Lost Creek Wilderness {November 2011}

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Pahá Sápa

The Black Hills (called Pahá Sápa in Lokota) make up an isolated mountain range in North and South Dakota as well as Wyoming. They are separated from the Rockies, and are something of a geologic anomaly considering the desolate and relatively featureless grasslands surrounding them. In the midst of a barren and monotonous landscape, the Black Hills are like an oasis of green ... an island of trees.

Justin and I (as well as our 9-month old Shepherd mix, Kona) left around 6:30 Saturday morning for South Dakota, a state neither of us have had reason to visit before now. It takes just as long to get to Telluride and the San Juans in southwestern Colorado as it does to drive to the Black Hills of South Dakota. So, why not? I don't know about the rest of the state, but this area is truly beautiful.

The Black Hills/Black Elk Wilderness

We chose a 13 mile loop hike beginning and ending at Big Pine Trailhead to explore Black Elk Wilderness, which derives its name from an Oglala Lakota Sioux holy man, and to see Mount Rushmore. Heading out on the Centennial Trail around 1:00 pm, we arrived at our campsite after four miles or so. Black Elk Wilderness is a part of the larger Black Hills National Forest, which is unlike any forest I've seen in Colorado. The ground is covered entirely in pine needles making it soft and bouncy; granite cliffs and irregular mountains are scattered randomly; and sunlight radiates through the trees and illuminates the forest floor with a soft golden glow.

Centennial Trail (#89)

Horsetheif Trail (#14)

Thank God for Daylight Savings Time ... and the arrival of spring! We found the perfect campsite, cracked a beer {New Belgium Trippel for me, Stone IPA for Justin}, and began climbing to the top of a nearby rock outcropping; we had a good three hours before dark. The view was spectacular (see the first photo). We also thought we'd have premium seats to the 'Supermoon' (a full moon that coincides with the point at which the moon is closest to the Earth in its orbit ... this year it would have been the largest full moon in nearly twenty years). But, no such luck - it was too cloudy. Despite this, we were still able to enjoy a gorgeous sunset from one of the higher cliffs. Two games of mountain bocce ball, a blazing campfire, and several Avalanche Ale brats later, we were in our tent for the unseasonably warm 40 degree night.

Our chosen campsite

Sun setting over the hills

Kona playing bocce with us

The next morning, we prepared to trek the 8-9 miles along Grizzly Creek back to the trailhead. The faces of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln greeted us after a few hours.

I've never had any desire to go out of my way to see Mount Rushmore. The sculpture is a bizarre sight, and it has an equally bizarre history. Construction on the memorial began in 1927 as an effort to "communicate the founding, expansion, preservation, and unification of the United States with colossal statues of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt" (Gutzon Borglum, sculptor). Although it leaves a legacy to our country, a shrine of democracy and freedom, Mount Rushmore excites plenty of controversy. The land upon which it resides was seized from the Lakota Sioux tribe in the late 1800's, and Borglum was an active member of the white supremacist organization, the Ku Klux Klan.

The memorial is not at all what I expected. It's smaller and less remarkable than the images I'd conjured up in my mind. Also, it's a bit eerie ... especially when you catch a glimpse of it from the heart of the wilderness, much less so when you view it from the road in your car. Although this isn't something that necessarily impresses me, I do appreciate the grand scale on which it was ideated and created.

Mount Rushmore from Hwy 244

After we arrived back at the car and snapped a photo of the four presidents from the road, we were on our way to the Badlands. The landscape here is most unique ... I'd say it resembles what I believe Mars or the moon to look like. Furrowed cliffs, gnarled spires, carved ravines, and grass-capped buttes ... It's an area of raw and rugged beauty. John Evans, a government geologist dispatched to the Dakota territory in 1849, likened the area to a "magnificent city of the dead, where the labor and genius of forgotten nations had left ... a multitude of monuments of art and skill." I imagine the Badlands to be a severe and sinister place, but the warm glow of the setting sun during our evening drive transformed the landscape into something rather inviting. 

"The bad lands to cross"

Our final stop required us to drive back into Wyoming where Devils Tower, a vertical column of volcanic rock, rises dramatically above the surrounding terrain. Mostly, it's a rock climbers haven. But it also has a special significance to Native Americans, who have regarded the tower as a sacred site long before climbers found their way to the area. Indian stories and legends of the creation of Devils Tower vary, but my favorite goes like this: Seven sisters were playing in the meadow when bears began to chase them. They all climbed atop a rock and prayed to the Great Spirit to save them. At that moment, the rock rose up towards the Heavens as the bears left deep claw marks in its side (which correspond to the columns we see on the tower today). When the girls reached the sky, they were transformed into the seven-starred constellation, the Pleiades (or Seven Sisters). Once again, gazing at the tower, I sense a connection to something bigger ... and it too feels quite eerie. This may be intensified by the fact that we arrived at Devils Tower in the middle of the night, and to see the dark silhouette of something so massive suddenly appear on the horizon sends chills down your spine.

Justin and I near the base of Devils Tower

I cannot believe we packed so much in to less than three full days. Each place that we visited maintains extremely strong ties to the American Indian heritage ... I feel blessed and priviledged to have been a part of that culture, even if for a brief moment. As I said before, it's pretty eerie - in a good way. Although the landscape is beyond beautiful, and ridiculously unique, nothing compares to the history that you can learn about a place and its people or the feeling it gives you to be in the midst of it all hundreds of years later.

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