Monday, September 27, 2010

Iron Mountain Loop, Black Elk Wilderness, South Dakota

Distance: 5.1 mile loop (8.2 km)
Elevation: 4,950 - 5,350 feet (1,509 - 1630 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Season: May - October

Located in the heart of the beautiful Black Elk Wilderness of the Black Hills National Forest, the Iron Mountain Loop provides a relatively easy 5.1 mile loop, with little elevation gain, nice forested scenary, and interesting rock formations. It isn't a hike of spectacular vistas like Harney Peak, but rather a pleasant stroll through the landscape that you are looking down onto from Harney Peak's summit.

Hilina "resting" on the rock near the trailhead
To get to the trailhead, take US-16a south from Mount Rushmore NM about 3 miles or north from Custer State Park about 14 miles. Drive until you see Iron Mountain Picnic Area and park there. The trail initially starts out as trail 89b and heads through a forest of ponderosa pine. This area of the wilderness does not appear to have been hit as hard by the mountain pine beetle. As such, the trees are the largest and healthiest we have seen in this area.

After about 1.5 miles, the trail enters a lowland meadow with some beautiful aspen and birch stands. After almost 2 miles, the trail arrives at a T-intersection with #89 (Centennial Trail) heading left and right. Heading right will take you over to Mount Rushmore (via the Blackberry Trail) in 2 miles. If you head left, the trail will slowly descend down toward some really interesting rock formations.

Entering the "gauntlet"
All along the way, the trail glitters with sparkles from bits of mica and there are huge quartz crystals laying around everywhere, owing to the metamorphized granite formations of this landscape. You will follow the Centennial Trail 0.5 miles to the Grizzly Bear Trail #7 amongst some beautiful high rock walls. Follow the Grizzly Bear Trail until reaching the small dirt road. Turn left following the road 1 mile.
There must have been 10 beaver dams along this one mile stretch of creek
The dirt road is small enough that traffic is minimal and traveling very slowly, so no dust clouds. It is actually about the best section of the hike, as you continually cross over beautiful Iron Creek with its numerous beaver dams, rock formations, big spruce trees, and aspen/birch stands in full autumn splendor in late September.

Iron Creek meandering along the rock faces
Then you will encounter the Iron Mountain Trail #12 on the left and you follow up up slope for 1.7 miles. This is the hardest part of the hike, as you climb approximately 350 feet in elevation through a forest of ponderosa pines, including some of the largest I've seen in the Black Hills. When you reach Trail #89b again, you have completed the loop and you turn right and follow it back to the parking lot.

Spruce and Birch Mix along the creekside

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Harney Peak Loop, Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota

Distance: 6.8 miles round trip (10.9 km)
Elevation: 6,100 - 7,242 feet (1,860 - 2,207 m) 
Difficulty: Moderate
Season: May to October

View of Harney Peak (far left distance) from near start of the #9 trail
Owing to its status as the highest peak in South Dakota, the highest peak in the United States east of the Rockies, and one with panoramic views of the entire Black Hills region and the plains and badlands to the east, Harney Peak is hike extensively, even by many people you usually don't see on a hike that climbs over 1100 feet in elevation or is nearly 7 miles long. 

But, despite the crowds, this mountain is absolutely well worth the effort. It is best to get started early in the day, not only to avoid the crowds, but also to avoid the big thunderstorms that can build quickly in this region of the country. Remember, at the summit, you are 1000 feet above all of the other peaks around you, so if there is lightning, this is where it will strike.

There are several ways to get to Harney Peak trailhead. The trailhead is located at popular Sylvan Lake along the famous Needles Highway. Once at the trailhead, there are two routes you can take, which provides for an opportunity to make a loop out of it.

On the way up, you will pass lots of dead and dying trees due to mountain pine beetle
The shorter way up, which is less scenic and more crowded, is the #9 trail. It is well marked and wide and you just follow it up a little over 3 miles to the summit. About 1/2 mile from the summit, the #3 trail branches to the right. Remember that, because it is the way you will be heading back.

Just before the tower, there is a little tunnel and some steep metal stairs
Just about a quarter mile to the summit, the Harney Peak Lookout spur trail will branch left and head up to the rocky summit. There is a hitching post for horses, then a set of steep metal stairs before arriving at the lookout tower, built in the 1930's by the CCC.

Of course I am sweaty. That was a hot steep climb. Hilina took her nap and was feeling quite rested at the top
From the summit, the views are magnificent. You can see almost the entire Black Hills region. To the north are Mount Terry and Mount Roosevelt (talked about on a previous post). All around to the east is the limestone rim that contains the granite core.

Limestone rim in the distance
 The Black Hills are sort of a mountain range in reverse. The granite core is really ancient rock, some over 1.6 billion years old. It was covered up by limestone in shallow seas about 350 million years ago, and later by sandstone. But, as the range uplifted 60 mya into a dome, at a height of 15,000 feet, the top younger materials eroded first, such that the core was exposed last and remains the highest area, while the lower sections of the dome on the edges are the youngest materials.

The view east towards the prairies and badlands
Backside of Mt. Rushmore is visible as rock wall slightly right
Cathedral Spires and "The Needles" to the south
The view to the north
On the way down, you turn left at Trail #4 and follow it down. It seemed EVERYONE was taking the same #9 back that they came up. So, we had #4 to ourselves. In addition, it was the way more scenic route. That is because it takes you right into the heart of the Cathedral Spires and past Little Devil's Tower.

You stay on #3 as it passes #7 Grizzley Bear Trail. However, when you reach the junction with the #4 trail stay right and follow #4 back to the campground. Shortly thereafter, you enter the Cathedral Spires area.

There is one confusing spot, where you encounter a sign saying Cathedral Spires downhill and to the left and Little Devils Tower straight. Just stay straight. Later the Little Devil's Tower spur will branch right, which you can ignore. The trail eventually arrives at a parking lot. But, if you continue on the #4, it will take you back to Sylvan Lake in about another 1/2 mile.

Cathedral Spires and yes that is a rock climber on top of the spire near the center

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Old Baldy Mountain, Black Hills National Forest, South Dakota

Volcanic Crow Peak in distance from Old Baldy Summit

Distance: 7.7 mile loop (12.4 km)
Elevation: 5,700-6,096 feet (1737 - 1858 m)
Difficulty: Moderately Easy
Time of Year: May to October

In the northern part of the Black Hills, near the famous Spearfish Canyon, is a nice loop hike on the plateau above the rugged limestone canyons at around 6000 feet.  This loop is pretty gentle, mostly going up and down gullies no more than 100 feet in elevationat a time. 

The goal for this hike is the summit of Old Baldy Mountain. Not really much higher than the surrounding hills, what it does provide is a cliff-face and exposed area so that you can actually get a view of the surrounding landscape, because most of the other ridges and hills in this area are covered in trees.

To access the trail from Spearfish, South Dakota and I-90, take US-14a down the Spearfish Canyon for 12 miles until reaching "Savoy". Turn right on FR-222 and follow this well-graded dirt road for 6 miles. At FR-134, turn right and follow that one mile to the trailhead on left.

At the trailhead, follow the "west route" sign as it heads through alternating forests of Ponderosa pine, aspen, and paper birch. Along the way, there will be numerous Black Hills Spruce, which are a variety of White Spruce that were isolated from the boreal forests 500 miles to the north since the Ice Age.

The vegetation is pretty repetitive, with an understory of oregon grape, ceanothus, and buckthorns, bracken fern, along with plentiful grasses. There are few views for the first half of the trail. Once the trail descends into "Lap Circle Meadows", you enter an open grassy field where you will likely encounter cows grazing.

You can also see Old Baldy Mountain directly on the other side of the meadow

Approaching the Summit

At the 3.5 mile mark, you will come to the Old Baldy Summit Spur. The trail heads uphill for 0.8 miles to the summit for ever increasing views of the landscape.

Hilina at the summit

Northern Black Hills View from the Summit

Return the way you came and then follow the trail 2.1 miles along the "east route" back toward the trailhead. There is one other mountain you climb on the way back (maybe 300 feet in elevation gain) that is nearly as high at Old Baldy, but its summit is covered in trees.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sacagewa Peak, Gallatin National Forest, Montana

Distance: 4.5 miles roundtrip (7.3 km)
Elevation: 7330 - 9665 feet (2235 - 2947 meters)
Difficulty: Moderately Strenuous
Season: June-early October

Sacagewea Peak, at 9,665 feet, is the highest summit of the Bridger Mountains in south-central Montana. This hike is a short, but very steep climb to the top of the range, with outstanding views of the area, including Bozeman, the surrounding valleys, and most of the Bridger Mountain ridgeline.

Bridger Range from Fairly Lake Road

To get to Sacagewea Peak, take MT-86 out of Bozeman north toward the Bridger Bowl Ski Area. Drive 22 miles to the Fairly Lake Road to the left. Fairly Lake Road is one mile after the campground. Drive Fairly Lake Road seven miles to the Fairly Lake parking area and the trail begins just up the slope from there.

The trail starts off in the forest of subalpine fir and Englemann spruce at about 7300 feet elevation. The trail climbs pretty steadily as it ascends up to the edge of the hanging valley. The trail soon begins to ascend above this thick forest into a more open forest also containing numerous whitebark pines. As you begin to enter the hanging valley, a spectacular cirque opens up offering view up to the saddle above and the amazing geologic formations that make up these mountains.

A little of last year's snow (brown) and some fresh snow (white)

The trail levels out a bit as it heads up the bowl, but then climbs up steeply up the slope at the back of the valley. But, that steep climb also means vastly increasing views!

On the slopes on either side are highly tilted and often folded layers of sedimentary rock laid down some 350 million years ago. Mostly limestone and mudstones, these rocks contain all kinds of fossils of crinoids, corals, and brachiopods from the ancient inland sea that covered the region.

Sedimentary Layers containing fossils

Sacagewea Peak from the saddle

Once you reach the Bridger Divide at over 8900 feet, the winds may now pick up. Here the trail splits. To the right is the trail to the top of Hardscrabble Peak and to the left is the trail to Sacagewea Peak. The route up to Sacagewea is not really difficult, but it certainly remains steep as it climbs another 700 feet in about 1/2 mile. But, the views are spectacular the further up you go!

Climbing up from the saddle with Hardscrabble Peak beyond

Looking south along the axis of the Bridger Mountains from the side of Sacagewea Peak

Just about 20 feet from the summit of Sacagewea Peak I came across a little surprise. A mountain goat was on top and definitely hinted that it did not want me to go any further.

The view from almost the top. It was a little rushed as I scrambled down quickly to evade the goat who started following me down the trail!

Ah man, 20 feet from the summit and turned back! A few minute later, as I rested at the saddle and played with Hilina, a couple with a dog when up and that mountain goat took off running across the mountain and they summited easily. While they are not afraid of humans, I guess they have that instinctual fear of dogs because of the wolves that live in the region.

Anyways, it was a fun hike with some terrific views. I highly recommend this short steep hike if you are even in the Bozeman, MT area.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Trip Begins Friday!

The blog has been really quiet as I dealt with the final days working for Olympic National Park, plus the beginning of the Insight Washington school year, AND the continuing classes at Olympus High School. But, I am now done at Olympic NP and we are preparing to hit the road for the big trip.

Above you can see a map of the tenative route we will take. It includes going out to the Black Hills of South Dakota, down to Scottsbluff, across Oklahoma to see the largest tallgrass prairie left, as well as, the pioneer sites including one of the last sod houses remaining. We will then head into the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri for the fall colors and then down to Louisiana to check out the swamps and cajun culture.

Eventually we'll end up back in Arizona for the winter months. So, as we hit the road tomorrow, look for the adventures to begin again and the posts to become more frequent! I am really excited to hit the highway and get back into nature, hiking, and exploring!

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