We love this route to Black Elk Peak - or, as some still call it, Harney Peak. It takes you through several biomes, with all sorts of landscapes ranging from dry and rocky to lush and wooded. It’s almost like you are hiking in a different state from one mile to the next. This trail offers stunning vistas of the Central Hills, and poses enough of a challenge for our fit family that we feel like we’ve accomplished something when we’re done.
#9 North takes you up the “back side” of Black Elk Peak/Harney Peak. The first part of the trail was hit hard by the pine beetle quite a while ago, so downed pines have given way to stands of aspen trees and patches of wild raspberries – a tasty treat on a hot day in mid to late summer.
As you approach the fire tower, you get a fantastic view of the stone monolith where the stone masons of old perched the historic fire tower. It gave us a real appreciation for how precarious the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps must have been – imagine hauling rocks for the fire tower up the granite hillside! When you approach from this direction, it seems that the east end of the fire tower is an extension of the granite mountain. This trail is much less traveled than some of the other Black Elk Peak trails, such as #9 South. The terrain is a bit more rocky than some Hills trails, so be sure to wear boots with support if you have issues turning your ankles.
When you make the turn up to the fire tower, be sure to keep your eye out for magnificent views of the Black Hills and beyond. The journey up to the peak is almost as picturesque as the tremendous view from the top. If you have two vehicles, you can park one at Willow Creek Horse Camp and the other at Sylvan Lake, then take Black Elk Peak #9 South down the mountain for another beautiful perspective of this breathtaking gift of nature.
Some still refer to this peak as Harney Peak because it carried that name for many years to honor Army General William S. Harney, whose troops fought against Indians during American expansion in the West. In 2016, it was renamed Black Elk Peak to honor a Sioux holy man named Black Elk. Supporters of the renaming Harney to Black Elk said Harney's troops had committed atrocities on behalf of the federal government.
About Harney Peak/Black Elk Peak:
Harney Peak was first named for U.S. Army Commander General William S. Harney, who led troops against the Sioux in the Battle of Ash Hollow. It’s the highest summit in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains, and is the highest peak west of the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe. The Harney Peak Fire Tower was constructed by the federal Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938 as a place to watch for Black Hills fires, but was last staffed in 1967 when it was replaced by Mount Coolidge to the south. A U.S. Post Office was operated at Harney Peak from 1936 to 1942, and again from 1945 to 1946, and it was touted as one of the most elevated post offices in the nation. Harney Peak was renamed in 2016 for Black Elk, a famous Oglala Lakota Sioux medicine man. It’s said to be where Black Elk received his “Great Vision” as a child, as detailed in John Neihardt’s book Black Elk Speaks. The peak is sacred to the Oglala Lakota people, and you will see strips of cloth tied to trees around the fire tower honoring the area. Some signs and trail maps still refer to the peak as Harney Peak, which is why we refer to it as both Harney Peak and Black Elk Peak.