Hike Black Elk Peak in Beautiful South Dakota

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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Black Elk Peak hiking trail

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How Long Does it Take to Hike Black Elk Peak?

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.

Black Elk Peak Trail Day Hike Details

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Black Elk Peak lookout tower

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.

  • Trail Name: Sylvan Lake Trail #9
  • Difficulty: Moderate difficulty + 1,100 feet elevation gain + clear trail + switchbacks + stairs to the lookout
  • Distance: 7.4 miles round trip
  • Time: 3-4 hours
  • 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

Black Elk Peak Hike Trail Map

Best Time of Year to Hike Black Elk Peak

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.

Best Time of Day to Hike to Black Elk Peak 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 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.

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 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!

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View of the Needles geologic formation in background

What Should You Take Hiking Black Elk Peak?

Hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak is a fair trek and workout. Below are items we always take hiking and recommend.

  • Day Pack – we love this Osprey pack
  • Water bottles – at least 64 ounces
  • Snacks
  • Comfortable hiking boots – I have the Oboz brand here these days, and Pablo wears these Merrell hiking shoes
  • Trekking poles – I use these Leki carbon poles and have had them for over ten years!
  • Layers – long sleeve shirt and maybe light wind jacket
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Sunscreen and chapstick – we love the Sun Bum brand since it is environmentally and ethically safe

Check out our page with more information and resources on practicing environmental stewardship in the backcountry.

Planning a Trip to Visit the Black Hills in South Dakota?

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View of the Needles from Black Elk Peak lookout tower

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.

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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top left photo: hike to black elk peak lookout tower, top right photo: girl hiking with black elk peak in background, bottom photo: black hills cathedral spires

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About The Author

Ashlee Fechino

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!

10 COMMENTS

  1. Farrah | 30th Jan 21

    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 | 1st Feb 21

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

  2. Juli | 30th Jan 21

    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 | 1st Feb 21

      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.

  3. Burt Randall | 30th Jan 21

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

    • Ashlee Fechino | 1st Feb 21

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

  4. Jamie Sharpe | 30th Jan 21

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

    • Ashlee Fechino | 1st Feb 21

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

  5. Josy A | 31st Jan 21

    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 | 1st Feb 21

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

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