Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hiking Harney Peak

While visiting my family back in South Dakota, one item stood high on my "must do" list - climbing Harney Peak.

Size matters!  Click on any photo to enjoy a larger version.

Summit this way!

Located in the beautiful Black Hills, Harney Peak, at 7,242 feet, is the highest point in South Dakota.  Not only that, it's also the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains.  The summit provides an amazing panorama including the granite cliffs and forests of the Black Hills, and also the distant plains of Nebraska, Wyoming, and Montana.

Trailhead family photo

My growing up years in the Black Hills included numerous treks to the top of this mountain.  I have fond memories of hikes taken on the Harney Peak Trail.  (I'm sure that's one of the reasons I love hiking so much!)

My mom found a piece of mica

But it's been awhile since I've been up Harney Peak.  So during this year's visit, I made it a priority to go there.

The forested trail was lovely

My parents, always up for a hike, agreed to come along.  Then three of my brothers and two nephews decided to join the party!  It was gonna be a family hiking extravaganza.

Late summer wildflowers

The trailhead is located at Sylvan Lake, in Custer State Park.  Sylvan Lake itself is a lovely mountain lake, rimmed by huge granite spires.  There's a nice trail that encircles it's shoreline, one of the many wonderful hikes in this area.  But that trail would have to wait.  Today we had summit fever.  To the top of Harney Peak - or bust!

My nephews at the first viewpoint
The trailhead began in a green meadow, encircled by ponderosa pines.  It was 3.5 miles and 1100 feet of climbing to our destination.  Our group followed the wide, well-graded path as it wound through the forest.  After a mile or so, the trees opened up to a rocky outcrop.  The views here were outstanding.  The lumpy granite cliffs of the Black Hills spread out before us, with a glimpse of our destination - Harney Peak's lookout tower - on the horizon.    


My folks resting with their grandkids

This area of the Black Hills has an interesting geologic past.  The mountains were formed by magma welling up underneath the earth's crust, causing the adjacent land to uplift.  The magma cooled slowly, causing many unusual minerals to form.  Around Harney Peak, along with abundant granite, visitors will find quartz, feldspar and mica.  These sparkly minerals, welded into the rock, stand out from the gray granite. Small fragments even find their way into the dusty trail, creating a glittering path.

Bark beetle trees

My nephews loved all the funny rocks.  They grabbed many, lining their pockets with the sparkly stones.  The most unusual mineral found here is mica.  It's made of thin sheets of silica. You can actually peel layers of the stuff off the rock face.  It reflects light, and sparkles in the sun.  Sadly, the only photo I got all day was a small slab in my mom's hand (see third photo from top).

Closer to the top, we wind through the rocks

One thing that's changed from last time I've visited - the adjacent forest has been infested with the Pine Bark Beetle.   It's become epidemic in the forests here.  From vantage points, I could see vast swaths of ugly brown dead trees.

Nice viewpoint before the big summit push

The trail wound through an area of forest that had been infested with the bugs.  To combat the beetles, a large number of trees were taken down, and the trunks cut into chunks.  The "chunking" of the wood is supposed to make the beetles inside die.  Although it was sad to see a once forested area so barren, it did open up more views.

Final stairs to the top

My family and I traversed through a lush meadow, with a small creek running though.  It was nice to take a break in the cool shade before our final push to the top.  By now it was nearing noon, and temps were climbing.

Amazing rock lookout tower on top

About a mile before the top, the trail began to wind through boulders of blocky granite.  The forest opened up for one last viewpoint before hikers encountered the steep path to the summit.

The grand staircase

And it's a tough climb!  Especially since that day much of it was in the sun.  The switchbacks began in earnest, and we all puffed along, wiping sweat from our brows.  But the sparkly, rock-lined trail is beautiful.  And I knew the reward awaiting us on top was great.

Doorway to the tower

Finally we could see the lookout tower's roof barely visible over the granite cliffs.  Ascending several sets of stairs, some cast into the rocks, we finally arrived at the foot of the amazing rock tower that marks the summit of Harney Peak.

Photo op with my parents and one brother

This stone fire tower was built  by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 and 1939.  It was used as a fire lookout until 1967.  The rockwork on this structure is truly a work of art.  The walls are a mosaic of colorful local rock.  Not only does the tower have a multi-tiered balcony, the CCC also built a sweeping stone staircase that leads visitors right to it's doorway.

The amazing view from on high

The view on top is breathtaking.  The entire Black Hills spreads out before you in all directions.  The granite spires of the Needles and Mt. Rushmore rise up from the dark forests.  On a clear day, you can see the plains of eastern South Dakota, Nebraska, and Wyoming far into the distance.  Luckily, we hiked on a sunny day and was able to take full advantage of such a fantastic panorama.

Perched on the wall

Two of my brothers and both nephews ventured out onto the wide granite ridgetop below the tower.  Standing on the balcony, I was content to watch the other people explore this area.

Four-state view from the tower

Even though we hiked on a weekday, there was still plenty of people on and around the summit.  The Harney Peak Trail is extremely popular.  It's a moderate enough hike for most healthy people to complete.  We even saw a group on horseback - the Forest Service provides hitching posts at the tower's base.

Rock wall close-up
After refueling with a snack, and taking copious shots of the tower and it's grand views, I climbed to the lookout's upper story.  Peering out through spacious windows, I tried to imagine what it must've been like to be a forest ranger living here.  Not a bad job!

Group photo to prove we all made it

After spending well over an hour admiring the views, my family and I decided it was time to head back down.  Although gravity was now on our side, descending can sometimes be more difficult than climbing.  

Window views from the tower's upper story

But everyone made it down just fine - even my 75-year old father.   My parents are amazing!  Both in their 70s, they had no trouble with this 7-mile round trip, 1000 feet plus hike.  My dad slowed down a bit on the descent, but with my camera, I hike slow too.  So I had a companion all the way back.  (And when my parents finished this hike, they had to rush into town as they were scheduled to play a round of golf with their couples league!)

Looking back to where I'd been

So nice to visit a favorite hike from my childhood!  It was a wonderful day spent on the trail with my family.  The Black Hills will always be a special place to me.  I'm glad I got a chance to visit again.
If you ever find yourself in the Black Hills of South Dakota, this hike is not to be missed!



  1. A wonderful spot and I really must go. I have never been to South Dakota.

    Susan and Bentley

  2. What a wonderful memory to cherish family camped and took walks together, so I suspect that's where I got my love for the outdoors, but we didn't really hike. I hope to visit that tower one of these days. South Dakota is a state I've never visited.

  3. What a great day. Tell your parents they both look wonderfully fit! You go to the best places. Its another spot to add to my hiking list.

  4. the black hills are now firmly on my list of to do some day. wow very cool. loved that rock lookout too.

  5. Darn Linda, hubby and I vacationed in the Black Hills a few years ago. I didn't know about this hike. It really is beautiful. Sad when those beetles attack an area. So fun that so many of your family were able to hike together. Thanks so much for sharing your adventure with Share Your Cup.

  6. Hiking is something just about anyone can do. You don’t have to be an outdoors expert to enjoy it and you can do it with your family and friends.

    Brian Head UT


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