The Tallest Peak East of the Rockies

Looking up at Harney Peak from the trail

Looking up at Harney Peak from the trail

As we walked along, the gravel trail had changed over to dirt and narrowed substantially. We were now required to walk more or less single-file along the old, dusty pathway as the elevation once more started to increase. The late morning sun beat down from above, sapping my energy despite the day’s moderate temperature. Maybe the thinner atmosphere 6,000 feet up transmitted more of the rays to my skin or maybe being one mile closer to the big ball of flaming gas 93 million miles away made a difference. Probably not, but it sure felt like it.

Another hiker approached as he descended the trail. “You’re about halfway there,” he said, repeating what we had heard from several other hikers over the previous 30 minutes. The trail must abruptly teleport us from the halfway point to the top at some point.

Dead tree along trail up to Harney Peak

Dead tree along trail up to Harney Peak

Let’s rewind a bit back to the start of this adventure. Fox, her parents, and I were on vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. We had seen buffalo, prarie dogs, and Mount Rushmore lit up the previous evening. We had seen advertisements for the highest point in the Black Hills, Harney Peak. I had listened to Fox reminisce about hiking Mount Christoffel during a previous trip with her family to Curacao before I had met her. I wanted to experience something similar with her and so I suggested we hike up to Harney Peak.

So there we were about an hour into the hike. We had walked up and down a wide gravel path which passed multiple overlooks from which we could see the inactive fire tower at the top of the peak far in the distance. Eventually the path descended to a small creek which seemed to be at a lower elevation than the 6,000+ feet at the trailhead.

Near beginning of Harney Peak trail

Near beginning of Harney Peak trail

From there, it was all uphill to the top. None of us was in great shape, but at least Fox and I had youth to combat the relatively thin atmosphere compared to our home in Saint Louis. Her parents had more difficulty, but we made steady progress through the numerous switchbacks.

Looking southeast from near Harney Peak summit

Looking southeast from near Harney Peak summit

Soon the tree cover cleared signficantly and we had a fantastic view of the Black Hills for many miles in some directions. It was inspiring me to reach the top. I periodically took a sip from my Camelbak filled with nearly a gallon of water as we climbed. Although the air felt about room temperature, I was sweating profusely along my back, under my arms, and under my hat. Perhaps the dry air and elevation had something to do with it.

Once it seemed that we had ascended above the competing peaks in the area, I knew we were closing in on the top. We came across an old hitching post for tying up pack animals and then the path changed from rocky dirt to man-made stairs. Fox and I pushed ahead, eager to get a view from the top.

Stairway to fire tower on Harney Peak

Stairway to fire tower on Harney Peak

The old fire tower appeared to be in good condition, but the strong winds unobstructed by the surrounding hills made our footing feel a little precarious. But it didn’t really matter as the thrill of being at the top of the Black Hills and all the land for hundreds of miles around forced my camera up to my eye. I got busy shooting off dozens of mediocre photos as I forgot about good composition and merely captured anything that caught my eye.

View from the Harney Peak fire tower

View from the Harney Peak fire tower

Climbing Harney Peak was a wonderful experience. It was my first hike up anything even resembling a mountain and it immediately made me want to do more. It may be a little while before we can do another high elevation hike, but hiking Harney Peak has me in the mood to do more hiking closer to home.

Another dead tree on Harney Peak trail

Another dead tree on Harney Peak trail

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