Black Elk Wilderness- Lost Cabin and Harney Peak Trails



"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. "

-Black Elk, describing his Great Vision on Okawita Paha (Harney Peak).

After not doing any long trail runs all week because of the severe afternoon and evening thunderstorms we've had every single day, I have been eager to get out on the trails again. Running on the side of the road in the morning before work is just not the same.  

The weather forecast predicted only a 20% chance of afternoon thunderstorms for Saturday so I decided to go for it.  I ran a 14.2 mile loop through the Black Elk Wilderness. 


I started at the Willow Creek Trailhead and ran south on the Lost Cabin Trail. The trail soon became rocky and began a steady uphill climb.




As I climbed, I was rewarded with vistas of the northwest Black Hills. Named Paha Sapa or "Hills that are Black" by the Lakota, they get their name from the dark green hue from the pine trees that cover their slopes. From a distance, and especially when out on the tan-gray prairie, these hills really do appear to be black.


I entered an area where there was significant pine beetle damage. This infestation has been a problem in many Western states, causing the loss of many thousands of acres of trees. The loss of such timber has had serious financial as well as scenic implications, and also increases the risk of fire.

However, as with most things in nature, some positive comes with the negative. As I passed through,  I noticed  the presence of a larger than usual number of hole nesting, insect-eating birds such as woodpeckers and nuthatches.

There was also an increase in wildflowers and other plant life that normally would not flourish under the shaded canopy of a non-beetle damaged forest.

Soon, I left the beetle-decimated forest  and came to the Black Elk Wilderness boundary at the top of the ridge.

I stopped for a few minutes to catch my breath and ate a CLIF bar before heading on my way. The slight downhill was a pleasant relief after the previous few miles up hill. 


At mile 6 (approximately), I took the Lost Cabin Trail Spur towards the Harney Peak Trail.  

As I followed Lost Cabin creek, I was greeted by meadows as well as glimpses of granite outcroppings.  

I met two groups of horse riders coming the other way. I stepped aside to let them pass.

Our three horses are still back in Wisconsin with my family. I am looking forward to eventually getting them out on these trails. However, with all the ultra training I am doing, more than likely I will continue to run, with my mare behind me. She will follow without any lead rope.  

Then, Jeanne and Nathan can follow riding their horses.  Or they can ride on ahead if  I'm too slow.


I turned onto Harney Peak Trail and headed north. This trail is one of the most popular in the wilderness and is the main trail from which tourists climb Harney Peak.

After the solitude on the single-track of Lost Cabin Trail, I admit that I was just a little bit annoyed at having so many people to pass on this thoroughfare. Of course, they had every right to be there  as I did. It was good to see so many families out and enjoying themselves on such a beautiful day instead of going to the more popular tourist attractions. Too many only see the Black Hills through the window of their car.

My original plan was to run up the entire mountain, then rest at the top and eat my lunch before moving on. However, I only made it about two-thirds of the way up, when I was completely out of breath. I had no choice but to slow to a fast hike.


Harney Peak is 7242 ft- the highest point between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees. Atop the peak, there is a stone structure which was formerly a forest fire lookout. 

Harney Peak is the site where Lakota Holy man, Black Elk recieved his "Great Vision" when only nine years old in 1872. Later, he returned as an old man with John Neihardt, to whom he told his autobiography: Black Elk Speaks in 1932.

Just below the tower, attached to one of the few pine trees on the peak, are colorful prayer flags and other offerings. The Lakota still come here for religious ceremonies.   



From the peak, you can see four states: South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.

I spent a few minutes on the peak, then I headed down a few hundred yards to find a more secluded location in the shade. I sat down and ate my lunch.

Afterwards, I headed back down the trail at a quick jog, very happy to not have any more mountains to climb for at least a few miles.

When I turned to take the left turn to continue my loop back to Willow Creek, a hiker told me I was going the wrong way….

He pointed, "The parking lot is this way!"

I thanked him for his concern but explained, "I know where I'm going….. I'm not lost… I came in from the other side. I'm running 11 or 12 miles today and making a loop."

He looked at me with disbelief, but soon he was out of sight.

On the way down the other side of the mountain, I stopped to enjoy the views of Harney Peak where I had been only a short time ago.


The trail entered the trees and I appreciated the shade. I was relieved to have made it over the highest part of the run today without there being any thunderstorms to contend with.

I met a couple of hikers with a camera, I offered to take their photo for them. In return they took mine. That was much easier than trying to balance my camera on a rock and setting the timer as I usually do.   

Elkhorn Mountain is a ridge consisting of solid granite outcroppings. I found a large natural ampitheater with great natural acoustics. I think I will bring my Native American Flute with me the next time I am here.  It would be great to hear the flute music echo off these rock walls.

Maybe if I ever learn how to play my didgeridoo, I can bring it up here too?   I can make plenty of noise with my didge. However, the single word that bests describes the sounds I make right now is "disturbing." 

I had miscalculated the amount fluids to carry in my Camelback.  Usually the 100 oz bladder will get me anywhere from 18 to 24 miles, depending on how hot the conditions are.  I had only filled it 3/4 full because I was not going for that long of a run. 

Now at mile 9, I was almost out and very thirsty.

I came upon a  tiny 12 inch wide trickling stream that I did not remember crossing over the trail a half mile further up. The water looked cool and inviting.

However, the streams of the Black Hills are full of Giardia, an intestinal protozoal parasite that gives grief to many a thirsty hiker who is not cautious about where he or she takes a gulp of water. 

I followed the stream up to its source, a small spring that came out of a crack in a large boulder. The water was clear with a slight milky color from the dissolved minerals.

I washed my face, the salt from the dried perspiration was beginning to burn my eyes.  Then, I took a taste and drank heartily.

Gosh, there is simply nothing like the sweet, cold-crisp taste of mountain spring water enjoyed right at the source!

During our 6 month honeymoon trip riding our horses and pack mules on the Continental Divide Trail from Mexico to Wyoming about ten years ago, Jeanne and I drank often from mountain springs and spring fed creeks and we never got sick. But we were always very very  careful to know the source.

Giardia can be transmitted to a water source by humans, livestock and wildlife. It can also survive in the water on its own for a long time. The risk is real but also somewhat overblown. You just have to be aware. If there is a lot of human or animal sign and you cannot go directly to the spring, then you should not drink.

The incubation period is about 10 to 14 days- so for any of you skeptics out there, I'll certainly let you know if I develop any symptoms.

After three more miles of downhill, I was finally back at my car.



I had been thinking of doing another hilly 10 or 12 mile run Sunday but I had more soreness than I expected. So instead I only did a 5 mile run on more flat terrain.

There is a race that I am considering for next weekend: 24 hours of Laramie…The Run I am not at all considering doing the entire 24 hours. I think that it might be a nice training run to go at least 40 or 50 miles. I find that training runs over 30 miles are difficult to do self-supported. Although I have hidden food and Camelback bladders of fluids in the bushes many times before, it is much easier to make use of aid stations that are part of an organized event.

Unlike the tradtional out and back courses of most ultra events, this race is run on a 5.8 mile loop in the Medicine Bow National Forest. We are free to run as many loops as we would like over a 24 hour period.

If I choose to do this, the hardest part will probably be avoiding the temptation of dropping every time I pass my car. 

I think I will wait to see how I am feeling later this week before I decide.

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8 responses

  1. Becoming a peak bagger on me huh? Next thing I know you'll be following me up a glacier. 🙂 Great read as always. I can't wait to visit and go for a run.
    More information on Harney Peak. Cheers!

    June 24, 2008 at 10:18 pm

  2. I'm not sure about bagging peaks like you do. But we can definitely go for a long run, as long as you don't mind waiting up for me the slow-poke.
    A new challenge for me will be to eventually be able to run up that entire trail to the top without stopping or walking. Thanks for the link.
    On another note, when I returned to work on Monday and told them where I had been, they asked me: "Isn't that where they found that dead guy?"
    I hadn't heard anything about it but looked it up: "Experts to Hills hikers: Be careful out there"
    Apparently on Friday (the day before my run) some hikers came across a dead body lying on the Sylvan Lake trail (about 1/2 to 1 mile from where I connected with Harney Peak trail). He was a 61 year old who was pronounced dead at the scene, presumably from a fatal MI.
    Now had I come across him, that would have made for an interesting blog post …. but I am very glad that I didn't. I wouldn't have liked attempting to apply my BLS/ACLS skills in the wilderness.

    June 25, 2008 at 10:13 am

  3. Wow, what an incredible looking trail! All the pictures are fantastic. I'm in the market for a new small, easy to carry camera for when I get back on the trails – what kind of camera do you use?

    June 26, 2008 at 7:48 pm

  4. It was incredible; the pictures do not do it justice.
    I use a Kodak C813 that I purchased for $120. It is small and light and easy to use. The photos are great but I don't recommend it for use in outdoor activities.
    Even though it was in a zip-lock bag, it got just a little bit wet at the Kettle-Moraine 100 k and resulted in me missing a few photos, including one of a funnel cloud. It works now but it annoyed me that I was not able to get those photos.
    When will be the next time I will have the chance to photograph a tornado? I hope never.
    So, anyway I would recommend one of the small water proof or at least more water resistant cameras.

    June 27, 2008 at 6:30 am

  5. Forget the baggies and go with Olympus. I have a slightly older model of Stylus 770 SW that is great for my outdoor activities. Drop it in the snow, water, dirt and no problem. Try to avoid the rocks of course. 🙂

    June 27, 2008 at 9:05 am

  6. Ultra – those storms definitely sounded scary – good that you got out when you did. We just had a huge storm here today and lost one of the most beautiful old trees in our backyard, it's heartbreaking.
    Chris – I will check out that camera, thanks!

    June 27, 2008 at 9:21 pm

  7. Those storms were very scary. There is nothing like severe weather to remind yourself of your own mortality and how small and insignificant we all are in comparison to the powers of nature.
    Haliku- thanks for the advice on the camera.
    Maybe I should start running in the rain with my camera and without it sealed in a ziplock on purpose- just so I'll have an excuse to get one of those Olympus Stylus cameras?

    June 30, 2008 at 7:45 am

  8. It is simply matchless 🙂

    June 15, 2010 at 10:34 pm

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