Black Elk Peak Loop (South Dakota State Highpoint)

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Trip Date: Friday, September 21st, 2018
Last Updated: Thursday, November 29th, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★★(5/5)
Overall Difficulty Hard
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 6.8 miles roundtrip
Time 3.5 hours
Terrain Strenuous climbing
Best Seasons Spring, Fall
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly Yes
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

As my 8th state highpoint, I can say without a doubt that the route to Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak) is the most outstanding hike out of all the Midwest highpoints. Standing at 7,242 feet above sea level, Black Elk Peak is not only the highest point in the Midwest by over 1800 feet above the next highest point (Panorama Point in Nebraska), it's also the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. For you, this means that you will have unrivaled panoramic views of the Black Hills that extend far across the flat prairie surroundings to Badlands National Park over 50 miles due east. Most people try to do this hike the "easy way" doing Trail #9 both directions, but they are missing half of the scenery just to cut off mere tenths of a mile from the roundtrip distance! Instead of being "done" once you reach the peak, you'll hike past the towering Cathedral Spires and impressive Little Devils Tower, with a chance to climb the latter as a side trip.

Trail #9 is the more gradual of the routes to the top, so it's best to do this loop clockwise. From Sylvan Lake (pictured below), follow signs for Trail #9 to Black Elk Peak. You'll know you're heading in the right direction if you see several warning signs about how dangerous the hike is and how you need to be prepared with ample water, clothing, and food. On that note, the summit is notoriously windy and a few degrees colder than Sylvan Lake, so packing another layer or two is essential. In addition, it's easy to underestimate this hike if you've never climbed a real mountain before (not many chances for that in the Midwest...), so be prepared with more water and snacks than you usually bring. The trail is quite rocky with stair-step like portions and eventually actual staircases. Don't be ashamed of taking breaks (or when 5 year olds or 78 year olds pass you), and take care of yourself. Inclement weather is highly likely, especially in the summer, so turn around to avoid the high, treeless peak when a thunderstorm approaches.

Beautiful Sylvan Lake welcomes you at the trailhead

Beautiful Sylvan Lake welcomes you at the trailhead

As mentioned before, the trail is gradually graded so it's easy to get into a rhythm and pace yourself. The beginning part is much flatter, with grassy meadows lined with pine trees and a backdrop of rocky hills like pictured below. Slowly the trail will become rockier and shadier as you climb into the Black Hills. You'll reach a trail intersection at the top of a climb; follow signs and turn right to stay en-route to Black Elk Peak.
Meadows and pine covered rocky hills during the first part of the hike

Meadows and pine covered rocky hills during the first part of the hike

Breaking up the climb, you'll reach a fantastic viewpoint of the massive peak in front of you as you emerge from the pine forest to a rocky outcrop. The highest point in the center of the picture below is your final destination, and the lookout tower is faintly visible above the landscape like layered grey boulder. This is the perfect opportunity to take a break and eat and drink -- there's nothing like enjoying sugary salty snacks while absorbing nature's beauty.
Black Elk Peak (center) and its mass of rocks as seen from an overlook

Black Elk Peak (center) and its mass of rocks as seen from an overlook

Ahead, you'll cross the boundary of Custer State Park and enter the Black Elk Wilderness of the Black Hills National Forest, as evidenced by the sign pictured below. Someone from your party must fill out a registration form for a free permit when entering this wilderness, regardless of your destination or length of stay, though only one form is necessary for your entire party. This form is how the Forest Service tracks the usage of its trails in order to better manage and preserve the wilderness. After filling out the permit form and slipping one part into the brown dropbox and carrying the other part with you, you can continue your hike. You will be fined if a ranger catches you without a permit!
All hikers must stop and fill out a permit form when entering the Black Elk Wilderness

All hikers must stop and fill out a permit form when entering the Black Elk Wilderness

Shortly after entering the wilderness, another trail will merge with this trail. Continue straight and follow signs for Black Elk Peak. As you approach the peak, climbing becomes steeper and more difficult; the trail switchbacks several times until it intersects with the Norbeck Trail at a saddle. Again, follow signs for Black Elk Peak, climbing steeply uphill until you turn left onto the spur trail to the peak -- the final push. The trail rounds the south side of the mountain at a gradual climb, then starts a steep ascent to the top. The last section has several narrow staircases, as pictured below. Watch for other people here since some of the passages are too tight for two.
The last section involves climbing several staircases

The last section involves climbing several staircases

After climbing the stairs, you'll round the corner and see the famous stone tower (pictured below) in front of you -- you've made it! You can enter the tower and climb to the top, as long as you aren't intimidated by the ladder-like stairs that are steeper than basement steps in a 100 year old house. This tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression and was staffed as a fire lookout up until 1967. Though no longer in use, this tower is a welcome shelter on particularly windy days.
The lookout tower marks your final destination

The lookout tower marks your final destination

Outside of the tower, you'll have to wander around the granite slabs to enjoy the view from every angle. From the terrace outside of the lookout tower, you'll have excellent views to the west and south, with the Cathedral Spires and Little Devils Tower appearing prominently as shown in the first picture below. Take the stairs down from the terrace, and you'll find the best viewpoints looking north and east, where you can see Mount Rushmore (but not the faces) and Badlands National Park on a clear day, as shown in the second picture below. Interestingly, you'll also see a small pond and building near the bottom of the steps away from the tower.
The view looking south towards your next destinations: the Cathedral Spires and Little Devils Tower

The view looking south towards your next destinations: the Cathedral Spires and Little Devils Tower

The view looking east towards Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park

The view looking east towards Mount Rushmore and Badlands National Park

Once you've recuperated after the long climb up, it's time to take the scenic way back! Remember, when climbing a mountain, the summit is only the halfway point and you still have much more hiking to do, though it won't be as strenuous. Pay attention to the signs as you descend because you will change course when you reach the saddle again, turning left to take Trail #3 (also called the Norbeck Trail on some maps). Almost as soon as you veer onto this trail, you'll notice how the crowds thin drastically, so much that you will probably find yourself alone after a short while. The first part of the descent is along the eastern face of Black Elk Peak and has great views on the left side through openings in the pine trees. Further down, you'll notice a vast swath of deadfall, possibly from a major storm since there were no visible signs of fire.

Because this part of the hike is less traveled, the trail can be harder to find in places. Trail #3 eventually intersects with Trail #4, and you will continue straight to take Trail #4 towards Little Devils Tower (staying on Trail #3, also called the Grizzly Bear Trail after this intersection, will take you deeper into the wilderness). Looking back at the map, I don't remember seeing this intersection, so in any case you can't go wrong by going straight. After a mostly flat walk through the deadfall area, the trail starts ascending to a saddle, and at the top you'll have a great view of the Cathedral Spires, pictured below.
The Cathedral Spires as seen from the saddle

The Cathedral Spires as seen from the saddle

As you descend from the saddle, you'll encounter two spur trails: one on the left which takes you up close and personal with the Cathedral Spires and another further down on the right ascending to the top of Little Devils Tower. If you have the energy to add a measly 0.8 miles to your hike, I highly recommend doing the side trip to Little Devils Tower -- the view from the top is stupendous, almost as good as from Black Elk Peak. I even saw a mountain goat while descending from the tower!

After passing the side trail to Little Devils Tower, the trail zigzags down to the meadow lined with granite boulders pictured below. You'll start seeing more people again, since many opt to do only the short hike to Little Devils Tower. From here on, the grade is much more gradual until you reach the parking area for the Little Devils Tower Trailhead. From this parking lot, look for the trail just past the two restrooms heading northeast and slightly uphill (groan). After such a long trek, this final segment will feel like an eternity, especially because it isn't particularly scenic.
Returning to the rock-lined grassy meadows

Returning to the rock-lined grassy meadows

Luckily, it's only about half a mile until you finally return to the parking area at Sylvan Lake. What a fantastic hike! Not only will you summit the highest point in South Dakota, you'll also savor the splendid views from the top and truly enjoy the pine and granite filled wilderness of the Black Hills. Let me know what you think in the comments section below, and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

Dogs are allowed on leash. This trail is much too difficult for children (though I did see some parents dragging their kids to the top during my visit); a better option for kids is the mile-long Lake Shore Trail around Sylvan Lake. Spring and fall are the best times to hike to the peak to avoid the violent thunderstorms common in summer. If hiking in the summer, start as early in the day as possible and bring lots of water to brave the heat. Access to Sylvan Lake during winter is dependent on weather conditions, and most roads close for the season. This is a tremendously popular hike, and the entire way up on Trail #9 is likely to be full of people while Trail #4 on the return trip will feel empty in comparison.

Directions

From Custer, take U.S. Highway 16A east, then turn right onto South Dakota Highway 89 (Sylvan Lake Road). Turn right onto South Dakota Highway 87, following the signs pointing towards the entrance to Custer State Park. Pay the entrance fee at the station, then turn left into the Sylvan Lake area shortly after the station and find a parking spot.

From Rapid City, take U.S. Highway 16 west towards the Black Hills. Turn left onto U.S. Highway 385, then turn left on South Dakota Highway 87. Turn left to stay on South Dakota Highway 87 and enter Custer State Park. Pay the entrance fee at the station, then turn left into the Sylvan Lake area shortly after the station and find a parking spot.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

The entrance fee to Custer State Park is $20 for a weekly pass or $30 for an annual pass -- more information is available on the official park website linked at the bottom of the page. Sylvan Lake is extremely popular and finding a parking spot may be difficult during the peak season. If the lot is full, return to the main road and turn left, then park at the Little Devils Tower Trailhead on the left side of the road; since this is a loop hike, you'll simply be starting in a different spot. The Sylvan Lake area has both flush and pit toilets, a picnic area, swimming area, boat launch, and full service lodge. The Little Devils Tower Trailhead has pit toilets.

External Links

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