This trail report is a bit of a departure from most of what I read on SP, but I hope that those of you who are passing your love of mountains on to your kids can enjoy it. It’s the story of my daughter’s first high point (Harney Peak SD) and the way that kids’ agendas might not fit in with your own plans. As in most children’s stories, there’s a happy ending.
Our family was heading back to the Midwest after a vacation in Yellowstone and the Tetons, and we decided to spend a couple of nights at Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills. The kids were mostly interested in seeing some wildlife and visiting Mount Rushmore. Of course I was interested in hiking and in trying to expose them to some kid-friendly rock climbing.
Lurking out of sight, but never far out of mind, was Harney Peak (7242'), the high point of South Dakota. We spent our days doing some light walks and touristy things throughout the Black Hills. The kids also enjoyed climbing over the non-technical rocks among the Needles, which offer lots of excitement for kids. My eleven-year-old daughter and her brother both passed on our offer to take them up Harney Peak.
But my daughter is a competitive sort, and as time went on we could tell that she liked the idea of reaching a “real” high point. She didn’t like the idea of a mountain getting the better of her, even if she hadn’t set foot on the trail. The fact that the distance and elevation gain were well within her abilities was doubtless also stewing around in her mind. She’s a quiet sort, though, so she never said what she was thinking and we’d mostly forgotten about Harney.
On our last evening, we decided to splurge on a dinner at the fancy restaurant in the hotel. Fortunately, we had pretty early reservations because toward the end of the meal she announced that she wanted to climb Harney Peak that evening.
My wife and I gasped pretty much in unison. But we decided that we had time to change shoes, fill some water bottles, and throw some flashlights and other supplies in a rucksack. The route is a simple walk-up, and we’d gotten used to being at 6000-8000 feet in the Rockies. My son, who was only eight at the time, thought we were crazy, so Mom stayed back with him.
An Auspicious Beginning to a Life of Climbing
Daughter and I promised that we’d be back before nightfall, and turn back if we had to. I figured that we had almost exactly two hours before dark for about 6.5 miles and 1100 feet of elevation. Could an eleven-year-old flatlander pull it off?
Hastily-collected rucksack thrown on my back, we scooted around Sylvan Lake to the trailhead. The trail starts in a meadow, where we spotted a doe off to one side. After admiring it briefly, we shot past without disturbing it. After a brief, gentle ascent we reached the boundary of the wilderness area and dutifully filled out our trail permit and signed the register.
The trail ascends steadily but mostly gently. About a third of the way up there’s a gap in the trees with the view of the Black Hills that you see to the right here. We hit this at about 20 minutes in, making good time on the way up.
We hit our turnaround time just as the trail began to get steep for the final leg to the summit. I pretended not to look at my watch, and we pressed on until reaching the top. We were about ten minutes later than I’d hoped if we were to make it back before dark.
The only glitch in the trip came there at the observation tower - - my camera batteries died after just one picture. If I’d had a few extra minutes to pack, I would have remembered to bring more batteries (I hope), but I didn’t have the time, and forgot. So the only summit shot here is a bit of a disappointment. It looked better in person, with the sun kissing the hills to the west, a light drizzle on the peak but with good light in three directions around us, and a larger storm coming out of the northwest.
We enjoyed the peak for a few minutes while the rain picked up a bit. Then we headed down and decided to make a game out of getting down more than twice as fast as we’d come up. I had made a mental note of the time at various landmarks, and we managed to keep to that double-time pace. We met only one person, most of the way back down. He was just starting out, without rain gear or flashlights, and impervious to our expressions of concern.
When we got back down to the meadow, there was just enough light to see that a doe was there - - possibly the same one we saw on the way up, though she’d been joined by another. We decided to watch the deer until we lost the light, and then cross the meadow in the dark.
As it got dark, Mom was beginning to wonder how we were doing. She was happy to see how thrilled our daughter was at her achievement, and the pace she’d set. We are scheming for other high points now. But my daughter only counts “real” high points, and refuses to pick up those in Indiana, Illinois, and our other neighbors.