Come See the Tallest Point in South Dakota
There’s something invigorating about standing tall over the land and fixing your eyes on miles and miles of magnificent views.
In Chicago, visitors ascend the Sears Tower to reign over the bustling city. Passengers in Colorado wait patiently for their vehicles to summit Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved highway in the U.S.
Here in South Dakota, trekkers climb the last few steps of the Fire Tower on Harney Peak before standing tall over the stunning landscape below.
A trip through the Black Hills wouldn’t be complete without a view from the top. Harney Peak is the highest point in South Dakota, and it offers a scenic view over the vast region. Come rejuvenate your body with a long hike, and refresh your spirit with the beautiful sights and sounds of nature.
Long before the European pioneers set up camp in the Black Hills, the Lakota Indians inhabited the land and considered it a sacred place. Harney Peak was a spiritual site that was used for fasting, praying, and meditating. They called it Hinhan Kaga Paha, which translates to “sacred scary owl of the mountain.”
When Black Elk, a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe, was only nine years old, he had a great vision upon the peak. Black Elk later recorded his vision with his biographer, John Neihardt. He said, “I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being.”
Harney Peak is named after General William S. Harney, who was an Army officer from 1818 to 1863. In 1855, General Harney led his troops against the Sioux in the Battle of Ash Hollow, which marked the early onset of a long and brutal war against the Plains Indians. While the Sioux tribe considered the peak a sacred and spiritual place, they were none too fond of General Harney, who led the settlers to victory over their tribe and revoked the land they once ruled over.
The Fire Tower
Being the highest point in the Black Hills, Harney Peak was an excellent site to spot forest fires before they spread. The location was first used as a fire lookout in 1911. In 1935, locals began gathering rocks from the French Creek in order to construct Fire Tower. After 3 years of construction with both man and mule hauling stones up the steep cliff for 3 miles, the tower was finally complete.
The Fire Tower at Harney Peak includes a dam, a pump house, and a stairway leading to the lookout tower. It once included living quarters that had everything from running water to heating and electricity. The house was staffed by the U.S. Forest Service until 1965, then Custer State Park until 1967. But with modernity comes new innovations, and the Black Hills no longer needed the Harney Peak lookout to spot forest fires. They had other methods such as planes and helicopters.
The man-made structure was built to last. Today, the Fire Tower still stands tall and it serves as a scenic overview for summiteers.
Harney Peak rises out of the Black Hills at 7,242 feet, and it offers majestic panoramic views of the area. Several trails that start from the surrounding parks eventually lead to the peak, but the most popular one is the Sylvan Hiking Trail located near Sylvan Lake. While most trails are moderate and require no special hiking skills or equipment, the northern route is a bit more strenuous and begins at the Willow Creek Horse Camp.
Although Harney Peak was used as a spiritual summit for Native Americans for years before the Europeans arrived, the first recorded ascent by the early settlers was said to have been completed by Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy on July 24th, 1875. He came to the Black Hills like many other frontiersmen, in the hopes of finding gold. McGillycuddy worked as a surveyor and later as an Army surgeon, and he served as mayor of Rapid City and was named the first Surgeon General of South Dakota. He was known for keeping cordial relations between the white men and the Native Americans during times of mounting tensions. After his death, his ashes were interred at the top of Harney Peak.
General George Armstrong Custer is also said to have ascended Harney Peak, but he was on horseback for most of the way. It is rumored that he forced his way up the rocky cliff on his horse long after several members of his party had dismounted.
Harney Peak is open for hiking year round; the peak seasons are from April to October. No permits are required, but you must register at the entrance to Black Elk Wilderness before setting out.
While the summit once served as a fire lookout, visitors today keep a watchful eye on any wildlife roaming below. Expect the occasional small rodent or slithering snake along the way, and when you’re at the top, train your binoculars on the lands surrounding the peak for a possible glimpse of some of the park’s larger animals. While it’s unlikely that you’ll see large mammals mounting the very top of Harney Peak, the Black Hills are home to many creatures of varying sizes, including bison, deer, and prairie dogs.
A Peek from the Peak
Harney Peak is a feast for the soul. The long trek to the top may tire you out, but the views will lift your spirits once again. If you’re traveling to the Black Hills this year, don’t miss the splendor of the highest point in South Dakota, Harney Peak.
Harney Peak is located in the central area of the Black Hills and is not accessible by vehicle. Hiking one of the trails will get you to the summit, and the most common trail begins near Sylvan Lake off Route 87. A lodge, gift shop, and parking are available at Sylvan Lake. Park fees are collected at the entrance. For more information, visit the info page here.