Black Hills And Devils Tower

Zosia Zgolak and I ventured into the Black Hills of South Dakota late on the afternoon of 13 July 2019.  We first stopped in the town of Hot Springs to stock up on groceries before visiting Crazy Horse Memorial.  The carving of the famous Lakota warrior on Thunderhead Mountain has been ongoing since 1948, and to date, only the face has been completed.  Zosia and I toured the memorial's extensive visitor centre, and then we stayed past sunset to watch an interpretive laser light show which was superimposed onto the unfinished sculpture.  Once the show was finished, we departed the memorial site and camped for the night at Willow Creek Horse Camp which is about a 15-minute drive away.  Our plan for the following day was to hike up Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak), the high point of South Dakota, via a trail along its northeast ridge as described in  This route is longer and entails more elevation gain than the more popular southern approach from Sylvan Lake, but it has the advantages of being fee-free (Sylvan Lake is within Custer State Park and requires an entry fee) and less crowded.
How can you possibly go wrong with a store like this? Sonny feels compelled to buy some "super foods" at this grocery store in the town of Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Construction has been in progress for 71 years and counting...

Crazy Horse Memorial is being carved right out of Thunderhead Mountain.


Likely not in our lifetime! Zosia stands beside a scaled version of what Crazy Horse Memorial will look like if it is ever finished.
I wonder when these gates were last opened. Zosia sits in front of an ornamental gate near the visitor centre.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Only thing missing was the disco music! During the summer, a laser light show is superimposed on Crazy Horse Memorial every evening after dark.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Some time during the night, Zosia and I were both awakened by bright, flashing lights coming from the forest near our campsite.  At first, we thought it was lightning since there was some thunderstorm activity in the area, but the actual sounds of thunder that we could hear were distant and too infrequent to account for the continuous strobe-like flashes we were seeing.  There were other campers nearby, but we did not hear a single peep from any of them all night long; there were no voices or the usual noises associated with late-night camping parties.  I recalled seeing a single firefly before we had turned in for the night, but given how bright and intense the flashes were, I have a hard time believing that swarms of fireflies were responsible (from YouTube videos I have watched, the bioluminescence from fireflies looks much more subdued).  Regrettably, neither of us bothered to grab our cameras and take a video of the mysterious phenomenon, and after watching dumbfoundedly for a minute or two, we simply laid down and went back to sleep.

Zosia and I got up early the next morning (14 July 2019), and relieved that the forest around us had not burned down, we prepared for our hike up Black Elk Peak.  While the northern approach usually starts from a signed trailhead beside the horse camp, we actually started hiking from a pullout on the south side of Highway 244 (5.6 kilometres east of the junction with US Highway 16/385 or 11 kilometres west of the junction with US Highway 16A).  While researching the route, I had spotted this short cut trail on my phone's mapping application, and it also appears on the USGS topo map.  For some strange reason, the short cut is not mentioned in and does not appear in the area's trail map published by the USDA.  Regardless, the short cut does shave off at least a kilometre from the approach.

From the gate at the pullout, Zosia and I followed an overgrown track for about 300 metres before connecting with Trail #8 coming from the horse camp trailhead.  Turning left, we hiked southward along Trail #8 for about 300 metres to reach a signed junction with Trail #9N.  Taking Trail #9N, we climbed up to a pass just northwest of Elkhorn Mountain before dropping slightly to a creek crossing which is probably the only reliable source of water along the route.  From the creek, we resumed climbing and eventually gained the crest of the connecting ridge between Elkhorn Mountain and Black Elk Peak.  This is essentially the northeast ridge of Black Elk Peak, and we had no difficulties continuing to follow Trail #9N which heads more directly from here towards the summit.  We eventually reached a 3-way junction with the trail coming from Sylvan Lake (Trail #9S) and a spur trail leading to the summit.  Taking the spur trail, we climbed up to the base of some rocks guarding the summit block, and after passing through a hole in the rocks, we finished the ascent by climbing an iron staircase leading to a stone fire lookout tower.  According to Wikipedia, the Civilian Conservation Corps completed construction of the fire lookout tower atop Black Elk Peak in 1938, and it was manned until 1967.  We explored the desolate interior of the tower briefly before making our way outside and scrambling for a short distance to reach a subsidiary peak to the west.

After taking a lunch break on the subsidiary peak, Zosia and I returned to the tower and then retraced our steps all the way back to the pullout on Highway 244.  The return trip was uneventful but felt long because of the rising heat of the day.  By the time we returned to my car, the temperature was soaring, and we took some time to re-hydrate before hitting the road.
Well, looks like we've got a long walk ahead of us... Zosia starts hiking from a gate on the side of Highway 244.  Black Elk Peak can be seen in the distance at right.
Still looks far away! Black Elk Peak is once again visible through a clearing in the forest.
Good. Now we can pee in the woods! Zosia enters Black Elk Wilderness.  The northwest aspect of Elkhorn Mountain is visible behind the trees.
Looks pretty technical, but apparently there's a Class3/4 scramble route up this! Here is a clearer look at Elkhorn Mountain from the south.
A magnificent specimen! Tick season is still in full swing at Black Elk Wilderness.
Never get tired of photographing these flowers! Western wood lilies are blooming on this day beside the trail.
The best thing about this trail is that it is NOT busy! Zosia approaches Black Elk Peak along its northeast ridge.

The CCC did a great job of matching the stones of the tower with the summit rocks.

Here is a closer look at the fire lookout tower which sits atop Black Elk Peak.


Hard to believe there's a trail going up through this tangle of rocks and bushes! The fire lookout tower is tantalizingly close as Zosia climbs the final section of trail before the top.
Hmm...I wonder if this might be considered aid-climbing... Man-made stairs simplify the last few metres of climbing.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Looks kinda like one of the castles from Monty Python And The Holy Grail! Zosia arrives at the base of the fire lookout tower on top of Black Elk Peak.
In my opinion, Black Elk is a deservedly better name for the peak. A plaque beside the tower entrance still bears the old official name of the peak.  Interestingly, the year of completion on the plaque is slightly different than what is reported in online literature.  Furthermore, Sonny's GPS recorded an elevation of 2208 metres for Black Elk Peak.
Gotta get to the highest point possible! Inside the fire lookout tower, Zosia climbs up to the observation deck on stairs that are more like ladders on a ship.
A couple of objectives that may be worth returning for in the future. In this view to the southwest, the prominent rock outcrop at far left is known as Little Devils Tower.  Unfortunately, Crazy Horse Memorial is hidden from view behind forested Sylvan Peak at distant right.
The hills don't look so black on this side! This is looking northeast toward Elkhorn Mountain.  The approach trail can also be seen.
Careful where you pee up here! This man-made reservoir used to supply water for the living quarters below the tower.  Apparently, the living quarters had flush toilets as well as electricity and central heating.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

Good place for a break away from the crowds. Zosia stands on a subsidiary peak just to the west of the fire lookout tower.
This is a longer walk than the usual southern approach but also far more tranquil and enjoyable. Total Distance:  16.2 kilometres
Round-Trip Time:  7 hours 7 minutes
Cumulative Elevation Gain:  812 metres

GPX Data

After hiking Black Elk Peak, Zosia and I next visited the famous Mount Rushmore National Memorial which is just a short drive further to the east.  Not surprisingly, the place was teeming with tourists, and we had to fight through the crowds just to get a decent photograph of the iconic sculptures of four US Presidents.  Given the hot weather, we did not feel particularly motivated to do much more than cool off inside the air-conditioned cafeteria and eat a relaxing lunch.  Once we finished our meal, we promptly left the crowded memorial site and began driving to our last destination of the day.
A most arresting sight! A pullout along Highway 244 just west of Mount Rushmore National Monument grants this view of George Washington's profile.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

It's bloody hot out here! Let's go have lunch in the air-conditioned cafeteria! Sonny and Zosia take a selfie in front of Mount Rushmore.  Most visiting tourists are probably unaware that there is a man-made chamber tucked in a canyon behind the faces that is meant to provide an explanation of the carvings for future civilizations.  Unfortunately, this "Hall of Records" is presently off-limits to the public.

I almost wanted to say, "John, Paul, George and Ringo"!

Here is a closer look at the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak


Leaving South Dakota, Zosia and I entered northeastern Wyoming and ended our long day with a visit to Devils Tower National Monument.  We arrived in the early evening, and while the weather was still very warm, we felt refreshed enough after the long drive to hike the two-kilometre long Tower Trail which circumnavigates Devils Tower.  The mountain is most famously associated with Steven Spielberg's 1977 movie, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but unfortunately, we did not see any aliens or spaceships there on this day.
"This means something. This is important." The west face of Devils Tower looks brilliant in the late day sunshine.
Yep, still no easy way up this side! This is looking up the shady northeast face of Devils Tower.

Colourful landscape!

Devils Tower casts a distinct shadow to the east late in the day.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak


More interesting are Zosia's tan lines! Zosia takes a closer look at the southeast face through fixed binoculars.
The colours kinda match though! The horizontal stripes on Sonny's shirt stand in stark contrast to the vertical columns of Devils Tower.

Photo courtesy of Zosia Zgolak

When does the UFO land? Here is a last look at the west face of Devils Tower after sunset.