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)