Sunday, October 9, 2016

Bloggers Hike Harney Peak

The planets aligned big time during my annual family visit to South Dakota.  A long time blogging buddy, Pam from Nomadic Newfies, planned to vacation in the Black Hills the week before Labor Day.  Our trips just happened to coincide - how lucky was that?

Time to hike!

Pam lives in Wisconsin, and blogs about hiking, travel, and photography - basically the same stuff as me (minus the skiing).

So of course we had to get together for a hiking, photography extravaganza!

Havin' fun with Pam at the first overlook

After meeting up in Rapid City at the Chubby Chipmunk (our love of their fabulous truffles yet another common interest) Pam and I decided to tackle the trek up Harney Peak. 

Granite spires of the Black Hills

Hands-down my favorite Black Hills hike, this 3.5-mile trail takes one to the very top of 7,242 foot high Harney Peak - the highest point in South Dakota.  An iconic fire lookout tower, built with native rock by the CCC, graces this scenic summit.

Lovely forest path

Early morning light is best for photography, so I convinced Pam to meet me in the nearby town of Custer at sunrise.  After waiting for the coffee shop to open, we made the short drive to Custer State Park's Sylvan Lake trailhead, and were hiking by 8 am.

Pam admires the scenery

Although the trail starts out fairly mellow, it soon begins climbing through grassy clearings and Ponderosa woods.  A few straggler aster blooms lined our path.  The low level morning light filtered through the forest, making for some great photography conditions.

Little Devils Tower

That's the great thing about hiking with other photographers - they understand the frequent need to stop and capture something interesting! 

Wild raspberries!

After a half mile or so, we arrived at the first overlook, atop a granite outcrop.  The views were marvelous - forested vistas spreading out below punctuated by granite spires.  A wall of granite towers rose before us, Harney Peak's stone lookout a tiny bump atop the tallest one.

Raspberry plant

A perfect place for a few group photos!  After setting up my tripod, Pam and I mugged for the camera.

Berry picking time

Beyond the overlook, we wound through the forest, passing frequent clearings where more views awaited.

"Are we there yet?"

An unexpected surprise - Pam discovered a few wild raspberry bushes with still-ripe berries.  Ummm.....delicious!

View through the Ponderosa Pines

We were by no means alone on the trail.  First were were passed by a couple of men planning to do repairs on the lookout tower, and later we met up with a group of Forest Service workers on their way to do trail maintenance.

Women at work

We came upon the Forest Service staff again, just a mile from the summit, as they were clearing downed trees from the trail.  Pam and I were proud to watch the all female crew making short work of a fallen log.  Women power!

One of the many photo breaks

Now the real climbing began.  The trail gets steep here, on the way up to Harney Peak's very summit.  But the frequent panoramic views provide some instant rewards (not to mention photo opportunities).

A little floral color

Although Pam later admitted in her blog post she was dying about then, I had no idea.  Pam was a trooper and followed me up the final steep climb.

The lookout tower is in sight!

A first glimpse of the lookout tower was a great motivator!

The views are getting even better

Winding through a set of stairs (with more fabulous views) we finally rounded a corner, and there was the famous stone tower!

Another photo break!

As many times as I've climbed Harney Peak over the years, it's still a breathtaking sight.

Harney Peak lookout

Completed in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC), this tower replaced an older structure.  All the building materials, stone, cement, and sand, had to be hauled up the mountain by 2-wheeled carts pulled by horses and mules.  The tower served as a fire lookout until 1967.  Now it's only used by hikers as a shelter and viewpoint.

Love the tower's stonework

Pam and I ducked inside the tower, only to be met by a volunteer crew hard at work on a restoration project.

The sign gives all the stats

Years of harsh weather and abuse from clueless hikers have resulted in lots of reconstructive efforts over the years.  I'm glad there's people who are taking care of this historic treasure.

Granite peaks as far as the eye can see

Pam and I walked out onto the observation area and soaked in the spectacular views.  The Black Hills stretched out before us in all directions.  I'm told you can see four states on a clear day, but not knowing landmarks, I remarked to Pam there's no way to know which state you're looking at.

We made it!

A rocky plateau stretched out below the lookout tower, and we could see people walking around it.  Pam wanted to explore further, so we climbed down another staircase to check it out.

Checking out the rocky plateau

More grand panoramas awaited!  Cameras clicked, and oohs and aahs were uttered.

Views are incredible

Pam noticed tiny colorful fabric strips tied to some nearby trees.  We discovered they were prayer ties left behind by local Native Americans.  The peak is sacred to many Native tribes, and they often hold religious ceremonies here.

Prayer ties left by Native Americans

Although Pam and I did take photographs, we were careful not to disturb these colorful ribbons.

Back to the tower

After wandering around the rocky outcrop for the better part of half an hour, Pam and I decided it was time to head back down.  As we passed back through the lookout tower, it was swarming with workers, and we exited just as they were closing it to the public.  Lucky us! 

Heading down

Our high point of the trip down, we encountered a mule train bringing construction supplies to the tower, which was exciting to see.

Mule train

Otherwise, our trip back to the car was a mostly uneventful trudge back through the woods (the trail seemed so much longer this time around!)   We met lots of people heading up the mountain, and I was thankful for our early start. 

Girls just wanna have fun!

So much fun to finally meet Pam and share a hike to one of my favorite places!  From reading her blog I suspected Pam and I would hit it off, and we did.  Too bad we live so far apart.....guess it's time to scheme a plan to meet up again (wink, wink!).

Check out Pam's blog, Nomadic Newfies.

(A side note.....About a month before my trip home, the U.S.Board of Geographic names officially changed the name of Harney Peak to Black Elk Peak.  However, as an ex-South Dakotan with many fond memories, I choose to continue calling it Harney Peak)


  1. Another great hike! Enjoy both your blogs.

  2. Wow - that's quite the climb. The photos give a good perspective of the landscape. Was there a fire up there or are the trees just stunted by the elements? Fun for both you and Pam to meet a kindred spirit.

    1. Barb, a few years ago, the forest was decimated by the pine bark beetle.

    2. Much like ours here in CO.

  3. It looks like a great place to explore, Linda! Oh, and I love mules and donkeys. I enjoyed the views here very much. Thank you so much for sharing. :)

  4. Uma bela caminhada por estas montanhas magnificas e até deu para apanhar frutos silvestres.
    Um abraço e boa semana.

  5. Linda, more gorgeous scenery...thanks!

  6. Beautiful area.. the dead trees make it mysterious, otherworldly. I never knew the Dakotas had so much to offer.
    Great post!

  7. It looks like you had a wonderful time. And what a beautiful place!

  8. Looks nice, like the photo's!

  9. Hello, another great hike and a beautiful spot. Love the views. It was great you were able to meet blogger Pam. I will have to check out her blog too. Wonderful photos. Happy Monday, enjoy your new week!

  10. The Black Hills have their own unique beauty - wonderful photos.

  11. I know just how fortunate Pam is! What a fabulous hike you have taken her on. Incredible views and raspberries to pick.

  12. Wow, looks like a fantastic place! Great shots!

  13. Hi! Nice hiking with your friend. The views are very beautiful. The taste of berries looks very sweet. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Oh man what a great hike. I have driven through the Black Hills, but never been able to stop and explore. Beautiful.

  15. Very interesting area. There must be the possibility for rock climbs up some of the granite peaks as they look suitable for good routes? It's also nice to see more of this region other than Mount Rushmore.

  16. I'm so glad you got to meet Pam. I met her a year or so ago and it's always fun to meet fellow bloggers. This hike is another on my wish list!

  17. I can't wait to hike together again!

  18. wow that's some beautiful rugged countryside from the tower.

  19. I haven't done that hike in years but I loved it.

  20. What a great hike! The views are stunning! Thanks for the trip as I am certain we would never attempt a hike that long! :)

  21. Such a wonderful hike to take with fellow blogger Pam to show her the beauty of the Black Hills! I doubt I'd be able to do such a high vertical climb but I could see it was well worth it. I love the mule train photo--old ways still prevail!

  22. That was quite the hike. The views are fantastic.

  23. Nice hike! I had no idea South Dakota had 7,000 foot peaks


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