The Black Hills National Forest protects over 1.25 million acres in southwestern South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming. One of the highlights is Harney Peak. At 7,242 feet above sea level, it’s the tallest mountain in South Dakota, and the highest peak east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Pyrenees Mountains in Europe .
At the summit of Harney Peak is a fire lookout tower, dam and pumphouse built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1939. It’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
The lookout is no longer used to spot fires, and the pumphouse is empty, but the structure is open for visitors to explore. We had a bit of a scare when our dog Shadow decided to jump on one of the brick walls, not realizing it was a 30-foot drop to the rocks below. Fortunately he quickly realized the error of his ways and was able to turn around and safely hop back off the ledge.
The top of the lookout provides 360-degree views of the Black Hills and South Dakota. Unfortunately the trees in the Black Hills have been devastated by the Mountain Pine Beetle. Unlike invasive species threatening trees in other parts of the country, the Mountain Pine Beetle is actually native to the Black Hills. This insect goes through cycles of abundance and rarity. When populations are thin, only weak and dying trees are attacked, thus providing a benefit to the forest. But during outbreaks that occur about every 20 years, the beetles attack all trees and can devastate a forest, such as what’s happening today.
The most effective treatment against the Mountain Pine Beetle is to cut down and remove infected trees from the forest. Of course this is not always possible in the more rugged and remote areas of the forest, so an alternative method is used called “chunking.” That’s where infected trees are chainsawed into chunks and left on the ground to dry in the sun. This kills about 80% of the beetle larvae.
We dispersed camped in the Black Hills for a few days while we visited Wind Cave, Jewel Cave, Mt. Rushmore, and Custer State Park.
Oh joy, the dogs found a dead deer and brought it back to camp one bone at a time. Just like back at home.