Is hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak in South Dakota calling your name? Get all the details in this post! Read to plan an incredible day hike to one of South Dakota’s historic gems – Black Elk Peak. Plan a trek to this sacred place in the Black Hills while visiting the oldest mountain range in the United States.
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If you’re reading this post, you are definitely interested in hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak and finding out how long it takes to hike the Black Elk Peak trail in South Dakota.
Common’ – I’ll tell you all about it!
One of my favorite things to do was hike to the Black Elk Peak lookout tower growing up in the Black Hills. Previously known as Harney Peak, and rightfully renamed in 2015 after a Holy Oglala Lakota Medicine Man, Black Elk Peak 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 work out!
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.
Being from the Black Hills of South Dakota near Custer, my favorite route to hike to Black Elk Peak is from 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.
The best times of year to hike to the top of Black Elk Peak 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.
Start as early as possible to beat the crowds and the weather in the summer. The Black Hills have mountain weather which means it tends to thunderstorm in the afternoons. You definitely don’t want to be at 7,000+ feet in elevation in a lightning storm (yikes!).
You’re more likely to encounter clear skies and epic vistas hiking early in the day. Start as early as possible in the day for the best chance of clear skies.
Begin your hike on the wide pebble stone trail north of the Sylvan Lake parking area located on the lake’s east side (same parking lot for 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 (ahhhhhh, lovely). For the most part, trail #9 gets a fair amount of traffic.
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. Anytime you go into the backcountry, registering where required helps keep you safe, so be sure to check-in. Check out the US Forest Service map for hiking in the Black Elk Wilderness Area.
As the trail winds you through the Black Hills, you’ll be surrounded by giant Ponderosa Pines. There are a few stream crossings and clearings with majestic views of the Black 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 begin to thin, and you begin to see spectacular vistas of the Black Hills for miles. Supposedly, some say on a super clear day; you can even see the curvature of the earth!
Hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak is a fair trek and workout. Below are items we always take hiking and recommend.
Check out our page with more information and resources on practicing environmental stewardship in the backcountry.
Check out our Summer Guide for the 40 Best Things to do in the Black Hills from someone who grew up in the Black Hills. You can’t go to South Dakota without visiting Mount Rushmore! Read more to find travel inspiration for your summer vacation to the Black Hills of South Dakota.
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
Planning a trip to South Dakota? Going camping? Check out our other articles:
Are you planning a road trip to South Dakota? Have you hiked to the Black Elk Peak lookout tower?
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I’m a travel and outdoor recreation writer with dreams to inspire happiness through an outdoorsy lifestyle. I want to help people live their best life by sharing free adventure guides. The USA has been my backyard most of my life, and it’s the place where you’ll find most of our escapades! I’m married to an expat Argentine, chihuahua Mom, and am passionate about the environment. I hold a BS degree in Biology and MS in Environmental Policy & Sustainability. We camp in our Aliner often, love road trips, hiking, and SUP’ing!