Thursday, January 1, 2015


I have a son who likes to do this:
Temple Crag, Eastern Sierras, California
. . . so when I saw this:

 . . . all I could think of was how much fun he would have on this formation known as the Cathedral Spires. We didn't see any climbers, so after we got home I checked online to see if trad climbing is allowed here.  This site and this one say it's one of the best granite climbs in the entire United States.

Looking at my photos again, I did find some photos of climbers on one of the information signs:
Sam, some day you need to go to South Dakota.

As far as scenery goes, the 14-mile-long Needles Highway is certainly one of the most breathtaking.

At the time of its construction in the 1920s, locals called it the "Needless Highway" because of its exorbitant cost.

There were many mind-blowing rock formations along the road, and my imagine ran wild. This one looks like either Lot's Wife turned into a pillar of salt or a Native American woman with her face turned from me and buried in the furry chest of a bear.
I can see the Three Wise Men in this formation:

We passed through two narrow tunnels that had been blasted through the granite way back in 1922 when the highway was built. The most dramatic of the two is this one, the Needle's Eye Tunnel, just wide enough for one car.
Our view from inside the car
Looking back through the tunnel at another
vehicle just entering.
This rock formation is on one end of the tunnel and no doubt is the source of its name. 

Bob standing on another side of the formation. From this angle we couldn't see the eye of the needle:

 A view from the other side, also obscuring the eye.  Just like an actual needle, we had to be looking at it just right to catch sight of the hole:
 Apparently Bob could also see it from a horizontal position.
We continued on Needles Highway to Sylvan Lake and the Harney Peak trailhead, loving the views from our car windows:

 As mentioned in a previous post, there had been an unseasonable snowstorm a few days before our arrival, and while there was still snow on the ground, the temperatures were pleasant.

This sign at the base of the trail made me a little nervous. Rugged terrain? High degree of difficulty? That's not what my husband, obsessed with reaching the highest point in every state, had told me when we were planning the trip.Oh well. We were committed.
 Yeah, you can see how rugged and difficult the trail is:
 Maybe in South Dakota this is considered rugged and difficult, but by California and Colorado standards, it's a stroll in the park:
The trail begins at about 6,200 feet and gains 1,100 feet of elevation over 3.5 miles.

In 1872, nine-year-old Black Elk, who would grow up to become a famous holy man of the Oglala Lakota tribe (aka Sioux), became very ill and was unconscious for several days. During that time he had a vision in which he was taken to Harney Peak. His biographer John Neihardt recorded Black Elk's words about the experience as follows: "I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being."

Rocks thrust their way heavenward along our path, giant remnants of another era:
As we continued our climb, the snow gradually lessened, partly because of less shade and partly because of warming temperatures:

  Like many forests of the West, there were signs of bark beetle infestations:
 This is for my other son, the one obsessed with mycology:
It was a quiet day on the trail, but occasionally we ran into other hikers:
These two groups were hauling equipment up the mountain for some repair work being done up on top:
 We made several stops for these wild raspberries, kept cool in nature's refrigerator:
 We ran across this sign as we were nearing the top, but "Harney Peak Lookout" didn't sound like "Harney Peak Summit" to us, so we stayed on the trail. After about ten minutes of descent, we realized that had been a mistake and retraced our steps.
This is where the trail became a little more strenuous. Stone steps wedged into the rock started out as a gradual ascent, but towards the end the stairs got fairly steep.

An upwards-pointing metal bridge at the top of the stairs crossed a chasm and led to another set of stairs:
. . . which led to this cleft in the rock, the secret passageway to Harney Peak, not a place to be during an earthquake:
 My brave warrior led the way:

 Looking almost straight up, we could see the summit tower, promising us some R&R when we got there:

The summit approach and tower (once used as a fire lookout station) were completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938. As we got closer, we could see a man dangling from a swing seat from the top of the tower.  How nice of him to wash those windows just for us!

We had an excellent view when we finally got inside:

Harney Peak, the tallest point in South Dakota, has an elevation of 7,242 feet, but at the top of the tower I'm sure we added 20 feet to that.

One of the rangers pointed out the back of Mount Rushmore:
 We were shocked, as we had expected this:
The views made the hike well worth the effort:
The first white man to have reached the summit was General George Armstrong Custer in 1874 during his Black Hills campaign.

We climbed down out of the tower and back onto the mountain itself. There are lots of interesting rock formations on top. It was fun for us, but if I had kids with me up there, I'd be a nervous wreck:

We had stopped at a chocolate shop earlier in the day, and I had broke out a celebratory truffle:

If these two old fogies can skip their way to the summit, anyone not in a wheelchair should be able to do it.
The brightly colored strips of cloth tied to the barren tree reminded me of the sherpa flags on Everest. It was a nice touch.  Okay, time to start back by tackling those steep stairs:

It would be nice to float down the mountain like a dandelion seed, but walking is a good alternative:
 The warm temperatures had definitely done a number to our nice pathway. All that snow was starting to melt and make a muddy mess:
 Another massive monolith awaiting my mountain-climbing son:

 Back down at the parking lot, we stopped to enjoy a rest on a bench that tenderly memorializes a young man who apparently died much too young:
Thanks, Carl, for providing a rest stop and an opportunity to reflect on our day:

Black Elk Speaks, written in 1932, is based on a series of interviews between the author John G. Neihardt and Black Elk when Neihardt was researching the Native American Ghost Dance movement. When my son read this for a college class, he enjoyed it so much that I picked up a copy. The book includes details about Black Elk's early life, his development into a holy man and healer, the beginnings of the reservation system, the Battle of Little Bighorn, Black Elk's participation in Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, and the massacre at Wounded Knee. But more than a historical treatise, at the heart of the book are descriptions of a series dreams in which Black Elk sees the tragic future of his people, describes the spiritual burden that knowledge gives him, and agonizes over his powerlessness to do anything about it. Philosophically dense, it is not an easy read. The book became a favorite of Carl Jung, who had it translated into German.

Harney Peak Revealed by Bradley D. Saum covers the cultural history of this mountain that really is more than just a mountain. It is a spiritual center, an important geologic high point, and a gathering place. Each chapter of this little book covers a person or event associated with the peak, including its first ascent by a white man, its naming in 1906, its role in Black Elk's vision, and the building of the fire lookout tower. Many bizarre events have occurred on Harney Peak, and each is detailed in this book, including a post office being there for a period, a boy scout band playing on its granite peak, and a newspaper being published from the summit. A fun, quick read.


  1. What a spectacular area! We've never been there; something to add to the list for sure! So sad that the backside of Rushmore has apparently been a myth all along.

  2. I love the backside of Mt. Rushmore. I've seen it, yet not seen it. We need to go back! Harney Peak was a very fun hike. I quite like southwest South Dakota.