How to Hike the Black Elk Peak Trail

Last updated: December 12th, 2023 | Originally published: March 1, 2023
Black Elk Peak, South Dakota

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, which culminates emphatically in the Black Elk Wilderness. Here you’ll find the best hike in South Dakota. In this article we’ll give anecdotal instructions about how to hike the Black Elk Peak trail.

While there is much to grab your attention in these parts — Mt. Rushmore National Monument, Wind Cave, Lake Sylvan, Deadwood — ultimately its the granite faces and stegosaurus protrusions that make this area a national treasure.

At 7400′, Black Elk Peak is the highest peak in the state of South Dakota. 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 seven-mile-stroll into the heart of the Black Hills. While steep at the top, there is nothing terribly dynamic to dissuade those motivated to make the journey.

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota
How to Hike Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

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. Park in the loop near the swimming/picnic area. Look for the Black Elk Peak trailhead near the small bathroom.

Related Article: The 20 Best Things to do in the Black Hills of South Dakota

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, swimming, 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?

The Answer: Walk uphill for two hours.

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota
Nice view of Black Elk Peak (and Monica).

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.

Following a series of excellent looks at Black Elk Peak, the trail descends into the woods for about a mile.

Sunlight and rocky peaks appear through trees on occasion during this stretch of the hike. Shaded boulders along the way make for great snack breaks.

When you exit the woods you are at the final ascent, which lasts for about a mile. The view really opens up along this superlative stretch of the Black Elk Peak trail.

Some exertion is required over this stretch of the hike, but nothing superhuman. Two of our children began to complain, nonetheless, and we stopped several times in the advancing heat.

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota
How to Hike Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

Related Article: The 7 Best Towns to Visit in the Black Hills

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 Black Elk Peak trail.

The scenery is strong on your left, but the final destination is obscured until the final moments.

Ribbon trees also begin to appear.

To learn more about the ribbons, check out Sunrise at Devil’s Tower, Wyoming.

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota
How to Hike Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

When you see stairways carved into the rock that’s your cue the Black Elk Peak has arrived. The first thing you’ll come to is the castle-like structure shown above.

While austere inside and out, the small fortress hangs the scene together. The view from the balcony is good — it showcases how much exploring there is to do at the top of Black Elk Peak.

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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. So of course you have to take your turn!

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota
Best Hikes in South Dakota

The stairs leading up to the Black Elk Peak Tower overlook some amazing stegosaurus formations.

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota
How to Hike Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

You are truly higher than anyone in the state when you climb to the top of the tower, (helicopters and meth-heads notwithstanding). There’s hardly 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…

But what the heck. It’s a photo op.

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota
Black Elk Peak, South Dakota

This was our lunchtime view atop Black Elk Peak. 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.

Related Article: Battle of the Badlands, North Dakota vs. South Dakota

Black Elk Peak, South Dakota

Here we are beginning the long, frustrating trip down the mountain.

The symphony of complaints headed our way could not be foretold at this point.

All was well here, as our spirits were brimming with the splendor of a mountain peak.

How could this not carry us through to the end of the Black Elk Peak trail?

We were fools to think otherwise.

Its as if we had never met our own children.

Sylvan Lake
How to Hike Black Elk Peak Trail, South Dakota

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…

and throats were parched from relentless accusations of abuse…

we spent twenty seconds admiring the sunlit setting pictured above.

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.

Those ingrates behold the vitality of youth anyway; that boundless energy that keeps them eating and yakking every minute of the day.

They should be thankful for the opportunity to put that energy to use. Right?

Sylvan Lake
Best Hikes in South Dakota

Dad stopped to photograph some geese and found himself alone, as the family marched angrily onward toward the car without him.

A few sodas at the gift shop returned everyone’s attitude to a normal level of shitty.

We hope you enjoyed our experience hiking the Black Elk Peak trail. To learn about other amazing things to do in the area, check out The Black Hills of South Dakota: A Complete Guide.

Thank you for stopping by our website! We are the Hoffmann family, a full-time RV family that has split residence in Seattle, Washington and San Antonio, Texas. We have special needs children that we homeschool, and work travel assignments for the Veteran Affairs Hospital. If you would like to learn more about us, check out our Start Here and Biography pages. In the meantime, God bless and travel happy!

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