Black Hills Region Hikes: Table of Contents 1. Door Trail: Badlands National Park 2. Cliff Shelf Trail: Badlands National Park 3. Sylvan Lake Trail: Custer State Park 4. Tower Trail: Devil’s Tower National Monument 5. Rankin Ridge Trail: Wind Cave National Park Hike #1 Trail: Door Trail Location: Badlands National Park Nearest City: Interior, South Dakota Length: 0.75 miles Last Hiked: September 2000 Overview: A short, easy hike over bare rock through some impressive rock formations. Area Map: http://www.badlands.national-park.com/map.htm Directions to the trailhead: Take I-90 to SR 240 (exit 131). Exit and go south on SR 240, entering Badlands National Park. The signed parking area for the Door Trail is located 8 miles south of I-90. The hike: Badlands National Park is a beautiful and remarkable national treasure drawing visitors from the entire world. The center of the park is the Badlands Wall, a 60-mile long 150 foot high vertical rock mountain that separates the White River Valley from the higher plains. The wall is virtually impassible except at a few points called passes. One of these passes, Cedar Pass, lies 1.5 miles south of the Door trailhead, the starting point of 4 hiking trails. The Door is a small opening in the Badlands Wall that leads into one of the most rugged, desolate section of the Badlands and yields nice views of the White River Valley. The Door Trail takes you through that opening and leads across the Badlands to an overlook at trail's end. The trail begins at a sign on the north side of the blacktop trailhead parking area. A metal "boardwalk" leads through the Door and comes to a set of steps that leads down onto the rock to the right. Descend the steps to arrive at a trail-guide dispenser. The guide describes nine numbered yellow posts along the trail and gives information about your surroundings. The trail continues by passing left of a red clay outcropping to arrive at post #l. The Badlands have their origins in the Black Hills to the west. 27 million years ago, an upsurge of magma lifted the Black Hills above the level of the surrounding Great Plains. Soft ash deposits were eroded from the Black Hills by wind only to be redeposited in today’s Badlands to the east. The ash appears today as the white rock capping many of the Badlands formations. The soft red claystone (crumbles in your hands) native to the area appears as a streak underneath the white ash. Both types of rock are soft and easily eroded. What little water that exists in the Badlands is a milky white because rainfall mixes with the soft white ash. One early homesteader noted that the water was too thick to drink and too thin to plow. Indeed, the landscape changes with every rainfall. Fortunately, the Badlands receives less than 16 inches of precipitation per year on average, so the Badlands will not disappear in the near future. On bare white rock all the way, the treadway tends to blend in and become difficult to follow. I found that the easiest way to find the trail was to walk from post-to-post. Standing at post #l, scan for post #2 (some 50 yards away) and walk toward it. If you cannot see the next post from where you are standing, walk in the general direction of east, making sure not to get too close to the edge of a cliff, which can give-way easily, sending you tumbling into the ravine. There are few plants along the trail except for a little sagebrush, prairie grass, and prairiewort. Wildlife is also rare. On my hike, I saw a couple of larks, a chipmunk, and a pair of deer. Upon reaching post #8, pass through a small opening in the clay/ash rock to arrive at the overlook of the White River Valley. The canyons that have been on either side of the trail converge here at the trail's end. After observing the valley and the Badlands Wall to the right, retrace your steps back to the trailhead to complete the hike. The Badlands, from an overlook near the Door Trail Hike #2 Trail: Cliff Shelf Trail Location: Badlands National Park Nearest City: Interior, South Dakota Length: 0.5 miles Last Hiked: September 2000 Overview: An easy walk through a unique, green Badlands habitat. Area Map: http://www.badlands.national-park.com/map.htm Directions to the trailhead: Take I-90 to SR 240 (exit 131). Exit and go south on SR 240, entering Badlands National Park. 10 miles from I-90, pass the Ben Reifel Visitor Center. The signed parking area for the Cliff Shelf Trail is located 0.5 miles past the visitor center. The hike: For my general observations on Badlands National Park, see hike #1. As the name implies, this trail takes the hiker through a flat area on the side of a mountain. In this case, the mountain is the famous Badlands Wall. The shelf contains a rare oasis of green in the dry Badlands. Water that drains from the mountain is held back, allowing some hardy plants to grow. The trailhead for this special area is located in Cedar Pass just 1 mile from the Visitor Center at a black-topped parking area on the east side of the road. Ascend slightly from the trailhead to arrive at a fork in the trail and a trail guide dispenser. The loop trail is self-guided with 19 green numbered posts described in the guide. The posts go clockwise, so I suggest turning left at this intersection to hike the trail in that direction. Post #l describes the formation of the cliff shelf. Water erosion caused a large piece of rock from the cliff seen to the right and straight ahead to fall. After lodging half-way down the cliff, the rock began to cause water to back up, creating the pond and greenery we see today. Continue on a gravel trail to post #2, which describes the cottonwoods, cattails, and juniper (an evergreen shrub). The cottonwood is one of the few deciduous trees which can survive the harsh weather of the Great Plains, and then only near water. After a slight climb, the trail turns right and enters a dense juniper grove. On my hike, I observed several deer grazing along the trail. My approach scared them away, and they soon disappeared in the lush vegetation of the shelf. Post #10 points out some lichens living on a sandstone boulder along the trail. This unusual species consists of an algae and a fungus living in a "symbiotic" (mutually beneficial) relationship. The algae carry on photosynthesis, which turns C02 into Oxygen, while the fungus performs respiration, the process of turning oxygen into carbon dioxide. This relationship gives both organisms the ingredients of life and allows the entity to survive in harsh conditions such as the Badlands. Post #11 talks about wormhole sandstone. The pencil-sized holes in the rocks are actually fossil traces of prehistoric plant roots. The trail soon reaches a staircase that ascends to the highest point on the trail. This point provides a great view of the White River valley to the south and a good view of the Badlands wall on the left. From here the trail descends on some more staircases. Just past post #18, notice a small natural bridge to the left of the trail made of the soft white ash rock that caps the Badlands. Reach a trail intersection some 75 yards past the natural bridge that marks the closure of the loop. A short downhill walk remains to complete the hike. Hike #3 Trail: Sylvan Lake Trail Location: Custer State Park Nearest City: Hill City, South Dakota Length: 1 mile Last Hiked: September 2000 Overview: A fairly easy, but high-elevation hike around the idyllic Sylvan Lake. Trail Map: http://www.sdgfp.info/Parks/Regions/Custer/csptrails.pdf Directions to the trailhead: From Hill City, go south on SR 89 5 miles to the Sylvan Lake campground store and trailhead on the left. Park in the lot closest to the road. The trail begins beside the lake. The hike: At 6000 feet above sea-level and surrounded by towering granite spikes that reflect in the clear waters, Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park appears as a scene from the Rocky Mountains to the west. The lake, created by a dam on the north end, makes for good fishing, and a small beach on the east side allows for some swimming. The lake is particularly beautiful in the evening when the granite spires cast long shadows over the lake. This trail encircles the lake. The walk is easy except for a small section on the north end of the lake. From the trailhead on the south end of the lake, turn right and begin hiking counter- clockwise around the lake. With the lake on the left, the trail passes through a marshy area with numerous cattails as it crosses the lake's headwaters. Now on the east side, the trail curves left, passing an intersection with trail #9 which goes right 3 miles to Harney Peak, the highest point in the Black Hills. Continue straight through a sparse forest of Ponderosa pines, pass the beach on the left, and arrive at the base of a granite outcrop on the north side of the lake. Sylvan Lake in the evening The trail assumes a course on bare rock, topping the granite spire. When I hiked this trail on a clear evening in late September, shadows from the nearby pines and mountains darkened part of the lake, creating a quiet postcard worthy scene. If you lose your way, go in the general direction of straight ahead to a small crevasse, where the trail goes right to descend the other side of the outcrop. Back on dirt, the rock now lies to your left between the trail and the lake as you reach a junction with the Sunday Gulch Trail, a difficult 2.8 mile loop trail. Our trail passes beneath the Sylvan Lake Dam, takes a left turn, and passes through a tunnel in the granite rock to bring the lake back into view. An overlook from atop the dam lies to the left. The remainder of the trail consists of a flat hike on the west side of Sylvan Lake to return you to the trailhead. On your walk, look for Little Devils Tower, a smaller version of the Wyoming landmark, on the skyline to the east. Hike #4 Trail: Tower Trail Location: Devils Tower National Monument, Wyoming Nearest City: Sundance, Wyoming Length: 1.3 miles Last Hiked: September 2000 Overview: An easy journey, mostly on paved trail, around a national landmark. Trail Map: http://www.nps.gov/archive/deto/detomapa.html Directions to the trailhead: From Sundance, follow signs to Devils Tower. Park in the parking lot beside the visitor center. The hike: At 867 feet in height, Devils Tower is the most recognized landmark in northeast Wyoming. The grey granite tower, which resembles a large tree stump, draws thousands of visitors each year. Unlike Mr. Spielburg suggests, most of these visitors are probably from earth. The stable, nearly vertical rock makes Devils Tower one of the great sites in the world for rock climbing. With four trails of various length and difficulty, the hiking at Devils Tower is not bad either. This hike describes the Tower Trail, the shortest, easiest, most popular, and closest trail to the tower. As you drive up to the Visitor's Center, notice the red native Wyoming soil exposed in the red beds surrounding Devils Tower. Take a minute to contrast the red soil with the dark grey, imposing features of the tower. Also notice the prairie dog colony along the road in the red beds. Prairie dogs are defenseless against most predators. They must live in areas with unobstructed views so they can see predators coming, duck into their holes, and escape. Devil’s Tower, as seen from the Tower Trail The front porch of the visitor center provides a nice view of the tower to the east. From this vantage point, walk east, toward the tower, and pick up the paved Tower Trail. The trail immediately ascends moderately through a dense ponderosa pine forest to arrive at a fork in the trail. For no particular reason, I chose to turn right and hike the trail counter-clockwise. The trail passes through a boulder field made of rock that has fallen from the tower to arrive at the tower's base. Throughout your hike, keep an eye on the tower, looking for rock climbers which appear as dots on the grey rock face. In 0.25 miles arrive at an overlook of the Belle Fouche River valley to the south. From this point, one can see the river some 300 feet below you and several miles into the dry Wyoming hills. The sun shines brightly on the tower's south side as the trail approaches a small rest area with a metal scope. The scope is focused on a wooden ladder situated several hundred feet up the tower. This ladder is a remnant of the first successful climb of the tower on July 4, 1893. Note that the ladder is sufficiently high that binoculars may be required to see it. The trail soon reaches its closest point to the tower (you can touch the vertical sides) before taking a right turn away from the tower. The trail descends slightly through dense ponderosa pines and begins proceeding westward on the north side of the tower. The north side appears darker, more vertical, and more imposing than the sunny south side. At a trail fork, stay right and soon reach the spur trail to the visitor center to close the loop. Turn right and proceed downhill to the parking lot to complete the hike. Hike #5 Trail: Rankin Ridge Trail Location: Wind Cave National Park Nearest City: Hot Springs, South Dakota Length: 1.25 miles Last Hiked: September 2000 Overview: A moderate hike culminating at the fire watch tower on Rankin Ridge. Trail Information: http://www.nps.gov/wica/planyourvisit/trail-rankin-ridge.htm Directions to the trailhead: From downtown Hot Springs, go north on US 385 past the Wind Cave Visitor Center to SR 87. Turn right on SR 87. Take SR 87 north 5 miles to the Rankin Ridge road on the right. Turn right, and take the road 0.3 miles to the parking lot, where the road ends and the trail begins. The hike: The main attraction at Wind Cave is and has always been underground. Located at the southern edge of the Black Hills, one of the largest caves in the world has its only known natural opening some 100 yards from the visitor center. Famous for its boxwork formations, the cave draws thousands of visitors each year. The park does not exclusively consist of the cave, but also contains 28,292 acres above the ground that are criss-crossed by 30 miles of trails. The Rankin Ridge Trail is one of the shorter and more popular trails at the park. Rankin Ridge lies at the very edge of the Black Hills on the boundary of the Great Plains. This interesting trail can be hiked easily by most people and offers excellent views of the Great Plains to the east and the Black Hills to the west. The trail begins on the east side of the parking area to the left of a gravel road. Actually, this trail makes a loop around the top of Rankin Ridge and the road is the return portion of the trail. A metal box contains trail guides (also available online via the link above) corresponding to the 14 numbered posts along the trail. Begin following the dirt trail north, gaining slightly in elevation. The forest is almost exclusively ponderosa pine, one of the few species capable of surviving the dry, harsh Black Hills climate. The thin, narrow leaves (needles) of the pine trees make them more efficient water users than their deciduous counterparts. Post #3 talks about snags, dead trees that remain standing and become homes for many types of insects and birds such as the long-horned beetle, chickadees, and woodpeckers. The trail begins ascending more noticeably as some small rock outcrops are encountered. Post #7 describes a lockout to the Black Hills unfolding to the west. From this point, a right turn and a set of steps brings you to the crest of the ridge, from which you can see the Great Plains to the east. The trail takes a right hand turn and begins following the crest of the ridge, still climbing toward the fire tower. Post #12 talks about the importance of fire to the natural environment of the Black Hills and the prairie. Before fire suppression practices, fire would burn the pine trees on the edge of the Black Hills, preventing them from invading the adjoining prairie. Today, looking east from the ridge, one can see patches of pines covering what used to be treeless prairie land. The trail soon reaches the fire tower, which was staffed when I was here on a September morning during the dry season. The ranger standing on the observation deck invited me to climb the 79 steps to the top of the fire tower, but given that I am afraid of heights, I felt forced to decline. After a rest at the base of the tower, continue the trail as it picks up the gravel road, which switchbacks twice down the ridge to return you to the parking lot and complete the hike.
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