A sacred mountain on the plains
Bear Butte, near Sturgis, combines nature’s majesty and mystery in a way that has captivated visitors since before white people ever laid eyes on it.
Rising up from the surrounding plains, the “butte” is actually a lone, 4,422-foot mountain. Sioux Indians named it Mato Paha, which means “Bear Mountain,” because they thought the shape of the mountain resembles a bear sleeping on its side.
Bear Butte has a unique story and appearance that make it one of South Dakota’s cultural and geologic treasures, and for those reasons the mountain has been partially protected in modern times with a state park designation. It’s also a National Natural Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.
A geologic and historic wonder
There are plenty of other mountains in South Dakota, but Bear Butte’s striking singularity and rich geologic and cultural past make it stand apart literally and figuratively.
Geologists tell us that Bear Butte was formed by magma that intruded into cooler layers of the earth’s crust, causing an uplift and possibly an ancient volcano. Parts of the nearby Black Hills were formed in much the same way.
To understand the way Bear Butte looks in its environs, it’s helpful to imagine that when God created the mountains of the Black Hills, one of those mountains accidentally tumbled out onto the prairie. Bear Butte looks for everything like it’s supposed to be in a nearby range of peaks, but there it is, out on the plains, all alone.
Bear Butte’s isolation from other mountains has always made it a source of curiosity to passersby. Artifacts dating to 10,000 years ago have been found near the mountain, and in modern times Indians such as the Sioux and Cheyenne still consider it a sacred place. Indian people are allowed to conduct spiritual ceremonies on the mountain, and they often leave behind cloth prayer ties and tobacco pouches in the trees. Other visitors are asked to leave the items undisturbed.
Indians famous for battling the U.S. government, including Red Cloud, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, are said to have visited Bear Butte. In 1857, a council of thousands of Indians gathered there to discuss the incursion of whites onto their land. George Armstrong Custer made note of Bear Butte while leading a military expedition into the Black Hills in 1874, and after he discovered gold in the Hills, Bear Butte served as a guiding landmark for some who sought riches there.
The view from the summit
Bear Butte remains a landmark today for travelers approaching the Black Hills. From the east, the mountain is first seen as an ominous dark spot rising from the plains. The closer one approaches, the harder it is to avert the eyes, so strange is the site of this stark formation.
Bear Butte State Park includes a bison heard that grazes at the mountain’s base. A visitor center exists to provide information about the mountain’s history, geology and significance to Indians. There’s a campground at nearby Bear Butte Lake, and visitors can set out on the 111-mile Centennial Trail from the park. The trail stretches from Bear Butte into the heights of the Black Hills.
Anyone who visits the northern Black Hills without stopping at Bear Butte is missing out, and no visit to Bear Butte is truly complete without a hike to its summit.
The head of the Summit Trail is accessible from the visitor center parking lot. The 1.85-mile trail rises 900 feet and is very narrow, sometimes loose, and mostly unprotected from the vertical drop and the wind. Taking small children or pets on the trail is not advisable, and adults who are not in decent shape or are afraid of heights should probably also stay away.
While on the trail, you might feel a bit strange. It’s a somewhat unnerving experience to be focusing on a narrow mountain trail beneath your feet while seemingly the whole world stretches out from the corner of your eye, the view unbroken by any other mountains. A fire in recent years cleared Bear Butte of many trees, and the scarcity of trees along the trail adds to the sense that hikers are hanging off the side of the mountain, completely exposed to the sky and the vertical drop.
The view from the summit is unlike any other. Parts of four states, the Black Hills and the seemingly endless sweep of the plains can be seen from a wooden platform built on the peak.
Preserving a spiritual place
Some people who appreciate the mountain have become concerned of late with encroaching development from Sturgis and its annual motorcycle rally. Each summer, the rally fills the Black Hills with noisy motorcycles that can disturb the solitude of Bear Butte. Some biker campgrounds and bars are plainly visible from the mountain.
Efforts have been made to extend Bear Butte State Park’s boundaries, which do not include the entire mountain. As of 2009, however, those efforts had been stymied by state legislators who defeated Gov. Mike Rounds’ proposal to buy an easement from a private landowner.
Until such time as Bear Butte can be further protected by legal means, those who love the mountain ask that visitors and nearby land developers give it the respect it deserves. Tamra Brennan, who lives near Bear Butte and runs the grassroots organization Protect Bear Butte, summed up the mountain this way in a 2008 interview:
“It’s a very powerful and spiritual place. Anybody that doesn’t feel that, it just doesn’t make any sense.”
Bear Butte State Park
To learn more about the Bear Butte State Park, including camping and rates, check out our state park page on Bear Butte.