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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.