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The tower looms over Willow Creek Trail, a 10-mile round trip path that starts at a horse camp southeast of Hill City.
The tower looms over Willow Creek Trail, a 10-mile round trip path that starts at a horse camp southeast of Hill City.
Though they are not native to the Black Hills, mountain goats thrive on Black Elk Peak.
Though they are not native to the Black Hills, mountain goats thrive on Black Elk Peak.
Matt Jackson watches the sun rise over Black Elk Peak on New Year's Day.
Matt Jackson watches the sun rise over Black Elk Peak on New Year's Day.
The pine beetle epidemic has greatly changed the landscape. This tree, photographed in February of 2015, was ailing.
The pine beetle epidemic has greatly changed the landscape. This tree, photographed in February of 2015, was ailing.
The least chipmunk is common around Black Elk Peak.
The least chipmunk is common around Black Elk Peak.
Fresh snow blankets the steps to the old granite fire tower, used to spot blazes until 1967.
Fresh snow blankets the steps to the old granite fire tower, used to spot blazes until 1967.

Ten Years of Hiking Black Elk Peak

Doing the same thing repeatedly may sound boring but it hasn’t been for Matt Jackson, a Rapid City carpenter who has hiked Black Elk Peak once a month for the last 10 years. His first trek was in 1980 while visiting from Chicago on a church retreat. Jackson was so amazed by the Black Hills’ beauty that he moved there in 1982. He was awed again while hiking Black Elk in the fall of 2005 and pledged to climb each month the following year. One year turned to several and Jackson thought, “No reason to stop.”

Black Elk Peak’s rocky, tree-strewn paths lie within Custer State Park and the Black Hills National Forest, with the most frequently used trailheads at Sylvan Lake. Jackson quickly explored every inch of those, and then realized that since his first climb in 1980 the routes had been changed to fight erosion. Staying on the trails is wise for novice hikers, but exploring off path is allowed — and Jackson has. He’s also a rock climber, so he’s comfortable scrambling through unfamiliar territory. He especially likes discovering old trail markers. “It’s kind of like forensic hiking to figure out where stuff went,” Jackson says. “Some of the abandoned trails are just spectacular.”

Unpredictable weather makes the area genuine mountain country. Jackson encountered large amounts of rain and hail on an ascent last May. “I was in an area I’d never been before and got kind of disoriented,” Jackson recalls. “But I could always see Black Elk Peak.” The sky had cleared when he began his descent. “Because of the amount of rain and snow, the water in this particular area was really flowing. Way down in one of those rocky canyons there was a gushing waterfall probably 25 feet tall. I’d be surprised if 10 people a year saw that spot.”

And few have probably seen the sunrise from the iconic fire tower, but Jackson did one June. “That happens at about 5 o’clock in the morning, so I had to leave home at 2:30. My wife said, ‘You know, you’re getting kind of crazy with this.’ But on the other hand, she’s very supportive because she will shuttle me on some of the hikes. When it’s a nice, calm and beautiful day, when a sensible person gets out and hikes, we’ll go together,” Jackson laughs.

One day in 2006 Jackson’s wife plucked a four-leaf clover. And though he didn’t find it, maybe the luck was still his. Jackson completed his 10-year streak in December 2015, at the age of 59. “The last two hikes I did up Black Elk Peak were over 15 miles. A lot of people I know 10 or 15 years younger, they couldn’t do it if they wanted to. I’m just thankful to be able to do it.”

Editor’s Note: This story is revised from the January/February 2016 issue of South Dakota Magazine. To order a copy or to subscribe, call (800) 456-5117.

Comments

04:27 pm - Fri, December 8 2017
Chick Barnett said:
That's what I like.....push yourself beyond your limit.... and continue to do it. It will reap rewards in future years.
Everyone should follow Matt Jackson's example. You will enjoy life more.....and live a lot longer.
C. Barnett

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