After summiting the North Dakota high point the day before, Chelsea and I set out to conquer South Dakota. Our hotel was only about 30 minutes from the trailhead, so this one involved much less driving. The hike, however, was a little more substantial.
The highest point in South Dakota is Black Elk Peak, formerly called Harney Peak. It was renamed in 2016 in honor of Black Elk, a prominent member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. The Black Hills are their native land and the mountain is considered sacred. Given that General William S. Harney was a military commander who facilitated the slaughter of many Lakota women and children, I’m glad the name was changed.
The main trailhead for this hike is located in the heart of the Black Hills at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park. Sylvan Lake is a really pretty area… when it’s not shrouded in fog. Unfortunately, the copious amounts of rain the previous couple days had turned everything into a damp, misty mess. Not exactly the ideal conditions for climbing to a high point. But it was the only day we had so we didn’t really have a choice. At least it had stopped thunderstorming.
There are two trails to the summit: Black Elk Trail #4 and #9. Either can be completed as an out-and-back hike or they can be combined into an ~8 mile (13 km) loop. We opted for the loop, heading up Trail #9 and hiking in a clockwise direction. This is the recommended direction of travel for a more gradual climb. About a mile into the hike, the trail crosses into the Black Elk Wilderness. It’s a gradual but steady ascent through the forest, only emerging from the trees on the final stretch to the summit.
Unfortunately, the fog hadn’t lifted so we reached the summit and found ourselves looking out at the clouds. I was bummed about the lack of views because the Black Hills is a really pretty area and on a clear day we would have been able to see all the way into Wyoming, Nebraska, and Montana. Alas…
Although we didn’t get to see much, we did enjoy exploring the large rocky summit. This includes the fire tower, which is a really neat structure. It hasn’t been used since the 1960s, but it’s open for exploration. This includes a basement, the main floor, and the upper floor. It was a little damp and dark inside, but we enjoyed the chance to look around and climb to all the floors.
We descended on Trail #4, opting to take the short detour to Cathedral Spires. There are other possible side trips from this route as well, but we skipped them due to the lingering fog and lack of views. Cathedral Spires, however, was visible even with the low hanging clouds. And the fog was even nice enough to lift for a few minutes while we were there!
Back at the parking lot, we still had much of the day remaining so we spent it exploring Custer State Park by car. There are three scenic byways through the park that can be connected into an ~40 mile (64 km) loop. We drove them all.
First up was the Needles Highway, an iconic narrow, winding road that climbs through the rock spires that are so ubiquitous in the Black Hills. It tops out at a high point that’s passable only by driving through an 8×8 foot (2.5 x 2.5 m) tunnel. There are a handful of other tunnels as well that are slightly larger… but if your car won’t fit through this one, you won’t be driving the Needles Highway.
From the southern end of the Needles Highway, we connected with the Wildlife Loop Road. We began by detouring up to the Mount Coolidge fire tower, at which point we found ourselves between two layers of clouds… something I’m not sure has ever happened to me before except maybe in an airplane.
The main attraction of the Wildlife Loop Road – as the name probably suggests – is the wildlife. Specifically, burros and bison. The burros are not native to the Black Hills. They’re descendants of those that used to carry visitors to the summit of Black Elk Peak. When the rides were discontinued the animals were simply released into the park. We were lucky to see a small group of burros along the road. Far more numerous are the bison. Custer State Park maintains a herd of about 1500 animals. As it was spring, many of the mamas had recently given birth so we got to see lots of baby bison. We also watched two adults practice fighting. It was pretty cool to be close enough (from the safety of our car) to hear their horns clacking together.
The last scenic byway is Iron Mountain Road, which actually departs Custer State Park and heads north to Mount Rushmore. We didn’t stop at Mount Rushmore itself since we’d both been there before, but we were able to see it from the road and from a scenic view at the high point of the highway.
That wraps up our Dakota high pointing adventure. And what an adventure it was. Intense thunderstorms, lots of rain, endless fog, getting stuck in the mud. Things didn’t entirely go according to plan. But we conquered both summits and saw some other neat things along the way, so all in all I’d say it was a success.
State highpoint #11: check!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the trailhead for Black Elk Peak departs from Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park, South Dakota
- Fees and passes: $20/car for a one week pass to Custer State Park (unless you go on the annual free weekend, which conveniently coincided with our trip)
- Hiking: depending on which trail(s) you take, this hike is about 7-8 miles (11-13 km) round trip with about 1500 feet (460 m) of elevation gain; altitude at the summit is 7242 feet (2207 m)
- Where to stay: the Black Hills is a reasonably popular tourist destination so there is a ton of lodging available including camping, cabins, and hotels
- Other: during peak season this parking lot fills quickly, so plan to get an early start. Even in May in subpar weather, the lot was overflowing when we got back to the car around noon