Planning the Trip
After climbing Cloud Peak in 2007 my wife Julie and I decided to try Black Tooth Mountain since it's the only other 13'er within easy driving distance of South Dakota. It also looked a lot more adventurous!
We checked the topo map and thought of starting at Willow Park Reservoir. When we finally got hold of a Bighorn National Forest ranger on the phone she told us there was only ATV access to Willow Park and Penrose Park. She suggested we drive up the Little Goose Road but said there was a major stream crossing at Little Goose Campground and that a crew was in the process of clearing logs from the road so we couldn't make it all the way to the trailhead. Since we wanted to drive there in our Corolla that left Bighorn Reservoir as the nearest starting point, and she told us we could park next to a gate at the lake's mouth.
Rocker Paully's route description
and trip report
were our only sources of detailed information, so we printed them out and took them along. We gave ourselves five full days because we didn't know exactly what to expect on the cross-country portions of the route. This gave us an opportunity to perfect our new light-weight backpacking strategy.
We drove nearly all night on August 7th then parked to sleep a couple hours on the Red Grade Road above the town of Big Horn (south of Sheridan) before making the final drive to the trailhead. We turned off of the Red Grade Road and drove to Park Reservoir with no problem, and then we took the road that climbed up to Bighorn Reservoir. It became far too steep and rocky for a compact car, but with several spinouts and encounters with rocks we managed to meander our way up. Then we ate granola and packed our packs and were ready to start.
The trailhead at Bighorn Reservoir
is very confusing, and we got off to a terrible start. The topo map shows a trail going around the west side of the lake and continuing on to Cross Creek Reservoir
, but the Solitude Trail
that we wanted to take branches off between the two reservoirs. We also found a prominent trail along the east side of Bighorn Reservoir that appeared to be a shortcut to the Solitude Trail, so we took that instead. It branched several times and we ended up in a bog along the south side of the lake. We found a road that crossed the creek to the west and took the road to Cross Creek Reservoir, but we never found the Solitude Trail. The road ended at Cross Creek Reservoir so we headed east cross country up a steep, rocky hillside in hopes of intersecting the Solitude Trail. It was a rough route over a boulderfield and several brushy creeks, but we finally found it. (On the way back we found where we had gone wrong. The key is to stay on the most well-beaten trail east of Bighorn Reservoir rather than dropping down to the lakeshore.)
Cross Creek Reservoir
Once on the Solitude Trail it was easy traveling into the higher mountains. We passed a group on horseback and a boy scout (with two adults) who had been at the Little Sioux Scout Camp when the tornado killed several scouts earlier in the summer. But for the rest of the trip, until we returned to Bighorn Reservoir, we didn't see another soul.
After about three miles on the Solitude Trail things became confusing again because the trail was not as indicated on the topo map. Near a point at 10,370 feet elevation the trail does not continue heading south over a pass but instead turns east and drops down to cross the head of East Fork Little Goose Creek
before climbing back up to Highland Park
. The benefit of this "new" route is that it stays at a more constant elevation and crosses a nice source of water.
Highland Park is amazing in being so large and flat--and it became an obvious landmark for the rest of our trip. It also provided the first good view of Black Tooth Mountain and the other dark, jagged peaks that surround it! We took the trail south across the park toward Highland Lake
, and eventually the trail dropped steeply down to this lake. We continued on the trail until it crossed the creek that exited the lake, but then things became confusing again. The trail to Highland Lake is not on the map, and it seemed to be heading toward Kearney Lake
which was not where we wanted to go. We wanted to head south to Princess Falls that drain the Sawtooth Lakes (west of Penrose Peak).
We headed south cross country and ended up in some rocky crags in the forest. Several times we came upon a large trail and followed it for a while only to have it disappear again. Soon the waterfall came into view so we headed in that direction and ended up on a trail again. Before crossing Kearney Creek
we stopped and camped for the night.
Lower Sawtooth Lakes
August 9th was a long day of cross country hiking and climbing. We began by crossing Kearney Creek and locating a trail/route that ascends the west side of Princess Falls
up to the Sawtooth Lakes
. The ascent wasn't too difficult and provided a spectacular view of Highland Park. But we encountered a problem above the waterfall when the trail ended at a creek that required wading and climbing over logs. Once again we were off the trail and making slow progress. (On the return we found a better way farther west.) Eventually we found a trail again, but it wasn't consistently good.
Innominate and Mount Woolsey
The Sawtooth Lakes are beautiful, as is the jagged sawtooth ridge above them to the east. The west side of the canyon is also a sheer wall, and we watched several rockfalls crash down. The curvature of this canyon blocked our view of Black Tooth Mountain most of the day, but there was plenty to see. There are ten sawtooth lakes in all, and we climbed and traversed around all of them. The upper ones still had some ice cover. Eventually the trail disappeared entirely, and we also had to cross some snowfields.
Uppermost Sawtooth Lake
We hoped to camp at the uppermost Sawtooth Lake, but it was a small icy mess in a deep, steep depression in the middle of a giant boulderfield. It had nothing to recommend it as a campsite. Above it was a steep field of layered ice--probably the last remnant of a former glacier. Flat ground was hard to find, but we maneuvered the boulderfield to the base of Black Tooth Mountain and moved enough black sand to pitch our tent near a stream. We were perfectly positioned for our summit ascent the next day.
Black Tooth Mountain
Weather was a concern, and we had a brief hail storm that drove us into our tent for a while. But then it cleared up and was a pleasant evening. The rocks were full of pikas and marmots. I left Julie and made a late climb southward up a ridge toward Hallelujah for a better view of Black Tooth Mountain above and the Sawtooth Lakes below, and I returned after dark by flashlight.
Day 3 - Black Tooth Mountain
We left our camp with a day pack and crossed a small snowfield to begin our climb up Black Tooth Mountain
by the Northeast Ramp
described by Rocker Paully. The steep ramp is formed by a dike of mafic rock that erodes faster than the surrounding gneiss.
Climbing the ramp
It appeared from below to be the best route, but it was hard to determine its difficulty without being on it. The ramp was steep and required considerable route finding in places, but there were only a few spots that were exposed and difficult to climb. We had to be careful not to knock rocks on each other. Another option was a snowy ramp just to the east, but we decided to stay on dry rock.
Rocker's report mentioned a rope anchor, and we brought a short rope along in case we needed it. After ascending a steep, narrow chute where I had to give Julie a boost we found it. (On the way down I even convinced her to downclimb it without the rope.)
Above this steep chute the slope was not as steep and the terrain was more open. It was just a rocky scramble up to the twin summits of Black Tooth. The east summit looked higher, but we knew it was the west one we were after. The view from the summit was spectacular, especially of the flat-topped Cloud Peak to the south and the many lakes in valleys to the west. We hurried to eat lunch and take photos because the weather was threatening and a storm was predicted for later in the day. We had achieved our main goal.
Cloud Peak from Black Tooth
Downclimbing the ramp was no more difficult than ascending it, and we reached our tent in the early afternoon. After packing up and photographing a friendly marmot we started down the canyon, this time taking a snowfield on the west side of the canyon to avoid the difficult boulderfield around the highest Sawtooth Lake. In several places we took a different route around the lakes than we had on the way up.
Third Sawtooth Lake
Since we were tired from three long days of hiking and still had a couple days remaining, we stopped well before dark and camped at the third Sawtooth Lake on a perfectly flat spot of ground next to a giant boulder. The storm had passed without much action and the sky was clear and deep blue. As we began to feel rested the idea of climbing Penrose Peak, looming in the crags above us to the southeast, got into our heads, and we planned a route to ascend it the next morning.
Day 4 - Penrose Peak
Black Tooth Mountain from Penrose Peak
From the third Sawtooth Lake we climbed a boulderfield heading northeast around the base of a cliff to gain access to what looked like a nice sloping ramp up Penrose Peak
. The boulders became large and hard to cross, but travel became easier on the ramp and included some grassy areas. The peak was obscured by many false summits, or rather by endless hummocky boulderfields. The rocks became very large once again and were steep in places. But we continued climbing up to the south until the large summit cairn came into view.
Penrose Peak provided a unique and spectacular view of Black Tooth Mountains and surrounding peaks, of the Sawtooth Lakes, and of Highland Park and all the lakes to the north. The distinctive plateau of Cloud Peak was even visible over a pass. It was difficult to leave the peace of the summit and return to the endless boulder crawl that awaited us. There was no other option on the first part of the descent, but when we got to the meadow farther down the ramp we decided to descend to the lowermost Sawtooth Lake rather than the third one to avoid the boulderfield we had first climbed in the morning. It was definitely a better route even though we had to take the trail back up to the third lake to retrieve our tent and gear.
Cloud Peak Reservoir
In the afternoon we descended the Princess Falls down to Kearney Creek and tried once again to find a trail from there to Highland Lake. But once again the trail appeared and disappeared, and we spent most of the time following a GPS track. When we arrived at Highland Lake we met a large moose browsing in the bushes by the creek, hardly bothered by our presence..
We filled all our water bottles at Highland Lake in preparation for a dry camp then made the steep ascent to Highland Park
. We crossed the park in the low evening sunlight, often looking back at the looming black peaks behind us. We camped at the pass at the north end of Highland Park and found some trees to the west of the trail to shelter us from the wind
Highland Park was a fun place to wake up since it provided a clear and early view of the rising sun and a spectaculr view of the high summits. The hike down the Solitude Trail seemed longer than on the way up because we were so tired from four days of hiking and climbing. But we still felt like we had the whole mountain range to ourselves. We crossed East Fork Little Goose Creek and descended the trail toward Bighorn Reservoir
. Once again it was difficult to tell which of several trails to take, but the main one (not on the topo map) led us along the east side of Bighorn Reservoir to our car. This time Bighorn Reservoir was crowded with fishermen and people taking short strolls.
Black Tooth Mountain
Driving down to Park Reservoir was more difficult than driving up, and we got high centered once and had to build a rock ramp to get the car moving again. We wished we had just hiked from Park Reservoir (adding 1.5 miles and 500 vertical feet) to avoid this hazard.
We drove to the town of Buffalo and stopped at a ranger station for a forest map, hoping it would have updated trails from the 1967 topo map. But the newly-printed maps had all the same trail errors and were no help at all. We consoled ourselves with big ice cream cones at a little ice cream stand! We drove to Rapid City for the night then paid a visit to the tiny town of Faith to see the exhibit of Sue the Tyrannosaurus
before heading home to Siouxland.