The first time I hiked up Bear Butte, I went up alone early in the morning. No one else was around as the wind whispered through the trees. The hike was more strenuous than I expected but nothing out of the ordinary. As I climbed, the sun broke through the high wispy clouds to pour its heat upon the rocks. Soon the summit was in sight and as I reached it, the breeze fell to almost nothing. Standing at the top, I looked over the plains and prairie and understood why this formation is sacred. There is something about this place that calls to you. I stood at the top and close my eyes, letting my other senses take in the surroundings. It was at that point, I heard a ruffle in the air. I heard it again and then I heard a “skreee” in the air above me. Looking up I saw a golden eagle circling in the thermals almost above me.
Mato Paha or “Bear Mountain” is the Lakota name given to this rocky outcrop jutting from the prairie. To the Cheyenne, it is “Noahvose.” This geological formation is one of several distinctive intrusions of igneous rock in the Black Hills that formed millions of years ago. The sedimentary rock long since worn away, the remaining formation resembles a bear laying on its side, hence the name. However, this rock formation is interesting in another way: the mountain is sacred to many Native American tribes.
A Sacred Mountain
Up to 60 Native Americans from the northern plains and Canada hold Bear Butte sacred as the place where the creator has chosen to communicate with them through visions and prayer. Their folklore says that the Great Spirit imparted the wisdom of how to live and behave to the first peoples on Bear Butte. Today it is not uncommon to see an encampment of native Americans at the base of the mountain during festival times. During our visit, we saw many colorful pieces of cloth and small bundles or pouches tied onto the trees. These prayer cloths and tobacco ties represent prayers offered by individuals during their worship. While no one was actively offering prayers during our climb, we admired the ones we saw from a distance and did not disturb these sacred offerings.
This time I’m not alone – I have the family in tow. I’ve talked about Bear Butte so much that once we came out west as a family it was a foregone conclusion that we would experience the trail together. The trail is a 1.8 mile one-way excursion up this laccolith that rises 1,253.5 feet above the surrounding plains. The family and I started out on a partly cloudy morning and encountered steep steps, a rocky path and places where you could not tell the trail from the rocky skree on the slopes. The hike to the top was warm and challenging but once at the top, you realized the effort was worth the reward. With full views in all four cardinal directions, you can see for miles to the East and North. To the West you can start to see the low foothills of the Rockies. To the South is Rapid City as well as the Black Hills, another sacred area for many Native Americans. I had hiked Bear Butte before and was glad that the family and I got to go up to the summit together. Once at the top, my daughter broke out her flute and offered a tune to the other hikers and the spirits around us. If you decide to take this challenge, you will see why native peoples held Bear Butte in reverence; this is truly a spiritual place.