What To Expect On The Black Elk Peak Trail

Post Summary: What To Expect On The Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

Who doesn’t love a hike with a rewarding view at the end?

After putting in all those miles, it’s such a treat to be greeted with epic mountain views or a glimmering sunset. (Even better is getting both – which is what we’re sharing in this post!)

On our recent autumn trip to South Dakota, we had the pleasure of exploring the Black Elk Peak trail.

Towering at 7,242 feet in elevation, this is the highest point in South Dakota and the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains! This hike is for adventure lovers who are wanting a memorable and rewarding trail in the Black Hills.

In this blog post, we’re sharing what to expect, how to prepare, and inspirational photos for your next hiking adventure in South Dakota!

Come experience one of the best places to hike in the USA right here!

Black Elk Peak Trail sunset at the top, Emily Mandagie

Experience Black Elk Peak Hike
In The Black Hills, South Dakota

Where Is Black Elk Peak?

Black Elk Peak Trail is located in Custer State Park, in the Black Hills of Western South Dakota. This is a giant park, with a ton of awesome outdoor activities to try! To get the most out of your time here, we suggest making this trail just one stop of many on a Black Hills road trip route.

On the map below, from the South Dakota State Park Website, you can find the trailhead in the top left corner, surrounded by the green border. The trail begins at Sylvan Lake.

Here are some details:

  • Trail Distance: There are many trails that lead to Black Elk Peak, but the most popular trail is a 7.9-mile loop beginning at Sylvan Lake.
  • Hike Time: Give yourself about 3-4 hours to complete the trail.
  • Elevation Gain: 1100ft – 2200ft, depending on the route you take.
  • Difficulty: Moderate. It’s a slow incline, but a long distance.

*Second Note: Black Elk Peak recently got a name change in August of 2016. You may also recognize this area formerly called Harney Peak.

This name change was issued to return the sacred peak to its Native American origins and to recognize Nicholas Black Elk from the area.

MAP CREDIT: State of South Dakota - Game, Fish, and Parks Organization (https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/)
MAP CREDIT: State of South Dakota – Game, Fish, and Parks Organization (https://gfp.sd.gov/parks/detail/custer-state-park/)

Black Elk Peak Trail Map (Trailhead and Beginning of Trail)

Black Elk Peak Trail Map, beginning, Google Maps

The Beginning of The Black Elk Peak Trail

Like stated above, the Black Elk Peak Trail begins at Sylvan Lake. While we didn’t stay and visit the lake, it’s one of the most popular attractions in Custer State Park.

*Note: Make sure to purchase a day pass for Custer State Park. You can purchase a day pass at the park entrance gates before you enter the park. Don’t skip this step because they frequently check the parking lots for cars who think they can get away with not paying!

The Black Elk Peak trail is a long and gradual ascent to the top. It’s not a steep hike, and we found ourselves leisurely chatting the entire way.

There are plenty of beautiful viewpoints along the way. Near the top, you can see the incredible rock formations on either side of the ridge.

Read More: 10 Hiking Essentials You Should Be Packing In The PNW 

View from the Black Elk Peak Trail, Cathedral Spires
Trail view of the Black Elk Peak Hike
Berty Mandagie on the Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

Stone Fire Tower Lookout

One of the best features of this Black Hills trail is the Harney Peak/Black Elk Peak Fire Tower at the high point of the hike.

This stone tower was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp and finished in 1938. Most of the stones were carried in person up the three-mile trail to the top!

This tower provides excellent 360-degree views of the surrounding Black Hills. It’s open to the public to explore inside and out, but overnight camping is not allowed!

Read More: See A Stonehenge Replica in Washington State!

Fire Tower at Black Elk Peak Summit, South Dakota
Berty Mandagie at Fire Tower at Black Elk Peak Summit, South Dakota
Berty Mandagie at Black Elk Peak Summit, South Dakota

Views From The Top of Black Elk Peak

From the highest point of the lookout tower, you are able to get a 360-degree view of the Black Hills!

Spend some time capturing the granite peaks, cathedral spires, rolling hills, and amazing South Dakota landscape.

See more perspectives below…

Read More: 7 Amazing Fall Activities To Experience In South Dakota

What are all these flags tied to the trees? 

Many of the peaks in the Black Hills of South Dakota are considered sacred by the indigenous people. They consider peaks to be beautiful and dangerous, therefore spirits dwell among the top.

The prayer flags are gifts from various pilgrimages to the top. They can be seen wrapped around tree trunks, hanging off branches, or tied together between trees.

From the words of Christian Begeman, A homemade gift is considered one of the highest honors to be given in Lakota culture.

We were informed that it’s proper courtesy to not take pictures of the prayer flags attached to the trees. They can be IN your photos, but they shouldn’t be the main focus of the image.

You can see a few examples in the pictures below. Berty and I wanted to inform hikers on how they can respect this sacred area too!

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Back view of Mount Rushmore

(That flat-top cluster of granite in the distance is the backside of Mount Rushmore!)

Berty Mandagie walking with a view of the Black Hills, South Dakota

An Incredible Fall Sunset On The Trail

We arrived 30-40 minutes before sunset and waited at the top for the sun to hit the horizon.

This is a good time to arrive if you are hoping to capture the sunset. This way, you can scout out good locations before you are short on time!

*If you are hoping to visit a popular spot (like Delicate Arch for example) you may want to arrive a LOT sooner before sunset to secure a spot amongst a potential sea of tripods!

Back to the Black Hills…the clear day did not disappoint! The sun lit up the surrounding hills and shed a bright orange glow on everything it touched.

We could clearly see the layers of the landscape and capture the colors and shadows it created.

Read More: A Sunset Hike In Canyonlands National Park

Berty Mandagie watching sunset on Black Elk Peak Trail
Stephanie Palmer on Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

Shoutout to @stephjpalm for being the best hiking guide in South Dakota!

What To Pack For A Black Elk Peak Hike

When hiking the Black Elk Peak Trail, it’s important to pack and wear proper gear for the trip!

Since this is a 7.9-mile loop at its longest, make sure to allow enough time (3-4 hours round trip is our suggestion) to complete the trek. Here are a few things you should be packing:

  • Good Hiking Shoes. Comfortable feet are essential, especially on a long hike like the Black Elk Peak Trail. Don’t try to break in a new pair on this trip!
  • Breathable Layers. You may work up a sweat when ascending, but the weather will quickly get cold after sunset. Pack appropriate clothing for sweating AND staying warm!
  • Headlamps or A Light Source. You’ll need it on the long descent once the sun goes down!
  • Camera. Read this post to see our full list of photography gear and how we use it!
  • Water and Snacks. A hydrated hiker is a happy hiker.
  • Your Buddies. (Dogs are allowed too, but they must be leashed at all times. We saw plenty of deer!)
Emily Mandagie and Stephanie Palmer, Black Elk Peak Trail Sunset view
Descending Black Elk Trail after sunset in the dark

 Black Elk Peak Trail Map

On the Google Map below, we’ve put markers on the trailhead, on the trail, and at the peak of the Black Elk Peak Hike.

There are several trails that lead to the top, but the trail below is the one featured in this blog post.

Directions From Major Landmarks To Black Elk Wilderness:

  • From Rapid City, South Dakota: 36 miles, 56-minute drive going SOUTH.
  • From Hot Springs South Dakota: 38 miles, 56-minute drive going NORTH.
  • From Custer, South Dakota: 7 miles, 15-minutes drive.

What’s Nearby In The Black Hills?

Can’t get enough of the gorgeous Black Elk Peak hike? We don’t blame you! Here are more iconic stops in Western South Dakota to check out on your next visit:

The Needles Highway: Custer State Park

The Needles Highway is a 14-mile scenic byway in Custer State Park.

The roads were purposely built small to force drivers to slow down and enjoy the scenery! You’ll experience a tree-lined highway, several pullouts with stunning views, and skinny drive-through tunnels.

Make sure your camera battery is charged for this adventure!

Read More: 30 Essentials For Your Next Amazing Road Trip

Needles Highway South Dakota, narrow car tunnel

The Notch Trail: Badlands National Park

The Notch Trail is a 1.2-mile popular hike in the Badlands National Park.

A 2-hour drive east, this area changes drastically from the lush pine trees of the Black Hills National Forest to a harsh and dry landscape.

Slather on some sunscreen (no shade in sight!) and spend some time climbing around these amazing and delicate structures. Just make sure to stay on the marked trails!

Coming Soon: What To Expect On A Sunrise Hike at The Notch Trail, South Dakota

Notch Trail Ladder, Badlands South Dakota


Wind Caves National Park or Jewel Cave National Monument

In the Black Hills of South Dakota, there are endless opportunities to explore the many cave systems that are hidden underground.

You can take a ranger-guided tour of Wind Cave National Park, or of the amazing Jewel Cave. This is a can’t-miss opportunity if you love history and geology!

Read More: Discover The Incredible Capitol Reef National Park

Wind Cave National Park, ranger guided tour


Our time in the beautiful South Dakota was too short!

We are planning a trip to return (maybe in the late summer 2019?) to explore more of the Badlands National Park, Sioux Falls, Wall Drug, and other iconic stops.

This state really is a hidden gem and we were so thankful to come and explore!

Have you ever taken the Black Elk Peak Trail? What was your experience? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below!

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