Harney Peak - South Dakota
4 Gilbertsons: Matthew, Eric, Keith (Dad), and Verdie (Grandpa) Gilbertson
11:30pm 7/29/11 – 7am 7/31/11
Total driving miles: 900
Total hiking miles: 8.0
-Our quest for the State High Points
-Link to our Dad’s blog
Sometime in mid 2010 Eric and decided that we were going to finish the state high points by the end of 2011. We’re not really sure why we set this deadline, but it was nice to have a goal for the year.
That meant sooner or later we’d have to visit North Dakota. Now North Dakota isn’t exactly known for its stunning topography. Before we climbed White Butte we figured that North Dakota was basically just one giant wheat field in between Minnesota and Montana. During this trip we discovered that that’s mostly true, but we’re also here to report that the highest point in the state is quite a bit more interesting than you might expect.
During many trips to Minnesota over the years, a couple of trips to the South Dakota Badlands, and a bike ride into Montana we had somehow managed to miss the high points in North and South Dakota. With our Dad visiting our Grandpa in Montevideo, Minnesota at the beginning of August we figured it’d be the perfect week to finish off some high points.
We rendezvoused with our Dad and 87-year-old-but-still-vigorous Grandpa in Rapid City, South Dakota around 11:30pm Friday night. It was going to be a tight weekend because we had a flight that left Minneapolis for Pittsburgh on Sunday morning at 7am. That meant we’d have to climb Harney Peak (SD) and White Butte (ND) and drive 900 miles in just 31 hours. But we knew it’d work out somehow.
After a couple hours of sleep we grabbed our free continental breakfast at Super 8 in the morning and were on our way.
Destination 1: Harney Peak (7,244ft) – South Dakota
We swung by Mount Rushmore and reached the Sylvan Lake trailhead by about 9am. (Sylvan lake is where they filmed part of the second National Treasure movie.) Since we had a tight schedule our Dad and Grandpa had done their part by getting us to the trailhead early. Now it was time for Eric and me to do our part by finishing the hike quickly. Eric and I didn’t want to slow our Grandpa down so we asked him if he would guard base camp while we summitted. Grandpa, with his experience in the Vosges Mountains during World War II, was well-qualified and graciously obliged. Meanwhile, our Dad, a seasoned high point veteran, volunteered to stay back and help guard the SUV.
The trail was pretty easy and certainly runnable. If we had brought mountain bikes we would have ridden them until the wilderness boundary, but running shoes were a lot more portable than a mountain bike. We were glad we hadn’t started any later because it was already getting hot and we were sweating out most of the water we drank.
After just 3 miles and 1500ft of climbing we were on the roof of South Dakota. There’s a really cool old stone fire tower at the top. In its heyday quite a few people could have lived in it. There’s even a small reservoir near the tower that the rangers probably got their water from. It was a little tricky to capture the traditional ritualistic jumping photos inside the fire tower so we decided it would be permissible to get them outside.
Now spending too much time on a high point can be dangerous. If you hang out for too long you might think of pictures that you wish you would have taken on the other high points. Eric and I had already taken our jumping photos, juggling photos, and arms-up summit photos and were looking for something else to photograph. Recently I had discovered some cool free panorama stitching software called Microsoft Composite Image Editor and wanted to get some panoramas on the rest of the high points. Having a 360 degree panorama really gives you a good idea of what the summit looks like. The panorama we eventually created for Harney Peak turned out really well .
Our philosophy today was to rush up to the summit, hang out and enjoy the view, then race back to the car and get moving. On the way back the trail turned out to be extremely runnable and we made it back to the car in a total time of 1:39:00, including 25 minutes of fooling around on the summit. Our Dad and Grandpa were waiting for us, and reported that there had been no incidents at base camp. Grandpa had been busy working on his Table PC, planning the route to North Dakota.
Destination 2: White Butte (3,506ft) – North Dakota
We wiped the sweat off ou faces and hopped back Grandpa’s Chevy TrailBlazer. There had been enough tomfoolery already and there were still a lot of miles between us and Minneapolis so we didn’t waste a second and headed north.
One candidate location for the “Middle of Nowhere” might be northwestern South Dakota. After you descend out of the Black Hills the trees disappear and give way to open rangeland. Incidentally, the northwestern corner of South Dakota is also the geographic center of the United States. This is the point where a flat rigid map of the 50 United States would balance. Despite this prestigious distinction there wasn’t a whole lot to see in the vicinity so we kept on driving.
After passing through the towns of Belle Fourche, Redig, and Buffalo we triumphantly reached the North Dakota border. A big blue sign welcomed us to the “Legendary” state. We snapped a few requisite photos and started walking back to the car when another SUV pulled up and seven people stepped out. It turned out they were on the quest for all 50 states (but not high points) and North Dakota was near the end of their list. They took some pictures next to the welcome sign, although I’m not entirely sure they actually stepped across the state border.
We were getting closer to the roof of North Dakota. We could feel it. Instead of rolling hills there were actually a few humps off to the northeast and the GPS indicated that one of them was the high point. We were getting into Butte Country.
The previous week we had done our homework on SummitPost and knew where to go. The GPS told us to turn on some little gravel side roads and we obeyed. Soon we pulled up next to the spot I had marked on the GPS as the “trailhead.”
“Uh, there’s supposed to be some kind of old farmhouse according to SummitPost,” Eric said. We drove up to what looked like a farmhouse and I knocked on the door. No answer. We drove a little ways back down the road to a gate with a Private Property sign. It looked like the road that we had planned on taking based on the satellite photos no longer existed.
“I don’t know, why don’t we try calling the landowners?” I suggested. White Butte is actually on private property so you’re supposed to call the landowners before you climb. I tried the phone number given on SummitPost but there was no answer. “Well, that looks like the top right there so why don’t we just start walking?”
There weren’t too many obstacles between us and what looked like the top so we decided to go for it. We were originally hoping to have three generations of Gilbertsons at the top, but of course someone needed to guard the SUV. Our Grandpa, being fluent in the Upper North Dakotan farmer dialect, decided that he would be the best-qualified among us to deal with any locals who might give us a hard time, and said “Oh ya, I can guard the car.” Eric and I were a little uneasy to be without our translator during the climb, but we figured we could manage. Our Dad, meanwhile, agreed to help guard the SUV and serve as the base camp photographer.
We passed through the gate and headed off into the field towards the summit. It would have been nice to be wearing long pants or possibly some boots to protect against rattlesnakes. We had read that “the butte country crawls with rattlesnakes in the summer” so at first we treaded carefully. We were in kind of a hurry though so we soon gave up on watching for snakes and marched up the mountain, hoping that we’d get lucky and not step on any rattlers.
With a few last steps we triumphantly topped out. But wait a minute. This wasn’t the top. It turned out there was an obviously-taller butte a half mile away. Argh. This is what we refer to a “false summit.” The GPS confirmed that indeed we weren’t on White Butte. We had gotten carried away, and climbed the tallest thing we could see. Oh well, we thought, we’d get some extra hiking in today.
We carefully downclimbed some crumbly mud/rock/scree slopes and then after a little bit of scrambling we topped out on another grassy hill that was the tallest thing around and thus the highest point in North Dakota.
The landscape around us was surprisingly awesome. We were on top of a large grass-covered white butte that resembled the Badlands of South Dakota. All around us were similar buttes, all rising a few hundred feet above the surrounding fields. Green grass mixed with sagebrush extended beyond the buttes as far as the eye could see. If we had more time we would have liked to explore some of the little canyons below us.
The summit register indicated that several other groups had been there the day before. They had probably found the official trail, we figured, because the route we had taken was completely different than SummitPost had described.
We fooled around just long enough for a 360 degree panorama, the other customary summit photos, and paused to admire the view. But then, alas, it was time to get moving. We didn’t realize it at the time, but every minute that we spent on the climb would mean a minute less sleep that night. To spice things up we found a different route down that required some butt-glissading on mud-scree. We figured that we had probably found the hardest possible way down the mountain. But that made it more interesting.
A little farther down the butte we turned a corner and suddenly came face-to-face with a big black bull. Ok, it wasn’t exactly face-to-face but it was pretty close. Turned out we had the bull cornered on a little cliff. He didn’t look happy. He glared at my nice bright red shirt. I didn’t feel like playing matador today so we kicked it into gear and sprinted out of the way.
After squelching through a few fresh cowpies and getting thrashed by some sagebrush we successfully made it back to base camp around 3:30pm. It is widely believed in the Norwegian-Minnesotan community that if you stood on a tall barn in western North Dakota and waved a white sheet you could see it all the way from Montevideo, 450 miles away. “Could you see us at the car?” our Grandpa asked. “Yep, and we could see all the way to Montevideo,” Eric answered.
Destination 3: Pittsburgh (elevation 906ft)
The hardest part about climbing the highest point in North Dakota is actually the drive back to Minneapolis. With our Dad at the helm we made it to “The Cities” around 2:30am, and got a few hours of sleep at our aunt’s house before our 7am flight to Pittsburgh.
But the highest points in North and South Dakota were only the beginning of our adventures that week. In a few days we’d be back in Minnesota for four more high points…
Owner: Matthew Gilbertson
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