The County Highpoints of South Dakota

South Dakota counties

At the summit building
(Harney Peak, 1996)

Bell Hill
(Oglala Lakota County)

Sylvan Peak
(Custer County)

A panoramic view of
the rocky spine ridge
(Custer County)

Map showing my "progress"
(Custer County)

Virkula Peak
(Meade County)

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Highpoints at

I visited South Dakota for the first time in 1996, when I drove from Nebraska to hike the state highpoint, Harney Peak. In 2004, I spent about a day and a half in the state, visiting a few county highpoints around the Black Hills. On both occasions I had to dodge violent storms, including one in 2004 that dropped baseball-sized hail and twisters. I've been inside the state one other time, in August 2002 when I drove from Wyoming to spend a day at the Sturgis Biker Rally.

Harney Peak
• Highpoint: State of South Dakota
• Highpoint: Pennington County
• Range Highpoint: Black Hills
Date: May 24, 1996 • Elevation: 7,242 feet • Prominence: 2,922 feet • Distance: 6 miles • Time: 3 hours • Gain: 1,200 feet • Conditions: Heavy fog and spotty rain

The Black Hills are the lone significant mountain range in the state, and the hike to Harney Peak, the state's highest point, is an easy half-day hike along good trail to a rocky summit and stone lookout tower. It is one of many attractions found within the Black Hills.

In May 1996, I flew into Colorado Springs intending to visit the highpoints of the three states that border eastern Colorado. I drove into Nebraska and was successful in visiting its highest point, Panorama Point, but the weather was so lousy and frightful that I had no desire to continue south, where all the tornado warnings were. On the spot, I bailed and drove north to Hot Springs, South Dakota, to try my luck with Harney Peak.

Early the next morning, I drove to the trailhead parking lot, arriving early. The day was cool and foggy, and I was the first car in the lot, other than a lone work truck. However, there was no rain. I started hiking soon after arriving. The trail is easy to follow, well constructed and pitched at a lenient grade, so I made excellent time and arrived to the summit in slightly over an hour.

There was a guy there doing some welding repair. He was the guy from the work truck I had seen, presumably. He had to lug his welding gear up there, which wasn't easy. We chatted and he snapped a photograph of me. I had no views as a result of the dense fog. After a small break, I started my hike down, coming back to my car in about an hour. Including breaks, the hike had taken three hours, covering six miles.

Since I was in the area, I wanted to visit other attractions. However, the fog shrouded everything. I drove to the Mount Rushmore site, and they let me in for free, which was awful kind of them. However, the joke was on me as I couldn't see the sculpted images through the fog.

I then began my drive south, aiming to be somewhere near Kansas by sundown. I thought I would be clever and followed a series of lesser highways and local roads, but the highway I was following lost its pavement, and I didn't want to backtrack, so I took a chance and followed the dirt continuation. I travelled east through Badlands National Park, hoping that my tiny rental car with 3-inch wide tires wouldn't slide off the slick mud into a culvert. It was truly white-knuckle driving for the 20 miles it took me to reach pavement, now on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

I proceeded south, carefully negotiating the torn-up roads on the Rez, and stopping briefly at the Custer Massacre Site. The foggy weather and lack of any other humans was minorly disconcerting. I passed the time listening to the main radio station on the Rez. Since few people there have phones, they use the radio station to send out messages to other people, such as "Jim on Muddy Road, please go see your sister." You could hear the dee-jay's chair squeaking as he leaned back, and doors in the background slamming shut.

Back in Nebraska, I sped south through the Sand Hills. I literally did. I had a long straight downhill and for the only time in my life, I got the little thing in the speedometer to go past 100 miles per hour. I enjoyed the views and noted I'd like to revisit this area in the future (I did, in 2004). By that night, I was safely in a hotel room in Burlington, Colorado, situated on the Kansas state line. The weather was still rotten. The story picks up the next day as I visited Mount Sunflower, the state highpoint of Kansas.

Bell Hill
• Highpoint: Oglala Lakota County
• Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
Date: May 20, 2004 • Elevation: 3,718 feet • Distance: 0.3 miles • Time: 10 minutes • Gain: 90 feet • Conditions: Cloudy but nice

I revisited South Dakota, tacking it on as part of an extensive Sand Hills highpoints expedition in Nebraska. I was driving north into South Dakota, directly for the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Bell Hill is the probable highpoint of Oglala Lakota County (formerly known as Shannon County), one of the counties that comprise the Reservation.

I drove through this hell-hole town called Whiteclay, Nebraska. It's not a town but a collection of mini-marts that sell alcohol. The Pine Ridge Reservation is a dry reservation, so the citizens of Pine Ridge, the town, walk about two miles each way to Whiteclay to get their booze. Many just pass out in a drunken stupor along the highway. It was like this the entire way. At times like this, I allow myself to believe in an actual Hell, a place for the people who own and run those mini-marts in Whiteclay to go to when their ticket is punched.

I drove through Pine Ridge the town and then north on US-18 to a dirt road going east. I drove in four miles and parked near a cattle grate not far from the presumed highpoint hill. The area is very pretty, with rolling hills and grasses, spotted by a few trees. But trash is everywhere, as are burned-out cars.

I didn't push my luck. I got out, ran to the top, looked around, and ran back. I didn't want to stick around. The whole place has a very unpleasant vibe. I stayed the night in Hot Springs. A few storms kicked up and dropped rain as I drove.

Technically, Oglala Lakota County has five highpoint areas, but four are tiny blips nearby Bell Hill and easily sighted to be lower. Thus, I did not visit them. The county does not have a county seat. It was unorganized up until 1982, but it is so poor, it still contracts all county services to neighboring Fall River County. It is just one of two (I believe) counties outside of Alaska that lack a county seat.

Name change: In November 2014, voters in Shannon County elected to drop the name in favor of Oglala Lakota County. It became official May 1, 2015.

Sylvan Peak
• Highpoint: Custer County
• Black Hills
Date: May 20, 2004 • Elevation: 7,000 feet • Prominence: 760 feet • Distance: 6 miles • Time: 3 hours • Gain: 800 feet • Conditions: Fog, then pleasant

I stayed at a small hotel in Hot Springs, and ate at the Elk Cafe in town, where I met an Australian couple enjoying their "holiday" in America. I lived in Canberra (in 1987) so it was nice to practice my Strine again with native speakers.

First on the agenda today was Sylvan Peak, located a few miles west of Harney Peak. Back in 1996, I had lots of fog. Today, I had lots of ... fog. Slightly bummed, I found the parking pullout southeast of the summit and set in for what was supposed to be a quick two-mile, one-hour hike through the trees to the peak and back. All I had was a poor copy of a map with no lat-long tick marks on it.

I started the hike at 7:30 a.m.. I followed a service road that switchbacks up the southeast ridge of the peak, ending at a small utility box. From here, I started up the steep hillside, heading north, and following white-painted blazes on the trees to remain on the "route". I did this and had no trouble at all. It was foggy, and in some places I had to search for the next blaze even though it may have only been about 20 feet away. Quickly, the route gains high on the ridge and passes directly below massive stone outcrops. Farther on, the route gained into a crook of these rocks and then periodically mingled with the rocks and trees.

All was well until about three-quarters of a mile in where I lost the white-painted blazed route. There were lots of downed trees here. I descended about 50 feet, crossed the cleared area and then, without any blazes to help me, figured I should go back up high to the ridge. This worked out well as I found the blazes again. After a couple more false summits I came upon the real summit, marked by a cairn and a small rock outcrop (nothing like those massive ones along the way). It had taken me 50 minutes to get here, with 800 feet of gain. The fog lifted and I stayed at the top for awhile for the views and a rest.

After a few minutes at the summit, I started down. I followed the blazed route just fine for the few hundred feet it took to get me back to where the blazes had disappeared on me on my ascent. I spent about 15 minutes looking for the continuation of the blazed trees. No luck. I was starting to get a little concerned, and a bit annoyed that I was having trouble doing something that shouldn't be so difficult. But nothing looked familiar where I was. Finally, I made a command decision to start moving. I knew the main ridge went north and south, and with the sun still low I had a good marker for east.

I decided to proceed south as best as I could, which is what I did. I kept walking, never finding those blazed trees again. As I descended, I got low enough to see the road below me (way below me), which at least meant I was not getting too lost. The descent went through moderate forest and rock formations. Finally, I descended low enough to hear traffic, and to where I could see a power line. Shortly, I was out to a dirt road underneath the power lines. I had a funny feeling of knowing exactly where I was, and not knowing where I was at all. But fortunately, my poor quality map showed a creek and drainage that seemed to agree with my reality, so I now could locate myself on the map.

I had actually hiked out almost two miles south from the summit, and put myself over a mile southwest of my vehicle. Soon, I was up on the highway, still not 100% sure of where I was. I walked one way a few hundred feet and saw a sign for the city of Custer. Well, I knew I shouldn't go that way, and I now knew exactly where I was. I had a circuitous two mile walk along the highway to get back to my vehicle. I was hoping someone would stop and give me a lift but no one did. The hike back to my vehicle went reasonably fast, and I had plenty of time to think about how I'd messed up. I arrived back to my vehicle at 10:30 a.m., exactly three hours after I'd started. I was fortunate that I brought along an extra water bottle. The hike came out to about six miles round trip instead of the two I had planned for.

I took an extended break at the vehicle to change and relax. I was actually really relieved to be back, and out of the forest. This is only the second time I have ever been truly lost, although I still "sort-of" knew where I was. Had I not had the failsafes of the highway, I may still very well be in that forest, all dirty with a long beard and speaking in grunts. I decided to take it easy and visited Mount Rushmore. My next highpoint for the day was over in Meade County, amid worsening weather.

"Virkula Peak"
• Highpoint: Meade County
• Black Hills
Date: May 20, 2004 • Elevation: 5,460 feet • Distance: 2 miles • Time: 1 hour • Gain: 650 feet • Conditions: Storm building with lightning and thunder

The weather so far today had been rainy and foggy, then clear and nice, but now, around noon, it was getting cloudy again: the big puffy kind that forms over the peaks, potential thunderstorms. I was eyeballing an unnamed peak, the highest point of Meade County. Still a little dazed from this morning's adventure, I wanted to jump right back in the saddle, as they say.

The highpoint hill is not necessarily obvious. Nearby Flagstaff Peak is the most well known peak in the immediate area, while higher peaks are nearby but in neighboring Lawrence County. Other than its status as the Meade County highpoint, it doesn't do a whole lot to attract attention to itself. The access to this peak is along paved Forest Road-26 north of Nemo and accessible south out of Sturgis. I parked at a large pullout that is northeast of the peak and beside a stream. It was about 1 p.m. when I arrived, in weather that was mostly sunny but definitely getting more threatening.

From my vehicle, I descended the grassy banks off the highway, scooted under a fence and crossed the small stream. Climbing up the other side, I was met by a thick mesh of downed trees, grasses, doghair thickets and lots of undergrowth. Going mainly on instinct, I started up a ridge and mostly bashed my way up the steep slope until after 50 vertical feet, the forest became less thick, which was a relief. The gradient was still steep, but now navigation was easier.

The peak is crescent shaped, and the route I was following goes up one of its main ridges, a prominent northeast-southwest ridge. I stayed on the ridge crest whenever possible, and could see through the forest to my left the rounded cliff edges of the ridge. Shortly, the grade moderated and became flatter. I was near the top, but I had to make a right turn and walk west about 300 feet in very thick forest to cover the top sufficiently. I found a large tree with a pink surveyor's ribbon tied around it that seemed to indicate the top. It was an easy matter to cover the summit area for its potential highpoints. After a few minutes, I started back down. The hike down went fast, and I had no trouble with route-finding. Along the way I was treated to thundering booms and some lightning. A storm was building.

The round trip covered two miles and 650 feet of gain, done in an hour. I named this peak after a prominent gulch at its base, Virkula Gulch. I have no idea what the locals call it, if anything. From here I drove a Brownian path through the hills and through Deadwood-Lead to try my next highpoint, Cement Ridge in Crook County, Wyoming. But by now, the weather had taken a turn for the worse and I was initially foiled on that attempt, although I visited it the next morning. Instead, I managed to succeed at the Lawrence County highpoint, once the storm had moved on.

Crooks Tower
• Highpoint: Lawrence County
Date: May 20, 2004 • Elevation: 7,137 feet • Distance: 2.5 miles • Time: 90 minutes • Gain: 50 feet • Conditions: Clear with hail pellets everywhere

The storm really kicked up, even dropping baseball-size hail, so said the radio reports. I was not in that specific area, but it was just as bad where I was, and I was happy to see it break up and move along. There was still a few hours of usable daylight left, and I figured I may just get lucky enough to visit Crooks Tower in Lawrence County.

Crooks Tower is a small set of rocky spires, grouped close by one another, and accessible via vehicle from their backside, which is the way I approached. A sketchy forest road leaves the main road and climbs to these knobs. The storm had soaked all the roads but traction was good, until it immediately became slick, so not wanting to chance anything, I parked and walked to the highpoint areas. I had actually driven to near the Crooks Tower hills, on (supposedly) the highest street-legal road in South Dakota. The hike to the top went quickly, and I visited two hilltops of near-equal height. This journey took just a few minutes and wasn't very interesting, but the views down into the meadows and forest below were lovely.

A third area is about one mile southwest along the main road. Normally I'd have driven the road and then walked out into the forest to visit the last area. However, this road had also become a muddy mess. I was able to drive down from the first two areas but I did a lot of slipping and sliding and spinning of wheels to do it. I decided not to chance fate and parked, meaning I'd have to walk.

I walked beside the road south and west, trying to find a path of least resistance, but often forced onto the road by brush. Finally, I was at a point east of the last area. I entered the forest and walked about 3/10 of a mile. The ground continued to rise ever so consistently, so I went pretty far, almost to the far west edge of the contour area, to be sure I found the highest area. Hail balls from the storm were still in the grass, looking like patches of snow. The weather was clear and cool and rather nice, all things considered. I returned to my vehicle and got back to the main highway (US-85), where I had enough daylight to visit one more easy highpoint in Weston County (Wyoming) before settling in for the night in Lead.

(c) 1996, 2004, 2006, 2012, 2016 Scott Surgent. For entertainment purposes only. This report is not meant to replace maps, compass, gps and other common sense hiking/navigation items. Neither I nor the webhost can be held responsible for unfortunate situations that may arise based on these trip reports. Conditions (physical and legal) change over time! Some of these hikes are major mountaineering or backpacking endeavors that require skill, proper gear, proper fitness and general experience.