Start, 11:04 AM, 33°F, intersection of USFS Roads No. 189, 189.4A & 631.2C about 0.33 mile WSW of Crooks Tower
This was supposed to be an expedition to celebrate the rapid approach of a glorious new summer! Lupe would explore mysteriously named Balm of Gilead Gulch before continuing on to Cement Ridge. There, beneath cotton ball clouds sailing a crystal blue sea, the Carolina Dog would sniff colorful wildflowers swaying in warm breezes. She would gaze upon panoramic views of Inyan Kara, the Bear Lodge Mountains, and far into eastern Wyoming.
The scene would both excite the imagination and serve as a call to action! Nearly 8.5 months after Lupe’s return from her grand Summer of 2016 Dingo Vacation to the Canadian Rockies, Yukon & Alaska, the time for new Dingo adventures beyond the Black Hills was almost here!
Hah! Dream on. Even before leaving home, SPHP knew the forecast didn’t include much in the way of warm breezes.
A week ago on Expedition No. 204, Lupe had visited Crooks Tower (7,137 ft.), one of the highest points in the Black Hills. She’d made a day of it coming up from Merow Spring and Clayton Pond, and subsequently continuing on to Peak 6820. Now, driving W on South Rapid Creek Road (USFS Road No. 231), it occurred to SPHP that Loop was very close to Crooks Tower again. Why not go back for a good look at how much conditions had changed?
It wasn’t necessary to spend a whole day on foot and paw to get to Crooks Tower. In fact, a 2 mile detour S on USFS Road No. 189 would bring Lupe to a point only 0.33 mile WSW of the summit. Let’s do it! SPHP made the turn. Five minutes later, Lupe sprang out of the G6 into a world where the mood was better suited to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer than 4th of July fireworks.
Although the forecast called for 0% chance of precipitation, the sky was heavily overcast. Any more overcast, and Lupe would have been in a fog. Humidity filled the air. It felt like it could rain buckets at any time. Or snow. At a chilly 33°F, snow seemed equally plausible. The ground was already white with the stuff.
Lupe concealed her disappointment with summer’s non-arrival well. In fact, she seemed thrilled and energized by the snow. She charged through fields and forests as SPHP began a mucky march E along USFS Road No. 189.4A.
About 0.33 mile from the G6, the road passed just S of the summit of Crooks Tower. Lupe and SPHP left the road to take the short path leading to the top from the SW. Only a week after her 8th ascent, Lupe was here for the 9th time.
Having been here only a week ago, Lupe and SPHP dawdled only a little while on Crooks Tower. It was fun to be there again, but the plan was still to explore Balm of Gilead Gulch and reach Cement Ridge today. Lupe returned to the G6 (11:35 AM, 33°F), and SPHP drove onward.
N of Highway 85, a little W of O’Neill Pass, SPHP parked the G6 again (11:53 AM, 39°F) near corrals S of the junction of USFS Roads No. 175 (Willow Springs Road) and No. 106 (Riflepit Canyon Road). Here Lupe was only 0.67 mile W of Laird Peak (6,906 ft.), another mountain along the way. SPHP figured she might as well climb it, too, since it was an easy peak and wouldn’t take long.
An unmarked grassy road led E from the parking area up a little valley past Tom Spring. This area was hundreds of feet lower than Crooks Tower, so there wasn’t nearly as much snow around. What snow there was in the pines was melting fast. Snowmelt dripped to the ground in such abundance, Lupe was getting rained on beneath the trees.
Tom Spring was a muddy area. Water poured from a pipe into a circular water trough. Not too exciting. Lupe didn’t seem interested. She pressed on up the valley. The road faded somewhat beyond Tom Spring, but could still be followed.
Upon reaching a ridgeline where several better dirt roads intersected, Lupe took a road going N. She stayed on it for only 100 feet or so to get past a fence running E/W. She then turned E following the N side of the fence line. Laird Peak’s summit was only a couple hundred yards ahead. The summit appeared only as a small hill in the forest.
Lupe quickly reached the top. The summit area was easily the size of a modest yard in town and quite flat. Deadfall timber lay scattered about the perimeter of a small clearing. A sign marking the location of the survey benchmark was in sight near the N edge of the clearing.
Pine bark beetles had damaged the surrounding forest enough to provide tree-broken glimpses of distant views in various directions, but only enough to tantalize. Lupe couldn’t really see much from here other than the immediate area. With no clear views to contemplate, the American Dingo was soon ready to go.
The sky was still overcast, but not as darkly as before. Now and then a small patch of blue sky appeared. SPHP kept expecting the clouds to burn off, but they didn’t. Instead the clouds kept closing up the gaps, and the sunshine would disappear. Nothing had really changed by the time Lupe reached the G6 again (12:45 PM).
A winding drive NW down Grand Canyon ensued. USFS Road No. 175 turned to No. 875 at the Wyoming border. By the time SPHP parked the G6 at the intersection of No. 875 & No. 804, it was already 1:23 PM (47°F). If Lupe was going to explore Balm of Gilead Gulch and still have time to reach Cement Ridge, she had best get on with it. The Carolina Dog and SPHP took off heading E up Rattlesnake Canyon on No. 804.
The stroll up Rattlesnake Canyon was easy. A couple of miles E of the G6, SPHP started looking for a R (S) turn on USFS Road No. 804.1A which would take Lupe up into Balm of Gilead Gulch. A road going S up a hill did appear. There weren’t any signs at the turn, but a forest service gate was in view a little way up the hill.
Was this No. 804.1A? It didn’t seem quite right. The topo map showed a 4WD trail heading S up a smaller valley about 0.5 mile before (W of) the turn to Balm of Gilead Gulch, and this was the first side road Lupe had come to. SPHP almost led Lupe past this road, but decided she might as well check out the forest service gate for any clues first.
Good thing! Nearing the gate, Lupe found a marker showing this was USFS Road No. 804.1A.
So this was it! Lupe was bound for Balm of Gilead Gulch! Except for one thing that raised doubts again. As the Carolina Dog trotted past the gate, SPHP noticed large white letters on the round metal swivel housing on the L. The letters read OLDB 05. What did that mean? SPHP was suspicious.
It might mean that this road had been renumbered. USFS Road No. 805 went up Wagon Canyon 1.5 miles to the S. Was this possibly a connecting spur, formerly known as No. 805.B? Seemed like a possibility, but who knew? May as well try it. After all, the official sign did say this was No. 804.1A, which was supposed to be the road into Balm of Gilead Gulch.
Lupe continued up No. 804.1A. The road turned SE and led up a small forested valley. The day had warmed up some, and Lupe was still considerably lower here than she had been at either Crooks Tower or Laird Peak, so she didn’t find any snow in this area. There had been some, though. The road was damp, nearly muddy.
Although no tire tracks were to be seen, an amazing number of animal tracks crisscrossed the soft road. It wasn’t long before Lupe started seeing wildlife – whitetail deer and Lupe’s giant deers – the elk.
It was fun being where there were so many animals in the forest, and sort of easy to see why they were here. No tire tracks on the road at all meant people seldom come here. The forest was full of hidden grassy glens. This was a good place to hide and hang out.
Lupe gained elevation steadily for perhaps a mile before the road leveled out. Here, the main road turned SW and started going downhill. A fainter road curved ESE. Lupe needed to go E, so she took the fainter road. When she wanted to stop for a water break 5 or 10 minutes later, SPHP took a look at the maps.
Hmmm. SPHP was soon convinced that Lupe hadn’t been traveling through Balm of Gilead Gulch at all. Where the main road had turned SW, it almost had to be headed for Kirley Gulch on its way down to Wagon Canyon. Apparently the road numbers really had been changed. The old No. 804.1A leading into Balm of Gilead Gulch that Lupe had been looking for was no more. The new No. 804.1A actually was a road connecting No. 804 in Rattlesnake Canyon and No. 805 in Wagon Canyon.
The inescapable conclusion was that Balm of Gilead Gulch was 0.5 mile N or NE of where Lupe was now. She could have gone through the forest looking for it, but that would have meant losing elevation she’d already gained. Furthermore, she would only get to travel through part of the gulch. Instead of doing that, SPHP decided Lupe might just as well continue on to Cement Ridge. She could hit Balm of Gilead Gulch on the way back.
Break done, Lupe roamed happily in the forest along a series of remote USFS roads. She traveled E or SE, and once in a while NE. She was generally still gaining elevation, but at a slow rate. Sometimes there were markers at the road junctions, but even when there were, usually only one road was marked. It wasn’t always clear which road the marker was meant for.
This was pretty high country, but due to the forest, Lupe seldom had any distant views. Some ridges did eventually appear off to the S and SW. Loop was already nearly as high as they were.
On her explorations, Lupe either traveled along or passed by USFS Roads No. 805.3J, 805.3G, and 805.3A. About two miles E of where she’d left No. 804.1A, she came down a side road marked No. 105.1B to arrive at the first major gravel road she’d seen since leaving No. 804 down in Rattlesnake Canyon.
A check of the maps revealed that Loop was now only 0.25 mile S of No. 105’s junction with No. 804. Cement Ridge (6,674 ft.) was only 1.5 miles NNW beyond the intersection. Before setting out again, Lupe was ready for more water and Taste of the Wild. SPHP ate the only apple, which was supposed to have been saved for Cement Ridge, but, oh well.
All tanked up again, Lupe set off along No. 105 for Cement Ridge. Upon reaching the junction with No. 804, she followed No. 804 NNW a good 0.5 mile to its high point, then plunged into the forest. The American Dingo loves being off road most of all, so she had a grand time. Gradually things got steeper, but it was never more than a straightforward trudge up a hill.
When Lupe reached the ridgeline along the N face, she turned W and followed the ridge a short distance to a pathetic little limestone cairn at the high point. This was it, the true summit of Cement Ridge!
Virtually no one from the Black Hills region would recognize this place where Lupe was now as the summit of Cement Ridge. This might be the true summit according to the topo maps, but only a handful of peakbagging Dingoes would even be aware of its existence. Cement Ridge is well known locally as one of the Black Hills’ premier viewpoints, but what everyone around here is referring to are the views from the Cement Ridge fire lookout tower.
The fire lookout tower is located on a barren highpoint near the NW end of Cement Ridge over a mile from the true summit. According to the topo map, the lookout tower is 27 feet lower than the true summit. Nevertheless, the views from the tower are far superior to those available from the heavily forested true summit.
Lupe could see the lookout tower from the true summit. Perhaps it was only an illusion, but it actually looked higher to SPHP.
Lupe had no comment on which point she thought might be highest, the lookout tower or this pathetic little cairn. She was content to let surveyors battle that one out. However, when SPHP asked if she wanted to go see the fabulous views at the tower, she was all for that!
A 10 minute trek N down through an aspen forest brought Lupe to a saddle where USFS Road No. 850 coming up from the W turns N. Loop followed the road all the way to the lookout tower. Not a soul was around.
Instead of cotton ball clouds sailing a crystal blue sky, Lupe saw scattered tiny patches of blue lost in a gray-white ocean. She felt no warm breezes. There were wildflowers to sniff, but they tossed about tormented by a chilly N breeze. The views were wonderful, but felt remote and forlorn, not bright and inspiring.
With sweeping views in nearly all directions, Lupe saw a great many Black Hills peaks she had been to before. The wind was coldest and strongest, though, up near the fire tower. Lupe and SPHP retreated a bit down the W slope to an old picnic table. Conditions were only slightly better here, and only the views to the W could still be seen, but they were grand.
Looper and SPHP stayed at the lower picnic table soaking it all in.
Cement Ridge would be a great place to see the sunset, but Lupe was here too early for that. The sun wouldn’t set for another couple of hours. Even if she waited, the sky was so overcast, it wasn’t likely she would see much. Besides, if she was ever going to see Balm of Gilead Gulch, she needed to get going.
Puppy ho! After a little rest curled up beneath the old picnic table, Lupe set out for Balm of Gilead Gulch again. The first part of the journey took her SE back along the length of Cement Ridge. This time, instead of following the access road, she stayed up on the highest parts of the ridge where she could see the terrific views to the E.
On her way, since she had to pass so close to it again, Lupe returned to Cement Ridge’s true summit.
Since Looper was now in a hurry to get to Balm of Gilead Gulch before the sun set, she stayed only a couple of minutes at the summit before pressing on to the S. She came across a dirt road going SSE, which was faster for SPHP than traveling through the forest.
Going down this road, suddenly sunshine was filtering through the trees. The sky, which had been 90%+ overcast all day long, was almost completely clear! SPHP was astonished at how fast this transformation had taken place. Only a few clouds remained. The rest hadn’t floated on by, they had simply dissipated into thin air.
The sun was noticeably lower now, but would still be up for a while. The evening light brought out even more wildlife. Lupe saw more whitetails and giant deers.
The road eventually reached USFS Road No. 105, this time a little E of its junction with No. 804. A marker showed Lupe had been coming down USFS Road No. 105.1A.
Earlier in the day, before ever reaching No. 105 on her way to Cement Ridge, Lupe had reached a broad gentle saddle where there was a 4-way intersection. This was probably where she’d gotten on No. 105.1B as she continued E at the time. However, SPHP had seen that the road going NW from there sloped gradually into a wide valley. That wide valley was likely the upper end of Balm of Gilead Gulch.
With the sun getting ever lower, Lupe and SPHP hurried back along No. 105.1B, hoping to reach the broad saddle before the sun was down. Even hurrying along, it was hard not to appreciate the beauty of the sunlight filtered by the trees. What a wonderful evening trek! Lupe was enthusiastic. She raced through the forest exploring everything.
Lupe did make it to the broad saddle before the sun was down. She turned NW on the road leading through the wide valley. She followed the road a little way, but left it to follow a single track trail W down into Balm of Gilead Gulch.
Lupe traveled the entire length of Balm of Gilead Gulch, as sunlight left the valley floor to linger on the forested hillsides. The pale golden light of day retreated to the uppermost treetops, and was lost. Lupe saw deer. She saw elk. A hawk screeched and flew away. Lower down where the valley narrowed, the Carolina Dog came to a tiny stream.
It was all beautiful, but though she sniffed and looked everywhere she could, the Carolina Dog never found it. If a different road to a different place hadn’t been relabeled as USFS Road No. 804.1A, she would have been here much earlier and had more time. Maybe, maybe then, she would have found it. As it was, twilight faded, darkness descended, stars glittered in the night sky.
But Lupe never did find the fabled Balm of Gilead. (End 9:32 PM, 32°F)
“Prophet! said I, “thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil! –
Whether Tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted –
On this home by Horror haunted – tell me truly, I implore –
Is there – is there balm in Gilead? – tell me, tell me, I implore!”
Quoth the Raven “Nevermore.”
from The Raven, Edgar Allen Poe
Note: The Cement Ridge fire lookout tower is accessible by road from the W or SE by following USFS Road No. 804 to No. 850. The true summit is the hill immediately S of where No. 850 reaches a saddle on the ridgeline, and turns N to continue on to the lookout. Another route exists from the E on USFS Road No. 103 to this same point, but requires a high clearance vehicle.