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)

Friday, September 18, 2009


Flag Mountain (6,937 feet) is the 9th highest peak in the Black Hills. It can be accessed by fire roads all the way to the summit - a short set of stairs leads to the ruins of an old stone fire tower overlooking Slate Prairie, Castle Rock, and White Tail Peak is prominent. Like Bear Mountain and Odakota, Flag is a high point along the Limestone Plateau where it drops down into the valley surrounding the Core region. Four wheel drive is recommended, but not necessary when conditions are good. If you park at the base of the fire road that leads to the lookout, you can either bushwhack up the ridge (generally due North) or hike along the road itself (not very scenic along the way). The view from the ruins is the highlight of this - you may opt to drive to the top and do your hiking in the surrounding Deerfield area anywhere along Flag Mountain Road. In any case, Flag offers a short but rugged drive to a nice panoramic vista. (YDS Class 1)


Storm Hill is a fairly easy climb (with a little scrambling over a small talus field) fairly close to Rapid City.

(Storm Hill as seen from Boulder Hill)

Storm Hill (5,192 feet) is the highest outlying peak of the Black Hills Core region facing Rapid City. The trail head is on the grounds of the Storm Mountain Retreat Center. A well marked trail leads up from the retreat area, and a few paths wind along the mountainside. All are well marked with signs. While not particularly steep, it does offer a good workout as the last section of trail leads straight up the side. A small talus field separates the summit from the end of the trail-proper. Large boulders of metamorphic rock at the top offer views of Rapid City and Highway 16, and the plains beyond. In all, Storm Hill makes for a short day hike with a decent view from the top. (YDS Class 2)


Little Devils Tower as it appears from Lost Cabin Trail (spur of Harney Peak trail 9)

Lost Cabin is the trail less-followed to or from Harney Peak. There are some beautiful views, making this slightly more rugged trail a great opportunity to make any trip to Harney Peak's summit seem like a new experience. I've seen fresh mountain lion tracks (5-6 inches long), so hiking with a buddy or in small groups might be a consideration. Several granite knobs and spires make for some easy climbing side-tracks, and many offer nice views from their tops. (YDS Class 1)

Sunday, September 13, 2009


Old Baldy (5,605 feet) shares its name with at least one other mountain in the Black Hills. This Old Badly is the prominent outcropping of granite behind Mount Rushmore. Its summit offers spectacular views of the back of Mount Rushmore, as well as the Central Hills/Harney Peak area.

To get to Old Baldy, park at the Wrinkled trail head and proceed towards Wrinkled Rock (due East). Once you are among the spires, descend on one of the unmarked trails that wind North-East into the valley below. They all funnel into an older trail, which winds East into the Mount Rushmore National Memorial forest. A North-South trail forms a T near the entry sign; make a right (South) and follow it as it curves to an eastern course. Another trail leads North once you have meandered past the base of Old Baldy. Make a left onto this trail - it will lead you up the mountain, eventually curving up to approach from the northern side to the base of the granite slope leading to the top. Head up the granite slope (South), where several wide ledges provide good places to catch your breath. Getting to the summit requires either climbing up the granite knobs directly, or wedging your way up a thin fissure in the granite itself. Either way takes you straight up to the top of a wide granite sill. Reaching the summit from there requires more of both, as you will have to traverse a narrow gap and then haul yourself up the rock using natural hand & footholds. A smooth, gently rounded knob at the top provides excellent views. A register box is tucked in a fold in the granite. The views are well worth the exertion, but be prepared for plenty of rock climbing! (YDS Class 3)

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Thrall provides an easily accessible, quick, but vigorous and challenging hike close to Rapid City. Thrall Mountain is located between Big Bend and Johnson Siding (Highway 44). Not an especially high mountain (5,091 feet), nor a long hike to the summit, Thrall nonetheless requires plenty of energy due to its steep sides. If you choose to traverse its sizable talus fields, it also requires good balance and some basic rock-traversing skills. Thrall can be approached from a number of directions, and there are residential roads on both sides that provide access. A path runs along its North face, a few hundred yards up its side from the base. Once on this trail, another, smaller trail can be found (N-NE face) leading up to the large talus field that dominates this hill. An arrow made of loose stones points the way to the top. If you choose to traverse the talus field, you can zig-zag straight to the summit, but the boulders are loose and rest at the angle-of-repose, so rock slides are a serious hazard. A safer (but equally steep) route can be found by hugging the base of the talus field and working your way to the West. The treeline can be followed up to the summit, where a small cairn, a registry canister, and a decent view of the surrounding Black Hills await. (YDS Class 2, Talus Field YDS Class 3)

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

7000 Club

view from the summit of Sylvan Peak

HARNEY PEAK (7,242 feet) is the top of South Dakota, and the highest point between the Rockies and the Atlas Mountains in North Africa. A beautiful, moderately strenuous hike (6 miles) with incredible views; The stone fire-tower is a landmark of the Black Hills, and offers 360 views. Logging and brown (infested) trees due to the Pine Beetles and a high volume of hikers detracts from the overall experience.

ODAKOTA MOUNTAIN (7,198 feet) A short, easy hike from a fire road (approaching from the West side), Odakota offers good views along the ledge. The summit is not marked, and there are no trails, so bushwhacking is mandatory - thin ground cover and limestone ridges make it fairly easy.

BEAR MOUNTAIN (7,166 feet) Remote but well marked fire roads go right to the top, so there is no hike at all. The summit is dominated by a Fire Tower and antennae. Views are extensive but unspectacular. The Fire Tower is manned, and can be climbed for a better view. Restrooms and a picnic table are also at the summit.

CROOK'S TOWER (7,137 feet) Remote, but accessible by fire road (no hike); the summit is not marked, but is very peaceful. Views are partly obscured by trees, but a limestone cap at the top is easy to climb - and is also very fossiliferous. Imprints of ancient corals and brachiopods (look like little clams) from the between 300 and 400 million years ago pepper the limestone upon a close inspection.

TERRY PEAK (7,064 feet) An access road leads directly to the summit, leaving no hike at all. Stairs lead to a viewing platform at the summit, providing a 360 view, marred by a web of radio towers, antennae, and tension-lines surrounding the platform. There is an excellent view of Lead and Bear Butte.

CROW'S NEST PEAK (7,048 feet) Its location is remote and difficult to find. Trees obscure just about any good views, and fire roads lead through active pasture land - be careful to avoid trespassing if you take the wrong fire road. The limestone which forms the mass of this mountain is also very fossiliferous, although rocks are small and litter the forest floor rather than offering larger outcroppings.

SYLVAN HILL (7,000 feet) A strenuous hike, all bushwhacking, with opportunities for rock climbing! Views from the summit are on par with Harney Peak, without improvements, or other hikers. Several false summits make this an interesting hike, with plenty of "teaser views" before the summit is reached. A slightly lower, prominent false-summit crowned with a granite mass offers views just as good as the actual summit's. Steep slopes, granite outcroppings, and fallen timber make this the most strenuous and challenging of the top 7, and good orienteering skills are mandatory. Easily my favorite hike of all of the 7,000 footers.


(East of Lake Pactola, between Routes 44 & 385)
Perrin offers a short but moderately strenuous climb, followed by a generally easy meander along the ridgeline. Mountain bike trails have been established, which double as excellent hiking trails.

At 5,212 feet, Perrin is hardly the highest of peaks, but it is relatively isolated from other peaks as high, and offers decent views to the south to Harney Peak, as well as nice views of Lake Pactola. Follow the trails from the Rapid Creek Trailhead (Centennial Trail, 89). To access the trail head, take 385, and watch for a road in the center of the dam (the stop sign is the best marker). A sharp switch-back road descends to the trail head. From the western end of the parking lot, go due north to the river, where a bridge allows access across the river. Follow along the north bank of Rapid Creek to find a trail going up a gorge in the shoulder of Perrin Mountain - this is "Choke Hold," a mountain biking trail which leads to the summit from this direction. The summit itself is lackluster, as ponderosa forest masks any views, but a quick walk downhill to the east along "Hurt Locker" brings you to an exposed, jagged ridge line with good views to the east (Thrall Mountain), south (to Harney Peak), and south-west (Lake Pactola and Scruton Mountain). (YDS Class 2)