We started the second day of our honeymoon feeling much more well-rested than we had the day before. After waking up and getting our bearings, we got a little coffee and a few snacks from the Starbucks downstairs and prepped our Luzons for the day. Soon we gassed up the Sportage and were on our way to Custer State Park, part of the Black Hills, to hike Harney Peak.
While the Badlands were alien to me, the Black Hills area was merely foreign. I realize that’s not a very powerful description, but I was woefully ill-prepared for the scenery on the trip; I’m simply not from a land with rolling hills and mountains covered in trees. The beauty really floored me instantly as I surveyed the pines in essentially my entire field of vision. It’s really an impressive place, especially for a man who came of age surrounded by cornfields as far as the eye could see (which was beautiful in it’s own right). Simply driving in the area inspired awe in little old Midwestern me. I’m assuming that locals have long grown accustomed to the scenery, but to me, it seemed like even the view from the highway would never get old.
The Black Hills mountain range emerges from the Great Plains in western South Dakota and stretches all the way into Wyoming. Harney Peak, at 7,244 feet, is the highest summit in the range as well as the highest summit in the US east of the Rockies. But I’ll come back to Harney Peak in a moment. Most of the mountain range is included within the Black Hills National Forest, which includes an area over 1.25 million acres. This also includes some prairie land in the lower elevations, but mostly you’ll find yourself surrounded by ponderosa pine, with a smattering of birches, aspens, and bur oaks. There is a lot of history in the Black Hills, but despite being a historian by trade, I don’t want to spend much time reviewing the history of the region. Suffice it to say, the land was wrongfully taken from Native Peoples, spurred on greatly by the discovery of natural resources, which is sadly not an uncommon theme in American History. Much of that land is considered sacred. That may not matter very much to a lot of travelers, but it does to us, which is one reason we always strive to be good stewards of the land and respect those who have come before us. If you’re one of the people whose trash I picked up along the trail, then I humbly suggest you re-evaluate your approach. You don’t have to believe in the sanctity of the land to respect it and respect the fact that some people do.
I can only speak from my limited experience, but it seems that locals divide the greater region into two smaller areas, and the hospitality and tourism industry has followed suit. Harney Peak, Custer State Park, and Mount Rushmore are all part of the Southern Hills. The Northern Hills includes Spearfish Canyon, Roughlock Falls, and the Pathways Spiritual Center. Of course, this list is no where near comprehensive; I’m limiting the list to attractions that we checked out. If you visit, pick up a map of the Black Hills and one of the many magazines/booklets that list attractions. There is literally something for everyone.
Harney Peak is the tallest summit in the range, but it requires no technical climbing; anyone can hike it, though the ill-prepared or unfit won’t necessarily enjoy the experience. There are a few different trailheads and approaches, including though not limited to, Mount Rushmore, Horse Thief Lake, Willow Creek, Lost Cabin, and of course Sylvan Lake where we embarked on our hike.
Sylvan Lake is in Custer State Park, which is open 24 hours a day, all year long. The park does charge admission in the form of a vehicle license, but it isn’t cost prohibitive; a seven day pass is $15 per vehicle or $10 per motorcycle. There is also an annual park entrance license available for $30. There are a couple of different trailheads leading to Harney Peak from Sylvan Lake, though I didn’t realize that at the time. Our approach was on Harney Peak Trail #9 (lovingly referred to as the #9), which is the shortest, and perhaps least arduous approach to the peak at roughly seven miles round trip.
That isn’t to say it isn’t strenuous; you’ll expend a lot of energy on your trek, and I recommend bringing plenty of water and some snacks, and taking a break every so often. Experienced hikers won’t have any problems, but the terrain can wear you out a bit, especially if you’re a flatlander like myself.
The hike up via Trail #9 is pretty straightforward. There are a few trails that branch off, but the signage is usually self-explanatory. It’s the most popular route to the summit, so you’ll see plenty of people, especially later in the day, but we didn’t encounter so many as to make the hike feel crowded, and we did have several spans of time where Clarissa and I were the only people around. Starting early in the morning is a good way to minimize the crowds at the beginning of the day, but you won’t ever have the #9 trail all to yourself. Be gracious and say hi to anyone you encounter. It’s a big trail out there.
Research I did after the honeymoon indicated that Trail #9 is the least scenic path to the summit. That may be true, but let me tell you, it still looks pretty damn scenic!
So if you’re concerned that you may miss out on the view by taking the shorter and less strenuous Trail #9, don’t worry! We found the scenery beautiful the entire hike, and I’m willing to bet you will too!
Not everything went smoothly. I discovered about a mile in that the soles of my hiking boots were slowly separating from the rest of the boots. Obviously this wasn’t ideal, so Clarissa and I had a brief discussion about whether we needed to turn back. After a little examination of the problem, I decided that the soles weren’t likely to separate more than they already had, though I would need to take care not to catch them and trip myself.
They still managed to perform admirably, and their failing is more my fault than theirs; they’re several years old, have been through a lot, and I didn’t inspect them well before we packed for the trip. These boots were sort of an oddity. They were a cheap buy from a knock off brand that should have been good for a couple of miles in my early twenties. In fact, they lasted, quite comfortably, for about a decade, without losing much traction or support. They made it back down from Harney Peak, but they wouldn’t last too much longer without intervention. The discovery of my boot issues was a little bit disconcerting at the time, but then again, it’s difficult to let such things keep you down when you’re surrounded by this atmosphere.
One of the things that you’ll notice in the Black Hills (and you can see it some of my photos) is areas where there are trees that have fallen or been cut down. Unfortunately, this is due to an invasive species, the Mountain Pine Beetle. In efforts to effectively manage the problem, infected trees must be cut down. Luckily, they can be processed and used for lumber, so they aren’t being wasted, but it’s important to try to control the spread of the beetle. Much like the Emerald Ash Borer in Iowa, the Mountain Pine Beetle can be transported by moving firewood, so if you’re camping in the area, buy your wood locally; it’s good camping etiquette anyway.
Partway to the summit, you’ll need to stop at a self-service kiosk at the entrance to the Black Elk Wilderness area on the way up the peak. There you just fill out a permit for the US Forest Service, and slip the copy into a receptacle.
I think it’s less about regulation enforcement, and more about tracking visitor numbers. Either way, fill out your permit and be on your way!
Roughly a half to quarter mile or so from the summit, a trail will break off to the right. That’s the #3 Trail, and you don’t want to take that just yet. Continue on the #9 Trail, and you’ll see a hitching post for horses (some of them allow riding, the #9 does not). Keep going and you’ll come to some metal stairs, which will take you up to the lookout tower, which was constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.
We finally arrived at the summit, but there was more to do. We started by climbing up into the lookout tower and checking out the stellar view.
Then we headed back down from the lookout, where we found more stairs heading down into the base of the structure.
It looks a little shady down there, but these stairs lead to a lower level with an opening out onto the rocky summit. There were a lot of visitors, but there’s plenty of space up there for everyone. We wanted to find a nice spot without a large group, near the edge but not too close, and with some comfortable seating with which to sit and relax for a minute while we celebrated our victory. We ended up finding a good little spot. We just about walked over an older gentleman on our way, as he was mostly hidden from view, half-napping half-relaxing underneath a small overhang. He had with him a larger pack, and a well worn walking stick. He was definitely on a longer journey than we were. Clarissa and I apologized for not seeing him right away, and he was very gracious. We exchanged a few friendly words, and then he opened a small journal and started flipping pages and taking down some notes. We decided to leave him be and break out our celebratory madeleines, which I had suggested we buy at Starbucks that morning, just as a way to treat ourselves when we reached the summit. I think it might be the beginning of a beautiful tradition.
After a little time spent sitting in the sun, taking in the view, and snacking, we decided to take a few photos, including several pictures of Clarissa doing various yoga poses. It’s what we do. I also decided to take a picture that had the potential to scare my mom and mother-in-law alike.
We decided to move on and explore more of the mountain top. Our neighbor underneath the overhang said, “I’m glad you two didn’t fall off the side of the mountain. That would have ruined an otherwise beautiful day.” I chuckled a bit, as did he, and I wished him a good journey on the rest of his trip, despite not knowing his destination. He smiled and nodded, then looked back down into his journal. I really love strange little interactions like that sometimes. They’re just very refreshing.
A number of people had hung up prayer flags on small pines scattered across the mountain top. I was unfamiliar with this practice, so I didn’t think to bring one, not that we have an abundance of prayer flags in our house. We decided that we would make a couple of impromptu prayer flags out of my handkerchief, in hopes of spreading a little positivity from atop the mountain.
Over the winter, I’ll be designing my own prayer flag to use in the future. I’m envisioning 100%% biodegradeable Intrepid Daily flags, and have a rough design in mind. But that’s a different article.
We scrambled around atop the mountain for a bit, catching a great shot of the lookout tower before we headed back down.
We started our trip back down the mountain chatting with a couple who have been hiking mountain ranges together for the last fifteen years or so. They were about fifteen years older than us, give or take (I’m really bad at estimating age), so I felt like that was a pretty good sign for our future. Our pace was a little quicker than theirs, so we wished them many more happy adventures, and were on our way.
You may recall that I previously said that the #3 trail branches off of the #9 roughly a half to quarter mile from the summit. This is where we, perhaps, should have gone for the return trip. Splitting off onto #3 we would have shortly gotten onto the #4 trail. This route is, from what I’ve been reading, much less used, and much more scenic; it will lead right to the Cathedral Spires rock formations, as well as past Little Devil’s Tower.
The trail does a little bending and turning, at least as far as I can tell from the map and from accounts of other hikers; but you will have an opportunity to take an offshoot from the #4 directly to the base of Little Devil’s Tower or take trail 4A to get to Cathedral Spires. Either way, make sure that you backtrack to the #4 trail and continue Southwest; that should lead you back to the Sylvan Lake area.
I have to caution you, don’t take my description as fact; remember, we DID NOT take this route back down, we returned on the #9 trail. Make sure that you know which way you want to go, and check out the map of the Harney Range Trail System before you go. My friend Emily recently took a trip to Harney Peak, and I think she may have some insight that I’ve missed, and I hope she’ll forgive me for not telling her about the different trails, I hadn’t gotten that far in my research yet! I’ll make it up to you!
Hiking back via the #4 trail sounds awesome, but we didn’t do that. We did what it seemed like most people did, which was turn around and take #9 right back down. And you know what? It was beautiful, invigorating, and wonderful all the same.
If you feel like you need to take the easier route back down, you’re still going to see some wonderful sights, and you’re not going to get bored, even though you’re retracing your own steps.
You’ll be hiking through three miles of beautiful country, so enjoy it. Some of the downhill grades can be a little tricky, so be cognizant of that, but open up to the scenery around you, and enjoy yourself.
By the time we got back, I had drained my hydration pack, eaten up most of my snacks, and was desperate for some calories. Luckily, we had extra water in the car, and when we got back to Sylvan Lake I had a long drink.
Then we made our way over to the trading post, bought ourselves a few patches, and some ice cream bars. After the hike, they really hit the spot. After a little resting and some more hydrating we headed out of the park and made our way to Mount Rushmore!
There is no cost to visit mount Rushmore National Memorial, but you do have to pay to park. It’s $11 for cars, motorcycles, and RVs, and it’s good for one calendar year, so if you want to go back more than once, you’re good to park again until New Year’s Day. The grounds are open from 5 am to 9pm, but the hours of operation of the various shops and facilities vary, so if you want to check those out, visit the Mount Rushmore National Memorial NPS site.
Mount Rushmore, like the Black Hills themselves, come with a lot of history. And like most everything else throughout time, not all of the history is happy. The monument brings in roughly two million tourists annually, which is obviously good for the local economy, but we’re also talking about land that the country didn’t necessarily take possession of in a manner that we would think of as honorable today. The U.S. seized the land from the Lakota following the Great Sioux War of 1876 despite the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie granting the Black Hills to the tribe indefinitely.
Obviously that time has come and gone, and we can’t and shouldn’t get rid of the memorial. It’s just important to remember that while we’re looking at the visages of four great men carved into the side of the mountain, we should also respect the men who came before them who believed this land to be sacred. It seems contrary, but that’s part of life; the realization that we can, and often do, hold two seemingly contradictory beliefs to be true.
There is a lot of information out there about Gutzon Borglum and his son Lincoln Borglum, who led the 400 workers in sculpting the memorial, and even some about historian Doane Robinson, who first came up with the idea of carving faces into the Black Hills to promote South Dakota tourism. They’re the subject of countless books, documentaries, and articles, so I won’t take up that time here, but if you’re interested in this history I would recommend John Taliaferro’s Great White Fathers. Like any book on such a nuanced subject, it only scratches the surface, but it’s a good start if you’re interested in the history.
Regardless of how one may feel about the memorial, it’s an awesome site to approach. The walk is lined with square pillars. Each side corresponds to a state, with the state flag waving overhead, and information about the state engraved on face of the pillar.
We, of course, took photos with our respective home states, like proper tourists.
And we marveled a bit at the Monument. Sure, there is controversy about it, even to this day, but regardless of how you feel about Mount Rushmore, it’s hard to deny that it’s creation was a massive undertaking and an impressive feat. It took a lot of men to shape the mountain, but amazingly no lives were lost during the sculpting. It’s quite a thing to behold, and I think we should look at it, and appreciate it as a product of its time, while respecting that what we see is only part of the story.
We spent about an hour at the Memorial, walking down to the amphitheater, although no one else was down there. That actually may have been why we went that way! We didn’t check out any of the shops, galleries, etc, as we were getting pretty exhausted and were yearning for some dinner and drinks. Before long we were heading back to Rapid City where I tended to my battered boots. I knew they were not long for this world anymore, but I was able to doctor them enough to last me through this trip.
After MacGyvering my footwear into serviceable condition, we got ourselves cleaned up and went to the hotel giftshop where we received information about the Stratobowl that would prove invaluable the following day, and then we ascended to the rooftop restaurant for dinner and drinks. It was a little cooler than we expected, so we found ourselves wishing we had sat at the bar. But we had chosen outdoor seating, and we were going to tough it out, even if it meant huddling near the decorative fireplaces. We were pretty exhausted, and by that point we were running such a caloric deficit that the quality of the food was immaterial. We just ate everything they brought us. The cocktails made us sleepy, and we found ourselves eager to just collapse into bed and sleep the night away. Which is exactly what we did, drawing the second day of our honeymoon adventures to a close.
Likewise, this concludes the second installment of my Honeymoon articles. It was a great day, and I cannot recommend visiting Harney Peak enough. It’s a great hike and it’s just a wonderful way to spend your day. Next time we hike it, we’ll take advantage of some of the different trails. That’s one of the great things about this place; there are different approaches, different trails, and different experiences. I’d like to return and camp in the Black Elk Wilderness on our way to the peak, as well as hit up the #4 trail. I think it’s safe to say this will not be our last trip to Harney Peak. Mount Rushmore is also a worthwhile destination, and if you’re there to do one, might as well visit the other!
Thanks for reading this post, and I appreciate your patience since it took so long to get the second installment done! I will do my best to get the Part 3 completed and posted more expeditiously! Until next time, stay intrepid!