Harney Peak or A Journey to the Top of Black Elk Mountain

By: investorpoet
August 23rd, 2007

The Harney Peak trailhead is located near Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park and within the Black Hills of South Dakota. After climbing a bit to a low ridge, maybe a half mile along the trail, you can see the peak in the distance. There is a old fire lookout on top built of stones. It looks to be quite a distance from that low ridge.

The trail rises and falls over several miles to the back side of low mountain that is Harney Peak. There begins the climb. Elevation rises approximately 1,100 feet over the last mile or so of the 3.5 mile one-way trip to the 7,242 foot summit.

We got off to a late start on our hike. It was to be 103 in Rapid City that day, and it was already well into the 80s at Sylvan Lake. So at 11:00 am we began our journey. For my wife and I it was the third journey to the summit. For our young daughter, it was the first climb. We told her that we were going to climb a little mountain. She insisted that she wanted to climb a big mountain instead. On this day, Harney Peak was big enough.

Despite our multiple journeys on this trail, we really forgot how beautiful the lower portion of the trail is. The journey winds through a pine forest that smells wonderful. There are wildflowers scattered among the trees and the huge lichen laden granite boulders. We almost turned back a couple of times. Our daughter was done before we got two miles into the trail. It was still two miles out and we had yet to begin the major climbing. I wanted to give it a shot, though, so I packed our daughter into her pack high on my back and pushed on in the heat.

In Sioux mythology, Harney Peak is the center of the world, as it was in Black Elk’s grand vision. From the top of Harney Peak, you can understand why it is viewed this way. The grand vista surrounds the peak and falls away in concentric circles stretching toward the horizon.

I looked ahead and saw the mountains there with rocks and forests on them, and from the mountains flashed all colors upward to the heavens. Then 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. And I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy

Nicholas Black Elk
as told by John G. Neihardt

I have always enjoyed hiking. Once you get going there is a kind of rhythm, the placing of one foot in front of another. In that rhythm there becomes an openness and an awareness. Instead of tunneling vision ahead and down the trail, it opens so you can see at the edges of perception. I should have been tiring in that climb and in that heat, but I was not. I entered that rhythm and that perception, but then there was something more.

Late in life, Black Elk was taken to the top of Harney Peak once more. He stepped out on to that flat plateau at the peak and began to sing. It was a cloudless and hot day. There he stood, looking out from that height, his song growing in intensity as if the spirits began to join him in song. All his ancestors in one chorus filled the circles below with their song. Clouds began to gather. Thunder crackled in the distance as if a thunderbird had just been unleashed. Soon it began to rain. A heavy, drenching downpour of rain cooled the rock beneath his feet. Then the song ended. As fast as the clouds gathered, they departed.

I told my daughter this story amidst the rhythm of that climb. With each breath I gained more strength. I wanted her to see what Black Elk had seen. I wanted her to hear his song carried on the wind.

Then the summit, the fire lookout, and lunch. I sat for a long while looking across the great distance at the granite spires and what lay beyond. It is truly spectacular at the top. I listened to the wind, a cooling breeze on a hot cloudless day.

Then, we descended. Whatever source of strength there was in the climb, it retreated upon the descent. We were exhausted and extremely thirsty when we arrived at Sylvan Lake. In our dreams that night, I’m sure that all of us saw that grand view and heard a certain whisper in the wind.

Other Road Trip 2007 Posts
Great Plains: A Journey Across South Dakota


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