We have a love/hate relationship with Black Elk / Harney Peak Trail #9 South.
Here’s what we love: It offers tremendous vistas of the Black Elk / Harney Peak Fire Tower from many different perspectives. You can take in views of the Cathedral Spires, pass under Little Devils Tower, and walk through beautiful mossy hillsides on your way up. Also, it's usually passable year-round: we’ve hiked this through snow pack in early spring and through beautiful fall colors in mid-October. You’ll find aspens, spruce and pine on this trail, which make it beautiful year-round. If you go in early spring or late fall, be careful of ice on the steps to Harney. They can be quite treacherous.
When you reach the turn to the fire tower, take your time to enjoy the stunning vistas in all directions. You can see Little Devils Tower to the southwest, the prairie to the east, and get a birds eye view of the Central Hills. The steep steps to the fire tower are worth the climb to take in the panoramic views and historic stone structure.
Here’s what we hate: This trail is quite crowded, even in early spring and late fall, as it’s the shortest Harney trail in length and offers the easiest terrain. Much of it is old, two-track jeep trail. With an aggressively friendly big dog, we were forced to stop every few steps to allow other hikers to go by. It’s not a hike we take to find peace.
Okay, hate may be a strong word. We don’t hate it at all.
Honestly, it’s a beautiful trail and a must-do in the Hills, especially if you’re new to hiking or new to the Hills. It’s a very doable hike to the tallest peak east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees.
We typically do this as an out and back, but you can make a loop by going up #9 and coming down via Norbeck #3, then #4, which take you by the spur to Little Devils Tower and the spur to Cathedral Spires. If you take the Little Devils Tower spur, your dog can manage it as long as you don’t stop to climb to the top. The climb to the top is not dog-friendly. Kids love it but Mom was super-nervous and wanted to put her son in a harness. Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires are each hiking destinations all on their own, so it’s one of the most memorable loops you’ll hike in the Hills.
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.