Oh, back when the weather was warmer…However, warmer doesn’t mean warm. On this particular hike, Axel, Katie, and I all were a bit chilly for the first while, having not considered the morning shade in the canyon. We were treated to some of the first glimpses of winter, with persistent ice over parts of Little Elk Creek, beautiful frozen, frosted, filigreed leaves, and the nipping of the crisp, morning air at our cheeks and noses. Autumn was still hanging on by a thread, and not all the trees had dropped their leaves, but the crispness and the frost let us know that winter was on its way.
Little Elk Creek Trail is a well-maintained trail, approximately 5 miles out-and-back, used by hikers, bikers, and trail runners. It is mostly level, with very little elevation gain, and though it is rated as moderate according to All Trails, I would definitely rate it as easy. Perhaps the length is where the moderate rating comes in. I don’t know.The trail follows along or above Little Elk Creek, though some beautiful rock formations and canyon areas, boasting many beautiful views. Across the creek from the trail, shaded north slopes were green with moss, steep and rocky, and very different from the brown, sunlit slopes the trail followed. We met a few other hikers, but it was a quiet trail. It is a ways off the beaten path, and likely not a lively tourist destination, since most tourists would probably hike around Sylvan Lake and Custer State Park, the crown jewels of the Black Hills. But this lovely hike is worth the time to get there.
And as always in the Black Hills, if you can tear your gaze from the soaring beauty of the trees, spires, canyons, and blue, blue sky, there are other things to marvel at as well. Things like friendship, for one. What a gift God gave when He created people, plural. He meant for us to live in community and fellowship with one another, and hiking with my brothers and sisters in Christ is one of my greatest joys at this time of my life. And then there are the tiny, almost-trodden on things, like abandoned bird nests and rushes growing green along the creek. It is so easy to focus so intently on the big picture that a million priceless glimpses of joy are lost.
It has been awhile since I hiked any of this trail, and I had forgotten how beautiful it is, or never made it to the beautiful parts! Iron Creek Trail trailhead is just off Iron Mountain Road across from Lakota Lake. Definitely not a heavily trafficked trail, partly, I’m sure, due to the fact that it isn’t a destination hike – there isn’t something spectacular at the end. It isn’t challenging and there is very little elevation gain. The most difficult parts are the creek crossings, since the bridges are very simple foot bridges, and one bridge is a single rather bouncy plank. Given that most of the hiking we do includes a lot of uphill and some more challenging terrain, I enjoyed the change of pace, and got a kick out of the review on All Trails that said “seasoned hikers” may not enjoy this trail because it is too easy. I must not be a seasoned hiker.
While I thoroughly enjoy a challenging hike, or a hike with a view at the end, I get so much joy and satisfaction out of a simple walk along a beautiful path, with wildflowers to gaze at and friends to talk to. Sometimes all that is needed is to get away, not necessarily to go somewhere and see something in particular. The fall colors are sure showing their stuff right about now, and will only intensify over the next few weeks. On the one hand, it makes me a little sad. The days have already gotten so much shorter, and the nights so much cooler. Both of which I love, but the growing season and the late evening hiking season are fasting fading away. But on the other hand, it means that snow is just around the corner, and the change of seasons is always exhilarating. A new crop of wildflowers, the late summer ones, have bloomed, and the trail was lavishly adorned with those so-rich autumn colors – the yellows of changed leaves and goldenrod, and the reds of poison ivy and rosehips and woodbine, and the warm golds and browns and tans of spent flowers and dying leaves. Asters and closed gentian added splashes of amethyst.Wild hops was abundant and rather aggressive in one small area, which was fun for me to see, since I’ve never seen wild hops before! I always love finding new plants. The vine had taken over a good-sized tree, and the hops cones, such beautiful little things, hung in among the bright green leaves. Our hike was shortened somewhat by a thunderstorm rolling in and chasing us out eventually. The weather in the Hills can change so dramatically and so quickly. After hearing a constant roll of thunder for awhile and seeing hail clouds, we figured someone somewhere was getting hailed on (we were correct, we found out on the way home), but we stayed dry. But this is definitely a trail I’d enjoy hiking further on, and maybe taking hammocks and camping overnight!
I don’t know about other hikers, but this one sure enjoyed this hike and the splendid views along Iron Creek.
There is poetry in the aspen trees. They speak it, when the wind whispers through their leaves. The wind in the pines is a mournful sound, but the wind in the aspens is like laughter.
Aspens in summer are a poem of laughter and gaiety. Like stained glass, the leaves glow and glint and glimmer, a misty, vibrant green in a sea of black pines.
In autumn, the aspens are a poem of plenty, a poem of thanksgiving, but with a hint of sadness. A gust of wind showers the leaves like showers of gold, and the bright color is sprinkled liberally on the carpet of the earth.
A change of seasons means loss – But it also means renewing, in God’s time. That is the poem of the aspen trees.
“Blessed be the name of God forever and ever,
to whom belong wisdom and might.
21 He changes times and seasons;
he removes kings and sets up kings;
he gives wisdom to the wise
and knowledge to those who have understanding;
22 he reveals deep and hidden things;
he knows what is in the darkness,
and the light dwells with him.
There is a wonderful transformation that takes place this time of year, changing what is common into what is precious, from emerald and black to crimson and gold. It was the rumor of gold that first brought the white man into the Black Hills in the 1870s, late in the era of the gold rush. But whatever precious metals they found while digging in the ground and panning in the streams, these riches outstrip them all, though they fade in a mere handful of days. It is the metamorphosis of autumn.The miracle of autumn is one which I am firmly convinced is entirely for our joy and God’s glory. God didn’t have to create the bounties of autumn color – The trees could simply turn brown and lose their leaves. But God in His sovereign goodness gave us the tapestry of the seasons, including the fleeting glories of autumn.
The Hole-in-the-Wall trail is festive in gold and green and crimson, the entire trail lined with hardwood trees in a mighty array of autumn colors. The higher hillsides are pine and so never change, but in the ravines the aspens and burr oaks and other hardwood trees and shrubs flourish, and are now painted their various hues of gold and crimson and yellow.
When the evening sun shines from over the mountains, the aspens are lit up like torches, glowing and burning. Rocky hillsides are illuminated with the flaming color of the trees. Driving along our already beautiful highways, my breath is swept away, when around a corner is suddenly revealed a golden hillside, or glowing ravine, or a roadside lined with brilliant color.I took a drive down Rockerville Road, and explored a couple of side roads. The sights were glorious, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud in delight! Springtime is wonderful, summer is rambunctious, but to catch the leaves in the prime of their autumn color is pure bliss. Roadside wildflowers are a riot of reds and golds, with a touch of purple here and there. Those, too, will soon fade, and all that will be left is the memory of the color, and the simple elegance of the dried stems and flower heads.Now, I understand that the color we revel in here isn’t the spectacular display of color we used to enjoy in Illinois, or the color that is legendary further east. But the subtlety of the transformation of the Hills is part of the allure. The mystery of autumn is heightened by its very temporariness. We aren’t two days into autumn and the colors are already fading from their peak three days ago. What a gift, to be able to enjoy such beauty, even for so short a time. For soon, and even now, the color will fade, the gold will glimmer away, and the life of summer will become the chill rest of winter.
Medieval alchemists were fascinated by the mythological concept of the transformation of common metals into gold. But what a delight, the alchemy of the seasons, the metamorphosis of the world around us, God’s created order that simply shouts His glory, and the Gospel story itself! What more wonderful metamorphosis, than the transformation of wretched sinners into redeemed Believers in Christ! Not only the tiny parable in the gold of autumn, taking that which is common and making it precious, but the larger parable of death and renewal, of decay and new life, pictured in the metamorphosis of the seasons.
After a week playing with cows, it is time to settle back into a routine…A routine that will be pretty short lived, since some reasonably big changes are coming down the pike. More on that coming soon!
It feels good to sleep in my own bed again, to not be choking on dust daily, and to have my forehead not itching from my hat brim. The little things. The simple, little things.
Smoke from fires further west has turned the air here smoky. Haze hangs heavy over the Hills. In the picture of the road, on a normal day Harney Peak would be visible as a second layer of hills behind the first layer of horizon. As I was watering trees yesterday, the haze seemed to grow thicker while the afternoon wore on, and the farther peaks became completely obscured in the smoke. The wind picked up overnight, bringing more smoke, and cooler weather.
This is my favorite time of year–In Illinois, it came later, towards the end of September, and it will probably hold off a little longer here, but today the first whisper of fall had arrived. In the fall, the air feels sweeter, stronger, richer, the sunlight seems purer, glassier, and there is something mysterious in the slant of the shadows beneath the trees, and how the sun warms your back, your face, your arms. The wind seems to be more than a stirring of the air, but a herald, a message bearer. Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. The summer is fading away. Winter is yet to come.