You are the owner of this article.

Eight Over Seven: No. 1, Black Elk Peak

From the Eight Over Seven: South Dakota's highest points series

Take a trail less traveled to state's highest point

  • 4 min to read

Many South Dakotans know a lot about Black Elk Peak, especially after the past several years, when the granite summit was in the news repeatedly during its controversial name change from Harney Peak.

Many of them have even stood atop the peak, which is officially listed at 7,242 feet above sea level and is South Dakota’s highest point and probably its most-hiked mountain.

Yet some South Dakotans and many tourists are under the false impression that there is only one route to the top, from the popular Trail No. 9 trailhead at Sylvan Lake in Custer State Park.

In fact, more than a dozen trailheads ring the Black Elk Wilderness around Black Elk Peak, enabling an even greater number of hiking routes to the top for those who engage in creative route-planning. The alternate routes see much less foot traffic, and while some of the alternate routes are significantly longer, a couple are about the same length as the hike from Sylvan Lake.

So, as we reach the pinnacle of our Eight Over Seven series examining the eight recognized Black Hills peaks standing at least 7,000 feet in elevation, we invite South Dakotans to take a new look at an old destination by hiking one of our recommended less-traveled routes to Black Elk Peak.

Black Elk Peak summit - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA
Black Elk Peak summit (Chris Huber/Journal staff)

At the top, you'll enjoy an incredible view of the Black Hills and surrounding plains and see a historic stone fire lookout tower. While hiking up the steps to the tower, look closely and you'll notice a small plaque fronting the entombed ashes of Valentine McGillycuddy, who made the first recorded ascent of the summit in 1875 and went on to live a colorful life that included a stint as mayor of Rapid City.

Some of the signage on the mountain may still say "Harney Peak," which was the name given to the mountain during the 1850s in honor of Army Gen. William S. Harney. Because the Black Hills are an important spiritual center to many Native Americans, and because Harney was a leader in deadly military campaigns against Native Americans, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names approved a request last year to rename the mountain to Black Elk Peak. The new name honors Nicholas Black Elk, a late Sioux holy man who is famous for the spiritual teachings he related to the author John Neihardt for the 1932 book "Black Elk Speaks."

Before you go to Black Elk Peak, beware: All of the routes are long hikes (the distances listed below are estimates), and every route requires prior planning, a good trail map of the Black Elk Wilderness, plenty of water, and free but mandatory wilderness registration on forms available at the trailheads. Some people may not be able to complete the longer routes in one day and should consider backpacking overnight or taking the shorter routes.

Little Devils Tower route

  • Starting point: Little Devils Tower Trailhead, about three-fourths of a mile east of Sylvan Lake on state Highway 87 (Needles Highway).
  • Route: Trail Nos. 4, 3 and 9.
  • Distance of hike: 7 miles out-and-back.
  • Tips: While on Trail 4, consider taking a couple of spurs: the unmarked (but clearly visible) spur to Poet’s Table, a high granite alcove with a beautiful view where visitors have installed a table, chairs and a bookshelf lined with visitor-contributed poetry and other writings; and the marked spur to Little Devils Tower, a granite summit with a 360-degree view that rivals the one from Black Elk Peak. The Poet’s Table spur is about a third of a mile long, and the Little Devils Tower spur is about two-thirds of a mile with some rock-scrambling. Both spurs run steeply uphill.

    Or, for a slightly different route, consider starting from the Cathedral Spires Trailhead, which is two miles east of Sylvan Lake on Needles Highway, and use that trail to link up with Trail No. 4.

    Starting from either the Little Devils Tower or Cathedral Spires trailheads assures a hike of about the same length as a hike starting from Sylvan Lake, but with far less company. 

You have free articles remaining.

Become a Member

Norbeck route

  • Starting point: The Norbeck Trailhead in Custer State Park, about five miles east of Sylvan Lake on state Highway 87 (Needles Highway); or the Iron Creek Horse Camp, about three miles farther east on Needles Highway and a short drive up Forest Road 345. 
  • Route: Norbeck Trail No. 3 and Black Elk Peak Trail No. 9.
  • Distance of hike: 10 miles out-and-back from the Norbeck Trailhead, or 14 miles out-and-back from Iron Creek Horse Camp.
  • Tips: A Black Hills National Forest brochure describes the Norbeck Trail No. 3 as a steep and rocky trail known for its solitude. The brochure adds that adventurous hikers can make a loop by hiking Norbeck Trail No. 3 and Trail No. 9 to the summit of Black Elk, and then hiking Trail No. 9 and Grizzly Bear Creek Trail No. 7 down from the peak, followed by a small segment of the Centennial Trail, to end up back at the Iron Creek Horse Camp.

Grizzly Bear Creek route

  • Starting point: Grizzly Bear Creek Trailhead, one mile north of Iron Creek Horse Camp on Forest Road 345.
  • Route: Grizzly Bear Creek Trail No. 7 and Black Elk Peak Trail No. 9.
  • Distance of hike: 13 miles out-and-back.
  • Tips: "The rugged Grizzly Bear Creek Trail climbs sharply for a 1,500-foot elevation gain through the most remote areas of the Black Elk Wilderness," says a Black Hills National Forest brochure. As noted above, the Grizzly Bear Creek Trail can be hiked as part of a loop with Norbeck Trail No. 3.

Horsethief Lake route

  • Starting point: Horsethief Lake Trailhead, about two miles west of Mount Rushmore National Memorial on state Highway 244.
  • Route: Horsethief Lake Trail No. 14, Grizzly Bear Creek Trail No. 7, Norbeck Trail No. 3, Black Elk Peak Trail No. 9.
  • Distance of hike: 13 miles out-and-back.
  • Tips: According to a Black Hills National Forest Brochure, the Horsethief Lake trail segment "wanders through granite peaks and twisting spires that poke through the thick forest canopy" and includes two saddle-like areas with sweeping views of the surrounding area.

Willow Creek route

  • Starting point: The Willow Creek Horse Camp, across from the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch Resort about six miles west of Mount Rushmore National Memorial on state Highway 244. 
  • Route: Willow Creek Trail No. 8 and Black Elk Peak Trail No. 9.
  • Distance of hike: 12 miles out-and-back.
  • Tips: This route leads up Black Elk Peak's northern side, past a massive granite formation known as Elkhorn Mountain. Two-thirds of the way up to Black Elk Peak is an overlook and hitching rail popular with horseback riders. To make a loop, hike south on Trail No. 9 from the summit of Black Elk Peak and then take Lost Cabin Trail No. 2 back to Willow Creek Horse Camp.

Lost Cabin route

  • Starting point: Palmer Creek Trailhead. Drive about a third of a mile west of the Mount Rushmore KOA at Palmer Gulch Resort on state Highway 244, and then about a mile on Palmer Creek Road/County Road 357.
  • Route: Lost Cabin Trail No. 2 and Black Elk Peak Trail No. 9.
  • Distance of hike: 13 miles out-and-back.
  • Tips: This trail begins with a steep climb and then features many views of Black Elk Peak. To make a loop route, hike north on Trail No. 9 from the summit of Black Elk Peak and then use Willow Creek Trail No. 8 to reconnect with Lost Cabin Trail No. 2 and return to the Palmer Creek Trailhead.

Get local news delivered to your inbox!

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Contact Seth Tupper at

You must be logged in to react.
Click any reaction to login.

Get up-to-the-minute news sent straight to your device.


News Alert

Breaking News