June 28, 2015 – A perfect day in South Dakota.
Several years ago my wife (Mardi) and step-daughter (C.K.) drove out to Rapid City to visit our other daughter Amy who was living and working there at the time. We enjoyed doing some of the things that typical tourists do, including visiting Mt. Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial – but the highlight of the trip was a day I got to do two neat hikes, one with Amy in the morning (Bear Butte) and another with Mardi in the afternoon (Black Elk Peak). Amy and I left Rapid City at 5:30 am, made the 45-minute drive to the Bear Butte 6 miles northeast of Sturgis, and started hiking at 6:30 am. The hike to the summit and back is a fun half-day hike (2.8-mile round-trip), but it does gain 1,033 feet, plus there is very little shade – So we were glad we got an early start. That afternoon, Amy stayed with CK (handicapped), giving Mardi and I a chance to hike to the summit of Black Elk Peak (formery Harney Peak), the highest mountain in South Dakota (7,242 ft.), and home to one of the coolest lookout towers you’ll find anywhere. (Photo Tour)

Right thing to do.
When Mardi and I did the hike (2015) the mountain was still called “Harney Peak”, but the name was changed in 2016 to honor Black Elk (1863-1950), a famous Sioux medicine man who as a boy was present at the Battle of the Little Bighorn (1876). As it turns out, William S. Harney (1800-1889), for whom the peak was originally named, wasn’t such an honorable man. Among other things, he was charged with beating a female slave to death with a cane in 1834, then as a U.S. cavalry general he led a massacre of Sioux women and children at the Battle of Blue Water Creek in present-day Nebraska in 1855.

Crowning glory.
At 7,242 ft., Black Elk is not in the same league as high points in other western states – California, Washington, and Colorado all boast peaks over 14,000 and Denali in Alaska is over 20,000 ft! On the other hand, no other state high point has what is found on top of Black Elk – a majestic castle-like stone lookout constructed by the Civil Conservation Corps in the late 1930s. The tower, which includes its own reservoir, was staffed until 1967. It is a truly unique destination, and the views of the surrounding Black Hills are second to none. The trail, which starts near Sylvan Lake 47 miles southwest of Rapid City, climbs gradually over the 3.8-miles to the summit, making it doable for reasonably fit hikers.

Got geology?
Bear Butte and the granite core of the Black Hills are both “intrusive formations” (aka “plutons” or “plutonic formations”). Bear Butte is a laccolith, whereas the Black Hills (which includes Black Elk Peak) are a batholith. Here is a nice 3-step animation that shows how these form.

Below: This map marks hikes that have been featured on bigskywalker.com so far, including several in Glacier Park – Select full screen to expand, zoom in for more detail, or click on a marker for a link to the post.

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