Stand on top of Black Elk Peak and get incredible 360 degree views of the remarkable Black Hills. Hiking Black Elk Peak is one of the very best trails with beautiful surroundings the entire way! Once you’ve made it to the fire tower on the mountain, you’ll feel as if you’re on top of the world 🌎.
I have gone on over 100 hikes this year and this was one of my all time favorites. Along the way you get to see amazing rock formations and at the top you can explore an old Fire Tower 🔥. Although this hike is fairly steep at around 1500 feet of elevation, it’s well worth the climb. Take your time and bring plenty of water! Read below for my detailed trail guide.
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Table of Contents
Hiking Black Elk Peak Details
Quick Hike Details:
Length: 7.1 miles
Elevation: 1,470 feet
Trail Type: Out and Back
Where is Black Elk Peak?
Black Elk Peak is located in the heart of the Black Hills of South Dakota. You can find this gorgeous mountain in Custer State Park. Located just a half hour from Rapid City and Mount Rushmore. This park has many amazing features like scenic highways, abundant wildlife, and impressive trails. Go on this fantastic trek and then drive down South to look for Bison 🦬 or meander down the Needles Highway.
Things to Know Before You Go
💵 Custer State Park has a $20 entrance fee per vehicle. The pass allows you to enter for a week. You can also purchase an annual pass for $36. Also, entrance passes are available at all five entrances of the park.
⏰ The Park is open 24 hours, 7 days a week. So, you can start this trail at anytime. Just make sure that you are prepared.
🐐 Watch out for any wildlife on the trail and do not approach it. Always maintain your distance and do not feed any of the animals.
🚗 The parking lot area fills up during the summer months and on the weekends. Get there early if you want to get a spot that is close to the trailhead.
☀️ Thunderstorms can roll in quickly here. It is dangerous to be near the swimming hole or in the swimming hole when there is a storm. So, check the weather in advance and don’t go if there is a chance of inclement weather.
🦮 Pets are allowed in this area, but must stay on a leash that is no longer than 10 feet. They are not allowed into any buildings or on the beaches.
🍃 Remember to follow the Leave No Trace Principles. As always, you want to leave nature looking better than you found it.
How Do I Get to Black Elk Peak?
Don’t worry, it’s hard to get lost on your way to Black Elk Peak 📍. There are many road signs that will point you directly to Custer State Park. However, here are the directions from Rapid City, which is the closest large city in the area.
Driving from Rapid City, you’ll take US-16 W/Mt Rushmore Road for 23 miles towards Kansas City. Then, you’ll turn left and continue on US-16 W/US-385 and drive for 6.5 miles. Finally, take a left on SD-87 S and continue for 5.8 miles. This road will lead you directly into the park and once you’ve gotten to the entrance station, you’ll want to follow signs for Sylvan Lake. Park near Sylvan Lake and walk to the #4 trailhead 🪧 located off the loop into the parking lot.
There are actually two ways to reach Black Elk Peak. You can choose to take the #4 or #9 trail in the park. You can also connect the two and make the trail into a loop. It’s kind of a choose your own adventure, which is always fun!
We chose to start by taking the #4 on the way up and to take the #9 down. After researching the trails, I had read that the #4 was a bit steeper and more strenuous 🥵, so I chose to do that on the way up. I like to put less pressure on my knees on the way down.
You can find the #4 trail right off of the main parking loop by Sylvan Lake. This section of the trail is about 3.3 miles, but you will have to connect to the #3 for a bit so that adds to the distance. This trail begins on a flat trail with boulders on the left side. There is not a lot of shade on this trail and we were feeling a little roasted in the beginning.
About .3 or .4 miles into the trail, it will start to steadily go up. Once you have gone about .5 miles you will reach an amazing lookout 👀 at Cathedral Spires. This group of granite rocks shoot up into the sky and make for a spectacular scene. You may even see people rock climbing up to the top. This is also the first time you can see the fire tower on top of Black Elk Peak. So, you’ll be able to see how far you have to go, but don’t despair!
Black Elk Wilderness
You’ll continue up the mountain and you’ll get great views over the impressive rock formations that make up the Black Hills. You’ll come to the end of Custer State Park and you’ll enter the Black Elk Wilderness. From here, you only have a bit to go to reach the top 🏔!
With .2 left in your hike, you’ll get to a junction between the #9 trail and Black Elk Peak. Turn left ⬅️ at the junction and make your way up the mountain. This is when my spirit was really tested. I just wanted to take a break and chill, but there was only a short distance left.
Turn off towards the peak and then you’ll finally make your way up to a structure. Walk up the metal staircase and then continue up the stone staircase until you finally make it to the marker for the peak! Congrats, you’ve made it to the highest point in South Dakota 🎉! Now you can do a happy dance, explore the old fire tower, or just sit and chill. The fire tower is pretty cool, because you can see the old living quarters of the men who used to watch over the land below.
After taking a well-deserved break, you can make your way back down the mountain. This time, you can go back on the #4 or take the #9 for a change in scenery. The #9 trail has a bit more shade than the #4 trail. Enjoy your descent down the mountain and through the woods 🌳.
This part definitely flies by a lot quicker than the way up. At the bottom of the trail, you will walk by Sylvan Lake. If it’s hot out, then this is the perfect opportunity to take a dip in the water 💦! The water feels so nice on a hot summer day and is the best ending to a hard climb!
Note: It is illegal to jump off the rocks around Sylvan Lake and there are many signs saying as much.
Whenever you hike into the mountains, you should be prepared for all kinds of weather. Hiking Black Elk Peak is no different. Rain and storms ⛈ can blow in quickly, so you will want to have layers. Also, Sylvan Lake is located just below this trail and is a great spot for a swim. If you’re going in the warmer months make sure to bring your swimsuit, so that you can take a dip after the hike!
- Comfortable Hiking Boots
- Hiking Poles
- Small Pack
- Water Reservoir
- Merino Wool Socks
- 2-3 Liters of Water
- Snacks and Food
- First Aid Kit
- Bug Spray
- Hat to block sun
- Rain jacket
- Swimsuit (to dip in Sylvan Lake)
If you’re going to the Black Hills, then hiking Black Elk Peak should be on the top of your bucket list! This park is stunning and the views from the top are unforgettable 🤩. You’ll be able to say you made it to the highest point in South Dakota! It’s one of the best hikes in the entire area, so I hope you enjoy!
Let me know in the comments if you enjoyed this trail guide!
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