This really wasn’t what I was expecting. For whatever reason I thought we were going to be hiking on a hot dusty trail through an arid, dessert-like environment. Maybe it came from my experience hiking at nearby Badlands National Park several years back. Instead, the trail to Harney Peak passed through a pleasant forest of spruce, ponderosa pine, a few aspens, a couple of meadows, and a surprisingly large number of wildflowers.
The 7242-foot peak, the highest point in South Dakota, is located within the Black Elk Wilderness Area of the Black Hills. There are two primary trails that lead to this summit in the southwestern corner of the “Mount Rushmore State”. The Harney Peak-Willow Creek Trail, which begins from the Willow Creek Horse Camp and approaches the mountain from the north, is a 10-mile roundtrip hike that climbs roughly 2200 feet. We opted for the shorter route, a 7-mile roundtrip hike from Sylvan Lake that climbs roughly 1500 feet.
On the way to the trailhead we had a couple of interesting views of Mt. Rushmore:
About a half-mile into our hike we had the first views of our destination. It was fairly easy to pick out – just look for the stone tower atop the ridge towards the north.
The day we hiked this trail was the first day of the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Although we were miles from the road we could still hear the roar of the engines – even from as far away as the summit. To add insult to injury, we were buzzed a couple of times by a tour helicopter with a Harley Davidson logo on it!
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problems with the Sturgis Rally, I just wouldn’t recommend visiting the area this time of year if you’re looking for quiet and solitude. During the 24 hours we spent in the Black Hills area we probably saw at least a couple thousand motorcycles, even though we never came within 20 miles of Sturgis. If you think this might be an exaggeration, we were told that roughly 750,000 motorcyclists showed up for the event last year!
The peak was named in honor of General William S. Harney, a military commander in the Black Hills area during the Indian Wars. The mountain also served as a destination for Sioux Indians on their vision quests. Even today you’ll see a couple of prayer flags near the summit.
As already mentioned, there’s an old stone tower atop the summit that was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1939, and subsequently used as a fire lookout. Although no longer in use, it is open to hikers. A plaque at the tower states that Harney Peak is the highest point east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees Mountains of Europe.
If you ever decide to hike the mountain you may want to note that the chipmunks at the summit are extremely aggressive. Watch your food like a hawk, and don’t leave your backpack open.
The views from the summit were quite grand:
As a side note, Harney Peak became my 16th state highpoint!
Trail: Harney Peak-Sylvan Lake Trail
RT Distance: 7 miles
Elevation Gain: 1500
Max Elevation: 7242