This is a continuation of a travel series to South Dakota. To start at the beginning, go HERE. The rest of the posts in chronological order are HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE!
Day five of our trip to South Dakota was one of the most exhilarating and rewarding days of the entire vacation, for it was the day we climbed Black Elk Peak Trail (formerly known as Harney Peak Trail).
The Black Elk Peak Trail would probably rank in the top three of the most difficult hikes I've ever done. The other two difficult trails I've hiked were the Delicate Arch Trail where we hiked it in the middle of the day and got the worst sunburn of our lives, and a trail in Rocky Mountain National Park where we had to turn back because we got caught in a snowstorm in May.
The Black Elk Peak Trail is a challenge because it gains 1,110 feet in elevation in 3.5 miles (one way). You have to be in good cardiovascular shape to conquer this trail as you will be climbing up, up, and up! I can't tell even begin to tell you how many people I saw on this trail struggling (many a lot younger than me!) But it is worth every step because the views from the top are AMAZING!
There are other places you can catch the trail to make it a bit shorter and easier, but we started from the very beginning, the Sylvan Lake parking lot where we picked up Trail 4. From this spot, it takes between 4 to 8 hours to get to the top of the summit and back. It took us 6 hours, but we took a couple of detours (smaller trails that break off the main Black Elk Peak Trail) and we spent a lot of time at the summit enjoying the views and feeding the chipmunks. Even though you're not suppose to feed animals in the park, be sure to bring natural, unsalted nuts for these cuties because they are so tame and come right up to you for foods. I loved it!
It is recommended that you start this trail bright and early in the morning as it is an all-day hike. I can't even begin to tell you how many people we ran into around 2:00 pm just starting the climb and asking us "Are we almost there?" when they had miles to go. My husband and I would look at each other and say "They're never going to make it." Also, there are no bathrooms on this trail. Why, I have no idea. It's kinda hard to go all day without using the restroom, then again, when you're sweating all day, you don't really need to use the restroom. Be sure to bring PLENTY of water. You will need it! And bring food too, not just for chipmunks, but for you. Even if you're not hungry, you will need to consume it for energy. Energy bars, trail mix, are perfect!
We started the trail in the crisp coolness of the morning. It was so peaceful when we started, we seemed like the only ones out there. We ran into one single father with three little kids who really seemed to be struggling. We thought the guy was nuts for bringing little kids on a trail like this. One of them kept crying to be carried. He had no stroller or backpack of any kind. We think he eventually turned back for we never saw him again. After that, we didn't see people till we hit the Cathedral Spires and then the trail got busy.
The trail covers a huge mix of landscape. You will walk through gorgeous grasslands, see amazing boulders and unusual rock formations, and of course stunning mountain vistas.
From Trail #4 there are two trail head spurs (or detours I like to call them) that you can take to see other neat natural landscapes. One is Little Devil's Tower and the other is the Cathedral Spires. After seeing the Cathedral Spires from my car on our scenic drive of Needles Highway, I was excited to see them up close, so we took this little detour.
Even though it took us a little out of the way, I was glad we took this detour for we were able to get some great pictures that we couldn't take from our car. It was also surreal to see these "needles" so close and get a better idea of how huge they are.
When we got back on the main trail to the summit, the climbing really intensified but so did the views. I constantly wanted to stop and just soak in the view! But that's one of the advantages of starting the hike early in the morning, you can take your time!
If hiking it all in one day seems too much for you, or perhaps you want more time to explore some of the other trails nearby without having to hike half way up again, feel free to spend the night! Camping is permitted anywhere along the trail as long as it one fourth mile away from the summit. Here we found some one's old campsite, and thought it was the perfect spot to rest and enjoy some lunch.
As I said earlier, the higher you climb, the better the views. They provide great motivation to keep going!
You know you're almost there when you see this sign. Here you have to fill out a form and put it in a box so they know who is in the area in case they have to come looking for ya! That was a bit alarming to me. I never had to fill out a form when hiking a trail before.
By the time this picture was taken, I was pretty hot and exhausted. Every time I thought we were almost there, we weren't. I didn't think we'd ever reach the summit. Hikers coming back down were always encouraging the hikers going up, telling them to keep pushing forward, it's not much further.
But eventually we saw it, the Harney Peak Tower! We knew we made it to the summit! I couldn't remember the last time I was so proud of myself!
The tower was an architectural marvel. "How in the world did anyone build this thing on the top of this mountain in the middle of nowhere?" I wondered.
Can you just imagine putting these stone steps in? All the stone had to be hauled up over three miles in two wheel carts by horses and mules.
I felt I discovered a castle in a foreign land and I was no longer in Custer State Park anymore.
I could tell you more about this tower, or you could just read the plaque below (ha ha!).
You can go inside the tower to get even higher views than the ones outside the tower. I let my husband do that, as I waved to him from the deck below. I had climbed high enough for one day.
If you're afraid of heights, you may not want to take this trail. I am always nervous about heights, but I managed to control my fears. It's also very windy up there, at times I felt the gusts of wind were going to blow me over the edge.
They say that on a clear day you can see four states: South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Nebraska. Of course, I had no idea what land was what state, but I did think it all was breath-taking beautiful.
There is a little water hole up here. My husband went down to investigate, but the steps made me nervous so I hung back and fed the chipmunks.
The tower served as a fire lookout until 1967.
This is a view of the water hole as seen from the tower.
And here is one of my little buddies munching on a raw almond I shared with him.
The Lakota still come up here for religious ceremonies and leave colorful prayer cloths and other offerings. Visitors are asked to not disturb them.
When I finally reached the parking lot, I was exhausted but I felt pretty good about myself. I wanted a tee shirt that said "I climbed Black Elk Peak" so we stopped at the Sylvan Lake Gift Shop. They had some tee shirts referring to the trail that said: "Hiked it and liked it", but those whimsical ones did not reflect what I was feeling: a great sense of accomplishment; so I didn't buy one.
After hiking this trail, we were spent, so we left Custer State Park and went back to our hotel to shower and rest. Then we went out to eat and ordered the largest pizza we could find and ate the entire thing! We were hungry!
If you are in good physical shape, I highly recommend hiking this trail. I didn't see any young children other than the ones I mentioned earlier in this post, but I did see a lot of older people. They were slower, and took longer, and stopped and rested a lot, but they did it! It is possible. If you're worried at all, just start super early in the morning and bring plenty of food and water and you'll be fine. Also, bring sun protection, and wear lots of layers. Sometimes you'll get really hot and need to remove clothing, and other times you might get cold. It is quite a bit cooler at the summit, but I found the cool air refreshing after the difficult climb. I don't recommend a hat as the top of the mountain is super windy and I saw lots of hats flying in the air. I wore a headband to cover my ears, my husband had a hat with a string around his neck.
Have A Great Day! Amy
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