Hiking | Buckhorn Mountain

Another gorgeous weekend and exhilarating hike in the books. I’ve really never found something I enjoy as much or as thoroughly as I enjoy hiking. We were going to hike Mount Baldy, but on the way home from church made a quick switch decision to hike something new instead. This may have been even better than Baldy…
IMG_20190407_164559265_HDRBuckhorn Mountain is a recognizable granite peak and ridge formation just north of Custer along Hwy. 16/385. What is generally photographed is not actually the highest point, however, so don’t let that throw you. Look at in on a topographical map and it makes sense, but I was confused for awhile when it seemed like we weren’t actually hiking Buckhorn.

There is no trail, so the best access is to hike up the Michelson Trail from town, and after about a mile head off trail east toward the peak. Keep it in view and you can’t get lost. As long as you can still climb higher, you’re not there yet. Round trip, it is a little under 4 miles. We picked what seemed like the most direct route(and the route that would include some boulder scrambling), up the west slope of the mountain, and boy, were we in for a treat! Plenty of scrambling to satisfy that craving, and gorgeous glimpses of views along the way up. We discovered a much easier route on the way down, however, on the south slope.

This peak clearly gets very little attention, and for good reason. There are a lot of snags and deadfall, steep slopes covered with duff, and lots of boulders. But if you feel like braving it, the view from the top is magnificent. The whole way up, we were watching a particular peak, only to get up to a saddle between it and the real peak and realize it was a false summit. This is a beautiful view of the false summit, from an open meadow on the way back down: IMG_20190407_164542021_HDRFrom the top, Crazy Horse, the Harney range, Custer, and everything in between is laid out like a map, clear and pristine and beautiful. I always enjoy getting up high enough that birds are soaring at eye level or lower.IMG_20190407_171725324

IMG_20190407_171209222_HDROn the way down, we found an easier route, which meandered through beautiful, open woods and boulder-strewn hillsides, emerald-green, kinnikinnick-covered slopes, and mossy spring areas. I can’t pinpoint the feeling exactly, but certain areas of the hills, including this hike, kept reminding me of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, or C.S. Lewis’s Narnia. Rugged, wild, and hauntingly beautiful.  Axel also found an intact deer rack, which he didn’t want but I did, so it got a ride back on his pack. IMG_20190407_172351841IMG_20190407_172620580Definitely a hike I recommend, if you like some rock scrambling and off-trail hiking!


Winter Gear

Over the last few years, my winter wardrobe has grown substantially and I’m just tickled pink. I tend to get cold very easily, but I also warm up very quickly once I’m moving around. It doesn’t matter how cold it is, I warm up fast when I’m moving, and over the last few years have learned some tricks of layering that have greatly increased my enjoyment of winter recreation. I thought I’d do what I’ve never done before on this blog and share some non-expert enjoyment of some gear that I’ve found that I particularly enjoy!

  1. Ice cleats. Last winter, I bought a pair of YakTrax walkers because I was cheap, and found out why they were cheap. Because they weren’t meant for the kind of hiking I like to do! By the end of the season, I had broken them, not beyond repair, but they were broken. So when this winter rolled around, I knew I wanted something sturdier and, as I thought about it, more aggressive. So I found a pair of ice cleats by Unigear. They aren’t as expensive as the Kahtoola brand ice cleats, and they might not be as durable, but they’ve stood up great to some of the ridiculous terrain I’ve hiked in over the last couple months, from ice covered AND bare boulders, rocks and rocky terrain, and normal winter conditions. The metal links aren’t welded, so I have had to to a minor fix job on them once, but that’s it. Their one limitation I’ve found so far is deep, sticky snow. They quickly form snowballs under the ball of the foot and the heel and make walking a little awkward, and they get heavy and fall off, in spite of a velcro tape holding them on. But I’ve used them on a number of hikes where they were indispensable, including a search and rescue effort where I was the only one on my team with cleats. Yes, people were jealous. I also have some hip issues which seem to crop up mostly in the winter, either in deep snow (because of having to step so high) or on slick surfaces (when the hips experience extra torque). Traction is very helpful in minimizing that torqueIMG_20190119_153606333
  2. Gaiters. In addition to ice cleats, another piece of gear I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this year is a pair of gaiters, also indispensable for winter hiking. Not only do gaiters keep your lower legs and boots dry, and keep snow from getting into your boots, they’re an extra layer of insulation and wind protection. I love them. They’ve made my regular hiking boots be quite sufficient for winter hiking, including in frigid temps!
  3. Balaclava. This one I discovered on a hike where temperatures hovered around 0-5 degrees Fahrenheit all day. What a difference a balaclava makes. Not only does it keep all cold air from reaching your neck and ears, but the Carhartt one I have pulls all the way up to the eyes, keeping chin, cheeks, and nose warm, and allowing you to breathe warm air. I had no idea what a difference that could make, both in terms of comfort and in terms of (for a lack of a better word) survivability.
  4. Wool socks. Most hikers already know the joys of wool socks. I just want to briefly state that the hype isn’t just hype. Its true. Wool can absorb much more water than cotton and still feel dry and warm. A great option for winter hiking. However, I’d like to bust the myth that Smartwool is the only way to go. I bought a few pairs on discount last winter, and honestly didn’t think they were that great. I found my feet to get too sweaty in them, even in the winter. The wool socks I’ve fallen in love with are the Cabela’s brand wool blend crew socks. They’re excellent. Just the right amount of insulation, and my feet don’t over-sweat.
  5. Wool mittens. When it is really bitterly cold outside, wool mittens are the way to go. I have two pairs that I found at Menards and I love them. They’re inexpensive, which is a huge plus. They’re convertible, mittens and gloves, which I like because of my photography and needing to have my hands or at least fingers free. I’ve worn them comfortably down to 0 degrees, probably colder, definitely colder with windchill, and my hands were toasty warm. And they’re roomy enough that when my fingers did get cold, I could just pull my fingers all into the body of the glove and warm them up.
  6. Waterproof pants. This is a very new one for me, but they’re super effective. Often, the snow out here is dry, rendering waterproof pants completely unnecessary if you know how to layer. But on a recent 9-day Wilderness First Responder class, we did a lot of sitting in snow and being outside in frigid temps. They recommended bringing waterproof pants or snowpants, which I was very glad I did. It made sitting in the snow and being relatively inactive in cold temps much more manageable. Waterproof often means wind resistant, which is a huge plus in frigid temps. 2019-03-16_10-56-04
  7. Hiking pack. The only reason I include this one is because of the issue of size. I bought an Osprey Sirrus 24 pack a year ago, thinking it would be sufficient for day hiking. It is. But not during the winter. It is just enough too small that for a long hike or a cold enough hike, I’d either have to skimp on water or skimp on layers. I’d rather not skimp on either. So with some Christmas money, I bought the Osprey Mira 34, which is 10 L bigger than my Sirrus 24 (and was on clearance), and really is the perfect size, AND can be cinched way down if the extra space isn’t needed.

So there you go. A non-professional’s top seven items of winter gear, which I have found to be either indispensable for winter excursioning, OR to make winter excursioning much more enjoyable! Feel free to share your favorite winter hiking gear in the comments section. I’d love to hear what others do to enjoy the outdoors in the winter!

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 | Secret Waterfall Hike

Too many areas get spoiled by publicity, so a blogger/photographer is in a pickle when she wants to share her find, but doesn’t want to ruin a new favorite spot. So this will remain a secret and I will resist the urge to post the usual GPS map of our hike. If you want to know where and how to find it, you’ll just have to go hiking with me sometime.
IMG_20190119_142647455_HDRNow, one of my favorite parts of the hike was definitely the above sign towards the beginning of the trail. Hang gliders? Really? As Axel pointed out, the sign is only there because someone sometime tried all of those things…I got a laugh out of that. IMG_20190119_152204834_HDRIMG_20190119_150405093_HDRTrails are nice, but hiking where no one else goes, in search of confirmation of a rumor, has a romance all its own. This hike was one such hike, and we took off off-trail in search of a waterfall I had heard existed, but had never confirmed. In total, our hike was about 4.5 miles round trip, most of the distance along an established trail in the Black Elk Wilderness, but the remaining short distance was the hardest part. We bushwhacked up a frozen creekbed, which turned into a very steep boulder field, with huge bedroom-sized boulders, creating what sometimes looked like an impassible wall. And all of this was covered in snow and ice, of course, with beautiful, sheer ravine walls on either side. It all looked like something out of the depths of Middle Earth, and in terrain as gorgeous as that it was hard not to feel like an intrepid explorer. 50668204_361176928014278_8154445975000186880_nIMG_20190119_151452121We weren’t disappointed in the least. The search for a single waterfall turned up two. One was a huge, solid ice pillar growing behind a cluster of boulders, and the other was a graceful, tiered formation of ice spanning a good 20 or more feet.  And I’m not positive that either one we found was the one I’d read about. Ice builds up over time, creating deceptively massive formations from what normally would have been little more than a trickle of water. My impression from what I’ve read is that the Secret Waterfall really is a waterfall, not a mere trickle. So I’m looking forward to exploring this area after everything thaws, and seeing what these falls look like when they’re flowing, and possibly finding a third, the “real deal.” 50813630_277697642922061_8692885039689498624_nIMG_20190119_153606333I got a chance to try out a new pair of ice cleats by Unigear, which were amazing and absolutely indispensable for this hike, much of which was on treacherous footing, scrambling over and under snow- and ice-covered boulders. This must have been one of our more adventurous hikes, in the sense of the very rugged terrain we were in, and the shenanigans we pulled while hiking.  I love a hike that includes hands-and-feet scrambling, a little spelunking, and some boulder hopping! But we have a healthy enough sense of caution, probably partly built on the fact that we’re both first responders and if we got in a bad bind we’d be calling people we know. That’s a good deterrent to stupidity. 50244702_308980189619832_5913311587313123328_nThis is the kind of hike that I hate to have end. In this part of the country, there is so much beauty we take for granted every day, and then there are the places that are absolutely breathtaking if you take the trouble to get to them. This Lord of the Rings fairyland is practically in my backyard. What a joy.


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 | Spring Creek Loop Trail

Nothing like a brisk hike on a winter day! The sun was out, though tucked behind hills much of the hike, and the creek, partly frozen, chattered and chuckled comfortably along the trail.IMG_20181229_133720310_HDRSpring Creek Loop is a spur off the Centennial and Flume Trails, and can be hiked from Sheridan Lake for a 4 mile hike, or from Spring Creek Trailhead for a 2.5 mile hike. A beautiful option for a quick excursion! The trail is relatively level for the most part, with a few creek crossings over narrow footbridges. A couple of years ago, the footbridges were a disaster and crossing them was a comical chore.IMG_6420eSheridan Lake was at the halfway point on this hike, more or less. The ice on the lake was thick and black and clear, and we skated cautiously out onto it, listening to the ice singing and chattering to itself, scurrying off again when we stood too close together and started a crack which followed us back to shore. Ice fisherman way across the lake had their fourwheelers out, taking advantage of the sunshine. Snow whispered across the gleaming surface of the lake, ghostly and gentle. It was so beautiful and blue under the clear sky.
IMG_20181229_150529005_HDRIMG_20181229_144913132 So many beautiful sights. Hops vines still had their little golden cones hanging from them like Christmas ornaments, and frosty jewels studded the frozen creek, feathery and delicate. IMG_6483eIMG_6630eIMG_6610eIMG_20181229_155134239_HDRWhat a beautiful afternoon. And what a way to (almost) welcome in the New Year.