This was an exciting and exhausting hike to do in the snow. What is normally a relatively easy trail becomes much more challenging under a thick blanket of snow. Given how popular this trail is, I was actually surprised the trail wasn’t more trampled down, and in places there was very little trail at all with some pretty good drifting! Snow really transforms everything, and this hike was gorgeous. It was an almost full-family hike, since Jess was here from Illinois, and Mom came as well.Just a few trail stats, since somehow I’ve never done a trail review for Harney Peak (now known as Black Elk Peak. Sorry, I’m afraid it is still Harney Peak to me…). There are a number of ways to get to the actual peak, but the most popular route is Trail #9 from Sylvan Lake, which is probably the easiest trail as well, and very well maintained. It is also wide enough to be great for dogs, as well as people in groups. Sometimes the narrow trails can be annoying with a group, if you have any interest in keeping up some conversation! The trail is roughly 6.5 miles out and back, with elevation gain of 1499 feet, from the lake to the peak itself. This is not a hike to do if you just came from sea level, since you very likely could experience some altitude discomfort.The trail climbs at a pretty good grade for the first half mile or mile, then levels out somewhat, or becomes equally up and down, more or less until the base of the peak. There is a good little climb to the top, with a few switchbacks, and a set of stairs at the very end leading up to the old firetower. There is a lot to see up by the firetower, if the weather is decent and there aren’t swarms of noseeums (that really did happen one summer. No bugs along the trail, but a whole host of little biting bugs as soon as we reached the top. We didn’t stay very long). In the spring and summer, it is a great place to eat a picnic lunch, and there’s fun to be had scrambling around beneath the tower. And in the winter, there’s an added pastime: along the way, Anna stopped to build little snowpeople while she waited for everyone else to catch up with her.
Particularly given the altitude change, do be sure to be prepared for weather changes. Bring food, extra layers (even in the summer), water, and flashlights. This should be common sense, of course. But oftentimes with Harney, it has actually been necessary, not just a good idea. A balmy day down by Sylvan Lake may turn into gale-force winds up at the top, or in our case a warm-ish winter day became a snowstorm with poor visibility at the top and probably a good 15 degrees colder. A number of rescues happen every year at Harney Peak, so don’t get stuck needing help because you weren’t prepared. This is one of the iconic hikes in the Black Hills and truly is worth doing, especially not during the peak of tourist season, for a less trafficked hike. The views from the top are spectacular. I remember one hike a few years ago, up at the peak, watching clouds cascading over the mountains below the firetower, like a long-exposure waterfall photograph. Stunning. The terrain along the trail is beautiful as well, ranging from granite spires and moss-covered spruces, to haunting areas of standing dead, some excellent far views of the distant Harney Peak, a few beautiful sights of Little Devil’s Tower, just to name a few highlights.One of the many gems of the Black Hills.