WANT TO PLAY LIKE A mountain goat for a winter afternoon? Then hike to the summit of Harney Peak (now known as Black Elk Peak) after a soft snowfall, picking your way up the rocky, treestrewn three-mile trail that leads to the tallest point east of the Rockies and west of the Pyrenees in Europe. You can’t see Spain from the top, but you can easily find Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.
I started up the trail at high noon on a sunny Sunday. At times it was dark in the deep canyons of the 7,242-foot mountain. More often, the trail led to granite-strewn overlooks so bright that I needed sunglasses to look out on the white and blue landscape.
You can hear the winter wind whispering in the pines, even on a still day. On blustery days, the wind whooshes and roars past the treetops, but down below you’re so protected by trees and canyon walls that you hardly feel a breeze.
Take a walking stick, or pick one up along the trail. A mountain goat would not think of traversing the heights of a snow-slippery mountain path on just two legs, and neither should you. A stick is like an extension of your arm; it might help you catch your balance or slow your fall. Walking uphill doesn’t seem as tricky as walking downhill, and there’s a mathematical explanation; it has something to do with the nonlinear partial differential of miles/per/hour divided by the angle squared. But leave your pencil and paper at home; you’ll understand when you step on the trail.
A stick might also give you a weapon in the very slim likelihood that you meet a mountain lion or wolf. Such encounters are almost unheard of, especially in winter. Wolves haven’t been seen on Harney Peak in modern times (Mount Rushmore A.D.), but a young male was hit by a car near Sturgis two years ago and another was caught in a trap in Harding County.
Dave Pickford, a ranger with the Black Hills National Forest’s Hell Canyon District, says lions have been spotted. Sightings are rare, but believable to our friends back down the mountain.
Deer, elk, turkey and mountain goats are common in the other seasons, but they winter in the meadows and thick pines at the foot of the mountain. “You might see rabbits and squirrels on a winter day,” Pickford says, “but you’re less likely to see birds and the bigger animals than in the summer.”
The lack of wildlife, along with the fact that there’ll be no motorcycles or tour buses echoing down below, adds to the solitude that winter hikers like.