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Black Elk Peak: Hiking South Dakota's highest summit

Updated: Apr 28


Black Elk Peak Trail  South Dakota

Located in Custer State Park, South Dakota's highest peak provides a nice challenge, while still being accessible to individuals with different fitness levels. While steep inclines and altitude is sure to test your will, the stunning views of the Black Hills will make every step worth the effort.


 

Trail Info

Black Elk Peak Trail Information Table

Know before you go

  • There are several routes to reach this summit. It is most common to hike this as a loop, going up trail #9 and down #4 or vice versa. Visit South Dakota claims that there are nearly a dozen ways to bag this peak. This post covers the Clockwise route including the Little Devils Tower side excursion.

  • Custer State Park is very popular especially during summer months and on weekends. Get there early or try to go during the week if you want to minimize crowds.

  • The trail is open year round but May through October are the best months to hike. Outside that time you may encounter snow or ice on the trail which may require gear like micro-spikes.

  • Hiking Little Devils Tower is more technically challenging than Black Elk Peak. It is a worthwhile add-on as you get stunning views of Black Elk itself as well as a different perspective of the Black Hills. However, it does require some steep scrambles which require the use of your hands.


Other hikes nearby

  • The Sylvan Lake Loop is a pleasant walk around the lake with no elevation gain, but still gives you a nice taste of the features of the park.

  • The Cathedral Spires Trail, located slightly away from the main parking area, is a short 1.6 mi / 2.6 km trail to these prominent rock features.

  • Summiting Little Devil's Tower without Black Elk Peak is also option if you are looking for a shorter route (3.6 mi / 5.8km out and back) that still provides some nice summit views. You will still have to do that scrambling though!



 


The Trail

Trail 9 to Black Elk Peak


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

After paying your $20 day use fee and parking, you will head towards Black Elk Peak (also known as Trail Number 9), marked by this sign. This is the beginning of our hike.


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

The elevation gain begins gradually, so you can get a nice warmup before that final ascent to the peak. I was impressed by how well-maintained this trail was. It was very wide, but the trail was also void of larger rocks that could impact your footing. Kudos to South Dakota's state park trail management!


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

Even on the ascent you will get some great views. This area, known as Flasher's Point, provides a great photo opportunity a little less than a mile in.


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

The trail will wind through the trees as you continue to ascend, with periodic views of the area. The first major junction comes around 2.7 mi / 3.4 km. The signs are well-labeled, but left will lead to Black Elk Peak. (Note, If you are doing this as a loop hike, then this is the junction where you will head right on your descent.)


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

After the junction is when the trail turns up the intensity a tad. We now have slightly bigger steps to contend with and a steeper grade. If you are coming from sea level, you might begin to feel it more here.


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

There is another junction right around the 3 mi / 4.8 km point. You will see the sign if you are paying attention and conclude that left will take you to the peak. Of course, if you're really zoned out, it is possible to miss it.


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

One more junction on the approach. Here veer left to stay on the hiking trail (unless of course you have stock...).


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

And finally we can see the destination. That tower on top of the rocks is the summit.


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

To get there, we must climb some stairs through the rock formations. The manmade parts of this trail made it feel less natural, but it was still unique.


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

And still beautiful.


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

Just a bit farther...


Black Elk Peak Trail South Dakota

And we made it! It's up here that you really can appreciate the scale and beauty of the Black Hills. I couldn't quite compare this mixture of rock and foliage to anything I'd seen before. We took our time snapping photos and soaking it all in.


Little Devil's Tower Trail


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

But Black Elk Peak is just part 1 of our adventure. If you're still reading, it's time for the journey to Little Devil's Tower. After returning to the trail junction, you will follow the path left towards Little Devil's Tower.


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

When descending this trail, you will come across multiple trail junctions. Always stay to the right to continue on Little Devil's Tower. Many of these side trails will lead you to more remote parts of the Black Elk Wilderness.


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

This trail really made the loop worth it for me. The foliage was less dense than Black Elk Trail which allowed you to see your surroundings better. You were also closer to some of the rock formations, which allowed you to appreciate the size and scale.


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

And you get a glimpse at some more of the park's landmarks like the Cathedral Spires. FYI the is a side trail here as well that where you could get a closer view of the spires if want even more distance on your hike.


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

The junction for Little Devil's Tower will appear on your right. This sign looks a little less official, but don't worry it's perfectly well marked and maintained.


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

That said, this trail is also more difficult. It will require scrambling to reach the tower.


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

Just look for the blue arrows and blue paint to find the best path. This section by the tree I found to be the trickiest as it was steep and I wished there were more spots to put my feet. That said, the rock is very grippy and was very doable with some focus.


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

And we did it! All the way in the distance is Black Elk Peak. Can you believe we hiked this whole way!?


After getting your fill of the tower. Return to Trail #9 and continue your descent, veering right past a parking lot, and then right at the next fork, and you will return to the Sylvan Lake area.


Little Devil's Tower Trail South Dakota

Conquering the highest peak in South Dakota AND scrambling up Little Devil's Tower. That's what I call a great day of hiking!



SS Reflections

The highest of anything is always an accomplishment. But what I loved about this trail was how it required effort (you couldn't drive your car to it), but it didn't feel out of reach like some of the highest peaks farther west. Sure, it wasn't quite as natural as some, but it was plenty satisfying when you reach the top.


But my hot take for this adventure is that Little Devil's Tower is the better trail. There's something just a little bit more exciting about scrambling to your destination, getting that tiny bit of adrenaline pumping. Regardless of how you choose to explore this park, it's sure to be satisfying.


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