19 Aug
Posted in: travel
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Harney Peak: Highest Spot East of the Rockies

I’ve talked for years about a specific hike on my bucket list: Harney Peak in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The Hills aren’t far from where we live and a stone’s throw from where my husband grew up. Each summer for almost a decade, we’ve driven roads through the Hills with me proclaiming how someday I’ll hike Harney Peak.

Time with just Craig and I has to be planned and thought out. There’s not much “free time” to work with, but I know it’s important to spend time one-on-one with my life partner. Craig knows I’d much rather be DOING something with him than just sitting in a restaurant or a dark theater. I become restless rather quickly and just don’t sit well. He hatched a plan to have his parents watch our kids while we spent the greater portion of a day hiking Harney Peak. It was perfect, painful and just what we needed.

View of Harney Peak from a distance

There are several trailheads for the peak. We chose one of the two trails originating from picturesque Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. We’re path-less-traveled people, so we chose the trail up to Harney Peak with the least amount of hikers.

Hand holding wild rasberries

The trail to Harney Peak is seven miles round trip, give or take. We ended up hiking nine miles thanks to our inability to pass raspberry bush-covered hillsides without climbing and picking some. On the way there, the draw of a spur trail proclaiming “Little Devil’s Tower” was also too much to walk away from.

Metallic green bug on a leaf

Harney Peak is a popular destination for tourists, as is Custer State Park and Sylvan Lake specifically. The park has a $15 entry fee which is good for one week of entry into the park. Automobile parking around the boulder-encapsulated lake fills up quickly during the busy summer tourist season. We started our hike at 9 a.m. Four hours later when we returned, the peaceful Sylvan Lake was engulfed by people and cars circling the lot for an elusive parking space.

Mossy green hillside with tree trunks

We chose Trailhead #4 for the ascent to Harney Peak. The trail is a glittering path of mica-covered ground through hills thick with foliage and berry bushes. Craig and I are worse than our kids. We would take five steps, pick up a rock to inspect, or a berry to pick…repeat. We had to make a pact to keep moving or we would never have actually made it to the peak.

View of the backside of Mount Rushmore National Memorial

The spur trail to Little Devil’s Tower adds roughly one mile round trip to the hike. The trail is a strenuous and steep trail, which requires scampering over rocks and three points of contact in places. The view from the top is worth the effort. It was even more fulfilling looking from Harney Peak to Little Devil’s Tower and knowing we had conquered that hike.

Harney Peak lookout tower

Trail #4 eventually intersects Trail #9, the most popular of the Harney Peak trails. From that point on, it’s a busy, crowded trail. After spending years looking at the lookout tower from the highway, I wasn’t prepared for how intricate the castle-like structure was or how difficult the building of the lookout must have been. The Civilian Conservation Corps has done some truly amazing work in places where building things seems impossible. It took plenty of energy just to get my body to the top of Harney Peak, let alone the material needed to construct a multilevel lookout at the tip top.

Funny faces selfie thanks to attacking bugs

The view, as smoky as it was from wildfires, was glorious. Rocky ridges protruded through the trees for miles around. We would have thoroughly enjoyed the view from the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains had it not been for the miniscule black flying bugs crawling over every area of our bodies. The photo above was a failed attempt at a selfie thanks to the hundreds of tiny bites I was suffering through at that moment. My skin was briefly on fire from those darn bugs.

Looking down inside Harney Peak lookout tower

We hiked down Trail #9, which was too crowded for my taste. We plan on taking the kids on the hike in the near future, but won’t hike Trail #9 again. Part of the hiking journey for me is having the chance to search bushes for berries, watch wildlife in its home and listen to the sounds of nature. A steady stream of tourists takes away from that experience for me.

View of Cathedrahp Spires (left), Little Devil's Tower (right) from Harney Peak

We finished the hike in four hours. We were sore, and I was scratched up from a tripping incident, but I had that natural high from knowing my body is strong and able to accomplish much when pushed. Each new hike and trail leaves me with a broader view of this country I call home.

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1 Comment

  • This looks like a lot of fun! Thank you for the inspiration. You take amazing pictures.