Jul 17

Hiking Harney Peak

Harney PeakThere are two choices in trails when hiking Harney Peak, the highest point in South Dakota, and some have argued the highest point in the United States east of the Rockies.  The more popular hike, especially in the summertime, is trail number 9 from Sylvan Lake which is in Custer State Park and other begins at the Willow Creek Horse Camp.  The latter approach is much more difficult than the former with almost twice the elevation gain.  If you are in good physical shape and looking for more solitude the Willow Creek Horse Camp trailhead might be the better pick, if you do not care about sharing the trail then I would recommend trail 9 from Sylvan Lake.The TrailMy trip to the top of Harney Peak started at Trail Number 9 at Sylvan Lake and it was early afternoon in the first part of June.  It was a beautiful day for a hike with good weather not to hot or cold.  Anytime you go for an extended hike make sure you are always weather aware especially in high terrain when thunderstorms can approach rather quickly especially in the afternoons and be prepared, have water, a snack if needed, and any other items that you think would be essential.  The trailhead is easy to find just past the Sylvan Lake visitor parking area and trail information can be found there.  There is no permit required on the first part of the trail, but you will need one once you leave Custer State Park and enter the Black Elk Wilderness area. (More on that later)Harney Peak SignThe trail is well laid out and very easy to follow as you head up closer to Harney Peak.  Make sure you keep an eye out for wildlife besides the usual songbirds and a few woodpeckers I was able to see a mountain goat near the summit and a few mule or white tail deer near the trailhead.  The trail started out with a gradual incline which was to be expected heading to the peak of the mountain, but then about halfway to the summit there was a small elevation loss.  At that point I started to question if I had made a wrong turn somewhere, but since there were no real detours in the route I pressed on.  Eventually I started heading up again.Mountain GoatAlong the trail there is a switch over from being a part of Custer State Park and into the Black Elk Wilderness.  At this point, you will see a box in the middle of the trail where you are to get a permit to continue walking the trail there is also a sign that if you do not fill out the proper paperwork and place it in the box and keep your copy you could face a stiff fine.  At my trip to the top of Harney Peak there was no paperwork at the kiosk I do not know if that is a regular occurrence or what, but I pressed on hoping not to run into a ranger or at least if I did, one that is understanding.Watch TowerThe real difficult part of the trail was near the summit as there is a series of switchbacks that eventually lead to a number of stone steps.  This will take you to the top and very scenic views of the entire black hills area.  At the top you will find a lookout tower built by the CCC during the 1930s that offers a commanding view from the top.  Be prepared to wait especially on busy summer days for the view at the top or you can settle for the view from the landing area below.  Once you take in the grand view just retrace your steps and before you know it you will be back in Custer State Park at Sylvan Lake.Harney Peak Summit ViewThey recommend 4 to 5 hours for the 7 mile roundtrip hike.  For an avid hiker it can be done in less than 2 hours just make sure you listen to what your body is telling you as you are hiking.

To see other hikes that we have reviewed click here

Hiking Harney Peak
7 Miles
Moderate to Strenuous Hike
3 to 5 Hours depending on ability
For more information on Hiking Harney Peak http://gfp.sd.gov/state-parks/directory/custer/trails/harney-trailheads.aspx


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  1. freda

    The CCC must have had some tough dudes to carry those rocks and pile them up into a tower at the top of this peak.

    1. Kenny and Karen

      I thought the exact same thing as I was going up!

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