyons which slope gently upwards to form the massive shoulders of the mountain. From the top of these, you can work your way South-East to the main peak, or enjoy the views from any of the smaller rocky sub-peaks.

From the east, take 16A E out of Custer, turning N onto 89. Take Fire Road 362 (on the left, 1 mile N of the junction of 16A & 89). Parking off of the Fire Road, hike due East into the Black Hills Nation Forest, straight up the eastern shoulder of the mountain. Be careful to avoid going off the road north or south, as there are private homes to either side in the woods along the road. Once you are hiking uphill, you can go either left or right of the center ridge that crops up, but the right-side (North) route is recommended - the southern approach forces steep detours as massive rocks block your way. Follow alongside the ridge line bearing uphill. There is a false summit, which offers a view of the real thing not far ahead. Just follow the ridge-line down and back up again, and keep heading west to the summit. A cliff at the top offers great views of Crazy Horse's face to the North.

Whichever route you choose, there are plenty of great opportunities to explore the smaller sub-peaks, valleys, and canyons along the sides of Buckhorn. (YDS Class 2)