Trail Review: Harney Peak, (via 3 Different Routes), Custer, SD


Harney Peak is the highest point in South Dakota at 7242 feet.  There are two main trails up Harney Peak, the Southern Approach and the Northern Approach.  The first time I went up Harney Peak I meant to go up the Southern and easier approach, but misunderstood some directions from someone I asked about where the trail was when I parked and instead of taking trail #9, I took trail #4-->Harney Peak Trail OptionsCuster State Park Trail Guide PDF.  Oops!  

This trail was probably a little more strenuous than trail #9, but about the same length overall and probably similiar in terms of elevation gain.  The above link puts it at about a 4-5 hour hike.  I made it up, (including going all the way to the top of the fire tower) in just under 66 minutes.  After a few minutes of a break to eat something and take in the view, I made it back down in just over 57 minutes for a total time running/hiking of just over 2 hours and 3 minutes.  You do, as with all 3 of these routes, have to check in when you enter the Black Elk Wilderness.  This means just stopping for a minute, filling out a quick paper registration that you take one copy of and keep on you person, about the size of a large receipt.  This route probably gains around 1100 feet over the course of 3-4 miles. Much of it is runnable, though obviously less so on the way up than the way down.  The final part to the top and up the stairs and including the fire tower is a little taxing as you gain alot of height in this final bit.  (Plus, stairs are a known nemisis to long distance runners!)  The first 6 pictures below are taken from this route.




This is looking down and to the west from the lookout tower atop Harney Peak, 7242ft.

This pic was looking south from the fire tower atop Harney Peak.

Some neat rock formations amidst the trail run back down trail #4.

View from trail #4.  Not sure if this is part of Cathedral Spires?

I ran trail #4 the day before I raced the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon Fast 5K.  Three days after that race, I finally went up Harney Peak the "easy" way from the Southern Approach, trail number 9.  This route definitely is the easiest of the three I ran/hiked.  The distance seemed about the same as trail number #4 but I did the whole thing, minus a brief break at the top again, in 1 hour 44 minutes.  (I had also fallen the day before in Hell Canyon and hurt my ribs.)  This is a busier route being the easiest but also very runnable, especially if you are use to the altitude and running hills/mountains.  (All three trails have the same final approach to the top, so that part as before included the steps and fire tower.  Sorry, I don't have any pics from this route.)

Three days after running/hiking the Southern Approach up Harney Peak, I finally did the harder, Northern Approach, a day before I ran the Bark Beetle Trail Race 10K elsewhere in Custer State Park. This trail gains over 2000 ft in ascent, (most literature I found online or in print put it at around 2200 ft, my GPS watch said 2441 ft in ascent, 2395 ft in descent, so I'd say 2400 ft each way.)  I left from the trail head just off Route 244 near the Willow Creek Horse Camp.  The trail starts off gaining ground immediately, but on a trail that is not too technical.  However, once you turn off the Willow Creek Loop Trail, then the trail continues to go upwards but becomes much more rocky, technical, and this day was even wet in some areas from the previous day's rains.  It reminded me of some of the trails I have hiked before in New England, especially in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Not as much of this trail was runnable, and I actually took and used my poles a few times for some extra footing and strength.  (Much of the time I hiked or ran with them however.  You certainly wouldn't need them, but I wanted to try training with them and they were useful occasionally.)  

I was getting tired from an active week as well as my fall four days before in Hell Canyon.  Gaining 2400 ft in 5.5+/- miles made this a good workout, and I did take a few very brief breaks.  Some I included in the time, and some, like a few minutes I took off at the fire tower, I did not.  Coming down was almost as hard in some stretches as going up because of the rocks and water.  I couldn't fall again with my ribs already sore and a race the next day plus 2 more coming up in Montana.  I was definitely not fast this day, but the 11.08 miles and elevation gain/loss was good training for racing in Montana.  Not sure what the average time for this more difficult route is, but minus a few short breaks, I got in done in about 3.5 hours.  I was exhausted.  Below are pics taken from this hike.



The large mass of rock in the center of this picture is the back of Mount Rushmore.

That's a wizened tree if ever there is one!


Coming back down the third time from Harney Peak, this time from the Northern Approach.
Harney Peak is definitely a worthwhile hike from any of these three approaches.  Pretty cool to get up and nab the highest point in the state of South Dakota and be able to do so in an hour or two one way, and then finish the whole hike/run off in less than half a day, in some cases, just a 1-2 hours round trip if you are really moving.