Hiking the Black Elk Peak Trail is considered by many to be the best hike in Custer State Park. The 7.5-mile loop starts near Sylvan Lake and winds its way through the Black Forest Wilderness area. At the summit, hikers stand on a 7,242-foot granite mountain that is the highest point in South Dakota.
Perched on top of the mountain sits a historic stone fire tower structure that was completed by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) in 1940. The stately structure is fun to explore and adds a unique sense of adventure to this outing.
Although the fire tower is no longer used in an official capacity, it is open daily for all to enjoy.
When standing in the tower, hikers enjoy spectacular 360-degree views of the Black Hills.
How to Find the Black Elk Peak Trail
There are two trailheads near the Sylvan Lake Day Use Area north of SD 87.
The parking lot at this location is used by hikers, picnickers and other park visitors, so there is competition for parking spaces.
The day we were there, we found the parking to be suitable but busy. Arriving early, we started hiking soon after we got there. We had no issues finding a spot to park, however by the time we returned, the parking lot was pretty full.
Because the trail is a loop, there are two different trailheads (both located near the parking area).
Trail 9 – The easiest and most used route to the fire tower. The trailhead is located near the footbridge leading to the swim beach. Hikers who complete the loop and start here are walking in a clockwise direction on the trail.
Trail 4 – Located at the furthest southwest corner of the parking area, this route is steeper and more challenging. For hikers who want to access both Little Devil’s Tower and the Black Elk Fire Tower, this is the best way to go (Cathedral Trail can be accessed from here too).
If you complete the loop you will hike on both trails 9 and 4.
Gail and I definitely wanted to hike the loop and decided to start at Trail 4 (counter clockwise). We wanted to hike the hard stuff first and finish on Trail 9 which was a downhill cruise from the fire tower.
Why Hike to the Top and to the Fire Tower?
The hike is perfect for solo hikers, couples and small groups who like unique and beautiful places.
This trail is generally rated moderate in difficulty but there are steep and challenging inclines along the way. Hikers need to be reasonably fit to complete the trail. Be sure to wear proper footwear that grip rock well.
The final quarter mile on the trail to the fire tower does level out but has some rock stairs to climb as hikers approach the tower.
What to do on top of Black Elk Peak
The fire tower stopped us in our tracks when we first saw it. Somehow, it seemed out of place yet perfectly suited in its enviroment. Instantly, our instinct was to explore the structure and it did not disappoint.
Stone steps led the way to the tower. The pathway zig-zagged its way to the rustic entrance and we admired the architectural beauty of the building as we approached. To record the moment, we slowed our pace and snapped some pictures.
This was definitely a fun place to explore.
Once inside the building, we instinctively looked upwards towards the ceiling. There was a set of stairs leading to an observation deck. Without hesitation, our feet headed up the steps leading us to extraordinary views of the Black Hills in every direction.
After a while, we returned to the main and lower levels of the building and wandered around room by room. We tried to figure out where the kitchen might have been; the living area and the bedrooms.
What was it like to live on top of Black Elk Peak miles away from anyone or anything?
There was a sense of jealousy – a wanting to be one of those who had stayed there for weeks at a time looking for forest fires and just passing time.
Lunch on Top of Black Elk Peak
On the backside of the fire tower is a patio and a stairway leading down to the top of the peak. The summit of Black Elk Peak is natural granite. The texture of the rock is so irregular that is was a bit difficult to walk on. We were careful and deliberate taking steps there!
Scanning the area at the summit, we first noticed colorful bandanas strung around. Attached to poles and trees mostly, they were located in the oddest places. Left behind by hikers as a marker of triumph to those who had made it to the top (displaying bandanas is a popular thing to do apparently).
For us, the best thing to do was find a spot with a view. The only markers we needed to remind ourselves of our time on the mountaintop were pictures and memories.
It was time to rest.
We took our backpacks off and pulled out the light lunch we had packed.
The feeling of sitting together on top of the world was inspiring and humbling.
It was the perfect place for a lunch.
Tips for Hiking Black Elk Peak Trail
- Thunderstorms containing hail, strong winds and rain are prominent during the summer months.
- Wear shoes that are suitable for rugged terrain.
- Take extra clothes. It will likely be windy and colder at the peak.
- Take at least one quart of water per person.
- There are no restrooms located on the trail.
- Pack out your own trash.
What are Other Enjoyable Activities in Custer State Park?
Custer State Park is an amazing state park in the middle of South Dakota’s Black Hills area. Without a doubt, this state park is one of the premier state-run natural areas in the country. We will definitely return to it.
The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks agency has a nice map of the park here.
Other activities we enjoyed in Custer State Park were:
Do You Need a Pass at Custer State Park?
There are fees required to spend time in the park. However, for vehicles traveling non-stop through the park on US 16A, visitors do not need an entrance pass.
- 7-Day License: $20 per vehicle
- Motorcoach License: $3 per person per visit
- $36 first vehicle
- $18 second vehicle
- $80 transferable license
Overall, our time at Custer State Park was awesome and the day we spent on the Black Elk Trail was our favorite. The most important aspect to this hike is to prepare for it. Although considered a moderate hike, there are steep inclines on this trail.
We encountered people of all ages and skill levels on the trail but not everyone made it all the way to the top. This loop takes 3-4 hours to complete and is one of the busier hikes Custer State Park.
Take your time, be prepared and enjoy the sights!
For more Van Life By Design stories and additional content, consider subscribing!