Black Elk Peak Hike: South Dakota’s Most Stunning Trail & Viewpoint

by Mark & Kristen Morgan
Mark and Kristen holding onto the flag pole summit Black Elk Peak Hike Trail South Dakota

Black Elk Peak hike in the Black Hills National Forest is simply stunning. We were genuinely blown away by the outstanding natural beauty of South Dakota’s most popular hiking trail.

What makes it so awesome?

Well, we visited in peak fall season, which meant we were blessed with gorgeous rustic orange and yellows contrasting magnificently against deep greens and granite rocks.

Aside from vibrant colors, the hike to Black Elk Peak is non-technical, which means that anyone with a little stamina can make the summit. Plus, the views from the top are breathtaking. And we only use that word for rare occasions!

This is a complete guide to Black Elk Peak hike that we hope will inspire you to include this on your visit to South Dakota.

New to Hiking? Don’t forget to check out our 21 most important hiking tips for beginners! (Spoiler – these tips apply to veteran hikers too!)

We got a little GoPro footage on our hike and knocked up a fun short video of what you can expect on your Black Elk Peak hike.

It was freezing in the morning so Mark had to wear a pair of Kristen’s shiny blue base layer pants!

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Stunning greens and yellows among trees in Black Forest SD

If you’re visiting Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore or Custer State Park – Black Elk Peak is the perfect way to round off amazing sightseeing with an active day out in the hills.

Did you know that Black Elk Peak is the highest peak East of the Rockies and West of the Pyrenees Mountains of the French/Spanish border?

The trail is very easy, making it inclusive for many age groups and abilities. Just be aware of time. The roundtrip should take between 4-5 hours, but will be longer with more stops and time at the summit – which you will need!

Formerly known as the Harney Peak trail, its name was changed in 2016 by the US Board on Geographic Names to Black Elk Peak, honoring an old Lakota Sioux shaman.

At the summit you will find Harney Lookout Tower, which was once used as a fire detection viewpoint. The lookout is no longer used and actually, it’s quite strange to be inside an empty tower at the top of a mountain!

If possible, we suggest hiking this trail in fall (we visited October 7) to take advantage of the captivating colors on display.

Check out our in depth South Dakota Road Trip guide (including 4 day itinerary) so you can include this awesome hike to Black Elk Peak as part of a wider South Dakota adventure!

Our Black Elk Peak Hike Factfile

Address: Sylvan Lake, 518 SD-87, Custer, SD 57730

Daily Visitors: In peak (pun intended!) season, hundreds of hikers per day
Best Time to Visit: May – October (comfortable temperatures)

Hike Length: Roughly 7 miles round trip – depending on ascent/descent trail number
Estimated Hike Time: Around 4 – 5 hours hiking time – account for breaks and 30 minutes at the summit
Hike Difficulty: Moderate – not technical but stamina required

Summit Height: 7,102 ft (2,165m)

How To Get To Black Elk Peak Trailhead

Black Elk Peak trailhead is located on the shores of Sylvan Lake, which can be found half way along Needles scenic highway. The scenic highway offers spectacular views but it also means slow going, due to the meandering nature of scenic roads!

From Keystone, it is just 18.6 miles away, yet it can take the best part of 40 minutes because of traffic around Mount Rushmore and the aforementioned slow roads. Take the 244 past Mt Rushmore, take a left onto 16 and an immediate left onto Needles highway (87).

Custer is much closer and easier to access Sylvan Lake. Take the 89 for around 7 miles and you will arrive in under 20 minutes.

This is a truly scenic area to drive around. We found ourselves driving the same roads over and over!

Hike Black Elk Peak Trail

Okay, now that you know where the trailhead is, let’s get to the trail!

We would suggest aiming to set off no later than 11am, just in case you want to spend longer at the top. That way you’ll be back to Sylvan lake before dark.

Sylvan Lake & Route 9

Sylvan Lake Black Elk Peak Trailhead South Dakota

You might recognize Sylvan Lake from National Treasure II when Nicolas Cage and his band of treasure hunters find the entrance to ‘Mount Rushmore’ on the boulders found here at this lake!

It is a very photogenic area, although (unfortunately) we only got this one photo on the way out. The lake has a swimming beach, a nearby lodge and of course walking trails around the waters edge.

Our advice is to use the outhouse style restrooms before beginning the hike, you won’t see another for a long time!

Right at the start of the hike to Black Elk Peak you will find information boards and maps of the routes. Be aware that there are various route numbers up and down. The most common trail – and the one we took – is Route No. 9.

Beautiful Scenery

Beautiful scenery black hills national forest

It doesn’t take long before you are hiking among gorgeous forested areas with dried muddy paths underfoot.  Long grass up to your hips to one side and bright yellow leaves on an overhanging tree to the other.

If you are fortunate enough to have clear deep blue skies, you will be blown away by colors throughout this hike as they pop under sunlight.

Tread carefully to avoid catching your feet on thick tree roots or small boulders protruding from the path.

Awesome Viewpoint

Kristen half way up Black Elk Peak hike awesome viewpoint

After some (mostly!) gentle climbing, you will find the trail becomes more enclosed within trees. This dense forested area blocks the sun out almost completely, except for the occasional ray beaming through the canopy.

Then all of a sudden, there’s an opening. To your left, you will spot some rocks and an incredible view overlooking more forested area and granite rocks bursting out from within.

This is the perfect place to take your first break and grab some photos!

Near the Top

Wooden sign black elk peak hike and Harney lookout

Black Elk Peak is excellently signposted throughout various parts of the hike, particularly where there are route turn offs. It would be hard to get lost!

As you approach the latter stages of the ascent, you will pass through an interesting cave like gap in a wall and up a metal staircase. You’re almost at the summit!

Black Elk Peak Summit

Harney Watchtower at the summit of Black Elk Peak hike trail South Dakota

Woohoo! You made it to the summit and Harney Lookout Tower!

Make sure you go inside and have a good look around the 3 floors.

To the bottom is an empty room similar to a house basement, the middle where you enter is small in area but there’s a steep black metal staircase leading up to the third floor.

Up here you will find the watchtower area with windows covering 360 degrees. Back to the middle floor, take the other door out onto a veranda type balcony / viewing platform.

The views were worth the effort, right?!

You have a 360 degree panorama view overlooking South Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. How cool is that?!

Take some time to walk around on the boulders and take A LOT of photos!

The best photography spots (apart from in every direction to the horizon!) are the summit flagpole, the steps leading up to Harney lookout tower and  perspective shots when you walk further out/down the boulders.

Take Route 4 Down

Trail sign on Black Elk Peak hike follow trail no 4 on descent

Route No. 4 is slightly more gritty and sharp than route 9, so it’s preferable to take it on the way down.

You will notice it is much quieter on this route but that doesn’t mean it is any less scenic! In fact, you get to see different parts and views of the Black Hills and avoid the ‘going back on yourself’ disappointment!

Don’t worry, Route 4 is separate from Route 7 – Grizzly Bear Creek! We don’t think are any grizzlies up in the Black Forest anymore?!

Pass Cathedral Spires

Cathedral Spires signpost black hills South Dakota

If you set off early, have the spare time and also the spare energy – why not peel off at the crossroads of Route 4 and Cathedral Spires trail?

It’s not far to the needle like rocks at Cathedral Spires, a route that we hiked the day before. There are usually rock climbers the size of pinheads, visible only because of their colorful clothing, against the towering granite rock faces.

You’re Almost Back To The Lake!

Hike trail in shadow with gorgeous colors black hills forest

We must admit the final few miles seem to take forever! You will hike along flatter ground but among some of the most attractive towards the final stages.

As the sun begins to move across the sky into the hottest part of the day, it can get a little tiring around now so be sure to take on plenty of water throughout the hike.

You will walk over a small hill and think you’re back at the car park when you see 2 restroom blocks (the first since setting off) but this isn’t the car park you are looking for!

It’s just a little further, one final push and you’ll see the car park through hundreds of narrow tree trunks!

What To Pack For Black Elk Peak Hike

Mark and kristen sat in the watchtower summit black elk peak

Although the trail is easy going – with no technical climbing ability required – a robust but flexible pair of hiking shoes would work best. We prefer Salomon men’s and women’s hiking shoe – they’re solid, cushioned and durable.

Visiting in Spring or Fall? We strongly suggest you take layers. Hiking is a sweaty business, until you stop. At over 2,000 meters, you will get cold when you stop, even the slightest breeze would be enough to chill. Don’t forget your men’s and women’s lightweight down jackets!

A good quality reusable water bottle will help you to keep your water fresh and cool throughout the hike to Black Elk Peak.

Snacks are essential, this is a long hike! We took trail mix as you can see in the photo of us at the summit. Please excuse the grey socks, Mark was on his last pair…!

The last thing to remember is your camera, you don’t want to leave the car without one!

Where To Stay Near Black Elk Peak

We highly recommend setting up base in Keystone, approximately 40 minutes drive from Black Elk Peak hike trailhead. It’s the perfect location for all of the best things to do in the Black Hills National Forest. There are a number of hotels, lodges and cabins to choose between.

Check availability and prices for Keystone hotels.

What Else Is Nearby?

The Black Hills ended up being one of our favorite areas on our entire 3 month US road trip. It took us by surprise, pleasantly! Nearby options include:

Custer State Park – widely renowned as one of (if not THE) best State Park in the country. Although, technically Sylvan Lake is considered part of the state park, we are referring to the wildlife loop road.

Mount Rushmore – No visit to the Black Hills would be complete without taking in the stoic faces of 4 former US presidents intricately carved into granite. You can read our in depth visitor guide to Mount Rushmore here.

Badlands National Park – Keystone to Wall (entrance to Badlands) is around 1 hour 15 minutes drive. If you have the spare time, we would strongly recommend you take a half day visit of the National Park. Better yet, spend the night for some amazing astrophotography and wildlife spotting. You can read our extensive Badlands guide for first time visitors, or alternatively check out our Badlands photo diaries!

We hope this guide has helped you plan your Black Elk Peak hike!

Please let us know if you need any more information about this trail or anything else in the area.

Don’t forget you can look at all our itineraries, destinations and USA specific travel guides to help plan your next trip!

-Happy Hiking-

Trivia: When was the first ascent of Harney Peak? To within 10 years!

July 24, 1875

You can have anything between 1865 and 1885! The man’s name was Valentine McGillycuddy, a topographer who also a surgeon. He was known for attempting to build sustainable relationships between Native Americans and the US.

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Stunning National Forest Hike Black Elk Peak South Dakota
Incredibly Beautiful Hiking trail Black Elk Peak SD

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