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

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Is hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak in South Dakota calling your name? We’re sharing exactly how to hike Black Elk Peak in the beautiful Black Hills of South Dakota! Continue reading to plan an incredible day hike to one of South Dakota’s most historic gems.

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

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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 growing up in Custer, South Dakota, was hiking to the Black Elk Peak lookout tower. It was previously known as Harney Peak, and renamed in 2015 after a Holy Oglala Lakota Medicine Man, Black Elk. It 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!

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Black Elk Peak lookout tower

Black Elk Peak Trail Day Hike 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.

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. 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

Best Time of Year to Hike Black Elk Peak

The best times of year to hike to the top is 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.

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Sylvan Lake image credit: iStock.com/DC_Colombia

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 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 decent trek and workout.

Below are items we recommend:

Check out our tips for practicing Leave No Trace and being stewards of the environment when hiking in the backcountry and wilderness areas.

Final Thoughts

Hiking to the top of Black Elk Peak is one of the best hikes in South Dakota. We hope you have a great time. If you’re visiting South Dakota this summer, you might enjoying reading about the best things to do. And if you’d like to see Mount Rushmore, we’ve got that covered too!

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

We want to hear from you!

Are you planning a road trip to South Dakota? Have you hiked to the Black Elk Peak lookout tower?

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Ashlee Fechino

Ashlee Fechino is an outdoor recreation and travel writer and founder of The Happiness Function. Her goal is to help inspire people to build a life they love by sharing how simple and fun it is to travel locally, connect with nature, and explore off-the-beaten-path. You don't have to spend a lot of money or use a ton of vacation time to explore close to home. Ashlee holds a BS degree in Biology and MS in Environmental Policy & Sustainability and is passionate about the outdoors. She is married to an expat Argentine, Pablo! They camp in their Aliner often and love road trips and hiking.

10 Comments

  1. 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! 🙂

  2. 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.

  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. 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!

  5. 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!

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