Black Hills and the Bighorn (aka Brokeback) Mountains

The Black Hills

After driving for three days, we finally left the flat expanse of the US Midwest and entered the Black Hills, South Dakota. A complex geologic history and spire rock formations made of eroded granite pillars made this an intriguing landscape adorned with beautiful pine trees. We also spotted giant US presidential faces on the flank of Mount Rushmore although their presence within the natural surroundings seemed odd to us. Add a few thousand automobiles, blatantly tacky tourist “towns”, and an entry fee of $11 USD to complete the obnoxious scene of American patriotism that baffled us and sent us speeding in the opposite direction after swift u-turn.

Despite being in mountainous terrain, the sweltering heat of the plains did not relent. After securing a spot at the picturesque first-come-first-served Center Lake Campground, we found a lovely shaded pine grove on the shores of the inviting jewel-coloured lake where we opted to soak up the afternoon. We later went on a full-moon safari in the coolness of the night where we spotted pronghorns, coyotes, and witnessed the lumbering spectacle of  mating buffalo.

The next day we hiked up Harney Peak (2,208m), the highest point of this humble mountain range that boasts the title of “the tallest peak in continental America east of the Rocky Mountains”. From there we completed a loop that took us to  Cathedral Spires and Little Devil’s Tower Spur before finishing at Sylvan Lake. After a much-needed and refreshing swim, we were back on the road in the blistering noon sun.

The Bighorn Mountains

Wyoming! We were ecstatic to cross the border and enter our destination State, although perhaps not mentally prepared to travel another few hundred kilometers through scorching fields before reaching the Bighorn Mountains. The highest peak of this rugged mountain range reaches 4,013m which makes these the closest 4 km+ mountains to Thunder Bay and the initial reason we embarked on this road trip. We were about to find out if it was worth the drive… and the answer is a definite yes.

We headed into the Bighorns for a few days after stopping at the Forest Services Office in the town of Buffalo to buy maps and some gain local insight. With a National Forest designation, camping within the Bighorns is free and free of the National-Park-Going-Crowds. The Bighorns were also the setting in Annie Proulx’s famous Brokeback Mountain short story. A friendly staff member regaled us with adventure stories and gave us two noteworthy tips:

  1. Check out the free Olympic size outdoor swimming pool in Buffalo (an oasis in the scalding heat)
  2. Head to Lake Angeline to camp on the shore of a glacial lake within reach of several summits.

Lake Angeline was a beautiful alpine lake perched at 3,200m under a small glacier with an expansive view of the forested valley bellow. We were the only people to camp in this pristine setting amidst pikas, marmots, elk, deer and at least one mountain lion that we spotted along the skyline as the sun was setting. We summited a nearby peak (3,500+m) early in the morning before heading back down and hitting the road that would take us to Grand Teton National Park.

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