Compared to the other forested mountains of the Black Hills, Bear Butte is a bit of an oddity. Separated from the other hills, this lone formation presents a rather rugged appearance with jutting rocks and little to no trees. You’ll find it standing near Sturgis, South Dakota and when it comes into view it dominates the horizon.
It’s probably been about 20 years since I had last hiked Bear Butte State Park. Because Rapid City is so close to so many outstanding outdoor options – it can be easy to overlook the ones that stand alone. As I mentioned before the hike to the summit offers little opportunity for shade, so it’s a great one to do once the weather cools down. Which is exactly what my dad and I did.
There are some important things to know before you adventure out to Bear Butte. First, it’s a state park so you’ll have to pay the entrance fee. There are daily or annual pass options available. Bear Butte has a lake at it’s base so you can enjoy fishing (if you have a South Dakota fishing license) and other water activities, and the park also has a small herd of bison. Dogs are not allowed on the mountain so if you are traveling with pets consider sending them to doggie day care in Rapid City while you explore.
On top of being a unique place for outdoor adventures, Bear Butte is a sacred site to many American Indian tribes. Religious ceremonies take place on the mountain and many individuals go there to say prayer. The colorful cloth and small bundles you’ll see attached to the trees along the trail are prayer offerings left by past visitors. Mato Paha or “Bear Mountain”, which is the Lakota name for this formation, is a place they believe their creator has chosen to communicate with them. You can sense it while hiking, the whole mountain has this spiritual feeling that I can only describe as calming.
The hike is 1.85 miles from start to the summit. The summit is 4,426 feet above sea level with a vertical climb of over 900 feet from the parking lot. Although it’s rated as a moderate hike, the climb in elevation can make it feel like a more strenuous hike. Thankfully, the park has placed benches along the trail so you can take a break and enjoy the beautiful view like we did. To help cut down on the steepness of the trail, it does feature a lot of switch backs, especially near the top. It’s important to wear good hiking shoes since portions of the trail are made with loose rock, and to bring plenty of water.
Bear Butte is a Registered National Landmark and a Registered National Trail and although it has butte in the name, the formation is not a flat-topped butte as you’ll discover when hiking it. The formation is called a laccolith by Geologists, and it’s the remains of a volcano that didn’t erupt. It’s a fascinating formation to learn about and even more so to experience in person. If you’re heading our way in search of epic outdoor adventures don’t overlook this sleeping beauty.