The Black Hills lay claim to being the oldest mountain range in the United States – maybe even in the world. When I did a little searching on the internet to find out how old “old” is, however, I discovered that we are not the only state in the country which claims possession of the oldest mountains. The Great Smokies and the Appalachians also boast that title.
So who’s right? Whose rocks are older than everyone else’s rocks?
The problem is that once you start talking about age in geological terms, the numbers become unfathomably huge. Rocks can be millions or billions of years old. What is a few hundred years more or less, and how sure can you be about those dates anyway?
I believe the Black Hills are often overlooked in the contest for Oldest Mountain Range because they are rather unpretentious, as far as mountains go. Though Harney Peak, rising 7,242 feet above sea level, is the tallest point in North America east of the Rocky Mountains, its elevation gain (height from base to summit) is only about 1,100 feet, causing it to seem almost minuscule when compared to some of the taller peaks of the Appalachians. Nor are there any summits which remain snow-capped the whole year round. And then there is the name. Why call them Black Hills if they are actually mountains?
But mountains they are, and very old mountains at that. Their hill-like appearance bears testament to the millions of years of weathering they have undergone. The layers of sedimentary rock that compose many of their slopes contain fossils from an era long gone.
We’ll let the scientists continue to debate whether our rocks are 1.6 or 1.8 billion years old and whether the Appalachians have us beat, but in the meanwhile, take a hike up Harney Peak and see if you can’t find one of those fossils up near the 7,000 foot mark. It gives a person things to think about.