Off trail: Big Challenges And Big Payoffs

By Jesse Maloney

Wilderness areas, national parks, and federal lands all have wonderful trail systems. Think of all the spectacular things you’ve seen on those few thoroughfares. Now imagine that those trail systems only allow you to see less than one percent of what most of those areas offer. For this reason, I study online satellite maps to find places that look like they may be worth visiting but are off the beaten path.

What lies beyond the trail? In some instances, it’s not appropriate to entertain that question. Fragile ecosystems deserve our careful stewardship. But what about the large swaths of land that are unexplored only because there are no visible entrances besides an occasional deer trail?

In many instances, thorns, briars, swamps, and inhospitable terrain are what they offer. But, occasionally, something spectacular appears around a corner. Waterfalls, hidden slot canyons, and rare wildlife have all come into my view just over a rock, under a tree, or on the other side of an angled ravine.

The last time I was in the Black Hills, I explored the Black Elk Wilderness. After an hour or so of trekking, I ventured off the trail toward some towering spires in the distance. There were no marked paths leading to them.  I had done some research ahead of time on satellite maps, the rugged and steep terrain offered promising views and plenty of exercise. The going was rough. I was breaking a sweat in 40*F weather. I squeezed through an eye between two crystalized granite spires. Once through, I was in a steep bowl about 100 meters in diameter. The giant bowl was filled with a salad mix of deadfall and large boulders shed from high above. On the far end of the bowl was a narrow slot canyon with terraced drops. This was the bowl’s drain. The canyon itself wasn’t more than 10 feet wide but was nestled between vertical walls measuring some 80 feet in height. At the end of the 4th terrace, the canyon narrowed to a small gap that dropped more than a hundred feet down the side of the mountain. There was no way forward in that direction without equipment and equipment was something that I did not have.

I climbed back up the terraces back to the bowl. The other end of the bowl was littered with enormous cloven slabs. They were old and weathered gray unlike the freshly exposed brown granite from recent falls. I scrambled over rocks the size of mobile homes. As I came over the top of the last monolith, I saw an undercut cave on the side of the bowl wall. It was about 8 feet tall and about 30 feet wide. It was well hidden from view. I had not seen it at all until I mounted the last hump.

Keen to explore any dark recess, I clambered closer. To my surprise, I was in a cave that had been inhabited by humans at some point long ago. At the entrance of the cave, there was a partial rock wall built up. Part of it had collapsed over the years, but it was made by someone either to hide their presence or keep out the elements. In the cave, there were remnants of an old fire. Dried logs, undisturbed for decades, flanked a fire pit. The pit had a three sided wind break built of large square stones to block wind from the cave’s entrance. Animals had used the cave for many years since because deer and ram pellets had accumulated to a measurable depth. I tried to imagine the sleeping arrangements, the stories that were told around that fire, and the people who built it. The lack of access to this area and the absence of any past presence other than the original inhabitants filled me with a sense of excitement and wonder. I was careful not to disturb anything in the cave. I wanted to leave it just as I had found it so that someone in the future might share the same experience that I was having.

It seems like no matter where you go, you always seem to find a candy wrapper or plastic bottle that indicates someone has been there before you. Getting off the trail to parts unknown is like a whole different kind of experience. More times than not, there are more bugs and thorns, there’s a greater chance of getting lost, and finding your cadence without a trail is next to impossible. Nevertheless, to know that you are seeing a sight that no one has witnessed in decades or more is a very rewarding and humbling moment.


Happy and safe trails everyone.