Bear Butte in the Black Hills of South Dakota

Bear Butte sunrise, South Dakota
The day dawns on Bear Butte.

Planning on a sunrise hike up the Butte, we car camp in the Bear Butte State Park campground, located on Butte Butte Lake – the perfect spot – with an unobstructed view of Bear Butte and a lake loop trail for walking.

A gorgeous sunrise greets us this morning and we dress in its’ soft light. Ours is the first and only car in the parking lot. It is a 1.85-mile hike up the Summit Trail to the top of the butte. The dirt-covered narrow trail begins at the parking lot near the Education Center and zigzags up the rocky butte, gaining 1,000 feet elevation along the way.

During our ascent, a dark storm cloud approaches, and is split in half by the butte. We experience all the elements in their full glory – the fire of lighting, rain, and wind, as we trod the earthen path, ever upward. The golden light of the morning sun illuminating the prairie below us.

Bear Butte, South Dakota, view to the north
As we walk under a cloudy sky the northern view is illuminated by the sun.

Mato Paha or Bear Mountain is the Lakota name given to this unique formation called Bear Butte. The mountain earned its nickname because of its resemblance to a bear sleeping on its side. Turns out this formation is a lone mountain, rather than a flat-topped butte as the name implies. It is one of several intrusions of igneous rock that formed millions of years ago along the northern edge of the Black Hills.

Bear Butte, South Dakota, view to the east
View to the east as we continue to climb.
View from the summit of Bear Butte
Bear Butte summit where a thunderstorm passes to the east.

The mountain is sacred ground for as many as 17 American Indian tribes, and the ceremonial area is visited by many each summer. Year round the mountain is used for prayer and is believed to be the spot where the creator communicates with his people through vision and prayer. For thousands of years, American Indian tribes, including the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan have traveled to Bear Butte to perform annual prayer ceremonies. They, along with visitors from around the world, make annual pilgrimages to this sacred site for spiritual renewal and sustenance.

summit of Bear Butte, SD
The wind blows and the world opens up at the summit.
Path on Bear Butte, SD
Trail to Bear Butte summit.

As we climb the mountain we see colorful pieces of cloth and small bundles or pouches hanging from the trees. These prayer cloths and tobacco ties represent prayers offered by individuals during their worship. For the native peoples, the Creator gave them the sanctity of Bear Butte and other gifts to use in their sacred ways – sage, sweetgrass, tobacco, cedar, and water.

We learn that the colors used in prayer cloths and prayer ties vary with the different tribes, but are often similar to the colors associated with the four cardinal directions.

  • Black is for the West, and is the color of the Thunder and Lightning People who clean the Earth.
  • Red is for the North. The Buffalo come from the north and sacrifice themselves for the people so that the people may live.
  • Yellow is for the East. Hope and a new day come from the east.
  • White is for the South, which is the direction that we go when we leave this physical world and go on to the next world.

Despite its cultural and religious significance, this National Historic Landmark is threatened by proposed energy development. Last November, the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment approved a plan to establish a 960-acre oil field adjacent to Bear Butte. Based on tribal opposition and recommendations made by the National Trust and the South Dakota State Historic Preservation Office, the board agreed that no wells would be located within the NHL boundary, and adopted other restrictions to reduce the project’s impact. However, in addition to the well proposal, a wind power installation, to be placed roughly five miles away from the mountain, is currently under consideration.

Lakota Prayer

Wakan Tanka, Great Mystery,
teach me how to trust
my heart
my mind,
my intuition,
my inner knowing,
the senses of my body,
the blessings of my spirit.
Teach me to trust these things
so that I may enter my Sacred Space
and love beyond my fear,
and thus Walk in Balance
with the passing of each glorious Sun.

According to the Native People, the Sacred Space is the space between exhalation and inhalation. To Walk in Balance is to have Heaven (spirituality) and Earth (physicality) in Harmony.


Beartooth Hwy to Chief Joseph Scenic Hwy in NW Wyoming

Crazy Creek Campground, Wyoming
View from our campsite in Crazy Creek Campground

Leaving Yellowstone National Park from the northeast gate we drive through Cooke City and find Crazy Creek campground in the Shoshone National Forest. A remote and scenic campground about half full when we arrive in the late afternoon, we are thrilled to get a campsite with a view of the surrounding mountains.

Crazy Creek campground, Wyoming
Early morning journaling and sketching

Randy and Pam from Kentucky are volunteer hosts for the campground and walk over to greet us as we begin to set up camp. After hearing reports of grizzly bear attacks closer to Yellowstone, we are relieved to hear that no bears have been sighted in this area. They show us how to be bear-safe in camp.

While we set up camp, the gentle sound of crazy creek provides a soothing background as the sky darkens, and the sun sets over Index Peak. Jay builds a fire and we retire early with the comforting flickering glow of the fire lulling us to sleep.

We wake to sunshine after a chilly night-time low of 38 degrees… burrrr.

Ground squirrel in Crazy Creek campground, Wyoming
Ground squirrel at Crazy Creek campsite

Jay sets up a breakfast area in the sun and we dine on cereal with nuts and fresh blueberries, warming our almond milk with hot water to ease the chill. As we sit munching our warm cereal we observe first one, then two, then three little ground squirrels basking in the sun on the rocks and then tunneling through the grass looking for seed. We are fascinated as we witness one pull over a stalk of grass to munch on the dry seed. Sketching ensues, while Jay does yoga in the warmth of the rising sun.

Soon we are packing up and leaving this idyllic site. But more beauty is in store as we travel along the Beartooth Hwy and connect with the Chief Joseph Scenic Hwy. This is Beartooth and Absaroka mountain country. We descend to the distant Wyoming plains through steep switchbacks, surrounded by stunningly scenic mountains. From Crazy Creek, we venture east along the beautiful Chief Joseph Scenic Highway (Rt 296) to the Cody area.

Mesa along the Chief Joseph scenic highway, Wyoming
Traveling along Chief Joseph scenic highway in Wyoming

The Chief Joseph Scenic Byway is named after the Native American chief of the Nez Perce Tribe. In 1855, the Nez Perce signed a treaty establishing a reservation with the understanding that they would retain control over most of their territory. But in 1860, gold was discovered on their land creating pressure from Euro-Americans to change the reservation boundaries. In 1877, in what came to be known as the Battle of the Big Hole, the US cavalry attacked the Nez Perce tribe as they camped on the North Fork of the Big Hole River, Montana. The Calvary were trying to force the tribe onto a reservation so that gold miners and ranchers could take the Nez Perce lands.

After the attack, Chief Joseph led his people on an arduous 1,170 mile trek that came to be known as the Nez Perce Trail. Their journey wound south into Idaho, east through Yellowstone, and then north toward the Canadian border. Though Chief Joseph and 800 members of his tribe evaded capture, the exhausted tribe eventually surrendered after the six-day Battle of the Bear Paw in north-eastern Montana. The tribe was stopped just 40 miles from the Canadian border.

Nex Perce Trail
The Nez Perce Trail

In his speech of surrender, Chief Joseph expressed dignity and defeat with his famous words, “Hear me, my chiefs, I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.” The Nez Perce tribe was forced onto reservations in Oklahoma and Washington despite promises to allow them back on their lands. Yellowstone’s Nez Perce Creek is named for this valiant attempt at freedom.

I Will Fight No More Forever: Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce War by Merrill D. Beal is a vivid account of the flight of the Nez Perce as they struggled to survive, and includes unpublished letters and diaries by eyewitnesses, and interviews with decedents.

Chief Joseph scenic highway, Wyoming
Chief Joseph scenic highway, Wyoming