Here’s part two of our three-part series featuring the best medium distance hikes in the Black Hills and Badlands.
Harney Trail System
This area is located at some of the highest elevations of the Hills, so it’s important to wear layers when venturing into these parts (even in summer months) as the weather can change quickly and drastically. There’s often a 20-degree (or more) temperature difference between the peaks and the lower elevations and there’s usually a constant breeze at the summits and in less wooded areas. In the summer, thunderstorms can develop unexpectedly, especially in the warm afternoons. Some of these areas are largely exposed to the elements so proper lightning safety protocol is a must in these situations. This entire area has been decimated by the Pine Beetle epidemic in recent years meaning there are numerous standing dead trees. These trees can fall with very little warning (even on sunny days with just a light breeze) so always be aware of your surroundings and be watchful as the situation can become hazardous in an instant.
Little Devil’s Tower/Cathedral Spires Trails
These trails can be completed individually or combined to form a loop (though this requires a somewhat lengthy overlanding stretch either walking on narrow—and in the summer, crowded—roads or scrambling over steep, unmarked terrain).
Little Devil’s Tower Trail
At 3.8 miles total, this trailhead is found near Sylvan Lake (you will continue on Route 87 a little less than a mile past the Sylvan Lake turnoff). You will see a sign for the trailhead on your left and will make a left-hand turn into the parking lot. The trail is fairly wide and smooth and isn’t overly difficult (it does ascend the entire way but the grade is low). If you know where to look, the fabled Poet’s Table can also be found in this area, though that’s the only hint regarding its location that I’m offering. Part of the fun of finding it is in the search (a quick rifle through Google will provide additional clues.) Near the summit the last several hundred feet require scrambling over large, steep boulders. There are some absolutely gorgeous vistas on this trail and at the summit from which you can see the Cathedral Spires on clear days…
Cathedral Spires Trail
At 1.5 miles one-way, this trailhead can be found less than 1 mile south of the Needle Overlook on the Needles Highway (Route 87). Extreme caution should be practiced in this area. The parking lot is small and is located at the bend of an extremely curvy and narrow portion of the highway. It is necessary to cross the road to reach the trailhead and in the summer this area is frequently crowded with traffic. The curves and rock walls can greatly reduce a driver’s visibility and cars are sometimes parked incorrectly as well, further exacerbating the problem.
The trail is fairly flat, smooth and well-marked. The terminus of the trail is comprised of an amphitheater surrounded on three sides by rock spires that reach to the heavens as they tower overhead. Sounds reverberate off the rock causing a cacophony of noise. This is a prime area to stop for a quick lunch break and it is especially haunting in the fog, creating an almost fairy-tale-like scene.
Harney Peak Trail (now Black Elk Peak) in the Black Elk Wilderness (Trail #9)
At 7-miles round trip, you should plan for around 4 – 5 hours to complete the trail. Trail #9 from the south, this path starts at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. The trailhead can be found on the northern edge of the main parking area. Only in the last year, the name of the peak was changed from Harney Peak (named after a prominent US military figure) to Black Elk Peak (named after a renowned Lakota Holy Man). The change occurred so recently that many signs marking the area and most maps of the location will still use the former name.
This popular trail isn’t overly difficult, is fairly wide, relatively smooth (though there are many earthen steps), very visible and you’ll most likely have plenty of company. The trail is essentially “up” the entire way. It’s not overly steep but it becomes strenuous as the increasing elevation is unrelenting. It’s also the highest point in the Black Hills (and the Highest Peak east of the Rockies) so the altitude poses another challenge. There are other combinations of trails that can be used to reach Black Elk Peak (particularly Trail #9 from the north) but they are all much more strenuous. The trail used to be largely wooded; unfortunately, due to the Pine Beetle epidemic in recent years, many of the trees have been destroyed and several previously wooded areas are now open meadows. The 360-degree views of the Black Hills from the top are immensely beautiful. This area can also be enjoyed in the fog with the rock formations appearing ghostly as they are shrouded in mist (though the views are obviously obscured). At the summit is an old fire tower constructed of rock that is open to the public.