Most of our Summits On The Air (SOTA) activity is here in Colorado but every once in a while, Joyce/K0JJW and I get the opportunity to branch out to other locations. It’s a fun thing to do with SOTA…do a little hiking, sightseeing and ham radio operating. On this trip, we decided to visit the Black Hills region of South Dakota, a place we had enjoyed many years ago.
Our general approach was to identify a list of SOTA summits that were not too difficult, with reasonable activator points (>6) and in locations we wanted to visit. (One good method is to use the SOTA database to sort summits by points, then look for ones that have been activated the most. Those are usually easy to access.) I noticed that Gary/KT0A had activated all of the summits on my list so I emailed him and received some great advice. Gary has also provided most of the activation notes in the SOTA database, which proved to be helpful. Thanks, Gary.
We use VHF and UHF exclusively for our SOTA activations, so I was a bit concerned about whether we’d find enough VHF activity in the area. Typically, we can work 100 miles or so on 2m FM from a summit without too much trouble but if no one is out there, it’s kind of difficult to make radio contact. South Dakota is not the most populous state, so it was a concern.
We spent three days in the western South Dakota area: did three summits the first day, three summits the second day and two summits the third day. The Black Hills are about a 6 hour drive from the Denver area, which makes for a good SOTA destination from Colorado.
Scotts Bluff (W0N/PH-005)
Hey, wait a minute, this one is in Nebraska, not the Dakotas. It turns out Nebraska (W0N) has 15 SOTA summits, most of them in the pan handle of the state. Scotts Bluff (4649 feet) is located in Scotts Bluff National Monument and has historical significance as an important landmark on the Oregon Trail. This is an excellent example of the SOTA program providing that extra incentive to visit a new location that we otherwise would have skipped.
We drove to the parking lot near the summit followed by a short hike to the actual high point. (Yes, you can hike up from below if you’d prefer.) We ran into Bob/KC0OZ who is a volunteer at the national monument (and his dog Leeloo). I wasn’t sure how much VHF activity I would encounter on a weekday but we found quite a few friendly folks lurking on 2m FM in the area. I think Bob knew everyone that we worked on the 2m band.
Rankin Ridge (W0D/BB-089)
Inside Wind Cave National Park, Rankin Ridge is a 1-mile (200 feet vertical) loop trail in good condition, providing an easy hike to a lookout tower. (The lookout tower was marked “no entry”.) This was a very enjoyable hike and should be on the “must do” list for this area.
Mount Coolidge (W0D/BB-012)
Mount Coolidge is a drive-up summit (good gravel road, 2WD), easily accessible from Highway 87 in Custer State Park. It is the site of an historical rock lookout tower which is now encroached on by many radio towers. The Custer State Park web site says the road to Mount Coolidge is generally open 9 am – 5 pm from Memorial Day into late September.
This summit is easy to access and provides some very good views of the Black Hills. Even though I’m a fan of radio towers and antennas, the way they surround the historic lookout tower really detracts from the summit. Don’t come here expecting a wilderness experience.
Odakota Mountain (W0D/BB-002)
This summit is a relatively easy bushwhack hike through grass and over some downed timber, less than a 1/2-mile in distance and only 100 feet vertical. You’ll want to have the Black Hills National Forest map guiding yourself to this summit. Actually, that map is useful for all of these summits in South Dakota.
Bear Mountain (W0D/BB-029)
Next up was Bear Mountain, another summit that has a lookout tower now accompanied by radio towers. (Not as bad as Mount Coolidge.) There is a good gravel road to the summit suitable for 2WD vehicles. Again, the Black Hills National Forest map is a great resource for access information.
Atlantic Hill (W0D/BB-037)
This summit was a reasonable bushwhack hike with lots of tall grass and significant downed timber. My GPS app measured the distance at 0.45 miles with 450 feet vertical.
We followed KT0A’s instructions from the SOTA website which took us to the west side of Atlantic Hill. Again, use the Black Hills National Forest map for guidance. The map below shows the road as “297 1G” but it was just labeled “G”. Also, note that the road is gated closed for part of the year. The “G” road looked a bit sketchy but turned out to be easy to navigate with our crossover SUV. The map below shows the track we took. There was no trail and at times the grass was very tall. All things considered this was a good hike and the summit is quite pleasant.
Cicero Peak (W0D/BB-009)
Cicero Peak has a rocky road (FS 338) to the summit, OK for high clearance 2WD vehicles. There’s a small radio site at the summit. The views are probably wonderful but we did not see any because of the low hanging clouds when we were there. This road also has a gate at the bottom and is closed seasonally.
Custer Mountain (W0D/BB-010)
Custer Mountain was the toughest hike of the trip…a bushwhack through tall grass, downed timber and plenty of rock near the summit. Actually, the worst part was the swarms of gnats that followed us everywhere — they were out in full force after the rainy weather. Actually, I think it was the gnats that wore us out…difficult to step over rocks and logs when you’re swatting the little buggers.
Again, we followed KT0A’s activation notes on the SOTA web site. There is really no “good” way to ascend the mountain but the map below shows the track we used to descend the mountain. It has a few less rocks and downed trees to climb over. The key is to approach the summit from the west/northwest. The distance recorded on my GPS app was 0.83 miles and 650 feet vertical.
Our radio gear varied from summit to summit but we always carried a Yaesu FT-90 2m/70cm transceiver, an Arrow 3-element yagi for 2m, dualband j-pole for 2m/70cm and a gaggle of handheld transceivers. On most of the summits, we also had the FT-817 so we could work CW/SSB on 2m and 6m. As usual, most of the contact were on 146.52 MHz FM, using the FT-90.
NC0K and W0FUI were listening a lot and worked us on 5 summits, KE0LXT snagged us on 4 summits (and met us in person on Bear Mountain). We worked KD0UST from 2 summits.
Our longest distance QSOs were with Jim/WD0BQM in Mitchell, NE (grid DN81cw). From Scotts Bluff we both worked Jim on 2m FM at relatively short range. On Odakota Mountain, we worked Jim/WD0BQM in Mitchell, Nebraska (Grid DN81cw) on 2m at a distance of 139 miles. I initially worked Jim on CW with very good signals. Joyce also worked him on SSB but she had to work a bit to complete that contact. From Bear Mountain, I worked Jim on 2m CW again with some difficulty because signals were clearly weaker but Joyce was not able to complete using SSB. Thanks for getting on the air with us, Jim!
I made one 6m ssb contact with K0CX from Bear Mountain. Other stations worked during the trip: KC0WVE, N8XBD, WB0VAO, KB0ZXH, KL7MH, N0SQ, W0SSB, KD0QDG, KD0ZIP, AF0DJ, KD0ZIR, W0NIL, W7REA, K0CX, WB0PZQ, N0DUX, N0DUW, KC0GWU, W3MEB, W7LFB, W0LFB, KF0XO. We managed to make at least 4 QSOs on each summit without too much difficulty by calling on 146.52 MHz. On Custer Mountain, we got impatient and went over to the 146.85 MHz (Bear Mountain) repeater to beg for a simplex contact. Thanks, KF0XO.
It was a great trip to a beautiful part of the western United States. We met some really nice hams along the way. Thanks to everyone that took the time to work us on the summits.
73, Bob K0NR