My husband and I hiked this as a date hike when our son was small while Grandma and Grandpa took him to Reptile Gardens. We started north on the Centennial Trail #89 at Iron Creek Horse Camp, then took a left (west) on #7. Keep in mind, if you turn too soon, you will be on Norbeck #3 – another pretty hike that follows the Needles Highway and takes a longer route to Harney/Black Elk Peak.
More recently, we took our son and our dog and started at Grizzly Creek trailhead, which cuts off a mile or two. We hiked this on Labor Day weekend in 2021. Hiking it later in the year made the trail easier to find and also made the poison ivy easier to spot as it had turned red.
You walk through spectacular draws guarded by very old pine trees, where you’re treated to wildflower splashes, lush fern patches, cattail-laden swampland, and craggy granite sentinels. The swampy area is a unique biome in the Hills, and gives you a view of very different flora and fauna than you find along most other nearby trails. The trail follows an old jeep path alongside a waterway for quite a while, making for nice spots to stop and let our dog cool off in the stream and get a drink. It then turns to a single track as you begin your ascent to Harney/Black Elk Peak – elevation 7,242 feet.
This hike climbs 2800 feet through some of the most remote areas of the Black Elk Wilderness. In some places, blown-down pine trees – casualties of the pine beetle – may make it difficult to find the trail. However, when we hiked this in fall of 2021 it was much easier to find. In trickier spots, helpful hikers created rock piles to guide your path. As with any less-traveled trail, keep an eye out for the trail signs on the trees when you get back on the trail to make sure you’re not following a well-traveled deer trail. The challenge of the sometimes steep climb are rewarded by stunning views and quiet peace.
You’re not likely to meet many hikers until you get close to Harney Peak when you turn right on Norbeck #3 for .3 miles, then right on Harney #9 a mile or so from Harney Peak. As you climb the final steps to the Harney Peak Fire Tower, keep an eye out for Little Devils Tower. Once you reach the fire tower, you can see for 20 miles or more on a clear day. The vistas are amazing, and a gift well-earned. You’ll need to balance the time you spend at the fire tower with the time you need to head back the way you came. A round trip of 15 miles, it’s a full day hike of 7 to 8 hours. Fortunately, the return trip is mostly downhill.
This trail is labeled strenuous because of the continuous uphill climb and because of its length. It is not as hard as some other trails labeled strenuous, such as Crow Peak near Spearfish or the Grouse Grind in Vancouver, Canada. It is one of my favorite trails to Harney/Black Elk Peak because of its beauty and its solitude.
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.