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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Custer State Park: Harney Peak - Little Devil's Tower Loop Hike

August 24, 2011

During our first road trip to our first national park, M and I also decided to visit Custer State Park in Custer, SD. The reason for this stop was to hike Harney Peak, the tallest mountain east of the Rockies. We did our usual thing, which was read up as much about the park before getting there, grabbed all the guidebooks at the ranger station, and drove around to familiarize ourselves with the area before we picked out our hikes. 

Familiarizing ourselves with the area meant that we would drive on the prestigious Needles Highway, Hwy 87. The drive was excruciatingly scary as we shared the road with wide trucks and fast cars rounding sharp turns, as well as going through one car tunnels scattered along switchbacks. There were many pullovers with gorgeous views of granite pinnacles and conifer carpeted mountainsides. 

After the scenic drive, we set up camp and decided we would do the #9 trail from Sylvan Lake to Harney Peak the next day. The hike would climb 1,100 ft in 3.5 miles and was listed as a moderate trail. We started it around 7:30 AM which happened to be the exact time a pack of 25-30 teenagers started their hike too. M and I weren't too pleased with the teens antics so we ended up speed hiking the entire trail and reached the peak in an hour. This worked out well for us as it was only 40 degrees F in the beginning and we were hiking in t-shirts and shorts. The trail was well maintained and wide with mulch, rocky patches, and trail registration areas. The peak had a metal and paved stairway that allowed for easy access to the fire watch tower. The tower was dusty but afforded breathtaking views of the surrounding area. We took a few pictures and took in the view before heading onto the 2nd trail, trail #4 which would lead us to Little Devil's Tower and Cathedral Spires. 

Trail #4 was unkempt in comparison to the Harney Peak trail but that made the trail more impressive and fun to hike. There was more variation in the terrain with this portion of the hike and some parts of the trail had steep drop offs with pine trees covering the whole hillside, forcing me to be extra careful to not misstep and take a nasty slide down the hill. The trees cleared out once we were closer to Cathedral Spires and Little Devil's Tower due to a fire that broke out in the area. M and I snacked by the Cathedral Spires then proceeded to hike the short but difficult trail to Little Devil's Tower. 

The trail to Little Devil's Tower was rugged due to down trees and a very steep incline. There were loose rocks and twigs everywhere and after we ascended above the tree line, we had to follow spray painted arrows on granite slabs to get to the top of the tower. I didn't take many pictures here as I was trying to be diligent about my footing. Little Devil's Tower was definitely worth the effort. We were right across from Harney Peak and could see the watch tower. After drinking some water, we descended back to the main trail. The descent was scary because we didn't have trekking poles to help us not slip on the steep dusty trail.  We made it down unscathed and continued the rest of the hike, going through a striking meadow before leading us through more woods back to our campsite. We finished the hike at 11:20 AM, just in time for lunch. Above all, it was a very impressive Black Hills hike and I enjoyed it greatly due to the area having less grasshoppers than the grassland hike in Badlands. 

Our hike to Harney Peak, Cathedral Spires, and Little Devil's Tower in dark purple. 

Sylvan Lake campsite

Needles Hwy iconic one car tunnel

Granite pinnacles in Custer State Park

View from Hwy 87 Needles Highway Custer State Park

View from Hwy 87 Needles Highway Custer State Park

View from Hwy 87 Needles Highway Custer State Park

Switchback on Needles Highway, road takes a sharp left U-turn, Custer State Park

Iconic granite pinnacles in Custer State Park

Another tunnel on Needles Highway

More granite spires Custer State Park

Trail #9 from Sylvan Lake to Harney Peak, gravel trail, well maintained, most of trail looked like this

Outlook on trail #9 to Harney Peak

View from trail #9 to Harney Peak
View from trail #9 to Harney Peak, nearing to peak

Harney Peak looking west with shadow of watch tower

Harney Peak, looking southwest

Harney Peak view, south

Harney Peak view, south

Harney Peak north view

Inside fire watch tower on Harney Peak

M and I on Harney Peak, tallest point east of the Rockies and in South Dakota
Looking down from the watch tower on Harney Peak

Harney Peak fire watch tower

Me on Harney Peak, north view

M on trail #4 to Cathedral Spires and Little Devil's Tower in Custer State Park

Damaged trees in Custer State Park to Cathedral Spires and Little Devil's Tower

Cathedral Spires area in Custer State Park

Cathedral Spires area in Custer State Park

View on Harney Peak from trail #4

Sign for Cathedral Spires

Trail #4 to Little Devil's Tower in Custer State Park

On the way up to Little Devil's Tower. Damaged trees cut down and littered the mountainside. Custer State Park

M hiking up the dusty, loose trail to Little Devil's Tower

After clambering over granite rocks and slabs, we were on top of Little Devil's Tower with view of Harney Peak

M drinking water and staring at Harney Peak from Little Devil's Tower

M and I on Little Devil's Tower with Harney Peak in the background

Descending down the granite rocks

Steep views from on top granite rocks on Little Devil's Tower

Little Devil's Tower hike

Meadow leading M and I back to our campsite on trail #4

We ended up hiking on part of the road to get back to our campsite at Sylvan Lake. 

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