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I Love Lookout Mountain… and I’m Willing to Share

Former Spearfish mayor Jerry Krambeck worries that we're going to love Lookout Mountain to death. With views like this, how couldn't we?

Runner at sunset, Lookout Mountain, overlooking Spearfish, South Dakota. Photo credit: D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery, May 10, 2013.
Runner at sunset, Lookout Mountain, overlooking Spearfish, South Dakota. Photo credit: D.C. Booth Fish Hatchery, May 10, 2013.

Great galloping trail runners! Slap this photo on the Dakota Roots kiosk at the Mall of America, and you'll double the number of Minnesotans moving to South Dakota overnight.

Spearfish and the entire Black Hills are a playground, but Lookout Mountain is my favorite run. During my two-year stay in Spearfish, I had an amazing, challenging, and breathtakingly scenic trail run just five minutes on foot from my doorstep. The terrain ranges from open plains to bob-and-weave forest path to four-point rock scramble.

The views, as you can see above, are spectacular. Climbing even a quarter of the way up, to the limestone shelves along the west face of Lookout, rewards hikers with a panoramic view of Spearfish—and wherever you live, there is something psychically healthy about being able to walk to a place where you can see your town, all of its trees and streets and buildings together, in the context of the surrounding countryside. On a family hike, we got our little one to climb cheerfully all the way to the top, where she could see all of Spearfish, from Exit 8 to Exit 17, plus the Canyon and Crow Peak, Belle Fourche and Orman Dam, Bear Butte and its far lonely sisters to the north, and other wonders of geography seen from on high.

As a bonus, when we returned from our family hike, we could sit at Killian's eating supper, look out the window, and see the mountain we had just climbed. Lookout Mountain isn't a distant landmark on the horizon; for Spearfishers and Spearfish visitors, it can be a close friend, a place known by eye and foot.

All downhill from here: the author struggles forth after scaling Lookout Mountain in the Thoen Stone Run, May 11, 2013. Photo by Jay Bogard, from the D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery and Archives.
All downhill from here: the author struggles forth after scaling Lookout Mountain in the Thoen Stone Run, May 11, 2013. Photo by Jay Bogard, via the D.C. Booth Historic Fish Hatchery and Archives.

After years of sporadic, never-quite-satisfying jogging between bike rides, Lookout Mountain (along with a light pair of Merrills) helped me fall back in love with running. I rode my mountain bike there once or twice, but it wasn't as fun as running or hiking Lookout. Frankly, I don't have the technical skills for some of the narrow, rocky, rooty trails, and I don't care to slip and go head-over-derailleur down a 50- or 100-foot drop (as one of my French students did on purpose). Besides, I see no way that any mortal two-wheeler can make it up to the very top by pedaling. Instead of hopping off and on the saddle and carrying the bike over the scary spots, I enjoy Lookout more with a nice steady run or walk.

But I've seen bike tracks and bikers on Lookout. I admire their muscle and tenacity. As long as they tread lightly and follow basic trail etiquette of yielding to foot traffic (which this guy does not at 7:10 of his Lookout ride video as he scares four walkers out of his downhill way), I'm more than happy to share Lookout Mountain with all adventurers who want to experience it under their own power...

...which brings me back to Mr. Krambeck's comment about loving Lookout to death. Krambeck was speaking at a Spearfish City Council meeting this week, during which the Spearfish Trails and Recreation Committee (not a formal city committee, as far as I can tell, but a citizens group) offered its ideas for developing a more organized and sustainable trail system on Lookout Mountain. Currently there are no maps or trail markers to help new visitors find their way around Lookout. Hikers and bikers have blazed some trails across contour lines instead of following contour lines, causing erosion problems. The state Department of Transportation has padlocked one frequently used access point, the gate at Exit 12, saying that parking on the exit ramp there is dangerous and illegal (someone, please, shout "Nanny state!" here). The remaining public gates are both hard to find: the Nevada Street trailhead sits past a dead end with no official signage and leads through an unlit tunnel under I-90; the other access point is hidden away on Pony Express Lane in the serpentine streets of the Sandstone development.

The Spearfish Trails and Recreation Committee would like to remedy those problems with maps, signage, volunteers to establish and carry out a trail maintenance plan, and even separate trails for hiking and biking. Says STAR committee member Jim Meyer:

“In the end, our hope is that we can create a clear hiking trail to the summit that is orientated just for hiking.”

When it comes to the path created specifically for mountain biking, he explained his vision is to have the route veer toward the left where the trails meander toward the summit.

As for maintenance, Meyer said the committee would be happy to create a nonprofit entity made up of hikers, bikers, runners and anyone else who enjoys Lookout Mountain for recreational purposes, to put together a plan, fundraise to get everything going and recruit people to assist that committee in repairing trails.

“We think it’s a good idea to have trails that are specific to both,” Meyer said [Heather Murschel, "City Hears New Vision for Lookout Mountain," Black Hills Pioneer, 2013.07.11].

So what's Jerry Krambeck's problem? He and longtime Spearfish resident and activist Rosalie Aslesen don't want to have to look out for bikes on Lookout:

...former Mayor Jerry Krambeck said Lookout Mountain should be “left to the rattlesnakes and the cactus,” and that building a trail head would violate the conservation easements and only encourage heavier bike traffic on the preserve.

“We need to remember the citizens of Spearfish purchased Lookout Mountain, and it wasn’t meant for special interests,” Krambeck said. “I don’t want to take my grandchildren up there or other people and have to duck off the mountain because there’s too many bicycles up there. We need to be very cautious. I don’t think we’re going to protect it. I think we’re going to love it to death."

Fellow preservation trust member Rosalie Aslesen said she thought existing biking on the mountain verged on abuse of the landscape.

“This is an issue important to all people of Spearfish, not just to those who ride bikes or hike on the mountain,” Aslesen said. “We did a lot of work to preserve this mountain and now it’s being turned over to bicycle use. I think you’ve gone a little too far here" [Tom Griffith, "Lookout Mountain in Spearfish: Will Cyclists 'Love It to Death'?"].

"Special interest" is a term we use to denigrate and marginalize political opponents. I'm not sure that's an appropriate term to use in Spearfish to describe neighbors who enjoy outdoor recreation. Jim Meyer may be a bicycle nut, but he's not advocating a plan that will benefit some small cabal of outsiders with interests inimical to Spearfish's general welfare. As Griffith explains, one conservation easement that covers 98% of Lookout's existing trails explicitly allows bicycles; the easement covering the remaining land says no wheeled travel. Meyer and other bicycling enthusiasts can probably work with that. Developing an accessible, findable trailhead and maintaining and marking trails can only help visitors better respect both easements and protect Lookout Mountain for future enjoyment.

In other words, developing an organized and sustainable system of trails on Lookout Mountain doesn't serve some nasty "special interest"; it serves Spearfish interest. The STAR committee's plan promotes outdoor recreation, public health, and tourism.

If you love Lookout Mountain, you don't lock it up and turn people away. You treat the mountain right, and you share it with others. You hike and pedal politely, watch out for snakes, and enjoy that amazing sunset.


  1. Tony Amert 2013.07.14

    What a strange opinion. The various biking groups in the hills are by far the most active stewards of existing, established trails. They log ~10x more public work hours than any other group. The erosion issues that they have identified would be corrected by general trail maintenance.

    I can understand that shared use trails may be a little uncomfortable for hikers at first, but the users adapt very quickly. The HLMP park in Rapid City is a perfect example of how a great shared use trail system can operate, very successfully.

  2. Rorschach 2013.07.14

    It sounds to me like the STAR committee is on the right track (no pun intended). Does former Mayor Krambeck live on Lookout Mountain and think it's his private paradise?

    I'm wearing my Merrills today. Wish I were there.

  3. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.14

    Very good point, Tony! I thought of you and of Hanson-Larsen Memorial Park when I was writing this post. Indeed, HLMP is a perfect model for Lookout Mountain: well-mapped and well-marked trails, shared use, dedicated volunteers, and scenic up close and from afar. Bikers and hikers alike can learn to share.

  4. Les 2013.07.14

    How many miles have you logged biking the Black Elk Wilderness Cory? You know the ATV crowd outnumbers you by....oh....I'll use Tony's 10X number for as much fact as he produces. How about the ATV folks come to the mountain with the same vigor and their higher representation?

  5. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.15

    Les, on Lookout, don't both easements prohibit motorized travel?

    Motorized recreation represents a much higher level of noise, risk to other travelers, and wear and tear on the trail. Motorized recreation also fails to serve the community health goal of trail development on Lookout Mountain. If you plan to box me into a slippery slope or false dilemma of "If you allow bikes, you have to allow ATVs," I'll argue that ATV impact is very different from bike impact before I advocate no mechanical travel.

  6. interested party 2013.07.15

    Les is right, Cory: Lookout Mountain has been at risk since the Battle of Greasy Grass. Nothing the Yellowstone supervolcano won't fix.

  7. interested party 2013.07.15

    If people really wanted to fight sprawl in LawCo they would be lawyering up: Spearditch has been fighting the Battle of Lookout Mountain for at least sixty years.

  8. interested party 2013.07.15

    If the Emerald Coast has become the Redneck Riviera the Black Hills has become the White Bluffs.

  9. Les 2013.07.15

    You're right about much of it Cory, but the ATV numbers outweigh you and numbers don't translate into common sense and will eventually win with elections or fraud which can walk hand in hand.
    Look at the last of the precious Valley being paved over for a school and housing and they are now annexing which will cave on the remainder in Lower Valley! The true history of the town was that precious Valley and its produce. I can't remember ever looking up at the mountain and saying that's grand but I do have memories of all the wonderful produce in the first 7 years of my life of visiting the area. She's a goner if you start chipping away at any of the roadblocks to desecration. Jerry's right on this one.

  10. interested party 2013.07.15

    Realtors and developers on the LawCo commission: wth did you expect, Cory?

  11. interested party 2013.07.15

    Reed Richards might be the only LawCo Dem with any clout: maybe seek him out.

  12. Mama 2013.07.15

    Thank you for the insight about Lookout Mountain. So in regard to Spearfish, I am convinced that the federal government should sell some the land back to the people so that the precious, fertile farm ground of the Valley is not paved over for schools and houses. I too miss the produce.

  13. caheidelberger Post author | 2013.07.15

    I certainly don't want to ride my bike through anyone's cucumber garden. Does the federal government own any of that fertile Spearfish Valley land?

  14. interested party 2013.07.15

    Corps of Engineers is the final word on the creek, FS leases from Jorgenson (i think), FWS works in cooperation with Booth Hatchery.

  15. interested party 2013.07.15

    FEMA undoubtedly has a 500-year event plan for the Valley.

  16. interested party 2013.07.15

    Landslides in the canyon pose risk as do fires in the urban/wildland interface: a combination of events could create a perfect storm.

  17. Mama 2013.07.15

    Cory, I am not aware of the federal govt owning Spearfish Valley land (but, I suppose they could). My comment (and opinion) stems from studying Native Americans in the southwest who dwelt in hills and farmed the fertile, stream laden valleys. I certainly know that the federal government owns hilly land around the Northern Hills. It's called the Black Hills Forest (US Dept of Agriculture). Also, there is a lot of Bureau of Land Mgt (BLM/US Dept of Interior) in and around Spearfish and Sturgis. So, my point is why can't the federal govt sell (auction) some (not saying all) of the hill and rocky knoll land back to the people so that they can dwell and preserve the farm land for food production?

  18. interested party 2013.07.15

    BLM regional office is in Belle, the Bureau of Reclamation has some regulatory control over the hydroelectric plant, EPA some oversight over runoff.

  19. interested party 2013.07.15

    Irrigation rights ultimately determine whether pulse crops have a future in the lower valley.

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