Road trip 2019: hiking up to the Black Elk Peak

Earlier on this trip:

  • Bailey Yard and Lake Mac
  • In the heart of Black Hills

    After a long hike around the Deerfield Lake the day before, we were not less excited about what we expected to be one of highlights of our trip – hike to the Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak), the highest peak of South Dakota (7241 ft or 2207 m). But not only this makes the peak a famous destination among the visitors of the Black Hills – several trails leading to the peak are consistently rated among the most picturesque hikes in the region, and the views from the very top are absolutely breathtaking. On a good clear day, as some sources claim, one can see four states from there – South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana.

    The peak itself is located within the Custer State Park, and two of the most popular trails leading to it start at the Sylvan Lake. And the drive itself is very scenic – last few miles to the lake take you through several sharp turns along the hills, offering some scenic views (too tempting, but it’s not a good spot to stop paying attention to the road!). From the logistical standpoint, it is worth mentioning that this park has it own separate entrance fee, a bit higher than the other South Dakota state parks – totally worth every penny though! Also, parking is quite limited around the lake, so it is a good idea to come early, or come in late afternoon when people start leaving (if you are planning to see the sunset from the peak for example).

    There are two popular trails leading to the Black Elk Peak: Trail #4, and Trail #9 (also known as Harney Peak Trail, or Black Elk Peak Trail). As both trails begin close to each other and lead to the same destination, many hikers choose to make a loop, taking one trail going up and the other one returning back down. Some sources suggest that the Trail #4 is more strenuous on the ascent – however, I cannot judge as we took the Trail #9 going up.

    Trails #4 and #9 form a loop that provides hikes the most diverse scenery on the hike to the Black Elk Peak and back.

    The trail starts along a pretty flat terrain, and quite quickly goes into the woods. The first third of the trail, you go up and back down several times, but overall it’s a relatively easy hike. It is a good idea to dress in layers, as weather in the area changes rapidly, and may be quite different at the trailhead and at the peak – especially in spring and fall. Good hiking shoes are also advised. Going further up, the trail becomes steeper little by little, and one can appreciate the change in surrounding scenery – from a pine forest to monumental rocks, smaller trees and bushes.

    About a third through the hike, we can finally see our destination (shown by the red arrow).
    Every turn reveals new spectacular panoramas.

    The hike gets steeper little by little.
    Last stop before the final stretch to the peak – also a great spot for a picnic!

    It gets a little confusing, at least to me, when the trail approaches the peak: turns out that the Trail #9 actually does not lead to the very peak, but continues on to the Willow Creek further north. At some point close to the destination, one should follow the sign for Black Elk Peak and turn left, instead of following the Trail #9.

    Last stretch to the peak is quite steep, but still doable at your own pace. Once you get to the Fire Tower at the top, you will rewarded by the views that will leave you speechless for a few moment. Take a deep breath, and feel the boundless space that opens to your eyes, reaching miles and miles afar. The clouds create a kind of ceiling, casting their shadows on the mountains, hills and plains around, and adding some special contrast to the already phenomenal view.

    You can spend however long you want there – and you will never get tired of looking around. You can also hike down from the lower level of the tower to a little lake and a few other spots that offer nice outlooks. I enjoyed my lunch on the top, and couldn’t resist the urge to play a little bit with the handheld radio that I took with me on this hike. Fun fact – while there is almost no cell service in the park, I had full bars on the peak. So go ahead and call someone special from the highest peak of South Dakota, or send them a snap that will make them put a trip to Black Hills on their bucket list!

    On a clear day, you can see four states from here!

    When time came to go back down, we started our descent along the same trail. I have to admit that is not quite clear where the Trail #4 branches out from the known path (unless you prepared before, which we did not – and this was not marked at all at the time of our hike). When the grade of descent slightly subsides, there is a sharp left turn from the Trail #9 to the Trail #4, that goes downhill somewhat faster at that point.

    This trail takes you through a different part of the park, and offers spectacular views of the Cathedral Spires – unique needle’like formations in the Black Hills, that somewhat resemble the spires of a Gothic cathedral (hence the name). Similar formations are also located in the southern part of the park, along the stretch of the Hwy 87 known as Needles Highway. If you want to hike closer to the the spires – you can divert to the Cathedral Spires Trail.

    Cathedral Spires – a unique rock formation in the Black Hills.

    Overall, this approximately 8-mile (roundtrip) hike takes anywhere from 4 to 6 hours, depending on your speed, as well as on the number and duration of stops and the time you choose to spend on the top. With the elevation gain of over 1300 ft, it is considered moderate in difficulty, however we saw hikers of all ages on the trails. Just pace yourself appropriately, give yourself plenty of time to catch your breath and enjoy the scenery!

    It was a great day that definitely exceeded my expectations! Of course we came back quite tired, as we logged almost 25 miles across quite rough terrain in just two days. However, it all paid off with those feelings, impressions and memories that we took with ourselves. This place has something to offer for everyone, at any season – just come prepared, and come open-minded: as in every trip, you never come back quite the same person as you left.


    Later on this trip:

  • Quick stop at Mount Rushmore
  • The scenic Badlands
  • Driving back home
  • Summary
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