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Some say Bear Butte looks like a pregnant woman reclining or a bear lying on its side. It was formed by volcanic-like forces beneath the earth's surface. Photos by Rebecca and Jeremy Johnson.
Some say Bear Butte looks like a pregnant woman reclining or a bear lying on its side. It was formed by volcanic-like forces beneath the earth's surface. Photos by Rebecca and Jeremy Johnson.
Camping and fishing are available at Bear Butte Lake just across Highway 79.
Camping and fishing are available at Bear Butte Lake just across Highway 79.
Rebecca Johnson at the summit of Bear Butte on a hike in 2009.
Rebecca Johnson at the summit of Bear Butte on a hike in 2009.

Sacred Bear Butte

Oct 28, 2011

I’m always on the lookout for new hiking trails in South Dakota, but there are a few that keep me coming back. One such trail would be Summit Trail at Bear Butte. I got hooked after first visiting with my parents when I was a teenager. The scenery and view were amazing, but I was fascinated by the butte’s spiritual significance. We saw many colorful prayer flags tied to tree branches. There were pouches and cans of tobacco that I assumed were left for offerings. As the strong winds blew through the trees and tangled my hair, I knew there was something going on here that was much bigger than me.

Bear Butte, located just outside Sturgis, was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1981. The area is sacred to many Native American tribes. According to Cheyenne custom, this is where holy man Sweet Medicine met the Creator and the Four Sacred Persons who guard the Universe. It is still the site for many traditional religious ceremonies and visitors are asked to be respectful. I recall seeing a sign asking us not to photograph religious artifacts or anyone in prayer.

Summit Trail is 1.85 miles long and winds to Bear Butte’s highest point, 4,426 feet above sea level. It takes about 2-3 hours, depending on how often you stop to contemplate the meaning of life. It’s windy at the top, so bring a jacket, and there’s an amazing view of the Black Hills, Sturgis and the surrounding states.

Plans to drill oil near Bear Butte sparked controversy earlier this year when SD Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Board of Minerals authorized Nakota Energy, LLP to construct up to 24 oil wells one and one-half miles west of Bear Butte. And about 360 acres of the oil field were within the Bear Butte National Historic Landmark boundary. The South Dakota Historic Preservation Office and many American Indian groups quickly objected because laws protecting cultural, archaeological and historic sites were not obeyed.

This spring the board did revoke the original permit and granted a new one with stricter guidelines. Now only five wells can be drilled and they must not be within view from Highway 79. I assume you will still be able to see them from the summit of the butte. Personally I would prefer the landscape not be marred. I’d rather not have to see any oil wells at all near one of my favorite hiking spots in South Dakota.

 

Comments

07:05 am - Fri, October 28 2011
Josh said:
I love hiking Bear Butte, it is one of the first trails I hiked after moving to the area.
08:08 am - Fri, October 28 2011
John Andrews said:
So are the five oil wells still within the National Historic Landmark boundaries? It seems federal regulations would preclude something like that altogether.
08:28 am - Fri, October 28 2011
Rebecca said:
Good question, John. The five oil wells were required to be outside the boundary of the Bear Butte historic site, but some groups consider the entire Black Hills to be sacred and still think this drilling should not be allowed. http://protectbearbutte.com/2011/06/meade-county-objects-to-bear-butte-decision/
11:38 am - Fri, October 28 2011
Heidi said:
I'm putting this on my list of hikes to do in South Dakota. Its seems less strenuous than others in the state. Do you think kids could even hike it?
11:55 am - Fri, October 28 2011
Rebecca said:
I think kids can hike it. Just have them wear proper shoes. When we got done hiking last time we saw some parents start the hike with their kids wearing flip flops. I would not recommend that! There are a lot of sharp rocks on some of the trail and you could lose your footing.
05:46 am - Sat, October 29 2011
Grant said:
I was once told that if one were to stand at the entrance to Ft. Meade and look toward Bear Butte...one should be able to "make out" the "bear image"... I was not able to. Has anyone seen the "Bear" in Bear Butte ?
06:49 am - Mon, October 31 2011
Rebecca said:
I'm not sure I have, Grant. I think it is supposed to look like a bear lying down.
07:55 am - Mon, October 31 2011
Grant said:
I've always wished that some photographer would take a picture of "the bear" and then make it available so others could "see it"....Maybe even enhance the photo to make the bear "easy to spot"...
07:58 am - Mon, October 31 2011
Rebecca said:
That would be nice! I'd like that, too.
10:05 pm - Tue, December 11 2012
Robert said:
I think you all sound like really decent people, but don't you think walking around places that are as Holy as Jesus's Birthplace to a living People is a little disrespectful? Native Americans pay their taxes also and I bet if they were asked not to do something that white people found disrespectful they would listen. just saying, your all very nice though and I hope you do enjoy all your freedoms as well.
07:44 am - Fri, January 18 2013
Rebecca said:
Interesting point, Robert. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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