Top O’ The State: Hiking Harney Peak

by Austin Kaus on April 3, 2015 · 0 comments

All it takes is that first blast of sunshine, the first complete rolldown of the car windows and the first donning of the cargo shorts to get me thinking two things: 1) “I am very glad that winter is over” and 2) “When can I go hiking?”

Are you too suffering from hiking fever? If, like me, you’re antsy to get some fresh air in your lungs, head to one of the top spots: Harney Peak.

That’s a very unintentional pun, but it’s also an appropriate one. Located in beautiful Custer State Park, Harney Peak is the highest point in the Black Hills of western South Dakota. In fact, it’s the highest mountains east of the Rocky Mountains in the country. The trip up Harney Peak is one of those hikes that’s beautiful in every chunk. To pull into Custer State Park is to find an immediate sense of peace. To have previously made the Harney Peak hike is to know the awesomeness that awaits you.

The hike to Harney Peak is about 7 miles total, which should take the average hiker approximately three hours in cooler weather. I took longer myself last year as I was stopping to take pictures, chatting with fellow hikers or pretending to take pictures as I remembered how many cookies I consumed in grad school/vowed to be in better shape next year. (Spoiler alert: I am…even during Girl Scouts Cookie season.) I also made the hike in a July afternoon. This meant I still got the amazing experience and views. I just had to drink some more water to get there.

Before I left, I was warned to bring extra layers. The temperature has a tendency to drop a bit as you ascend (although that wasn’t an issue on a July afternoon.) Still, it’s always better to be prepared for such a temperature shift.

What a trip. I took the most direct (and popular) route, which is to take Trail #9 all they way to the top. It’s pretty simple, but make sure you’re paying attention to the signs. If Harney Peak is your goal, you want to make sure to make a left at the #9/ #3 intersection.

This map should help. (Click to enlarge.)

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’ve been on a more beautiful hike. Starting at Sylvan Lake and working your way up on a well-worn trail surrounded by nature is magical. The grades seem to get more intense as the trip goes, but it’s worth every step and sweat drop. When you start to see how close you are to the tower, you get an extra burst of energy.

And then you’re at the top. (Click the pictures for panoramic power.)

You’re at the stone-walled Harney Peak Fire Tower, a structure built by the Civilian Conservation Corps from 1935 to 1938 with stones gathered from nearby French Creek. Although the building stopped being staffed in 1965, it still remains and looks out on a stunning view of The Black Hills. What’s impressive about the tower is not only that the building materials were hauled by man and mule during construction, but that modern man and pack animals made more than 40 trips up the mountain only a couple of years ago. Doug Bechen and the rest of a group called Black Hills Back Country Horsemen made sure the tower’s 2013 restoration happened. For their efforts, the group received an award in 2014. (For more information, check out the Rapid City Journal’s story here.)

So, there’s plenty of history and view to reward you for your vigorous hiking. Wander around the tower. Take in the vista. Enjoy a snack in the makeshift picnic area.

Savor a hike well done and know that you conquered the highest – and perhaps most beautiful – point in South Dakota.

WHAT DO I NEED TO BRING?: Shoes suitable for a rugged hike, water (at least one quart per person), some layers (in case it cools down near the top), rain gear (should it start to rain, there isn’t a lot of cover to keep you dry) and some snacks. What many people don’t tell you about Harney Peak is that there’s a great picnic area beside the fire tower. Feeding the chipmunks is optional. In my experience, they are definitely up for it.

WHAT DOES IT COST?: $4 per person, $10 per motorcycle or $15 per vehicle. For more information, head here.



WHAT’S A “WILDERNESS USE PERMIT”?: A Wilderness Use Permit is a form you’ll encounter along the hike. Simply fill it out, remove the top copy and put it in the box. Keep the other part on you. This information helps the Forest Service learn about what type and how many wilderness users are using the trails. (For more information, click here.)

For example:

ANY OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS?: Know your limits. After hitting the peak in rather warm weather, I decided to take the longer route (trailhead #3 to #4) back instead of #9. It added on quite a bit of time to the hike and left me thirsty and exhausted by the time I actually reached the parking lot. I intend to take this very way back again, but at a time when the weather’s cooler and I have enough water to be safe. So, I’d advise you to make the hike earlier in the day than later. Also, be aware that Trail #9 is particularly popular between May 1 through Sept. 30. If you’re looking for a hike with lighter traffic, consider taking one of the many alternate routes.

For more information, click here. Happy hiking!

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