Bear Butte in western South Dakota is a state park that features an important landmark for Plains Indians tribes. Bear Mountain is a religious site and sacred to many indigenous people. Many of the Native American Indians that hold Bear Butte sacred make pilgrimages to the mountain and leave prayer cloths, tobacco ties, flags, and other personal items as offerings.
I was unaware of Bear Butte when I decided to go out to Western South Dakota to visit friends and to reconnect with nature. On my way through Sturgis South Dakota, I could see this big lone mountain in the distance and though I didn’t know what it was, I knew I had to visit it. I visited many beautiful places in the Spearfish area and took many great photographs. The trip to Bear Butte was saved for last and it turned out to be the highlight of my trip.
Once I had arrived in Spearfish I asked about the lone mountain I had seen by Sturgis. I was told that it was called Bear Butte. An internet search gave me the history of the mountain and my excitement to visit it grew even more.
My two friends and I arrived at their Butte ready to explore it only to find out that they wouldn’t be able to take their dog up the mountain. They stayed behind as I began the hike up the trail. I was so excited to climb Bear Butte that I didn’t stop to look at the information, I didn’t even know if you climb only to the top. So with my camera, tripod, phone, and water, I began the hike.
It didn’t take long for the energy of Bear Butte to hit me and I had an instant emotional bond with the mountain. I could feel the energy of this mountain. I could feel the energy from the offerings left from hundreds(thousands, likely) of people who came before me. Colorful prayer cloths, bags, and items were tied to or hung on trees. The colors of the medicine wheel; red, yellow, white and black were dominant colors along the path. I actually had tears in my eyes as I walked along the path sensing the prayers and intentions of all these offerings.
The Lakota(Sioux) call Bear Butte Mathó Pahá or Bear Mountain. Bear Mountain is a better description than Butte. The Cheyenne believe Bear Butte is a sacred place where Ma’heo’o (God) gave the Cheyenne prophet Sweet Medicine the knowledge that Cheyenne political, social, religious and economic customs are based on. A mountain is truly a place of peace and prayer and I hope it remains this way for future generations.
As I’m walking up the trail I notice the green grass and trees begin to fade and be replaced by steeper inclines, rocks and fallen trees. At one point along the path is a sign that tells you a fire years ago took out 80% of the trees on the mountain. As you had farther up the mountain it gets deep and it begins to wind its way back and forth between peaks.
Normally I’m not one that likes high places but hiking up Bear Butte I never felt in danger. The higher I got the thinner the oxygen became and the few times I got dizzy and I had a mild headache off and on. I never felt as though I was going to fall, it was as if the mountain was hugging me and I felt safe all the way up and down.
After a half hour of hiking, I crossed paths with the father and his two sons who are descending the mountain. I asked them how much farther to the top. He said about another half hour of climbing. The two boys, around seven or eight years old were very excited to tell me that they had made it to the top!
The path gets quite narrow at times and near the top, it basically rocks you walk across. Sometimes it’s flat rock and sometimes it’s jagged rocks. With headaches coming and going and feeling tired, once or twice I thought I couldn’t go farther. But my spirit wouldn’t let me stop. I kept saying I can’t come this far and not make it to the top. I had to get to the top of Bear Butte.
A little over an hour of hiking I made it to the top of Bear Butte!
At the very peak of Bear Butte is a wooden observation platform giving you a 360° view of the surrounding area. And it’s a wonderful view! You can see in the above photograph I took there are trees adorned with the offerings of those who climbed the mountain before.
After relaxing for a few minutes and enjoying the view I sat down on the bench and meditate for a few minutes. I offered my blessings to those that come before me and those who will come after me. I expressed my wish that we all live as One.
I decided to leave one of my sandalwood mala bead bracelets as my offering to Bear Butte. I hung over the wooden railing as far as I could and tossed my bracelet onto a tree limb. I offered a prayer that all who reached this spot may be blessed.
It was beginning to get dark so I began the journey down the mountain. It always seems easier to go downhill than it does uphill. Just as I had taken photographs on the way up I also took photographs on the way down. Several times on the way down the emotion got to me as I felt the energy of the people and the mountain.
I don’t think I could accurately describe the feeling of being connected to nature as well as the people from the past, present, and future. I truly felt a part of the Universe on the journey of Bear Butte. Not only did I feel safe while on the mountain I felt as if there was no time and space… I was just at the moment.
When I had returned to where I had started, I turned around to face the mountain. I bowed my head, put my hands together and placed them to my heart. I thanked the mountain for letting me climb it, keeping me safe and reconnecting me to Mother Nature.
Hiking Bear Butte was a spiritual experience for me. I feel a bond with Bear Butte and look forward to the time when I can return and experience that magic again.
I have a few suggestions if you plan on visiting Bear Butte. Make sure you take a water bottle with you. There is a water fountain at the beginning of the path where you can fill up your bottle. It is the only place on the trail to get water. I had to ration my water on the trip down to make sure I did not overheat. On a hot summer day, it would be very difficult to have a comfortable journey without having plenty of water.
Along the path on Bear Butte thousands of offerings tied to the trees and bushes. Under no circumstances should you disturb that which has been left as offerings. Bear Butte is spiritual and religious police for many people, including myself. Respect it, please!
Take only photographs and leave nothing but footprints.