The February morning in South Dakota’s Black Hills dawned clear and cold. I had two options for the day: Peer into a hole on Pactola Lake alongside some buddies on an ice-fishing mission or check a hike to Harney Peak off my bucket list. The fishing had been slow to this point, so I headed for the Sylvan Lake trailhead and set out.
The stone fire tower atop Harney marks America’s highest point east of the Rockies (7,242 feet above sea level). From that granite perch, you can survey the Black Hills, including the squarish backside of a certain mountain with presidents’ faces carved out of site from Harney. It was on this summit that the Oglala medicine man Black Elk had his epic vision popularized by Nebraska poet John Neihardt. Black Elk was only 9 years old when he made this climb, after which he said, “I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw.”
I wasn’t aiming for a vision quest, but striking off into the snowy woods alone certainly heightens one’s awareness. Much of the 7-mile round-trip hike from Sylvan Lake is inside the Black Elk Wilderness, where all motorized traffic is prohibited. On this weekday, my tracks were the only human ones in the snow, and few sounds hung in the backcountry insulated by snow and thick pines. Occasionally a jay would call through a glen as I passed, or a pine bough would dump its load of snow with a sigh, crystals glittering in the sun.
It was as alone as I’d been in recent memory, and survival tales were heavy on my mind. My phone had no signal here, and if I were to slip, injure a leg, get stuck under a log, help would be a very long time coming. In the open spaces of the trail, the wind was erasing my steps almost as quickly as I left them. In summer, this trail would be busy with casual hikers, but today, no one walked with me but the shadow matching my pace on the granite walls. All of this, I must admit, gave the day a delicious edge.
When I reached the base of Harney Peak proper, I lost the trail in deep snow and floundered up to my hips toward metal stairs leading to the tower. At the summit, I sat low against the stone wall built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression and ate a lunch of a Snickers bar frozen nearly solid. The wind blew strong here, and its moan through the open windows added to the mystique of the snow-dusted hills and prairie and four states spread before me. It was cold, and I was mindful of getting back to the car before dark, but I lingered against the stones, hoping for a moment when I might understand even more than I saw.
For details on Harney Peak trails, visit the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks here.
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