Facts About Black Elk Peak

Highest Mountain in South Dakota

Lots of rock climbing is found on the crags around Sylvan Lake.
Sylvan Lake in the Black Hills is the starting point to climb Harney Peak, highest mountain in South Dakota. Photograph copyright Stefano Salvetti/Getty Images

Elevation: 7,242 feet (2,207 meters)
Prominence 2,922 feet (891 meters)
Location: Black Hills, Pennington County, South Dakota.
Coordinates: 43.86611° N / 103.53167° W
First Ascent: First ascent by Native Americans. First recorded ascent by Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy on July 24, 1875.

Fast Facts

Black Elk Peak, at 7,242 feet (2,207 meters), is the highest peak in South Dakota, the highest point in the Black Hills, the 15th highest of the 50 state high points, and the highest summit in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains. The highest point east of Harney Peak in the Northern Hemisphere is in the Pyrenees Mountains in France. Harney Peak has 2,922 feet (891 meters) of prominence.

Surrounded by Parklands

Six national parklands-Mount Rushmore National Memorial, Badlands National Park, Devils Tower National Monument, Jewel Cave National Monument, Wind Cave National Park and Minuteman Missile National Historic Site are in the vicinity of Harney Peak and the Black Hills. The Lakota Sioux and native Americans are represented by the Crazy Horse Memorial, a large sculpture of the war chief Crazy Horse that is continuing to take shape on a granite buttress on the west side of the Black Hills. When it is finally finished it will be the world's largest sculpture.

Originally Named for General William S. Harney

Harney Peak was named for General William S. Harney, a military officer who served in the U.S. Army from 1818 to 1863. Harney fought pirates in the Caribbean, served in the Seminole and Black Hawk Wars, and commanded the 2nd Dragoons in the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s. General Harney entered the history of the Black Hills in 1855 when he led troops against the Sioux at the Battle of Ash Hollow, one of the first battles of a 20-year war waged against the Plains Indians. After the battle, the Sioux nicknamed him "Woman Killer" because women and children were killed.

Luckily, the peak has since been renamed as Black Elk peak, a traditional Sioux name, to honor its sacret connection to the Lakota Sioux Indians. 

Sacred to Lakota Sioux

Harney Peak and the Black Hills are sacred mountains to the Lakota Sioux Indians. The range is called Pahá Sápa in Lakota, which translates to "Black Hills." The name refers to the black appearance of the range when it's viewed from the surrounding prairie. From space, the Black Hills appear as a large circular dark range surrounded by brown plains. The Sioux call the mountain Hinhan Kaga Paha, which roughly translates as "sacred scary owl of the mountain." Inyan Kara Mountain, on the western side of the Black Hills in Wyoming, is another sacred mountain to the Lakota Sioux. Inyan Kara means "rock gatherer" in Lakota. Bear Butte, a laccolith eight miles northeast of the Black Hills by Sturgis, is also sacred to Native Americans. Over 60 tribes come to the mountain to fast, pray, and meditate. They feel that the butte's sacred nature is profaned by surrounding development.

Black Elk's Great Vision

The great Oglala Sioux shaman Black Elk had a "great vision" on top of Harney Peak when he was nine-years-old. He later returned with writer John Neihardt, who wrote the book Black Elk Speaks. Black Elk told Neihardt of his experience: "I was standing on the highest mountain of them all, and round about beneath me was the whole hoop of the world. And while I stood there I saw more than I can tell and I understood more than I saw; for I was seeing in a sacred manner the shapes of all things in the spirit, and the shape of all shapes as they must live together like one being."

First Recorded Ascent

Although many Native Americans, including Black Elk, climbed Harney Peak, its first recorded ascent was by Dr. Valentine McGillycuddy on July 24, 1875. McGillycuddy (1849-1939) was a surveyor with the Newton-Jenney Party, which was looking for gold in the Black Hills, and later was an Army surgeon, who tended Crazy Horse at his death. He was later mayor of Rapid City and the first Surgeon General of South Dakota. After his death at age 90 in California, McGillycuddy's ashes were interred atop his below Harney Peak. A plaque reading "Valentine McGillycuddy, Wasitu Wacan" marks the spot. Wasitu Wacan means "Holy White Man" in Lakota.

Geology: Harney Peak Granite

Harney Peak, rising in the center of the Black Hills, is composed of an ancient granite core that is over 1.8 billion years old. The granite was deposited in the Harney Peak Granite Batholith, a huge body of molten magma which slowly cooled and solidified beneath the earth's crust. The fine-grained igneous rock is composed of many minerals, including feldspar, quartz, biotite, and muscovite. As the magma cooled, large cracks and fractures appeared in the mass, which filled in with more magma, forming coarse-grained pegmatite dikes. These intrusions are seen today as pink and white dikes in the granite surface. The shape of today's Harney Peak began about 50 million years ago when erosive processes began uncovering and sculpting the granite batholith, leaving valleys, sharp ridges, and humped rock formations on the peak.