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Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux medicine man who fought in the Battle of the Little Bighorn, climbed Harney Peak on a vision quest when he was only 9 years old. When he came down, he called the mountain–not far from the precise geographical center of the United States–the “center of the universe.” Black Elk later commented that he “saw more than he could tell” from its summit, which is reasonable, since no other peaks east of the Rockies reach higher than its 7,242 feet.
Get Black Elk’s view on a 10.5-mile circuit with 2,000 feet of elevation gain. It makes for an epic day or a blissfully easy weekend. Link up four trails–Iron Creek, Norbeck, Grizzly Bear Creek, and Centennial–from the Iron Horse Camp trailhead in Custer State Park, 41 miles south of Rapid City.
On a sunny day, the trail glitters with fragments of mica–like a path lined with gold. Three miles from the trailhead, you’ll hit a spur trail and begin gaining elevation in earnest, climbing 1,000 feet in the next 1.5 miles to the summit. A granite firetower built in 1940 tops Harney Peak and gives cover if weather rolls in. There’s plenty to explore up here: pools perfect for meditating by (or skipping rocks), secret nooks that provide shelter from the wind (and occasional crowds), and horizon-to-horizon views of granite spires. After descending, turn left onto the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail and cruise by ponderosas and wheat-colored buttes and rock towers. Search for tent sites on the north side of GBCT if you’re on the weekend plan. Otherwise, beat feet four miles to the Centennial Trail to close the loop.
Iron Creek Horse Camp ($22, recreation.gov)
Double your mileage (and see Mt. Rushmore) by adding the Willow Creek Rushmore Trail to the circuit. fs.fed.us/bhnf
Medium rare at the Sage Creek Grille (605) 673-2424
Hit the Little Spearfish Trail for a six-mile moutain-bike route with smooth downhill and many chances to catch air (rushmorebikes.com). Or climb a granite spire you saw from Harney’s summit (sylvanrocks.com).