Most anyone who’s visited the Black Hills will tell you the region has charisma galore. This is in no small part due to the craggy landscape that sprawls for miles. While there is much to grab your attention — the national monument, incredible caves, canyons, lakes, and historic towns — ultimately its the granite faces and stegosaurus protrusions that make this area a national treasure.
All things considered, the natural beauty culminates emphatically in the Black Elk Wilderness, and at the very top of the very center is Black Elk Peak. At 7400′, this is the highest peak in the state. Endlessly magnificent in it’s grandeur, the payoff offers stunning, 360-degree, mountaintop views.
Also known as Trail #9, and formerly called the Harney Peak trail (map), the Black Elk Peak trail is a moderate, seven-mile stroll into the heart of the Black Hills. While steep at the top, there is nothing terribly dynamic to dissuade those motivated enough to make the journey.
The trailhead is found on the east side of Sylvan Lake. Admission to the State Park is $20 for a one week pass. Drive through the gate and approach the lake, then follow the road around the right side and park in the loop near the swimming/picnic area. Look for the trailhead sign near the small bathroom.
If there is a more perfect place to begin (and end) a hike, we haven’t found it. Sylvan Lake is a real gem. Placid yet rugged, with a breathtaking backdrop, the lake offers kayaking, cliff jumping, swiming, and other activities, which makes it a fine destination all on its own.
The hike begins peacefully as you stroll along a meadow before winding into the woods.
When the view opens up you are officially on your way. In the below photo you can see the red arrow pointing at a prominence. That is the destination of the hike, the castle like structure featured at the top of this article. How the heck do you get from here to there, you might think? By walking uphill for two hours.
While taking this photo we didn’t see the structure in the background. This was a tender mercy of the Lord, for had our children known we were headed that far, they surely would have revolted much earlier than they did. Honestly, it is not as far as it looks — about two miles from this spot.
Following a series of looks at the Black Elk Peak, the trail begins to descend into the woods for about a mile. Sunlight and rocky peaks appear through trees and butterflies dance in this laid back stretch. Shaded boulders along the way make for great snack breaks.
The final ascent lasts for about a mile. Some exertion is required, but nothing superhuman. Two of our children began to complain, though, and we stopped several times in the advancing heat of the day.
About twenty minutes from the Black Elk Peak is a phenomenal place to rest and take photographs. The view expands to 270-degrees and you’re treated to your first look over the backside of the mountains. The hazy skies hung a little drama on the mid-ground rocky buttes.
The final twenty minutes comprises the most interesting portion of the hike. The scenery is strong on your left, however the final destination remains obscured until the final moments. Ribbon trees also begin to appear. To learn a little bit more about the ribbons, check out Sunrise at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.
Stairways carved into the rock are your cue that the Black Elk Peak has arrived. The first thing you’ll come to is the castle-like structure. While austere inside and out, the small fortress hangs the scene together. The view from the balconies here is good — it showcases how much exploring there is to do at the top of Black Elk Peak.
A small lake of giardia water dwells in a flat crevice near another castle-like building. We watched person after person climb down to the boathouse tower and sit on the roof. One guy suntanned there for 30 minutes.
You are truly higher than anyone in the state when you climb to the top of the tower, helicopters and heroin fiends notwithstanding. There’s hardly enough room for a small family to pose for a photo, and the old windows obscure the view a bit, and the lighting isn’t all that good — what the heck, it’s a photo op.
This was our lunchtime view. We lounged for the better part of an hour on the precipice of a rocky outcrop. Afterward, we walked all over the scene, pushing to the furthest parts of the peak. You’ll see when you get up there that folks run the trail right out to the point of the mountain.
Along the backside of Black Elk Peak are a multitude of ribbon trees. These ribbons are placed with direction in mind — north, south, east, west — and it appears they are grouped (mostly) in one area.
Here we are beginning the long, frustrating trip down the mountain. It was admittedly hot that day, but the symphony of complaints headed our way could not be foretold at this point. All was well here. Our spirits were tanked up on the splendor of a mountain peak. How could this not carry us through to the end of the trail?
We were fools to think otherwise.
Once we arrived back at Sylvan Lake, and the shoes were returned to their feet — one child went barefoot the last mile — and the demands to move back to Seattle subsided, we spent twenty seconds admiring the sunlit setting. Dad stopped to photograph some geese and found himself all alone as the family continued marching to the car.
What were they griping about anyway? None of them had knee surgery two months earlier. None of them had to listen to dad talk about how much his life sucked. Besides, they behold the vitality of youth, that boundless energy that keeps them eating and yakking every minute of the day. They should be thankful for the opportunity to use that energy! Right?
A few sodas at the gift shop returned everyone’s attitude to a normal level of shitty.
To learn about other amazing things to do in the area, check out The Black Hills of South Dakota: A Complete Guide.
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