After three days of driving cross-country from North Carolina to Montana, we decided to stop for one full rest day before finishing up our last day’s drive. Eager to get outside and maybe even find a nice hike after being cooped up in the car, we settled on a layover in Rapid City, SD, about a 50-minute drive from Custer State Park.
The park sits at the southeastern edge of the Black Hills, a small mountain range along the border of South Dakota and Wyoming. With a handful of lakes and more than a dozen trails to choose from, it sounded like a great place to spend a day. Looking for a trail with decent views and at least some distance, we settled on Black Elk Peak paired with neighboring Little Devil’s Tower – a loop trail covering just over 9 miles and ~1,800 feet of gain. Black Elk Peak (formerly Harney Peak) is South Dakota’s highpoint, standing at 7,242 feet in height.
The summit trailhead is at the Sylvan Lake Day Use Area, easily accessible from Highway 87. There are two trails that lead to Black Elk (Harney) Peak – trail #9 (~3.3 miles one-way) and trail #4 (~3.5 miles one-way). Because of this, the peak can be done as a loop hike, something we enjoy but don’t often find with summit hikes. For those looking to extend the hike a bit, Little Devil’s Tower Trail is a short spur (~2.5 miles out-and-back) off the #4 trail that requires a brief scramble to reach the top of the rock formation.
Because it was a Saturday and the trail is fairly popular, we started out early to try to beat the crowds. Unfortunately, with an hour-ish drive and some unexpected road work on Hwy 87, we didn’t hit the trail until almost 7:30 a.m. That said, most of our ascent was fairly peaceful, and we only occasionally passed another pair or small group of hikers. We chose to hike the loop in a clockwise direction, first ascending Black Elk Peak (the more visited summit) via the #9 trail and then moving onto Little Devil’s Tower (via trail #4).
The scenery on the #9 trail was just stunning for pretty much the entire hike. Craggy stone spires erupted from evergreen forests in every direction. While the trail was wooded for most of the ascent, there were frequent breaks between the trees, affording peek-a-boo views for much of the trip to the summit. Atop the rocky pinnacle of Black Elk Peak, a small, stone fire tower offered panoramic views of the surrounding hillsides. Because the observation turret occupied much of the small summit, though, there wasn’t a ton of space to move around and snap photos.
Our descent down trail #4 was peaceful, yet not as scenic as the previous trail. Much of this trail was more densely wooded, though there were a couple of impressive views of the nearby Cathedral Spires – a jagged cluster of granite pillars bursting from the forested hills. About halfway back to Sylvan Lake, a short spur trail juts off to the right, leading to Little Devil’s Tower. The summit can be easily reached with a 1.25-mile walk (one-way) and a bit of light scrambling at the end. The scramble is neither technical nor challenging, but it does require the use of hands in several spots. From the top of Little Devil’s Tower, we enjoyed views of Black Elk Peak, the Cathedral Spires, and the southern stretch of the Black Hills.
As we made our way back to Sylvan Lake, we began passing several groups who were beginning their early-afternoon ascents up the trail. We were glad we started out when we did, and would even recommend trying to get on the trail by 6:30–7:00 a.m., to ensure the maximum time away from potential crowds. Overall, we found Black Elk Peak to be a nice little day hike, even if it does seem to be a fairly well-traveled route.
Total distance: 9.8 miles
Elevation gain: 1,822 feet
(1) There is a $20 entrance fee per vehicle for Custer State Park. The fee is good for a week so, on trend with many national/state parks, you get more bang for your buck if you’ve got a longer stay.
(2) Custer State Park’s entrance fee does NOT cover entrance into either Mount Rushmore or Crazy Horse. Mount Rushmore (about 15 minutes away) charges a separate “parking fee” of $10 per private vehicle (the pass is valid for one year). I was not particularly interested in a crowded tourist attraction nor spending an extra $10, so we didn’t stop. Similarly, Crazy Horse charges an even steeper entrance fee of $12 per person. The monument is incomplete, and hasn’t made much progress since the late 90s when Stephan visited. His uncle, a Yellowstone guide who recently visited the area, confirmed this and added that further progress will likely continue to stall as the project is privately funded. Again, we took a hard pass on the attraction.
(3) For a map/descriptions of this trail and others at Custer State Park (as well as trailhead/parking info), check out: https://gfp.sd.gov/userdocs/csp-trail-guide.pdf.