Highest Mountain in SD, and highest east of the Rockies
This 3.5 mile trail to Harney Peak begins at Sylvan Lake some thirty-five miles west of Rapid City, South Dakota in Black Hills National Forest. There is no other way to get here other than by private car, and there is enough parking for twenty-five cars or so. The starting point of the Sylvan Lake trail head is 6,100 feet above sea level. Hikers should sign in at the trail register just beyond the parking area. The best times to climb Harney Peak are late spring through mid-fall. The worst times to climb this peak would be from late October through mid-April. There are no man-made hazards on this trail but the hiker should be aware that afternoon thunderstorms may build up in late spring through early fall. Once the hiker is under way she will climb the trail at a gentle angle through lush stands of sweet-smelling ponderosa pines and quaking aspen trees.Take note of the shining mica rocks at trail side as well as tall buffalo grass growing in the more open areas. The landscape here is very similar to that of the Rocky Mountain foothills.
The Lakota name for Harney Peak is Hinhan Kaga Paha
Hikers should know that Harney Peak is a sacred mountain for the Lakota people as it is a place for vision quests. The Lakota name for Harney Peak is Hinhan Kaga Paha which translates roughly into sacred dark and frightful owl. As the hiker gains altitude, he will be afforded views of strange looking goblin-like granitic rocks. Some of these rocks do have the shape of giant owls. Just beyond this overlook of rock formations, the trail begins to descend. Do not lose heart as it will descend about three hundred vertical feet into a lush meadow with a shallow stream about one and a half miles from the trail head. Once across the stream, the trail ascends quickly and somewhat steeply into a lodgepole pine/Douglas fir forest. Lodgepole pines are tall and skinny and were used for tipi lodge poles, hence the name. To the right of the trail rise tall granite cliffs that are moss-covered with many ferns growing at their base.
Views down to meadows piping with spring peepers
Just before a switchback two and a half miles beyond the trail head, the hiker should pause at an overlook far above lush meadows. If it is springtime or early summer, one can enjoy a symphony of tiny frogs called spring peepers whose delicate notes rise up from the distant meadow. White throated sparrows and Swainson’s thrushes usually add to this symphony. The higher the trail goes, one will begin to see and smell aromatic spruce trees (Black Hills black spruce). After about another mile from the meadow-overlook, the trail levels off just under the craggy summit.
A prayer bundle surprise
If the climber is lucky, she may spot , spread out on a flat rock, a multicolored Lakota prayer bundle made of canvas and flag ticking. The ticking is in six colors representing the six sacred directions (East, North, West, South, Sky above, Earth below). Such an object should be left alone as it represents their spiritual possession of sacred Harney Peak appropriately now part of the Black Elk Wilderness Area. In order to get to the craggy summit, the hiker must ascend stone steps built for the ease of the visitor. Once on top, the hiker will be afforded a magnificent view of all of the surrounding Black Hills and to the east the Badlands of South Dakota, to the west the prairies of Wyoming.Climbers may spot white Rocky Mountain goats perched on one of the nearby crags.
The hike takes up to six hours with a vertical gain of 1,100 feet. Bring sufficient water as there are no water sources of the trail from Sylvan Lake nor are there any restrooms. You can pick up a trail map at the Black Hills National Forest Headquarters just outside of Custer or download one from the Black Hills National Forest web page.