The Black Hills

Back in Black: Hiking and Rock Climbing in the Black Hills

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Did you ever meet someone and just click? That’s what happened when I met Eric and Alicia at their home in Rapid City. We had interacted a little online, and Clarissa knew Alicia from college, but we were essentially strangers to each other. They had graciously offered to put us up for a few days, and treat us to some rock climbing and hiking in the Black Hills. It may sound hokey, but when we met, I knew right away that we would all become friends.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that an hour or two later I was putting my life in their hands. Literally. Eric had harnessed me up and Alicia belayed me as I climbed my first route up a rock wall. I’ll admit that the possibility of falling scared me, but that’s just an evolutionary response. I trusted my new friends, and without fail, they’d catch me every time I fell.

And fall I did, but I’ll come back to that in a moment.

This was my second trip to the Black Hills, having stayed in the area during our honeymoon. I loved it here on that first trip, and both Clarissa and I knew that we wanted to return during our road trip. I don’t want to limit myself, but I think it’s fair to say that the Black Hills area is my favorite place to be in the world. Something about it just fits.

Mountains and ponderosa pines in the Black Hills of South Dakota
The Black Hills. Perhaps my favorite place.

Eric and Alicia were gracious hosts, and as avid rock climbers who have explored their neck of the woods both on foot and in harness, they knew some amazing places to go. Lucky for us, they happily served as our Black Hills guides.

Now, back to that falling thing. Shortly after our arrival we took off for the hills. Eric is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to the climbing routes in the area, and he graciously shared his wealth of knowledge with us, taking us to the climbing area called the South Seas.

Leo the adventure pup came as well.
Leo the adventure pup came as well.

I have pleasant but vague recollections of wall climbing and COPE courses during my Boy Scout days, but prior to this, I’d never climbed a natural face. Clarissa and I watched as Alicia belayed Eric lead climbing up the rock face to get the top rope set on a route called Toy Boat. I’m sure rock-climbers tire of Spider-Man comparisons, but it’s the best I can do. Eric simply made the climbing look easy, which humbled me as I looked at the wall with intimidation.

Rock climbing is measured in classes of 5.0 through 5.15a (technically there are classes 1 through 4, but that’s mostly a range of hiking; 1 being hiking on a maintained trail, 4 being technical hiking, like the cables at Half Dome). Toy Boat is a 5.7, which is vertical climb on good holds. Not too challenging of a climb for an experienced climber, but I am not experienced. It’s about 30 feet to the top, but seems like more when you’re up there.

As Eric climbed, Clarissa and I pulled on climbing shoes and stepped through harnesses. We got them tightened up and situated, then Alicia checked them for us. Eric then walked me through tying the Figure 8 knot (which he would have to do every single time I prepared to climb- even as a scout I was pretty shit with knots). Alicia and I went through safety checks and she gave some pointers. The time to climb was at hand!

Tying the figure 8 onto my climbing harness
Trying to learn the Figure 8. I need more practice.

“On belay,” said Alicia, signaling that she was good to go. “Ready to climb,” I responded, trying to remember the bits and pieces of climbing protocol I learned in scouts.

“Climb on,” she replied. Time to get after it.

“Climbing,” I said as I put my hands on the rock, my voice cracking slightly. I started up the wall, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out why I was so nervous; I’ve been in much more dangerous, more frightening, and more unnerving situations. Hell, I rappelled down the side of a dormitory when I was an undergrad (sorry mom, and I guess EIU). Yet there I was, hardly off the ground, and I was nervous. Am I just getting older? Nerves or not, I pressed on, because adventure doesn’t happen inside a comfort zone.

Which brings us back to the falling I previously mentioned. I was barely six feet up when I first lost my grip and footing. I fell back towards terra firma, but Alicia caught me before my foot even touched the ground. Fear of falling is normal and natural. It’s a perfectly reasonable evolutionary response to the fact that a fall from a great height can kill a human. But when done properly and safely, rock climbing is a pretty safe activity. My early fall removed all my rational, logical fears of falling. All that remained was my instinctive, evolutionary fear, and there’s nothing to do about that but plow through it. So back up the rock wall I went.

Climbing Toy Boat
Here I go, climbing up Toy Boat!

Feeling much more secure on my second try, I more effectively ignored the fear, and instead started to feel the much more enjoyable sensation of excitement. The adrenaline was pumping good and proper, but I held onto my faculties better than I clung to the natural handholds and footholds. I struggled here and there, but as I reached the top, and pulled myself over the edge, my spirits soared. My hands shook, my breath came in ragged spurts. I was ecstatic!

To be clear, this isn’t a difficult climb, but I don’t think experienced climbers would fault my exuberance; they too likely recall their first ascent and the thrill that came with overcoming their fear and embracing victory over gravity and granite. Or maybe I’m just waxing poetic again. I do have the tendency to do that, and the Black Hills brings more of that to the surface.

Sitting on top of Toy Boat
I’m feeling pretty great at this point!

After glowing at the top for a minute or two, I signaled that I was ready to come down, and Alicia lowered me as I slowly walked backwards down the wall.

“That… was… AWESOME!” I stuttered at Clarissa as I untied myself and handed her the rope. In a few minutes, she took her turn scaling up the wall.

Clarissa climbing Toy Boat.
Clarissa climbing Toy Boat.

After a break and a snack, we prepped for a second route called Bolts for Bob, not 100 feet from Toy Boat. This route is a bit more challenging class 5.8, a vertical climb with smaller more difficult holds. It goes about ten feet higher than Toy Boat and has a delightful crevice in it. I felt more confident on this climb, and went after it a bit more aggressively. My heart still beat out of my chest, but I loved it!

Climbing Bolts for Bob.
Climbing Bolts for Bob.

Clarissa followed after me, and while she enjoyed the climb, she might have preferred snuggling Leo.

Clarissa sitting on a boulder with Leo.
I think Clarissa liked Leo time as much as she liked climbing.

Alicia then climbed the same rock face, but with a speed, grace, and skill that we lacked due to inexperience. I’m still in awe at how easily our friends could climb what I struggled with. After their turns, Eric and Alicia asked if we were game for hiking up a mountain. Did I want to hike up a mountain in the Black Hills? “Hell yeah!” I eagerly replied, and so we set off along Old Baldy Trail.

Off we went hiking on Old Baldy Trail
Old Baldy Trail.

As we made our way toward Old Baldy Mountain, I started to get an idea of how Eric had developed his climbing skills; he knows more about the bouldering problems in the area than I know about, well, pretty much anything. He would stop and show us the way he had tackled a problem on a rock or an overhang, or just explain different techniques he had tried. I was grateful for the glimpse into a world I know so little about.

Eric showing us bouldering problems
Eric showed us some bouldering problems. It’s awesome to track the chalk marks and see how people have climbed these boulders.

Old Baldy Trail is full of these bouldering problems; you’ll spy the chalk from climbers’ hands on the stone faces and rock walls. The trail itself is challenging too. It’s not the best marked trail I’ve ever been on, but if you pay attention, you shouldn’t have trouble spotting the markers. We didn’t have to worry about that; again, Eric and Alicia could have been professional guides.

Old Baldy Trail is a beautiful trail
It’s a beautiful trail.

Despite some rocky terrain, the trail is pretty moderate, until you reach the base of the granite mountain. Then the game changes a little bit, and you’re not hiking as much as you’re scrambling, crawling, clambering, and climbing up and down various rock faces.

Where Old Baldy Trail turns to granite
Where the trail turns to granite.

You’ll find a few different plateaus to stop and take a break, but keep going up.

Exploring Old Baldy Mountain

Granite mountaintop on Old Baldy
I had so much fun exploring the granite mountaintop.

Granite boulders on Old Baldy

Alicia and Eric, leading the way up Old Baldy
Alicia and Eric, leading the way to the summit!

Eventually, you will reach the summit, and your efforts will be rewarded.

The view from the summit of Old Baldy.
The view from the summit of Old Baldy.
View from the summit
From up here you can see pretty much all the surrounding mountains.
Register on the summit of Old Baldy
Don’t forget to sign the Old Baldy register!

We hiked Old Baldy in the autumn, and though I have no other experience to compare it to, I feel like that’s the perfect time of year for this hike; the aspens and birches are golden, contrasting against the green in the ponderosa pines. It’s like sunlight has fallen from the sky and littered the ground.

Heading back to Old Baldy Trailhead
Eric leading the way back to the trailhead.

I’m sure that this hike is equally as beautiful during the other seasons, but I’ve only ever been to the Black Hills in September. I’ll have to rectify that in the future, because I absolutely love it here. And really, who could blame me?

The Black Hills are beautiful
No one. No one could blame me, because the Black Hills are wonderful.

We had dinner at Independent Ale House (lovingly called Indy’s) that night. Clarissa and I had eaten there during our honeymoon, and were happy to return. They’ve got tons of craft brew on tap, and our friends convinced us to try the baked potato pizza. I had my doubts, but it was delicious. Seriously, try it if you’re in this neck of the woods.

We woke the next day and headed out to breakfast at Tally’s Silver Spoon. I know that restaurant recommendations may not be what you were looking for in this post, but I love food, and I wouldn’t tell you about these places if they weren’t worth your time. Seriously, get yourself some pancakes here, and happiness will join you all day long.

After breakfast, we headed to Spearfish Canyon in the Northern Black Hills. Alicia pulled over into a parking area on the side of the road; you would never guess that right off this road you would find climbing areas or trails, but Eric and Alicia know right where to go.

View from the road in Spearfish Canyon
This is the view from the road in Spearfish Canyon. Just driving along, looking at amazing things.

We crossed the road and rock hopped across a stream, and then set off on the trail to Community Caves.

Rock hop across the stream.
Don’t get wet!

You won’t find any markers to follow on this trail, but with a little persistence you won’t have too much trouble; once you cross the stream, head left and keep your eyes peeled for a small trail to your right, a quarter mile or less from where you crossed. It can be easy to miss, and that’s probably even more the case in the summer when the vegetation is high. It won’t look like much more than a game trail, but opens up a bit once you’re on it. The growth can still get a little thick in some areas, but don’t let that discourage you.

Community Caves Trail
You might have to do dodge a few branches here or there.

Soon the trail will veer upward. Stones and boulders make up the path now, and fallen trees may require traversing. It’s fairly steep, the rocks are loose and will move beneath your feet, and the whole mess may be wet, depending on weather and time of year.

Heading up Community Caves Trail
Keep on heading upward. Be careful, some of the rocks are slick!

You’re facing a pretty steep grade here, so be careful, but it’s less than a half mile to the top. Once you get there, the trail opens up and you’ll have a wide view of the Community Caves area, with a small waterfall showering from above.

Community Caves
Community Caves

Take your time exploring. You’ll find lots of footprints, hopefully minimal litter, and lots of nooks and crannies. It’s nice and cool in the cave, looking back out the way you came.

Inside Community Caves
The view looking out from inside Community Caves.

If you’re up for a bit more adventure, you’ll find more trail on the right that will lead up to an area above the waterfall (home to another level of said waterfall). There are a few challenging spots that involve a little climbing and scrambling, so be careful. Otherwise, just enjoy the trip.

Eric climbing to the next trail level
Eric leading the way up the trail.
Looking down from above the waterfall at Community Caves
Looking down from above the waterfall.

The trailhead to Community Caves isn’t hard to find, if you know what you’re looking for. The pullout is 2.7 miles south of the turn off of Colorado Blvd, just after mile marker 13. It will come up on Google maps, so you can navigate to the trailhead that way if you like.

After exploring Community Caves, we were ready to do some climbing. We didn’t have to go far; right across the road from the Community Caves trailhead, is the Skeletal Remains climbing area. We didn’t even have to move the car.

We grabbed the gear and carried it a short ways into the woods. When we got clear of the foliage I saw Liquid Sunshine, the route that we would be climbing that afternoon. It looked, well, let’s say intimidating. My confidence from the previous day’s climbs apparently evaporated overnight. Eric harnessed up and lead climbed, getting the top rope set for the rest of us.

Approaching Liquid Sunshine.
Approaching Liquid Sunshine.

Unlike the granite South Seas, which we climbed the previous day, Skeletal Remains was mostly sandstone. It looks different, feels different, and climbs a little differently. Granite is coarse and grainy and the handholds felt shapely and incredibly solid to me. The sandstone didn’t feel so solid; a few spots crumbled, and I relied on shoving my hands into cracks and crevices. I don’t have enough climbing experience to dive deeply into the differences, but to me the sandstone that made up the route at Liquid Sunshine seemed more difficult (and more exciting, to be fair). This route is a class 5.8+. The “+” indicates that the route has more sustained holds, similar to a 5.9. At about 50 feet, this is the highest route we did during our stay.

After getting my harness situated, my figure 8 tied, and my plan of attack in my head, I started climbing; the route wasn’t too challenging at first, but it grew progressively more difficult the higher I climbed.

Starting to climb Liquid Sunshine.
I felt good starting out, but it got progressively more challenging.

Eventually, I found myself rim-rocked beneath a rock overhang. The roof kept me from going any higher, but I couldn’t seem to backtrack either. I tried to reach up and over to find something to snag a hold of but with no luck. Eighty feet off the ground, clinging to cracks in a granite wall, reaching up and around the stone roof blocking my progress, I felt far from in control. My muscles ached, sweat dripped from my brow. I was afraid.

Alicia and Eric gave me suggestions and Clarissa shouted support. I looked down below me, and the logical part of brain tried to remind me that I was perfectly safe, but the emotional side drank deep from the well of adrenaline and let loose primal screams of excitement and fear. My comfort zone stood thirty feet below, beside my belayer.

I edged myself to the right, toward a handhold that I could just make out beyond the lip of the overhang. To reach it, I needed to extend beyond my body’s tipping point; I would have to catch it as I fell, then use it to leverage my left side against the overhang. Once I did that, I could wiggle and wrangle my body over it.

Climbing Liquid Sunshine.
Ready to make my move!

I breathed deep to calm my nerves, focusing my attention like a laser on that handhold. My eyes locked on that spot, I visualized the move and all of a sudden it all clicked into place. I knew I could do it. I reached out, my balance started to give way, my fingers touched the handhold…

And I fell.

I fell less than five feet before Alicia caught me. It felt a lot farther, and adrenaline washed over me. I laughed, cackled really, as my friends below complimented my recovery. After a few minutes of slow, deep breaths, I retraced my route, and found myself in the same spot, reaching for the same handhold. I wasn’t afraid this time. I could fall again, and again; my friend would catch me. As I reached, my balance shifted, my fingers touched the handhold and latched on tightly.

I pressed my body back against the overhang and wormed my way up it. I looked upward; still ten feet to go.

I smiled as I chalked my hands and eyed the next holds. Elated and fueled with adrenaline, I scaled those last ten feet in what seemed like no time at all. At the top of the climb, I pushed past the treeline and into the sun. I turned my head to look out; the treetops were a lovely autumnal gold, glowing in the sunlight. I can’t help but wonder if that’s why this route got its name.

After climbing Liquid Sunshine
I felt pretty amazing after finishing that climb. That shot of adrenaline really hit the spot!

Liquid Sunshine took me far outside of my comfort zone. It created in me a transcendental shift when it comes to dealing with my fears. I can’t promise you the same experience, everybody is different, and as with all things existential, your mileage may vary. What I can say is that if you have the opportunity to push your limits both mentally and physically, and you can do so safely, do it and don’t look back. You will not regret it. Also, if you have the opportunity to climb in the Black Hills, do that as well.

Riding high on my Liquid Sunshine adrenaline, I watched as Clarissa started scaling up the wall, following much the same path that I took. She got hung up in some of the same places as I did, but usually for a different reason; she’s shorter than me. As she struggled with the same roof I had, I realized that proportionately, she’s stronger than I am. Overall I can out-muscle her, sure, but pound for pound, she has me beat when it comes to muscle strength. Seriously, I watched her hang from her hands for several minutes, as she tried to figure out where to stick her feet. There is no way I could have done that! It was pretty incredible.

Then Alicia and Eric did some climbing that blew Clarissa and I straight out of the water. I learned so much just by watching them, and I’m grateful to our friends for teaching us all they did!

Eric climbing at Skeletal Remains
My boy Eric is awesome! I can’t remember what this route is called, but it was incredible to watch.

Of course, not every visitor to the Black Hills is lucky enough to meet up with amazing friends who can also serve as guides and climbing instructors. If you’re looking to climb and don’t have experience, you could consider seeking out a course or tour with professional guides, like the ones at Sylvan Rocks, based out of Hill City. I’ve read tons of great reviews about their services, but since I haven’t used them myself, please do plenty of research. Whoever you climb with, make sure you’re comfortable with their skills, knowledge, and expertise.

Leo gives puppy kisses
Unfortunately, you’re not likely to get the bonding time with Leo that we did.

After climbing, we headed for Savoy, home of the Spearfish Canyon Lodge, and the trailhead for the 76 Trail. On the way, we made a stop at Bridal Veil Falls.

Bridal Veil Falls
Stopping to see Bridal Veil Falls. It’s not as torrential as it would be in the spring, but still beautiful.

We grabbed some caffeine in Spearfish Lodge and then we got to to stepping. The 76 trail isn’t very long, only about three miles round trip, but it seems like the short hikes we take are always incredibly steep. This one is no exception.

Autumn leaves on the 76 Trail
This is only the beginning of the steepness.

The scenery along the way, however, is beautiful. Again, I’ve only experienced the Black Hills in autumn, but I can’t help but think that’s a great time for hiking here.

Autumn leaves on the 76 Trail

Autumn leaves on the 76 Trail
Am I right?

At the end of the trail, you’ll reach a fenced in area known as the Buzzard’s Roost. Here, you’ll have an incredible view of Spearfish Canyon from above.

Looking back down into Spearfish Canyon from the Buzzard's Roost.
Looking back down into Spearfish Canyon from the Buzzard’s Roost.

You can pretty much see the entire canyon from this spot, and it makes the hike well worth the effort! The sun peeked through clouds while we stood in the Roost, which made everything appear to glow.

Spearfish Canyon, as seen from the Buzzard's Roost
I told you, glowing.

After hiking back down, we decided to take in one more hike for the day, to check out Spearfish Falls. This is a pretty short trail, and not much of a challenge, so it was a nice way to close out the day. One last Black Hills attraction before Clarissa and I had to be moving along.

Spearfish Falls
Spearfish Falls, one of the beautiful waterfalls we would spot on this trip.
Spearfish Falls
And of course, we snagged a photo together in front of the falls.

After our visit to the falls, we were all pretty hungry and headed to the Alpine Inn in Hill City. Family owned and operated for three decades, this Black Hills establishment has only one thing on the dinner menu; a 6oz or 9oz bacon-wrapped filet mignon, with a baked potato, toast and a lettuce wedge served with ranch dressing. This is a perfect dinner to end a day of climbing and hiking, then we followed it up with desert. Trust me, get a dessert.

After dinner, we headed back to Rapid City to call it a night, passing through mountain fog on the way. It seemed like a perfect end to an incredible day. The next morning, we packed up the Sportage and hit the road again. I hated to leave; my adoration for the Black Hills grows exponentially every moment I’m there, and our burgeoning friendship with Eric and Alicia is one of the most natural and easily-developed I’ve experienced. But, Colorado called, and we had to answer. I remain unworried; there are more adventures in store for our group, and Clarissa and I won’t be strangers to the Black Hills. I have no doubt about that.

Our Black Hills Crew
Our Black Hills Crew; Me, Clarissa, Alicia (and Leo) and Eric.

For more stories from our 2016 road trip, check out On the Road, my collection of posts related to that adventure.

7 thoughts on “Back in Black: Hiking and Rock Climbing in the Black Hills

    1. Thanks. The Black Hills is such a lovely place! I feel like you can just point a camera in any direction, snap a few shots, and they’ll turn out beautiful!

      I can’t say if climbing would cure your vertigo, but it couldn’t hurt to try, so long as you’re careful.

  1. Nice, and well done on the climbs.

    I would note this post was getting into Too Long, Didn’t Read territory – maybe break a post like this into two or more posts?

    1. Thanks Dave! In hindsight, it definitely would make a better multi-post tale as I definitely did get a bit long there! Thanks for sticking through it anyway!

  2. Some great pics, and an exciting read! You could definitely have split this into two or three posts. Some of the pics didn’t show properly on my screen (a desk top) – I had to click on them to open in a second tab. But what a cutie Leo is.

    1. Yeah, that Leo is something! Thanks for the input as well; when I was writing/editing it didn’t seem quite so long, but in hindsight it would probably be better as a few smaller posts. Also, thanks for the heads up about the photos. Not sure the cause, but I’ll look into it Most of all, I’m glad you enjoyed the read!

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