Welcome to my hiking guide on Black Elk Peak! My name is Haley and I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I didn’t get many views of nature other than city skylines and busy highways. I have always been a nature gal though, finding any wooded area to build a fort.
When I packed up all my things at 18 and spontaneously moved to the Black Hills of South Dakota, I knew I found home. Visiting national parks and state parks for the first time spiked my interest for hiking and being outdoors – documenting it all for my Instagram while doing it of course!
The first time I hiked Black Elk Peak was by accident, funnily enough. Me and my friends were wearing flip flops, had no water and all of our phones were half-dead. We just wanted to take some pictures up on a peak but didn’t realize how far it really was to hike up all the way to Black Elk Peak.
About halfway through the sun started to set, so we couldn’t give up and turn around. We had to see it through. We ran as fast as we could to make it to our car down the other side of the peak. That didn’t stop me. I have gone back and hiked it three times since, just more prepared each time.
From Sylvan Lake to the Cathedral Spires
My favorite way to start the trail up Black Elk Peak is starting at Sylvan Lake on trail #9. I think it’s an easy start to a vigorous hike and it gives a lot of information on the way up of what is to come! There are many signs posted to “pack in and pack out” and short readings about the species in the area.
It also tells stories about things that happened in the area you are standing in, including natural disasters and wildfires. There are a few different ways you can come back down from the hike, but my favorite way is to come down by the Cathedral Spires. It gives an entirely different vibe.
Coming down this way allows you to see plains for miles, instead of mountains. It’s a good idea to set aside the better part of a day for this hike, considering it takes around six hours in total to complete. The view at the top of Black Elk Peak makes it all worth it though. Truly breathtaking!
Incredible Scenery at Black Elk Peak
I always say that any hike in Custer State Park is incredible. I have had many friends from Pittsburgh come hike to Black Elk Peak with me and their jaws never left the ground. It’s hard to comprehend how vast the Black Hills are while you are climbing hundreds of feet to get to the peak.
Another interesting thing to note are the Native American traditions that are strung up along the trails. It’s hard to miss the colorful ties on the trees around the forest. Be careful not to disrupt them, as they are peace offerings to the land. The hike to Black Elk Peak is a humbling experience.
The higher you go, the smaller you feel in comparison to the rolling hills and rock formations that surround you. All of the land looks untouched and eerily still. The scenery along the way will take your breath away!
How Hard is the Hike Up Black Elk Peak?
The Black Elk Peak trail is truthfully a hike that can be completed by anyone in just one day. It does take many hours and it’s a good idea to stop and enjoy the view every few miles, but camping is usually not necessary.
There are a few camping spots to pop up a tent, but most people will just stop where they are at on the trail and set up shop for the night. I would not call myself an experienced hiker and I have successfully completed the hike on multiple occasions, sometimes just for fun while I’m in the area.
Wearing good shoes, having lots of water and maybe even a snack or two definitely makes the journey a lot easier. Being at such a high elevation makes breathing a bit more difficult. I personally think the hardest part about the hike up Black Elk Peak is the amount of time it takes.
The hike is about 10 miles to the top and back, depending on what trails you take. I cannot stress enough to set aside ample time for this hike. It’s best to set aside a full day. Getting stuck hiking down at dusk when the mountain lions and coyotes come out is not a place you want to be.
Best Memories from Hiking up Black Elk Peak
My best memories from hiking this peak are the times when I look up from where I’m at, stop for a second and admire the stillness. There is nothing like inhaling crisp air, looking around and taking a moment to realize the absolute privilege I have to be in that spot of the world at that moment.
There are not many places on the planet that have views like Black Elk Peak in South Dakota. In fact, the entire hike up is beautiful. The trail has so many different views that it feels like a hundred different trails all in one.
At one point there are nothing but towering rocks, and then around the corner it’s blue skies as far as the eye can see. There isn’t a single moment the entire way up that doesn’t feel like you are on another planet. I’m planning my next hike up Black Elk Peak just from writing this!
Eco Tips for your Hiking Experience
The park posts many signs with tips and tricks on how to be good company as you make your way to the top. The phrase “pack in pack out” is very important, basically meaning leave things how you found them.
One of my favorite parts of the hike is that there isn’t a piece of trash in sight. Let’s keep it that way! Also, in the wetter months they encourage people to stay on the paths, no matter how muddy. The park likes to keep trails intact by asking people not to make their own paths on drier areas.
Proper foot attire is key to having a great hike. Signs are also posted about species to protect and look out for. Certain insects and animals are crucial to keep nature functioning the way it does in the Black Hills!
Need to Know Before you Go
Hiking Black Elk Peak does take some prepping. Wearing comfortable shoes that have good traction is of course crucial. Some parts are extremely steep and are not fun to involuntarily slide down on your butt!
Bringing a backpack full of water, snacks and extra layers is never a bad idea. It does get colder as the elevation increases. Make sure to let a friend or family member know your whereabouts as there is rarely any cell service.
It’s important to start early, so there is time to stop and enjoy the views on the way up. The best way to describe the hike up Black Elk Peak is that it is all about the journey, not just the destination. Don’t forget to look up and appreciate this beautiful place that I am eternally grateful to call home.