Hiking the Black Elk Peak Loop not only takes you to the very top of South Dakota but it is the highest peak found between the Rocky Mountains and the Pyrenees Range in Europe. That is about 1/4th of the circumference of the globe with no elevation that rises higher than the 7,242′ high Black Elk Peak. Given the stature of this mountain, it is actually a fairly easy mountain to summit. The main trail is well established with a beautiful stone fire lookout tower crowning its peak.
Naming Peaks and Parks
Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak) is located inside Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. The park is named after General George Armstrong Custer. Simultaneously, the peak is also named after a Lakota (Native American) Medicine Man who was related to the warrior Crazy Horse. Crazy Horse led the Lakota against the United States at the Battle of the Little Big Horn where General Custer and his entire command were killed. In fact, Black Elk, who was 12 years old at the time, participated in the battle.
Hiking Black Elk Peak Loop
- Which Route?
- Best Season
- The Trail
- After the Hike
There are many different ways of hiking the Black Elk Peak and not all of them start within Custer State Park. However, the park holds amazing beauty that should not be missed. The most popular hike is a direct route from the beautiful Sylvan Lake to the summit on trail #9. However, this out-n-back is a 7-mile round trip. At nearly the same distance, you can add trail #4 to #9 and create a loop that offers so much more than the traditional out-n-back. This loop affords you the opportunity to stroll through the stunning rock towers of the Cathedral Spires and summit the rugged Little Devil’s Tower. Both are accomplished via short spur trails and will add mileage and elevation to the journey.
A slightly shorter route can be taken from the Cathedral Spires Trailhead but this would either be an out-n-back or a thru-hike. You could also skip the $20 entrance fee to the park and start from the Willow Creek Trailhead off of Highway 224. This is an out-n-back journey of approximately 11 total miles.
Stats for Hiking the Black Elk Peak Loop
- Trailhead: Sylvan Lake (6,164′)
- Type: Loop
- Rating: Moderately-Difficult
- Loop Distance: 7 miles
- Total Elevation Gain: 1,490′
- Little Devil’s Tower: 6,959′
- Distance: Add 7/8th of a mile for the spur
- Elevation Gain: +258′
- Cathedral Spires:
- Distance: Add 3/4 of a mile for the spur
- Elevation Gain: +188′
- Recommended Time: 4 to 6 hours
- Hiking Season: Early-June thru Late-September
Best Season to Summit
Typically the snow in the Black Hills begins to melt in April, which makes May the season of mud. By early June the path should be traversable but you will need to use extra caution on the slippery terrain. It is best to wait until late June for hiking the Black Elk Peak Loop. The snow returns in September in the Black Hills but typically the first half of the month only amounts to light dustings.
Hiking to the highest peak in South Dakota does come with some inherent risks. The trail is actually well laid out with very little exposure for such a lofty summit. The real danger is found in the weather. Summits are nasty places to be during a summer storm. If inclement weather is forecasted make sure you are off the summit and in the trees before any lightning has a chance to roll in.
Sylvan Lake is an extremely popular place in Custer State Park. There are three decently sized parking lots near the lake. The first is just beyond the Sylvan Lake entrance station located on the south side of the lake. Skip this parking area as it is mostly used by visitors to the lake itself and is extremely busy. Instead, take the first road on the left up the east side of the lake. One side of the road allows parking but you should keep going as there are two large parking lots located on the northeastern corner of the lake. The first lot is between the #9 and #4 trails which makes it an ideal starting location but it is a small lot. Beyond that lot is a second and much larger parking area hidden in the trees.
Cost of Custer State Park
As of 2021, it costs $20 to enter Custer State Park. The pass is good for 7-consecutive days so plan on returning to fully explore the beautiful park. We suggest driving the entire Wildlife Loop Road early in the morning or in the late evening when the wildlife are most active. If you have a large vehicle make sure you study the park map to make sure you bypass the small one-way tunnels. The smallest of which is the Needle’s Eye, an 8′ 9″ wide and 9′ 8″ tall hand-carved tunnel. The tunnels are an amazing part of traversing the Black Hills but you don’t want to get stuck when driving a larger vehicle.
Adding trail #4 and #9 together creates a full loop out of Sylvan Lake. Deciding on which way to travel is a preference choice. A clockwise route allows you to summit Black Elk Peak first and then decide during the return on trail #4 if you have the energy for the Cathedral Spires and Little Devil’s Tower Spurs. However, if you are like us and want to save the best for last, a counterclockwise direction reserves the pinnacle of the state as the final destination on this epic loop. In truth, the entire trail is amazing and you can’t go wrong.
The Black Elk Peak Loop Trail
Leaving Sylvan Lake on Trail #4 the path traverses a small forested section before emerging into an open area with towering rocky cliffs on the left side. This massive rock garden is beautiful and a great way to start the loop. Before long the trail begins to follow the adjacent road arriving at yet another small parking lot located half a mile from the trailhead at Sylvan Lake.
Leaving the alternate parking area and the road behind the trail continues a moderate climb through the trees and into an open meadow where the rocky spires of the Black Hills loom on the far side. At the end of the meadow, the trail begins the steepest climb on the loop. The path ahead climbs 250′ in a quarter of a mile to the juncture for Little Devil’s Tower.
Little Devil’s Tower
It is here at 1.5-miles on the trail that you can use a spur trail to summit Little Devil’s Tower, the second-highest peak on the loop and the 9th highest in the state. The path is marked by a simple post with “LDT” carved into it. While we highly recommend the spur trail, it is the most challenging section to be found on this incredible hike. The path climbs 258′ in less than half a mile. However, the journey is more difficult than the gain and distance suggest.
At first, the trail is very clear and defined. But half of the path is scrambling up and over the exposed rocky terrain. Blue spray-painted arrows on the rock help define the direction. This is a trail that at times requires hands and feet to complete. Reaching the top of Little Devil’s Tower is well worth the effort as it provides astonishing areal views of the Black Hills, including Black Elk Peak and the Cathedral Spires.
Continuing the Loop
Back at the junction the trail ahead follows the rocky ridgeline adjacent to the Cathedral Spires. It is less than a quarter of a mile to the junction for the second optional spur that leads into the towering formations.
The Cathedral Spires
The Cathedral Spires are a tight cluster of rocky towers that rise several hundred feet above the surrounding terrain. They are a favorite for rock climbers in the Black Hills. While the Cathedral Spires Trail is just over 1.5-miles in total length from its dedicated trailhead, you can use this short spur to access the heart of the formation and hike the last quarter of a mile which is the most scenic area of the Cathedral Spires. The path drops about 90′ into the valley running between the Spire formations. It then proceeds to climb on a moderate slope to the end of the valley where a cliff edge and a sign mark the end of the trail.
Back on the Loop
Once again back on trail #4, the path ahead descends through a long section of forest rounding the backside of the Cathedral Spires. The terrain opens up and flattens out with some decent views of the northern side of the spires.
Crossing the Black Elk Wilderness
Nearing 2.25 miles on the loop the trail leaves Custer State Park and crosses into the Black Elk Wilderness. The Norbeck Trail also intersects the trail here coming in from the right. The path ahead through the wilderness is technically the Norbeck Trail but it still feels like the #4.
The majority of the next mile is relatively nondescript and the least scenic section of the loop. It passes through the forest on a very moderate slope for the first half-mile. Shortly after the path passes by a junction for the grizzly trail it steepens, climbing 225′ to the junction for Trail #9 and Black Elk Peak.
Black Elk Peak Spur (Trail #9)
From the junction it is a steep ascent up the spur of Trail #9, climbing 320′ in half a mile to the summit. The path first leads to a shelf with great views to the east. You can see the backside of Mount Rushmore from this cliffside. The path then rounds the backside of an adjacent peak before intersecting with the Harney Trail coming from the north. Take a left and continue to climb into the saddle above. Once in the saddle, the trail traverses a ledge below the summit of Black Elk Peak. The views back towards the Cathedral Spires and Little Devil’s Tower are stunning. At the end of the ledge, there is a small horse corral.
The Final Push
The final section of the trail is very steep as it climbs to the top of a ridgeline and onto the summit. However, the path has been built with ladders and stone steps that make the ascent relatively easy. Leaving the horse corral area the trail passes through a rock crevice that resembles a cave. On the other side, a series of wrought iron staircases are used to climb out of the nook and up to the final ridgeline. Atop the ridge, it is a short climb up manicured stone steps to the Harney Fire Lookout and the top of Black Elk Peak.
Black Elk Peak Summit
The summit is uniquely beautiful with the slender stone building rising vertically three stories above the peak. The lookout is completely open for exploration with an open-air viewing platform on the south side of the tower (2nd floor). A nearly vertical staircase leads to the 3rd-floor deck enclosed in glass with 360º views of the surrounding mountainous landscape. Often overlooked is the first floor which could also be considered a basement. This was the housing area for the watchmen but is now unused. There is a door located on the south side of the 1st floor that opens to a path that leads down to the retaining pond behind the tower.
A Holy Place
Many flags are tied off to the various trees and poles that dot the rocky summit These are prayer flags left by the Native Americans for whom Black Elk Peak is a spiritual place. Please, do not disturb or remove the flags.
Return on Trail #9
Once you are finished taking in the pinnacle of Black Elk Peak head back down to the junction with the Norbeck Trail and continue the descent on Trail #9 into the forested valley below. The trail drops from the summit for 1.5 miles before bottoming out at 6,415′ on the valley floor. This is a beautiful stretch of the trail covered in trees with glimpses of the rocky cliffs rising over the dense forest.
Climbing the Shoulder of the Mountain
The path doesn’t moderate for long before it starts to once again climb 200′ over the shoulder of an unnamed mountain peak. This climb is moderate covering the elevation in 3/4 of a mile with several stunning viewpoints along the way. These epic views overlook the jagged Black Hill Mountain Range stretching out to the north. The view found near the very top of this moderate climb is known as Flashers View and is one of our favorite on the Black Elk Peak Loop.
Back to Sylvan Lake
Once over the shoulder, the path begins a moderate 450′ drop over the final 1.25 miles. It is a beautiful hike through the valley leading back to Sylvan Lake. If you didn’t take the opportunity to explore the lake prior to your hike make sure you do so afterward. It is one of the most beautiful lakes in the country.
Logistics for a Hiking the Black Elk Peak Loop
There are no consistent water sources on the Black Elk Peak Loop. Make sure you carry enough to cover the entire distance as well as any side trips you might want to undertake.
Sylvan Lake has flushing toilets and the small parking area a half-mile to the east has a pit toilet. There are no other toilets on the Black Elk Loop.
While we did not see any bears on the Black Elk Loop, it is possible. The sheer number of people who hike Trail #9 makes the likelihood of spotting one of the reclusive creatures unlikely. But you should still carry bear spray just in case.
After Hiking the Black Elk Peak Loop
Custer State Park has no less than seven front country campgrounds to choose from. Sylvan Lake is the closest to the Black Elk Peak Loop but the sites are relatively small and not appropriate for bigger rigs. However, it does have excellent showers. For those needing a bigger campsite with full hookups head to Fort Welikit Family Campground located south of the Lake Sylvan area closer to the town of Custer.
If you prefer a hotel to a campground you can stay at the Sylvan Lake Lodge or make the short drive to the town of Custer, South Dakota where there are several other accommodations available including a Holiday Inn Express.
The Custer Wolf Restaurant in Custer, South Dakota is one of our favorite spots in the area. They have some excellent local brews. Although their menu is small they make a tasty buffalo burger.
Hiking the Black Elk Peak Loop – Summiting South Dakota
Whether you are a peakbagger seeking to summit the highest peaks in each state or someone looking for an amazing trail, hiking the Black Elk Peak Loop should be on your list when visiting the Black Hills. The path showcases the best of the mountain range, weaving in and out of the gorgeous rocky spires and climbing to the highest summits in the area. The stone construction of the Harney lookout tower is beautiful and the views are breathtaking. Add in the gorgeous Sylvan Lake, and this is without a doubt the best hike in South Dakota.