I had been planning this trip for a while without having an exact date or dates in mind. But, my schedule came together just after the end of the school year at the college in Minnesota where I taught (I was just finishing my one year there), and just before I needed to fly out to look for a place to live in Arizona for my new job (huzzah!).
My plan was to try to climb all 6 peaks in South Dakota that rise above 7000ft and also rise at least 300ft above the saddles that connect them to higher peaks. I.e., the "ranked" 7000-foot peaks at the 300-foot level. I was unsure about easy access to a couple of the peaks, at least with a normal car, but I had good route descriptions for the others. In any case, I figured that this might be the last time I would be living relatively close to the Black Hills and not having other nearby mountains in which to play.
I was a little concerned with the weather for both the drive out there on the 7th and the putative 2 full days of hiking on the 8th and 9th. After waking up and taking care of something really stupid concerning my home garbage collection, I saw to my dismay that there was a "moderate risk" of severe weather across most of South Dakota. The scale of severe storm risk from the National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center runs from "none" to "slight" to "moderate" to "high". The last category is quite rare and even a moderate risk is usually a good indicator of a significant severe weather outbreak. Thus, the timing would be that I would be driving across the state during the afternoon peak of what could be a major severe weather day.
With that in mind, and not to detract from the nice hiking I did, the most exciting event of the trip occurred during the drive. Near the Badlands and pretty much in the middle of nowhere about 80 miles short of Rapid City I was driving under the northern part of a thunderstorm. To the left (south), I could see the main body of the storm and it was looking rather suspicious. I could see a long, linear cloud feature coming out of the base area of the storm to the east, which might have been an "inflow band". But, I'm not a storm chaser or a meteorologist and don't know all the lingo even though I have a strong interest in the subject. More importantly, I could see what looked like a "wall cloud", a feature hanging from the base of a thunderstorm from which tornadoes can form and is of order one mile in width. This was all something like 10 to maybe 15 miles away; too far away to detect if the wall cloud was actually rotating.
I passed someone who had pulled off the interstate and was taking pictures (not really a smart place to do so), and fortunately there was a parking turnout shortly after this up on a ridge to give a good view to the south. I got out my camcorder and when I zoomed in I could see a small rope-like feature coming out of the west side of the wall cloud. I could just see this with my naked-eye after knowing where to look, but it was quite small at that distance. In any case, I was pretty sure that it was a funnel cloud. Watching the tape after I got home on a 19" TV instead of a 2" LCD screen clearly shows that it was a funnel cloud. The circulation may very well have reached the ground while I was watching making it a full-fledged tornado. The condensation funnel itself was visible about 80% of the way to the ground at one point, which would often indicate a ground circulation especially in the relatively dry air of western South Dakota. Later, I heard on the radio that a tornado had been reported exactly where I was looking at nearly the same time, and one of the Rapid City TV stations had video of the tornado on the 10pm news from a closer location which looked a lot like what I saw.
The funnel was visible for several minutes, but then either dissipated or was obscured. I continued west toward Rapid City and ran into a line of storms that was moving east. The line produced some severe weather, but I only got gusts to about 40 mph, very heavy rain, and intense lightning. The radar loop in the 10pm news showed that my tornadic storm was a supercell out in front of the line moving northeast, and then the squall line came through and more or less swallowed up the supercell as it weakened. The earlier prediction of a severe weather outbreak across South Dakota was dead bang on, although it was mostly large hail and high winds and I was amazingly "lucky" to see one of the 4 tornadoes that were reported in the western half of the state. The rain was ending in Rapid City when I got to my motel. End of the unintentional storm "chase" report!
Fortunately, after that strong upper-air disturbance came through, the weather was supposed to be good on Wednesday, and it was. I significantly underestimated the amount of driving needed to get from one peak to another, and especially to get from Rapid City to the high country. If I ever do this trip again, I will stay in one of the hill communities for better access.
I didn't get a particularly early start from Rapid City, and didn't reach the Harney Peak area until around 10am. Based on a guidebook that I later discovered is about 10 years old, I made if not quite an illicit ascent of Harney, a not very "licit" one either! For various reasons, I wanted to hike via the Cathedral Spires trailhead because it would be quickest and would allow more time to complete the rest of my agenda. There was a sign at the trailhead indicating that this route did not connect to the trails leading to "Hearney Peak", but I have no idea where "Hearney" Peak is and I more or less willfully ignored that.
The trail is fairly steep in spots and leads to the base of the impressive Cathedral Spires (duh), which are 200-foot rock spires that suddenly come into view when you round a corner in the road leading to the trailhead. When you reach the spires after 3/4 of the mile, there is an "End of Trail" sign. Although certainly not politically correct, if you continue down the hill from here, you will see the old trail that has been covered with tree parts. There is a social trail next to this old trail that connects to the Harney Peak trail in less than a quarter mile. I don't recommend that you do this, but that's what I did. I don't feel *too* embarrassed because it is clear that the main reason they closed this trail is due to the relative lack of parking, of which the over-developed Sylvan Lake area has plenty. Certainly, if I do this again I will park near the Sylvan Lake mini-mall (so I'm exaggerating a bit), and hike from there.
Once on the main trail, I regularly passed people on their way up, although it really wasn't all that crowded. Shortly after the point at which I reached the trail, one enters the Black Elk Wilderness and you have to fill out a registration form, drop a copy in the box, and keep a copy on you else you could get fined if caught without it. The hike was pleasant, but nothing remarkable. As you approach the summit, you pass the area where you are supposed to park your horse if you brought one, and then make the steep ascent to the highest point. There are rock stairs and metal stairs through part of this, and without a trail it might be somewhat challenging to reach the summit.
At the summit itself is an impressive multi-story stone fire tower, which sort of has the feel of a medieval dungeon as you make your way through it to come out at the very top. There were about two dozen people at the summit area. It was breezy and relatively cool with a temperature of only 47F. After a bit, I walked across the rockscape over to the little outcrop to the west that has the other USGS marker on their topo map. This gives a good view of the lookout tower and only adds about a quarter mile to the hike. The trip down was uneventful and the hike took a little over 2 hours overall.
My next target was Sylvan Peak, which I'm not sure is an official name, although the USFS map of the Black Hills does use the name. Sylvan's main claim to fame is that it is the highpoint of Custer County, the county just south of Harney's Pennington County. Thus, the county highpointing crowd has pioneered this one. It just barely has a 7000-foot closed contour, and thus is the lowest of the South Dakota "7ers". It is only a few miles from Harney, but it rises nearly 800 feet from the saddle that connects it to Harney, making it also one of the most "significant" summits in the area.
One is supposed to park at the beginning of a gated road beyond which foot travel is apparently permitted, and after hiking a short distance up the road, there is a blazed route to the summit. Parking is very limited at the actual gate area, so the best bet is to park 0.1 mile up the road at an obvious area under powerlines. There is room for several cars to park here without risking blocking the road down at the "trailhead". This location also gives you a nice view of the peak from the road.
The road switchbacks up the hillside for something like 1/3rd of a mile (I had my GPS but forgot to take odometer readings) to some small artificial structures sticking out above what looks like a hidden underground bunker. I honestly don't know what it is, and maybe I'm not supposed to know, but there aren't any "No Trespassing" signs anywhere.
From the end of the road, one is supposed to follow faint white blazes on the trees to stay left of some steep rock buttresses. I was able to sort of follow these markers, but I also had the summit location programmed into my GPS and that helped. I.e., if you stay just left (south) of the major rock formation and have a GPS pointing for the summit, you don't need the blazes. The visibility of the blazes was also hampered by the Sun and shadows. I was better able to see them on the way down, although I didn't really need them by that point. Anyway, this is a pleasant hike through open forest. You gain about 800 feet from the trailhead, plus as much as 100 feet extra each way depending on your exact route as you "round the corner" around the rock features and angle northwest toward the summit.
The summit is at the top of a rockpile which you can just reach without rock scrambling. It is open to the northeast for views of Harney. With one of the best collections of satellites I've ever had (11 "birds" and "14ft" accuracy), my GPS gave an elevation of 7012 feet sitting on the highest rock, which is probably just about dead on.
I made my way down, seeing more of the white blazes that I already mentioned. My GPS went apeshit for a moment, so I don't know the exact distance of the hike, but even from my recommended parking spot it is under a mile each way. (I counted it as 1.9 miles round-trip in my log which is pretty close.)
From here, I decided that since it was a little after 2pm and the weather looked great, I would try to bag Bear Mountain. I did not think this one would be a problem because I had access information. After the long drive to a Boy Scout camp, someone there told me (perhaps unauthoritatively) that the trailhead wasn't there, but back down the road. I had seen that turnoff, so I went back there to see a sign stating that the trail was closed for maintainance. I drove partway up the "road" at this trailhead, which was rough and there wasn't really anywhere to park. The trail is mostly a ski trail, but allegedly is good for hiking, too, yet under the circumstances this didn't seem like a good place to start.
There seemed to be other possibilities for Bear, so I did the short drive north to the area around Odakota Mountain. This peak is barely on the radar screen, even with Google, despite being the 2nd highest point in South Dakota. Of course, it also has the highest passenger car road in the state on its flanks and it is possible to drive to 7090ft, just 120ft below the summit.
I did not know whether the road was passable that high, so I parked near a junction at 6956ft. I hiked about a half-mile up the road to an obvious location for leaving the road along a two-track. I went up this "road" and just as I reached the point where one would want to leave this road to turn left to the summit, I saw pink blazing tape on the trees. I followed this trail of tape pretty much right up to the small summit area. One has to cross a barbed wire fence here, but clearly you are supposed to do that. I think the blazed route is part of a ski trail and it extended past the summit. In any case, there's no farging way that this is private property that must be avoided. With the extra road mileage, this was a little over 1.6 miles of hiking.
After this, I continued to try to find a route up Bear. I continued to drive counterclockwise around the Odakota/Bear massif to find the Bear Mountain summit road, thinking that if nothing else, I might be able to drive up near the summit instead of having a nice hike. I think I found it, but it was gated 2.4 air miles short of the summit (I'm really getting addicted to GPS!), with no indication if hiking access was allowed and there wasn't any parking there. There was a side road below that which seems to be a logging road of some sort, but that was rather muddy and I turned back after a bit. I decided to go back up to the road that I partly hiked for my approach to Odakota. I got to within 3.1 air miles of the summit on this road before it started getting a little too rough for me to chance it with my car. Plus, I was uncertain about the trail through this area and it was getting too late for what would have been at least a 7 mile hike.
That was a major bummer, and also wasted a lot of time. From there it took nearly 1.5 hours to get back to my motel (the dirt roads were mostly pretty good, but still not very fast and this area is pretty remote from Rapid City).
Go to part 2...
To the chronological trip index
File last modified: 21 November 2005