Exactly How to Hike Black Elk Peak in South Dakota From a Local


Is hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak in South Dakota calling your name? I’m sharing exactly how to hike Black Elk Peak and my favorite trail to help you plan your adventure.

I grew up in South Dakota and can’t wait to share this hike with you. Keep reading to plan a trek to this sacred mountain in the Black Hills while visiting the oldest mountain range in the United States.

Guide To Hiking Black Elk Peak

Growing up in Custer, South Dakota, one of my favorite things to do was hike to the Black Elk Peak lookout tower. Previously known as Harney Peak, it was renamed in 2015 after a Holy Oglala Lakota Medicine Man, Black Elk.

Speaking of Holy. This area is sacred to many Tribes. Please DO NOT touch or disturb prayer flags or alters you come across.

This is the highest point in the U.S. east of the Rockies. It is a scenic trail with spectacular views of the Black Hills. It is also a great workout.

Pablo standing in front of the lookout tower.

Black Elk Peak Trail Details

Hiking to Black Elk Peak from Sylvan Lake Trail #9 is roughly 7.4 miles round trip and will take about 3-4 hours to complete.

My favorite route to hike to Black Elk Peak is Sylvan Lake Trail #9.

Sylvan Lake is located in Custer State Park, so you’ll need to purchase a day pass to enter and park in the parking lot.

  • Trail Name: Sylvan Lake Trail #9
  • Difficulty: Moderate difficulty + 1,100 feet elevation gain. There are switchbacks and stairs to reach the lookout.
  • Distance: 7.4 miles round trip
  • Time: 3-4 hours round trip
  • Where to Park: Sylvan Lake parking area on the east side of the lake. The trail is accessed north of this parking lot.
  • Bathrooms: There are only restrooms by the parking area.

The trail is well-maintained and well-marked.

Black Elk Peak Hike Trail Map

Here is a map you can print or save on your phone from the US Forest Service for hiking in the Black Elk Wilderness Area.

Below is a map to help orientate you as you read this guide.

Best Time of Year to Hike Black Elk Peak

The best times of year to hike to the top are late spring through early fall (May through September). The trail is open year-round; however, you may encounter snow or ice hiking in the winter and then mud during the spring.

I tried to hike in February many years ago, and the snow was actually really deep, so I turned around.

Best Time of Day to Hike to the Lookout Tower

Start as early as possible to beat the crowds and the weather in the summer.

The Black Hills have mountain weather, which means thunderstorms tend to occur in the afternoons. You definitely don’t want to be at 7,000+ feet in elevation in a lightning storm.

Hiking early in the day is the best way to encounter clear skies with epic vistas.

How to Hike Black Elk Peak via Sylvan Lake Trail #9

Begin your hike on the wide pebble stone trail north of the Sylvan Lake parking area, which is located on the lake’s east side (the same parking lot as the Sylvan Lake beach). This is trail #9.

If you start super early to beat the crowds, you will likely have the trail to yourself. Trail #9 gets a fair amount of traffic for the most part.

You will hike the trail for a few miles before entering the Black Elk Wilderness Area. There is a not-so-formal permit system. You have to sign in at the self-service kiosk with your name and the number of hikers in your party.

Registering where required helps keep you safe whenever you go into the backcountry, so be sure to check in.

As the trail winds through the Black Hills, you’ll be surrounded by giant Ponderosa Pines. A few stream crossings and clearings offer majestic views of the Hills and granite rock formations.

As you gain elevation, you’ll see more of the remarkable geology, including the Needles Cathedral Spires.

As you trek higher in elevation, the trees thin, and you begin to see spectacular vistas. Supposedly, some say on a super clear day, you can even see the curvature of the earth.

What Should You Take Hiking Black Elk Peak?

View of the Needles geologic formation in the background

Hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak is a decent trek and workout.

Below are the items we recommend:

  • Day Pack
  • Water – at least 64 ounces
  • Snacks
  • Comfortable hiking boots
  • Comfortable hiking socks
  • Hiking pants
  • Trekking poles
  • Layers – long sleeve shirt and maybe light wind jacket
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen and chapstick

Read more on exactly what to wear hiking.

Hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak is one of the best hikes in South Dakota.

I hope you have a great time.

Happy Hiking,

Ashlee & Pablo

“Is not the sky a father and the earth a mother, and are not all living things with feet or wings, or roots their children.”

Black Elk, Oglala Sioux

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Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation and travel writer sharing the best-kept secrets that aren’t in your typical guidebook. Her goal is to inspire people to travel with a sense of adventure by sharing hidden gems across the U.S. and beyond. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo. They camp in their Aliner often and love wandering the world. Follow their latest adventures on Instagram @thehappinessfxn.


  1. Josy A on January 31, 2021 at 9:17 pm

    Oooh the whole area around the Black Hills sounds fantastic for hiking, but this one looks amaaaazing. It might be steep in some spots, but it’s not too crazy an amount of elevation gain considering the length of the hike. The view from the top and that lookout tower are fantastic!

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 1, 2021 at 8:10 am

      Hi Josy! Yes, you would love the Black Hills since you like hiking in the mountains!

  2. Jamie Sharpe on January 30, 2021 at 5:42 pm

    This is great, I’d like to visit some day. Is it close to Mt Rushmore?

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 1, 2021 at 8:10 am

      Hi Jamie – yes, the hike is very close to Mount Rushmore. Sylvan Lake to Mount Rushmore is about 30 minutes!

  3. Burt Randall on January 30, 2021 at 4:24 pm

    High in he mountains of South Dakota seems exciting: seeing the Earth, also !!

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 1, 2021 at 8:08 am

      Hi Uncle Burt! Thanks for reading and commenting! Agreed, being high in the mountains is exciting 🙂

  4. Juli on January 30, 2021 at 1:37 pm

    Just hiked the trail with my Black Elk Peak hiking buddy Denise. (she hikes it at least once a week all seasons). Warm 44 degree day for January yet the wind at the top was serious. The plains were clear and pastel colored and the hills contrasting snow white and Ponderosa Pine dark green. My favorite time to hike is winter as no crowds!

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 1, 2021 at 8:07 am

      Hi Juli! Thanks for reading and commenting on our blog. So nice to see you! Awwww… great feedback about hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak. So awesome you live in such a beautiful place to adventure year round with good friends.

  5. Farrah on January 30, 2021 at 1:24 pm

    I didn’t get a chance to hike this when I was in South Dakota last-last summer but it’d be awesome to go back someday! It was so pretty there! Will save this to refer back to when I do! :]

    • Ashlee Fechino on February 1, 2021 at 8:06 am

      Hi Farrah – hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak is a must if you love hiking! 🙂