OverviewThe purpose of this trip report is to consolidate beta for a fine and beautiful route that takes in the summits of two of the highest peaks in South Dakota. The scenery enjoyed along this route, from dense forest to granite needles and spires and wide-open, big-country views, is hard to beat.
Range: Black Hills
Mountains: Harney Peak, the highest peak in South Dakota and Little Devils Tower, the 7th highest peak in South Dakota.
Roundtrip Distance: About 7 miles
NET Elevation Gain: Roughly 1,200 feet (cumulative gain is higher)
Trail? The entire route is either on-trail or scrambling via a marked route (Little Devils Tower)
YDS Class: Mostly Class 1 with a Class 3 scramble to the top of Little Devils Tower
Trailhead: The Little Devils Tower Trail (Custer State Park Trail #4) trailhead is 1 mile east of Sylvan Lake on South Dakota Highway 87 (Needles Highway)
Land Management: This route begins and ends within South Dakota State Park lands and crosses into the Black Hills National Forest land protected by the Black Elk Wilderness.
Through the Woods
The smooth, well-trodden trail begins heading northeast out of the parking area, up a valley through the woods. The forest is thick, healthy and lush in spots...and completely devastated by pine bettle elsewhere. The birch and aspen are thrivin, while the ponderosa pine have been reduced to rubble by a creature no bigger than a TicTac. Massive stacks of pine trunks are located here-and-there throughout the vallley, evidence of thinning operations and beetle control efforts.
Fins, spires and towers of granite also dot the landscape in this valley. I caught myself remarking, numerous times and out loud: This is so incredibly beautiful!
The sign at the trailhead suggests to me that Custer State Park authorities get a little tired of the unprepared embarking on their journey to Harney Peak...
Up the Ridge and Back Down Into the Valley
The trail climbs steeply up out of the valley into dryer terrain before leveling out for a while. Underfoot, the dirt turns to sand in places and the trees becomes further spaced. The views of the granite spires in this segment of trail are incredible. At the high point of this section of trail, where the granite outcrops are completely in-your-face, anyone who has spent any time at all climbing rock cannot help but think: I'm returning here, next time with my rock gear and and able climbing partner!
Soon, however, the trail descends gently into deep forest and the slopes above the trail are covered in dense moss.
Black Elk Wilderness and Southeast Ridge of Harney Peak
"Sometimes dreams are wiser than waking."
- Black Elk, Oglala Sioux (1863-1950)
Before long, the trail levels out and gently ascends onto the southeast ridge of Harney Peak. A large sign announces your arrival into the boundaries of the Black Elk Wilderness. The ascent is quite easy-going, leaving plenty of time for reflection.
In a very short period of time, the variety of terrain and ecology experienced along this trail is amazing. In some places (higher, dryer with outcrops) the trail feels like Colorado. In other places (lower with dense, sweet-smelling woods) the trail feels like North Carolina. I just kept reminding myself: This is South Dakota, and this place is absolutely amazing!
Nearing the Summit of Harney Peak
About half-way out of the saddle, the trail converges with the primary route from the south up Harney Peak, picking up some traffic. Next, the trail to Harney Peak from the north merges in, and what started as a quiet hike in solitude becomes a much more social experience.
The trail wriggles around the southern end of Harney Peak and becomes both steeper and more "civilized," ascending stone steps. Soon railings appear and twirling staircases; the summit of Harney Peak is near!
Harney Peak Summit: Highest Point in South Dakota
The summit tower structure (and staircase system leading to it) leave an indelible mark on the memory. You can't help but wonder about the hands that laid down these stone stairs, chiseled the route and hauled the gear and equipment to form the summit tower.
The views from the top of Harney Peak are astounding. While the devastation from the pine beetle is sobering, the views of the surrounding Black Hills, punctured by by granite spindles, are inspiring.
Harney Peak is not only the geographic high point of the state of South Dakota, but by default also the high point of Pennington County and of the Black Hills. Harney Peak is also the highest mountain in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains and is a darn impressive sight that dominates the scenery throughout this region.
Exploring the open rock areas near the summit as well as the curling interior of the tower structure itself is a nice way to prepare for the out-hike back to the truck.
Black Hills Views from the Harney Peak Summit Tower
Return to Custer State Park
Turning your back on Harney Peak, heading southbound out of the National Forest and back into Custer State Park, you have the chance to really appreciate the amazing beauty of the land protected by the state park. The soaring towers and fins made of granite draw the eye closer, and you cannot help but stop and ponder what a joy it would be to climb one of these spires, savoring the scent of the granite crystals warming in the sun.
During our ascent, passing through this area, we noticed hoof-prints, which I knew were not elk or deer. I could only assume they were either Mountain Goat or Big Horn Sheep. And, indeed, a mountain goat was spotted in this area. While we only saw fleeting glimpses of him through the sparse timber, other hikers informed us he had been quite pushy with them! (Many of us who hike and climb in the Rocky Mountains can recall aggressive encounters with goats!) It's noteworthy that here in South Dakota, Mountain Goats were introduced and are not native to the region.
As pointed out by Eric Chu, the needles and spires in Custer State Park resemble Schrammsteine in Saxony.
Toward Little Devils Tower
Veering off onto the well-marked spur trail to Little Devils Tower, the route starts plainly enough, winding its way through recently cleared beetle kill. While the views of Cathedral Spires are stunning, Little Devils Tower seems to hide itself well on the approach.
A short-but-steep ascent up a washed-out trail bed ends rather abruptly in a nook in the woods. Blue arrows and spraypaint-on-rock point the way to the left, up a narrow notch in the granite. At last, the fun begins! Beginning here in this narrow rock "couloir," the route quickly becomes more interesting. Ascending this rock fissure quickly deposits you onto a middle plateau. Time to rest for the final scramble to the summit!
Paying attention to the blue painted blazes as well as the "use" marks on the rock will yield the easiest way to the top. From the middle plateau, the route bobs and weaves its way to the final summit plateau on sometimes quite steep but grippy granite.
Little Devils Tower Summit
At last, a final runnel brings you to the summit plateau of Little Devils Tower. Plenty of boulders rise above the plateau. To the right, one boulder seems to loom above the others. A nice (though stiff, though with no exposure) Class 3 move will put you on the top of that highest summit boulder! The views from this summit boulder are simply awe-inspiring! The entire "Needles" area is visible, Cathedral Spires will take your breath away and Harney Peak boldly dominates the horizon to the north-northeast.
Little Devils Tower Descent
Retracing your steps from the summit of Little Devils Tower is simple enough if, like the ascent, you pay attention to the blue blazes and the "wear and tear" of the feet that have trodden this route before you. Soon enough, you will descend first a big runnel from the summit, then a nice open granite slab to the middle plateau, then the final "couloir" to the base of the climb. Begin the steep wash-out hike on loose gravel to reach the smoother trail through the beetle kill. Before you know it, you regain the main Little Devils Tower trail and the final out-hike down the ridge into the valley begins.
I can only wonder why it took me 34 years to return to this amazing area!