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How To Hike Black Elk Peak Trail In South Dakota

How To Hike Black Elk Peak Trail In South Dakota

Black Elk Peak Trail is a moderately difficult 7-mile round trip hike with 1,500 feet elevation gain in Custer State Park, which is located within South Dakota’s Black Hills National Forest. There are several trails leading to Harney Peak Fire Lookout Tower at the summit of Black Elk Peak, but we recommend you take trail #9 up and trail #4 down.

In this guide we show you exactly how to hike the incredibly picturesque Black Elk Peak Trail based on our own experiences.

Our Black Elk Peak Experience

Hiking couple stood together for a photo on granite rocks with distant views over a valley covered in trees and a wide open blue sky
Here we are enjoying special views at the summit

We hiked Black Elk Peak Trail on a beautifully sunny day in early October 2019. We’d already ticked off Badlands, Mount Rushmore, Custer Wildlife Loop, Iron Mountain Road and Needles Highway. And just when we thought the Black Hills couldn’t get any better, we hiked to the summit of Black Elk Peak.

Black Elk Peak is one of our favorite hikes in the US because it’s fun, scenic, engaging and it leads to spectacular 360-degree summit views overlooking 4 US states. An ocean of emerald green and golden yellow leaves covered the Black Hills during our hike, which was even more special. Read more about us.

Trail Information

Silver colored plaque on a brick wall detailing the history of Harney Peak Lookout
Harney Peak Lookout plaque
  • Distance: 7 miles round trip
  • Elevation: 1,500 feet gain and loss
  • Time: 3-5 hours
  • Difficulty: Moderate

Standing at 7,244 feet tall, Black Elk Peak is the highest point in North America east of the Rocky Mountains. It was formerly known as Harney Peak Trail but it’s name was changed to Black Elk Peak in 2016 by the US Board on Geographic Names to honor an old Lakota Sioux shaman.

The Black Elk Peak hike is generally rated as moderately difficult because the elevation gain and loss is very gradual. But it’s still a 7-mile round trip trail that’ll take you between 3-5 hours to complete, and that’s not including the optional spur trails. If you’re a regular hiker and in reasonable shape, this hike is definitely achievable. Here are our hiking tips for beginners.

At the summit you’ll find Harney Lookout Tower, which was one used as a fire detection viewpoint. The tower is no longer in use but you can still explore its three levels and viewing balcony. Back in 2019 we were just starting out with making videos on hikes and we got this pretty awful GoPro footage, but it shows you a bit of the hike!

Route Options

Screenshot of Where Are Those Morgans Gaia GPS map with edits to show the Black Elk Peak Trail including trailhead, summit and potential spur trail options
Screenshot from our Gaia GPS map showing the Black Elk Peak Trail routes

There’s more than 10 different hiking trails leading to Black Elk Peak summit. But the two most popular routes are trail 9 and trail 4, both of which begin and end at Sylvan Lake. You can hike trail 9 or 4 as an out-and-back, or you can hike one up and the other down to complete a loop. If you’re looking for the easiest way to hike Black Elk Peak, you should take trail #9 up and down.

But we recommend you hike trail #9 up and trail #4 down and here’s why:

  • Trail #9 is the easier hike because it’s more gradual, whereas trail #4 is slightly steeper. If you hike both trails you’ll get more variation in your route, views and overall experience.
  • Because trail #9 is easier, it’s always the busier route. So you’ll likely run into a lot of traffic on trail #9 if you hike in peak season, but trail #4 is usually much quieter.
  • There are optional trails leading to Little Devils Tower and Cathedral Spires from trail #4. By taking Trail #9 straight to the summit, you’ll be half way down trail #4 before you reach the spur trails and you’ll know if you have the time or energy to include them into the end of your hike.

Little Devils Tower would add a further 0.6 miles and Cathedral Spires would add a further 1 mile to your overall hike for the day. We recommend you add Little Devils Tower to the end of your Black Elk Peak hike, then hike Cathedral Spires separately from Cathedral Spires trailhead on Needles Highway.

Sunday Gulch Trail is another excellent hike beginning and ending on the other side of Sylvan Lake. It’s a 3.9-mile hike with 800 feet elevation gain and it’s considered a difficult trail. We highly recommend Sunday Gulch if you’re a strong hiker and you have time.

Black Elk Peak Trailhead

The trailhead for Black Elk Peak trails #4 and #9 is located on the eastern side of Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota.

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Sylvan Lake is easy to reach from the popular places to stay around South Dakota’s Black Hills. Here are driving distances and times:

  • Custer: 7 miles (15 minutes)
  • Keystone: 18.5 miles (35 minutes)
  • Rapid City: 37 miles (55 minutes)
 

Parking

Map showing the parking lots at Black Elk Peak trailhead with route 4 and route 9 mapped for reference
Map showing where to park with trail locations

In order to park at the trailhead to hike Black Elk Peak’s trails #4 and #9, you must pay an entrance fee of $20 per vehicle (which is good for 7 days) to enter Custer State Park.

Approaching Sylvan Lake from the west, you’ll pay at a small wooden kiosk moments after turning left to stay on SD-87 (Needles Highway). Drive around the long right bend, pass by the parking lots and take a left turn when you see a brown sign showing Black Elk Peak Trailhead.

Follow the road all the way to the end and find a parking space as it loops in a circle. If there’s no spaces on the loop road, you can drive into a long and narrow gravel overspill lot directly from the loop. The trailhead is easy to find on the northwest side of the small loop once you’ve parked.

Trail Walkthrough

Next, we’re going to walk you through the hike from start to finish so you know what to expect. You’ll see our own photos from the hike and we’ll describe the trail exactly as it was for us.

1. Trail #9

Small wooden pole with orange sign stating trail 9 in a pretty meadow
The very beginning of the hike on trail 9

After watching sunrise at Mount Rushmore, we drove to Sylvan Lake and paid to enter Custer State Park. We arrived to the trailhead around mid-morning in October and there were plenty of parking spaces available. So we parked up, used the vault bathrooms and made sure we had plenty of water and food for the hike.

We used the compass app on our phone to make sure we were pointing northwest from the loop and easily located trail #9. At the start of the hike there’s a group of information boards and maps of the various routes, so we took photos in case of emergency.

2. Slowly Gain Elevation

Walking path leading through a meadow to tall evergreen trees and a blue sky
Lovely walk through meadows as the trail begins to slowly climb

Almost immediately we were surrounded by beautiful meadows and forested areas. The trail was a narrow and soft dirt packed path, which was bouncy underfoot. Deep green and golden colored leaves were lighting up the granite hills all around us.

Slowly but surely the trail gained elevation so we were working up a sweat pretty early on in the hike. Before long the path lead into enclosed trees and it took some time before we emerged back out above the canopy.

3. Awesome Viewpoint

Hiker in blue fleece standing on a granite dome shaped rock overlooking a far reaching view of trees and rugged rocks
Kristen enjoying the views from the first major overlook

We reached a fork in the path, left was trail #2 (Lost Cabin Trail – wilderness permit required) and right continued on trail #9. Not long after taking the right turn, we spotted a rocky ledge leading out to the left and we took it.

Completely to our surprise, the rocky ledge opened up to a view over a dramatic valley filled with a sea of trees and piercing granite rocks bursting into the sky. At just 1 mile into the hike, we decided to stop at this amazing viewpoint and enjoy the scenery for a few minutes.

4. Metal Staircase

Stone steps leading into a cave-like hole in a rock
All of a sudden there’s a small cave-like hole to enter

The trail turned steeper and climbed through more forested areas with fantastic views opening up time and time again. It came as a surprise when we passed through a cave-like gap in a granite wall and had to climb a metal staircase as we approached the latter parts of the ascent. But once we’d climbed it, we knew it wasn’t far to the summit.

The hike is signposted excellently throughout the trail and we knew exactly where we had to take the left turn from trail #9 to reach the top.

5. Black Elk Peak Summit

Hiker stood in the corner of a low brick wall looking out at horizon reaching views of trees and granite rocks on a sunny day
Kristen soaking up the outstanding summit views

The final part of the ascent is on stone steps leading into Harney Peak Fire Tower. We could see the fire lookout tower from a bit further down the trail, but it was much bigger than we expected upon arrival. After exploring all three floors of the lookout tower, we went back outside to soak up its 360 degree horizon-reaching views over South Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska.

We took a photo with the summit flagpole, then sat on the boulders with our lunch, snacks and electrolyte drinks to refuel. The summit was relatively quiet, the weather was perfect and the views were incredible. So it was a pretty great lunch!

6. Trail #4

Wooden sign showing trail routes in a forest
Follow signs for trail #4 on the way back down

We stayed at the summit for a good half hour before beginning our descent on trail #3 (which transitions into trail #4). It was a slightly steeper elevation loss than it would have been on the other trail, but it curved around the side of a hill like a ledge and had stellar views throughout.

We ignored the left split when trail #3 (Norbeck) breaks off to the east and instead stayed on trail #4 (Little Devils Tower Trail) which eventually completes the loop back at Sylvan Lake.

7. Optional Spur Trails

Wooden sign showing left turn to Cathedral Spires hike with towering granite rocks behind
Keep an eye out for spur trails to add more stops to your hike

Next up were two important spur trails to consider. We’d just hiked Cathedral Spires from its proper trailhead on Needles Highway the day before, so we stayed on trail #4 at the first split. (Note, this is where you would turn off if you wanted to include Cathedral Spires to your hike).

But 0.2 miles later, we did take the spur to Little Devils Tower. It was gradual at first but it led to some light scrambling near the end and it was quite windy at the viewpoint. It added 0.8 miles to our hike but we had enough time and energy in the tank.

8. Ending The Hike

Vibrant fall foliage leaves on a hike in South Dakota's Black Hills on a sunny day
Stunning colors on the trail in early October

We have to admit the last 1.5 miles heading back to Sylvan Lake were pretty uneventful. It was a nice and easy walk through picturesque meadows, but it did feel like a bit of a slog and we were ready to be done by the end.

After passing over a small hill and seeing two restrooms blocks (the first ones since we set off), we thought we’d finished but that wasn’t quite the end. There was a final short walk through ponderosa pine forest and all of a sudden we were back at the parking loop.

Need help planning your Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone road trip? Our popular 45+ page Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Guidebook includes a detailed 10 day itinerary with maps, directions and top attractions.

Leave No Trace

Please take great care not to disturb formations, vegetation or wildlife when you hike Black Elk Peak. It’s a beautiful place to visit and we all have to keep it that way for future generations to enjoy.

Remember and follow these 7 principles of leave no trace when hiking in the Black Hills:

  1. Plan ahead and prepare
  2. Travel and camp on durable surfaces
  3. Dispose of waste properly
  4. Leave what you find
  5. Minimize campfire impacts
  6. Respect wildlife
  7. Be considerate of others

Best Time To Hike

Hiker with arms raised up in the air celebrating summiting a peak in South Dakota
Kristen clearly enjoying the hike, the views and the weather

You can hike in the Black Hills year round, but the best time to hike Black Elk Peak is a weekday in early October when the crowds are at a minimum and fall foliage colors are most vibrant. We hiked the trail during peak foliage and it was truly stunning.

If you can’t make early October, we recommend hiking in late May, June or September to avoid the worst of the overcrowding in July and August. Weekends and especially holiday weekends will be busiest, so try to hike the trail on a weekday.

Sylvan Lake and both trails 4 and 9 were covered in snow the second time we visited the Black Hills in April 2021. Just something to bear in mind if you’re planning a trip in shoulder season.

Hiking Tips

  • Check recent comments for trail conditions on All Trails
  • Track your hike using an offline map with one of the best hiking apps
  • Set off early to beat the crowds going up on trail #9
  • Don’t set off too late in the day so you have enough daylight
  • Take plenty of food, snacks, water and electrolyte drinks
  • It can be very windy at the summit so take a wool hat
  • Reverse the route (4 up and 9 down) if you prefer gradual descents

Where To Stay

Peaceful meadow with trees and rolling hills covered in green and yellow leaves on a sunny day
More beautiful views over meadows, hills and rocks along the hike

Custer is the closest and most convenient place to stay if hiking Black Elk Peak is one of your major priorities in the Black Hills. It’s also centrally located for reaching most other nearby attractions. Here are the best hotels in Custer.

Keystone is the obvious alternative and we think it works better if Mount Rushmore is your top priority. It’s also closer to Badlands National Park and Rapid City airport. Here are the best hotels in Keystone.

Further Reading: The best places to stay near Mount Rushmore

In Conclusion

Small chipmunk sat on a log with larger logs surrounding and green vegetation
Small chipmunk sat on a log near the summit

Black Elk Peak is an extremely picturesque 7-mile long hiking trail leading to sensational summit views. It’s a popular hike in the Black Hills, so it’s best to get an early start and avoid the crowds. We recommend taking trail #9 up and trail #4 down for the easiest but most varied route.

There’s plenty of parking at the trailhead and Sylvan Lake is a fantastic place to relax for an hour after completing the hike. You have lots of affordable lodging options nearby, including Custer and Keystone. Overall we think it’s a superb hike that will surpass your expectations.

Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone Road Trip Guidebook by Where Are Those Morgans

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We hope this Black Elk Peak hiking guide helps with planning your trip to the Black Hills!

Please let us know if you have any questions or need help planning your visit in the comments below.

Happy hiking,

Mark and Kristen

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