ME SO HARNEY
We slept in a little the next day, thanks to our late arrival. By that I mean we were up at 7:30. It would’ve been difficult to sleep later, since first light was at 5am, and it was already getting hot at 7:30. It had been hot the entire trip, and even though we were at a little higher elevation (4000’), conditions hadn’t improved. By the time we finished a leisurely breakfast, it was over 90 degrees.
Before we left the campground, we spent some time watching a herd of bison that was grazing nearby. An intervening fence prevented the bison from wandering into the campground. Later it occurred to me that the fence was actually there to keep the campers away from the bison. Either way, we enjoyed watching the bison graze, especially the babies. Believe it or not, bison can be cute!
We drove a narrow winding road to Sylvan Lake, passing through a pair of rustic tunnels cut through cliffs. We arrived at Sylvan Lake after 10am, and the main parking lot was already full. We parked off the side of the entrance road and gathered our gear. My plan for the day was to hike to the summit of Harney Peak, the highest mountain in South Dakota (and east of the Rockies). The hike is fairly easy, as the trail only gains a little over 1000’ in elevation along the way. To make things more interesting, I planned a loop route that would take us to the peak. The loop would be 8 miles, including a side trip to the summit of Little Devil’s Tower.
The hike was interesting from the very beginning. After a few minutes, we passed what appeared to be an old Mica mine. Beyond we passed interesting rock formations before reaching the Little Devil’s Tower trailhead, an alternate starting point. From there we hiked through an open pine forest full of wildflowers before reaching a junction with the side trail to the Little Devil’s Tower. We decided to head that way first.
The climb started out fairly steep, and stayed that way as we emerged from the woods onto a bare expanse of rock. A bit of easy scrambling ensued before we reached the summit. Although we had seen many people on the trail, somehow the summit was deserted. It was a great place to have to ourselves. The 360 degree view was fantastic, as it included Harney Peak and the rock pinnacles of the Cathedral Spires.
It had been hot in the woods, but out in the open it was brutal. Saucony was feeling it. We had her on a leash, per park rules. She was obviously overheated, so Christy started giving her water. Before long, all of Christy’s water was gone! We had each brought 3 quarts, expecting that to be plenty for all of us. Instead, half of my water and all of Christy’s was gone, and we were only ¼ of the way through the hike.
Despite drinking almost a gallon of water, Saucony was still panting. We retreated from the summit, and found a shady place for lunch. Then we continued back to the main trail, where Christy decided to return to Sylvan Lake. She’d relax there with Saucony, while I finished the hike.
I continued on the trail, passing through pine forests with occasional views of the Cathedral Spires. I passed the return trail to Sylvan Lake, and climbed switchbacks to the summit of Harney Peak. At the summit I found a fascinating stone tower that actually adds to the appeal of the mountain. It was quite an improvement over the typically ugly fire towers that are found on many mountains.
The 360-degree view from the summit was impressive. My favorite vista extended over pine forests and rock outcrops to the vast badlands in the distance. Near the summit I also found a shallow man-made pond. If I had known about it, Christy and Saucony could’ve finished the hike after all.
A fast, uneventful descent followed. I returned to Sylvan Lake, and eventually found Christy and Saucony among the throngs of swimmers and sunbathers on the beaches there. From there, we headed into the town of Custer for groceries. We picked up steaks to grill, and headed back to camp for a leisurely evening.
The next morning, we broke camp and headed for Wyoming. On the way out of the park, we spotted an antelope grazing along the side of the road. We took a back road north, and near the top of the ridge we caught our first view of Mount Rushmore. From there, we headed down for a closer look. Just outside the park entrance, we found a great close-up view of the mountain. Mount Rushmore is impressive, and I enjoyed it all the more since my two favorite presidents (Jefferson and Roosevelt) are depicted there. We were satisfied with this view, and decided to skip going into the park itself. I’ve heard that park itself isn’t worth the exorbitant parking fee (which isn’t covered by the national parks pass).
From there, we headed through Rapid City and rejoined I-90 on our journey to Wyoming. In Wyoming, we’d visit the Devil’s Tower and the Bighorn Mountains before starting our backpacking trip in the Wind River Range.
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