The Black Hills, while sounding ominous, is a range named for the thick deep foliage of the pine trees that carpet the steep and rolling rocky massifs of the area. These hills are comprised of massive rock formations, lush meadows, beautiful lakes and waterways, and Harney Peak, South Dakotas highest point. Located predominantly in the southwest region of South Dakota and sprawling into eastern Wyoming, these hills offer a wide variety for adventure and wilderness exploration.
Most who visit the Black Hills spend their time taking in the views of Mount Rushmore and the progress of Crazy Horse, and then move on their way. Many don’t realize there is much more to this area than these monuments (as important and awesome as they are). There are miles and miles of trails just waiting to be explored and numerous rocks to work technique and climb. While this area is fairly populated there is plenty of spanning backcountry hidden far from the crowds that populate the tourist areas. One look at a map or a single stop in a visitor center will illustrate the numerous possibilities found in these beautiful high rocky mounds.
Standing at 7242’ within the Black Elk Wilderness is the pinnacle of the area and all of South Dakota, Harney Peak. There are a few routes that lead to this summit the shortest, and most popular, leading from Sylvan Lake in the State Park. The second most direct is a bit lengthier and travels through much of the untouched and far less populated wilderness to the north. Of course there are other routes that lead to the top but should only be considered if you’re up for a longer multiday trip.
During a visit, I chose the second option, the trek along the less populated trail from the Willow Creek Trailhead to the north of the State Park. Not only is it the second most direct that also allows a summit in a single day while winding through a large chunk of the less traveled Black Elk Wilderness, it’s also free. I followed a loop made up of trails 8, 9N, 9, 2B, and then 2, leading back to Willow Creek. Along this route there is a large alluring waterfall (one of many in the area), grand overlooks, and ever-changing terrain, all of which made for an entertaining, challenging, and exciting hike.
It’s not only Harney Peak that offers great hiking, the entire area is chalked full of unique terrain and topography. There’s something for every taste, hill trekking, lake hikes, canyons, and meadows creating a diverse mix of landscapes to explore. During one hike up a rocky path I came across a seasoned veteran of the area who informed me in jest that there is indeed, “a speed limit in these hills.” We spoke for a short while about the scenery and his experiences during the many hikes and much time he has spent on the various trails in the Black Hills. Most importantly, however, I realized like in any other backcountry area, there is a speed limit. Trails shouldn’t be rushed through from point A to point B; they should be enjoyed and appreciated. The experience is the whole point and why we as wilderness athletes seek them out, to test ourselves, push the limit, and reconnect with nature, loved ones, and ourselves.
The Black Hills is no exception to this mindset. There are plenty of peaks to climb, rivers to raft, mountain bike tracks to shred, trails to wander, places to camp (both designated and in the backcountry), and waters to fish, it’s an all encompassing backcountry athlete’s destination. A place like no other, a place to take it easy, reset, and explore, even if you break the speed limit now and again.