Black Elk Peak (7,242′) | Custer State Park & Black Elk Wilderness
Custer, SD | 05/22/21 | 7.86 miles | 1,651′ gain
After a cold and foggy hike to North Dakota’s high point, Diana and I hoped for clear weather the next day when we would hike to South Dakota’s high point. Even with all of our fingers and toes crossed, we still woke up to fog once again. It appeared we simply wouldn’t get any views on this trip.
At 7,242′ in elevation, Black Elk Peak is not only the highest point in South Dakota, it’s the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains. The summit is situated in the Black Elk Wilderness but the main access point, Sylvan Lake, is in Custer State Park. Typically there is a $20/week fee to access Custer State Park, but somehow our trip coincided with South Dakota State Parks’ “free weekend”, so we were able to avoid the fee entirely.
Our hotel in Hill City was a short drive from the trailhead and we were on trail just after 7am. We had a lot more planned for the day than just summiting Black Elk Peak so we wanted to get an early start.
There are two main trails that depart from the Sylvan Lake Trailhead, the #9 (aka Harney Peak Trail) and the #4. In an effort to see as much as possible, we chose to combine both trails into a loop, taking the #9 Trail up and the #4 Trail down. The Black Hills are known for their soaring rock pinnacles and beautiful views but we couldn’t see a darn thing due to the fog.
The mountain has had many names throughout its history, one of which proved to be controversial. Officially, it has only been called Black Elk Peak since 2016, when the Lakota tribe was finally granted the name change after a fifty-year effort. The peak was previously called Harney Peak in honor of US General William S. Harney. The same year the peak was named for him (1855), Harney led 600 troops in an attack against a Brulé Lakota camp of about 250 men, women, and children. They killed 86 Brulé, about half of which were women and children, and took 70 others as prisoners. The event is known as the Battle of Ash Hollow or the Harney Massacre. Both Black Elk Peak and the Black Elk Wilderness are named for Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man. The peak is considered sacred.
The trail worked its way through the forest and up and over a ridge before descending to the wilderness boundary. After that it was all uphill, though the grade was moderate. As we approached the summit, the trail left the forest and circled around the rock outcroppings. The final push to the top was the steepest yet. A series of stone steps and metal stairs had been installed to navigate the rocky terrain to the fire tower.
The fire tower (known as the Harney Peak Lookout) was built in 1939 by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It was used as a fire lookout until 1967 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982. Today, the tower and surrounding structures are open to exploration. We were even able to climb the sketchy staircase to the upper lookout deck, though we of course saw absolutely nothing.
This is a pretty unique state high point, one that I would gladly repeat on a clear day. Apparently you can see four states from up there! And of course the surrounding Black Hills were surely stunning under their blanket of fog.
On the way back down, we took the #4 Trail. This trail has a similar grade to the #9 Trail, but is slightly longer. A few short spur trails depart from the #4 Trail and lead to various points of interest. We chose to visit the Cathedral Spires, which added about 1/2 mile and a steep 100′ climb back to the #4.
When we reached the Cathedral Spires, we were disappointed to find them obscured by fog. Add in the screaming children and we weren’t happy campers. But regardless, we stopped for a snack break and miraculously, the fog lifted while we ate. Soon we were able to see the spires clearly and get some awesome shots.
We spent way too much time watching the fog swirl around the spires, but eventually we tore ourselves away and continued back to the trailhead. The remaining trail was uneventful, though it was getting super busy. An early start was worth it just to avoid the crowds! We’d seen only a few people our entire ascent, and probably hundreds on the way down. Once back at the car, we regrouped and prepared for our planned afternoon touring the rest of Custer State Park.
I would like to acknowledge that Black Elk Peak is on the ancestral land of the Očhéthi Šakówiŋ (Great Sioux Nation) and Cheyenne.