By Robin EH. Bagley
If you’re road-tripping along Interstate 90 in the Great Plains, it’s hard to miss the Black Hills, an island of tree-covered mountains in the middle of an ocean of prairie. The Black Hills, or Paha Sapa to the native peoples of the Northern Plains, are entirely unexpected but offer fantastic hiking and camping opportunities. Plan a stop in Spearfish, South Dakota to hike Crow Peak in the Black Hills National Forest. Crow Peak dominates the landscape west of Spearfish, its height makes the summit one of the best vantage points in the area and well worth the climb. Another bonus is that the trailhead is only about seven miles outside of Spearfish, so you can make the hike and cool off in town with a local microbrew.
The trailhead starts at an elevation of 4,200 feet, and the summit rises to 5,760 feet. Math doesn’t lie. You’ll climb over 1,500 feet in the 3.2 mile hike up, so be prepared to take breaks when you need to and bring plenty of water because a climb like that is a great workout. Who needs the gym? It’s the ultimate stair climber with fresher air and better views. The US Forest Service rates this trail “difficult,” and that’s true for the ascent. However, what goes up must come down, and the 3.2 miles back is all downhill.
Plan to spend some time at the top enjoying the views. Looking west you can see into Wyoming, and to the east you can see Mato Paha (Bear Butte). Watch for swallowtail butterflies at the top especially if any native plants are blooming. You’ll also want to watch out for snakes, which are always possible in the Black Hills. Rattlesnakes are possible, as are non-venomous bull snakes, but it can be difficult to tell the difference, so be watchful and keep your distance if you do see one.
The Black Hills are notorious for fast-brewing thunderstorms May through August, so hike early in the day in order to be off the peak before afternoon storms hit. If a storm brews up while you’re on the trail, turn around and head back down. Speaking from experience, Crow Peak gives hikers an excellent view of lightning storms, perhaps too close for comfort.
After a hot hike, celebrate with a cold beer from Spearfish’s local microbreweries, Crow Peak Brewing and Spearfish Brewing Company. And if you’re looking for some local fare, stop into Killian’s Food & Drink for the best fries west of the Missouri River.
Crow Peak’s trailhead is easily accessible from Spearfish. Just head seven miles west of Spearfish on Higgins Gulch Road and watch for the sign and parking area. Maps are usually available at the trailhead, but you can pick them up at many area visitor centers or download them from www.fs.usda.gov/recmain/blackhills/recreation. There are a number of Forest Service campgrounds in the area as well, check out www.fs.usda.gov/activity/blackhills/recreation/camping-cabins and look for the Northern Hills category.