But...they're called hills
Written by Marcus Heerdt
October 21, 2019

"But...they're called hills..." 

Yes, those hills of over 7,000 feet in elevation are definitely…not hills. The Black Hills are mountains because the highest peaks rise over 1,000 feet above the surrounding area (Plains = ~3 - 4,000 ft. - Black Hills Peaks = 5, 6, and 7,000 ft.). The Black Hills are named after the Lakota translation “Paha Sapa” (Black Hills) because of their dark appearance when viewed from a distance. It might be a good thing that South Dakota’s mountains are called the Black Hills because if wanting to change the name to Black Mountains…there are already six other ranges in the United States (Alaska, Arizona, California, Nevada, North Carolina, Utah) named the Black Mountains.

The Black Hills are a small, oval-shaped mountain range in the middle of the Northern Great Plains. Here in Custer, we are close to the “bulls-eye” center of the hills, the granite core, which could be anywhere from 1.8 to 2.2 billion of years old. The uplift that caused the Black Hills mountain range started to rise about 65-70 million years ago. It is possible that the highest peaks of the Black Hills were once over 15,000 feet in elevation! Black Elk Peak (Harney Peak) is the highest point in the Black Hills at an elevation of 7,242 feet, and has long been described as “the highest point east of the Rockies.”

How do the Black Hills compare to other regional mountain ranges? Eagle Mountain is the highest point in the Sawtooth Mountains of northern Minnesota, with an elevation of 2,301 feet. Buffalo Lookout is in Arkansas and is the highest point in the Ozarks at 2,561 feet. And the nearby Bear Lodge Mountains in Wyoming have its highest point, Warren Peak, of 6,640 feet. Even the Appalachian Mountains farther east do not compare to the Black Hills; Mount Mitchell is located in North Carolina and has an elevation of 6,684 feet.

The highest peaks in the Black Hills are:

-Black Elk Peak (Harney Peak): 7,242

-Odakota Mountain: 7,200

-Bear Mountain: 7,166

-Green Mountain: 7,164

-Crooks Tower: 7,137

("But...they're called hills..." is a phrase we hear a lot from visitors)

Photos by: Marcus Heerdt

A big thank you to all of the faculty and staff members at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology for their help and input!

To learn more visit:

South Dakota School of Mines & Technology Museum of Geology: https://www.sdsmt.edu/Academics/Museum-of-Geology/Home/

Exploring Black Hills Geology: https://sdmines.maps.arcgis.com/apps/MapTour/index.html?appid=ee2108c25a1b45b5b0c46e4cf7490cba&webmap=c918395f0b454224816a6bd8c459ab0d

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