Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Adventures in South Dakota: Climbing to the Highest Point in the State

Before I left for the South Pacific on my honeymoon, I had just started to share my experiences from a recent trip to South Dakota, where I got the chance to see first-hand everything that that state has to offer in terms of outdoor adventure. In my first report on that trip I talked about the opportunities I had to go cycling in Deadwood and offroading in the Black Hills, as well as a few other fun activities. But that was just the warm-up of what was to come, as we eventually ditched our wheeled transportation in favor of good old fashioned hike along a very scenic trail.

After spending a day getting acclimated to the Black Hills by bike and ATV, I was more than ready to stretch my legs and go for a nice long walk. Fortunately, there are plenty of trails that can accommodate that urge, although we picked one that just so happened to lead to the top of Harney Peak, South Dakota's highpoint at 7244 feet (2207 meters).

The day began bright and early with a very scenic drive along the Needles Highway (SD Hwy 87), a 14 mile stretch of road that is so gorgeous that it has been declared a national scenic byway. The route leads to Custer State Park, a massive stretch of wilderness that covers more than 71,000 acres. For those who haven't visited Custer before, it can come as a real surprise. The place is incredibly beautiful, and on par with some of the best national parks that the U.S. has to offer. With its towering rock spires, tranquil lakes, and lush forests, Custer is definitely a place that any outdoor enthusiast visiting South Dakota will want to see for themselves. It perfectly encapsulates the majesty of the Black Hills in so many ways, and is home to a wide array of wildlife, including bison, deer, and numerous other creatures.

While all of us were excited to explore Custer, we couldn't wait to hit the trail to Harney Peak either. The route begins near the stunning Sylvan Lake, which is also amongst the most beautiful places you'll find in the area. Its placid waters reflect the rocks that line the lake's shores, making it an incredible place to snap photos. The lake itself is so enchanting that it would be easy to spend the day just enjoying that view alone. But we had bigger fish to fry, and after donning our daypacks, we soon set out on our trek.

The hike up to Harney Peak is roughly 3.5 miles in length. It winds it way through parts of Custer State Park before moving into the Black Elk Wilderness area. The route is clearly marked, and very easy to follow, with good signage to ensure that you're always headed in the right direction. For the most part, it is an easy walk, although there are sections that climb a bit more steeply than others, particularly as you approach the old lookout tower at the summit. It is estimated that it should take about 2.5 hours to make the hike from the trailhead to the tower, although my group managed to do it in well under two hours, so your mileage will vary.

Once at the top, you'll get an outstanding view of the surrounding countryside. As mentioned, Harney is the highpoint for the state, and there isn't much else around to block your view. The Black Hills stretch out in all directions, making it a great place to take in the scope of the area and survey the terrain. Obviously the watch tower is a good place to do that, but hikers can also scramble across the rocky terrain on the summit to get even more amazing views of the landscape. Unfortunately, while I was there smoke from the forest fires taking place in the western U.S. obscured some parts of the area, but it was still evident just how great a vantage point Harney Peak truly is.

My group took an early lunch at the top of the mountain, and it proved to be a great place to enjoy a meal and rest our legs before starting back down. We reached the top by late-morning, and upon arrival there weren't too many other hikers there just yet. But the longer we stayed, the more people arrived, and it was clear that the trail could get rather busy at times. If you're walking it yourself, be sure to bring plenty of water too, as it can get quite warm on the way up.

The hike back to the trailhead was just as scenic and enjoyable as the climb up, although the descent went much faster. Along the way, I couldn't help but think that the path would make a great place to go trail running, as it offers a good challenge, although it is generally smooth, wide, and easy to follow.

After our hike, it was time to visit a truly iconic piece of American history, and one of the top tourist attractions in all of South Dakota. Mt. Rushmore is about as recognizable as any monument on the planet, and although I've seen it on several occasions in the past, it remains very impressive. Seeing the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln carved into the side of a mountain is always a sight to behold, and learning about the massive construction project that made the sculpture possible is very educational. The work that went into creating Rushmore is on par with the carving of the Sphinx in Egypt, and like that famous statue, the faces of those four prominent Presidents will likely stand the test of time, and remain in place for millennia to come.

Once we had finished paying homage to the four great Presidents, and grabbing a sample of Jefferson's famous vanilla ice cream, we hit the road once again. We had plans to visit the Badlands the following day, but in order to get there we needed to drive for several hours to reach the town of Wall. That of course meant that we'd also be visiting the famous Wall Drug, another true institution in South Dakota. The family owned business started as a small drug store back in the 1930's, and over the years has grown into a sprawling establishment that covers more than 76,000 square feet. It includes numerous shops that sell all kinds of tourist items, as well as food, art, jewelry, and clothing.

As the story goes, Wall Drug was a struggling business back in the day. The owners – Ted and Dorothy Hustead – were trying to figure out a way to lure customers off the highway to come to the small down of Wall and spend some money in their store. Dorothy came up with the idea of putting a sign out on the road that promised free ice water to anyone who dropped by. Those signs proved highly successful, as suddenly cars were diverting into Wall to stop by the drugstore. Today, Wall Drug is well known for its signs, which stretch for hundreds of miles in all direction. The ice water is still free, but there is a lot more to see there now too. Some of the attractions include an animatronic t-rex, a quartet of singing cowboys, and a six-foot tall jackalope. Truly no visit to South Dakota is complete without dropping by Wall Drug as well.

We rounded out our busy day with a walk around Wall, and dropping by a local high school football game. There is nothing quite like small town America, and it was fun to experience that once again. With a population of just over 800 people, Wall isn't a bustling metropolis. But it is filled with friendly, down-to-earth people who are most definitely welcoming to visitors.

Next up, the Badlands awaited. But that would be the start of a new day.

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