The Black Elk Wilderness is South Dakota’s only designated wilderness area; it’s surrounded by Custer State Park, the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve, and Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Because of its remote location, you can enjoy some of the quietest hiking in the Black Hills. Furthermore, it’s not open to mountain bikes or any type of mechanized travel (including strollers), so it’s just hikers and horseback riders.
The 13,605 acre area has 18 trails that pass through it, including trails within Custer State Park and the Norbeck Wildlife Preserve which lead into the wilderness area, such as Harney Trail #9. The U.S. Forest Service has an excellent trail map available at any visitor center; since several of the trailheads are off the beaten path, the map is pretty handy.
The area is named for Black Elk, a Lakota holy man, whose story is told in the luminous book Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt. This area of the Black Hills held special significance for Black Elk since he was taken to the summit of Harney Peak in a vision. So please know that when you spend time here, it is a very special place.
The wilderness has too many trails to adequately cover in one piece, or one day, but that just means you’ll need a return visit. The Lost Cabin trail can be accessed either via the Harney Peak Trail #9 at Sylvan Lake or via the Palmer Creek trailhead on County Road T357, which branches off Highway 244 (this is the road that leads to Mt. Rushmore off Highway 16). If you start at either trailhead and hike to the end, then turn around and go back, you will have a hearty 10-mile hike. There are some steep hills on this trail, so it can be strenuous. I would recommend it for older children. You’ll get some stunning views of Harney and a great deal of solitude along the way. Compared to the Harney trails, this one is very quiet.
The Iron Creek Trail is much less rigorous. The trailheads are on the Iron Mountain Road and at the very end of Forest Service Road 345. The trail is 2.4 miles long between the trailheads and is mostly level; however there are 12 water crossings as it runs along Iron Creek. In recent years the Forest Service has installed footbridges along the crossings, you can use them or just splash through the water, which your dog will enjoy on a hot day. Because this trail is on the boundary of the wilderness, mountain bikes are allowed
Because this is a designated wilderness area, there is self-registration at major trailheads. This provides the USFS with usage information and is a safety precaution as well. To prevent congestion, group size should be limited to 25 people and animals combined, but groups smaller than 10 are preferred. As always, leave no trace from your visit.