I like a dirt path.
Too much time with city pavement under my boots makes me crabby, so it was good to hit the trails in Custer State Park. I’ve always thought the place deserved national park status with its varied geography and bountiful wildlife, but I guess if I were South Dakota, I would jealously guard it, too.
There’s no better way to see a place than on foot. The farther you get from the trailhead, the smaller the crowds, the better the trail community, and the richer the rewards. If I saw the exact same waterfall from a parking lot or at the end of a 5-mile trail, the remote one would be just a little sweeter. There’s something about the sense of struggle to reach a destination.
So we strapped on our daypacks, laced our boots tight, and started walking. The sun warmed us, the scent of pine filled our lungs, and we were drawn up the steep grades by the promise of lemon drop rewards at every trail junction.
We hiked three trails in Custer. You’ll want to consult a trail guide for more details if you are going yourself, but here’s a preview.
Harney Peak 6.5 miles round trip brings you to the summit of the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains. 7,242 feet if you like numbers. It was a good trail leading steadily up with good views of the final destination along the way to entice. In fact, I don’t remember any downhill sections on the way to the summit, though there seemed to be plenty of up hills on the return. Hmmm.
The Black Hills, like much of the Rock Mountains, have been suffering from a mountain pine beetle infestation. Some people will tell you that cold winters used to kill the larvae and keep the population in check. And that warming winters from climate change are leaving more of the beetles alive. The official sign said that drought and stressed trees have allowed the beetle population to spread. But either way, the result is the same…thousands of acres of dead trees. So our path led through stands of dead timber.
In all my years of hiking, I’ve never seen a tree fall in the wild. But on this day the combination of dead trees and 50-70 mph wind gusts near the summit brought down three trees on our path. One fell about 50 feet in front of us, and a few minutes later two more fell about 100 feet behind, narrowly missing two resting hikers who jumped to get out of the way.
I don’t know if a tree falls in the woods and nobody sees it, if it makes a noise, but I can tell you with certainty that when a tree falls in the woods and I see it, it does make a noise. And I do too.
Sunday Gulch This 3.5 mile loop behind Sylvan Lake was a treat. We walked it clockwise and that’s what I would recommend. The first part of the trail follows the park road too closely for my taste, but eventually gets you to the lowest point of the loop. It’s a steep climb through the gulch back up to Sylvan Lake, but the scenery is beautiful and the path…is very interesting. The trail has some decrepit stairs and railings to help with the steepest parts. The Hills have seen a lot of rain this year and the trail was made more difficult by the running water rushing down the path. One descending hiker called the conditions “treacherous” but I would downgrade that to “challenging, and pay attention to where you step.”
Cathedral Spires Our final hike was into the Cathedral Spires, an impressive collection of granite towers hundreds of feet high along the popular Needles Highway. But while the Needles Highway can experience mid-summer tourist traffic jams, we didn’t see more than a few dozen people on this hike.
The first half is a steep climb, but then the trail levels out as it passes through a forest of granite. The voices of climbers floated down from the towers and at the end we found a playground of boulders to keep us busy for an hour or so.
On the return trip, Jordan and I decided to take a side trail to the summit of Little Devils Tower, which proved more possible than ascending it’s big brother in Wyoming.
It’s good to be on the trails. Good to feel the strain in my legs as I work up a switchbacks. It’s good to be challenged and reach your goal, and it’s good to be tired at the end of the day. It makes sleeping on the ground much easier.