Detour: Cathedral Spires

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After we departed Wind Cave National Park, we entered Custer State Park. Founded in 1912 in part by the efforts of Peter Norbeck, who would be so instrumental in the creation of Badlands National Monument, the park now comprises 71,000 acres of the Black Hills. Our destination was the Cathedral Spires formation in the northwest corner of the park, deep in the granite heart of the Black Hills.

Immediately upon entering Custer, we were stopped by road construction and had to wait for a leader car, just as we’d done adjacent to Jewel Cave National Monument.

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After the road work, the highway passed through rolling hills and then on into higher mountains. We passed picturesque cabins, running streams, and larger campgrounds. At the Needles Highway, we turned left and began twisting up toward the area of the spires. The road was narrow, and there were two one-lane tunnels.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

We were decidedly in mountain forest, and the rock surrounding us was the hard granite that had been lifted up about 65 million years ago to created the center of the Black Hills. The softer limestone of Wind Cave and Jewel Cave had long since eroded away from this part of the hills.

We rounded a curve and saw the first needles, which gave the highway its name, out across a steep valley.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

A short while later, we were parked at the trailhead. The Cathedral Spires Trail is 1.5 miles one way and although it intersects other trails in the Harney Range, it dead ends at the Spires.

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The first section of the trail descended gradually into the upper part of the valley of mixed conifer and deciduous forest.

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Blue diamond arrows point the way.

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Shortly after crossing a small creek, we spotted a mule deer in a clearing.

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Mule Deer

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The trail began to rise more steeply, ultimately coming to a section that was almost steps carved into the rock. We passed hikers descending the trail, and we were overtaken by a boisterous group, who seemed to be a mix of family and friends. They were laughing and talking and were apparently on a ten-mile hike through the Harney Range.

I mention it because they were Latino and their boisterous presence belied the usual narrative that holds that only white people like to hike. Truth be told, wherever we went, Sean’s presence as a gay Filipino-American broke the stereotypical mold, but we had also met African and Asian Americans enjoying trails and had encountered gays and lesbians and people of all ages. There’s actually a lot of diversity out there on the trails. And it also made me wonder how the data are collected. How was Sean counted? How was I?

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After we reached the top of the steep section, the trail leveled out on its approach to the Cathedral Spires. It was all somewhat reminiscent of Pinnacles National Park, underscoring the historical happenstance of the patchwork quilt of protection for wild lands in the West. This was a state park, that was a National Park.

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Yellow Goatsbeard

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The trail ended after passing through a semi-circular area surrounded by the towers of the eroded pinnacles and spires. There was something of a micro-climate, and it was the only time I noticed sub-alpine plants.

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Aster

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Beyond the end of the trail, the Black Elk Wilderness in Black Hills National Forest beckoned.

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The photo below shows the scale of the surroundings.

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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Image: Sean M. Santos

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After munching on some energy bars, we headed back down the trail. Sean remarked that in the future, children’s haircuts will look like this thistle below.

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Wavyleaf Thistle. Image: Sean M. Santos

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Harebell Campanula

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Buffaloberry

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Wild raspberries

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Goldenrod

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Back in the car, we returned the way we came down the Needles Highway and cut across the northern end of Custer State Park, picking up the highway that wound its way to Mount Rushmore.

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