Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The View From The Top

At 7242 feet, Harney Peak is the highest point between the Rockies and the Pyrenees. The main route is #9, a 3.5 mile trail (well, depending on which sign you believe) that takes you from the rather picturesque Sylvan Lake to the stone watchtower on the peak, long since abandoned as a fire lookout but now the perfect vantage point for thousands of hikers each year. From that tower, you can see Nebraska, North Dakota, and Wyoming, along with the full scope of the Black Hills.

[As it happens, the lookout is also the final resting place of one Dr. Valentine T. McGillycuddy, a rather fascinating figure in South Dakota's -- and my alma mater's -- history.]

I first hiked Harney Peak when I was nine or ten. It was a family outing -- all five of us, including an under-five Shorty -- and when we got to the top, we were quite literally walking in the clouds. As spectacular a view as we were promised, we were instead greeted with a whopping five feet of visibility.

Still, getting to walk into the clouds from below is pretty cool. Especially if you're only 10.

The next time was a couple years later and I was at camp. This time, I hauled my thirty-pound pack up the mountain (no small feat for someone who was a whopping 110 pounds soaking wet) and we camped off the trail near the top. Same for the next year, and the year after that.

When I went to college, Harney became a familiar afternoon outing. I've hiked in from several different trails, each one offering different views and different difficulty levels. I've been up in rain, snow, blazing heat, perfect weather, and in the dark (which may have been unintentional). I've pointed out Mount Rushmore to foreigners, chased chipmunks, and hidden out in the lookout tower while lightning whizzed by outside. And I've been up there in the clouds several times since that first trek.

This, however, was the first trip I've made in six years, and the first since I'd worked a cushy desk job and gotten rather "cushy" myself. I was ... nervous. Which was weird.

It was, however, a perfect day. Clear blue sky, cooler than it'd been in several weeks, and I had great hiking companions.

I wasn't totally prepared for the way the landscape has changed in the last few years, but ... more on that later.

We made it -- maybe not in record time, but in a respectable time. And oh, was the view incredible.

Also, the chipmunks were just as friendly and unafraid as always. This one kept sneaking up to my feet, even though I warned him that he didn't want to get too close.

[Of course, if someone would have stopped feeding him, he would have stayed clear...]

Our return hike was via a slightly different trail, this one allowing better views of the Cathedral Spires and Little Devil's Tower. By the time we got back to the car, it was just starting to get extra-warm and air conditioning sounded better than ever.

Great day.


Anonymous said...

Oh, memories. Harney is one of my top 3 favorite hikes. We have also hiked it in the hail, rain, clouds, when I had to be carried as a toddler and when I helped carry my own toddler! Thanks, Ashley! I was just now able to meditate, imagine being in one of my favorite places, and take the stress out of being in this heat! Aunt Brenda

Whitney H said...

It's been way too long since I've done this. The Black Hills are on our plans for next summer, since this one is practically over.