Midwestern US, US High Points

On Top of South Dakota: Black Elk Peak

After summiting the North Dakota high point the day before, Chelsea and I set out to stand on the highest point of 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 homeland 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.

Sylvan Lake… or what we saw of it, anyway

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.

What we should have seen
What we actually saw

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…

Summit “views”

Although we didn’t get to see much, we did enjoy 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 joked that this was the sewage pond… but given that the building is an old outhouse, I’m not entirely convinced it was a joke

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!

Cathedral Spires

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.

Driving through the tunnel (photo by Chelsea)
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.

Between the cloud layers at Mount Coolidge fire tower

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.

Wildlife Loop Road
Burros (photo by Chelsea)
Photo by Chelsea

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.

This was about as much visibility as we had the entire trip
Mount Rushmore through a tunnel on Iron Mountain Road (photo by Chelsea)

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 climbed 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

33 thoughts on “On Top of South Dakota: Black Elk Peak”

  1. Looks like a wonderful place for a hike. It’s a shame that the fog spoilt some of the views for you, definitely makes for some pretty and atmospheric photos though!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thankfully, the fog cleared enough to at least make out most of what you should be seeing! It’s certain that overcast skies and fog are the bane of the traveler’s existence, as it comes down to timing of when you arrive during the time of year. You did the best you could, and it did work out! The baby bison were also an *adorable* plus! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Love the Cathedral Spires photos, really cool. Never a fan of changing the names of places, even with the fact that they were named after people who made mistakes. Changing the name buries the past and means that we don’t learn from those mistakes going forward. Meaning it is likely that the same mistakes may return in the future.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I do understand that perspective, we certainly as a nation are ignorant of many parts of history. But on the other hand, we don’t name things after Hitler and everyone still learns about him. I do think we need a middle ground… if we change names perhaps we also include education on why rather than sweeping it under the rug. They did have a sign at Custer explaining the name change so hopefully that helps educate people on Gen. Harney and his actions.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, what a fantastic place to explore and hike through, especially with such an amazing, old stone fire lookout tower located at the summit. I’ve never seen such towering pinnacles, they look spectacular covered in the heavy fog! I am sorry you didn’t get to see the views, I had to use Google to see what they look like – the 360-degree panoramic views from the enclosed observation deck are certainly one of a kind! Thanks for sharing and have a nice day 🙂 Aiva xx

    Liked by 2 people

        1. Ahhh didn’t realize you’re in Canada. We had to postpone our wedding for that same reason (family in Canada) so I definitely share your annoyance. Hopefully it reopens soon!

          Liked by 1 person

  5. Cathedral Spires looks really atmospheric – I’m glad the fog lifted just enough for you to catch a glimpse of those rock formations ☺️ Needles Highway looks neat, too, and I love Chelsea’s photo of the baby bison on the Wildlife Loop Road.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. What a breathtaking hiking trail! That handstand photo must be one of your most beautiful ones – love it! It’s a pity of the misty conditions (once again), but you’ve actually captured a lovely atmosphere 😊.
    The Needles Highway is something else – how amazing is that road! Great post, thanks for sharing – I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this one!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. We loved the Needles Highway! I wish we’d even known about the high point when we were there … heaven knows when we’ll get back to the Dakotas. I’m sorry your summit view was obscured (I totally feel your pain as I seem to specialize in foggy summits far from home), but honestly, I think the misty views are pretty cool. The wildlife shots are great, and your handstand in that small, stony spot made me nervous you’d tip over disastrously (or maybe that’s just what would happen if I tried a handstand in a small space! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I didn’t know about it my first time there either (about 15 years ago now…), so it worked out well that I got to go back! Fortunately if I had tipped over I would have landed on a flat surface and not fallen off a cliff; maybe it looks more precarious in the photo than it actually was

      Liked by 1 person

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