Hiking | Harney Peak Trail #9

This was an exciting and exhausting hike to do in the snow. What is normally a relatively easy trail becomes much more challenging under a thick blanket of snow. Given how popular this trail is, I was actually surprised the trail wasn’t more trampled down, and in places there was very little trail at all with some pretty good drifting! Snow really transforms everything, and this hike was gorgeous. It was an almost full-family hike, since Jess was here from Illinois, and Mom came as well.IMG_20190127_142058988_HDRJust a few trail stats, since somehow I’ve never done a trail review for Harney Peak (now known as Black Elk Peak. Sorry, I’m afraid it is still Harney Peak to me…). There are a number of ways to get to the actual peak, but the most popular route is Trail #9 from Sylvan Lake, which is probably the easiest trail as well, and very well maintained. It is also wide enough to be great for dogs, as well as people in groups. Sometimes the narrow trails can be annoying with a group, if you have any interest in keeping up some conversation! The trail is roughly 6.5 miles out and back, with elevation gain of 1499 feet, from the lake to the peak itself. This is not a hike to do if you just came from sea level, since you very likely could experience some altitude discomfort.IMG_20190127_143254799IMG_20190127_155403631_BURST000_COVER_TOPThe trail climbs at a pretty good grade for the first half mile or mile, then levels out somewhat, or becomes equally up and down, more or less until the base of the peak. There is a good little climb to the top, with a few switchbacks, and a set of stairs at the very end leading up to the old firetower. There is a lot to see up by the firetower, if the weather is decent and there aren’t swarms of noseeums (that really did happen one summer. No bugs along the trail, but a whole host of little biting bugs as soon as we reached the top. We didn’t stay very long). In the spring and summer, it is a great place to eat a picnic lunch, and there’s fun to be had scrambling around beneath the tower. And in the winter, there’s an added pastime: along the way, Anna stopped to build little snowpeople while she waited for everyone else to catch up with her.
IMG_20190127_143944979_HDRIMG_20190127_155600389Particularly given the altitude change, do be sure to be prepared for weather changes. Bring food, extra layers (even in the summer), water, and flashlights. This should be common sense, of course. But oftentimes with Harney, it has actually been necessary, not just a good idea. A balmy day down by Sylvan Lake may turn into gale-force winds up at the top, or in our case a warm-ish winter day became a snowstorm with poor visibility at the top and probably a good 15 degrees colder. A number of rescues happen every year at Harney Peak, so don’t get stuck needing help because you weren’t prepared. IMG_20190127_144131780_HDRThis is one of the iconic hikes in the Black Hills and truly is worth doing, especially not during the peak of tourist season, for a less trafficked hike. The views from the top are spectacular. I remember one hike a few years ago, up at the peak, watching clouds cascading over the mountains below the firetower, like a long-exposure waterfall photograph. Stunning. The terrain along the trail is beautiful as well, ranging from granite spires and moss-covered spruces, to haunting areas of standing dead, some excellent far views of the distant Harney Peak, a few beautiful sights of Little Devil’s Tower, just to name a few highlights.IMG_20190127_140432883IMG_20190127_141238664One of the many gems of the Black Hills.

Hiking | Sunday Gulch Trail

Wow, already this has been a great year for hiking. I’m pretty excited to see where all we end up exploring this year! IMG_6735eOn January 5, we took a trip up to Sylvan Lake to hike one of the Black Hills’ legendary hikes, Sunday Gulch. Apparently this trail is closed in the winter. Oh, well. We weren’t the first to shrug our way around the gate…Sunday GulchThis hike was gorgeous when we did it in the late summer. It was even more amazing drifted over in snow! The higher elevations of the Hills, including around Sylvan Lake, get more snow and less of it melts off, so it piles up pretty fast. In places, drifts were well above the knee!Sunday GulchCleats were a must for this hike. We only went down the creekbed to the gulch and came back the same way, rather than doing the whole loop. The downward part was the most fun. The trail winds its way through a steep boulder field and is marked by a pair of parallel metal handrails, making descent exceptionally easy. Simply place a hand on each rail and jump, if your gloves are slick enough. You sail down sections quite effortlessly, and I’m sure we looked ridiculous.
The gulch itself was enchanting, with the creek frozen and still flowing beneath the ice, and snow mounded up in soft contours out of the way of wind. It was beautiful. It looked so different with the snow cover, and the late afternoon light was gentle and cold.Sunday Gulch
Nothing like some brisk, strenuous hiking on a chilly January day!

Hiking | Lover’s Leap

It has been a few years since I hiked Lover’s Leap, and on a free morning last week we managed to get out there for a beautiful quick hike in our beautiful autumn weather. I love short hikes with some good hill climbing, and Lover’s Leap fits the bill. It is an easy to moderate 4.4 mile loop, best hiked clockwise, with a steady uphill climb for the first mile and a half, and then a gentle downhill or level trail for the rest of the hike.  The trail name refers to legend of two Native American lovers who were fleeing from the United States Cavalry and jumped to their deaths from what we now know as Lover’s Leap. IMG_3265elovers leap trail mapThe trailhead is located near the Game Lodge in Custer State Park. After about a half mile, maybe less, the trail splits. We took the left hand trail and hiked it clockwise. The trail features diversity of landscape, with beautifully maintained ponderosa pine forest, sweeping views of the Hills glimpsed between the trees, colorful hardwoods along the creek in the lower elevations of the hike, and of course the glorious views from the top of Lover’s Leap. IMG_3272eIMG_3311eIMG_3309eIMG_3294eIMG_3292eIMG_3285eA good part of this area was also burned during the Legion Lake Fire, adding to the diversity of the sights. Stark black tree trunks give evidence to the ferocity of the fire in those areas. Although it may look ugly now, as the trees either naturally fall or are felled over the next years, and the grass and plant life returns, those areas will be transformed and beautiful. IMG_3270eA sign at the base of the short scramble to the top of Lover’s Leap reads:

Custer State Park is a place where one can still be an unworried and unregimented individual and wear any old clothes and sit on a log and get his sanity back again.lover leap trail signNotice the scratch markings in the bottom left corner of the sign before the word “sanity.” That used to read “his.” What occurs to me as I read this sign with the word “his” scratched out is that whoever it was that defaced this sign clearly hadn’t taken advantage of sitting on a log and getting his–sorry, her (probably, right?) sanity back.
IMG_3324eThis is the kind of hike I hate to finish. The trail was so peaceful and beautiful, the sunlight filtering through the trees was magical, and the sense of autumn was glorious. Definitely a day for stomping through the woods and getting one’s sanity back again. I guess that’s one of the things I love about hiking. Cares of the world tumble away and cease to matter, and worries cease to plague me, the craziness of our current culture and politics and worldview battles disappear for a time, and a sense of perspective returns in the vastness and beauty of God’s creation, in the rhythm of footfall and breath.


Hiking | Sunday Gulch

I don’t know how I’ve spent so much time hiking in the Hills and hadn’t hiked Sunday Gulch. It just may be now my favorite hike in the Hills. It may have supplanted Hell Canyon as #1, believe it or not. It also happens to be one of the eight hikes on the Custer State Park Trail Challenge, but unfortunately we kind of forgot about that and didn’t find the bronze relief medallion to take a rubbing as proof that we did the hike. Oh, well.
IMG_0350eSunday Gulch is rated as moderately strenuous, and is mapped at 3.9 miles in length. The trailhead is at the far end of Sylvan Lake. Due to the steep and rugged bouldered part of the trail, I definitely wouldn’t recommend it for kiddos with their little legs, but it is a doable hike, for sure. We hiked the loop clockwise, leaving the steep stuff for the end, but hiking it counterclockwise would get that all over with in the first half hour or forty-five minutes. It was the perfect length for an afternoon, and I’m guessing will be particularly stunning on an autumn day, due to the large number of hardwoods that will turn color before too long! We’ll have to hike it again, clearly.IMG_0352eWe hiked Sunday Gulch on a very rainy, wet afternoon, just after a heavy downpour and during the ensuing drizzle, listening to gentle grumblings of thunder and the patter of raindrops on our waterproofs. The clouds were low and hung low over and between the tops of mountains and granite spires. The first half of the trail, if you hike the loop clockwise, winds through granite spires and formations, along a creekbed, through open and forested terrain. Some great views of the Hills are visible in the first half mile or so.IMG_0345eThe trail, due to the rain during and for weeks previous to this hike, was in many places a muddy, soggy, puddled mess. And slippery. At times the trail narrowed to little more than a deer trail, with wet shrubby undergrowth nearly overgrowing the trail. I tried to keep my feet dry for awhile, but eventually even the waterproofing on my boots wasn’t enough to keep out all the wet. Which was fine.IMG_0362eIMG_0357eThe first half of the hike is beautiful, of course (it’s the Black Hills, after all), but when the trail finally emerges in the gulch, the trail is breathtaking. Here in particular, the trail became rather mysterious, and we could see under the not-gently flowing water the trail was there somewhere. Beautiful, moss-draped trees towered up between the walls of Sunday Gulch, and little rivulets of water spilled delicately down the faces of the rock. Ferns clung in closely to the damp earth. The creek chattered noisily, the waterfalls churned, and still the rain fell gently.IMG_0372eIMG_0405e

IMG_0412eIMG_0384eAfter the gulch, the fun begins. The trail climbs rather steeply through a bouldered creekbed. Although I generally like trails with no manmade helps, the handrails were nice, particularly given how slippery the boulders were, and it was helpful that it marked a route up. The boulders were big enough in places that finding a route through them, particularly with a creek flowing through them, would have been pretty laborious. I’m guessing this trail is usually drier, with the creek generally well-contained. But as I mentioned, we’ve had a wet summer, and this was a wet day. In many places, water was flowing over the bouldered trail. Keeping dry feet no longer seemed as important.IMG_0428eIMG_0432eThe following pictures are of my favorite part in the trail, simply due to humor. Yes, that’s the trail, or was the trail, going between those two boulders. Dryness no longer seemed even remotely important. It was entirely futile to even attempt to keep dry, so we embraced the water. Under the little waterfall is a staircase. We all got quite wet.IMG_0443eIMG_0446eIMG_0447eThe loop trail starts and ends at Sylvan Lake, and we emerged into a silvery drifting fog bank that enveloped and released the spires across the Lake. We drove down to Custer to get ice cream, but some of us were absolutely freezing by this time, since we been soaked and were now evaporating. Coffee and a muffin sounded better than ice cream. So we stopped at the Bank Coffee House in Custer, a historic bank that was renovated to be a coffee shop. They have coffee and ice cream. Excellent.IMG_0461eIMG_0524eWhat a wonderful, glorious, wet, cold, rainy, humid, delightful day.



Shrouded Hills

Any time spent away from home leaves me hungry to search out my favorite places, as if to check on them, or remind myself that they are real, and are not just a product of my imagination. After a week in Illinois (I got back last week), I sought out what has become a favorite drive of mine, the Custer State Park Wildlife Loop. Now, it is far from a favorite of mine in the middle of the day, in the middle of the tourist season. But at dawn, before almost anyone else is up, it is heavenly, peaceful, serene, and gloriously empty, yet full, so full. This particular morning, my hope of capturing the sunrise was thwarted, but I was gifted instead the coziness of glowering clouds and drifting fog and shrouds of mist. In spite of the rain and wet, the meadowlarks were singing as loudly as ever, and the buffalo calves were frisky and ridiculous. The landscape was unbelievably green. It truly is incredible how beautiful the new grass looks when the dead brown grass has been burned away. With the mist and the rolling hills, the tops of which were obscured in fog, the landscape looked somewhat as I imagine Ireland must look. Occasionally, the sun would briefly break through and light would dance on the slopes, before being shrouded once again.IMG_5535eIMG_5533eIMG_5454eIMG_5531eIMG_5540eIMG_5474eIt amazes me that anyone could look at such glorious beauty and not be struck to the heart by awe of our Creator. God’s glory is on full display in the wonders of His Creation. If my heart needs a revival, a walk in God’s woods or a drive through His prairielands and hills reminds me of the God I serve and love, and how good He truly is.


An early morning drive to enjoy the dawn and to photograph the sunrise in the Park didn’t turn out exactly as planned, but no drive with a camera in hand and eyes to see God’s goodness is ever really wasted. Towards Hermosa, I drove into a large fog bank, completely obscuring the sunrise, and the fog slowly moved west, coming to a stop against the rim of the Hills. The Wildlife Loop was bright and clear, though banks of fog could be seen hanging in the trees towards the east. The beautiful Wolf Moon, waning now, hung in the western sky like a pearl. IMG_0272IMG_0407eThere was an element of sadness driving through the Park and seeing the destruction left in the wake of the Legion Lake Fire. The snow whitewashed over much of the evidence of the fire, but the blackened hillsides, the charred or browned trees, and the smell of ash gave it away. I have to admit, it was worse than I thought it would be. Parts of the Park will look very different, with the standing dead, charred and blackened, scarring the landscape. Once the needles fall off the dead trees, it will be even more striking. The torched trees, blackened from root to crown and completely denuded, were grotesque against the snow, with yellowed trees on this side and that, somehow having escaped being torched. In places, the fire had eaten through fence rails like acid, though other stretches of fenceline were untouched. Lots of manpower will go into repairing those fences.IMG_0288eIMG_0398eIMG_0381eIMG_0354eeHow amazing: fire, while destructive on the one hand, is one of the means of renewal that God has put in place for the maintaining and flourishing of this world. Change is just a part of life. While everyone is fond of Custer State Park and we’re used to it looking a certain way, that just isn’t how nature works. It isn’t meant to stay the same. Change is one of the ways in which equilibrium is maintained. There is a natural ebb and flow, a cycle of life and death and life again, a cycle of destruction and renewal, which occurs on the micro scale, as well as with large-scale natural disasters. I know that the forest will renew itself or will change, and life will go on. I also know that come springtime the Park is going to be greener and more vibrant than it has been in years, with all the old grass and underbrush burned away. It will be a sight to behold!IMG_0415eAnd even now, in the meantime, life goes on. The buffalo were mostly in the corrals, feeding on hay, since their food supply was drastically affected and they will require hay for the rest of the season. A handful of youngsters frisked and played, chasing one another, though the solemn buffalo look never left their faces. Buffalo are such serious-looking critters. A few prairie dogs popped out of their little holes in the ground, and a sassy squirrel raced up and down a dead tree. The tiniest of creatures, happily going about their little lives in the wake of a deadly fire. IMG_0469eDon’t under estimate the sheer resilience of God’s Creation. He has equipped it well.