Unbeknownst to many American mountaineers, the highest point of elevation east of the Rocky Mountains is not in New Hampshire. That title belongs to Harney Peak in South Dakota, a 7,242-foot stone-topped summit that towers over the pine and granite of the Black Elk Wilderness area west of Rapid City.
Indeed, you have to cross the Atlantic Ocean to find a taller peak, as Harney is the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the French Pyrenees. The summit is accessed via a 3- to 4-mile hike, and an abandoned fire lookout tower built by the CCC is on the summit.
Last weekend, I hiked Harney with my friend, the photographer TC Worley. It was early May, though the mountain didn’t seem to realize the season: Just two days before we arrived parts of the Black Hills got dumped on with up to four feet of new snow.
Our hike—in waterproof trail runners, though sans gaiters—was a post-holing extravaganza, with miles of plodding on a footprint-less path. We hiked from Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, leaving the parking lot at about 1p.m. Within an hour, we were lost, searching for blazes or trail markers, attempting to decipher minute detail on a 1:50,000 scale topo map in an area spiked with granite spires and scarred with deep valleys and reentrants.
TC Worley in view of the Cathedral Spires.
But after 20 minutes or so of searching TC and I regained the trail. The rest of the hike went better, and three-fourths of the way up—at a trail junction—we found footprints to lead us to the top.
The summit—an exposed granite ridge equipped with one of the coolest mountaintop fire hunts ever made—is a jaw-dropping place, with the Black Hills rolling away to all points of the compass. You can see three or four states from the perch and the inklings of the Badlands to the east.
In the summer, when millions of people head to the area to see Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Monument, and other tourist attractions of the Black Hills, Harney can be a zoo. TC and I, by contrast, saw no other soul on the hike up.
A ways to go. . .
Regenold at about 6,500 feet on the hike.