Black Elk Peak hike in the Black Hills National Forest is simply stunning. We were genuinely blown away by the outstanding natural beauty of South Dakota’s most popular hiking trail.
What makes the hike to Black Elk Peak summit one of the best things to do near Mount Rushmore?
Well, we visited in peak fall season, which meant we were blessed with gorgeous rustic orange and yellows contrasting magnificently against deep greens and granite rocks.
Aside from vibrant colors, the hike to Black Elk Peak is non-technical, which means that anyone with a little stamina can make the summit. Plus, the views from the top are breathtaking. And we only use that word on rare occasions.
This complete travel planning guide to the awesome Black Elk Peak hike will inspire you to hit the trails on your South Dakota road trip.
New to Hiking? Don’t forget to check out our 21 most important hiking tips for beginners. Spoiler – these tips apply to veteran hikers too!
We got a little GoPro footage on our hike and knocked up a fun short video of what you can expect on your Black Elk Peak hike.
It was freezing in the morning so Mark had to wear a pair of Kristen’s shiny blue base layer pants!
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Why Hike The Black Elk Peak Trail?
Did you know that Black Elk Peak is the highest peak East of the Rockies and West of the Pyrenees Mountains of the French/Spanish border?
The trail is very easy, making it inclusive for many age groups and abilities. Just be aware of time. The roundtrip should take between 4-5 hours, but will be longer with more stops and time at the summit – which you will need!
Formerly known as the Harney Peak trail, its name was changed in 2016 by the US Board on Geographic Names to Black Elk Peak, honoring an old Lakota Sioux shaman.
At the summit you will find Harney Lookout Tower, which was once used as a fire detection viewpoint. The lookout is no longer used and actually, it’s quite strange to be inside an empty tower at the top of a mountain!
If possible, we suggest hiking this trail in fall (we visited October 7) to take advantage of the captivating colors on display.
Black Elk Peak Hike Factfile
Address: Sylvan Lake, 518 SD-87, Custer, SD 57730
Daily Visitors: In peak (pun intended!) season, hundreds of hikers per day
Best Time to Visit: May – October (comfortable temperatures)
Hike Length: Roughly 7 miles round trip – depending on ascent/descent trail number
Estimated Hike Time: Around 4 – 5 hours hiking time – account for breaks and 30 minutes at the summit
Hike Difficulty: Moderate – not technical but stamina required
How To Get To Black Elk Peak Trailhead
Black Elk Peak trailhead is located on the shores of Sylvan Lake, which can be found half way along Needles scenic highway in Custer State Park, South Dakota.
The scenic highway offers spectacular views but it also means slow going, due to the meandering nature of scenic roads!
From Keystone, it is just 18.6 miles away, yet it can take the best part of 40 minutes because of traffic around Mount Rushmore and the aforementioned slow roads. Take the 244 past Mt Rushmore, take a left onto 16 and an immediate left onto Needles highway (87).
Custer is much closer and easier to access Sylvan Lake. Take the 89 for around 7 miles and you will arrive in under 20 minutes.
This is a truly scenic area to drive around. We found ourselves driving the same roads over and over.
Once your flights are booked, compare hire car prices using Rental Cars for the best deals.
Hike Black Elk Peak Trail
Okay, now that you know where the trailhead is, let’s get to the trail!
We would suggest aiming to set off no later than 11am, just in case you want to spend longer at the top. That way you’ll be back to Sylvan lake before dark.
Sylvan Lake & Route 9
You might recognize Sylvan Lake from National Treasure II when Nicolas Cage and his band of treasure hunters find the entrance to ‘Mount Rushmore’ on the boulders found here at this lake!
It is a very photogenic area, although (unfortunately) we only got this one photo on the way out. The lake has a swimming beach, a nearby lodge and of course walking trails around the waters edge.
Our advice is to use the outhouse style restrooms before beginning the hike, you won’t see another for a long time!
Right at the start of the hike to Black Elk Peak you will find information boards and maps of the routes. Be aware that there are various route numbers up and down. The most common trail – and the one we took – is Route No. 9.
It doesn’t take long before you are hiking among gorgeous forested areas with dried muddy paths underfoot. Long grass up to your hips to one side and bright yellow leaves on an overhanging tree to the other.
If you are fortunate enough to have clear deep blue skies, you will be blown away by colors throughout this hike as they pop under sunlight.
Tread carefully to avoid catching your feet on thick tree roots or small boulders protruding from the path.
After some (mostly!) gentle climbing, you will find the trail becomes more enclosed within trees. This dense forested area blocks the sun out almost completely, except for the occasional ray beaming through the canopy.
Then all of a sudden, there’s an opening. To your left, you will spot some rocks and an incredible view overlooking more forested area and granite rocks bursting out from within.
This is the perfect place to take your first break and grab some photos!
Near the Top
Black Elk Peak is excellently signposted throughout various parts of the hike, particularly where there are route turn offs. It would be hard to get lost!
As you approach the latter stages of the ascent, you will pass through an interesting cave like gap in a wall and up a metal staircase. You’re almost at the summit!
Black Elk Peak Summit
Woohoo! You made it to the summit and Harney Lookout Tower!
Make sure you go inside and have a good look around the 3 floors.
To the bottom is an empty room similar to a house basement, the middle where you enter is small in area but there’s a steep black metal staircase leading up to the third floor.
Up here you will find the watchtower area with windows covering 360 degrees. Back to the middle floor, take the other door out onto a veranda type balcony / viewing platform.
The views were worth the effort, right?!
You have a 360 degree panorama view overlooking South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. How cool is that?!
Take some time to walk around on the boulders and take A LOT of photos!
The best photography spots (apart from in every direction to the horizon!) are the summit flagpole, the steps leading up to Harney lookout tower and perspective shots when you walk further out/down the boulders.
Take Route 4 Down
Route No. 4 is slightly more gritty and sharp than route 9, so it’s preferable to take it on the way down.
You will notice it is much quieter on this route but that doesn’t mean it is any less scenic! In fact, you get to see different parts and views of the Black Hills and avoid the ‘going back on yourself’ disappointment!
Don’t worry, Route 4 is separate from Route 7 – Grizzly Bear Creek! We don’t think are any grizzlies up in the Black Forest anymore?!
Pass Cathedral Spires
If you set off early, have the spare time and also the spare energy – why not peel off at the crossroads of Route 4 and Cathedral Spires trail?
It’s not far to the needle like rocks at Cathedral Spires, a route that we hiked the day before. There are usually rock climbers the size of pinheads, visible only because of their colorful clothing, against the towering granite rock faces.
You’re Almost Back To The Lake!
We must admit the final few miles seem to take forever! You will hike along flatter ground but among some of the most attractive towards the final stages.
As the sun begins to move across the sky into the hottest part of the day, it can get a little tiring around now so be sure to take on plenty of water throughout the hike.
You will walk over a small hill and think you’re back at the car park when you see 2 restroom blocks (the first since setting off) but this isn’t the car park you are looking for!
It’s just a little further, one final push and you’ll see the car park through hundreds of narrow tree trunks!
What To Pack For Black Elk Peak Hike
Although the trail is easy going – with no technical climbing ability required – a robust but flexible pair of hiking shoes would work best.
Visiting in Spring or Fall? Take layers.
Hiking is a sweaty business, until you stop. At over 2,000 meters, you will get cold when you stop, even the slightest breeze would be enough to chill. Don’t forget your men’s and women’s lightweight down jackets.
A good quality reusable water bottle will help you to keep your water fresh and cool throughout the hike to Black Elk Peak.
Snacks are essential, this is a long day hike. We took trail mix as you can see in the photo of us at the summit. Please excuse the grey socks, Mark was on his last pair…!
The last thing to remember is your camera, you don’t want to leave the car without one.
Our essential guide to the 10 most important things to bring on a day hike goes into great detail about packing for a day hike the right way.
Where To Stay Near Black Elk Peak
When you begin to plan your visit to South Dakota’s Black Hills region, read our ultimate guide to booking the cheapest hotels to learn about ways you can save money on hotels.
For Black Elk Peak, we highly recommend setting up base in either Custer, Hill City or Keystone. That way you are at the heart of the Black Hills and can easily reach the best things to do in the area.
Read our guide to the best hotels near Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota to choose the perfect lodging option for your vacation.
What Else Is Nearby?
The Black Hills ended up being one of our favorite areas on our first 3 month US road trip. It took us by surprise and we couldn’t resist a second visit to the region in early 2021.
Nearby options include:
Custer State Park
Widely renowned as one of the better US state parks. Although, technically Sylvan Lake is considered part of the state park, we are referring to the wildlife loop road.
- Discover the 5 best things to do in Custer State Park.
No visit to the Black Hills would be complete without taking in the stoic faces of 4 former US presidents intricately carved into granite.
- You can read our in depth visitor guide to Mount Rushmore here.
Badlands National Park
Keystone to Wall (entrance to Badlands) is around 1 hour 15 minutes drive. If you have the spare time, we would strongly recommend you take a half day visit of the National Park. Better yet, spend the night for some amazing astrophotography and wildlife spotting.
- Read our detailed Badlands guide for first time visitors.
- Alternatively look through our Badlands photographs.
Devils Tower National Monument
Devils Tower is around 2 hours drive from Sylvan Lake, just over the border into Wyoming. It is a mind blowing natural rock formation dominating an otherwise flat landscape and can’t be missed on a visit to South Dakota.
More Amazing US Hiking Trails
- Angels Landing: Complete guide to Zion’s notoriously dangerous hike
- The Narrows: Ultimate guide to Zion’s most popular river canyon hike
- Mist Trail: Yosemite’s most popular hike with Vernal and Nevada Falls
- New York: Tallest Peak in New York – Mount Marcy Near Lake Placid
We hope this guide has helped you plan your Black Elk Peak hike!
Please let us know if you need any more information about this trail or anything else in the area.
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