Custer State Park is arguably the crown jewel of the Black Hills—home to towering pines that shelter roadways, gentle flowing creeks with clear, sun-sparkling waters, and massive granite outcroppings around every corner. From Custer State Park is also where you can access South Dakota’s highest point of elevation. At 7,242 feet, Black Elk Peak (formerly known as Harney Peak) is a bucket-list trek that rewards hikers with panoramic views of pine-blanketed forest land spanning the states of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Montana.
During the peak summer months—pun intended—this summit will draw hundreds of hikers per day. For this reason, I decided to plan my annual pilgrimage to the tower earlier than in years past. Here’s a brief recap of my experience while hiking to Black Elk Peak from Sylvan Lake on a Wednesday morning in late March…
I arrived at Sylvan Lake just before 11 a.m. and was surprised to find the parking lot nearest the trailhead somewhat full. With a forecast of sunny skies and highs in the upper 60s, it was clear that I wasn’t the only one craving an early spring hike. With my 8-month-old Sheltie, Leo, trotting proudly by my side, we set off to the top. Dogs are allowed on the trail and leashes are strongly advised.
From the get go, I was very thankful for my waterproof hiking boots, as the trail proved to be a diverse mix of mud, ice, and snow. But the variety of trail conditions only added to the hike—the areas where the trail was still snow packed even provided a welcomed cool feeling just as the sun was beginning to heat up.
One of the best things about taking this hike to the top of Black Elk Peak is the moderate-to-easy skill rating of the hike. While it is relatively long—nearly seven miles round trip—it’s a very manageable hike. The trail also seems to have the perfect built-in “rest stops”—rocky open platforms that beckon a selfie. The last mile of the hike is definitely the most strenuous, but the views from the top are more than worth it. From beginning to end, the round-trip hike from Sylvan Lake to Black Elk Peak and back is a solid half-day commitment.
Early on in our hike, it became clear that I was overdressed. Within the first 20 minutes, I had to shed my outer jacket and fleece pull-over. It was definitely tank-top weather! On a hike of this length, it’s important to bring with plenty of water and snacks to keep yourself energized and hydrated. At about midway on the hike, you’ll find a registration box which indicates that the trail is now leaving Custer State Park and officially entering the Black Elk Wilderness Area. It’s important to fill out a tag and attach it to your pack.
Easily deduced from the number of cars at the parking lot, it was no surprise that we passed 82 people on the trail from beginning to end. While this was far more than I would have guessed, everyone was still spaced out in a way that allowed me a strong feeling of solitude for the majority of the hike.
Maintaining a comfortable walking pace throughout much of the hike, I arrived at the summit right at an hour and 40 minutes. Once at the tower, I easily spent 25 minutes exploring the immediate surroundings, snapping a few photos and rehydrating. After we had soaked in the views, Leo and I decided we were ready to make our decent.
The ease of coming down the mountain shaved off about 25 minutes from the time it took to get up—putting our overall time spent hiking right at three hours; minus the time we spent at the summit.
Back down at Sylvan Lake, my legs felt slightly wobbly and I was relieved to have a seat in the car. I definitely felt like I had won the jackpot with the combo of beautiful weather and enjoyable time spent hiking Black Elk Peak—and I enjoyed a sun-kissed feeling on my face all the way home…and my pup was completely passed out.
If you’re looking for an epic hike during your visit to the Black Hills, Black Elk Peak should be at the top of your list.