After leaving Mount Rushmore last night we headed to a free dispersed campsite in the Black Hills National Forest. Having worked for the forest service I now know the benefits of using an MVUM (Motorized Vehicle Use Map) to find a free site. Before going to bed I checked the weather on my phone. According to an app our low for the night should have been around 28 degrees. Karrie and I have slept in the van at this temperature and been fine before so I didn’t think anything of it.
Around 3am I woke up freezing. I hoped across the cold wood floor and cranked the key. (Already in the ignition, just in case.) The electronics lit up telling me that it was 18 degrees outside. Good-for-nothing app was off by 10 degrees! I added some layers, turned off the van, and fell back to sleep.
In the morning it was still only 18 degrees outside and all of our water bottles were frozen solid. So much for breakfast. Instead we decided to start driving to the Harney Peak Trailhead. By the time we arrived the temperature had gone up almost 20 degrees and the sun was shining bright. At this point our water had melted to slush so we made some cold breakfast and were soon hiking up the trail through Custer State Park.
The rock layers and formations on this hike were stellar. Flashy gold mica glistened on the path on the rocks. Tall granite formations with vertical lines stretched out of the trees. Solid streaks of pink quartz occasionally cut across the granite.
We took a spur trail up to Little Devils Tower where we had excellent views of the Cathedral Spires and Harney Peak. There appears to be enough rock climbing here for a lifetime of entertainment. (We didn’t spot any bolts on our travels but that doesn’t mean sport routes aren’t available.)
Back on the main trail we crossed into the Black Elk Wilderness Area. (One of South Dakota’s two wilderness areas.) We paused to listen to two woodpeckers tapping away at some the beetle kill pines. They both laid down their own unique bluesy beats and I wished I had a way to jam along without scaring them away. Eventually they flew off in search new trees, new bugs, and that perfect natural rhythm.
Harney Peak is just as much a castle as it is a mountain top. The final approach consists of spiral staircases and bridges made out of stone and steel. At the peak itself is a beautifully engineered stone fire tower that was constructed by the CCC in 1939. It is a surreal place. A stone fortress on top of a mountain in the middle of the wilderness. What more could you ask for?
We had the peak to ourselves for the entirety of our visit. A relaxing lunch in the sunshine of the observation deck, photos from the tower, and a thorough exploration of the reservoir and pump house. So much to take in here. I found it easy to imagine the CCC workers building these amazing structures and taking immense pride in their craftsmanship; then years later the Forest Service employees that lived out of this plush fire tower and how they had to be completely aware of the fact that they were working a dream job.
Once we were sure we had seen everything we started our descent. Just about the time that we were out of view of the tower a couple passed us going the other way. It made me happy to think that these two strangers would also get to enjoy the peak in solidarity.
We took a different route on the way back that felt shorter, but everything feels shorter when you’re going downhill. More great views and rock formations, but not quite as stellar as the way we took up.
Back at the car we decided it was time to start heading east. There’s still a lot more for us to see in this part of South Dakota, (Jewel Cave National Monument, Badlands National Park, etc.) but we were aiming to make it back to Ohio in time for Oktoberfest with family in 2 days. Hopefully we’ll be back in this Sunshine State again soon.