Friday, June 19, 2015

We Made it to the Highest Point East of the Rockies!

We're settled for the next couple of weeks in Custer, SD, in the heart of the Black Hills National Forest, just minutes from Custer State Park. Our home base, Custer's Gulch RV Park, is just outside the hustle and bustle of the touristy town and, even though we're now in prime summer season, we have decent site separation and our site backs up to National Forest land.

Site #25 at Custer's Gulch RV Park.

With absolutely perfect weather on tap we chose to do the most popular trail in Custer State Park as our first hike in the area; everything we read said this hike was worth the crowds. Of course the way to beat the crowds is to start early. We were on the trail early enough, 8:30am, to have a near empty parking lot and the trail practically to ourselves.

Harney Peak, at 7,242 ft, is the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees of Europe AND it's got amazing 360 degree views AND it's topped with a beautiful CCC-built fire lookout wonder people flock to it like a magnet!

The southern route is 3.5 miles one way, starting out with a modest incline, and increasing in steepness and rockiness over the last mile. The northern route is 4.7 miles one way and is said to be quite challenging. We took the southern route and made it a loop hike, taking the Little Devil's Tower trail back, making it an 8.3 mile hike.

The trail starts at beautiful Sylvan Lake.
At the end our hike in midafternoon the lake area was busy with small boats and swimmers and walkers and fishermen.

The Black Hills has a complex geologic makeup, and its Precambrian granite core is around 2 billion years old. Not long into our hike we were treated to vistas showcasing granite outcroppings of this core.

About a half mile into the hike, whenever we broke out of the trees, our vista was full of massive granite boulders.

As we neared the peak we had an excellent view of Cathedral Spires on the left and Little Devil's Tower on the right.
Notice all the dead trees behind Hans, the pine beetle is devastating Ponderosa Pines around here.

Our first glimpse of the Harney Peak Tower...the trail gets pretty steep at this point.

Taking a breather at the first sign of CCC craftmanship.
I'll show the stairs heading up through the rocks on our return when the light is better.

The CCC did a beautiful job integrating the fire tower into the mountain top.

It is perched right on the edge!

CCC-built stairs led us up through this granite ridge line.

The town of Custer is in the green meadow-like area behind Little Devil's Tower in the center.

Hi Hans!

Uneven granite steps descend to the dam and pumphouse,
which provided water for persons manning the fire tower years ago.

Lots of these little guys running around.

Hans is watching from the lookout tower as I clamber all over the rocks.
As far as I could tell the dam held only rain water, which was stagnant.

This high point is the center of the Precambrian rock in this area and provides a commanding view of the entire Black Hills.

Notice how the tower is built around existing boulders.

On our way down the light was better for photos of the stairs that took us up through the rocks to the tower.

Wonderful CCC engineering!

Our return trail took us right past the Cathedral Spires.

Cathedral Spires.

Neon green mosses covered the ground in a healthy section of forest.

We took the Devil's Tower spur trail knowing that it was supposed to be "steep and rocky"...
and discovered that was accurate!
This is part of the trail!

Some parts were wide enough for people to pass each other.

The views from Little Devil's Tower were just as impressive as those from Harney Peak...
in fact, Harney Peak Tower is the highest point in this photo!

Cathedral Spires from the top of Devil's Tower.

Descending Little Devil's Tower.

Some info on the removal of dead trees...

This was a fabulous day on the trail, and yes, there were plenty of others out there with us on a beautiful summertime Thursday, but our early start did make a difference because the parking lot was overflowing by the time we finished. Definitely worth the crowds!

The End!


  1. Ahhh....Harney Peak. My most favorite hike in the Black Hills! And Little Devils Tower is a close second. That entire area is so wonderful! Glad you are having a good time exploring the Black Hills.

  2. Those rocks looked like the red rocks of CO! I never think of SD this way amazing rock formations. I liked the cathedral spires.
    We should bring back the CCC, they do great work.

  3. We will obviously have to make it there some day. Great looking hike!

  4. What an awesome hike you two! We only toured the Black Hills on our Harley...the first year we started RVing. Looks like we need to return with hiking boots in hand! I love the spires and towers. But the neon mossy green is by far my favorite...absolutely beautiful!

  5. Yes, that moss photo is stunning.

  6. thanks for this blog as I use to live in Rapid City and made many weekend camp outs at Sylvan Lake...

  7. We loved this hike and the tower at the top. The Black Hills surprised us with so much to offer and some great hiking trails. Look forward to hearing more about your adventures there.

  8. A wonderful hike, I had no idea that anywhere in SD looked like that :-) The fire tower and surrounding trail/stairs are amazing not only in their esthetics but in their engineering. Built to last for sure! That spur trail of rocks looks very daunting, especially with Hans looking like he's just hanging there. Love the one of you on the slide down.... :-)

  9. Great report, thanks for sharing!

  10. Nice dramatic shots of your "peak" experience in SD. It's a shame what those pine beetles are doing to the trees isn't it? But the rock formations are even more visible now.

  11. What a gorgeous hike! Love the functionality, beauty, and durability of the CCC work -- the stone stairs and tower are very cool. Looks like a great campground, too. You know how to pick 'em!

  12. Have you guys ever seen a pika on any of your hikes?

  13. Hi there! Found you via your comments on Suzi's blog (Belluga). I'm so glad I did - these posts are a must read for me as I grew up in the Black Hills so they take me back for sure and I'm thrilled to see pictures of many of the places I spent time at or lived in. Adding you two to my reading list for sure now! :)

    1. Thanks for reading! We sure are enjoying this beautiful area!